As an undergraduate music student at Baldwin-Wallace College (now Baldwin-Wallace University) in Northeast Ohio, we were force-fed an unrelenting amount of music by, arguably, the greatest composer to have ever lived, Johann Sebastian Bach (just don’t tell Mozart or Beethoven…and for goodness’ sake, don’t breathe a word to Wagner!). The B-W Conservatory of Music was almost irrationally obsessed with Bach, and by default, the music of the Baroque period in general; with everyone in lock step…well, almost everyone.
I cannot keep writing, however, without giving this institution the appropriate “props”. It boasted an incredible faculty in the 70’s and 80’s, maintained one of the finest “critical edition” libraries of archive worthy music–including rare, original Bach manuscripts; produced a regular scholarly publication (“The Bach Journal”, as we referred to it); possessed an incredibly supportive administration; provided a top-notch musical education; and continues to host one of the most critically acclaimed Bach Festivals in the world…this year celebrating their 80th annual.
Without trying to push a food metaphor unfairly; too much Bach in school was like being fed too many bitter greens when you were a kid (kale and broccoli di rabe come to mind). Then you grow up! That which you hated when you were a kid, becomes a craving that simply cannot be denied as an adult!!
Enter: Bach’s most enduring and greatest masterwork, the Saint Matthew Passion (BWV 244). (I KNOW, the great musical minds over the centuries have decided that the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) is superior. I respectfully disagree, based mostly upon my love for the theatrical component that The Passion employs.)
The 1727 exposition of Chapters 26/27 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew (for double chorus, solo voices, as well as double orchestra) was/is being presented this weekend in dignified fashion by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jaap van Zweden. To wit, the Maestro rarely missed the opportunity to direct his soloists and instrumentalists toward the exquisite art of “text painting”—something that is rarely alluded to in critical commentary. Bach was perhaps music’s greatest executor of this compositional technique. It’s true magic to be discovered in moments when it is virtually undetectable to the ear, or at least secondary to other primary melodies. Bach often “buried” these intricacies for the greater good of the whole, while others are wildly stark and unmistakable. The genius of Bach is that he knew exactly when to hit us over the head (“Barrabam”–choral exclamation), and when to quietly withdraw (Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben—soprano aria), all within the construct of superb musical design. A series of interlocking recitatives, arias, choruses and chorales are woven into one seamless fabric, with the occasional reach-back to employ classic Renaissance dissonances that provide a necessary splash of tonal color (So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen). Theatrically speaking, the Passion is a work where matters of the physical, metaphysical, and the spiritual, are joined, separated (“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”) and joined again as the drama reaches its climax.
The evening unfolded nicely and the addition of a children’s chorus–an often underutilized performance practice–was a nice touch, as they added their voices to the adults as natural spectators. I must admit, however, that witnessing 41 children sing the words “He bore all our sin…” was especially heartbreaking. With one exception (who did improve as the evening progressed), the vocal soloists were all top grade, with Camilla Tilling and John McVeigh as particular standouts. McVeigh’s Part II aria Geduld being especially well delivered. Concertmaster Alexander Kerr lent his considerable virtuosic talents to Jennifer Johnston’s gorgeous rendition of Erbarme dich, resulting in a half-swoon of pure satisfaction from a nearby audience member upon completion. Alastair Miles (bass) provided serene relief late in the game with the touching aria Mache dich, mein Herze, rein. The chorus was well prepared and took the roles of angry mob and sympathetic believers well in hand. The Passion is a solemn work, heavy-laden with poignancy, and Mo. van Zweden never lost sight of this; conducting with pathos and insight throughout. The moment of Christ’s death, and the quiet, dignified lying of his body in the tomb were highlights certain.
The original German language, with its natural textures and depth of assortment regarding delivery (trust me, I AM an expert on this issue) provides the perfect vehicle for transmitting the vicious, as well as the most gentle and plaintive of moods.
I knew when we performed all of Bach’s major works at Baldwin-Wallace, and witnessed other great Baroque works executed by highly acclaimed, world class artists, that it was good for me. I never would have expected, however, that my appetite could hardly be satisfied for this fare later in life. The Dallas Symphony performance—while certainly a full, gourmet meal—seemed only an appetizer for such a hunger.
I busy myself professionally in Dallas (when I am here) with a full plate of opera–being an opera singer of course–as we ready The Magic Flute, and La Traviata for presentation at the new Winspear Opera House–right next door to the Meyerson Symphony Center. The Dallas Opera will toast to its own bragging rights soon, as it will present its wonderfully cast Magic Flute in a live simulcast at Cowboy Stadium on April 28 to an already sold-out crowd. But this Palm Sunday weekend is The Dallas Symphony’s chance to shine, and it is doing so in vast array.
While the Dallas arts community, like all others nationwide, is addressing the delicate issue of funding via slightly shorter seasons, fewer performances, contract concessions, and reduced staffing; it is still ‘beyond-incredible’ to be at the center of an arts universe that presents Bach, Verdi, and Mozart side by side (not in competition with, but as complements to one another) in this rather incredible Texas town.
Yes, Dallas may be considered a major city worldwide; but its residents, corporate stewards, philanthropists and arts donors are so down-to-earth and community friendly, you would swear you were in Any-TOWN, U.S.A.; and a ‘town’ is a nice place to be these days. And while Dallas has gone through celebrated boom/bust cycles since its founding; it is surely a blessing to note that its arts community is just as active as its sports community in leading the way back.
Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Camilla Tilling, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, alto
Johannes Chum, tenor
Morgan Smith, baritone
John McVeigh, tenor
Alastair Miles, bass
(Please note for the sake of good order: I do not, have not, and do not expect to perform with the Dallas Symphony. This article is solely based upon my thoughts after attending the Thursday March, 29 2012 performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas TX.)