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Seeking to Redeem Judas, a New Passion Oratorio Falls Short

October 10, 2017

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

There’s a big driving idea at the center of The Judas Passion, a new liturgical piece performed October 4–8 by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale. What librettist David Harsent and composer Sally Beamish set out to do in this 65-minute work is argue that Christ’s Last Supper betrayer may have been chosen for a higher purpose, thus placing Judas’s presumed villainy in a radically different light.

“Argue” is the operative word here. That’s because, for all its ostensible drama and feverish agitation, this new Passion came off as a largely tendentious and strangely unengaging enterprise at Friday’s Herbst Theatre performance. Both textually and musically, the piece seemed bent on making a case for their Judas as a moral “scapegoat,” as the librettist put it in a program note, a figure who “knew his role but not its outcome.”

Give the creators credit for marshaling their forces without holding anything back. The libretto, which ranged from hissing, accusatory whispers of the title character’s name and status as a money-fixated Jew to lengthy accounts of the Last Supper, Christ’s agony in the garden, the judgments of Caiaphas and Pilate and the crucifixion, was explicit and expansive to a fault. And yet Judas (feelingly performed by tenor Brenden Gunnell), never took on a fully realized dramatic weight the piece keeps insisting he has.

“His hand on mine,” this Judas sang multiple times, to indicate the divine-guided fate behind his actions. Jesus (another keen performance, by baritone Roderick Williams) affirmed it: “Judas ... you are the best of them.” But with the chorus pouring on the scorn and doubt, Judas could only agree with them that he was “A man of sorrows and acquainted with heartbreak,” a kind of photo negative image of Jesus. The central character felt labeled rather than convincingly brought to life.

Beamish, writing in a modern idiom for period instruments, colored this new Biblical canvas with a broad palette. The strings keened at high, thin pitches and gathered in collapsing chords. The brasses blared out alarms, lamented loudly and added their own mocking honks. The flutes stuttered and percolated uneasily, occasionally breaking out in sorrowful phrases. A percussion section was especially active, chattering, chiming, whipping, and landing the literal hammer blows of the nails in the cross.

The result was more like a series of musical special effects than a gripping, accretive version of a Passion. There were times when Beamish seemed to channel the intensity and focus of Bach, not by direct quotation but by contemporary allusion and analog. But then the texture would peter out, and musical tension leached away.

The composer’s writing for the voice ranged from chanting declamations by the chorus and two male soloists to the wandering melismas and leaping intervals assigned to Mary Magdalen (soprano Mary Bevan, the third of three strong soloists). Chorus members stood from time to time to play smaller roles. Some of this was arresting and effective, but as with so much of the work, that happened in fits and starts.

The Judas Passion, co-commissioned by Philharmonia Baroque and London’s Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, may not have lived up to expectations. But the willingness of an ensemble so strongly identified with a particular musical period and style to stretch the boundaries is a worthy one that ought to be encouraged. In brief remarks Friday, music director Nicholas McGegan said the group planned similar ventures every few seasons in the future. The moves forward in time will be welcome.

A stylish if sometimes choppy performance of Telemann’s Tafelmusik, Suite No 1 occupied the shorter front half of the evening. McGegan coaxed some suave, supple, and attractively lean phrasing from his players. Cellist William Skeen made an especially noteworthy contribution throughout, his lines both graceful and crisply expressed. The violins sounded a little patchy in the early-going, especially in the Réjouissance. But all was set to right as this bright and gently beguiling suite played out, right through the bustling instrumental crosstalk in a closing Gigue.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.