Passion ends in perfect silence

  • Jul 14, 2013
By Eliot Grasso The Register-Guard July 14, 2013 Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Johannes” Passion of 1724 is a musical narrative of the life and death of Jesus Christ. The Oregon Bach Festival brought these events to life on Wednesday evening at the University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. 1015791_10151715590751162_1303731255_o The oboists and alto Roxana Constantinescu engaged in a complicated rhetorical exchange in which Bach requires the oboes and voices to dramatize a musical metaphor for the text, “From the ropes of my sins to unbind me, my salvation is bound.” The dialogue (in recitative) between Pontius Pilate (Tobias Berndt) and Jesus (Tyler Duncan) was brilliantly delivered. Duncan’s Jesus said to Ber­ndt’s Pilate: “You say that I am a king/ For this I am begotten and come into the world: that I shall bear witness to the truth/ Whoever is of the truth/ He hears my voice.” To which Pilate responds, “What is truth?” Berndt’s acting and tone of voice perfectly captured the relativistic skepticism that has attended the figure and message of Christ throughout history. Julia Wagner sang the second soprano aria of the evening. This aria strikes me as a difficult selection for a singer to dramatize because Bach has set the text “Dissolve, my heart, in floods of tears, your Jesus is dead!” to breathless counterpoint in which tempo seems to exceed the emotion of the words. Despite this tension, Wagner offered a beautiful performance in which her elegance and restraint balanced the perpetual motion of her accompaniment. Special attention must be given to the evening’s Evangelist, tenor Nicholas Phan. The Evangelist of Bach’s “Johannes” Passion is easily responsible for singing half of the entire text — and if he doesn’t, it certainly seems like he does. The tenor sings the bulk of the narrative and two arias. Phan’s dynamic acting in the recitatives highlighted the gravity of Christ’s accusations and supernatural humanity of his sacrifice. His performance of “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter rücken” clearly communicated the pathos of the libretto’s analogy between Christ’s blood-tinged back and the rainbow of reconciliation offered to Noah after 40 days of torrential flooding unleashed upon the Earth to rid it of sin. Bach concludes his magisterial setting of the Gospel with a chorale on the words “O Lord, let your dear angel at the very end carry my soul.” While outgoing festival Artistic Director Helmuth Rilling led the chorus and orchestra to express Christians’ anticipation of Jesus’s return, the most stirring aural moment of the evening’s performance was the 60-second silence that followed the Passion’s last chord. In light of all the tremendous virtuosity, drama, tension and jubilation that constitutes Bach’s work, the concluding silence summarized — in my view — the most appropriate response to the life of Christ: stunned awe, contemplation and reverence. Eliot Grasso is an adjunct instructor of musicology at the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance.