So it’s appropriate that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra has chosen to perform this magnum opus, a large-scale masterpiece that comes pretty close to being opera for the church. While most of the weekend’s performances take place at the acoustically sublime Ordway Concert Hall, Friday’s first presentation was more about getting in touch with the work’s ecclesiastical roots, for it was held within the expansive stony interior of the Cathedral of St. Paul. Yet it was clear that there was some magnificent musicianship at work, and what was resonant at the Cathedral will likely be piercingly powerful at the Ordway.

Under the direction of SPCO artistic partner Jonathan Cohen, the orchestra is joined by local choir the Singers and six vocal soloists for these concerts. What could have felt like either a long Sunday school lesson set to song or a dry seminar in musical history — nutritious but not necessarily tasty — was instead quite entertaining, not just because Bach filled it with so much wonderful music, but because a theatricality emerged among the vocalists. It proved a fine showcase for some splendid singers and Cohen’s clear-eyed interpretive approach.

I admit to having doubts at first, as the music was just too murky during the opening chorus, a fortissimo call to God that concluded with a seven-second ring-out. Yet beauty soon asserted its presence on two early-evening chorales.

Tenor Nicholas Mulroy proved a charismatic Evangelist, not only singing the expansive role of the work’s narrator from memory, but making him an engaged spectator to the story, whether underlining a sense of helplessness at the unfolding conflict or seemingly refereeing the argument between Jesus and Pontius Pilate.

As for that tete-a-tete, Matthew Brook brought a booming bass voice to Jesus that most impressed when he gently soared to the top of his register as death approached. But baritone William Berger was a standout as a Pilate at first smug but increasingly compassionate and finally flummoxed by a mob’s virulence. Not only that, but he could quickly cast off his character to lend a velvet touch to one of the arias that asked listeners to reflect upon the story’s lessons.

Soprano Joelle Harvey has been exceptional during past performances with the SPCO, but she and countertenor Tim Mead suffered from the same problem of being overpowered by woodwind duets during first-half arias, although Mead’s “It is finished” aria was full of sumptuous sadness. Meanwhile, tenor Nick Pritchard brought some welcome clarity to his lines.

Choral group the Singers grew stronger as the evening went on, executing quick changes from rabid rabble to comforting chorus, the work’s final two sections wrapping listeners in a warm blanket of harmony ideal for sending them off into a November night.


Who: The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra with conductor Jonathan Cohen, the Singers and six vocal soloists

What: J.S. Bach’s “St. John Passion”

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday

Where: Ordway Concert Hall, 345 Washington St., St. Paul

Tickets: $50-$12, available at 651-291-1144 or

Capsule: One of Bach’s biggest works gets an engagingly theatrical interpretation.