On Saturday, the Sinfonia da Camera, numerous soloists, the University of Illinois Chorale, the UI Oratorio Society and the Central Illinois Children's Chorus, all led by Fred Stoltzfus, performed Johann Sebastian Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion. Just about everything associated with this performance was on a grandiose scale.
It began at 1 p.m., and by my reckoning, the music stopped at about 4:40 p.m., about three hours and 40 minutes of running time. The music played for 2:55, leaving an intermission of about a half hour for singers, instrumentalists, and yes, audience members to rest.
Bach's great musical depiction of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ has special significance when performed on Easter weekend, the annual commemoration of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. Hence, this work has extraordinary impact on Christian believers. But the power of Bach's music also has a universal effect in evoking sympathy for sacrifice, suffering and ultimate transcendence.
Bach the composer cast his nets widely. This work is music drama, with the Evangelist singing the words of St. Matthew, and another singer playing the role of Jesus, and characters from the biblical account are played by others singers. The chorus sings both in the role of the crowd and as emotional commentator on the meaning of the action.
Four soloists sing arias that act as spiritual meditations on the meaning of Christ's suffering. The work is a gigantic construct, acting on multiple levels to create a varied but unified impression.
Highest praise should go to Stoltzfus for his ability to unite these varied forces, and especially to keep the impulse of the performance moving to an ultimate goal. He is retiring from his post of chairman of choral performance at the UI School of Music, and so this event had the additional emotional impact of his farewell after 22 years of service to the university and this community.
Guest artist Tarik Bousselma gave a galvanizing reading of the role of the Evangelist, a key force in modulating the emotional intensity of the whole work. UI faculty member Riccardo Herrera used his mellifluous baritone to project a very moving portrayal of Jesus.
The vocal quartet of Ruth Kenney, soprano, Cassandra Jackson, mezzo-soprano, Benjamin Krumreig, tenor, and Timothy Renner, bass, did valiant work in the 15 arias interspersed throughout the score.
Especially touching was the famous aria "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" ("Have mercy, my God"), movingly sung by Cassandra Jackson, with a fine obbligato violin accompaniment by concert master, Igor Kalnin. The dramatic roles such as Pilate, Judas, and Caiphas were sharply etched by soloists among the choristers. They were DaeKwang Kim, Myeong Hwan Caleb Lee, Maureen Reagan, Lindsay Dasenbrock, Kaela Talley, and Edward Brennan.
The grandest effects were produced by the 169 singers from three choruses: 50 singers were from the UI Chorale, 78 were from the Oratorio Society, and Stoltzfus is the director of both these groups. They were joined, in Part I, by 41 singers from the children's chorus, and the conductors of the various groups are Andrea Solya and Ann Marie Morrissette. When the choral forces let loose with the most dramatic moments, such as the words "Lass ihn kreuzigen!" ("Let him be crucified!), it shook the rafters of the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
Bach's main urge was to express his religious faith, but he could never forget to delight the ear. The fine singing of the arias by the soloists was accompanied by delightful obbligato playing by various instrumentalists in the two orchestras, each of which was assigned to one of the two sections of the chorus. One of the special pleasures of this live performance was to see which orchestras and choruses were performing.
The program included 23 pages of the German text with English translations. The lights were too dim to read these texts during the first half, but, at the request of audience members, the lights were turned up a few notches during Part II, and then one could comfortably follow the words as they were sung.
The St. Matthew Passion is frequently compared to a great mountain. The way up is long and arduous to the peak of Bach's work, the final overwhelming chorus, "Wir setzen uns mit Traenen nieder" ("We sit down with tears"). The journey was well worth it, the final effect unforgettable, but I can understand the tendency to shorten the length of this massive work in an effort to deliver its emotive impact before exhaustion sets in.
At the end of the performance, the applause was tumultuous, and most stood. Stoltzfus was embraced by fellow conductor Solya, and then, after receiving a floral tribute, he shook hands all around, and after repeated curtain calls, all was still, for a while.
John Frayne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.