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Rilling Leads Philharmonic in Dramatic 'Passion'

April 16, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Surveys tell us that young people, frightened of sitting still and of any form of formality, may be put off by what they perceive as a too-churchy atmosphere at symphony concerts. If that is so, the Los Angeles Philharmonic's presentation of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" on Good Friday (and Friday the 13th, no less) might seem a downright terrifying prospect. The Passion, some three hours in length, is, after all, a score held in reverent awe by the music lovers who consider it the greatest telling of the greatest story ever told.

Yet an unusually diverse audience was drawn to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Friday--one that included all ages in all sorts of dress (from starchy formal to Cineplex casual)--and rightfully so. The "St. Matthew Passion" is not any one thing. It is a gripping human drama as well as a great adventure of the soul. It is also a great musical adventure, especially for a modern symphony orchestra, which is rarely able these days to wrest this spectacular score from the grips of Baroque music specialists, at one extreme, or choral and church groups, at the other.

That wasn't always the case. Great conductors of the past--Furtwangler, Klemperer, Bernstein--conducted it with large orchestras. Leopold Stokowski was the first to lead it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic 55 years ago in, believe it or not, the Hollywood Bowl. For Easter weekend, the Philharmonic enthusiastically reclaimed its Bachian credentials thanks to Helmuth Rilling, with a Passion performance for everyone.

Rilling is as devoted a Bach conductor as any. He is director of the International Bach Academy in Stuttgart, Germany; founder of the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene; and the guiding force for a recording on 172 CDs of the complete works of Bach. But no single-minded specialist, he seemed intent Friday only on finding an immediate level of communication.

Bach divided the orchestra into two equal bodies of strings and winds on either side of the stage, and Rilling exalted in large forces and in rich, modern playing. The equally large chorus was a student body, the USC Thornton Choral Artists. Five vocal soloists were invited, partly from the world of opera.

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But the special sound of the Baroque period was also acknowledged in the addition of a boys' choir, the Paulist Choristers of California, and in such period instruments as a chamber organ and a viola da gamba, beautifully played by Lynn Tetenbaum.

Exacting a terrific theatrical momentum, Rilling propelled the music forward, emphasizing the dramatic narrative. For this he took special advantage of quick responses of the well-trained young voices in the chorus. But he also inspired wonderfully enthusiastic playing from the Philharmonic. It was particularly useful that the Philharmonic's warmth and fullness could compensate for the sharper, less blended choral sound in which the women's voices dominated.

Unforgettable was Matthias Goerne, who sang the words of Jesus. A mesmeric baritone, known as a brilliant singer of Lied but just as overwhelming a presence on the opera stage, Goerne seemed, at the same time, of this world and not.

Two major soloists caught the virus that seems to be going around. Replacing Anthony Rolfe Johnson, the tenor Christopher Cock delivered the Evangelist's narrative with an illuminating freshness. Kendra Colton, the soprano replacement for Christine Oelze, was more tentative. But the alto arias are the Passion's most haunting, and Ingeborg Danz sang them with compelling intensity. Stanford Olsen was the dramatically assertive tenor; Christian Gerhaher, the mellower bass.

The arias in "St. Matthew Passion" are the moments of profound reflection, and they are made all the more moving by the way Bach gave each one its own sound, often paring a solo instrument line with the solo voice. The Philharmonic might have identified those players in the program, but did not.

Of notable eloquence were the solos by violinists Martin Chalifour and Bing Wang, and flutist Anne Diner Zentner. The Evangelist and Jesus were given compellingly sonorous accompaniment by an also uncredited continuo of cellist Andrew Shulman, bassist Dennis Trembly and organist Patricia Mabee.

Bach's music speaks for itself when powerfully performed. But it never hurts to know what is going on in the drama, and the Philharmonic, if it hopes to draw in audiences, could have made an affecting evening even more so by illuminating the hall with enough light to easily read the printed translations of the German text. Even churches do that.

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