In a bold collaboration the Song Company, the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral and Omega Ensemble have come together to perform Arvo Part’s Passio, his setting of the St John Passion. It’s an extended obligato, broken up by interjections from the three characters –Jesus, Pilate and the crowd — and, just as important, by silence.
Not that there is much silence to be had in St Mary’s Cathedral. In spite of the ethereal music and the other-worldly surroundings, the sound of the city seeps in to fill the gaps. A chorus of car horns does rather the spell of the evangelist quartet. So too did the collapse of one of the quartet, soprano Susannah Lawergren, half way through the performance. All is well, and she was helped off stage, leaving her colleagues to finish the work as a trio, and leaving most of the audience, who couldn’t see the performers, wondering what on earth was going on.
Notwithstanding these distractions, however, Passio is a mesmerising work and this was a mesmerising performance which felt much shorter than its 75 minute duration. The Evangelist Quartet — the Song Company’s Richard Black, Mark Donnelly, Anna Fraser and Susannah Lawergren — carried the narrative, along with the quartet of orchestral instruments and the organ. After a tentative start, they tuned in to the tintinnabuli with an impressive consistency. Nothing stuck out. Nothing jarred. It was just enduringly fascinating.
In the role of Jesus, Andrew O’Connor, the Song Company’s resident bass, had few words, but the scoring and his rich, even tone made every line count. As Pilate, Richard Butler, who is Principal Lay Clerk at St Mary’s, cut through the crowd with his crisp, acid responses. Meanwhile, the contrast between the well-drilled ranks of the Choir of St Mary’s and the blood-curdling sound they made as they yelled “Crucify” was one of the dramatic coups of the evening. That, and the quartet’s — or trio, by this time — lapse into unison after the death of Jesus.
The four members of the Omega Ensemble found their way through the labyrinthine score with unfussy style, and David Drury drew power and glory and strangeness out of the cathedral’s organ
Congratulations are due to everyone who made this happen, because it couldn’t have been easy. A late date change, co-ordinating three different ensembles and fitting into the schedule of a working place of worship, not to mention the challenge of the music, and the magical but treacherous acoustic, which amplified every hit and every miss. Congratulations in particular on the work of the Song Company’s artistic director, Antony Pitts, not just in holding the performance together but also for his specialist knowledge, intricate understanding and commitment to bringing this work to Australia.