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St. Matthew Passion in Chicago

St. Vincent de Paul Parish
04/20/2011 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
Nichole Cabell (soprano), Jennifer Lane (mezzo), Stanford Olsen, Nicholas Phan (tenors), Douglas Williams (bass-baritone), Stephen Morscheck (bass)
Chicago Bach Choir, Donald Nally (chorus master), Chicago Bach Orchestra, John Nelson (conductor)

J. Nelson & company (© Charles Osgood)

Johann Sebastian Bach’s towering St. Matthew Passion has long been considered the crowning glory of the sacred choral repertory due to its prodigious musical challenge and visceral spiritual message. Soli Deo Gloria, Chicago’s prolific commissioning and performance sponsorship organization, launched their newest initiative, the Chicago Bach Project, with a banner performance of Bach’s masterpiece on April 20, housed in the visual glory of St. Vincent de Paul Parish. Soli Deo Gloria’s ambition is to follow this performance with subsequent Holy Week outings of the St. John Passion and the Mass in B Minor performed in rotating rep – thus mirroring in Chicago the success that company artistic director John Nelson has enjoyed in recent years with a similar endeavor at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

The musical forces, drawn by conductor Nelson and chorus master Donald Nally from the Chicago Symphony, Music of the Baroque, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and various other leading musical lights in the area, could hardly have been bettered. Chicago’s youth choir Anima complemented the adult assemblage charmingly in the first half of the composition. Nelson occasionally adopted slightly quicker tempi than one often hears in this piece, and clearly conceived the work as a living, breathing, emotional experience – nothing was marbleized here. The Maestro himself was an arrestingly animated figure, his intensity as he urged the chorus on in their cries for crucifixion an integral part of the drama in of itself.

Stanford Olsen made an all-too infrequent Chicago appearance as the pivotal Evangelist. Olsen appeared to be negotiating his upper register with some difficulty, but his stylish commitment to the music set an impressive example. Bass Stephen Morscheck was predictably first-rate as Jesus, infusing the writing with reams of authoritative sound.

There was an excellent quartet of soloists. Nicholas Phan continues to impress with his delicately honeyed lyric tenor, which appears a quarter size larger since he essayed this piece at Music of the Baroque three years ago. Phan was expressive throughout, with some particularly intelligent word painting on “Schimpf und Spott” in the “Geduld, Geduld”. The work’s ravishing bass arias were very well served by Douglas Williams, who boasted an ample bass-baritone of an intrinsically beautiful quality, and a sensitive resonation to text. Soprano Nicole Cabell made a very successful initial foray into this repertory, delivering the difficult line of “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” with fluidity and grace, and she fielded a lovely traversal of the poignant “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben”. Mezzo Jennifer Lane rounded out the group solidly, the interplay with Deborah Nemtanu’s violin quite effective in “Erbarme dich”.

Solo instrumental passages were consistently well handled, the flutes and oboes pealing forth resoundingly. John Mark Rozendaal’s Viola da Gamba was one of the pleasures of the evening.

The musical palm was ultimately taken by the chorus, who achieved a lovely blend throughout and delivered the great choral passages gloriously. Special kudos to basses Ronald Watkins and Michael Boschert as Judas and Pilate, respectively.

The only fly in the soup – and a surprising one, as the sound in rehearsals was reportedly quite fine – was the recalcitrant acoustic. St. Vincent de Paul is a stunningly beautiful venue and the sanctuary’s rambling floor plan allowed for a welcome separation of the double chorus and an antiphonal placement of the orchestra. Aural matters grew complicated however as a crowd of over 800 soaked up the reverb, leaving the sound muddy and decidedly unfriendly to the clarity of the vocalists, who were clearly working very hard to pop their consonants crisply.

That however, was a minor niggle. Soli Deo Gloria’s St. Matthew Passion was a formidable artistic success and a moving experience for Holy Week. The Chicago Bach Project enjoyed a healthy birth, to say the least. Mark your calendars now for next year’s St. John Passion!

Mark Thomas Ketterson



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