Review: St. Matthew Passion concert invokes a range of musical emotions

On Good Friday, Thirteen Strings and Seventeen Voyces joined forces to present Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion at Dominion-Chalmers. The performance was distinguished by magnificent orchestral playing and choral singing, wildly incompatible soloists, and some quasi-heretical liberties in presentation.

Music director Kevin Mallon has serious early music red — he was mentored by John Eliot Gardiner and spent years playing with some of Europe’s leading early music ensembles. But his approach to Bach is not dogmatic. Mallon focused on the work’s emotional and spiritual narrative; the arresting drama of the vocal writing, and the beauty and inventiveness of the orchestration.

I like that Mallon isn’t a slave to ideological purity. There were no extremes in speed (although I would have preferred statelier tempi in some spots, notably for Erbarme dich and Mach dich mein Herze rein). Ornamentation was minimal. The modern instruments nodded to their period counterparts, without being forced to mimic them. The almost Verdian tension of Jesus’ arrest and trial was meticulously crafted and controlled.

Seventeen Voyces were beautifully prepared by Kevin Reeves. The singing was both crisp and flexible, with only a few attacks that were less than immaculate. The second “choir” was composed of a vocal quartet; the parts could have been doubled for optimal effect, but such are the challenges of limited resources. The girls of the De la Salle High School senior vocal ensemble provided support in the opening chorus.

The musicians were divided into two small orchestras, one on each side of the conductor. The playing was on a superlative level: the “halo” of strings shimmered like light slanting through stained glass. There were melting, expressive solos from violinists Manuela Milani and David Thies-Thompson, cellist Julian Armour, flautist Pascale Margely, and Anna Petersen and Melissa Scott on English horns, doing their best imitation of oboe d’amore.

Zach Finkelstein’s Evangelist was more vulnerable than commanding. He has an uncommonly sensitive understanding of the text, delivered in a light, confiding tenor that occasionally veered into thin, reedy territory.

Mezzo Marjorie Maltais has a warm, consoling, voice with a richly elegant low register. Hélène Brunet’s soprano is sweet, spinny and charming, despite a tendency to sing sharp. Tenor soloist Jacques-Olivier Chartier seemed physically stiff and tense, which translated into tight, forced high notes and erratic control.

Unfortunately, the weak link in the concert should have been the cornerstone. Baritone Alexander Dobson’s long, flowing locks were the only thing Christ-like about his Jesus. He seems to only be capable of one jarringly loud dynamic level, and there was little in the way of phrasing, shape, or legato to his singing, let alone any sense of tragic, contained dignity. His overacting was almost comical: Bach expresses the crucifixion powerfully enough, there’s really no need to for the singer stand there with his arms outstretched. The absurdity of Dobson’s portrayal was compounded by his tic of running his hands through his Fabio-like mane and tossing it like someone in a shampoo commercial.

The Bach passions are usually performed with the choir behind the soloists and everyone standing up and sitting down at regular intervals. They can also be presented semi-staged, with the soloists acting out their roles. What was served up on Friday was neither fish nor fowl. Some singers used a score while others performed from memory; some walked around while others stood still; the Evangelist sometimes stood, sometimes sat, and sometimes turned around to face the choir. It was all distracting and unnecessary. Bach’s music doesn’t need interpretive aids.

So you know when you think a concert starts at 8 p.m., but you don’t realize it’s the Casual Friday concert that was moved to Thursday because of a holiday, so it actually starts at 7? Yeah, I hate it when that happens. The SNAFU meant I missed Jan Lisiecki’s Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 with NACO this week. Seems like it was well received: one listener, knowing that I’ve been underwhelmed by Lisiecki in the past, told me the performance would have made a believer even out of me.

I did arrive in time to catch Shelley conducting Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. The orchestra was arranged with split first and second violins, and double basses shifted over behind the cellos. Separating the violins and the lower strings doesn’t always produce good results in Southam Hall. From my seat the sound was excessively bottom-heavy, although you could argue that it suited the symphony’s pessimistic mood.

The first movement was marvelously articulated, brooding and mysterious, dissolving at the end into a mist. Shelley’s pace in the Andante was a little brisk; such beautiful playing from the woodwinds deserved a more indulgent tempo. But the stern, almost violent third movement and furious, rocket-powered finale made a convincing case for the dark side of Mozart.

NACO has been experimenting with visual enhancement, and two video screens showed close-ups and wide shots of Shelley and the musicians as they performed. Some people may appreciate the bonus footage, but I found it an unwelcome distraction. A live orchestra performance is already visually thrilling without such gimmicks. Besides, our eyes are bombarded by screens and images 24/7. The concert hall is one of the last places where another sense is still king.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.