All the stars were in alignment for the Santa Clara Chorale’s (SCC) performance of Bach’s “St. John Passion” May 12 at Mission Santa Clara. Chorale Artistic Director Scot Hanna-Weir masterfully coordinated the 140 voices of the combined chorale and four Santa Clara University choirs, which he also directs.
The featured solo stars were Dan Cromeenes, Jennifer Paulino, Nikolas Nackley, Steve Suljak and Grammy-winning tenor Dann Coakwell, who traveled from Connecticut to sing the role of the Evangelist in this musical recounting of the crucifixion of Christ as told in the Gospel of John.
SCC presented the original version of the “St. John Passion,” which is considered a baroque masterpiece. The San José Chamber Orchestra, directed by Barbara Day Turner, accompanied the singers in the over two-hour oratorio in German by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750).
“We adore working with Scot and his chorale,” said Turner. “This is one of those pinnacle pieces. The musicians love to play it because it’s so beautifully constructed, but it’s a bit of a marathon. Musically, it’s an extremely fulfilling piece to play. There are different editions, and it can be interpreted many different ways, never the same.”
“It’s one of Bach’s finest pieces, and we are honored to be able to do it. This is probably a once-in-ten-years opportunity,” said SCC Board of Directors President Ron Paradies.
The opportunity to hear the “St. John Passion” brought former SCC Artistic Director (2002 – 2009) Thomas Colohan to town from Washington, D.C.
“The Bach is a really important and challenging work. It requires an enormous amount of resources, time and effort. It’s complicated,” said Colohan.
“It’s a fantastic teaching and conducting accomplishment by the conductor—that he was able to teach the whole choir. Then you have to add the orchestra and soloists. It takes an enormous amount of coordination, and Scot is doing it beautifully.”
“Why not?” said artistic director Hanna-Weir when asked why he tackled such a demanding work. “There is no reason our singers shouldn’t have the opportunity to put on a work like this. It’s so challenging that it takes a long time to get into your body. But once you put in the time and effort, it’s so infinitely rewarding.”
“The chamber orchestra also tuned into the amazing power of Bach. It’s not about just the right notes but about connecting to the meaning of the piece to pull it off,” said Hanna-Weir.
Santa Clara resident Lois Swift, formerly a violinist with San José Symphony, attended the concert because she loves sacred music and wanted to hear a work she was unfamiliar with.
“Everything was beautifully balanced—the voices, soloists, musicians,” said Swift. “I enjoyed hearing authentic instruments. The orchestra was marvelous, excellent. It was a beautiful, inspiring evening in a gorgeous church setting.”
One of the authentic instruments, quite the instrumental star of the night, was the harpsichord played by Turner. She explained that the oratorio can also be played with an organ or organ and harpsichord in combination.
The harpsichord alone was used in Bach’s first performance of “St. John Passion” at St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, Germany, in 1724. The story is that the church harpsichord was broken, and Bach refused to perform the piece until the church repaired the harpsichord, which he enjoyed playing.
“That,” said Turner, “is how Bach got the church to fix the harpsichord.”
“It’s important to the community to hear this high a quality of work. It takes a skilled conductor and high quality musicians,” said Colohan. “The ‘St. John Passion’ is a piece of art—one of the greatest works of art of Western choral music. It speaks volumes that it can happen here in Santa Clara.”
The SCC, a non-profit arts organization, will reprise musical highlights of its 2017 – 2018 season at its free “Encore Performance” June 3 at 3 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Santa Clara.