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Annapolis Chorale closes a heavenly season with 'Passion' and 'Gloria'

The final two concerts of Annapolis Chorale's season offer devotees what they relish — magnificent choral voices in performances of great classical works.

March 20 and 21, fans heard the first of the two in a near 300-year-old landmark choral work, Johanna Sebastian Bach's "St. John Passion."

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On April 10 and 11, the chorale will close its season with another classical concert in a program featuring contemporary composers at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

For "St. John Passion," Live Arts Maryland artistic director J. Ernest Green scheduled performances at historic St. Anne's Church in Annapolis one week before the start of Holy Week. This masterwork was sung by the 53-member Annapolis Chorale Chamber Chorus, with six stellar soloists accompanied by the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra.

Bach's powerful, dramatic work riveted the audience with its opening chorus, "Herr, unser Herschel," relating, "Lord, our master, whose glory fills the whole earth, show us by your passion that you triumph even in the deepest humiliation."

This musical telling of the Passion story relates the transformative betrayal and arrest of Christ through the interrogation, scourging, condemnation and crucifixion.

Bach's music confronts unthinkable cruelty met with Christ's philosophical acceptance. As conducted by Green, this theme was expressed on many levels, including sharp contrasts of mood in color, while summoning an outpouring of emotion.

The Chamber Chorus was superb, supported by its accompanying orchestra and supplemented by six soloists, each delivering on the music's challenges.

Perhaps the most difficult role is that of the Evangelist serving as narrator. Green searched no further than his rehearsal assistant to find the ideal tenor, David Merrill, for this all-important role.

Young, indefatigable Merrill filled every aspect of it, fully investing in each phrase to deliver heartfelt emotion and nuanced drama that remained constant until the end, when Merrill conveyed an athletic vocal triumph.

Each soloist seemed ideally suited to each role: mezzo soprano Catrin Davies was compelling as she expressed profound emotion in her two arias, and soprano Jessica Satava lent great beauty and intensity of feeling to her performance.

Bass Ethan Herschenfeld offered a commanding portrayal of Jesus with an arresting stage presence and sonorous basso voice capable of illuminating expression. Herschenfeld's delivery of "Why did you strike me?" was extremely moving, as was his portrayal of Jesus acknowledging his mother at the crucifixion. His simple "It is finished" had at least one audience member in tears, perhaps many more.

An equally compelling bass performance was offered by Matthew Anchel as Pilate, nuanced dramatically and vocally to add dimension to Bach's musical drama.

Tenor Frederic Rey delivered his usual artful portrayal as Servus, a seemingly gentle character adding subtlety and color to the overall production.

Together, the soloists, orchestra and chamber chorus provided a magnificently memorable musical evening.

The anticipation of another turns our attention to April 10 and 11, when Green will again display his gift for selecting a program that resonates with current realities. Green's choice of Karl Jenkins' "Gloria" for this upcoming production is fascinating — he describes it as "amazingly weaving together texts from Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism."

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The audience responded positively when Green conducted a regional premiere of Jenkins' "Requiem" last season. In "Gloria," Jenkins will be explored anew, and the concert will also feature an earlier favorite of Annapolis Chorale fans: Antony Bruckner's "Tee Deum."

The "Gloria" concerts will be held 7:30 p.m. April 10 and 8 p.m. April 11. Order tickets by calling Maryland Hall's box office at 410-280-5640, or go to liveartsmaryland.org.

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