Dallas — Six days before Easter Sunday, the Dallas Bach Society joined forces with the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas to deliver a beautiful rendition of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.
The performance was distinguished by historical accuracy and a brilliant adherence to the composer’s original intentions. Set in double choir and double orchestra, the ensemble was led by artistic director James Richman and his skillful harpsichord continuo. Richman is known as one of today’s most prominent conductors of Baroque music and opera, and it certainly shows in this performance. His intention seemed to be to pay homage to the period, as the delivery and instrumentation was highly Bach-esque.
When attending a work like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, one might expect to experience clever or nuanced interpretations of the work. Sometimes, soloists play out their roles dramatically across the stage. Sometimes, the work may be semi-staged. Sometimes the orchestration includes modern instruments mimicking their period counterparts. However, Richman and the Dallas Bach Society did well to present the work in its original form with period strings, including viola da gamba, Baroque oboe, oboe d’amore, Baroque bassoon, and flauto traverso.
The difference between the music for the first and second orchestras and chorus seemed to reflect Bach’s intention of putting his better players and singers in the first group. The effect of this delegation became clear, particularly when comparing the alto aria “Erbarme dich,” which included soloist Nicholas Garza (countertenor) and an apt violin solo by concertmaster James Andrews from orchestra one, followed soon after by “Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder,” the bass aria with vocalist Andrew Dittman (bass) accompanied by orchestra two and featuring a violin solo from orchestra two concertmaster Ha Dang. Though both movements featured skillful violin solos, the latter was delivered a bit over tempo, leaving the vocalist slightly lost in the mud.
Apart from this hiccup, the two groups portrayed the beautiful inventiveness of Bach’s orchestration competently. Movements like “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,” a soprano-alto duet with choir and full orchestra, were dramatically imposing and engaged, capturing the emotion of the spiritual narrative. Here, Garza’s countertenor blended beautifully with Anna Fredericka Popova’s bright soprano to create a rich and creamy texture and a sorrowful tone, laid over the pulsing drive of the booming choir. “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh’ allzeit” was a standout favorite for this attendee. The movement incorporated full choir and orchestra, wherein the strings lay down a blanket of light tension and melancholy over which the choir recites each discretely desperate line of text.
The collaboration with the CCGD on the first and final movements of Part I gave the 64-person choir a color and dynamism that was very period-appropriate. Under the leadership of artistic director Cynthia Nott, the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas is one of the largest and most prestigious in the country, and their light, airy tone added a shimmer and brightness to open the performance and close down the first half.
Dann Coakwell’s Evangelist came across as more vulnerable than commanding, which served to better deliver the drama and magnitude of gospel narrative. His sensitivity to the text translated to a light, entrusting tenor that was at once wrenching and brightly melodic.
In contrast, bass David Grogan portrayed Christus with a hearty, weighted tone that made the character stoutly declarative. At the same time, his lines were lyrical and airy when necessary, which made his Christus well-rounded and approachable.
Other soloists throughout the performance included Patrick Gnage (bass), Joshua Hughes (bass), Sarah Daniels (alto), Alex Longnecker (tenor), Charles Moore (bass), Jason Lamb (bass), Juliana Emanski (soprano), Leslie Hochmann (soprano), Audrey Brown (soprano), and Scot Cameron (tenor). All of the soloist, save for Coakwell and Grogan, came from both choirs and performed aptly and capably.
All in all, the Dallas Bach Society’s performance of St. Matthew’s Passion was rightly sublime. The intrigue and drama of Bach’s great work shone through in this historically accurate contextually relevant interpretation. The nearly three-and-a-half hour session of liturgical emersion proved to be moving and insightful, fittingly pertinent in the Easter season.