Bach Masterwork Played Big in Brookfield
Bel Canto and supporting players take on Bach’s huge St. Matthew Passion for an appreciative crowd.
This past weekend was Johann Sebastian Bach’s 330th birthday and Passion Sunday, so of course it was appropriate to pull out all the stops and celebrate. The Bel Canto Chorus, the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, the Bel Canto Boy Choir, and a legion of vocal soloists, under the direction of Richard Hynson, filled St. Dominic Catholic Parish in Brookfield with Bach’s monumental The Passion of Our Lord According to Saint Matthew, BWV 244. This piece is so massive in scope that it is not often performed here, and due to one particularly generous and anonymous donor (thank you, whoever you are), an overflowing audience experienced one of the musical cornerstones of Western civilization.
Bach composed this sacred oratorio for two orchestras, two choruses and a boy choir, six vocal soloists, and ten solo voices from within the chorus. Additionally, other soloists included two flutes, two oboes/English horns, violin, viola da gamba, cello continuo, and organ continuo. With one intermission, this work, which describes the betrayal, judgment, and crucifixion of Christ, clocked in at three hours, forty-five minutes. This explains the logistical challenges and why it is rarely performed. However, hearing it makes one wonder whether it shouldn’t be done more often, in spite of its cumbersome demands.
The most critical role in the Passion rests on the shoulders of the Evangelist as sung by tenor James Doing. Doing was—we were advised—under the weather; however, if being sick bothered him vocally, it did not show. Instead, he gave a clear, dramatic, and pleasingly articulate voice to the exceptionally demanding recitatives that narrate the story. High entrances flew out with ease, and the constant call for pitch accuracy was well met.
The role of Jesus was sung with elegance and warmth by bass Gerard Sundberg. The maturity of Sundberg’s musicianship was pleasing to listen to, and the radiance of the string sound provided the haloed effect that Bach intended to accompany the voice depicting Jesus.
Bass Christopher Burchett sang with a rich, round sound and excelled particularly in his aria, Mache dich, mein Herze, rein (“make pure my heart”). His long phrases had control and poise as he fully wrested the emotion from the music.
Likewise, tenor Daniel O’Dea sang with great expression and a lovely sound. His recitative, with the two solo oboes, Andrea Gross Hixon and Emily Knaapen, and his aria with the oboes and viola da gamba player Katherine Shuldiner were particularly compelling.
The highlights of the Passion were found in the voices of soprano Patrice Michaels and alto Clara Osowski. Michaels understands exactly what to do with her voice to draw attention to the most gripping notes in each phrase of music. She leans into the leading tones and appoggiaturas for dramatic emphasis, and she floats single notes with aching beauty as she crescendos and decrescendos through phrases, coloring the music with great sophistication. Osowski also has tremendous vocal skill—whether in duet with Ms. Michaels, in combination with the lovely flute playing of Janice Bjorkman and Linda Korducki, or in the heart-rending duet Erbarme dich (“have mercy”) with the exceptional violin playing of Jeanyi Kim—her rich and radiant voice was deeply satisfying to listen to.
The two orchestras played very nicely, with all woodwind soloists showing formidable skill. Cellist Scott Tisdel was particularly impressive (as usual) doing the continuo work along with organist Kevin Bailey. The Bel Canto Chorus provided a lustrous, balanced sound in the numerous chorales and choruses and added emphasis in the crowd reactions. The solo voices from within the choir were generally strong, particularly those of the women.
Conductor Richard Hynson led the whole affair with confidence, keeping balances, giving cues, and corralling all the spread-out forces together into a cohesive whole. He had occasional difficulty telegraphing the tempos from podium to the orchestra, and the tempos throughout had an uncanny knack for averaging out into a single, sometimes pedestrian pace, but the overall impression of this performance left me with a feeling of deep gratitude. Thank you to Bel Canto and all and sundry for a wonderful afternoon of exceptional music and music making.