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The Seasonal Cynosure

New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
04/04/2014 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Johannes-Passion, BWV 245
Kyle Stegall (Evangelist), Molly Netter (Soprano), Sara Couden (Mezzo-soprano), Gene Stenger (Tenor), Andrew Padgett, Edmund Milly (Baritones)
Juilliard415 with members of Yale Baroque Ensemble, Yale Schola Cantorum, Robert Mealy (Concertmaster), Masaaki Suzuki (Conductor)

M. Suzuki (© Marco Borggreve)

Perhaps the most difficult resolution for any music critic is to give up musical Masses during a New York Lent. During the 40 days prior to East, Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John are performed with religious regularity in churches around New York. The music is always adequate, the choruses are rousing, and not much more can be said.

The exception to the rule? When Masaaki Suzuki is conducting, even the least reverent critic will join the audiences. For Mr. Suzuki is one of those rare conductors who can provide both eloquence and muscularity, whose knowledge of Bach is equaled only by his love of the composer through is innumerable recordings of all the Bach cantatas.

And when Mr. Suzuki is conducting both of Bach’s Passions in the space of a week, it’s time for anyone to put on their Easter Bonnet, with all the trills upon it...

St. Matthew is libretto-wise probably superior to the earlier St. John Passion, but this didn’t prevent Mr. Suzuki and his mainly scholastic forces to give a fervent production last night in Alice Tully Hall. Part of the fervency was due to the hall itself, which resounds and echoes when necessary as well as any cathedral.

But the success was due even more to the forces assembled by Mr. Suzuki. For the most part, they were theoretically not professional, coming from the ranks of two schools, Juilliard and Yale. But both ensembles well represented their schools. The Juilliard415 Baroque Ensemble had all the necessary tools, including a viola d’amore and a viola da gamba. In fact, the latter had the most affecting solo part in the aria, “Consider, how his blood-stained back”, played by Arnie Tanimoto.

The chorus came from Yale, their Scholar Cantorum. We had a group of 25 (the same as the Baroque Ensemble), but they could make a loud noise when necessary. There was nothing dainty about their cry of “Kreuzige, kreuzige!” (“Crucify, crucify”) and they could put enough ecstasy into their final chorus.

M. Netter, K. Stegall(© Courtesy of the artist)

The soloists were adequate enough. Molly Netter’s soprano was fine in the lower ranges, with the top a near-shrillness. Contralto Sara Couden was by far the strongest of the four, while the three men, all stepping out from the chorus, varied, sometimes a bit unsteadily.

Yet this was hardly a weak performance, since Maestro Suzuki, with all his depth of feeling, is a no-nonsense conductor. That ravishing opening was taken not at an eccentrically fast pace but with an urgent orchestral introduction and an ensuing strong chorale narration. The lines were clear, the resounding narrations and arias by Evangelist Kyle Stegall pointed and never over dramatic.

Even those who become enervated by the Lenten offerings around town can be encouraged and inspired when Mr. Suzuki is on the dais. This may have been J.S. Bach in his most solemn mood, a Lutheran believer essaying the crucial mooment of the Christian religion. But outside of a slow solo or two, there was no heaviness, no plodding. Yes, the orchestra was “olde musicke” authentic, and the chorale forces were smaller than our usual church groups. But with Masaaki Suzuki in charge, this was a Bach which transcended the ephemera of mere centuries.

Harry Rolnick



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