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In performance: St. Matthew Passion

Web-only review:

Cathedral Choral Society: sublime Passion
by Cecelia Porter

A sublime performance of sublime music does not come along every day. But it did on Sunday at Washington National Cathedral, when J. Reilly Lewis conducted the Cathedral Choral Society and Orchestra, along with the Cathedral Choristers and stellar vocal and instrumental soloists, in J.S. Bach's epic "St. Matthew Passion." A portrayal of the impelling events leading up to the Crucifixion, the "St. Matthew" is a three-hour-long drama of realism as wrought with conflicting emotions as Shakespeare's "Macbeth" or Wagner's "Ring" cycle. The libretto combines scriptural accounts with Bach's personal choice of other texts according to the Lutheran tradition of his day.
(read more after the jump)

Bach demands impossibly Olympic standards of performers, such as assigning wind players extended melodic lines and singers never-ending solo passages on just one syllable -- without time to breathe. But in Sunday's performance, everyone met the technical challenges with seeming ease. Chorus and soloists also rendered Bach's text with German consonants and vowels unblemished by English pronunciation, intensifying the cutting edge of a story pitting violence and guilt against compassion.

Lewis's every motion drew from his forces the tumultuous scenario of individual remorse, screaming multitudes, even the thunder and lightning of nature's fury. As the Evangelist, Rufus Müller narrated the shattering story with both overwhelming vocal magnitude and telling physical bearing. Likewise, the other soloists coupled vocal excellence with dramatic gestures. Portraying their roles with deep conviction were soloists Christòpheren Nomura, Gillian Keith, Clare Wilkinson, Alan Bennett and Craig Phillips.

As Sunday's performance ended, the audience delayed applause for a few moments. That told it all.

-- Cecelia Porter

By Anne Midgette  |  February 23, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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Excellent review of an excellent performance. By a stroke of luck, my aunt and I moved up to the front-front row for the second "act" and were blown away by every detail mentioned above. Bravo.

Posted by: lewislevenberg | February 23, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Not to spoil the party, and of course there was much that was fabulous in the performance, but "O Mensch" was ragged and untogether. It's all very well to be historically informed, but insane speeds don't make for precise execution. Listen to some classic recordings from the 60s--it's all there. On the asset side, Clare Wilkinson is a mezzo to watch for the future; very expressive and not letting the conductor get in the way.

Posted by: ninglis | February 23, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

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