On Maundy Thursday, the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Robert Quinney and joined by the New College Choir in their first performance together since the appointment of The Soloists as the Resident Ensemble at New College, performed Johan Sebastian Bach's St John Passion. While maybe not being Bach's most famous of his four Passions, it holds a unique place as the first Bach wrote and remains arguably his strongest and most interesting, telling the story of the Passion of Christ from the Gospels of John.
Any talk of the performance would have to start with the incredible Evangelist Timothy Robinson who gave a captivating effort, combining the right amount of devastation with charisma and empathy. Robinson's voice was able to push the performance forward for the two-and-a-half hour duration. The Evangelist part is incredibly difficult and would be easy to come off uninspired under a less capable performer. Robinson was announced as a late replacement, but the audience was truly in for a treat with him.
The New College Choir was up for the challenge of the performance in German, starting with the stunning "Herr unser Herrscher" chorus. In particular the soloists were up for the difficult task of getting the accent right while still singing nearly pitch perfect, especially during the numerous arias. The vast age ranges of the soloists was impressive and all were commendable.
The Oxford Philharmonic further established themselves among the best in England, with special note for the cellists work with Robinson, giving the Passion a very appropriately almost unnerving feel. They were often captivating and Quinney led them to have a sense of urgency the entire night.
In the present day, it's almost impossible to listen to someone like Bach and not feel the pull of history. Which is why Bach's St John Passion at the Sheldonian Theatre was so interesting and such an evocative place to perform it. In the rainy Oxford night, the theatre had an extra air of eeriness to it. The building itself was built a good 55 years before Bach debuted the piece and with the New College Choir, founded centuries earlier, it's a nice reminder of the place of Oxford amongst cultural history and tradition.