Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto and beyond!
- ​symphonic, choral, opera, chamber, jazz and period music​ -

The Toronto Bach Festival 2017 concluded its weekend of performances yesterday afternoon with a rare performance of J.S. Bach’s reconstructed St. Mark Passion. If you missed the three performances comprising the festival, you missed an opportunity to hear some of Bach’s great music that is performed all too infrequently. The festival, the brain-child of Artistic Director John Abberger, is in its second year. Dates have already been set for a third season. According to Abberger, although there are many familiar works of Bach, probably 70 percent of his output is rarely heard. It is Abberger’s intent to bring to light Bach’s rich legacy of music.

The St. Mark Passion tells the narrative of the Crucifixion with a blend of drama, reflection and good story telling. As in its more famous cousins, the St. Matthew and St. John Passions, choral-orchestral choruses and Lutheran chorales are interspersed with the telling of the story by the Evangelist and various biblical characters. Some of Bach’s most beautiful arias give personal reflections throughout.

Much of the success of yesterday’s performance was due to Abberger’s astute selection of singers for the various roles. From the opening chorus, there was an assured projection and choral unity from the ten soloists. It was astounding to me that ten singers could so convincingly and expressively balance the orchestra. The size of group was close to what Bach would have used.

One cannot say enough about tenor Asitha Tennekoon, whom I last heard in Piccini’s opera La Cecchina produced by the Glenn Gould School. His mastery of the drama in the Evangelist’s story-telling matched his vocal clarity and superb musicianship. Brett Polegato’s bass-baritone voice was warmly expressive in his important role as Jesus. Ellen McAteer whom I last heard in Opera Atelier’s Dido and Aneas, was stunning in her aria “Er kommt…” portraying the desperation of seeing Judas about to betray Jesus. Soprano Agnes Zsigovics was equally impressive in her aria “Angenehmes Mordgeschrei!” Together, McAteer, Zsigovics and Polegato gave the audience one of the most heartfelt moments as the sopranos sang the chorale “Jesu, deine Passion” while Polegato sang the aria “Welt und Himmel nehmt su Ohren”. Daniel Taylor added his own wealth of experience as an interpreter of period music in his arias. Others making significant contributions included Michael Uloth, Larry Beckwith, Jan van der Hooft and Camille Rogers

In addition to the outstanding singers in this production, Abberger put together a fine orchestra made up of some of Toronto’s finest period musicians including concertmaster Julia Wedman. Without a conductor per se, Abberger and Wedman were totally in sync and together found tempos that moved the music forward without it ever feeling rushed. Organist Christopher Bagan was magnificent and most noticeable in his fine accompanying of the recitatives.

Although we know that Bach performed his St. Mark Passion in Leipzig on Good Friday in 1731, the only surviving score was lost in the 1945 bombing in Dresden. Only the original libretto remains in a book of poetry by the librettist Christian Friedrich Henrici who wrote with the pen name of Picander. Thus, what was performed yesterday was not what was performed in 1731. Nonetheless, it was a very satisfying performance. Simon Heighes reconstructed most of the music as a parody from Bach’s earlier works, just as Bach did himself in the Christmas Oratorio. This was music that had all the earmarks of Bach. With the orchestra of period instruments and just ten singers, yesterday’s performance was much as Bach would have performed it. Who could ask for more?

As the annual Toronto Bach Festival, now in its second year, gains traction, let’s hope that it becomes both an institution of civic pride and a venue in which the genius of Bach’s music becomes more accessible. Put May 11th-13th 2018 on your calendar and plan to be a part of next year’s festival! 

Asith Tennekoon, Ellen McAteer, Brett Polegato, Agnes Zsigovics, John Abberger and Daniel Taylor; Photo Credit: Emily Ding

Toronto Bach Festival brings reconstructed St. Mark Passion to life in a rare performance!

John Abberger and Toronto Bach Festival Orchestra 2017; Photo Credit: Emily Ding

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON May 29th 2017

Toronto Bach Festival, 2017; Photo Credit: Emily Ding