Among his hundreds of pieces, Bach did not compose any opera. But its passion settings – which tell of Christ’s last days on earth – couldn’t convey less drama.
Such was the case in a retelling of Bach’s St. John Passion by the Dallas Bach Society Friday night at Zion Lutheran Church. Conducting seated at the harpsichord, artistic director James Richman set fast tempos that propelled the music forward. The singing was generally excellent, and an orchestra using period instruments generally played with urgency.
Good things happened early on. The strings created dark tones, the oboes provided pangs of dissonance and the choir then entered with a cry of “Herr” (Lord) that sent shivers down your spine.
As evangelist, tenor Dann Coakwell delivered the storytelling with care and a natural sense of line. He maintained close eye contact with the audience, drawing us into the story.
He was also sensitive to the nuances of the text, caressing the treble, becoming emphatic when necessary and expressing Peter’s sorrows with power and purity. Impressively, he also took the tenor solos and handled them with aplomb.
David Grogan brought a noble baritone to the role of Jesus, ultimately resigned to his fate. Elijah McCormack was a radiant soprano with a sweet legato.
After Christ’s death, Nicholas Garza delivered a touching “Es ist vollbracht” (“It’s over”), elegantly shaping phrases with his rich alto. His efforts were enhanced by the elegant contributions of Christopher Phillpott on the viola da gamba.
Baritone Patrick Gnage’s tunes needed more energy and his low register seemed underdeveloped. Among the other vocal soloists, baritone Andrew Dittman stood out as a robust Pilatus.
The balanced and well-melted 17-voice choir offered both luminous hymns and polyphonic passages evoking sacred dread.
The ensemble sometimes faltered in the orchestra, and the coordination between the orchestra and the soloists sometimes slipped through the air. MaryAnn Shore and Pablo Moreno skillfully played oboe da caccia, a lower oboe, except for some forgivable blips and pitch issues. Entries and consonants didn’t always line up in the chorus – clearer direction might have helped.
It didn’t help to separate the first and second parts of the passion with a 25-minute intermission. The concert also started 10 minutes late, after comments from the executive director and sound engineer. (Both performances from the weekend are being recorded for an upcoming CD release.) These troubles dampened an otherwise enjoyable evening.
Repeats at 6 p.m. Sunday at Zion Lutheran Church, 6121 E. Lovers Lane, Dallas. $10 to $50. 214-871-5000, dallasbach.org.