The Adelaide Chamber Singers are celebrating their 30th anniversary in 2015, with Late Night in the Cathedral: Passio the first of a series of exciting concerts to be held in St Peter’s Cathedral throughout the year.
Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem (The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John or Passio) is an inspired choice by conductor Carl Crossin, and St Peter’s Cathedral is a perfect venue for such a work.
Pärt is an Estonian composer who apparently was invited to leave the Soviet Union and soon became widely acknowledged and acclaimed for his contemporary, minimalist sacred music. Pärt’s Passio is a passion cantata for solo baritone (Jesus), solo tenor (Pilate), vocal quartet (Evangelist), choir, violin, oboe, cello, bassoon and organ: the text is in Latin from the Gospel of John, and it tells the story of Christ’s arrest, trial and crucifixion.
It is evident in this work that Pärt has been influenced by medieval music and inspired by Gregorian chant. Sensibly, two television screens display an English translation; the pace of the music allows the text to be easily read, enabling the audience to contemplate its meaning and significance while enjoying the music.
Passio begins dramatically and, as the solo Evangelist sings, Alexander Knight, as Jesus, dressed in a simple, off-white gown, walks silently through the audience. In typical ACS style, the work is dignified, solemn and intriguing, and complex musicality seems easy in the hands of these accomplished musicians and singers.
Under Crossin’s direction, Passio allows each singer to shine individually and collectively: they are allocated moments to sing lines of the Evangelist’s narrative and then to participate in duets, quartets or as a complete choir.
The talented ensemble of musicians accompanies soloists and the choir. The sound of Celia Craig’s oboe with a solo female voice or Mark Gaydon’s bassoon supporting the reflective thoughts of Christ or Josh van Konkelenberg’s organ accompanying Pilate, as well as Elizabeth Layton’s violin and Simon Cobcroft’s cello, are integral to the power and impact of Passio.
As the story progresses through events we all know, the familiar is made fresh through the careful focus and highlight provided by Pärt’s musical treatment. The choir enters into the mood, atmosphere and drama of each moment and conflict without enactment or overt dramatization; the music itself provides the drama and the tension.
Standing opposite Knight is tenor Richard Butler, as Pilate, dressed in a red cassock. The questions he asks of Christ mostly end in a sustained high note, ethereal in nature and sounding as pure as a bell. His voice – and personal dilemma – seem to echo and reverberate throughout the cathedral.
Knight’s booming baritone voice brings an authority, power and presence to Jesus that demands everyone’s attention and consideration. The opening-night audience was still, silent and totally enchanted by the drama created by the score and performance.
It is intriguing to have the Evangelist’s narrative shared by varying soloists and groups, and the chorus performed by the entire choir, effectively creating an ever-changing sound quality and the illusion that we are witnessing the thoughts and words of many individuals and an enormous crowd.
Arvo Pärt’s Passio is a musical work for everyone: it is a cantata of great beauty and profound feeling. Although sacred in nature and style, the ACS’s performance will appeal to anyone who enjoys great music, performed by world-class musicians in a unique and superb acoustic setting.
Adelaide Chamber Singers are performing again tonight (March 10) at 10pm in St Peter’s Cathedral as part of the Adelaide Festival.
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