For the last two weeks, there has been a strange sight on the podium of the New York Philharmonic: Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra’s music director. To his admirers, he has seemed practically absentee this season. The hoopla is over his coming successor, Gustavo Dudamel.
I say, enjoy Van Zweden while you can. (By this, I do not mean to slight Dudamel, at all. I mean to say: enjoy Van Zweden while you can. “Swiftly fly the years.”)
Last night, Van Zweden led the Philharmonic and associated forces in the St. Matthew Passion of Bach. “Associated forces”? A chorus, Musica Sacra; another chorus, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus; and six vocal soloists.
There are people in this world who consider the St. Matthew Passion the greatest work of music. I am not much of a ranker. And there is no greatest work. There is a grand tie at the top. But the opinion I have cited—that the Matthew is No. 1—is not dumb. Far from it.
Under Jaap van Zweden, the orchestra started perfectly together—that’s Jaap. He was precise, disciplined, and astute all through. His tempos were on the brisk side (I’d say) and also breathable.
In Part I, the orchestra and choruses sounded rather dry, somewhat austere. I longed for a dose of warmth. (I almost want to say “love”—a dose of love.) There was an air of the mechanical about Part I.
Not playing along, however, was Tamara Mumford, our mezzo soloist. She was as she usually is: rich, elegant, and tasteful. You could fault her for being “operatic.” But, you know? There is an element of the “operatic” in the St. Matthew Passion. I found Ms. Mumford a relief, particularly in Part I.
In Part II, something happened. The playing and the choral singing got warmer, more musical, more soulful. Better and better, as the evening progressed. This was real Bach.
Each of the six solo singers was adequate to the task. Each had moments, or stretches, of excellence. I will mention two more soloists, before winding up.
The tenor Nicholas Phan was the Evangelist. This is a demanding, daunting part: exposed. The part includes many tricky intervals. Mr. Phan approximated some of the notes; other notes—the majority of them—were dead-on. Mr. Phan was brave in his singing, by which I mean that he did things such as try high pianos. In all, he executed his part with security, feeling, and guts.
Our soprano was Amanda Forsythe—lovely and unaffected. So natural, her singing. It was “like falling off a log,” as I once heard Leontyne Price say in a master class. (She was complimenting a tenor who had sung “Una furtiva lagrima.”) From Ms. Forsythe, there was no fuss, no muss. She just opened her mouth and sang, as though anybody could do it. Bach’s beautiful, twisting lines were a pleasure from her.
In Part II comes a mezzo, or alto, aria: “Erbarme dich, mein Gott, um meiner Zähren Willen!” The song is not only for singer but also for violin—and the Philharmonic’s concertmaster, Frank Huang, performed sweetly and maturely.
After the aria was over, the man behind me said to his wife, in a hoarse whisper, “That was the most famous part of the whole thing.” Maybe. Later on, there is a bass aria, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” that is the favorite music in all the world of a dear friend of mine: a tenor and writer.
Just before the aria began, three audience members got up and left. I didn’t blame them. The oratorio was nearing the three-hour mark. But I wanted to tell them, “Give it another five minutes or so!” After the aria, two more people left. There was other great music to come. But at least they left with “Mache dich” in their head.