By MeriJo Guercio
The Passion According to St Matthew, by Johann Sebastian Bach at the Libby Gardner Concert Hall for one night only, March 30, 2018 was absolutely spectacular—a lovely performance to enhance a lovely time of year.
The Passion According to St Matthew, presented by Salt Lake Choral Artists featuring SLCA Chamber Orchestra filled the Libby Gardner Concert Hall to standing room only on Good Friday. Bach’s poetic lyrics are based on Matthew: 26-27, and employ full orchestral movements, choral symphony, and stately narration. Passion was premiered at Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany on Good Friday, 1729. It was originally performed as a divine service including prayers and a sermon. The English version presented today was edited by Neil Jenkins in 1997. In 2018, in Salt Lake City, modern stage direction and choreography intertwine with the classic masterpiece.
The Libby Gardner Theatre offers fantastic acoustics and a welcoming atmosphere. Based on the line waiting for stand-by tickets, a bigger venue or additional performances may be needed for next year’s Easter offering. The ushers were friendly and accommodating and help shift the crowd to optimize the seating capacity. The choir marched in from the eaves to create a dramatic opening statement as the orchestra began. The entire chorus of 150 plus artists was positioned beneath the organ pipes with the double orchestra on the stage. It was a majestic sight.
Dr. Brady Allred conducted the double orchestra and ensemble, and served as Artistic Director. His enthusiasm at the podium was as fun to watch as the performance. Allred is one of the most noted Bach scholars in the area, and his impressive resume includes International honors, performances, and Professorships. He seemed comfortable conducting the two orchestras and three choirs on stage while using every opportunity to showcase Bach’s signature “musical layering”.
Matthew the Evangelist narrated the story, Part One taking us from Judas’ betrayal, Gethsemane, the sleeping Disciples, and Christ’s arrest. Stage Director Anthony Buck also played the part of Matthew the Evangelist, narrating the entire program. Buck is deliberate in his presentation. He used the printed program to explain to the audience that this performance will include some “poetic license” including modern choreography and non-traditional character placement. For instance, the soloist reading the lines of St. Peter is a woman, Josette Grant, showcasing her alto skills to compliment Bach’s design.
Buck’s creativity partner is Choreographer Liz Christensen. The two have designed a visual story line using dancers and the soloists representing Christ’s followers that holds the audience captive. The story line challenges the imagination, and I questioned whether it would effectively honor the sanctity of the message. Spoiler alert: it does. The stage interpretation uses each of the disciples and follower in turn representing Christ as He faces tribunal, condemnation, and crucifixion through dance movement and silent transitions. “Christ” is whichever follower is presented with the symbolic robe. It was not until Part 2 that I fully grasped Buck and Christensen’s statement that Christ was representing all of His followers. This bold statement and unconventional delivery was true art and really appealing once it came together in my mind. Christensen and Buck took a gamble on a theme, and it worked for all the audience, judging by the reactions I was able to capture.
Moving solo performances by Mary Magdalene (Clara Hurtado Lee) , John the Baptist (Baritone Jesus Vincente Murillo), Lazarus (Chad DeMaris) , John (Daniel Hurtado), and Peter told the story of Holy Thursday. DeMaris as Lazarus offered beautiful tome quality and his easy vibrato was breathtaking. As the chorus joined Lazarus, the transitions were flawless and the high sopranos were perfect. Hurtado’s John showcased vocal range and tone clarity as he stated “I’ll leave him never.” A duet between Mary Magdalene and Peter is powerful and emotional, and those emotions are multiplied when the choir joins the two followers. The chorus sounds out among thunderous orchestra and stage lighting to proclaim, “He left His Father’s throne above to ransom us with tender love.”
After a ten-minute intermission, the audience returns to Part Two, and the story continues, depicting The Lord’s sentencing, Golgotha, The Crucifixion, and the heartbreak of His followers.
Part Two introduces soloists and characters Mother Mary (Demaree Clayson Brown), Mezzo Soprano Judas (Tyler Oliphant), Mary of Bethany (Lisa Zimmerman) , and High Priests sung by Paul Hill and Jerry Duggar. All soloists were well cast professionals with impressive resumes, and Matthew showcases every talent. Lee brings a beautiful vulnerability and a strong, melodic energy, leaving the audience entranced in the suffering of Mary Magdalene. Oliphant’s Judas was at first harsh and angry, then repentant and humble as he sang out, “Give Me Back My Savior.”
I will attempt to use words to describe the final scenes and sounds as we see a wooden cross on stage, adorned with the red robe, symbolizing Christ’s final minutes. All the followers and remaining disciples are lined at the front of the stage holding hands as the choir echoes, “Lord Jesus Fare thee well” and the low strings harmonize. The robe is removed from the cross and each follower spends a moment honoring the symbol. Peter hugs it like a brother, Mary cradles it like a baby, it is lovingly passed to each follower for reverence. The final follower lovingly folds the robe and places it near the now empty cross. Buck’s and Christensen’s staging is the perfect backdrop for Bach’s masterpiece and Allred’s team.
Matthew’s combined double orchestra, triple choir, talented dancing, and dramatic movement created an amazing Good Friday celebration. I have seen a dozen Easter pageants, and this one far surpasses them all. Whatever Allred and Buck and the Salt Lake Choral Artists are doing next Easter, get tickets early.
Salt Lake Choral Artists present The Passion According to St Matthew by Johann Sebastian Bach
Libby Gardner Concert Hall, 1375 Presidents Cir, Salt Lake City, UT 84112
March 30, 2018 7:30 PM
Salt Lake Choral Artists Facebook Page
The Passion According to St Matthew Facebook Event