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White Light Festival: The Berlin Philharmonic Bring Their Searing St. Matthew Passion to the Park Avenue Armory

DSC06910In the world of music, there are small masterpieces: Allegri's Miserere, Barber's Adagio for StringsClaire de lune. Then, there are bigger ones: Handel's Messiah, Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Mahler's 2nd symphony. And then, there is Bach's St. Matthew Passiona sacred oratorio for double orchestra, double chorus, boys choir and six soloists. Neither opera nor concert music, the St. Matthew Passion stands alone in its mixture of biblical and dramatic texts (written by the German poet Picander) that retell the story of the final days of Jesus alongside reflections on our own day-to-day trials and tribulations. At more than 3 1/2 hours, it is an overwhelming experience: the kind of endurance test that leaves one both exhausted and with a heightened sense of rapture. 

And then, there is the Berlin Philharmonic's version of the St. Matthew Passion, with which they opened Lincoln Center's fifth annual White Light Festival this week. Even if the timing was a bit off - Bach intended the Passion to be performed during Holy Week - it would have been more than enough to hear one of the world's greatest orchestras perform this extraordinary masterpiece in Avery Fisher Hall, with the Berlin Radio Choir, the Boys Choir of St. Thomas Church, and a hand-picked cast of soloists.

But, this great orchestra, and in particular their chief conductor Simon Rattle, has never been content to simply rest on their well-earned reputation. For starters, they shifted the performance across town to the Park Avenue Armory, where Lincoln Center went to the untold effort and expense of reconstructing the Philharmonie - the BPO's renowned in-the-round concert hall in Berlin - inside the Wade Thompson Drill Hall. Risers seating an audience of around 2,000 surrounded a near-replica of the Philharmonie's trapeziodal stage, over which hung the canopy familiar from Mostly Mozart concerts in Avery Fisher. Having had the privilege of attending several concerts in the Philharmonie over the past decade, it felt indescribably strange and wonderful to find myself transported there after a short walk from the 6 train. 

st matthew passion park ave armory
When the director Peter Sellars first saw the Philharmonie in 2006 (what took him so long?), he reportedly had an immediate impulse to stage the St. Matthew Passion there, with the hall's unique layout offering a rare opportunity to fully engage the audience as participants, as Bach intended. Sellars achieved this by devising a ritualistic production, first staged in 2010, that had the orchestra split in two, facing each other from opposite ends of the stage. The soloists performed as actors, with a full battery of gestures and movements that mirrored the powerful emotions conveyed in the text. Both they and the choruses - who moved freely around the hall - necessarily sang from memory. (Two years later, Sellars would employ many of these same techniques in John Adams' modern take on the passion story, The Gospel According to the Other Mary.) Once Tuesday's performance began, it became immediately apparent that reconstructing the Philharmonie in New York wasn't an extravagance, but a mandate in order to fully realize Sellars' vision. You can't cut corners on the way to transcendence. 

Most of the soloists at this performance performed in the original production, including baritone Christian Gerhaher (Jesus), Camilla Tilling (Soprano), Magdalena Kožená (Mezzo-Soprano), and 
Topi Lehtipuu (Tenor). Eric Owens, replacing the retired Thomas Quasthoff, made a searing impression, particularly during the aria "Gebt mir meinen Jesum wieder" ("Give me back my Jesus"), throwing himself on the ground while concertmaster Daishin Kashimoto hovered above him. And, rarely have I heard the climactic aria "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein" ("Make thyself, my heart, pure") sung with more pathos or conviction.  

Berlin phil st matthew passionHiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

But, more than any individual, this staging of the St. Matthew Passion is carried by tenor Mark Padmore, who portrays the Evangelist as a tortured prisoner: his head shaved, often lying on a sarcophagus-like wood block with his hands held by invisible shackles. Padmore, who I saw for the first time as Captain Vere in last season's Billy Budd at BAM, appeared to be the receptacle for all the world's suffering, performing with a visceral intensity I've rarely witnessed on any stage, musical or otherwise. Pure brilliance.

Rattle deserves the lion's share of credit for bringing this massive production to life, leaping between two podiums, often conducting mid-stride. (Rattle used a score, but rarely looked at it.) But, no small praise also belongs to choral director Simon Halsey, who has developed the Berlin Radio Choir into perhaps the finest professional choir in the world. Here, they sang with extreme conviction and precision while simultaneously executing some fairly complex choreography. (Halsey also leads the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Chorus, where he and Rattle met in the 1980's.)  

Berlin phil st matthew passion
Photo: Rob Davidson

During the final chorus, "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder und rufen dir im Grabe zu" ("We sit down weeping and call to thee in the Tomb"), the entire choir converged center stage under a single dim bulb, as if standing watch at Jesus' tomb. As I sat silently listening, I realized that they were also standing in front of all the other tombs we have waiting for us: those of our parents, our loved ones, our friends and neighbors. Our own. The music, which seems to come from another realm, felt beautiful, desolate: "a resting place for the soul," according to Picander's text. After Bach's final, dissonant chord dissipated, Rattle held the silence for what felt like a full minute before finally lowering his hands, allowing us release. 

There aren't many things left worth fighting for in this world. Art is one of them. I'm not sure what Lincoln Center and the Berlin Phil went through to make this once-in-a-lifetime event possible, but I hope they know that I and the 2,000 other souls in the Armory that night won't soon forget it.   DSC06922More pics on the photo page