IN: Reviews

Emmanuel Music’s Passion Moves to Tears

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Jesus of Nazareth rose from humble beginnings to become the most influential personage in the history of the world, inspiring not only a worldwide religion, but cathedrals, books, art, movies, websites, and of course, tons of music, but perhaps none more magnificent than Bach’s Passion According to St. Matthew.

Matthäus-Passion (Lutheran doctrine does not bestow sainthood to disciples), Bach’s BWV 244 is sung in German. In English the word passion means strong enthusiasm or even romantic ardor, but the German remains true to its Latin origins,  passio and, patior, meaning to suffer. 

Mounting this performance was a monumental undertaking for Emmanuel Music. Conductor Ryan Turner artfully managed two choirs on stage, as well as the all-boys Saint Paul’s choir in the right balcony above the stage. The detailed planning extended down to the sartorial, with the entire stage ensemble attired in black, the exception being Jesus, who wore a red tie, symbolizing the blood he was to shed.

After the brief overture, we heard the famous Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen (Come, daughters, help me lament). This is a duet of the two choirs: the Daughter Zion (singular, no Umlaut, many programs get this wrong) calling to her daughters, the Believers. This is eventually joined by the a hymn that would be familiar to all church goers in Bach’s time: O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (O Lamb of God, guiltless), sung by boys’ choir overhead, creating an ethereal surround-sound, as the purity of their young voices evoked a heavenly choir of angels. The three choirs’ vocal lines intertwined and progressively merged.

Even people identifying as Christian might be mystified by the meaning of the text. Who is Zion and the Lamb of God? From Jeremiah 6:2 “I have likened the daughter of Zion to a comely and delicate woman” and Isaiah 51:16 “Zion, thou art my people,” Zion represents the descendants of Benjamin who believed in a monotheistic God and settled around the area of Jerusalem. A chaste woman represents Zion, the church, and the daughters of Zion are the generations of believers that followed and the churches they founded. The Lamb of God represents Christ. In the Jewish tradition, in order to atone for sin, a goat had to be sacrificed. But with mankind ever sinful, and people ever more plentiful, it would not be long before we ran out of goats. Christ’s death on the cross and his blood cleansing the sins of believers would dispense with the need for animal sacrifice. Faith in Jesus and God alone would turn believers into righteous people, this is the Lutheran doctrine that Bach believed.

The Evangelist and Jesus stood to sing a brief exchange that set the stage for the rest of the concert, beginning at Matthew 26:2, two days before the crucifixion of Christ.

Singing from the pulpit, Jonas Budris made a wonderful Evangelist.  A frequent performer with Handel and Haydn and Boston Baroque, Budris has a powerful tenor voice, his German is superlative, with every word understandable; his operatic background shows in his expressive commitment to the text. His long hair even added a biblical element.

David McFerrin shone as Jesus. He has sung with the Boston Lyric Opera, among many other engagements worldwide. His rich bass voice and demeanor conveyed Jesus’s gravitas and exuded dignity, compassion and reassurance.

One’s eyes were drawn upward via the arches of the church to the stained-glass windows, it seemed most fitting to hear sacred music in a sacred space, and a relief above the altar depicted the very scene of the last supper dramatized in the music, during which Jesus announces that someone at the table will betray him, and his disciples ask: Herr, bin ichs? (Lord, is it I)? Two big screen TVs supplied the English text.

The climax of Act I came right after Jesus’s arrest in a beautifully sung duet aria by Soprano Susan Consoli and Alto Deborah Rentz-Moore, with the choir joining in: So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen, Mond und Licht ist vor Schmerzen untergegangen (Thus my Jesus is now captured, moon and light has vanished in agony), the sighing two-note slurs conveying pain. Moore’s rich alto provided a lush, firm foundation from which Consoli’s soprano voice grew, blossomed into a most beautiful celestial flower. The choir briefly interjected: “Leave him, stop, do not bind him,” before launching into the dramatic sequence of thunder and lightning, open up: “Oh hell, smash, ruin and break to pieces that false betrayer.” This section reminded me of the thunderstorm in Beethoven’s pastoral. Having sung the St. Matthew Passion myself, I can attest that for a member of the chorus, this energetic section of righteous outrage is tremendous fun to sing.

The first act ends with the famous chorus, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” (O humankind, bewail your great sin).

With the boy-choir gone, the second act becomes more interactive with many small solos. Grammy-nominated Carrie Cheron intoned the intensely moving aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (Have mercy on me, my God) with a velvety warmth, the mezzo could also soar to mingle with the solo violin, conveying infinite sadness.

Evangelist Jonas Budris at left (Sibylle Barrasso photo)

The trial and crucifixion of Christ follows, with the choir taking on the role of the people, first ordering Pontius Pilate to “crucify him,” then mocking Jesus for not being able to descend from the cross. The emotional climax of Act II occurs right after Jesus’s death, with the choir singing a capella “When I must depart one day, do not part from me then.” Dana Whiteside, a much sought-after soloist, added his magnificent baritone in  Mache dich, mein Herze rein, ich will Jesum selbst begraben (Make yourself pure, my heart, I want to bury Jesus myself). This text does not mean that the singer literally wishes to pick up a shovel and put Jesus into the grave, but for his own heart to become Jesus’s resting place. The two choirs closed the Passion with the “Rest Gently.”

Emmanuel Church has built something very special with their Cantata series, assembling a choir that consists of renowned soloists whose collective bios testify to the heights of members’ accomplishments. The aria soloists—sopranos Susan Consoli, Carly DeFranco, Janet Ross, Kristen Watson; altos Carrie Cheron, Elizabeth Eschen, Katherine Maysek, Clare McNamara, Debora Renz-Moore, Krista River; tenors Charles Blandy, Omar Najmi, and basses David Kravitz, Andrew Padgett, Will Prapestis and Dana Whiteside (President, Emmanuel Music) —gave of themselves with exquisite engagement.

The two orchestras totaled 42 players. Heidi Braun-Hill and Heather Braun-Bakken each had magnificent violin solos with the vocalists. But the orchestral member who took center stage throughout was the superb Laura Jeppesen on viola da gamba. Jeppesen’s underhand bow strokes were unique, her fine articulation a joy to hear. 

Earlier that day, in conjunction with this event, the Harvard Catholic Forum offered a workshop with Michael Marissen, who has published numerous books on Bach, Bach’s compositions and relationship to God. Almost 50 people attended his lecture at the St. Paul Campus in Cambridge, the only Roman Catholic boys choir school in the US. Marissen explained how in Bach’s time, no women were allowed to sing in church*, and the original Matthäus-Passion performance consisted of two small double choirs of only four plus four soloists. Marissen played the French Tombeau (funeral music) from Marin Marais, on which Bach’s overture was based, and it is almost identical. An inscription in Bach handwriting in Chronicles 5:13 states: “Bei einer andächtigen Musique ist allezeit Gott mit seiner Gnadengegenwart,” meaning that Bach believed that devotional music can summon God. Marissen explained how the Passion descends from E minor to C minor, as if to follow Jesus into the grave. Attendees enjoyed a slideshow of relevant art, complimentary concert tickets and lunch.

The near-capacity audience at Emmanuel Church applauded, seemingly without end, for a sublime three-hours that had moved many listeners to tears. The Livestram runs through April 22nd HERE.

Sibylle Barrasso is a long-time piano student of Robert Poli. She has played in piano competitions in Pickman Hall and Chicago, is on the board of directors of the Boston Piano Amateurs Association and has played for audiences in the Boston Symphony Cafe since 2010.

Professor Christoph Wolf enlarged on the question of when Bach wrote for women:

The only documented pieces were composed in Cöthen and Leipzig, and always for performances in secular settings by Anna Magdalena Bach (soprano). Probably the first cantata written for her was the congratulatory cantata “Durchlauchtster Leopold” BWV 173a (for the birthday of Prince Leopold). The music is preserved in the sacred version of the piece “Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut” BWV 173. Then there are the cantatas Bach wrote for Cöthen and Weißenfels from Leipzig, 1724–28, including the funeral music for Prince Leopold of 1729 (with movements taken from the St. Matthew Passion). The most prominent piece written for her is probably the homage cantata “O holder Tag” BWV 210a composed for the Duke of Weißenfels in 1729. Anna Magdalena’s last public appearance is documented for a concert in Kassel (September 1732, repertoire unknown) but she most certainly continued to perform at private occasions such as house concerts in Leipzig.

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1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Carrie *Cheron*, not “Chevron” (thanks spellcheck), though she is surely a singer of the highest rank, deserving of the deference due to a great artist.

    Comment by Charles Blandy — March 25, 2024 at 5:17 pm

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