“...the days of Johann Sebastian Bach, when music was like a rose blooming on a boundless snow-covered plain of silence...” This sentiment of Milan Kundera was stunningly realized by L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal tonight with their solemn performance of J. S. Bach’s Passion According to St. John. In the presence of such serene music all worldly concern dissolved, and the OSM was able to deliver a performance which was spiritual enough for a great cathedral. This rare concert was a part of the ambitious and successful Montréal Bach Festival which promotes the composer’s music in dozens of venues across the city each year.

Kent Nagano © Ben Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© Ben Ealovega

The text of this passion is mostly of Bach’s design, based on the 18th and 19th chapters of The Book of John in the New Testament in which Jesus is tried and crucified. Almost every major composer of J. S. Bach’s time period wrote passions, Telemann even wrote 46, but Bach’s works are by far the most dramatic depictions of scripture, operatic in scope, and surely a precursor and influence to many composers of opera.

Kent Nagano’s OSM contained a reduced string section: flutes, oboes and a collection of period instruments including organ, lute, oboe d’amore, viola d’amore and viola da gamba. The chorus arched around the back of the ensemble, and the soloists were placed strategically around the stage to heighten the dramatic effect and promote the idea of character interaction.

Nagano was as brilliant as ever in his preparation and leadership. Batonless, he shaped and moulded the sound of the chorus and orchestra with great care and ease, though often putting his hands down at his sides to let them play on, unguided, as it would have been done in Bach’s day. The versatile maestro was present only when needed, and achieved a kind of ego-less collaboration possible only in Baroque or Classical music.

The OSM accompanied the unfolding drama with a supremely lush tone - all delicate nuances and ornamentations clearly audible in the hall. Tenor Christoph Genz, singing the Evangelist, acted the part of storyteller in masterfully delivered recitative. His voice was light and nimble, reaching high into its upper range with total ease. At all times Genz was connected to the drama and the text, propelling the story forward with concision and sensitivity. His consistency produced a wonderful unification and a sense of linearity in the concert.

Markus Werba’s Jesus was as complex and nuanced as the character himself. The text often portrays Jesus, after experiencing the worst betrayal, rejection and agony, in a state of total calm and forgiveness. Werba’s voice reflected this characterization with a rich, comfortable and flexible tone, never strident, and always confident and musical.

Though present only in short interjections, bass-baritone Philippe Sly’s portrayal of Peter and Pilatus stood out in the performance. The recent winner of the MET’s National Council Auditions Competition, Sly has firmly established himself as an impressive young talent. His operatic experience served him well in the portrayal of Pilatus, a deeply conflicted character, who is pressured greatly by the public to follow through with Jesus’s crucifixion despite doubts of his guilt. Sly’s voice is completely natural, as if speaking, and thoroughly imbued with character. This is certainly a musician to watch.

One can’t help but be struck by the surprising operatic flavor of this work, and by the intensely expressive text-painting Bach writes in to the music. Curiously, the most emotional moments in the piece are dealt with in the most Baroque fashion: shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!” and “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die!” are set in fugue, major-key in mode, but containing within all the maliciousness present in the text. The chorales, interspersed within the drama, are oases of repose and serenity, rich with suspensions and containing some of the most expressive music and text in the whole work. These were magnificently sung by the members of Andrew Megill’s OSM Chorus.

Once again, Kent Nagano and the OSM proved their versatility as interpreters of great music from any time period. Truly great things are happening in Le Maison Symphonique de Montréal.