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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Concert Review: An Act of Faith

The Oratorio Society of New York presents the St. Matthew Passion.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The stained glass Bach window in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig, Germany,
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is the composer’s mightiest creation, an unflinching account of the arrest, trial,and execution of Jesus as laid down in the first Gospel of the New Testament. First performed for Good Friday service in St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, it retains all of its emotional impact in the concert hall. A strong performance of this work is a declaration of faith, not necessarily in Christianity but in the perfect musical design that Bach uses throughout this sprawling work.

There’s no questioning the musical faith of the Oratorio Society of New York. On Tuesday night under the leadership of Kent Tritle, the Society’s chorus and orchestra presented the Passion on the great stage of Carnegie Hall. Bach calls for  a large cast of soloists, a chorus divided at times into two or three singing groups and a "twinned" orchestra, mirror ensembles that face each other across the stage and support different players in the story, coming together only in the big chorales that punctuate the work.

The chorus's role changes in the second half: from reaction and hymn-singing. They become an ugly mob as Jesus is tried and in the following Crucifixion.  Under Mr. Tritle, their unified cry of "Barrabam!" had enormous emotional impact. The twisting, serpentine fugato that Bach unleashes as the crowd howls for Jesus' death had an unholy enthusiasm, more so as the cry of "Laß ihm kreuzigen!" was repeated.

Leading the soloists was Nicholas Phan as the Evangelist. His agile tenor whose bright tone and clipped diction made him a perfect voice of St. Matthew, unflinching as he chronicled these dreadful events.. Singing with sweet, pure tone in the early pages of the work, Mr. Phan narrated the catastrophe with a fully realized performance, placing the narrator squarely in the middle of the action.

This performance marked Susanne Mentzer's first time singing Bach on the stage of Carnegie Hall. The veteran mezzo used her instrument cannily, saving her reserves for the outpouring of grief as she described Christ's scourging and the horrors of Golgotha. Soprano Leslie Fagan sang well but seemed detached from these tremendous events.

The veteran bass-baritone Kevin Deas sang Jesus’ utterance with dark, round voice. A soothing certainty in the middle of the tumult. Of course, the role becomes smaller as the Passion unfolds, but his final cries on the cross were simply gut-wrenching. Tenor Matthew Plenk, a recent Tamino at the Met sang his recitatives and arias with a sweet tone and great enthusiasm for the material. Less impressive was baritone Thomas Meglioranza, a late replacement for the ill Mischa Bouvier. He sang with dull, colorless tone: problematic since he played Judas. Caiphas and Pilate, who get some interesting music to sing.

Mr. Tritle took slow, measured tempos, bringing a wealth of orchestral details clearly into focus. There were the two mournful oboes that accompany the soloists as if bewailing the events as they unfold. For certain arias, a little ensemble of bass, organ and viola da gamba formed from the big orchestra, providing subtle accompaniment to recitatives and arias. Most chilling of all was the scourging scene, a scraped ostinato for strings that sounded like a harbinger of the 20th century.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.