Hidden from small

Bach’s Monumental St. Matthew Passion

April 02, 2015

There were many magical moments in Wednesday night’s performance of Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew, but one in particular stands out. At the end of Part One—after the drama of the Last Supper, after Judas becomes a traitor with a kiss, after Jesus is betrayed and bound—Yannick lowered his hands—normally the signal that it’s OK to clap—but nobody in the hall made a sound, or even took a breath it seemed. Not until soloists and music director quietly walked off stage and the house lights came on did the audience applaud.

 Photo: Pete Checchia

“They’re spellbound,” said the clearly delighted stage director, James Alexander. “They’re really listening.”

It was, indeed, a breathtaking performance. The arriving audience could be forgiven for thinking they were seeing double, with The Philadelphia Orchestra arranged as two Baroque orchestras onstage, and the Westminster Symphonic Choir split into two choirs above. Make that three choirs: the American Boychoir was arrayed on the Second and Third Tiers, angelic voices wafting down from the upper reaches of Verizon Hall.

Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the performances.

The vocal soloists were all magnificent. Tenor Andrew Staples as the Evangelist reprised his role from the Orchestra’s sold-out performances of the Passion in 2013 (the ensemble’s first performances of the work in 30 years). Also returning were bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams, this time singing the role of Jesus, and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill. Bass-baritone Philippe Sly was new to the Passion but not to the Orchestra, having made his debut last season in Fauré’s Requiem, and soprano Carolyn Sampson made her Orchestra debut.

“The chemistry with this cast is extraordinary,” says Alexander. “There are things happening that we hadn’t planned for, which are beautiful.”

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion tells the story of Jesus’s final hours before his crucifixion. It’s a story that’s been told for two thousand years, but this inspired version brings it to life in a myriad of ways.

Stage director James Alexander

One key is Alexander’s staging. It’s not a full, opera-style production. But it’s far-removed from a typical concert presentation. The soloists are in casual dress; Ms. Cargill is even barefoot. Alexander explains: “They’re all part of the crowd. They are we; we are them.”

The choirs play a more active part than usual. In addition to singing Bach’s exquisite music, they employ subtle hand gestures, at times even turning their backs to the audience, to underscore the dramatic action. Of course the musicians play a huge role. Bach’s ingenious orchestration creates two ensembles, with the music shifting between them, occasionally coming together. There are electrifying solo moments for Concertmaster David Kim, Principal Flute Jeffrey Khaner, and Principal Oboe Richard Woodhams. 

Yet none of this gets in the way of telling a profound story. The staging; the brilliant singing by soloists and choirs; the subtle, sensitive playing by the Orchestra; Yannick’s exquisite (and baton-less) conducting; and Bach’s almost unimaginably rich musical gifts combine to make that story real, immediate, and intensely moving.  

Yannick, the Orchestra, vocal soloists, and chorus in rehearsal.

Don’t miss the final performance Saturday night. (Buy tickets here.)

“Just come,” says Alexander. “Please come to a very special spiritual experience—even if you’re not religious. There’s something special with this cast and this orchestra playing it for the second time. The whole game has upped and it’s just become superlative.”