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Soprano’s Musicality Landed Her In ‘St. Matthew Passion’

Janet Brown is not a prima donna. She just sings like one.

Brown speaks with unaffected grace, more at home talking about her husband, a school librarian, and their two young children than her singing career. The soprano’s easy laugh has its own quiet musicality.

It was Brown’s musicality that prompted Gunther Schuller to call her as a list-minute substitute for the Bach Festival performances. The originally scheduled soprano, Jeanne Ommerle, was forced to withdraw from the festival because of a family health crisis. Brown will join mezzosoprano JoAnne Bouma, tenor Paul Austin Kelly, baritone Frank Hernandez, and bass-baritone John Shirley-Quirk as soloist in two performances of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” tonight and Sunday afternoon.

Schuller, the Bach Festival’s artistic director, will conduct.

“I was in something of a panic,” says Schuller. “You just can’t find someone on the spur of the moment you can trust to sing those solos beautifully.”

Brown, who grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., and studied there and in Boston, does not have a career that results in international acclaim. She has sung with such Boston ensembles as the Cantata Singers, Emmanuel Music, Banchetto Musicale and the Handel and Haydn Society. She had sang Zerlina in Peter Sellars’ famous production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at New York’s PepsiCo Summerfare.

“They invited me to go to Europe to do the filming for television,” the soprano says. “But I had two little children and a husband in graduate school.”

Brown teaches as an affiliate artist at the University of Syracuse and performs with several central New York musical groups including the Syracuse Symphony.

Richard Dyer, critic of the Boston Globe, lauded Brown’s vocalism and intelligence in a recent performance of the “St. Matthew Passion” with Boston’s Cantata Singers. Schuller lives in Newton Centre, a Boston suburb, but he had missed that performance. So he called around, speaking with Cantata Singers’ director David Hoose and other musicians who had worked with Brown. They all seconded Dyer’s high praise.

Schuller’s call came as a total surprise, Brown says. “I had been in the same room with him at gatherings when I was studying in Boston and again when I was at Tanglewood, but I’d never actually met him or sung for him,” the soprano recalls.

The “St. Matthew Passion” is not unfamiliar territory to Brown; tonight’s performance will be her fourth production of the work. But there was a hitch - two hitches, in fact. Hitch No. 1: The Spokane “St. Matthew Passion” will be sung in English. Brown had always sung it in Bach’s original German.

“I’ve been studying the English like mad,” Brown says. But she confesses that in rehearsals “a word or two of German will still pop out.”

Hitch No. 2: In addition to the “St. Matthew Passion,” Schuller had scheduled a recital that included 13 songs, arias and chorales for the soprano, works Ommerle knew but Brown didn’t.

“I thought we’d have to make a few changes or omissions in that program,” Schuller says. He need not have worried, Brown learned them all, as Wednesday’s concert at The Met proved.

Brown’s colleagues among tonight’s soloists include one certified international star, John Shirley-Quirk. “He’s probably sung the part of Jesus more times than anybody else alive,” Schuller says. Shirley-Quirk is equally well known for his work in opera (he sang leading roles in the premieres of Britten’s last five operas, for instance), and in oratorio, concerts and recording.

Kelly, tonight’s Evangelist, is known to Spokane audiences from his performances in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” two seasons ago. Kelly’s season has included performances at the Glyndeborne Festival, at the Rome Opera, at the Teatro Municipale in Santiago and at Opera Pacific.

Hernandez, who will sing the parts of Judas, Pilate and Peter, was trained at Whitworth College where he studied with Uptown Opera director Marjory Halvorson. Hernandez, now in the artist’s diploma program at Oberlin College, was the winner of the 1994 Ezio Pinza Award. He has sung with the Cleveland Symphony and with Cleveland Opera.

Bouma, a member of the faculty at Gonzaga University and at Whitworth College, has sung with Northwest Bach Festival and most of Spokane’s other musical organizations: the Spokane Symphony, Allegro and Uptown Opera.

Pre-concert talks by KPBX music director Verne Windham will proceed each performance of the “St. Matthew Passion,” tonight at 7 and Sunday at 2.