classical-music review

A St. Matthew Passion That Speaks Even to Nonbelievers

Bernard Labadie conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s at Carnegie Hall. Photo: Richard Termine

The global traffic in classical music has been hit with the same supply-chain issues affecting car parts and microchips. Visa delays, travel costs, ever shifting regulations, and wildcat virus surges have complicated international travel. Orchestral tours have become scarce, and Carnegie Hall, which relies on a steady supply of itinerant talent, has had to adapt. The upside of this mildest of crises is that it’s offered local musicians a lift, giving them more responsibility for staging major musical events and reminding audiences that even if you were to wall off New York, it would take an awfully long time for the city to run out of musical talent.

Thursday’s performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion did involve a border-hopping Canadian conductor, Bernard Labadie, as well as some roving soloists and a pair of imported choirs: La Chapelle de Québec and Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society (supplemented by the boys of the Saint Thomas Choir). But at its core was the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, one of our perpetually underappreciated hometown groups. The result was a luminous rarity: a baroque behemoth performed by a big ensemble with delicacy, lightness, and paschal fervor.

As an utterly a-religious listener, I’ve always wondered whether I’m missing the essence of Christian music: If you skip past faith in the Resurrection, what is the Passion really about? Bach certainly saw composing as an act of devotion; who am I to say, “Oh, never mind all that”? And yet I keep returning to pious scores like Bach’s, bewitched by the music and unmoved by the message it was created to deliver, keeping adoration and indifference in irresolvable tension. In the St. Luke’s performance, I heard a grand and perpetually timely human drama, a story of a renegade and indifferent bureaucrats, self-serving betrayal, functionaries desperately trying to protect their privilege, and a people splintering into factions for reasons they can barely remember, all of it culminating in spasms of savage cruelty. Although Philippe Sly sang Jesus’ words with supple dignity, the star almost vanished into the tapestry of characters and crowds. It is their behavior, more than the quiet martyr’s, that animates Bach’s work.

Labadie, the orchestra’s music director and a Bach specialist, managed that complex flow of beauty and rage with a mastery worthy of DeMille. His phrasing had a lithe physicality. Hymns lilted in prayerful dance. Spiritual torment was a sweaty affair. When the mob rose up, you could practically hear the slap of sandals on stone. I don’t mean to suggest that Labadie punched up the melodrama; he doled out more grace than brimstone, and his rhetoric tilted toward understatement. He got the strings to play with effervescent lightness and bound the two orchestras and three choirs into weightless counterpoint. Tenor Julian Prégardien delivered the Evangelist’s narration with restrained tragedy. Countertenor Hugh Cutting was a discovery, threading his limpid voice through an intricate emotional topography. And by the end, when the Joseph of Arimathea has taken custody of Jesus’ tormented body, the tomb’s been sealed, darkness has fallen, and the stone has rolled away again to set the stage for the story’s sequel, it somehow all makes sense even to a nonbeliever. This final consoling chorus is the music we’ve been waiting for, the sign that even grief must eventually come to an end.

A St. Matthew Passion That Speaks Even to Nonbelievers