The Passion According to St. Matthew: Searching for Light in This Darkest Story

Local Arts Reviews

The Passion According to St. Matthew: Searching for Light in This Darkest Story

St. Martin's Lutheran Church,

April 15

New Texas Music Works chose this behemoth of a choral piece to introduce its new chorus, the Conspirare Symphonic Choir, currently 80 members strong but slated to grow to near 150 in time for the New Texas Festival presentation of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana in June. In the meantime, this new chorus got quite a workout with Bach's St. Matthew Passion serving as one of two choruses called for by Bach. In fact, the St. Matthew Passion calls for double chorus and double orchestra, as well as a chorus of schoolboys and schoolgirls to help support six soloists who take the various roles in this version of Christ's last days. While there are variations to the arrangement of singers and musicians, conductor Craig Hella Johnson achieved a near-flawless evening of graceful, sometimes powerful song with his legions of performers.

The piece is gorgeous, and the soloists, musicians, and choirs rendered it beautifully in the apt setting of St. Martin's Lutheran Church: Bach's choral score is steeped in Lutheran tradition of the living faith, adding a depth of emotion to a rather straightforward narrative. Constructed of choral sections, recitatives, and solos, Bach's work highlights the chorus as the emotional engine of the story. From the opening swell of soprano voices calling, "Come ye daughters, share my mourning," singing of an image of Christ crucified, the chorus brought to life the various crowds in the story: the anguished followers of Christ, the blood-lusting cynics and disbelievers, the paranoid and underhanded Jewish elders who saw in Jesus a dangerous rival, the mocking Roman soldiers. And the choruses gave voice to a more contemporary, reflective group, shifting the biblical tale closer to modern-day worshippers with moving, poetic passages that strove for answers, searched for light in this darkest story.

Bach's score shifts the burden of storytelling to a narrator, the Evangelist, who introduces most scenes, often prefacing solo parts with setup lines like, "And then Peter said to him," or "They answered and spake," creating in the shift of voice a moment's pause, heightening the emotional impact of the words to come, allowing the music to work its tension. Soloist parts tend to be divided into two sections: a recitative bearing mostly narration or practical reflection, followed by an aria of soaring, religious poetry.

As the Evangelist, Karl Dent possessed a strong tenor voice and a stately manner. Jesus was sung by bass-baritone David Arnold, whose voice filled the tall, brick-and-steel sanctuary. Bass-baritone Burr Cochran Phillips portrayed Judas, a dark and mysterious creature in this version of the Passion. Soprano Jennie Olson was rather hard to hear when backed by choral voices or orchestra. But Stephanie Prewitt provided the evening's highlight with the alto aria, "Have mercy, Lord, on me," sung to the evocative and lovely strains of Jennifer Bourianoff's violin, lending a weeping, gypsy-like feeling to the lilting music, Bourianoff also bending and lilting as she played.

The St. Matthew Passion is described as an epic; it clocks in at more than three hours, and some passages, with Bach's stately rhythmic beat, can cause the listener to drift away from the emotional immediacy of the piece. But there are sharp parts, too: full-chorus one-liners demanding, "He deserves death!" or "Let him be crucified!" that push the piece forward with renewed energy. At the end, all voices are brought to the fore with a call-and-response of soloists painting the final resting of Christ, the chorus answering, "My Jesus, good night," followed by the full chorus' wish that "the weary soul find rest."

The future of New Texas Music Works' large symphonic choir is to perform grand choral works in a scale that befits the size and scope of the composer's vision. St. Matthew Passion provided a glimpse of that choral grandeur to come.

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passion according to st. matthew, new texas music works, craig hella johnson, stephanie prewitt, jennifer bourianoff, karl dent, david arnold, burr cochran phillips, jenny olsen

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