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Review: Texas State University Chorale Bach’s “St. John Passion.”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Texas State University’s wasted no time breaking in its new Performing Arts Center which opened earlier this spring on a busy corner of the city-facing edge of the San Marcos campus

One of the more prominent concerts occurred this weekend in the venue’s recital hall (the smaller of its two concert halls), with artist-in-residence and Grammy-nominated choral director Craig Hella Johnson leading the Texas State University Chorale in a sold out show of Bach’s “St. John Passion.”

This difficult, evening-length work, is one of several Bach composed to tell the Christian crucifixion story (only one other, the St. Matthew, still exists in full), with a chorus, small orchestra, organ, and operatic soloists who move the plot along.

The chorus — usually led by Joey Martin, who here played organ — sang beautifully, with a big, flowing burst of exceptionally clear counterpoint and nice, crisp German pronunciation. This is never an easy piece, because even its joyful melodies come during the rather grim parts of the tale.

The principal soloists, Dann Coakwell (as the Evangelist) and Sam Mungo (as Jesus), excelled. Mungo’s powerful bass was also lithe and gentle when necessary. Coakwell, as the Evangelist, remembered to entertain. Not just with his angelic tenor, but with a bevy of facial expressions.

This was a semi-professional performance, however. So, aside the world-class soloists, and what looked like half of the Austin Symphony in the orchestra, many of the solos were performed by students who step forth from the chorus.

It’s a pity that many of them suffered from nerves, holding parts in their hands that were shaking like leaves. Vocally, the solos stretched most singers’ abilities. But then, isn’t what this is all about? Nerves are more about having an audience than having a skill, and a few of the singers had both mastered the stage fright, and their parts.

Hopefully this new hall continues to bring more exposure to this skilled young choir — and the confidence that comes with it.

This was about as large an ensemble as this particular stage could hold. The handsome wood-grained hall is quite small, seating an intimate 300. Acoustically, it was difficult to pin down. In the beginning of the Bach, the strings sound was lost in the blend. Later, that issue subsided. One would assume such a compact hall will be better suited for smaller chamber groups and soloists.

The Performing Arts Center’s location nestled on a busy street near downtown San Marcos is absolutely idea for public engagement, as patrons of UT’s arts programming (with its halls buried and facing inwards, in the center of campus) will note with some envy. Yet some might recall the familiarity of the Blanton Museum’s lost opportunity to make a genuine architectural statement, when a design by Herzog & de Meuron was nixed.