In a fit beginning to the Christian Holy Week, 2015, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the evangelist Matthew,” familiarly known as The St. Matthew Passion, was presented in the Duke University Chapel by the combined forces of the Duke Chapel Choir and the Orchestra Pro Cantores, under the direction of Dr. Rodney Wynkoop, Director of Chapel Music and Professor of the Practice of Music.
In performing a monumental Baroque work (c. three hours) such as this, a conductor is faced with choices – many of them. How many voices to use? How many instrumentalists? Do I go for a HIP (Historically-Informed Performance), using period instruments, or use modern ones; and if period instruments, do I use only men and boys in the chorus, or do I use adult sopranos and altos? How many singers to sing the six major and ten minor solo roles? Do I use an alto or a counter-tenor for the alto arias? Of course, many of these choices will be affected, for better or worse, by the omnipresent question: what is my budget? All of these choices, before getting to the music itself! One of the signs of true greatness of Bach’s music is that so many different choices can be made without diminishing the music’s effect on its audience. The St. Matthew Passion has been performed with one singer and one instrumentalist on each part; it has been performed by a chorus numbering in the hundreds together with two large instrumental ensembles. If well-done, both can forcefully communicate the drama of the Passion account.
The St. Matthew is the second of two surviving settings of the Passion History out of the five which Bach composed; it, too, might have been lost had it not been for its rediscovery and performance (in part) by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829. It is scored for two choirs plus a third unison soprano chorus (used in two choruses), vocal soloists, two chamber orchestras, and keyboard(s). It can be considered an oratorio, or a sacred opera, with the dramatic elements that are inherent to those forms.
Critical to any Bach passion performance, of any size or style, is the role of the Evangelist, a tenor voice singing the Biblical narrative text. Tenor Dann Coakwell’s performance was exemplary in every respect. His clear and effulgent vocal tone, his impeccable German diction, and his grasp of the emotional and dramatic elements of the Evangelist’s role were all superb. He is not a reader of the text; he is the Gospel-writer himself, telling his story quickly or deliberately, moving the drama from point to point. With Coakwell at every measure were Christopher Jacobson, playing the portative pipe organ, and a ‘cellist (the two together known as the “continuo group” or “basso continuo” in Baroque parlance). It was a luxury not only to have a viola da gamba for the arias calling for that early instrument, but also to have the modern master of that instrument, Brent Wissick, on hand to play it.
Equally effective was baritone Tyler Duncan in the role of Jesus. With wide experience in Baroque music performances, Duncan brought fine musicianship and a keen awareness of the depth of feeling necessary in the portrayal of the part of Christ. He also sang the bass arias (those reflective texts representing thoughts of a believer). While musically a good choice, because he sang the arias as capably as he sang the role of Jesus, having him sing the arias was not as good a choice dramatically. It requires mental gymnastics for an audience to hear the singer whom they have already identified as Jesus switch roles and sing texts such as “Ich will Jesum selbst begraben” (“I will bury Jesus myself”). This clash of roles does not occur if the roles of the Evangelist and tenor aria soloist are combined, presumably for budgetary reasons, because the contradictory dramatic element is not present.
The opening chorus got off to a somewhat shaky start, as if some members of the orchestras did not realize that the 12/8 measures were to be played as four beats to the measure rather than 12. Wynkoop’s conducting was perfectly clear, however, and things settled down before the voices entered. Wynkoop was particularly attentive to the third choir, the Durham Children’s Choir, giving them sufficient advance cues before each phrase as they sang the chorale melody of “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” (“O innocent Lamb of God”). [It is interesting to note that Bach announces the theme of this work with the key signatures that begin the opening chorus: the main choirs and orchestras are in E minor (one sharp); the third choir’s chorale is in E major (four sharps). The German word for the musical sign of a sharp is Kreuz, the same word used for “Cross.” So that sharp/cross sign begins the work, made even more clear visually by the E major key signature, which is a cross of crosses.] The boys and girls carried out their assignment well, their voices fervently declaiming the German text from their places above and behind the massed choral and orchestral ensemble. Their new Artistic Director, Dena Byers, took a well-deserved bow at the concert’s conclusion.
The first chorus and many of the other St. Matthew choruses are antiphonal, the two choirs and orchestras in dialogue with each other. The antiphonal effect did not materialize, however, due to the muddying effect of the reverberant acoustic of Duke Chapel and also because there was no physical separation between the two groups, which were side-by-side.
Mezzo-Soprano Abigail Fischer’s best moments came in her after-intermission arias, including the Part Two opening aria-with-chorus, “Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin!” (“Ah! my Jesus is gone now!”) and the aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (“Have mercy, my God”). She captured the pathos of this latter aria, Bach at his most musically Romantic, in beautiful dialogue with a violin solo. Soprano Ilana Davidson’s first aria, “Blute nur, du liebes Herz!” (“Bleed on, you loving heart”) was a joy to hear; her limpid and moving “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (“Because of love, my Savior is willing to die”) captured the believer’s faith that continues even when its ground has been removed (hence, in this aria, Bach leaves out the “ground,” the basso continuo).
While aria tenor Jason McStoots had balance problems, his voice sometimes getting lost in the orchestral winds, his voice shows promise of a successful career. Among the minor solo roles sung by members of the Duke Chapel Choir, baritone Nate Jones’ voice was strong and effective in the roles of Peter, Pilate, and the first High Priest.
The Duke Chapel Choir was in excellent form, a fitting tribute to Maestro Wynkoop’s twenty-fifth anniversary as their conductor. (At a post-concert reception, they presented their leader with a facsimile edition of Bach’s original manuscript score of the St. Matthew Passion.) Their dual roles as participants in the drama as they sang the words of the crowd and as members of the congregation as they sang the Lutheran chorales which permeate the work were sung “with the Spirit and the understanding also.” Only their cry of “Barrabam!” ("Barrabas!"), while musical in every way, lacked the violent explosive energy necessary for this dramatic shout.
The audience was invited to sing the melodies of four of the chorales; however, this choice was questionable: first, to have these four stanzas sung in English amidst the otherwise all-German libretto was jarring; second, doubling the melodic line at the lower octave by having the audience’s male voices singing it, is not kind to Bach’s chorale harmonies.
The St. Matthew Passion is one of music’s treasures, receiving less frequent performances only because of its complexities and its length; Rodney Wynkoop, the participating singers and instrumentalists, and Duke University Chapel deserve praise for bringing it life and breath for a full and appreciative audience on Palm Sunday.