Dallas — The performance of a large-scale choral work such as Bach’s The Passion According to St. Matthew is a considerable undertaking; and although there were some bobbles, for the most part Saturday’s performance by the Dallas Bach Society at the Church of the Incarnation was well worth the three-hour-plus commitment. It included some moments of real transcendence, as we viewed the poignancy of the two-thousand-year-old events of Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion and burial through St. Matthew’s words and Bach’s music.
The attention to detail in performance practice here was quite high. Correct period instruments were used throughout, including the seldom seen oboe da caccia, an instrument with the same range as the English horn, but with a distinctively different timbre. The strings were consistent in their devotion to the nuances of Baroque style, and especially effective was featured cellist and gamba player Eric Smith. In the second part of the Passion, he faced the difficult task of repeatedly switching between cello and gamba, and played both with distinction.
The first chorale, the only section of the Passion to use a children’s chorus, is justifiably well-known, and the children, from Church of the Incarnation and St. Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral (appropriately enough), aquitted themselves well.
The fine Dallas Bach Society chorus sang with precision and finesse, and often true beauty, while the soloists were a bit of a mixture. One would expect exceptional precision in German diction from singers in a Bach Society, but that was not always the case—sometimes consonants were too harsh while vowels tended to disappear. Contrary to popular imagining, German is a beautiful language, especially when sung to Bach’s music, and that was not consistently evident Saturday night. Bright spots included bass David Grogan as Christ: his powerful voice well demonstrated both Christ’s strength and the pathos of his crucifixion. His final words, in Bach’s version of the Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?”, or, as the Evangelist sings in explanation, “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” are truly tragic, and both Grogan and Dann Coakwell as the Evangelist brought appropriate depth to the moment. Agnes Vojktko, alto soloist, was another asset. Her diction was strong and her alto projected well in all its registers.
The orchestra, while as always remaining true to Baroque performance practice and giving listeners a taste of what this music must have sounded like in the 18th century, was somewhat uneven. The players are divided into two orchestras, and Orchestra I had a decided advantage over Orchestra II, which had some problems with ensemble, tone, and pitch in the upper registers. Perhaps sorting the players a bit differently would have been more effective.
Despite these issues, however, the Dallas Bach Society’s St. Matthew Passion was a beautiful Lenten experience. The church was almost sold out, which is outstanding for a three-hour Baroque choral work that isn’t Messiah. In the aggregate, the beauty of the music in authentic Baroque style far outweighed any little glitches.