March 23, 2015 – So how does one present a world class performance of a centuries-old sacred masterwork written by the greatest musical architect? And how does one present that centuries-old work in a state-of-the-art venue like Chicago’s Harris Theater (a venue as 21st century as its audience) and create a timeless, musical experience that stands as one of the finest of its kind in a season of world class performances in Chicago? By using each and every tool at hand, that’s how. 

​Leaving nothing to chance, Grammy-winning conductor and sacred choral music master John Nelson led a deeply-invested ensemble of distinguished musicians Friday evening in a powerful reading of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion BWV. 245 at The Harris, and his recipe for success could not have been clearer.

First, he tapped esteemed choral conductor Donald Nally (formerly of the Lyric Opera and the Spoleto Festival in Italy, among notable others) to help prepare the Chicago Bach Project Choir to exacting standards, understanding the intricacies and nuances inherent in the deeply layered score. Then Nelson carefully honed the considerable talents and technique of the Chicago Bach Project Orchestra and developed commitments from seasoned vocalists undeniably devoted, not only to this annual tradition of sacred music performance, but to its relevance in a contemporary concert setting today.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he employed an assiduous study of Bach’s score, its construction, its inherent elements, creating a taut line of communication from the composer’s original intent to the audience’s perception of the music’s merits. Meticulous attention to the details of that score would prove a hallmark of Friday night’s performance, as would a deft expression of the vastly diverse emotions it conveys.

From the opening bars, Nelson navigated the lively acoustics of Harris Theater’s auditorium with a strong baseline and crisply executed phrasing that included stark, pallet-cleansing rests, keeping the work’s structure evident and on display. Swift shifts in tempi and tone conveyed the immediacy of Bach’s work, while weighty emphasis on phrasing, and articulation of leading tones and dissonances—and their harmonic resolution—aptly revealed the tension the sacred text inspired.

Though technique alone cannot impart the emotions buried within Bach’s layered score, it serves as a suitable conduit through which one can reach them, and Nelson knows that full well.

He also knows that beyond musicianship, the St. John requires vocalists committed as much to its message as to its artistic merits to bring the work to full life. And to that end he enlisted the talents of the formidable bass-baritone, Stephen Morscheck (Jesus), dazzling lyric tenor Nicholas Phan (Evangelist) and lush bass-baritone Matthew Brook, all returning to deepen their work with The Chicago Bach Project. Phan was effervescent as always, giving a veritable masterclass in the vibrancy of lyric recitative. Morscheck was stalwart as Jesus, imposing and moving throughout the night; and Brooks’ warm lyricism could not be restrained in Bach’s aria, Mein teurer Heiland, laß dich fragen. This year’s concert also included tenor John Tessier, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo (singing the alto role) and soprano Lisette Oropesa. Each added their own infectious fervor to vivid musicianship that fleshed out key nuances in Bach’s score.

With these tools in hand, Nelson crafted a vibrant articulation of every emotion of the gamut, from the aching gravitas of the opening chorus to the sheer ebullience of Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten. He delivered a poetic performance that suffered few boundaries, wielding a truly communicative force in his Chicago Bach Project Orchestra, Choir and soloists, and resulting in a powerful and deeply personal presentation of this important sacred score, and because of that, one of the most uniquely significant concerts in Chicago this season.
Conductor John Nelson, soloists and the Chicago Bach Choir and Orchestra take a bow at the finale of their Friday night performance of J.S. Bach's St. John Passion (photo by EElan Photography).

John Nelson and Chicago Bach Project Offer Deeply Personal St. John Passion this Easter Season  

: By Fred Cummings