Seattle Will Hear Bach Passions In Early, New Styles

Stephen Stubbs will play lute in 'St. Matthew Passion' this week and conduct and play lute in 'St. John Passion' next week.
In the Seattle Symphony’s focus on Bach, Stephen Stubbs will conduct and play lute in a Baroque-style ‘St. John Passion.’
He’ll also play lute in the ‘St. Matthew Passion,’ with music director Ludovic Morlot and modern forces.
By Philippa Kiraly

SEATTLE – Shortly after Ludovic Morlot arrived in September 2011 as music director of the Seattle Symphonyhe  invited lutenist and conductor Stephen Stubbs, a highly-regarded figure in early opera and oratorio performance, to consult with him on about how best to present Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. As Stubbs remembers it: “He said if he was going to do it with a modern symphony orchestra, how could he make it the best version he could?”

Ludovic Morlot will conduct 'St. Matthew Passion.' (Ben VanHouten)
Ludovic Morlot will conduct ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ (Ben VanHouten)

Two and a half years later, their joint vision comes to fruition. On Feb. 21 and 22, Morlot will conduct the St. Matthew Passion with modern forces. One week later, on March 1 and 2, Stubbs will conduct the St. John Passion in a Baroque version, giving audiences at Benaroya Hall a rare opportunity to hear both works in juxtaposition in two different styles and two different performance spaces. Not a comparison, Stubbs insists, but a contrast.

Stubbs, a Seattle resident and music director of Pacific MusicWorks, began the process by taking Matthew White to see Morlot. White, who was then also Seattle-based, is a countertenor with long experience singing Passions in Europe and conversant with the current vocal scene there.

As they talked, it became clear that, first and foremost, it was the solo singers who would be the crux of the performance.

The Seattle Symphony and Chorale are performing Bach this weekend.
The Symphony Chorale sings ‘St. Matthew,’ but soloists form the chorus in ‘St. John.’

“At that first encounter,” says Stubbs, “Matthew and I thought if we got that bevy of fantastic soloists, and Ludo (Morlot) was doing the St. Matthew in the big hall (2,500-seat Mark S. Taper Auditorium), we could do the St. John in the small hall (536-seat Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall) with the soloists being the chorus also. So we’d have a state-of-the-art modern version of one Passion and a Baroque version of the other.”

Stubbs and Morlot lined up an international A-list of singers: sopranos Dorothee Mields (Germany) and Shannon Mercer (Canada); alto Laura Pudwell (Canada); countertenor Terry Wey (Switzerland); tenors Thomas Cooley (U.S.) and Charles Daniels (England); baritone Tyler Duncan (Canada); and bass–baritone Matthew Brook (England).

Thomas Cooley sings the Evangelist in 'St. Matthew Passion.'
Thomas Cooley sings the Evangelist in ‘St. Matthew Passion.’

The two conductors have had many conversations over the past year or so, planning the vision for both works.

“The St. Matthew is painted on a bigger canvas in every dimension,” says Stubbs. “Both go down to very quiet intimacy, but St. Matthew goes to monumental grandeur as well. The St. John is concentrated drama for the mind. You could close your eyes and feel the drama happening.”

The symphony’s vice president of artistic planning, Elena Dubinets, who has been in on the idea since the start, says the two orchestras and two choirs required for the St. Matthew will be unevenly divided antiphonally on stage. The smaller instrumental group will just be a string quintet augmented by the appropriate winds. “The solution we came to is quite unusual,” says Dubinets. “Most orchestras divide equally.” The large Seattle Symphony Chorale will have the same unequal division, and the Northwest Boychoir will sing with both groups as needed.

In both Passions, the lute accompaniments – which Bach changed to viola da gamba in later versions, presumably because his good lutenist was no longer in Leipzig – are reinstated. Stubbs will play lute in both, but only in those arias. “I’m doing just the one obbligato lute solo, otherwise I’ll be conducting with my hands (in the St. John). It’s most uncomfortable to be behind a lute and trying to conduct!”

The Evangelist in 'St. John Passion' will be Charles Daniels.
The Evangelist in ‘St. John Passion’ will be Charles Daniels.

The St. John will use two violas d’amore and oboe da caccia as obbligato instruments in its Baroque orchestra, which will be comprised entirely of specialists.  Tekla Cunningham, concertmaster of the Baroque orchestra, says the viola d’amore has a “silvery tone, and the instrument adds a special quality of pathos to the arias, while the sympathetic strings provide an enchanting halo of resonance that is altogether different from that of a violin.”

The Symphony’s associate concertmaster, Emma McGrath, well-versed also in Baroque violin, will play the violin obbligatos in the St. Matthew, albeit on her modern instrument.  The Seattle Symphony oboes will play oboes, oboes d’amore, and English horns, with da caccia parts played on English horns. And both orchestras will use portative organs, but no harpsichord.

The result, says Dubinets, “will not be authentic per se, but there is a touch of it in every detail.” Morlot, she says, “does not talk to the musicians about style. What he wants is for them to consider what should the music express, how to communicate the composer’s vision, how to touch people’s hearts. Specifically, he’s asking them to create a much lighter sound, very clear.”

The key difference will be in the Evangelists. Morlot will use Cooley, Stubbs will use Daniels. “Evangelists are specialists. There are a very few people in the world who get hired to sing the role in big venues. Thomas Cooley is superb in that regard,” says Stubbs. “Conversely, you want the rhetorical reading for the St. John and there are only a few for that also. The superlative Evangelist in historical Baroque style is Charles Daniels. Charles’s is such an intelligent delivery of the text, and that’s what I love about it. It’s a very difference kind of Evangelist.”

A portion of the opening page of 'St. Matthew Passion,' in Bach's hand.
A portion of the opening page of ‘St. Matthew,’ in Bach’s hand.

The West Coast has a plethora of very fine Baroque performers whom Stubbs will be using. There will be no chorus for the St. John. The eight soloists, excepting Daniels, will sing the choruses, and they will also join in as needed in the St. Matthew.

“There is a sense of great resolution at the end of both Passions,” says Stubbs, who believes they are of similar musical quality. “In both, you get a real life confrontation with terror and death, and you also encounter your own sense of mortality and life. The end of the St John is so comforting; you’ve been through the ringer and experience resolution in a gentle, inspiriting way. You do have comfort in the St. Matthew, but the St. John is more dramatic, more turbulent, exciting, terrifying. It gets you worked up and ill at ease, but the end is the antithesis you need at the end of this wild ride. The St. Matthew has oases of peace and tranquility throughout.”

As Stubbs sums up: “What I’d like to see come out of this collaboration is that the contrasts we are trying to draw are in no way a competition. The idea is not ‘my way is the right one,’ but to do each Passion the best that can be done,  the cutting edge of top-line performances. Both very interesting, both valid.”

Philippa Kiraly has been a freelance classical music critic since 1980. She wrote for the Akron Beacon Journal, then the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until its print demise, and now for The Seattle Times, City Arts, and a blog, The Sun Break.