Review of Passion by Michael McDonagh

The Passion and Death of Jesus Christ According to the Gospels. 

Music and original lyrics by Scott R. King; additional lyrics by Christpher St. John.

1 Oct 2005, St Gregory of Nyssa, San Francisco, CA.

Jubilate Orchestra and Choir of St. Gregory’s Church, conducted by Sanford Dole.

Matthew: Chris Hecht; Mark : Aurelio Viscarra; Luke: Ruthann Lovetang; John: Diana Landau; Paul : Tom Devine; Narrator: Scott R. King.                                                                              

Any composer who takes on the passion narrative is up against stiff competition -- Bach, of course, but also Beethoven -- Christ On the Mount Of Olives -- and Poulenc -- his Stabat Mater, and most recently Arvo Part, with his 1982 Passio: Passion According To St. John. And so the question has to be -- what new musico-dramatic angle can be taken on this endlessly re-told story, and can it be made vital, fresh, even relevant to our religiously contentious time?

San Francisco-based composer Scott R. King wrote that " this music had its genesis in the historical Jesus, that is, what did he really do during his life as a man? " which is curious, since the consensus of most contemporary New Testament scholars is that the Jesus presented in the 4 canonic gospels which the Roman Church made its "core curriculum " in the mid 4th century CE, is, to put it mildly, a questionable, even legendary figure, created by the Greek-writing gospel editors-redactors, who pitched their story to a Hellenistic-Roman audience. Jesus -- a variant of Joshua, which in Hebrew means "God saves ", hence "Savior ", no more, no less -- was shown as being crucified for preaching peace and love, when crucifixion was a capital punishment reserved for sedition, which was considered a crime against Rome; while the Jewish priesthood depicted in the gospels could have legally and very easily have killed Jesus by stoning, or much more macabre means, if the gospel writers had gotten their history right, which they don't. Jesus, save for a few atypical angry outbursts -- the contradictions are salient -- is seen as approving the brutal Roman occupation of Palestine, even embracing tax collectors, the gospel's "publicans", who according to Hyam Maccoby's book, Revolution In Judaea, quite literally bled money out of their Jewish subjects. It's as if the current Palestinians blissfully welcomed the terrors visited upon them on a daily basis by their Israeli occupiers. Though King agrees that the gospels were written way "after the fact" -- few but evangelicals would dispute this nowadays -- he mostly takes the story at face value, which is OK, but definitely not historical, and certainly not, if you will, God's truth.                                                                                                                                                  

And so King pursued what seemed to him to be a significant innovation -- having his 4 vocal soloists enact the parts of the synoptics -- Matthew (bass Chris Hecht), Mark (tenor Aurelio Viscarra ) Luke (alto Ruth Lovetang ), and John (soprano Diana Landau ) sing their vaguely divergent texts in direct, or almost direct parallel, which is an academic idea alright, and the composer, at least in the first two thirds or so of part one -- which ran 65 minutes -- treated it with precious little imagination -- the vocal lines were numbingly neutral, for the most part, and the shade of Virgil Thomson appeared to hover over lots of it, effectively kidding Holy Writ as if it were Gertrude Stein. King's writing for percussion was peculiar, and not conjoined, or opposed in any meaningful way, with the text and its implications, and it certainly didn't feel needed. But there were historical references -- short cadential patterns suggestive of Baroque practice ( i.e. Bach), a broken consort intro before John's first big number -- " What are we to do? " which gave his piece heft. But King's most original touches were his use of vernacular forms -- a blues for Lovetang's aria : " Jesus the healer is here ", and a calypso for the bass one, "You are the Christ ", as well as some inspired march bits, a brief instrumental interlude, and the use of a tritone. Part one seemed workmanlike enough, yet rarely urgent, and the playing, though not the singing, often felt under-rehearsed, tentative, and sometimes glaringly out of tune.

Things picked up considerably in the 44 minute part two. The music powered both story and text, and finally seemed full out dramatic, even inspired. It was as if King's instincts, his light, if you will, were no longer under a bushel. The opening number, the tenor aria, "White washed tombs glow in the darkness", was dramatic, touching, a scalar waltz, and the choral numbers had weight and communal power. Part one achieved this only intermittently, and thank God there was precious little academic miniutiae here, great to read, but not to hear -- the synoptics said this, John said that-- which made part one such a trial. This wasn't a lecture, but a living, breathing thing.

A note in the accompanying Text stressed that King's Passion setting was a work in progress, and it certainly felt like that here. It's an off and on again good piece, which could be far better if King were a ruthless self-editor, and a self-editor is certainly every artist's and every audience's best friend.

The performers, especially Dole's chorus, projected much of the heart of the piece; and the 4 evangelists took their parts and ran. All were in fine fettle, especially Diana Landau, who had the lion's share -- both singing and speaking -- and easily the most demanding role, in terms of length and range. Everyone seemed to warm to their part, and Tom Devine, as the real inventor of Christianity, Paul -- a cosmopolitan who wanted everyone in the Empire into this new mystery religion -- was unaccountably entertaining, in on the joke, as it were.