A much larger than usual audience filled Merrill Auditorium on Sunday for a rare performance of Bach’s “Passion According to St. John” (BWV 245 ) by the Portland Symphony Orchestra and the Choral Art Society Masterworks Chorus.

Soloists were Kendra Colton, soprano, Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano, John Aler, tenor, Daniel Stein, tenor, Laurence Albert, bass, and Troy Cook, bass.

All were uniformly excellent, but Aler, as the Evangelist who tells the story, is to be admired most for his stamina, singing a recitative part for 2½ hours.

Rachmaninoff used to abridge his Variations on a Theme of Corelli when coughing in the audience reached a certain level. One could sense Bach fatigue Sunday by the attention paid to the remaining thickness of pages in the book-like scores.

The Passion does contain some of Bach’s most beautiful and heartfelt music, but there is a sense that he, like many composers before and after, didn’t quite know how to end it.

Two-thirds of the work holds the interest strongly, in terms of both the drama and the music. The final third is heavily weighted toward sermonizing about the meaning of it all, to adherents of the Lutheran faith. The music is just as good but the driving force of the narrative is gone.

Musically, the performance was first rate. The Masterworks Chorus performed at its highest level right from the opening chorus, with power, energy and a fine balance of parts. The orchestra, shorn of its brass section, also did a fine job, as did the combinations of soloists, especially in Bach’s favorite flute and oboe passages.

The text, however, projected on a super-title screen, left something to be desired. The translation from the German was labored and sometimes in error, and the bowdlerization of “juden” to “leute” was unforgivable, like the recent editing of “Huckleberry Finn” to remove the “N” word. Authenticity aside, the repetition of “leute” conjured up images of “Der Rosenkavalier,” not entirely appropriate in this setting.

Whenever I attend a performance of one of Bach’s major works, I get the feeling that something is missing – that there’s a musical language being spoken that we have almost forgotten.

Vocal soloists have difficulty projecting strongly through the veil of ornamentation, while orchestral images may not mean the same thing to us as to Bach’s audiences. The music describing the rending of the veil of the temple is still relevant today, but how many conventions do we miss elsewhere?

The most satisfying moments of the work were the great chorales, standing like granite pillars in a flood. We still feel the urge to sing along, as the congregation might have almost 300 years ago.


Christopher Hyde’s Classical Beat column appears in the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be reached at: [email protected]