The annual Chicago Bach Project made its elusive single appearance on Friday night at The Harris Theatre for Art and Dance with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and the venue itself reveals how large this annual event has become. This is only the fourth year of the Chicago Bach Project, but the first to be performed at the Harris Theater after three years at St. Vincent de Paul Church on the De Paul campus. The Chicago Bach Project and Soli Deo Gloria, the Chicago-based organization which has sponsored concerts of large sacred compositions worldwide, are both led musically by John Nelson, who conducted this year’s performance of Bach’s “Great Passion.”
Premiered at St. Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, where Bach held the title of Kapellmeister, April 11, 1727, exactly 287 years before Friday night’s performance (though the original performance was held on Good Friday), the St. Matthew Passion is a work which essentially defies any stream of superlatives thrown at it. A three-hour work incorporating at least one orchestra, two choruses, and several solo vocal parts, the Passion was simply written as church music for the religious edification of a Lutheran congregation in Leipzig, albeit for the most important day on the holy calendar. Bach’s output was almost entirely the result of his religious obligation and devotion; in fact, the name of the group Soli Deo Gloria comes from the Latin initials “SDG”, found inscribed by the composer on many of his compositions, “To the glory of God alone.” Bach knew he was a supremely talented musician; he had a healthy ego, at times very little patience for the inferiority of others (which, compared to him, was everyone else,) and his musical demands are extraordinary for those of someone with relatively average resources, but the results are unquestionably superlative, and the St. Matthew Passion stands as the apotheosis of his divinely-inspired output.
Given the reverence that Bach’s works can inspire, it is not surprising that Nelson would be able to flourish with Soli Deo Gloria, and this performance of the St. Matthew Passion was an incredible effort, with intensely focused efforts by all the performers involved. Using the 1736 re-orchestration of the piece, which employs two small but separate orchestras, two full choirs and one children’s choir (the latter used in the first part only,) Nelson’s interpretation was hugely ambitious and produced results equal to its effort and preparation.
The performance was influenced by the now decades-long preference of conductors and orchestras for period-influenced performances, which mercifully have become the norm in interpretations of Baroque music. The orchestras’ tempos were generally not slow, at least not slower than Bach’s music would dictate. Where Nelson’s technique was slightly different was in his conception of the obbligato (solo) moments, such as the famed plaintive violin solo that precedes the vocal solo “Ebarme Dich”, played by concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, or the subsequent defiant violin solo that comes before “Gebt sie Meinen Jesum Wieder”, played by the first violinist of the second orchestra, Robert Hanford. For these solos, Nelson seemed to prefer quicker staccato effects which didn’t linger over the music but presented them more matter-of-factly, which did not diminish their impact.
In addition to the tireless orchestra, Nelson assembled a first-rate group of soloists whose commitment to their roles was as impressive as their substantive vocal gifts. The Evangelist, who tells the story of the Passion in recitative, was sung by tenor Nicholas Phan, who sang his role from a makeshift pulpit on the stage at the Harris Theater. Phan’s tenor voice was impressively powerful and well-suited to the part. Also exceptional was bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck, who sang the role of Jesus dramatically, with ample strength and authority without any hamming to draw excess attention. Additionally, soloists Lisette Oropesa (soprano), Colin Ainsworth (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass-baritone), and Tobias Greenhalgh (baritone) all contributed impressively in their solos.
The most unusual selection in the casting was the use of a countertenor, Lawrence Zazzo, to sing the alto part. It was surprising, to say the least, to see a man performing“Erbartme Dich,” but Zazzo pulled it off as well as a countertenor could hope. His effort was exceptional, as tends to be the case with countertenors, whose efforts often appear pained, and his voice was exceptional too. One element that I must say I disliked was the mannered way in which the vocal soloists tended to perform their roles, with more mannered facial expressions than seem necessary. I get that it’s a Passion “Play”, but the setting and method of performance would seem to necessitate less playing than a fully staged interpretation. Much of this acting can be ascribed to the commitment and sincerity of the performers, which mitigated some of the silliness.
Finally, a special place of pride must go to the Chicago Bach Choir, on whose shoulders fell some of the most expressive and beautiful music in the Passion. The two choirs, directed by Chorus Manager Donald Nally, gave a perfect performance. In the first part, they were joined by a youth choir, Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago, who made an essential contribution in the piece’s opening chorale, “Kommt, ihr Tochter, Helft mir Klagen.”
The dramatic effect of this superlative, emotional work was not lost on anyone, the orchestras, the soloists, the choruses, or the maestro, who all gave a performance that could not have been more committed or precise. Listening to the Passion live, in its totality, should never be considered an ordinary experience. The density and complexity of Bach’s harmonies, the emotional impact of his blending of orchestral pieces, obbligati, recitatives, choruses, and vocal solos, should leave us in awe, and this performance did that. It was an exhausting experience, and I admire the stamina of the musicians who shared this music with us, but, as must have been the case when the work was first performed on Good Friday in 1727, Bach’s vision galvanized the musicians to reach as deeply as possible to help achieve his vision.
The St Matthew Passion is a work which contains so much extraordinarily profound music that it would be more than enough to be the product of a lifetime’s work. As those familiar with Bach’s larger body of work know, the qualities found in this setting of the Passion can be found in all of Bach’s music the greatest body of work, in my opinion, of any composer who ever lived or will live. However, given the scope of this Great Passion, and given Bach’s lifelong committal to proclaiming the glory of God with music, this is the piece which the craftsman-like Kapellmeister from Leipzig poured most of his extraordinary gifts to satisfy his ambition to glorify his God and his church. More importantly than Bach’s intent, it is a work that serves as inspiration to believer and non-believer alike, and a testament of the creative capacity of human beings. It is relevant as ever now and, I hope, as long as we play and listen to music.
Note: an earlier version of this review reviewed to the tenor singing the role of the Evangelist as Charles Phan, not Nicholas Phan. The article has been updated to correct this error.