Friday, March 29, 2013

Intimate Music For A Somber Day

Mark McGregor
Today, Good Friday I attended the intimate performance of the St. John Passion by Bach at Dunbar Heights United Church. This is only just one more of a recent spate of concerts being given by local churches. Just a few weeks ago I went to a performance of Henry Purcell’s music by a quartet, with Marc Destrub√© on violin, Arthur Neale on Violin, Natalie Mackie on viola de gamba and Valerie Weeks playing the harpsichord. The church only a few blocks from Dunbar Heights was St Philip’s Anglican.

The common theme is a venue of intimacy where if you arrive early (as I always do) you can sit at the front row and notice everything, hear everything and easily make believe (in my case I am a duke) that one is royalty and listening to the music in one’s chamber.

The St. John Passion is narrated in lovely recitatives by St. John the Evangelist played by a tenor. In an orchestra peppered with professionals and the church choir (also peppered with professionals) tenor Clinton Stoffberg was lyrical and most wonderful playing that evangelist whose symbol is the eagle as he (St. John) soars with his gospels into realms that the other evangelists did not. Better still, a church on a low budget (we were to pay an entrance fee that was suggested at $20) cannot afford to get another tenor to sing the tenor arias of the work so Stoffberg was twice good, in two roles.

Natalie Mackie
The other voice, one that charmed me as much as her presence (a face, a Penelope’s face, in which I would have gladly eliminated all suitors with my Odysseus bow!) was Soprano Alexandra Hill. Unfortunately she only sang two arias so I left wanting.

The musical ensemble made up of young people headed by Yi Zhou on violin had the presence of two of my friends from the Pacific Baroque Orchestra. They were Paul Luchkow, violin and Natalie Mackie (whose purple cloth wrapped around the carved head at the end of her instrument for once was doubly right as it was in Lent purple). An there was Mark McGregor our very good local flute player. I had never heard cellist Peter Caton before but I was impressed.

I was sitting a mere five feet from youthful director Dr. Greg Caisley who at times sat to play on a one manual Sabathil and Son harpsichord. Few might know that these instruments of world-wide fame our made in our neck of the woods.

My guess that most people who listen to the rarely performed St. John Passion are accustomed to a large orchestra. This was a small one at 8 plus the harpsichord and every once in a while I heard the obligatory low notes of organist Dr. Elinor Chambers. It was curious to me to observe that Chambers with her back to the audience had a large mirror to her right on which she could see the director’s hands.

The small orchestra, the choir, very close, the stained glass windows and an antique and very brown Steinway on a wing of the church right made me feel blessed on a day in which it is difficult not to reflect with sadness the departure of the loss of a loved one. Add to this that we were told to refrain from applauding the whole evening. When it all ended, director Caisley switched off his music light and that was it.

Paul Luchkow
For me this performance was a stark contrast to the custom of old in my home in Buenos Aires when I was prohibited from listening to music. It was Good Friday. At around 1:30 in the afternoon (my grandmother told me Christ had died at about that time) I was called in from playing in the street and my grandmother would read the last words of Christ from St. Luke’s Gospel. St Luke never soared like St. John but was keen on details; after all he was a physician.

Unlike those sombre Good Friday afternoons Friday's concert was the first in my recent memory where music represented something special in a day usually dedicated to silence.  It helped that as I watched my friends a few smiles were sent in my direction.

As for our local churches with their affordable and most professional concerts, bravo!

Sabathil & Son Harpsichord I photographed in 1980