The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus convened Thursday evening at Symphony Hall for a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s sprawling epic St. Matthew Passion. It was a consistently sublime effort under the baton of Music Director Nathalie Stutzmann, even if the three-hour run time did noticeably strain the attention span of some of the audience.
The performance repeats Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.
The St. Matthew Passion is unique among Bach’s works. More than any of his other compositions, it pushes back against the constraints of the Bach brand. While J.S. Bach is the primary composer associated with the surname, he is nevertheless only one of a great many Bach composers.
By the time Johann Sebastian came along, the Bach family had already made a cottage industry out of training its young men to take up the family trade of writing and performing church and choral music. There were five generations of Bach composers by the time young Johann came along.
That extraordinary pedigree makes for effective church composers, but much of Bach’s own work is evidence of the limitations imposed by the family’s assembly line approach to music education. With the single-minded focus on one particular genre and venue, it becomes clear that much of the music written under the Bach name has a certain formulaic quality to it. Even the most ardent of Bach adherents cannot deny that it is obvious when his pieces were written for specific parts of church services with no higher artistic aspirations in mind.
The Passion is unique among Bach’s catalog as it sees the man delving deep into the story of the crucifixion for the sake of art rather than ceremony. It is here that we hear Bach articulating his own personal spiritual connection to the story of Christ.
It is a sprawling epic from a man more often associated with short, efficient, melody driven works. It is a work that is filled with as many soaring highs as it is intricate and confusing lows, both of which require a first rate orchestra and musically literate audience to fully appreciate.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — which has shown a consistent willingness to balance the listener friendly with the intensely cerebral — was just the ensemble to embrace such a massive undertaking. It’s also been a hallmark of Stutzmann’s career.
The ensemble for the evening included specialty players for the baroque era instruments. Outstanding among those guests was Jonas Nordberg on the theorbo, a stringed instrument in the lute family. Though his contributions to the overall sound were often lost in the multilayered expanse of onstage musicians, he was nevertheless a welcome treat every time he broke through.
The Passion is, ultimately, a vocal showcase and to this end the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus was more than up for the challenge. The brainchild of former Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Music Director Robert Shaw, the chorus’ performance of the Passion was as much an oblation upon the altar of his standards of excellence as it was an offering to the Almighty. It is a chorus that never fails to deliver and one whose command of the stage endured for three hours with nary a symptom of fatigue or strain to be noticed.
The ASO Chorus was joined by the Spivey Hall Children’s Choir, a plucky — if noticeably bashful — ensemble that held their own despite being rendered largely inaudible in the crowded milieu on stage. Like Nordberg and his baroque counterparts, they were still nice to hear in the moments where they broke through the mix.
Robin Tritschler served as the “evangelist” (a.k.a the narrator) of the Passion and presented his rich tenor voice in a conservative, economical manner that valued conversational tonality over wide dynamics or virtuostic showiness. It was a smart move given his omnipresence throughout the proceedings.
By contrast, baritone Nmon Ford offered the words of Jesus Christ in unnervingly resonant pulses that echoed through the chamber with all of the soul-piercing gravitas they deserved. The two played off each other well, offering a satisfying- if often disarming- balance between the intimate and the unnerving.
Mezzo-soprano Lucia Bradford had a wonderful exchange with first violinist and concertmaster David Coucheron. Though always a pleasure to hear as a soloist in his own right, Coucheron knew well how to tailor his phrases to complement rather than compete with Bradford. A similar exchange occurred between soloist Leon Košavić and violinist Justin Bruns. While Bruns is impeccable from a technical standpoint, he didn’t seem to tailor his tone in a manner that complemented his vocal counterpart.
The St. Matthew Passion is a glorious, sublime and transcendental work. But even the glorious, the sublime and the transcendental struggle to endure for three hours. A sizable portion of the audience opted to leave after the first half and those that remained seemed thoroughly worn out by the work’s eventual conclusion.
The Passion should be heard in live concert at least once by any committed classical enthusiast, though it is unlikely they’ll really want to experience it again. Best to let the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus give you that once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.