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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
American Bach Soloists / Friday, February 27, 2015
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

Conductor Jeffrey Thomas

A DEFINITIVE ST. MATTHEW AT ABS BELVEDERE CONCERT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, February 27, 2015

The American Bach Soloists performed Bach’s timeless St. Matthew Passion Feb. 27 to a sold-out audience at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere. In the account of Christ’s last hours as set forth by evangelist Matthew, the Passion stands supreme, beside the Mass in B Minor, as Bach’s finest creation.

It is interesting that the “chorus,” composed of 16 singers, 10 soloists, a boy’s choir, and the orchestra, was all one-to-a-part. In his program comments conductor Jeffrey Thomas noted that the St. Matthew used to be thought of in operatic terms, with many voices to a part, but he has concluded that the one-to-a-part version would probably hew closer to Bach’s conception of appropriate performance of this masterwork.

Carefully chosen for their parts, the soloists filled their roles with the skill ABS followers have learned to anticipate. Tenor Derek Chester, the Evangelist and hence narrator of the story, sang with deep expressiveness, bringing out the passion and drama of the text. William Sharp, familiar to ABS audiences, sang the part of Jesus. His rich, sensitive baritone, conveying complex emotions, helped listeners experience the depth of Jesus’s tragedy.

The chorus created an anchor for all of the wonderful recitatives and arias, always bringing the audience back to the familiar chorales that were well known to eighteenth-century congregations. As has always been true for ABS, the sixteen members sang with great clarity, precision, and emotion. The opening chorale included the Pacific Boychoir, from the Academy of that name in Oakland. Their high, clear voices added another layer to the rich texture of sound.

In her pre-concert lecture, oboist Debra Nagy described the beautiful recitatives as “accompanied by a halo of strings between the ‘pop tunes’ (the famous solo arias they introduced).” Truly, the recitatives (which she called “recits”) were “remarkable miniature pieces,” as Ms. Nagy mentioned. Listened to with heightened attention, they could be appreciated as much as some of the great arias. Mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko, who had honed her already impressive skills at the ABS Summer Academy, displayed her magnificent, sonorous voice in the recit and aria “Penance and remorse,” accompanied by two flutes, organ, and viola da gamba. Soprano Hélène Brunet sang the recit “My heart swims in tears,” then the aria “I want to give you my heart” with oboe d’amore accompaniment. Her luminous voice brought out the heartbreaking passion of the words.

Bach used flutes, oboes (three different kinds), and recorders to add color to some of the recits and arias. In the recit “O anguish!” tenor Jon Lee Keenan was accompanied by recorders and oboes da caccia. Shaped liked the letter “C,” the oboe da caccia sounds in a lower range than the familiar oboe and is reminiscent of an eighteenth- century hunting horn (hence the name “da caccia,” “hunting” oboe). The oboists each played their three different oboes masterfully. The flute section, led by Janet See, was also superb. At times, in different venues, I have had trouble hearing the flutes well, but in this performance their many wonderful solos and duets were easily heard.

The instruments and solo singers were divided into two sections, both with the same number of performers. Elizabeth Blumenstock led the “Orchestra l” section, while facing her was violinst Tekla Cunningham, in the “Orchestra ll” section. Both violinists showed their virtuosity in some of the most beautiful sections, adding their own ornaments to Bach’s soaring melodies. In the aria “Gladly will I submit myself” bass Joshua Copeland gave a moving and subtly modulated interpretation of the words. When Jesus is finally bound by his captors, after Judas has betrayed Him, the entire chorus and orchestra exploded with the words “Has lightening and thunder vanished in the clouds? Open your fiery abyss, oh Hell!”

The wonderful bass aria “Come, sweet cross” was sung with poignant lyricism by Thomas Meglioranza, accompanied by gambist William Skeen and organist Corey Jamason. This gamba solo has to be one of the greatest written for the instrument, and Skeen’s sumptuous ornaments brought out the stately beauty of the dotted rhythms. Another recit and aria that I found particularly moving was the solo "Mahe Dich“ (Make yourself clean, my heart, I will bury Jesus myself), sung by William Sharp. The calm and peacefulness of the orchestra, highlighted by the two oboes da caccia, imparted a lilting, lullaby quality to the aria, with the words “He shall have his sweet rest in me.”

The St. Matthew Passion is a very long work, over three hours, and is sometimes even performed as two concerts. I am sure the performers were exhausted at the end, but the audience had no inkling of that. Tireless conductor Jeffrey Thomas deftly guided orchestra and singers through every emotional twist and turn, delivering them finally to the moving chorus “We sit down with tears And cry to you in the grave.” The full ensemble thus offered a fitting close to another memorable evening with the American Bach Soloists.