Bach’s ‘Passions’ at Benaroya Hall

Seattle Symphony performs a modern 'St. Matthew' and Pacific MusicWorks a Baroque 'St. John." Together they are a study in contrasts.

Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passions being performed this weekend and next at Benaroya Hall are billed as a study in contrasts: the first in modern style with the Seattle Symphony and Chorale under Ludovic Morlot in the big auditorium, the latter in Baroque style, by Pacific MusicWorks under the direction of Stephen Stubbs in the small recital hall. Both are using the same nine well-known international soloists, all deeply familiar with Passion performance.

In his first essay at conducting the St. Matthew, Morlot has chosen a more hybrid presentation, using a chamber orchestra in two unequal divisions and a smaller than usual chorus divided similarly. While the musicians are using modern instruments, Morlot has also included portative organ, viola da gamba, and lute (played by Stubbs) as well as oboes d’amore and da caccia, none of them usually found in modern orchestra settings; and his tempos Friday night were faster than are often used in modern performance.

He also chose an unusual staging, which made for a much less staid presentation than usual in this long work. He had the two orchestras at either side on stage, the choruses at the back and one side, and the soloists dotted around and walking to different positions for their solos. The Evangelist, tenor Thomas Cooley and Jesus, baritone Tyler Duncan remained at the front of the stage but on opposite sides. Altogether, the result was a dramatic, immediate performance which felt intimate despite the size of the hall.

The whole feeling was led by Evangelist Cooley, whose many recitatives told the story of the Passion with a dramatic yet lyrical approach, at times bringing a lump to the throat or causing the hair to rise up on the neck. Equally compelling, equally eloquent was Duncan’s Jesus. The other soloists, sopranos Shannon Mercer and Dorothee Mields, countertenor Terry Wey, alto Laura Pudwell, tenors Aaron Sheehan and Charles Daniels, and bass-baritone Matthew Brook, brought superb voices and expressive singing to their commenting arias.  The Chorale members achieved a fine clarity of singing so that all the interweaving of musical lines could be heard. They brought intense feeling to it also, sometimes thrilling, sometimes chilling. Many arias have an upper line of solo instrumental music, an obbligato which acts as duet with the voice, acquitted with aplomb by orchestra members, and the orchestra groups themselves played with clean clarity.

In short, it was a fascinating and inspiring performance, despite a few problems. One was audience lighting. We were provided with words and translations which it would have been an added interest to follow, but auditorium lights were kept too low to read with any ease. Morlot stood on a low podium facing the orchestras, but with his back to the soloists, so that they had to follow him rather than his taking his cue from them. In all the soprano arias, one of Wey’s and in a couple of the others, the tempo felt too fast for the singers to be able to savor and shape the words and phrases they were singing, and these were frustrating to hear.

In next week’s St. John Passion performed Saturday and Sunday in Nordstrom Recital Hall, eight of the nine soloists will also constitute the chorus, following current debate that this is how Bach performed his Passions. The orchestra will comprise many of the West coast’s top Baroque performers, and it will be of particular interest to see up close such instruments as the viola d’amore, which is played under the chin but has a large complement of sympathetic strings which give the sound an aura.

The St. John is shorter, leaner, more dramatic, more turbulent than the St. Matthew, exciting and terrifying, according to Stubbs who is playing the lute obbligatos in both Passions. Instead of Cooley, considered one of the top singers in the world to sing the Evangelist in large venues with modern forces, in the St John it will be Charles Daniels, renowned for his dramatic and rhetorical style in Baroque Passion performances. He sang one aria in the St. Matthew, but his style did not seem to fit as well within the frame of Friday night’s performance.

The two presentations in such close juxtaposition should prove a fascinating exposition of current thinking on performance styles as well as a deeply satisfying immersion in Bach’s music on this 2000-year old historical and religious event.

St. John Passion performances take place March 1 and 2. Tickets at Pacific MusicWorks.