It is no exaggeration to call Bach’s St. Matthew Passion one of the landmarks of Western culture. With its double chorus, double chamber orchestra, cast of soloists, and intricate scoring, this is Bach at his most epic, as he sets to music the story of Christ’s Crucifixion.
Produced in conjunction with Pacific MusicWorks, the Seattle Symphony’s opening performance of the first St. Matthew in Benaroya Hall proved a fascinating and moving experience over the course of nearly three and a half hours.
As if presenting a vast and stately gavotte, the soloists and ensembles moved about the stage, advancing and retreating as they were featured in turn. There was surprisingly little awkwardness about who was supposed to move to which location; the flow of the performance, both musically and dramatically, was remarkably smooth. At times, the two small orchestras were a little out of sync, despite the best efforts of conductor Ludovic Morlot. Perhaps this development was inevitable, given the distance between the two ensembles, and the likely difficulty of the groups hearing each other.
But there was so much to praise in the superb lineup of vocal soloists, the high quality of the players, and the sense of drama throughout all the participating ensembles. This was no static oratorio, but a deeply moving theater piece with beautiful, contrasting musical textures: the exquisite delicacy of Stephen Stubbs’ lute, the tone colors of the viola da gamba and the onstage organ, the plangent groupings of double reeds, the purity of the Northwest Boychoir ensemble, and the robust double chorus from the Seattle Symphony Chorale. (Joseph Crnko, director of those choral groups, deserves his own round of applause.)
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Tenor Thomas Cooley, who sang the pivotal role of the Evangelist, invested tremendous energy in every line, and handling the highflying vocal lines with dexterous transitions between head and chest voice. The rest of the soloists also were impressive, particularly baritone Tyler Duncan (as Jesus), bass-baritone Matthew Brook (as Judas and Peter), and countertenor Terry Wey, with additional fine work from Shannon Mercer, Dorothee Mields, Laura Pudwell, Charles Daniels, and Aaron Sheehan.
Organist Joseph Adam was, in many ways, the center of this production always in exactly the right place at the right time, supporting the singers and instrumentalists, filling in the music as a great continuo player must. Concertmaster Emma McGrath’s graceful and dancelike violin solos were additional high points.
Go, if you can: Chances to hear this masterpiece, especially performed at this level, are rare indeed. And Bach’s smaller-scale St. John Passion will get a period performance at 8 p.m. next Saturday and 2 p.m. next Sunday (March 1-2), in the Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, under Stubbs’ direction. It’s a great time to be a Bach aficionado in Seattle.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.