Sunday, February 8, 2015

J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Master Chorale

Johann Sebastian Bach

By Douglas Neslund

From the very first measure, with its pulsing, driving 6/8 rhythm till the final sorrowful chorus, Johann Sebastian Bach tells the story of Jesus’s suffering and death in every possible shade of sadness, anger, regret, and even violence. There is no joy of the resurrection here; that comes in another opus.

Some might claim the Passion is not a religious work, but the Christian Bach was would think such a notion strange, for who, without Christian conviction would dip his compositional pen into an inkwell of the darker emotions of such? Who would conceive of telling the dark tale within an architecturally perfect three-plus hour masterwork, unless the motivation for doing so springs from a deep faith in the veracity of the story and divinity of the subject?

Maestro Grant Gershon understood the source of J.S. Bach’s personal motivation and together with his magnificent Los Angeles Master Chorale and guest Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, gave a performance that seemed to pass quickly, although the all-too-brief intermission was a welcome chance to avoid venal thrombosis. 

Jon Lee Keenan

The role of Evangelist, the storyteller, was assigned to Master Chorale member Jon Lee Keenan, whose tenor voice easily carried throughout Walt Disney Concert Hall and featured gorgeous high notes and clearly enunciated German. As his voice matures, Mr. Keenan will find it necessary to master intervals in order to tighten up pitches, but his solo career is on a promising trajectory. One looks forward to hearing him sing this challenging role in the future.

The St. Matthew Passion offers many solo opportunities, all of which were awarded members of the Chorale, an impressive show of talent in every respect. The Jesus role was given to Chung Uk Lee, whose bass voice carried through the instrumental halo of Musica Angelica in subdued, reflective fashion.

It’s difficult to comment on every soloist – there were many, but two were particularly outstanding: Steve Pence, whose extremely focused voice has suddenly blossomed from an almost pinched to a richly musical sound, wealthy in overtonal beauty. Like Mr. Pence, second-year Chorale member Arnold Livingston Geis sang from behind the orchestra, but had sufficient gravitas to overcome with his beautiful tenor.

The architecture of the Passion requires not only a superior musician-conductor, but a nimble one. To his or her left sits Orchestra and Chorus 1, to the right sits Orchestra and Chorus 2, and perched above these multitudes, at least until intermission, sits a children’s chorus, which bookend the first half of the Passion with cantus firmus haloes. In this performance, the 20 young women and four boys of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus provided undernourished chorale melodies, with the incredibly important words that give context to the churning choruses below virtually undetectable.

If parts of the after-intermission portion of the Passion sounded occasionally unfamiliar, they were. An heretofore unrecognized member of the Bach dynasty, John Eliot Gardiner, whose recent book on the subject of the Passion was virtually reviewed by the always-excellent and informative Master Chorale program annotator, Thomas May, might have provided a clue. Unfortunately, one must assume the origin of the less familiar music stems from the fact that Bach himself reworked and revised the work subsequent to its initial performance.

The Passion, told within the framework of the emotionally-charged late Baroque style, dares performers to dramatize to a greater or lesser degree. On this occasion, the Master Chorale popped out of their seats whack-a-mole like on a couple of occasions. The speed with which this maneuver was performed had a tendency to evaporate, at least momentarily, any feeling of meditative religiosity the audience might have felt. It was, as they say, over-the-top. The Master Chorale mustered its loudest sound ever in sing-shouting “Barabas” in unison when Pilot asked the mob whether, as a gesture of generosity, he should release Jesus or the common criminal from arrest. The effect on the audience was not unlike the “surprise” of Josef Haydn’s famous symphony.

Grant Gershon
 The true star performance of the evening was Grant Gershon’s. He had few moments of repose, as the unfolding story ricochets from passive to active, from left to right and back, and just maintaining a balance between orchestra and choral participation requires a musician of the first rank, as well as managing to avoid potential disaster with a soloist’s erroneous entry.

Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra

Musica Angelica has evolved under the direction of Martin Haselböck from its earlier sometimes lightweight performances leaning toward the delicate, to a more vigorous, sometimes attacking style more in keeping with similar European early music performers. 

Chorale-orchestral balances were much improved on this occasion than in the past when the orchestra was often overcome by the chorus. Concertmaster Julia Wedman of Orchestra 1 and Concertmaster Robert Diggins of Orchestra 2 each had challenging obbligato duties performed stylistically and musically. Flutists Stephen Schultz and Mindy Rosenfeld, and oboists Priscilla Herreid and Lot Demeyer were featured accompanying various vocal soloists, were perfection.

A very different St. Matthew Passion arrives in April, in the Water Passion of Chinese composer Tan Dun, in a reprise to the exceptional performances of the 2005 season.

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