We are in Seattle mostly to visit family and friends, and were very excited to learn that we would be able to attend the performances of both Bach Passions (St. Matthew and St. John) on subsequent weekends. According to the program notes, conductor Ludovic Morlot wanted to present “the best version of the piece that can be done with a modern orchestra in a large hall” and in my opinion he achieved a brilliant result.
Everything about last night’s performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was outstanding — the soloists, the orchestra, and the choirs. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that Bach would have been puzzled at performing this work usually done on Good Friday, in a concert setting — people all dressed up in a glitzy concert hall with an upscale coffee and wine bar in the lobby. With a nod to the solemnity of the music, though, there was a request from the announcer not to applaud as the choir and orchestra walked in — so they did so silently. There was also no tuning or warmup of the orchestra before the concert, which we appreciated very much!
The orchestra was the Seattle Symphony (greatly reduced; only 2-3 players per part ) along with the Seattle Symphony Chorale, the Northwest Boychoir and an array of A-team international soloists, gave a superb performance of this monumental work. The choral singers were especially first-rate, and sang with a beautiful, pure tone, absolutely in tune with no intonation problems at all. Stephen Stubbs, who is director of Pacific MusicWorks, engaged all these soloists for not only the St. Matthew Passion, but also for next week’s St. John Passion.
In this performance, I have to say that the best and my favorite moment in the concert was the “Erbarm dich” aria with Terry Wey, an absolutely fantastic countertenor, and violinist Emma McGray, who played her part from memory and played it with such feeling and passion, the likes of which we have never heard before. No surprise that McGray got the biggest ovations of the night, along with Thomas Cooley, who sang the part of the Evangelist with such a wide range of drama and emotion. Other superstar soloists such as Dorothee Mields and Charles Daniels gave equally stunning performances.
The only artistic decision we did not agree with was to have the same singer, Tyler Duncan, sing the roles of Jesus as well as the Bass I. This meant that after Jesus dies, he comes back and sings another aria—weird, right?
The tempos also were very brisk, with Carl asking the question, “How many cups of coffee did the conductor drink before the concert?”
Of course, we could not help but think of our own performance of the work at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu fourteen years ago where the audience got the full stereophonic effect of the two choirs and the two orchestras (and the two organs), since we placed the audience in the middle! Joseph Adam, organist for the Seattle Symphony who played in last night’s performance but also came to Honolulu in 2000, had to work harder than anybody last night and played both organ parts in 67 of the 68 movements! In fact, he said that our Honolulu performance has been the only one in which he did not play both organ continuo parts since we are the only ones who have had two organs.
Also I’ve said before that the impact of the story was so much greater in the church setting, because of all the principals wearing vestments rather than concert dress. In the Honolulu concerts, Jesus wore an alb, and was taken away (to be hidden behind the organ) after he dies.
But this concert certainly was up there among the best we have ever heard. For further reading about this performance, click here to read “Seattle to hear Bach Passions in early, new style.”