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Production of Bach's 'St. John Passion' rich, bold

| Friday, March 4, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

The richly textured spirituality and drama of Johann Sebastian Bach's “St. John Passion” was boldly and sensitively presented in a performance led by Pittsburgh Symphony music director Manfred Honeck on Friday night at Heinz Hall.

The concert offered more than deeply moving music making. “The St. John Passion” was presented in “semi-staged” production with a stimulating contemporary perspective on the story about the final days of Jesus Christ.

The left side of the stage is used for the biblical story and is occupied by the Evangelist as narrator; Jesus, his disciples and other followers; and Pontius Pilate and his soldiers. The right side of the stage is used for commentary by solo singers.

The most controversial aspect of Sam Helfrich's stage direction will not be the vivid presentation of Jesus in custody being hit and kicked. It will be his death, in orange prison garb surrounded by protective supporters, all of whom are in custody and are shot one by one by the guards' (silent) machine guns. This takes place after the first section of the alto aria “Es ist vollbracht.” On the right side of the stage, solo singers watch his death on laptops and react personally.

Tenor Martin Lattke was superb as the Evangelist, who narrates the story. A native of Leipzig, Germany, Lattke was a boy soprano at the St. Thomas Church where Bach, in the 18th century, was music director for most of his career. Lattke's diction and verbal emphasis were allied with accurate and focused vocalism. The way he sang of Peter weeping bitterly after denying Jesus a third time fully realized Bach's brilliantly illustrative melody.

Baritone Paul Armin Edelmann was even more outstanding as Jesus than he had been in “Messiah” in December. The depth of tone and amplitude of his voice served the compassionate dignity of his portrayal.

Two other vocalists were especially outstanding. Countertenor Andrey Nemzer sang “Es ist vollbracht,” accompanied by the chamber ensemble Chatham Baroque, with stunning arched lines and powerful emotional expression. Soprano Sunhae Im's sterling clarity and finesse beautifully served her aria about following Jesus with joyful steps.

The Mendelssohn Choir was divided to serve double duty. The smaller group was mid-stage on the left side, and had superb dramatic thrust. The larger group was spread across the back of the stage and was magnificent in Bach's chorales.

Honeck's handling of the chorales exemplified his ability to signify details and differentiate phrases while retaining clear grasp of the goal. His conducting was both alert and devotional.

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's winds and strings were excellent, especially the tonal range and feeling of Anne Martindale Williams' continuo cello.

This performance will be repeated at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Hall, Downtown. Admission is $20 to $94. Details: 412-392-4900 or pittsburghsymphony.org.

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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