St Matthew Passion — #mattpash to friends — is a rare treat, so it was great to hear Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presenting the work at the Sydney Opera House yesterday. There’s a formal review going in the Sydney Morning Herald, and here are the leftover ramblings.
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Ramble the first: what exactly is this thing? It’s so comforting to think of music in terms of a grand Canon of Greatness, with Themes and Genres and Forms and other capital notions. It’s messy but much more interesting to me to consider the Great Composers as just composers, making it up as they go along. Hence this profound and multifaceted work which takes a pinch of opera, a dash of oratorio and a good dose of old-fashioned folk music to tell an old, old story anew. We are often taught to consider Bach an arch traditionalist and devout Lutheran, but this music is full of unexpected juxtapositions, magpie diamonds and dangerous questions. Can a Baroque composer be a postmodernist? For me it comes over like a docudrama, with our trusty reporter narrating while the cameras pan out wide to take in the crowd then zoom in to a close-up of an individual – you can almost imagine their eyes filling with tears as they ask the very human, very dangerous question — Why?
Ramble the second: the program notes tell me that this might have been performed, Venetian-style, with choirs on either side of the church, and I wonder whether SydPhil experimented with putting choir/orchestra one and choir/orchestra two facing each other (with perhaps the treble choir in the middle). I’m assuming the arrangement they used was the most practical in the yawning space of the Opera House Concert Hall. As it was, Brett Weymark was already dividing his attention around a 270 degree span (bravo). I didn’t get any real antiphonal effect. In fact, the choral fantasies sounded wonderfully blended, with individual parts — the chorales, the fugatos — coming in and out of focus. That pomo camera work again…
Ramble the third: I’ve mentioned the soloists individually in the Herald review, and I ran out of space to lavish praise on the choirs but, suffice to say, they were clear, warm and prepared to the n-th degree. Their interjections — Who? What? Why? — were brilliantly crisp and their ‘Barrabas’ was chilling.
Most of all, though, I was charmed and hugely encouraged by the rainbow of sound coming from the orchestra. The HIP-sters are here, and the Sydney Conservatorium’s Historical Performance unit is clearly bearing fruit, with well-respected scholar-performers now joined by their all-grown-up students. The cast of singers was expanded by an eloquent cast of solo instrumentalists, including traverso flutes, (Sally Walker et al.), duetting oboists Alexandre Oguey and Matthew Bubb, and sterling work from the ace continuo team. All those new names — it reassures me that a new generation of musicians will continue to ask questions and make old new.
Ramble ramble blah blah. No more words. Thank you, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs.