Music of the Baroque provides timely balm with Bach’s “St. John Passion”

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
March 12, 2024

The world is in chaos, wars rage around the globe, civil society seems unmoored and the center is not holding.

Which makes one appreciate more than ever the Lenten balm of Music of the Baroque’s Bach choral works. This year it was the St. John Passion, conducted by Dame Jane Glover Monday night at the Harris Theater.

If the later St. Matthew Passion is grander in scale and richer and more varied in expression, Bach’s St. John Passion, his first gospel setting, has the immediacy of a real-time news report. After the somber opening chorus sets the scene, the narrative leaps immediately into the narrative of Christ’s passion, moving quickly through events to his crucifixion and resurrection. In Bach’s liturgical style, the Evangelist’s narration alternates with individual arias and choruses that amplify and reflect upon the personal meaning of the texts.

MOB’s music director is an experienced hand at these complex scores, and Glover’s performances of this repertoire have become deeper and more eloquent over her two decades in Chicago, plumbing the spirituality as much as the narrative drama. With some remarkable choral singing and a largely excellent lineup of soloists, this powerful and affecting St. John Passion was in the same sturdy tradition of Glover’s past Bach performances.

One is running out of superlatives to describe the singing of the MOB Chorus under the direction of Andrew Megill. From the spacious flow of the opening chorus (“Herr, unser Herrscher”) the ensemble singing took one into a slower-paced and more humane world. The chorus put across the theatrical moments with virtuosic immediacy, as with the jarring intensity brought to the cries of “Kreuzige, kreuzige!” (Crucify, crucify). Yet the blending and enveloping warmth of the more transcendent choruses was glowing and richly expressive.

Rarely will one hear such a complete rendering of the Evangelist than Thomas Cooley brought to this crucial role Monday night. Not only does he possess the high voice and flexibility to handle the narrator’s tortuous, leaping lines, Cooley also brought striking expressive power to the tenor arias, as with his affecting “Ach, mean Sinn.”

Neal Davies was a tougher, more robust Jesus than usual, and one could easily imagine him bodily throwing the moneychangers out of the temple. If his portrayal stinted a bit on spiritual gravitas, Davies’ resonant bass-baritone displayed superb weight and impact. The singer was at his finest in his arias,  as with his expressive, rich-toned “Betrachte, meine Seel” (Ponder, my soul).

The two female soloists have less to do in this work but also proved up to their assignments. 

Miah Persson was rich casting, the Swedish soprano bringing bright youthful tone and agile facility to her two arias. One wanted greater tonal body and more even production at times from Clara Osowski’s light mezzo, though she brought sensitivity to “Es ist vollbracht” (It is finished).

MOB chorus members capably handled the smaller roles. One minor debit was having the Evangelist sing along with the final chorus, a needless and awkward bit of stage theatricality. 

That apart, Glover’s direction was faultless, leading a performance of strong momentum that seamlessly blended both the spiritual and dramatic elements of Bach’s music. The playing of the orchestra was as vital and committed as the singing of the chorus, with a superb continuo anchoring the proceedings and expressive obbligato solos from individual musicians supporting the arias.