The Sacramento Choral Calendar
American Bach Soloists
St. Matthew Passion - March 2, 2015
by Winslow Rogers
NOTE: The American Bach Soloists is a world-class period-instrument ensemble. The Sacramento Choral Calendar occasionally reviews their concerts because they have a regular concert series in Davis — within our area of coverage — and because their work can be inspirational to the amateur singers in our local organizations.
Hearing the St. Matthew Passion performed with such outstanding soloists, instrumentalists, and chorus, in a warm and intimate performing space, under the inspiring leadership of Jeffrey Thomas, has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
I'll explain the nuts and bolts of the production before going on to try to convey its emotional power. There were about sixty ABS performers in the intimate (216-seat) Davis Community Church, the singers filling the small chancel, and the instrumentalists on the floor in front of them. The singers faced the audience, baritone William Sharp (Christ) and tenor Derek Chester (Evangelist) in front, and the Pacific Boychoir behind them during the two numbers in which they were on stage. Behind them were eight soloists stretched across the width of the chancel, with the 16-voice chorus in the back.
The one-instrument-to-a-part orchestra on the floor was divided into two ensembles, left and right, as Bach specified. Since the audience was at the same level on the floor, I did not have a good view of the instrumentalists and could not really appreciate the antiphonal orchestral effects. That was the only trade-off for being in such an intimate space.
The distribution of parts among the singers was in keeping with the performance practices of Bach's time, as opposed to the much larger forces that became the vogue during the nineteenth century and beyond.
In addition to singing their solos, the four singers on the left constituted Choir I, and the four on the right Choir II. The larger choir behind them participated only in the chorales and in dramatic sections where they moved the action forward by responding to a soloist's lament or representing the angry crowd demanding Jesus' execution. The Choir I and Choir II quartets with their soloists' voices sounded brighter and clearer than a larger group would have, and had the effect to me of a fine Baroque concerto grosso.
Jeffrey Thomas is a well-known scholar of Baroque music as well as the music director and conductor of ABS for more then twenty-five years. He explained his musical choices in detailed program notes. The generous concert program (44 glossy pages) was a welcome support to my understanding and appreciation of the performance.
Click here to view excerpts from the concert program in a new window.
The St. Matthew Passion is an oratorio. Its overall structure, simplified, is a set of musical chapters. The Evangelist tells a portion of the Gospel story, in Luther's German translation, and Christ speaks his own words as they appear in the Gospel. Then one of the other eight soloists sings a recitative and aria consisting of reflections and meditations on the action. All eight of the soloists were outstanding in their solo performances. Throughout the oratorio Bach varies the instrumental accompaniment from piece to piece to enrich and vary the texture, and to underscore the meaning of each aria. Then the larger chorus ends the sequence with a simple chorale that the congregation would know. Thomas tells us that in Bach's time the congregation would join in singing the chorales.
This structure was clearly conveyed in the printed program. The words from the Gospel were printed in red, the singers' arias in plain text, and the chorales in bold face. The English translations were readily available. The house lights were kept high enough to let us consult the text at a glance. Before the concert I had been apprehensive about this aspect of the performance, but from the beginning of the concert until the end, nearly three hours later, I felt closely engaged in the story.
This was the first time I had witnessed Jeffrey Thomas conducting, and he more than lived up to my expectations. The orchestral sound was always crisp and clear, not always easy with period instruments. I never sensed the strict metronome that you can sometimes hear in Baroque performance. By his gestures he asked for a flow and an expressiveness that his performers gave him. The period instruments that can sound like ugly ducklings were turned into swans. Among many memorable sounds were those of the earthy low strings. Elizabeth Reed (on violoncello) was outstanding in one of the ensembles, and William Skeen (also on violoncello) was equally impressive in the other. Skeen accompanied a bass aria toward the end ("Come sweet cross"), which became a long instrumental solo by a most beautiful swan indeed.
The role of the Evangelist, sung by tenor Derek Chester, is extremely demanding. The part is long, since he provides the commentary from beginning to end. Chester was unobtrusive, as he needed to be, to the point where I had the illusion of seeing through his words to the situation he was describing, as if he were transparent. One of the most powerful effects in the oratorio was when he ceased to be transparent and his voice became emotionally distraught in conveying Christ's suffering. This intensified the story no end.
Baritone William Sharp had the other main part, that of Christ. Where the Evangelist speaks many words in a light, unobtrusive voice, Christ's few words have substance and weight, which Bach underlines in the accompaniment. I couldn't have asked more of Sharp. For most of the piece he was the still point around whom the action swirled. He conveyed much in his few words.
I was moved toward the end, at the point where the dead Christ is taken down off the cross and into the arms of Joseph of Arimathea for protection. The subsequent bass recitative and aria ("Make yourself clean, my heart") were sung, unexpectedly, by Sharp, instead of by one of the regular bass soloists. It was an odd but beautiful moment, as if Christ could speak again, and much more expressively than in his Gospel words.
The chorales, as I said, support the structure of the work. There is additional unity provided by the fact that some of the chorale melodies are repeated. The familiar Passion Chorale appears five times, each time in a lower key, which underlines the deepening sense of loss and despair. At this site you can hear the five repetitions of the Passion Chorale sung one after another, by a completely different group of performers:
The St. Matthew Passion is a Good Friday story, not an Easter story. It tells of Christ's torments and his crucifixion, with only hints of the resurrection to follow. It begins in tumult and ends in the somber quiet of the evening with Jesus in the tomb and the choir intoning "We sit down with tears and cry you into the grave; rest softly, softly rest."
After this somber ending to a long musical journey, the performers were met not with wild enthusiasm but with sustained, grateful applause.
Winslow Rogers is a retired English professor, university administrator, and guest artist series producer living in Grass Valley. His reviews for the Sacramento Choral Calendar have run the gamut from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to the spirited hi-jinks of the Sacramento Gay Men's Chorus. He has also reviewed visiting groups including the King's Singers, the Prague Philharmonic Choir, and now the American Bach Soloists.