Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Where the buoys are


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The most frequently asked question after I told people I was moving to Luang Prabang (that is, after "What's Luang Prabang?") was, "What are you going to do for concerts?" Given my 30-year dietary supplement of a daily concert or opera, it was a reasonable question, one I had asked myself. It's turned out that the hard part of living in SE Asia, musically, is the paucity of those soul-buoying musical surprises only the music-mad know and need.

I've had one in my 20 years here. One sweltering Sunday evening, as I was returning from a solitary stroll along the Mekong, I heard, from the open second-story window of a French provincial home, the letter duet from Mozart's Figaro. In its own words, it's a little "song to the breezes," and off to Shangri-La it wafted me.

Once upon a time in Munich, where I was on an unrelated music junket, I rounded the corner onto an unimposing side street when out of an open church door poured a heartfelt live performance of Bach's B-minor Mass. I stood outside, transfixed, carried away not just by the sublimity of the B-minor but by the memory of the first time I ever heard it, also by an "amateur" (in the original sense of the word) church choir, in South Dakota.

I mention all this because something very close to it happened to me listening to the new recording of Bach's St. John Passion from Apollo's Fire (Avie). Jeanette Sorrell's ensemble lives up to its name and is fully, competitively professional, but in its live performance (regrettably not also captured in video, since it was staged) there is no sense of its trying to compete with any other ensemble (all the usual suspects have recorded it) or score performance-practice points, instead just – just! – leaning right into the hearts of its audience. This is why we buy tickets, and CDs.

This year the wacky world of recorded music has not waited for Passover/Passion season to pour on the St. John s, with a half-dozen new ones and counting. The work has, at last, come into its own as something other than the younger, shorter, lesser cousin of the towering St. Matthew Passion . Now it's having a 21st-century performance-practice moment as a staged work, pre-eminently in Peter Sellars' staging for the Berlin Philharmonic, which makes a solid case for dramatization.

Don't be fooled by what at first sounds like a tentative entry into the startling open chorus, "Herr, unser Herrscher," by Apollo's Fire. It's the springboard for a drama with a clear – ineluctable, in that Passion manner – arc. The uniformity of commitment and musicianship from all concerned lends it a sense of cohesion, of intimacy, that is an ideal too seldom attained.

Its one conspicuous eccentricity is that out San Franciscan Nicholas Phan sings both the role of the Evangelist and the difficult tenor solo arias. It's at the farthest extreme from a star turn, and for me it's the clincher of the real integrity of this reading. The acuity of Phan's narration of the story and the depth of his reflections on it in the arias bind the performance in a sense of shared mission.

Few voices are as reliable (or beautiful) as Phan's, which gives him freedoms he takes. In everything he sings, storytelling is paramount. Perfect diction, too, is a given, to which Phan adds a kind of around-the-campfire confidentiality that draws you into the tales rather than talking you through them. It's a voice born to sing German Lieder, which he does – at last, it could be said, on CD – in his new Gods & Monsters (Avie), which he has recently toured, locally and to venues as august as London's Wigmore Hall, where he recently made his debut.

There's a story in each of the songs about lesser and super humans by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Wolf, and Phan finds the magic (sometimes black) in each. Only in Wolf's big-boned ballad "Der Feuerreiter" does he nudge his voice where it does not want to go.

Phan lamented to the B.A.R. that his one-time "baby face" was a hindrance in getting opera roles. The musician in Gods & Monsters, whose cover boasts an altogether more mature kind of handsomeness, has now sufficiently arrived that he might peddle the "Sandmann" lullabies less centrally and avoid song-group headings like "Things That Go Bump in the Night." He's long ago won us.

In All Who Wander (Delos), the first solo CD by the out bi San Francisco favorite Jamie Barton, the mezzo lays down serious creds with an opening group of Mahler songs, including the Rueckert Lieder. But as anyone who heard her recent Jezibaba in Dvorak's Rusalka at the Met knows, she sings Czech like it's her mother tongue, and her group of Dvorak songs is masterful. To hear for yourself the musical force of nature this woman is, there's an astounding set of Sibelius songs. In my mind I'll probably always hear "Svarta rosor" in Flagstad's voice, but when Barton lets loose with it, memories of Flagstad flee.

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