California Bach Society Delivers a Sublime St. Matthew Passion

Steven Winn on October 11, 2016
The California Bach Society and the Kairos Youth Choir | Credit: Kathy Veit

Right from the start, with a brilliantly deployed opening chorus, J.S. Bach gives full notice of the expansive ground he will cover in the great journey of his St. Matthew Passion. A marvel of dramatic intensity, mournful intimacy and layered contrapuntal complexity, Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen (Come, you daughters, help me lament) enlists an audience’s immediate emotional investment in this account of Christ’s forbearance, betrayal, suffering and death. The text stops short of the resurrection, leaving listeners with the wrenching consolation, three-plus hours later, of its final lines about the entombed Jesus: “Rest gently, gently rest.”

The California Bach Society made its own early claim on the work, in Sunday’s performance at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. This final of three weekend dates was originally scheduled for Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, which was badly damaged in a September 30 fire.

The choir, which sang with technical assurance and expressive command through the afternoon and into the evening, seized on the animating, call-and-response tension of that first chorus. The Kairos Youth Choir, onstage only for “Come, you daughters” and the closing chorale of Part One, added a disciplined, ethereal shine. The chamber-scale orchestra, after a somewhat patchy start, found its footing and contributed handsomely.

Brian Thorsett

No sooner was this Passion off to an absorbing, strong start than one of its other vital assets surfaced. In supplying the piece’s narrative thread, tenor Brian Thorsett spun out the role of the Evangelist with a keenly attentive and flowing throughline. Singing entirely in recitative, sometimes in shapely long paragraphs and sometimes in emphatic single lines, he drove the story along or brought it up short with a hissing sibilant, percussive consonant or hushed rubato. At the moment of the disciple Peter’s disownment of Jesus at the crowing of the cock, Thorsett made time stand still with his heartsick description of Peter’s bitter tears at what he’s done. That was one of many times Thorsett’s wonderstruck Evangelist seemed to be witnessing the story even as he told it.

Not everything could — or should — attain such white-light focus. One of the great rewards of this masterwork is its spacious overall architecture. The sturdy chorales are like pillars, many of them built of the same musical material that is then shaped to its own purpose in a particular spot. Paired recitatives and probing da capo arias are like windows to extend the view — now reverent, now pleading, now heartsick — into the Passion’s spiritual vistas. Each one is framed and colored by a different instrumental accompaniment — oboe, oboe and bassoon, cello continuo, flute, viola, many of them expertly and tenderly done Sunday. And then there’s the hastening rush of light across the surface, when the Evangelist and Jesus (a disappointingly pallid Sepp Hammer) and other characters drive the story toward its fateful climax with near-theatrical momentum.

Marc Pantus | Credit: Tonny de Rover

Among the soloists bass baritone Marc Pantus stood out. Singing the roles of Peter and Pilate, he brought a deeply felt texture to the dual tasks. His voice, at once rich and slightly raw, captured the disciple’s anguish and the more measured but compelling moral torment of the Roman leader whose actions lead to Christ’s crucifixion. Also fine, in a more serene and elegant vein, was mezzo-soprano Danielle Sampson, the slightly grainy and humanizing timbre of her voice sculpted into exquisitely molded phrases.

Tenor Mark Bonney and soprano Jennifer Paulino were uneven, but each had their standout moments. Paulino was especially memorable for her part-two aria about a sinless Savior’s self-sacrifice, her voice at once penetrating and loftily ascendant. Conductor and Bach Society artistic director Paul Flight took his turn in the vocal spotlight, with an adequate but rather narrow-gauge countertenor aria. Bass Adam Cole sang forcefully, in several roles, from his spot in the choir.

Danielle Sampson

While Flight maintained his energy and unflagging attention to detail from the podium, the long concert did wane now and then, especially near the ends of each half. The strings and some of the woodwinds labored a bit. The soloists occasionally sounded weary in their extended and sometimes widely spaced numbers.

But neither Thorsett nor the excellent choir fell prey to any slackening. If the Evangelist made the telling of the tale distinctly and specifically his own, the choir made it universal. They voiced every lustrous, solemn chorale or unruly crowd outburst with conviction. The listener had the uncanny, elevating sense of hearing every voice devoted to a single purpose. It was, in the broadest sense of the term, a musically spiritual experience.