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Talk About the Passion

Handel's Messiah may be more famous, but the Santa Cruz Chorale's performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion demonstrates why it's the greatest of all baroques

By Scott MacClelland

What distinguishes Handel's celebrated oratorio Messiah from all other baroque masterpieces is the fact that it has been in uninterrupted revival since its 1742 premiere in Dublin. But there are those among us who will argue, often heatedly, that the greatest of all baroque masterpieces is Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Despite limited media attention, that widespread knowledge probably accounts for the full house at Holy Cross Church on Sunday afternoon. As if to further underscore the work's legendary appeal, the audience included residents of Carmel and Big Sur, folks who have easy access to a well-known Bach festival of their own.

These same music-lovers would probably not make the long trip for Messiah. So what's the difference between the two? Messiah paints with a broad brush the life of Christ from prophecy to Christianity. The St. Matthew Passion covers only the events leading directly to and including the crucifixion. The latter, therefore, is an intimate picture, the gospel narrative lavished with chorales and arias of deep personal reflection and emotion. That makes for a peculiar challenge facing anyone who deigns to mount a production of the nearly three-hour work.

To highlight its 20th season, Santa Cruz Chorale music director (since 1996) Paul Vorwerk took on the challenge and produced an impressive success. He gathered a handsome stable of solo singers and assembled a pick-up orchestra of local musicians called the Monterey Bay Sinfonietta, under concertmaster Susan Brown. He also divided his resources into two choruses and two orchestras in order to emphasize the antiphonal requirements and implications of the drama.

One imagines that Bach himself would have taken a similar tack, although these days many conductors study the score in search of dramatic details to emphasize and even exaggerate theatrical impact. While naturally controversial, that approach has shown that Bach's instincts carry all the urgency of today's headlines. In Vorwerk's production, many of those details were glossed over in favor of the bigger picture. Indeed, his choral-style of conducting--often one beat for four--lent uncertainty to some of the solo arias with instrumental obbligatos. For the most part, however, the performance pace was steady and effectively convergent on its inevitable dramatic and musical conclusion.

Leading the soloists was Ellen Hargis, a finely disciplined soprano from Chicago who anchored the top with polish and security. Mezzo Elspeth Franks was less secure, wanting more guidance from the podium, and tending to go sharp. Her counterpart in the alternate chorus, Jennifer Lane, delivered a darker, steadier and more confident production, but with less expressive intensity. Bass Hugh Davies was caught up in the uncertainty issue, but redeemed himself splendidly in his great final scene, the recitative "Am Abend" and aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein." Unlike their counterparts, tenor Daniel Plaster and Chad Runyon were reserved for one role each, respectively the gospel narrator (the Evangelist) and Jesus. They both came through well, but Plaster gets the nod for the sheer endurance of his task and its always-dry recitative. Credit also to tenors Scott Whitaker and Sean McDermott, basses Chad Runyon and Jeffrey Fields, and soprano Susan Judy. Among the instrumental standouts were violinists Susan Brown and John Fairweather, cellist/gambaist Joel Schaefer, and flutist Lars Johannesson.

Vorwerk's chorus also deserves kudos for their success in what is not only a great work of music, but a tough one. The combination of Bach's counterpoint and rhythmic complexity is no walk in the park. The soloists, vocal and instrumental alike, can complain about convoluted voice-leading, but the chorus is further required to fit and balance the individual melody against the others whirling around them. Their next program, in June, features Lou Harrison's extraordinary La Koro Sutra.

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Web extra to the April 16-23, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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