Arts Listings

Arts: Bay Area’s American Bach Soloists Bring ‘The St. Matthew Passion’ to Berkeley

Ken Bullock
Friday May 12, 2006

When the American Bach Soloists take on the grandeur (and three-hour-plus extent) of The St. Matthew Passion at Saturday at the First Congregational Church, it will be with a somewhat different, more unified sense of that great work’s contemporary significance.  

“Most modern interpreters have observed several different perspectives in The St. Matthew Passion,” said Musical Director Jeffrey Thomas. “There’s the narrative of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, which stands on its own, yet is interspersed with two other movements: arias, sung by anonymous bystanders who come in on the story— comments from outside the action, like our own today, and the chorales, from the German for “hymns,” which in Bach’s day represented the congregation—but in ours, the audience.”  

Thomas explained the particular sense that sets this performance apart: “Just as when, say, Garrison Keillor tells a story, he tells us what its characters say, so Bach handpicked the poetic texts for the interspersed arias and chorales—the i ndividual and group commentaries—and placed them where the voices would clarify what he saw as St. Matthew’s narration of the Passion of Christ. So Bach is the architect of an assemblage that was not pre-existent. It’s like a play by Shakespeare. What you remember is how his words, his rhetoric brought the characters and the drama into the foreground. Not just the story, but the way it’s told.” 

Besides the play of perspectives, “which are like a dialogue, a conversation back and forth, that seems to be discussing what emerges as from a single viewpoint,” Thomas talked about the changing perspective on the master himself. “In Bach’s day, to be a church musician was nothing glamorous. In many ways, he was happily subservient to the views of his patrons in the court and the Lutheran Church. Yet his time butted right up against that of the Enlightenment, when the message of his texts became less associated with God and more with mankind. So Bach emerged as the hero, though that’s not what he intended.” 

So w hat is the message today? “Unlike the listeners in Bach’s time, many of us have no religious background, but that doesn’t diminish the power of his rhetoric. The episodes are still transcendental, no matter what background the audience is from. Take the e pisode about Peter, who catches himself lying, denying Christ, and is filled with remorse. The Gospel stories function within our own experience, represent our humanness and comment on it. That’s the core of the work. How humanity plays a role in these fa ntastic scenes of tremendous, sometimes harrowing, power with the voice of crowds ... it’s a great experience to perform, to hear it together, share it with everyone else in the concert hall, and then emerge thinking about your own life in light of the meanings in that story.”  

The production comprises two separate orchestras and two separate choruses, as well as soloists, “55 performers or so ... though when Mendelssohn staged it for its centennial in 1827—the first time it was performed since at least Bach’s death in 1750—there were literally hundreds of performers,” Thomas said. “We try to strike a balance!” 

Thomas singled out Wesley Rogers, who sings the Evangelist. 

“What he has to do is more than being the narrator, not only must he sing his own p art, but hand over the foreground to the others in such a way that they deliver their role in character according to the Evangelist’s mindset,” he said. “It’s a phenomenal performance.” 

American Bach Soloists was founded 17 years ago in the Bay Area to b ring together the best American Bach specialists. Originally based in Tiburon-Belvedere in Marin County, they’ve expanded their concertizing around the Bay and to Davis, appeared at the UC Berkeley Early Music Festival, and produced over a dozen recording s. The St. Matthew Passion is the last show of their season. The annual summer Bach festival comes up in July.