Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is the culmination of a tradition, dating back to the Middle Ages, of performing a passion set to music during the season of Lent. Perhaps it is its characterization as such an ancient form that, despite being performed during Bach’s lifetime, it lay dormant and forgotten for nearly one hundred years after his death, in 1750. It wasn’t until Felix Mendelssohn resurrected this masterpiece that the world once again took notice of this monument of man’s creativity. Here in the Triangle, we have waited only three years since the last performance of this epic and the three concerts by the combined forces of the North Carolina Symphony, the Choral Society of Durham, and some phenomenal soloists and guest instrumentalists. The public had their choice of performances in either the richly reverberant space of Duke Chapel or the considerably drier and more modern Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. It is the vastly different acoustical properties of these venues that I believe caused the main problem, particularly on March 31, the first night at Meymandi — after rehearsals and a performance in Durham’s gothic cathedral.

A common cliché, used mostly in sports, is the idea of an individual “carrying the team” – or being the standout player who rises above the rest. It’s not always the case that everyone else is doing badly, it’s just that this person becomes the focal point and the source of energy for the others. That can also happen in a musical performance, and this was one of the impressions I was left with after hearing the Friday evening performance.
Although there were six soloists and many examples of beautifully played instrumental parts, it was tenor James Gilchrist, in the role of the evangelist, who soared above all others in passion, intensity, and musical brilliance. Even if you did not hear a word that he said, you would have been mesmerized by his physical involvement with this role, which is by far the most important and busiest in the work. His high, bright, clear tenor pierced through the tutti orchestra at its loudest and also demanded your attention at the quietest moments. This was all accomplished from near the back of the stage, where he was placed alongside his continuo partners Bonnie Thron, cello, and Jane Lynch, guest organist. This was an elegantly conceived arrangement where the double choruses were separated – one was on the stage and the other in the choir loft, above – and the orchestra was seated according to its members’ musical roles with respect to the soloists.

Besides what is contained in the text itself, there was one prevailing battle going on most of the night –– a battle over who was going to gain control of the tempo. Maestro Llewellyn gives a very clear, precise, and unadorned beat pattern, yet the soloists and chorus were constantly behind the orchestra. and attempts to bring them into line mostly went unheeded. My guess is that this occurred because of the extreme adjustments musicians had to make for the 4-6 second reverberation in Duke Chapel before switching gears for Meymandi – with almost unavoidable results. This gave the first part of the work an unbalanced, edgy feeling, but it later smoothed out. The chorus, prepared by Rodney Wynkoop, Director of the Choral Society of Durham, produced a warm, balanced, and disciplined sound but lacked a full-force emotional commitment in the choruses where the texts demanded such showings. The highlights of the evening were the unimaginably beautiful chorales, which provide emotional repose.

While not a theatrical piece, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is a monumental collection of sweeping emotions that demand that both performers and listeners take active roles in the unfolding of the drama of the crucifixion. Works of this length require tremendous stamina, concentration, and constant attention to detail. The greatness of the music lies in its ability to communicate the story – from the explosive, large choruses to the intimate solos. One of the smaller gems is the aria “Erbarme dich,” which is essentially a trio sonata for alto soloist and violin. Concertmaster Brian Reagin gave a disappointing, uninvolved. etude-like reading that was rhythmically flabby and devoid of any human contact with the alto or the spirit of the music. As compared with the 2003 presentation by many of the same musicians, there seemed to be a marked decline in many of the solos. In the second half we saw the appearance of guest viola da gamba player Brent Wissick — placed directly in front of Llewellyn. He had two solos, and the fiendishly difficult second one at times got the best of him.

I got the feeling that there was an element of fatigue in the performance that prevented it from rising to truly inspiring and impassioned levels, but given the brutal schedule involved in putting such a work together that’s understandable – and expecting more may be asking too much. But it was a privilege just to hear what is truly one of the greatest achievements of man. Just think that for 100 years, it was for all intents and purposes lost and no one on earth heard it!