Tom Hall and his Baltimore Choral Arts Society closed the circle Saturday on its 25-year history by performing Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the last major choral work left undone in its familiar baroque and classical playground. By any measure, the society under Hall had one of its finest hours.
In fact, though the program was three hours of music, it was sewed so seamlessly the 68 separate numbers seemed little more than an hour of gripping opera. Certainly not written that way, the music at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall had operatic fervor: choral power, solo intensity, a dramatic narrative, a gripping storyteller and, mostly, Bach's glorious melodies.
Yet, though the stage seemed like it held a cast of thousands, the performers sang and played with chamber music finesse the way Bach might have intended his Good Friday piece. Tenor David Gordon sang a striking, believable Evangelist: as the earnest narrator, his lyric tone was pure and airy, his range wide and faultless and his German diction pure.
Musical high points came quick and often. Alto Marietta Simpson and violinist Andrew Wasyluszko joined in "Have pity, Lord" for an aria of sheer grace, perhaps the evening's most poignant moment. The chorus' five versions of the Passion Chorale (familiar as "O Sacred Head now Wounded") were precise and moving. Alice Robbins played rich passages on the viola da gamba, an early fretted instrument popular three centuries ago.
Altogether, 143 musicians performed in the melodious production: 85 chorus singers, 37 orchestra players, seven soloists and 13 boys choir members from the Church of St. Michael and All Angels. The orchestra and main chorus each played in two groups, stressing the diverse melodic patterns. The singers' German was excellent, the program text translated well. Too bad the audience coughing was not muted.
Hall was correctly mindful that art is not above life, that foul deeds were and are done in the name of religion, personal conviction and other institutions. Bach's text additions were absolved of the notorious anti-Semitism that Christians saw in the Gospels and acted out. A main point of Saturday's Passion was Christian sinning.
But the historical persecution and killing of Jews and the need always to fight all prejudice were also in full evidence in Saturday's program notes, an April 25 public discussion and remarks before the concert by Christopher Leighton, director of the Institute for Christian-Jewish Studies.
The five other soloists singing stylishly besides Gordon and Simpson were soprano Cheryl Bensman Rowe, tenor Gran Wilson and bass David Evitts singing arias and other text reflecting on the drama, and baritone Paul Rowe as Jesus and bass Thomas Jones as Judas, Peter and Pilate.
Also awarded a standing ovation at end, the choir and the orchestra gave color to the vast canvass that Bach used to tell the story of Jesus' arrest, crucifixion and burial.
By the way, William A. Andersen has sung in every full chorus subscription concert in 25 years. Other society members singing all 25 years are Ann Berger, Beverly Diaz, Jane Dummer and Elizabeth Elliott.
Instrumental soloists included violinist Mari Matsumoto, flutists Emily Controulis and Carol Bean, oboists Jane Marvine and Leslie Starr; organist William Neil, Esther Mellon playing the violoncello, Elizabeth Ferrell, the contra bass and Philip Kolker, bassoon.