Nelson leads majestic performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”

Thu Apr 21, 2011 at 12:21 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

"Christ of St John of the Cross" by Salvador Dali, 1951.

A new Easter musical tradition has begun in Chicago.

Yes, the fast choruses were a hazy blur Wednesday night, parking was horrific, and the church restroom facilities comically inadequate for an audience of nearly a thousand people.

Didn’t matter. The soaring, majestic performance of Bach’s epic St. Matthew Passion conducted by John Nelson at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Lincoln Park was a success across the board, idiomatically directed, sensitively sung and brilliantly played by the orchestra in one of the highlights of the current music season.

Wednesday’s performance is the first in what Nelson plans as an annual Holy Week tradition of performing Bach’s choral masterworks, with the St. John Passion up next in 2012. The Chicago Bach Project is presented by Soli Deo Gloria, a Glen Ellyn-based organization Nelson founded in 1999 to promote and commission sacred music by living composers.

Considering the logistical difficulties of putting together any performance of Bach’s sprawling oratorio — let alone in a nontraditional venue by a startup organization having to field a large group of soloists, two orchestras and choruses from scratch — the results paid off magnificently, even with the concomitant parking and restroom hassles (thank God for the DePaul Student Center one block north).

Presenting Bach’s masterpiece in such an imposing venue added to the esthetic pleasures. St. Vincent de Paul Parish, consecrated in 1897, is one of Chicago’s landmark churches, a soaring Romanesque edifice that provided as much visual splendor as Bach’s music did for the ear.

The challenge in presenting this music is dealing with the boomy resonance of such a vast space. As the conductor noted last week, the ear quickly adjusts and one accepts a tradeoff in pinpoint clarity for the warmth and glow of the enveloping sound.

John Nelson conducting Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" Wednesday night at St. Vincent de Paul Parish.

The practical musical challenges are intense and many for a work of this scope and complexity, yet under Nelson’s masterful direction, the three -hour-plus journey unfolded in a fluent, flowing arc.

The soloists were for the most part exemplary, well chosen for the roles. Stephen Morscheck, a veteran of Nelson’s Bach performances in Paris,  brought an authoritative bass-baritone to Jesus, singing with dignified strength and expressive restraint. Even while sitting silently for long periods, Morscheck communicated an apt calm and peace.

Stanford Olsen’s experience showed in the story-telling role of the Evangelist, his high flexible tenor and responsiveness to the text making a consistently illuminating narrative focal point.

It was luxury casting to have Nicole Cabell as soprano soloist. This was the popular opera singer’s debut in this work, and Cabell’s radiant vocalism was stellar throughout, finding a well-calibrated balance between expressive ardor and spiritual glow.

Nicholas Phan brought a febrile tenor and dramatic thrust to his solo moments while bass Douglas Williams was a secure and sonorous presence in his duetted solos with viola da gambist John Mark Rozendaal. (Nelson took a seat for these two obbligato arias and just let the two men perform.).

The weak link among the soloists was Jennifer Lane, unfortunate since the alto has some of the Passion’s most crucial arias. Lane possesses the right contralto-like timbre, but the mezzo was clearly overparted in her arias, with a shaky technique and uneven production that was not up to the standard of the other soloists.

Nelson presented the St. Matthew Passion as Bach intended with two antiphonal orchestras and choirs (his opting for just one set of soloists the better part of valor). The choruses, scrupulously prepared by Donald Nally, sang gloriously. Placed across from each other on either side of the wide sanctuary, the combined forces made a resplendent corporate sound, with individual members bringing dramatic point to various small roles. Directed by Emily Ellsworth, the gifted youngsters of Anima contributed their bright-toned ensemble to Part One.

Nelson fielded a first-class ensemble of Chicago’s finest instrumentalists for the dual orchestras. His Paris concertmaster Deborah Nemtanu and Lyric Opera concertmaster Robert Hanford were the respective, idiomatic leaders, each contributing superb solo playing to their obbligato moments. Kudos also to the alert continuo (organist Stephen Alltop, cellist Walter Preucil, and bass Collins Trier) and for the terrific instrumental contributions from oboists Peggy Michel and Deb Stevenson, flutists Mary Stolper and Jennifer Clippert and viola da gambist Rozendaal.

Holding all the forces together was Nelson, who brought a fully idiomatic, flexible approach to this music, keeping the larger architecture in view while maintaining strong momentum without letting tension sag. Nelson consistently and naturally conveyed the devotional aspect of this deeply spiritual work while also starkly putting across the music’s drama. In many ways, Bach’s Passions are his operas, and Nelson and his forces delivered the dramatic force and spiritual consolation in this music magnificently.

A true Chicago musical event and memorable evening. But next year, take the el.

Posted in Performances


2 Responses to “Nelson leads majestic performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion””

  1. Posted Apr 21, 2011 at 4:47 pm by Jack Firestone

    A totally uplifting evening even for the uninitiated. Few performances convey both the musical and spiritual gravitas of John Nelson on the podium for the great sacred works. Thanks to Soli Deo Gloria, The Chicago Bach Project, and all who contributed to making this Passion the first of an annual Chicago tradition.

  2. Posted Apr 22, 2011 at 1:32 am by Floyd Larson

    Thanks to WFMT’s live broadcast and the internet stream, I was privileged to listen in San Diego. What a superb performance! Thanks for the wonderful review. It’s great to see my impressions confirmed by those who were present in person.