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"I could make a collage of amazing moments.” - SSO performs Bach's Johannes Passion (April 7/2024)

by Scott Roos

photos by Julie Isaac/Julie Isaac Photography

This past Sunday April 7th, the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO) alongside the SSO Chorus performed Bach’s masterful Johannes Passion at Knox United Church. At the helm on this night was Maestro Leslie Dala, a guest conductor from Vancouver, who directed both choir and orchestra through an appropriately tasteful and reverent rendition of the passion. The music made was powerful, emotional and, in particular, poignant, given that it was 300 years to the date of the first performance of the Passion; a testament to the SSO Symphony and choir as it was likely a huge undertaking to pull this event off. 

Taking a “show must go on '' approach, it was announced a few days prior to the event that tenor soloist Spencer McKnight and mezzo-soprano soloist Oli Guselle had taken ill and would be unable to perform. Asitha Tennekoon, who had been tasked with the challenging role as the Evangelist for the passion, would now pull double duty and also handle the tenor arias. Vancouver mezzo Emma Parkinson would step in for Guselle. Tennekoon, in particular, executed his parts flawlessly. His diction and enunciation during Bach’s recitatives were on point. His arias… Stunning. Parkinson, who had performed the Johannes Passion with Victoria Baroque on March 24th, worked very well with the SSO and Dala. Her voice handled the technically demanding Bach melodies with ease and subtle nuance. 

Bass soloist Raphaël Laden-Guindon also performed his parts well. What was amazing about his interpretation was his ability to have clarity of attack in both extremities of his range. There was a lot of emotive and authoritative depth to what he did. Soprano soloist Angela Gjurichanin, in turn, sang her arias, via her gorgeous voice, which sailed gently over the orchestra like new fallen snow, effortlessly. There was a lot of fragility in what she did which was absolutely beautiful to hear and also see live. There was a long time to wait in between arias for Gjurichanin, but when her songs came up she always presented as thoroughly prepared. In short, it was an excellent debut for the young soprano.

“I’m still on cloud nine,” Gjurichanin, in an email to NSMZ, said of her SSO debut, “If only all debuts go as smoothly as this one, I would be one lucky musician. This performance was special in so many ways; I honestly don't think I can single out  any one moment. I could make a collage of amazing moments.”

“(Working with the SSO) was easy and seamless; especially in my first aria. It felt as if we were dancing together, and making the music TOGETHER. It's so rare to feel a part of the orchestra as a singer, but they made it super welcoming.”

Dala, according to Gjurichanin, was great to work with. From an audience perspective, he seemed poised and in charge but also able to take a step back to give the singers some creative freedom at the same time. 

“He (Dala) was always grounded, and clear about the musical ideas he wanted to hear out of everyone on that stage,” Gjurichanin remarked. 

The orchestra on this night was small but mighty, providing the depth and skill required to pull off such a challenging work. Flutist Joey Zhuang and oboist Erin Brophey, in particular, were fun to watch as they handled some of the more acrobatic melodic lines during the Gjurichanin arias. But, overall, the SSO was put through their paces by Bach’s Johannes Passion and everything about their performance was smooth. Bach’s harmonies… His counterpoint… His phrasing… With many so used to hearing Handel’s Messiah, which is a masterpiece to be sure, it was definitely a rare treat to have Bach’s music, Baroque in its sensibilities but so dramatically different, played within the walls of Knox United Church. It was unforgettable. Pure bliss.

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