Erik Gustafson was supposed to be just a member of the chorus in Tucson Chamber Artists performances this weekend of Bach's oratorio St. John Passion.
But tenor Owen McIntosh, singing the solo role of the Evangelist, fell ill last Wednesday. By Friday, he was losing his voice at the end of the concert in Green Valley Friday night, he had no voice left.
The concert was the first of three last weekend, so Conductor/Music Director Eric Holtan, tapped Gustafson to replace McIntosh.
With less than 24 hours notice, Gustafson assumed the role of the Evangelist for last Saturday and Sunday's performances in Tucson. He had reportedly sung it before, which made the transition a little less frightening for Holtan and the chorus.
Gustafson was a perfect fit all around. He has a terrific voice, soft yet commanding, with hints of vulnerability that played well to the character. The Evangelist is the narrator, the one who lays out John's gospel of Christ's crucifixion. On Sunday before a full house at Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Gustafson's Evangelist came to life as the sympathizer of the believers and and conscience of the persecutors. He was dramatic without being over the top and sang with a soaring tenor.
Gustafson's approach followed Holtan's lead to present St. John Passion with the sensibility of an opera. Holtan balanced the beauty of Bach's music — from the opening oboe line that foretells of a sobering event to come to the the exquisite cello solo — with the inherent drama of the story. You felt like you landed somewhere in the middle of staged opera and monumental oratorio.
Holtan cast his chorus, 23 voices strong, in the duo role of Jesus's followers and executioners. They went from joyous celebrants of the execution to guilt-ridden adherents, filling Grace with a sonic wall of beautiful harmonies.
Other standout performances included the marvelous and sweet-voiced lyric baritone Bryan Van Gelder, who was a sympathetic, yet not overly tragic figure as Jesus. Michael Hix brought a muscular baritone to Pontius Pilate, then showed off some depth and warm color to his voice in the the Scene 4 aria where the executioner asks if Jesus's death opens the doors to heaven for sinners like him.
The TCA Orchestra, with Concertmaster Ellen Chamberlain, created a sound so much bigger than its 18 members. Holtan paired Chamberlain and fellow violinist Emma Nöel Votapek for a duet with organist Jeffrey Campbell that was simply breathtaking. Principal cellist Anne Gratz turned in that haunting solo with Campbell playing quietly in the background. It was ethereal.
TCA can now cross St. John Passion off its growing list of masterworks. Next up in a few years in Bach's ultimate challenge, the St. Matthew Passion with a double chorus and handful of soloists.