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23.3.05

St. Matthew Passion

Sometimes a performance, a certain music, can impress in us the dawn of understanding why music is; what music means to us; why it has been composed, performed, discussed, written, and commented about since time immemorial. It taps into the deepest parts of our brain or emotions (others might like to say, soul); it shakes us to the core. Any work that makes me cry from the first bar on for the next 15 minutes must be such music.

Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion is of such perfection, beauty, and spiritual purity that any good performance should be enough to communicate the sublime and the eternal. Still, it goes to the credit of the Choral Arts Society of Washington and their director Norman Scribner that from the first notes of the orchestral introduction the music bypassed mental processing and went straight to my innermost, leaving me a weeping mess. Palm Sunday (March 20) with the St. Matthew Passion seems to be too much even for my hardened atheist self. Memories of my father giving me my first Matthew Passion at the age of five—meticulously copied from a radio broadcast, neatly labeled, on three cassette tapes—came back with almost disturbing vividness.

The fact that I was unable to taken notes and unable to focus much on the performance when the whole was so overwhelming should probably be comment enough in and of itself about the job done by soloists, choir(s), and orchestra(s). If not, I can call eight soaked Kleenexes to witness the subtle excellence of the performance. Pronunciation and diction were consistently good to excellent, especially among the soloists, whose every word I understood whenever I paid attention to the text.

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J. S. Bach, St. Matthew Passion, Karl Richter
The almost 200-head strong choral forces (including 30+ trebles) were a visible sign that this was a big-boned performance, mildly informed by the success and discoveries of "authentic performance practice" over the last 30 years, but much more in the vain of a Karl Richter (or Helmut Rilling) than a Sir John Eliot Gardiner or, at the small-scale extremes, a McCreesh or Junghaenel. Soloists employed their vibrato, and the orchestras were big enough to hold their own against the eager throats.

The performance of viola-da-gambaist Jay Elfenbein demanded special mention for his beautiful accompaniment of "Geduld! Wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen," though tenor Stanford Olson had trouble in this particular aria. Similarly, Eva Cappelletti-Chao's violin solo and accompaniment were outstanding, especially coupled with the outstanding mezzo Stacy Roshoi's "Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott, um meiner Zähren willen." Exquisite oboes and oboe d'amores contributed to the overall excellence that, for the band's relatively big size, managed to keep the textures clear and the musical lines audible. The combination of soprano Ellen Hargis's "Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben" and Karen Johnson's flute was yet another gem among the many highlights.

The Evangelist was a wonderful Alan Bennett, Christópheren Nomura was Jesus, while multi-tasking baritone Steven Combs was Judas, Peter, the High Priest, and Pilate and thus got to betray, deny, accuse, and sentence Mr. Normura, respectively. He did so in great vocal style. Bass-baritone Michael Dean was the fourth aria soloist and did not disappoint, either. The continuo players constantly tugged on my heartstrings, especially William Neil, whose organs blended very much with the lower strings, sometimes to near-indistinguishability.

The continuous stream of late audience members—especially after the first chorus—was lamentable. I am usually all for late seating, but five dozen people taking several minutes to find their seats disrupted my enrapture regrettably. Another, albeit very minor, negative element was the realization that unfortunately we live in a country and in times in which a St. Matthew Passion's performance needs a disclaimer. Printed on the inside of the text of the Passion according to Matthew, the Choral Arts Society of Washington felt compelled to point out that
every work of art is a product of the time and place of its creation and that its meaning and relevance change through the ages. We have included the text and translation of the Passion according to St. Matthew for your review and we hope that it will assist you in your appreciation of this performance.
Now there are moments in Christian history that merit apologizing. The current pope, for example, has done so on more than one occasion now. But there is nothing about Bach's St. Matthew Passion that could justify such politically correct babble. If anything, it is insulting to music lovers and Christians alike that we have become so spineless about anything associated with religion that a Passion on Palm Sunday ought to be inoculated against the accusation of anti-Semitism or the Choral Arts Society against spreading the gospel by including the text. (For all I can tell, they don't receive any public funding, in which case the very performance of a sacred work by Bach would probably be unthinkable.) Finally I am convinced that to many listeners—believers and nonbelievers alike—Bach's work has changed little, if at all, in "meaning and relevance" since his time. If musical works can claim timelessness, the St. Matthew Passion surely would be among the first to deserve that distinction.

That is a nonmusical qualm, though, and could not distract for long from an incandescent performance of one of the finest works in Western Civilization, a work that, when compared to the recent Messiah, made clear why some people get angry when Bach and Handel are mentioned in the same sentence. A stone could have been moved.

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