Review: SPCO, Singers and soloists present a ‘Passion’ with passion

Review: SPCO, Singers and soloists present a ‘Passion’ with passion

Conductor and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra artistic partner Jonathan Cohen. (Photo by Pascal Gely)
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.

Review: SPCO offers seamless, moving ‘St. John Passion’

SPCO offers seamless, moving ‘St. John Passion’

SPCO goes deep with Bach masterpiece at Ordway.

Saturday evening’s St. Paul Chamber Orchestra performance of the Passion was one of the most satisfying you could hope to hear.

Led by English baroque specialist Jonathan Cohen, it featured an outstanding team of six soloists, Twin Cities choir the Singers, and an ensemble of 20 SPCO players. The soloists were headed by the English tenor Nicholas Mulroy in the huge part of the Evangelist who relates the Passion story.

Mulroy was an outstandingly sensitive narrator. He sang without a score, greatly enhancing his eye contact with both the audience and the other characters and adding a riveting immediacy to the storytelling.

Mulroy had excellent support from those around him. As Jesus, bass Matthew Brook brought gravitas and dignity, with sonorous tone and immaculately clear diction.

Brook’s confrontation with the Pontius Pilate of baritone William Berger compelled attention, the two glaring at each other from opposite ends of the Ordway platform in mutual suspicion.

Berger’s Pilate was a commanding, implacable presence, and he sang the bass arias with resonant authority. Soprano Joélle Harvey and tenor Nick Pritchard were equally authoritative, performing with heartfelt intelligence and commitment.

Among the many solo highlights, countertenor Tim Mead’s “Es ist vollbracht” stood out. Mead sang with a melting fluidity of tone and deep empathy, while Beiliang Zhu contributed a ravishing commentary on viola da gamba.

Concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini and fellow violinist Kyu-Young Kim duetted balletically in the tenor aria “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken”, while principal flute Julia Bogorad-Kogan provided mellifluous decorations in the soprano’s “Ich folge dir gleichfalls.”

The crucial role of accompanying the Evangelist was immaculately done by organist Paolo Bordignon (harpsichordist of the New York Philharmonic) and SPCO principal cello Julie Albers, playing with a baroque bow for the evening.

The Singers had been scrupulously prepared by Matthew Culloton and Matthew Olson and flipped impressively from the contemplative chorales to the venom needed when the baying crowd demanded the crucifixion of Jesus. Three of them — Jessie Braaten, Philip Rossin and Timothy Bruett — also made brief, accomplished solo appearances.

At the heart of the evening was conductor Cohen, standing to direct the choir or sitting at his harpsichord to accompany the soloists.

Since his appointment as an artistic partner at the SPCO two years ago, Cohen has quietly reinvented the way the orchestra approaches baroque music.

This “St. John Passion” was undoubtedly his most significant achievement yet. Beautifully paced and integrated, it was a deeply moving realization of Bach’s masterpiece of suffering and redemption.

Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at

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Artistic Director Matthew Culloton led The Singers in a performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil

MINNEAPOLIS – July 2, 2016 – Led by Artistic Director Matthew Culloton, The Singers returned to the renowned Ravinia Festival on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.  This marked the ensemble’s fourth performance at Ravinia since their debut there in 2013. “It is by far one of our biggest honors to be invited to again perform at the Ravinia Festival,” says Culloton. “To take part in one of the country’s most-respected music festivals is not something we take for granted.”


The Ravinia Festival is the summer home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and this summer plays host to international superstars like Midori, Chanticleer, Itzhak Perlman, Paul Simon, and Tony Bennett.


The Singers’ performance of Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil (Vespers, op. 37) was part of an evening that honored the centennial of the birth of American choral champion Robert Shaw. Earlier in the evening, prior to The Singers’ performance, a new film on Shaw was presented, highlighting the impact the maestro had on choral music across the world. Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil was recorded by Shaw and his choir, and the work’s lasting beauty held special meaning to him in his last years.

 The Singers just wrapped their 12th season, and have made a lasting impact on the choral scene through concerts, recordings, and special attention to the music of today’s composers.


Hear The Singers on Classical MPR’s Choral Stream

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