Classic Critique: Supported by local choirs and guest soloists, PSO delivers the emotional ‘St. Matthew Passion’

The Portland Symphony Orchestra, local choristers and guest vocal soloists gathered on the main stage of the Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Sunday afternoon to perform the monumental “St. Matthew Passion.”

Lasting approximately three hours, this sacred oratorio based on Jesus’ last days on earth challenges performers and listeners to delve into a fundamental story of Western culture. Both spiritually and artistically incisive, this seminal work particularly resonates in these trying times.

After its first appearance in the 18th century, this passion has grown in popularity over the years. In 2022, the roots of modern music can be heard in part of its opening, if one can expect (and hopefully appreciate) its iconic baroque stylizations. Moments of sober reflection and transcendent beauty inform both the small and large scale passages that abound throughout this creatively rich piece.

Guest soloists Gene Stenger (The Evangelist), Kevin Deas (Jesus), Nola Richardson (soprano), and Teresa Buchholz (mezzo-soprano) emerged into the enhanced polyphony of a bifurcated PSO and the ChoralArt Singers, University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers and the Portland Symphony Orchestra Youth Festival Chorus for a full afternoon of musical creation (to be repeated on Tuesday evenings). The tireless Eckart Preu led them all animatedly from center stage.

The English translation of the German text was offered in surtitles projected above and behind the performers. The bittersweet themes of guilt, mercy and salvation were of course present in the sounds of this most passionate work.

Although it grounded the performance in one direction, Deas’ rich baritone voice suggested the otherworldly presence of the Awesome Lord. Stenger’s recitative tenor effectively dramatized the betrayal and torment wrought by so many envious and avaricious rival forces within the ancient (but sadly not unheard of) zeitgeist of biblical times.

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Richardson and Buchholz offered surrounding tunes of compelling drama and beauty, one each with solid assistance from a different PSO violinist. Richardson’s emotive delivery was particularly appealing as Buchholz heightened the focus of his roles.

The vocal soloists of the choirs also showed up to play minor roles while their choir mates emboldened their tone from moments of gentle reflection to those of wild mockery filled with crowd exhortations. Their harmonies often formed from an unsettling mix of patterns in the complexity of the work.

The PSO’s instrumentalists in solos and small groups, from high wind flutes to low strings with organ, added enormously to the variety and depth of this unsettling but ultimately uplifting masterpiece so energetically performed a week before Easter.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer living in Portland.

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