Choral Music Review Print



Bach's St. Matthew Passion at Duke

April 12, 2003 - Durham, NC:


After a week of torrential rains approaching those of biblical proportions, the morning of Saturday, April 12, dawned as an absolutely glorious spring day. The Duke University campus was teeming with class reunions, students enjoying the perfect weather and a huge crowd assembled at the entrance to Duke Chapel anxiously awaiting the imposing wooden doors to open. Over the years there have been many outstanding and memorable musical events at the Gothic centerpiece of the Duke campus, but perhaps none has been as anticipated as this one. A complete performance of the St. Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach was presented by the Duke Chapel Choir under the direction of Dr. Rodney Wynkoop. A complete performance of this work is in itself a rarity, but to have an opportunity to experience this masterpiece in such a magnificent setting with outstanding soloists, orchestra, and an expertly prepared chorus, is most likely a once-in-a-lifetime event.

When the doors finally did open, the crowd pushed ahead hoping to get a seat where one can both hear and see, not an easy task in Duke Chapel. The thirty page programs that were handed out were complete and exemplary in every detail. It contained the complete text in both the original German and an English translation, along with complete listings of all the performers, and the music for four of the Chorales that the audience was invited to sing after the choir performed them. Perusing the program and contemplating the length and the forces that it takes to successfully bring off such an event, you can't help but marvel at the enormity of such a task. Without even considering the musical aspects, just the administrative and logistical details of this concert is daunting in itself. Dr. Wynkoop and his assistants should be given special recognition for bringing one of the greatest creations of man to Triangle audiences.

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 it 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.

In addition to the Duke Chapel Choir, this performance also included the Durham School of the Arts' "Camerata Choir", Scott Hill, director, the Duke Alumni Choir, and a collection of the finest musicians in this area, playing under the name of the "Pro Cantores Orchestra." It didn't take long to hear and feel that you were experiencing a truly unique musical event. The opening strains of the orchestra revealed a gorgeous sound that seemed to straddle the best of modern and HIP (Historically Informed Performance) orchestral playing. When the chorus entered, it felt like a comforting blanket enveloped you with a perfectly balanced and warm, pure sound. During this performance I chose to follow a score, and during the sections when there was a double chorus, plus the children's choir, I marveled at the nine voice parts coming together in such a natural and seemingly effortless way. The beauty and oneness of the sound belied the incredible complexity of the written score - and that, to me, is an essential hallmark of a great performance.

Even as polished and effective as the orchestra and choruses were, that would not be enough if the four main soloists, especially the Evangelist, were not of the highest quality for these parts. This group was perhaps the most perfect quartet of soloists for the range, emotion, and style of their respective roles. Without any intent to demean the other three in any way, tenor Karl Dent in the role of the Evangelist was simply phenomenal. As the character who is telling the story, he has both the most important and largest part. A good deal of the time he is in a very high part of his range, and in the space of three and one-half hours of singing he was nearly perfect. A few times he was on the brink of cracking in a high tessitura, but he never did. In addition to the beauty and accuracy of his voice, my wife (who is fluent in German) said she could perfectly understand every single word he sung. The role of Jesus was sung by baritone Mark McSweeney who gave also gave a polished and effective rendition. He kept a rigid and severe look on his face throughout the afternoon, I suppose staying in character. Soprano Rochelle Ellis sang without any of the excesses that quite often afflict these stratospheric singers and, like everyone involved, seemed to be there in the service of the music, not ego.

Obviously a complete description of all of the chorales, recitatives and arias is impossible, but a few highlights are justified, of course without diminishing the others.

The aria "Ebarme Dich", for alto and violin obbligato was one of the most moving and heartfelt musical expressions I have ever heard. This featured mezzo soprano soloist Margaret Bragle and concertmaster Daniel Lewin.

Primarily in the second part, the audience had the unique opportunity to hear the viola da gamba, as played by Brent Wissick, professor of music at UNC-Chapel Hill. Played like a cello, but with frets and tuned in fourths like a guitar, Wissick's gamba playing was both virtuosic and integral to the sound of the arias where he was featured.

Throughout the performance, Dr. Wynkoop kept these huge forces balanced with all parts meshing into a seamless wonder. Considering the three and one-half hour performance time, all of the choristers remained in character, with no fidgeting of any kind.

When Bach's gift to future generations ended, Dr. Wynkoop, the soloists and all of the musicians acknowledged the tumultuous applause, but something was a bit different than at the end of most concerts. While everyone involved seemed appreciative and rightly proud of this remarkable accomplishment, there was also a very clear sense of humility. To be involved so intimately with one of the crowning achievements of a musical genius is a privilege and honor. Many people in the triangle area like to relive great moments in local sports team history and ask "where when you when" a particular game or shot happened. I believe that this performance will go down in history as one of the greatest events in the cultural life of our community - consider yourself lucky if you were there.