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Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion' Imposing in DSO Meyerson Debut
by Olin Chism 30 Mar 2012

Bach’s great St. Matthew Passion was given an imposing performance Thursday night by Jaap van Zweden, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and an army of choral and solo vocalists.

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  • Art&Seek feature on both the St. Matthew and the St. John Passion in Dallas

The Dallas Symphony Orchestra is presenting one of music’s most monumental masterworks this weekend. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is great in length, weight and — above all — artistic value, and the DSO’s opening performance on Thursday night did it justice.

Jaap van Zweden keeps the scale large while nodding toward the historical-performance crowd. The nod includes reduced string vibrato and the inclusion of a couple of old-fashioned instruments (positive organ, viol), but there’s a larger performing force than purists would like.

The Dallas Symphony Chorus, which looked to number well over 100 (maybe 200), was split into two groups and joined in the first half by the Children’s Chorus of Greater Dallas.

The Dallas Symphony, also split in two, significantly exceeded chamber dimensions.

Six impressive vocalists completed the performing force: soprano Camilla Tilling, alto Jennifer Johnston, tenor Johannes Chum, baritone Morgan Smith, tenor John McVeigh and bass Alistair Miles.

From its imposing opening — a miracle of contrapuntal ingenuity — to its lovely, benign final chorus, this was a performance that both pleased the ear and moved the emotions.

A couple of highlights for me, besides the great opening and closing, were Johnston’s aria “Erbame dich,” with gorgeous violin accompaniment by Alexander Kerr, and Tilling’s moving aria “Aus Liebe.” But there were many more, including the wonderful work throughout the evening of Chum as the evangelist.

An English translation was projected above the stage. A great idea, except that the lack of contrast (white on white) made it hard to read.

Thursday’s was a long performance — three hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. A somewhat cynical friend had predicted that half the audience would leave at intermission. He overestimated the number of leavers, though there was a significant count of empty seats after intermission that hadn’t been there before.

Maybe it was best; with the twitchers, shufflers and coughers gone, the second-half audience was amazingly attentive. The Meyerson became as quiet as a mausoleum. And at the end the most astonishing thing happened: Van Zweden held his final pose for a long time, while the orchestra froze. And only when he finally relaxed did the silence end and the hall erupt with loud, sustained applause.

Letting the conductor determine when the performance is over — now that’s something new.

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