by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & he Northwest Bach Festival has unfolded later this year than in prior years, with events distributed over three weekends rather than the usual two, so there's been a somewhat more languorous feeling to the proceedings. The crowning event comes on Sunday afternoon with Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion, directed by Gunther Schuller -- the first Northwest Bach Festival event scheduled in the newly restored Fox, and the first time the piece has been performed in Spokane since 1995.
Schuller has put hundreds of hours into the preparation for this performance, says Spokane Public Radio's Verne Windham. "He has done it twice before in his life," says Windham. "He did it early in his tenure here [in January 1995]. But he has said that he assumes this is the last St. Matthew Passion he'll do in his life, so he's really into it this time."
The performance will exercise the capabilities of the Martin Woldson Theater to their fullest, with its scoring for two orchestras, three choruses and a bevy of soloists. And yet, it's the quietest moments that may be the most transcendent, says Windham.
"Gunther likes to use slightly larger forces, just for the purposes of color," he says. "He'll use more people, especially in the strings, but make them play softer. You get a rich gorgeousness of sound. The virtue of the Fox is that Gunther so loves soft [sounds], and soft works so well in the Fox that he can get that real rich colorful sound, and it will be satisfying."
The orchestras consist mainly of Spokane Symphony players, along with longtime Bach Fest guest harpsichordist Mark Kroll. Two adult choruses are assembled from about 40 accomplished community singers, and members of the Spokane Area Children's Chorus will take the part of the boys' choir written by Bach. Several local vocalists -- including Max Mendez, John Frankhauser and Darnelle Preston -- will step forward for solo turns during the piece.
The principal soloists will be Janet Brown and Kendra Colton, sopranos; Barbara Rearick, mezzo-soprano; Rockland Osgood, tenor; and James Maddalena, baritone. Four of the five -- everyone except Maddalena -- were here last year, and all have been part of the festival before. "They're the regulars," Windham quips.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & B & lt;/span & ach's St. Matthew Passion was composed during the late 1720s. The text is based on the Gospel of St. Matthew in Christian scripture and tells the story of the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ, but with the addition of poetic text -- what Windham calls "the emotional commentary" -- not found within the scriptures. It's a story that's part of the Christian liturgical tradition during Holy Week, the last week of Lent, leading up to Good Friday and Easter. Even today, the reading of the Passion story is a key moment during Holy Week worship services in many Christian traditions.
In the decades before Bach's time, Christian churches began the tradition of chanting the scriptural Passion stories during Good Friday services. The musical presentations became more grand and more expressive in the early years of the 18th century. Bach's version, in which he used all the musical tools available to him, was first performed around 1729 during the Good Friday Vespers service at the Lutheran Church of St. Thomas in Leipzig, with the composer conducting.
Musically, the St. Matthew Passion is Bach at the peak of his powers -- gloriously rich, contemplative yet filled with deep emotions, and spanning a dynamic range from solo voice to full orchestra with multiple choruses. For Sunday's concert, the arias and choruses will be sung in the original German, but the recitatives -- the narrative of the story, taken from the Scriptures -- will be in English.
"It makes a certain sense," Windham says. "It's the solo voices who are telling the story, so you'll hear and understand the words."
And the words are not sugar-coated. "It's the straight-out Jesus story," says Windham. "And there's no resurrection -- it ends with death. It's all about the trial, and the most interesting things in life are death, trials and difficulties."
If only the rest of us had such a glorious soundtrack as we make our way.
Bach's St. Matthew Passion directed by Gunther Schuller, is Sunday, Feb. 24, at 3 pm at the Fox, 1001 W. Sprague. Tickets are $15-$35, available at the Fox Theater Box Office, at www.ticketswest.com or by calling 325-SEAT. On Friday, Feb. 22, at noon, Artistic Director Gunther Schuller joins Verne Windham for an onstage conversation about the St. Matthew Passion at EWU's Music Building Recital Hall, Cheney, Wash. The event is free and open to the public.