Last spring, Trevor Stephenson's Madison Bach Musicians climbed the musical slopes with the B-minor Mass, period style. This spring they reached a summit with the "St. Matthew Passion." I can recall past Madison performances of the work in 1963 and 1980, but this was the very first here to follow period conventions and instrumentation.
Over the weekend there were two performances. An overflow crowd attended the first, on Good Friday, in the new auditorium of the First Unitarian Society, which has some fine acoustics, but problematical layout and sight lines. Stephenson strictly observed Bach's disposition of performers, divided into two choirs and two orchestras, only two singers or players per part, plus a children's chorus (from Madison Youth Choirs) in the balcony. Stephenson led the main continuo group from the organ, while the ensembles were conducted by young maestra Ching-Chun Lai.
Following contemporaneous traditions, Bach set the full text of chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of St. Matthew in Luther's German translation as recitative by a tenor soloist, with interjections from appropriate minor characters and the chorus (as "crowd"). Narrative is regularly interrupted by pious reflections in solo arias, and by traditional Lutheran chorales meant for audience participation.
Visitor Stephen Noon was a superb Evangelist, with the right high-tenor coloration, excellent German diction, and a strong feeling for storytelling. Solo arias and character roles were distributed among 16 singers who took their places in the choirs, as must have been Bach's own practice. Some were old friends from regular Madison Bach Musicians performances, like Mimmi Fulmer, Rachel Edie Warrick, Consuelo Sañudo, Peter Gruett and Paul Rowe. But many were past or recent products of the UW music school's vocal programs, such as bass Samus Haddad, the sturdy Jesus; Emily Fink (whose one solo aria was particularly gorgeous); and basses Matthew Tintes and Scott Johnson. Some 26 instrumentalists (including Stephenson) made up the orchestral and continuo forces, on period instruments.
Mustering these participants from in and out of town restricted rehearsal time, and some of the instrumental playing, especially on the tricky woodwinds, had not become fully integrated. But the choral work was consistently excellent, from the opening triple-chorus to the final double-chorus, while the harmonized chorales were soaring anthems of faith.
This extremely complex and daunting work, a landmark of music, is a difficult undertaking for anyone. But Trevor Stephenson brought it off with magnificent power and feeling. Madison should be proud to have him at a key spot in its musical life. And in the final ovation, he received a much-deserved burst of recognition.