Two Evangelists & That Important Severed Right Ear

Tenors Clinton Stoffberg and Thomas Hobbs, August 11, 2017 — Photographs — Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

Vancouver BC has a very active and rich season of music of the 17th and 18th century played with period instruments.

J.S. Bach — St. John Passion BWV 245 — August 11 2017 — Produced by Early Music Vancouver and performed by the Pacific Baroque Orchestra.

To anybody who may be tempted to read on I must warn them that this is going to be long and convoluted.

To begin with I have to point out that my judgment as an amateur music critic is clouded by the fact that I was born and baptized as a Roman Catholic. I attended a Catholic boarding high school in Austin, Texas where I had a particular mentor, Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C. (Congregation of Holy Cross) who taught me to read music, play the alto saxophone and importantly his religion class was less that and more a class of theology laced with philosophy.

Furthermore what I will reveal some perhaps not too well known info (gleaned from baroque bassist Curtis Daily) about the bass section of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra, that played last night: (Nathan Whitttaker and Beiliang Zhu, cellos, Nate Helgeson bassoon, Curtis Daily, bass, Natalie Mackie, violone and Christina Hutten, organ) iIs entirely my opinion but laced heavily by an explanation by that Portland Baroque Orchestra (and from Portland) bassist Curtis Daily who happens to be my friend and was in town this last week. He was one of two musicians who had the capability to play down to 16ft. More on that later but this is my disclaimer.

Because of my Roman Catholic upbringing it is entirely difficult for me to experience any sacred Bach work without connecting it with my past. Throughout the performance I was enjoying a more than average knowledge of what was going on because of that mentor that Brother Edwin Reggio, C.S.C, was.

It was he who dedicated one day in our religion class to the four gospels when I was 16. He wrote an innocuous sentence on the board as we entered the class. He made the roll call and then erased the sentence. Then he asked us to write down what we thought we had read. Our witnessing statements were all very different. Then he just read the part from all four gospels.that in the St. John Passion is called Betrayal and Capture. It was startling for me to see that in Bach’s version it features not only St. John but also St Matthew! St. Luke and St. John both point out that St. Peter lops off the righ ear of a man.

Now Simon Peter had a sword and drew it forth and struck the chief priest’s slave and cut off his right ear. The Slave’s name was Malchus. Then said Jesus to Peter, “Put back thy sword in its scabbard! Shall I the cup not drink which my father gave me?”

That’s St. John’s version.

Interestingly neither Mathew nor Mark go to that detail but St. Luke who was a physician writes:

When the companions of Jesus saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, shall we use the sword?” One of them went so far as to strike the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. Jesus said in an answer to their question, “Enough!” Then (!!!) he touched the ear and healed the man.

Brother Edwin went further with this startling comparison:

From St. Mark: There was a young man following him who was covered by nothing but a linen cloth. As they seized him he left the cloth behind and ran off naked.

It was Brother Edwin who informed us that scholars could not be certain that St. John Apostle was also St. John the Evangelist. He then told us that he suspected that they were the same because of the conclusion in St. John’s gospel which states:

It is this same disciple who is the witness to these things; it is he who wrote them down and his testimony we know is true.

Brother Edwin said, “That right ear is important. St Luke was not an apostle and wrote it after the fact. He (St.Luke) must have wanted to be precise about the ear and got it from St. John.that it was the right ear and St. John knew it was the right ear because he was there.”

The four evangelists in Dublin’s Book of Kells. All are winged animals. Brother Edwin told us St. John was an Eagle becuse his writing soared. St. John bottom right

So back to the music. After the concert having watched my friend (he is tall) play his 6ft bass I concluded that the base was the unseen foundation of a large building (the hole in the ground and all that reinforced concrete). I was not too far from wrong.

Daily explained that he and Natalie Mackie’s violone play the lowest note at 16ft. I asked him what that meant. He said that a 16ft organ pipe (some organs have a 32ft one) plays a very low note. I further enquired as to what was the bass section of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra on Friday. This was his response:

It would be called the continuo/bass group. And to elaborate on the tone colours available to the bass section; these instruments are playing off pretty much the same part in the St. John: bassoon, cello, organ, violone, harpsichord and the double bass.

All that about the bass section brought me to a succinct explanation by Daily on the idea that if he or the bass group do not play the right note (in tune) the rest of the orchestra has no foundation to depend on. He explained that when there is no vibrato in the bass section of a period orchestra but allowed for the fact that athe upper instruments use it more sparingly than do modern string players. The no vibrato with the bass section makes it easier to find the right not for the upper strings to use as a foundation. When I noted that sometimes I cannot hear the string bass being played he said,

“In the right hall it can be heard. It’s just theat the 8ft [the low note] instruments provide the articulation at the beginning of the notes that my instrument can’t produce very well in a large hall. The bassoon is particularly good for that.”.

Now I believe I will never ever listen to the Pacific Baroque Orchestra without knowing of the importance of that bass ensemble.

My two favourite parts of the St. John Passion involved two Arias. Both happen in the second half (Parte Secunda).

The first Aria, It is fulfilled! is with alto (countertenor) singer Alex Potter accompanied by the bass viola da gamba (Beiliang Zhu), organ (Christina Hutten), and bass (Curtis Daily). This was quiet and exquisite.

To that Curtis added:

“Bach specified the bass viola da gamba because of its tone quality. Nathan Whittaker and I were playing the accompaniment in unison, but separated by an octave. Alex Weimann asked me to play a bit louder than Whittaker to add gravity to the musical situation. Christina Hutten was playing the same bass line as Whittaker and I, in the cello register, while also adding harmonies.”

And it brought me the memory of another St. John Passion in 2011 featuring EMV’s artistic director Matthew White. I wrote about it here.

Matthew White

The second Aria, O melt now, my bosom, in rivers of weeping had soprano Aleksandra Lewandowska singing to the accompaniment of Matthew Jennejohn on a big curved horned oboe de caccia (a hunting oboe!) and Janet See on flute. It was so pleasant to listen to something quiet in the middle of a large orchestra directed by Alexander Weimann) accompanied by the Vancouver Cantata Singers (Prepared by VCS Artistic Director Paula Kramer) with the soloists Thomas Hobbs, tenor as the Evangelist, and the Gli Angeli Genève singers Jenny Höogström, soprano, Aleksandra Lewandowska, soprano, Alex Potter, countertenor, Robert Getchell, tenor, Summner Thompson, baritone and Stephan MacLeon, bass.

I believe that the St. John Passion makes or breaks with the performance of the evangelist. Thomas Hobbs had what it takes to make me want to stare into his face when he sang (only Recitativos). He was firmly in control of the situation as the narrator. My previous experience with an Evangelist was in that 2011 one with Charles Daniels who is the consummate singer and (very important that and) actor. But Thomas Hobbs was less so the actor and more the Walter Cronkite figure reading the news which fit with:

It is this same disciple who is the witness to these things; it is he who wrote them down and his testimony we know is true.

In my traditional now photographs taken in venue dressing rooms you might wonder who Clinton Stoffberg is posing with Thomas Hobbs. Stoffberg was one of the tenors in the Vancouver Cantata Singers. And he sang the Evangelist in another St. John Passion I attended in a recent past. Since that ensemble had little money, Stoffberg sang the Evangelist and all the other tenor parts. Here is my blog on that performance. Note the presence of Pacific Baroque violinist Paul Luchkow and violone player Natalie Mackie who were present also on Friday at the Chan.

Thus this St. John Passion featured not one but two Evangelists!

Matthew White and Alexander Weimann gave a heated and moved pre-concert talk. White witnessed dark clouds swirling around the cross on a Montreal hils when he first heard (on a CD) the St. John Passion. Weimann, the happier man had his moment when he first heard Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2.

Matthew White

I coincided with Weimann’s moment as I remember listening to Pablo Casals directing the Marlboro Festival Orchestra (on my car’s tape cassette player) and thinking there was something broken. Casals version is super fast and when I told Daily he said something, “It must have killed the trumpet player.” Here it is.

Alexander Weimann

Besides the super exotic oboe da caccia that Matthew Jennejohn played there were two also exotic instruments, Violinists Chloe Meyers and Linda Melsted played violas d’amore in arioso 19 and in aria 20. Both instruments came from the collection of our local expert on everything musical Hans Karl Piltz. Melsted showed me her viola and pointed out that it had 6 strings but an additional 7 more. It seems that the extra 7 are not played but vibrate in sympathy to add complexity to the sound of the instrument. Sort of like striking a tuning fork and getting another one just like it close to it.

Illustration by Graham Walker

Graham Walker is a graphic designer and friend of mine who happened to have designed the sineage for the Chan Centre. He likes to take his sketch book along . Of the image above he wrote when I asked him about it:

It was really a bit of ‘automatic writing’. Listening to the music in part 2, I was taken away to the Calvary scene with the 3 crosses and Christ. The counter tenor aria: Es ist vollbracht, all is fulfilled — struck me to make this sketch.

Link to: Two Evangelists & That Important Severed Right Ear

Originally published at



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store


Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at: