Review: Fresno Master Chorale stages a memorable version of the St. John Passion
I didn’t plan it this way, but last weekend I experienced two spiritually oriented performances that couldn’t have been more different in size and scale. Mark Tyler Miller’s one-man original musical at Fresno Pacific University, titled “The Adam Bomb,” was about as small as you can get: one actor, an acoustic guitar, a few dozen chairs for the audience. Bach’s St. John Passion, performed by the Fresno Master Chorale, was bigger than some towns: 160 singers, an orchestra, a crowd of actors, a middle school girls’ choir. Yet both productions took keen advantage of their respective dimensions, so to speak, and moved me in very different ways.
Some thoughts on the Master Chorale performance:
The Evangelist took us to heaven.
Brian Thorsett, a professional guest tenor, filled two roles in the production. As the Evangelist, presumably a stand-in for St. John himself, he acted as narrator. And Thorsett also handled the duties of bass soloist, popping in now and then with color commentary on Jesus’ last days. Thorsett’s vocal tone was as pure and his articulation as piercing as a brisk, rushing mountain stream. I’m not sure how he made his presentation so accessible, but he managed to combine sterling musical interpretation with the snappy precision of a seasoned-pro TV journalist reporting live from the scene. (At one point, at the end of the section “But Peter denied it,” Thorsett went as soft as a whisper, and it was stunning.) To make a distinction between his moments as narrator and tenor soloist, Thorsett took a walk of a few short steps from behind his music stand and created a fascinating kinesiological contrast: As the tenor soloist, he planted his feet firmly on the stage floor and leaned toward the audience as he sang at a pronounced angle, as if he were being pushed by a strong wind. Still, for all his gusto as soloist, it was as the Evangelist that Thorsett elevated the entire performance to another level.
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The semi-staging of the story was simple but profound.
Stage director Allison Windmiller didn’t ask her singer-actors to move much — there was no jangling procession through the streets of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, no violence at the trial before Pontius Pilate — but the blocking was carefully thought out and just enough to complement the music, not overpower it. I loved some of the small touches, such as the representation of the cross (Jesus, holding a slender red pole behind his neck, had his hands bound by red neckties); and the tender moment when Mary Magdalene and two other women huddled before him and touched him, giving a tactile feel to their farewell.
The lighting design pumped things up, too.
Most of the time, choral ensembles just get perfunctory stage lighting, but designer Elena Tsuchiya brought us color, shading and occasional darkness. Probably the most effective thing was the use of a spotlight at times on the principal characters; it added so much for Jesus, say, to be bathed in clean, white light as he did his thing, heightening the drama. (It makes me think that considering today’s visually oriented audiences, a lighting designer might be a way to subtly enhance standard choral and orchestral performances. In theater, after all, lighting can have a tremendous emotional impact. Why not “regular” classical music?)
The actors were strong.
Terry Lewis, dressed in a white linen suit and white shoes (before he ditched them to go barefoot), brought an intensity to the stage that made me think about what Jesus went through during his pivotal last days. (What would it have been like to stand there in front of the mob wearing a crown of thorns. What went through his mind?) Lim Forgey, also doubling roles (as Pontius Pilate and bass soloist), was very good. His detached bureaucratic weariness mixed with an easy cruelty was devastatingly effective. Joe Camaquin-Vigil, as Peter, and Aaron Burdick, as Servus, brought small but pointed portrayals to the stage.
The chorus and orchestra sounded big and inspired.
Conductor Anna Hamre drew out impassioned performances (and that’s not meant as a pun) from her singers and instrumentalists. Professional soloists Julie Miller (alto) and Maria Briggs (soprano) added gravitas to the performance. When Miller sang “… and he was gone,” it was with an ache that filled Shaghoian Hall.
Lastly, a nod to the students.
The Reyburn Intermediate Chamber Choir, directed by Allison Crose, added a youthful touch to the experience. Windmiller, the stage director, placed the singers on the floor in front of the stage, and when, in the second half, they turned to sing and face the back of the hall — their parts memorized, by the way! — there was nothing between them and the audience. No conductor, no orchestra, no “comfort zone” of a few dozen feet to the lip of the stage. These girls weren’t just part of a huge, proficient ensemble; they were part of us. That’s what the Passion is all about. And it’s why, once again, the Fresno Master Chorale transformed a concert into a memorable event.