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Abstract Passsion

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HILLIARD ENSEMBLE

at Orchestra Hall

April 2

THE CITY MUSICK

at Saint Thomas the Apostle

April 6

Ancient Gnosticism was full of redeemer figures who would descend from the Father, reveal secret gnosis (knowledge), and then ascend again. Jesus quickly became identified as such a figure, until mainline Christians grew so powerful and intolerant that they all but destroyed these views. But the Gospel of John is one text they missed, having interpreted its views and style as "mystical."

Jesus's execution as a common criminal was an enormous problem for his followers, particularly for many Gnostics who refused to believe that he had actually died on the cross. Some more radical Gnostic gospels even went so far as to portray a Jesus who switches places with a willing Simon of Cyrene and then watches his execution from the crowd. Others portray the physical shell of Jesus enduring crucifixion while the real Jesus--his spirit--sits above the cross beam laughing at the fact that he has outwitted his would-be executioners.

The Gospel of John doesn't go quite this far in its portrayal of the death of Jesus, but it does emphasize the triumphant and glorious nature of Jesus's death, rather than the bleak and earthly suffering that is crucial to the Gospel of Mark, the earliest gospel and the basis for Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Mark portrayed Jesus as a suffering Jewish Messiah who is spurned and rejected by the civil and religious authorities, not to mention most of his followers and friends; he dies with only a few women watching from a distance. John's Gospel is another portrait altogether--of a Jesus remarkably disengaged, almost as if he weren't there at all. He can even have abstract philosophical discussions with Pilate about the nature of truth and can question Pilate's authority over him. The cross is transformed by John from an instrument of Roman torture to the instrument whereby Jesus returns to his former glorious and eternal state as part of the Father. The symbol of the cross and the image of crucifixion haven't been the same since.

All of this makes John's passion story far more abstract and ethereal than the other accounts. It is therefore quite fitting that the Estonian mystic composer Arvo Part would set John's passion to his own uniquely abstract and ethereal style of composition. Part's music went through a number of style changes typical of composers during the 60s--serialism, aleatoricism--before he finally settled in the mid-70s on his own method. That method incorporated what Part called tintinnabuli principles, which were influenced by plainchant and the magnificent polyphony of Eastern Orthodox church music. His new style, like the parallel but coincidental development of minimalism in America, emphasized form over content, and slowly shifting repetitious phrases rooted in tonality over rapidly shifting phrases rooted in atonality. Two of Part's albums serve as a good introduction to what he is trying to do by showing how it works in a variety of genres: Tabula Rasa, an all-instrumental album, and Arbos, a collection of vocal and instrumental works, some sacred, some secular.

Passio, the short title for Part's setting of the Latin Vulgate text of the Saint John Passion (the full title being Passio Domini Nostri Jesus Christi Secundum Joannem, "The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Saint John"), creates a mystical sound world in which time and space are temporarily suspended and the distinction between aesthetic and religious experience blurs into oblivion. It is a throwback to the ancient tradition of singing the passion in a simple, detached manner--much like plainchant settings, in which Christ was sung by the lowest voice, the evangelist narrator by the middle voice, other characters by the highest voice, and the crowd by a small unison chorus. Heinrich Schutz did much to transform this genre, including sometimes using multiple voices for the evangelist. In Passio Part goes further and has the evangelist sung by a vocal quartet.

The recent Chicago premiere of Part's compelling work was all the more special because Chamber Music Chicago brought in the British-based Hilliard Ensemble to perform the solo roles. This vocal group brought Part's piece to international attention last year with a stunning recording of the work. The decision was also made to incorporate the extraordinary local choir His Majestie's Clerkes, who first brought Hilliard Ensemble director Paul Hillier to Chicago nearly three years ago to direct one of their concerts.

Slightly puzzling was the use of four instrumentalists from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra--all extraordinary players but not used to producing the pure tones this work calls for. An extraordinary negative was the choice of Orchestra Hall, with its horribly dry acoustics that are difficult enough to endure for secular concerts. Hearing in this hall a sacred work such as Passio--which depends on resonance to let its melismatic phrases flow freely in and out of nothingness--is like watching a big-screen movie on a portable black-and-white TV set. And if you didn't happen to understand Latin, you were totally out of luck when it came to understanding what was being sung; no text or translation was offered in the program.

Despite these caveats, hearing Passio live was quite memorable. The evangelist's quartet--soprano Mary Seers, countertenor David James, tenor Rogers Covey-Crump, and baritone Gordon James--was a magnificent study in focused singing, perfect ensembling, and ideal blending. The way the four listened and melded one to another was extraordinary, yet each was a powerful solo singer with a gorgeous timbre. Though all were capable of absolutely pure and focused pitch, their lack of excessive vibrato did not mean anything was sacrificed in terms of projection and power, or great tenderness when it was needed. David James was my favorite of the four, for his control and vocal flexibility are astonishing. What a pleasure to hear a countertenor whose entire range is consistent and firm. He has none of the wimpy quality so often associated with this unusual voice type--his is an unmistakably ballsy sound. Tenor John Potter as Pilate and bass Gerald Finley were also quite impressive.

As good as His Majestie's Clerkes are, and they were performing quite well, their alternating with a group of first-class singers such as the Hilliard Ensemble made things decidedly lopsided. The early-music choral scene in Chicago is still so new and opportunities so limited that even approaching the league of the Hilliards is difficult. But experiences such as this are invaluable for identifying weak areas. It was particularly good to hear Clerkes founder Richard Lowell Childress, visiting from England for what was obviously a very special evening for the group, in the alto section.

The instrumentalists of Passio featured the very capable organ playing of Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, who came with the Hilliard Ensemble from London and who is featured on the group's recording of the work. Unfortunately he didn't have much of an instrument to work with, given this organ's enormous peculiarities and weak reeds, but through clever registration made it almost sound like something. The CSO players--violinist Ruben Gonzalez, cellist Loren Brown, oboist Ray Still, and bassoonist Willard Elliot--rose to the occasion, though it was painfully obvious that they are not used to playing so tightly together in such a small ensemble, and none of them even tried to produce or sustain pure tones. Gonzalez in particular played with far too much sentimentality for such an austere work. Conductor Paul Hillier kept things flowing along admirably and managed an impressive unity of sound considering the limitations. We are used to hearing Hillier as a member of the Hilliard Ensemble or as a solo singer (in particular his memorable Proensa recital a couple of years ago, which has since been recorded), but he is no less in control as a conductor.

Later the same week another Saint John Passion was heard here, the German setting by Johann Sebastian Bach. There has only been one previous period-instrument performance of this work in Chicago--three years ago on Good Friday with the now defunct Rockefeller Chapel Choir. It was a memorable occasion in that most of the solo singing was of an extraordinarily high level, though the performance was not without its peculiarities.

The City Musick was able to bring two of those singers back, both early-music vocal superstars: soprano Julianne Baird and tenor Paul Elliott. Baird brought a soaring grace and crystal-clear focus to her two big arias, while tenor Elliott (one of the founding former members of the Hilliard Ensemble) sang the plum role of the evangelist with a story-telling ability second to none, with extraordinary conviction, and with superb vocal technique. Both made Bach's usually torturous runs seem like child's play. Unfortunately, there was little else to recommend this performance. Countertenor William Turner sang the alto arias with an unsteady technique, wimpy timbre, and uneven register; Mark Bleeke strained his way through the tenor arias with choppy phrasing and virtually no sense of lyricism. Baritone David Arnold had the tenderness but neither the range nor technique for the usually powerful bass arias; bass Wilbur Pauley managed to do quite well with the role of Jesus, though even his voice cracked at a crucial moment. The City Musick Chorus was neither focused nor clearly balanced. Most of the instrumental playing was pretty good, with the exceptions of the wind section and soloists, notably the fuzzy and poorly projected block flutes that accompanied Baird in "Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit" and an unsteady oboe in the otherwise tender "Zerfleisse, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zahren." Elaine Scott Banks's conducting was certainly quite credible in that she managed to keep her forces together and infuse a sense of the drama. But for my taste, she lacked a unified vision of what this work is about. Everything seemed episodic and disjunct. Part of this effect was undoubtedly the very slow--often bordering on dragging--tempi Banks often employed, which tempered the excitement she usually brings to other works.

Hearing 18th- and 20th-century settings of the same text so close together does offer some fascinating comparisons. Bach did not see his Saint John Passion as a mystical work at all; in fact, he emphasized the narrative aspects of John's setting, and gave only minimal pietistic commentary on the action in the form of devotional arias. His later Saint Matthew Passion is far more ethereal and mystical, which is on one level strange because Matthew's narrative is far more literal. But Bach compensated for this by including glorious, large-scale, freeze-frame devotional arias that reflected his own piety.

Part is far more minimal. He launches right into the passion text with nothing but a choral introduction titling the work and ends with a short choral prayer immediately after the death of Jesus--omitting the spear incident, the burial, the earthquake. In no way could Part's music be compared to the ultimate genius of Bach, but purely on the level of the text Part's setting is more reflective of the theology and style of the Gospel of John.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Arthur Foster.

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