Review: The High Art of Bach’s Passion of St. Matthew

There are many excellent classical music concerts presented in Chicago every year. But Music of the Baroque’s performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The St. Matthew Passion—conducted by Dame Jane Glover, the ensemble’s longtime music director—was more than a concert. It was an experience.

To say that this concert was long anticipated is no exaggeration. This Bach masterwork is considered such a landmark of classical music that Music of the Baroque scheduled it as the highlight of its 2020-21 season, which was to celebrate the orchestra’s 50th anniversary. Those best-laid plans, along with the rest of the season’s in-person schedule, were wiped out by the raging COVID-19 pandemic.

The performance was delayed until its presentations this week at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie on Sunday (April 2) and Chicago’s Harris Theater (April 3). It was very much worth the wait.

Like most of Bach’s sacred music, The St. Matthew Passion was written not for the concert stage, but rather for the edification of parishioners of St. Thomas Church in the German city of Leipzig, where he served a long tenure as cantor. It was first performed on Good Friday 1727, at a time when Bach was widely regarded in the music world as an organ virtuoso who wrote a little.

It was not until a century later when Felix Mendelssohn—who made it his life’s mission to gain Bach the credit he deserved as one of history’s greatest composers—revived The St. Matthew Passion and brought it to the general public for the first time in 1829.

It is a monumental work that clocks in at about three hours and covers perhaps the most familiar story ever told, about the key events over the last days of Jesus’ life leading up to his crucifixion by the Roman occupiers of Jerusalem.

Were it not for the brilliance of Bach’s subtle score and the libretto by Picander (nom de plume of Christian Freidrich Henrici) that combined his poetry with passages from the Gospel of St. Matthew, it could easily have been a sleep inducer for worshippers and audiences alike.

From left, solo vocalists Gwilym Bowen (tenor), Brandon Cedel and Roderick Williams (baritone), Paul Appelby (tenor), Tess Altiveros (soprano) and Kristzina Szabó. Photo by Bob Benenson.

Music of the Baroque is, of course, one of the world’s leading interpreters of Bach, and it adeptly performed the piece’s instrumental interludes under the never-fail direction of Glover. It is a highly unusual composition in that the orchestra is essentially divided in two, with the sides alternating in playing different parts of the score; only in brief sections does the full orchestra perform as one.

The same was true for the chorus, which continues to excel under the lead of director Andrew Megill, now rounding out his first full year in his role. Like the orchestra, the chorus was divided in two, the sides often playing out roles in the biblical story, such as the mob that denounced Jesus and demanded that Roman governor Pontius Pilate put him to death.

The chorus did come together on several beauteous Chorale interludes with lyrical structure that influenced music from liturgical hymnals to today’s popular song, and individual members of the chorus joined the dramatic presentation in key pop-up roles as Pilate, Peter and Judas.

During the first half of the concert, the chorus was accompanied by suburban Chicago’s Anima—Glen Ellyn Children’s Chorus.

Tenor Gwilym Bowen (standing, center) excelled in the key role of The Evangelist. Photo by Bob Benenson.

But the success of the evening was clinched by the sterling performances of six soloists, with a particular star turn by British tenor Gwilym Bowen. In the narrator role of The Evangelist, Bowen appeared in virtually every scene singing passages from the Gospel in a crystalline voice that often approached counter-tenor range. Brandon Cedel provided baritone resonance to the role of Jesus, though his role naturally diminishes as he declines to defend himself against Pilate and his accusers.

Also impressive were soprano Tess Altiveros, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Paul Appleby and baritone Roderick Williams singing in the voices of those defending Jesus, crying out for mercy and mourning his death.

One curiosity about The St. Matthew Passion is its downbeat, mournful ending, which takes place at Jesus’ tomb just before the Resurrection. The reason for this, historians say, is that the Resurrection would be celebrated at Easter services two days after its Good Friday performances, and Bach did not want to detract from that.

Perhaps the spirit of “no spoilers” even applied to liturgical music written 300 years ago.

Music of the Baroque rounds out its 2022-23 season with its Circles of Friends concert celebrating four contemporaries who wrote in 18th century Vienna: Johann Baptist Vanhal, Joseph Haydn, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (whose Symphony No. 34 in C Major will be performed). Click here for tickets for the May 7 concert at North Shore Center priced at $35-$100, and click here for tickets for the May 8 concert at Harris Theater, also priced at $35-$100.

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.