SF Classical Voice: A Gripping Saint John Passion (sfcv.org, April 2, 2019)
In their gripping performance ... at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday, March 30, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus took command. Under director Ragnar Bohlin’s firm direction, this great ensemble captured the raw sense of urgency Bach intended. With the vocal lines tugging and tearing at each other, rather than blending into easy accord, the chorus captured the cacophony of need in the text. The listener heard the choristers as real people, a crowd of individuals drawn together by what was at stake. The harmonies were hard earned. The contrapuntal writing inscribed itself on the listener.
In this one-night only collaboration by Bohlin’s Symphony Chorus and the period instrumentalists of Voices of Music, Davies became a place of collective worship, engagement and contemplation. It wasn’t a matter of Christian faith but instead an acknowledgment and embrace of the fundamental human drive for collective catharsis. We need to hear things, feel things, suffer, and find solace together. Bach, perhaps like no other composer in the Western canon, can lead us there.
The communal nature of Saturday’s concert extended to the participation of the audience. In four chorales scattered through the work, volunteers from the Amateur Music Network’s choral music workshop stood and joined in. While some were seated together — a row of women in the center orchestra section — most were in pairs or even alone. There were singers in the boxes and the balconies. Surprising as it may have seemed to audience members whose neighbors rose to sing, the practice chimes with a custom dating back to Bach’s time. The congregation didn’t only listen; they participated in an active way.