There was more than one resurrection when Sydney Philharmonia Chamber Singers and Baroque Orchestra performed a “reimagined” St John Passion at a well-attended and long anticipated concert in Chatswood’s Concourse theatre.
The production under the baton of VOX Music Director Elizabeth Scott, which featured two contemporary new works dovetailed into Johann Sebastian Bach’s original score, had originally been planned for SPC’s 2020 season to celebrate the combined choirs’ centenary. COVID, of course, put a stop to that, leaving choristers to keep in practice via Zoom, while audience members made do with their record collections, virtual concerts and streaming platforms for musical entertainment.
Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ St John Passion Reimagined. Photograph © Michael Bradfield
The hall had a holiday atmosphere with the Easter Saturday sunshine streaming into the auditorium through doorways, and less than half the audience masked up, although the use of QR codes, sanitisers and social distancing were encouraged.
The concert got under way with a choral Acknowledgement of Country, Deborah Cheetham and Matthew Doyle’s Tarimi Nulay – long time living here, one of three works on the program that were commissioned as part of Sydney Philharmonia’s 100 Minutes of New Australian Music for their centenary season. Sung in Gadigal and featuring close harmonies over pedal notes from the woodwinds, it was first heard at the Dawn Chorus performance on the steps of the Sydney Opera House at the start of 2020 and will act as an opener for all the Choirs’ 2021 performances.
The Passion itself, shorter and in some ways the more dramatic of the two Bach composed as cantor in Leipzig, was an “ever-evolving” work with revisions and additions by the composer, Scott explained, and in this spirit the SPC was performing the postponed premieres of Joseph Twist’s Heaven, Tear Apart solo for baritone David Greco and chorus and Brooke Shelley’s Ein Bachlein im Bach.
Twist tapped into the anger, devastation and chaos of the 2019 Australian bushfires for his aria Himmel reisse – Bach had added his own aria to the second performance of the Passion, only to withdraw it later. This is a powerful moment in the first part of the work, the soloist’s torment underpinned by turbulent cellos and basses and howls from the chorus before the contrasting chorale brings stillness. Greco earned a special ovation for his prodigious melismas (“how I suffer with you, Jesus!”) with superb support from the 30 voices of the Chamber Singers and concertmaster Fiona Ziegler and her colleagues.
Shelley’s work was no less impressive, a beautiful interlude near the end of the Passion, taking as its starting point text and music from a Latin motet by Slovenian composer Jacob Handl, which traditionally followed the Passion in Leipzig and uses orchestra and chorus to interject action and motifs from Bach’s score. Its underlying reflective sadness captured the composer’s feelings over the death of a dear friend’s son.
Photograph © Michael Bradfield
Scott had a strong cast of soloists on hand. English-born tenor Richard Butler – with his high, sweet timbre and excellent diction – is a church music specialist and former King’s College, Cambridge, choral scholar, making for a perfect Evangelist, never flagging in moving the action along and bringing the text alive (you really needed to splash out $5 for a program to follow it all in English). By contrast, tenor Nicholas Jones showed his operatic talents in his solos, while bass-baritone Andrew O’Connor brought power, compassion and gravitas to his portrayal of Christ.
Celeste Lazarenko’s bright soprano lit the stage in her few solo moments and mezzo Sian Sharp, with her darker instrument, brought plenty of drama to her big aria, Es ist Vollbracht (It is accomplished), backed beautifully by Anthea Cottee’s viola da gamba solo. Other early instruments featured throughout, making for interesting contrasts and textures. Nicole Divall, formerly of the Australian Chamber Orchestra and shortly to leave for overseas, was joined by Stephen Freeman for a viola d’amore duet, and Kirsten Barry and Neil Simpson varied the palette with some moments on oboe da caccia and oboe d’amore as well as conventional instruments.
The concert was dedicated to the memory of Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig, who died recently.