Orchestra's 'St. Matthew Passion' falls short of sublime

The Philadelphia Orchestra's performances of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" include the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the American Boychoir.

How could such great music have been absent from the Philadelphia Orchestra for so long?

The answer was clear by the end of Thursday's sold-out, three-hour-plus St. Matthew Passion, the first performance of the work by the orchestra in 28 years: For all the effort required to perform J.S. Bach's masterpiece, the sublime may always be in view but never consistently achieved.

Example: Though the presentation at Verizon Hall had surtitles, a handsome, minimal staging, first-class singers, and the uncut piece delivered in music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin's reverent tempos, the performance wasn't all it could be until the second half.

Still, more than anything else this season, the St. Matthew Passion showed the kind of strong artistic stands that Nézet-Séguin will take, however impractical the cost. His era will not be simply a continuation of what came before.

Bach used multiple viewpoints in his telling of Christ's crucifixion, moving in and out of narration, dramatization, and contemplation. In James Alexander's staging, all were enhanced here by a cross-shaped platform that divided the orchestra, allowing soloists to enter, interact, and assume iconic poses.

The 80-strong Westminster Symphonic Choir overlooked the stage from the family circle, singers telegraphing scene changes by moving their music folders over their faces. The American Boychoir fanned out among the loftier tiers, their sound seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere.

Impressive but not ideal. Though its singing was on a high level, the Boychoir should have been closer to everyone else. The also-young Westminster voices gave transparency to the music's intricate inner workings, yet were large enough to swamp details. Nézet-Séguin conveyed the music's gravity with surprisingly slow tempos, but adult voices would have better conveyed matters of life and death.

Such things mattered far less in Part Two when performance elements fused decisively: Orchestra and voices related so specifically that instrumentalists became storytellers, too. Obbligatos from violinist David Kim and oboist Richard Woodhams were supporting characters. Repeated sections of arias were not redundant but explored new emotional color.

Though I never warmed to soprano Malin Christensson (always good, never quite committed), mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill seemed to be living the piece as much as singing it. Some rugged dramatic contours fall to the bass soloist, and Andrew Foster-Williams could not have been more present. The star name was Luca Pisaroni as Christ, who seemed uncomfortable with the idiom but had vocal charisma and theatricality, especially when crumpled alone at the end of Part One.

The singer I'd happily hear for another three hours was tenor Andrew Staples as the Evangelist. Narrative recitatives rippled from his easily produced, light tenor voice with subtle shades of meaning. When arias hit coloratura passages, the effect was not elaboration but intensification. Sometimes he sang from memory, addressing the audience with great effect. During moments of repose, he sat on the edge of the stage, seeming to brood. Every moment rang utterly true.

The orchestra will honor former music director Wolfgang Sawallisch, who died Feb. 22, in its final subscription concerts of the season, May 23-25. Nézet-Séguin will lead the third movement from Schumann's Symphony No. 2 (Adagio espressivo), replacing the Enescu Romanian Rhapsody. A display in the Kimmel Center lobby curated by consultant Jack McCarthy will look back on the Sawallisch decade, 1993-2003.


Additional performance: 8 p.m. Saturday, sold out. Information: 215-893-1999 or www.philorch.org.