A Musical Feast Undermined by Visual Shenanigans

United StatesUnited States Bach, St. Matthew Passion: Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director), The American Boychoir (Fernando Malver-Ruiz, director), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 4.4.2015 (BJ)

Carolyn Sampson (soprano),
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano),
Andrew Staples (tenor–Evangelist),
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone–Jesus), Philippe Sly (bass-baritone)
Tom Lynch: Judas
Will Doreza: Peter
Betsy Kowal and Max Nolin: Witnesses
Jordan Caroll: High Priest
Kirsten Anderson and Grace Svatek: Maids
Chris Nappa and Robert Lamb: Priests
Scott Purcell: Pilate
Tiffany Ho: Pilate’s Wife
Michael Stairs, Kiyoko Takeuti, and Peter Conte: organ continuo
Beiliang Zhu: cello continuo and viola da gamba
Daniel Swenberg: theorbo


James Alexander: director
Jon H. Weir: lighting designer

First, the positives:

What I loved most about this St. Matthew Passion was the unashamedly romantic character of the musical performance Yannick Nézet-Séguin drew from his massed forces. Much as I enjoy the work of period-instrument specialists with a prime commitment to recreating the sound-world of an earlier musical time, I am also convinced that a really great performance of music of whatever era is romantic, in the sense that it is dedicated to seeking out the feeling behind the notes.

 In this uncut performance, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director had no truck with half-hearted pretensions to archeological purity. It was an interpretation that extracted every possible dramatic ounce in turn of anguish and of exaltation from what is after all a story chock-full of those emotions. At the same time, Nézet-Séguin’s approach was eclectic enough to embrace the distinctive timbres of theorbo and viola da gamba. In other words, he sought uncompromisingly for the best of both worlds, the modern and the historically informed, and to a large degree he got it.

 The conductor’s pacing of the score was unerring, except, to my taste, for a rather too fast account of the great final chorus, which has the character of a majestic sarabande and should sound like one. The orchestral playing was magnificently full of fire and artistry. Richard Woodhams’s oboe obbligato in the aria with chorus “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” was a thing of wonder, and there were particularly incisive contributions from Daniel Swenberg on theorbo and Beiliang Zhu on viola da gamba.

 Then, in addition to fine work by the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the American Boychoir, the solo singing was of the highest artistic standard. Carolyn Sampson is the most accomplished soprano to have emerged in many years in the baroque and early-music fields, and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill fully matched her in commitment and in beauty of voice. Andrew Foster-Williams was a firm-voiced Jesus, though I thought his portrayal of the role was a shade lacking in majesty, Andrew Staples was a commanding Evangelist, and Philippe Sly sang the bass arias with luxuriant tone and strong technique.

 One dubious decision was to have the tenor arias sung by the same singer who was the Evangelist. The singer of the arias is a member of a group—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—that represents human individuals responding to the events of the story. The Evangelist, by contrast, is the dispassionate, objective narrator standing outside those events and recounting them. And when the man who has been telling us that “Jesus did this” and “Jesus did that” suddenly starts to sing about “My Jesus,” an important structural distinction in the work is damaged.

 And at this point, as you may suspect, I have to deal with the negatives:

 What I hated about this St. Matthew Passion—and “hated” is not too strong a word—was pretty well every aspect of the visual treatment to which it had been subjected. The first clue as to what might transpire came in reading the artists’ biographies in the program book, which informed us that the stage director, James Alexander, “created a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Aspen Music Festival, for which he wrote new dialogue.” The natural reaction to that statement is “Why?” (Let me guess why: Schikaneder’s libretto contains elements demeaning to women, and of course we can’t have that in this enlightened age, can we?)

 The notion that a work like the St. Matthew Passion needs some kind of quasi-theatrical staging is, I think, mistaken. And in this semi-staged attempt, the various shenanigans imposed on the strolling gypsy Evangelist and his colleagues in solo and chorus were painfully artificial from the get-go. What we were faced with were instances of walking around the stage and looking intently at each other that were clearly supposed to look spontaneous but had equally clearly been rehearsed in every detail. Last spring, in Seattle, I witnessed a performance of the piece in which some similar movements were presented—and yet, curiously enough, they were entirely acceptable in that version and entirely unacceptable in this one. The reason, I think, was the portentous slow motion that these conscientious artists, on whose behalf I felt the strongest sympathy at what must have been an embarrassing task, were forced into. But even at a more natural speed of movement, the unfortunate Karen Cargill’s descent from a raised stage to the platform, while singing her aria “Erbarme dich” quite beautifully, to hobnob with the obbligato violinist (the excellent David Kim) and with the conductor—if it wasn’t embarrassing to her, was intensely embarrassing to me.

 Distraction was rampant: almost every time someone was singing an aria that demanded concentrated listening, someone else could be seen—could not not be seen—wandering off stage behind the singer. Lighting was lurid and (paradoxically!) unilluminating. And just as one only notices the ticking of a clock when it stops, so, at moments when the hall was bathed in some relatively dark and rich color, the punctual switching off of the bright while light of the super-titles had the effect of suddenly destroying the dramatic atmosphere.

 Perhaps worst of all were the gyrations and hand gestures demanded of the chorus, which raised the scourge of distraction to still higher levels of unacceptability. I realize that there were probably many audience members for whom all the visual razzmatazz may have constituted a fresh key helping them to enter a musical world they had not previously enjoyed access to. Reviewing the first of the week’s two performances in the Philadelphia Inquirer, my colleague David Patrick Stearns went to far as to speculate that “Conventionally static concert performances might not seem so acceptable in the future.”

 Readers can surely reach their own conclusions about that, on the basis of prejudices that may or may not agree with mine.. For myself, I should be deeply saddened if I thought that this is the only kind of St. Matthew Passion performance I shall henceforth ever be permitted to witness.


Bernard Jacobson

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