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MUSIC REVIEW : A Passionate 'St. Matthew' : William Hall leads the 140-voice Master Chorale of Orange County in an emotionally charged performance of Bach's mighty Passion.


NEWPORT BEACH — Six years and one music director ago, the Master Chorale of Orange County presented a semi-staged performance of Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center that earned admiration for the success of many of its parts.

The 140-voice chorale returned to this mighty musical and spiritual challenge Sunday in the acoustically friendly, aesthetically uplifting environment of the sanctuary at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach. They delivered it whole, in an appropriate concert setting, assisted by six principal vocal soloists, several auxiliary ones, their own orchestra and the Costa Mesa Children's Chorus.

Under the probing but swift-thinking leadership of William Hall--a Bach conductor of wide and deep experience--this performance moved deftly, in steady motion and with intelligent pacing . Hall guided his assembled forces with the authority of conviction and long practice.

Tempos not only proved motivated, buoyant, in moments breathless and urgent, they also reflected the exact emotional sense of every portion of the biblical text, including the most quiet and thoughtful ones. This reading--here, the term can be used in its most positive meaning--had sweep and drama, but it could boast also punctilious detailing.

Still, the kind of choral and instrumental transparency that has become more or less standard since the advent of the original-forces movement was not achieved here with regularity--there are more sound-textures and dynamic levels in this score than this church-full of listeners heard.

As most conductors will tell you, advance planning is more the key to success in this multifaceted challenge than in many other large-scale works.

Every soloist must be chosen with an ear toward timbre, temperament and word-sensitivity. The chorus needs extra training in the production of contrasts, dynamics and tone-colors. The Baroque orchestra requires principals schooled in the style and experienced in its many demands.

With only a few weak links in the total--the otherwise excellent instrumental ensemble a few times overplayed, the result being a loss of audibility by the solo singers; and some, though not all, of the minor vocalists were in over their heads--Hall had put together a close-to-model personnel list.

Bruce Johnson's Evangelist and Robin Buck's Jesus dominated this performance, as they must, their words (the original German text was used, putting the audience to work) clear and significant, their separate vocal gifts well displayed.

Of the other four principal vocalists, Louis Lebherz's sonorous and articulate bass made the strongest contributions; his touching singing of "Mache dich, mein Herz," in Part II became that rare moment when tone and spirit come together. Earlier, he had accomplished the same feat in "Komm, susses Kreuz."

Mezzo-soprano Wendy Hillhouse, gifted with both richness of tone and flexibility of technique, produced similar accomplishments in her arias, especially in "Konnen, tranen meiner Wangen." Soprano Patricia Prunty, another strong technician with a handsome sound, met all musical challenges with ease. Tenor Steve Dunham sang gamely but unimpressively.

The orchestral principals, who acquitted themselves with authority in their solo spots, included violinists Sheryl Staples and Charles Everett, cellist Armen Ksadjikian and Steve Richards, flutists Louise DiTullio and Lawrence Kaplan, oboists Leslie Reed and John Ralston, harpsichordist Malcolm Hamilton and organist Ladd Thomas.

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