A look around Belk Theater solved the mystery of why Bach's St. Matthew Passion had never been performed there before. The upstage filled with two choruses, the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte and the Charlotte Children's Choir, but in front of them, the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oratorio director Scott Allen Jarrett, was conspicuously abbreviated, shorn of all its brass, percussion, and clarinets. More to the point, the missing instrumental artillery did not seem to lessen the impression among CSO subscribers that Bach's sacred oratorio was a formidable, forbidding monument. There appeared to be more empty seats in the orchestra and the grand tier than even concerts of Shostakovich's or Schoenberg's music can produce. It's impossible to say whether the biblical nature of the music or its length was perceived to be most intimidating. Notwithstanding the program notes cribbed from the Atlanta Symphony, which pinpointed the length of the work at 2'11", this edited version did not adjourn until after 11:00pm, clipping a mere 20 minutes or so from the recorded version I have directed by Philippe Herreweghe on Harmonia Mundi.
Acoustically, the Belk remains a better venue for Bach's masterwork than the First Baptist Church, where the previous CSO performance occurred in 1999. But a more euphonious cathedral, where the choral voices might blossom and re-echo a little more, would be more ideal – especially since it could be counted on for an indigenous organ. Usually confined discreetly to extreme stage right, a movable electric organ was centered in front of the chorus as Jarrett configured his forces. Embarrassingly this also placed the little console right in front of the mighty organ pipes that span the back wall of the Belk, unused and vestigial since the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center opened more than two decades ago. Whether or not Jarrett intended this placement as a rebuke, the stronger argument for completely outfitting the Belk was the performance itself.
Both of the key solo vocalists are magnificent, even though they're confined to recitative. Nicholas Phan, as our Evangelist narrator, far eclipses Howard Crook, the tenor on the Harmonia Mundi recording; he is more powerful and more expressive. Nor does Nathan Berg sound anything less than godly as Jesus, though the bass baritone lacks the warmth of Ulrik Cold with Herreweghe. As an Old Testament man, I missed that warm appeal much less than a devout Christian might, but the fullness of Berg's singing made his CSO debut very special. I couldn't help wishing that Jesus had spoken up more at his trial, but Bach sticks devoutly to Matthew's Gospel account of the Last Supper through the Crucifixion and beyond.
Less riveting are the roles of the other soloists, who often appear in pairs of arias, the first sung standing in front of their chairs near the wings and the second, near Jarrett's podium at center stage – with an instrumental interlude in between. These arias, like most of the chorales, react to the unfolding denouement of Jesus' betrayal, often with provocative observations, but do not advance the story. With countertenor Reginald Mobley ably singing the alto part, the only female among the guest soloists was soprano Kiera Duffy, whose creamy voice made her CSO debut perhaps even more auspicious than Mobley's. Returning to Charlotte after previous appearances with the orchestra are tenor Aaron Sheehan and baritone Dashon Burton. As we reach the climactic trial, Burton gets to switch from aria to recitative, turning in some fine dramatic moments as Pontius Pilate.
Supplementing this fine array of guests were nine soloists plucked from the ranks of the Oratorio Singers. Appearing most frequently – and with the most distinction – was Kenny Potter as Judas, but I only found one of the remaining eight displeasing. Both the Oratorio Singers and the Children's Choir were impressive collectively, particularly in the opening "Kommt, ihr Töchter" (Come, you daughters). At times, after the Children's Choir departed, Jarrett split his Oratorio forces; only half the chorus backed Mobley in "Ach! nun ist mein Jesus hin!" (Ah! My Jesus has gone now!), beginning Part 2, and later at Golgotha, where Mobley and a pair of bassoons were keening "Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand" (Look, Jesus has stretched out His hands). There were only a couple of times where I missed the choral crispness that Herreweghe demanded, most notably toward the end of Part 1, when the full chorus, Duffy and Mobley, and a pair of flutes react to Jesus' arrest in "So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen" (So is my Jesus captured now). My hair didn't stand on end when the chorus burst in, calling on Hell to swallow up the betrayers. On the other hand, the Oratorio Singers wrap the evening's finale and its familiar melody in surpassing sweetness. All of "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen" (We sit down with tears) glows with the rueful realization of how unworthy Jesus' mourners felt they were of his sacrifice.
The oratorio will be repeated on Saturday, November 23, in the same venue. Everyone who loves great choral music should hear it at least once. For details, see the sidebar.