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Spring 2015

On the St. Matthew Passion

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Ethan Iverson

Classical music is often bedeviled by the simple question “How do you make an audience truly engaged without pandering?” Peter Sellars’s staging of the St. Matthew Passion was one of most successful answers I’ve ever seen.

Part of the magic was how local everything was. The Berlin Philhar-monic is surely one of the most august organizations in the world, but there they were, right down the steps from us, looking a bit uncomfortable. They even sounded uncomfortable at times: the viola da gamba seemed a bit raw and out of tune, the violin obbligato for the the famous aria “Erbarme dich, Mein Gott” was determinedly ahead of the beat. The first night the final chorus of part one, “O Mensch,” was out of sync in a way closer to Charles Ives than Bach. On the second night, the orchestra played a cue before the Evangelist was in place and had to restart. Probably they were just momentarily wrong-footed by the pauses built in by Sellars: in any other production of St. Matthew, the continuo plays everything more or less right on the heels of the previous event. At the Armory, we waited to see what would happen next.

These momentary imperfections gave a beautiful vulnerability to the performance. Most conventional classical music performances show us a finished oil painting by an old master, with more than a whiff of accompanying dust. Here all the musicians had responsibility to be in the moment. Simon Rattle underlined this responsibility by not conducting except when absolutely needed. Much of the time he was just hanging out, listening, furthering the sense of intimacy. Rattle never cued the continuo, so moving forward to the next recitativo was up to them.

It’s very hard to get classical musicians, singers included, to act a part. Sellars gave everyone simple gestures that anyone could have done. The solo instruments walked around and the chorus jogged to different stations. At times it was dangerously close to somebody’s first talent show, but it never crossed the line. Instead, the audience was invited to really consider this famous and terrible story. “This could be you,” the performance said over and over again.

There was no iconography, not a single crucifix. This could be you, no matter your denomination. With the characters moving plain boxes around for no discernible reason, the performance had more of the effect of an existentialist play rather than anything religious. The big pauses in text—and occasionally even in the music, where the band took time in places that usually don’t have a stop sign—gave each moment of this Passion weight. “How could this tragedy have happened?” it seemed to ask.

For the Judas kiss, Jörg Schneider and Mark Padmore locked lips hard for about a minute. My first response was “Of course, Peter Sellars always does stuff like that.” But maybe this was meant to suggest that Jesus was a bit of a sinner himself. After all, don’t many gurus use their power to gain romantic favors from their disciples? Was the reason Judas turns in Jesus simply a banal case of sexual jealousy?

A telling moment came from the audience on the first night. At the very death of Jesus, an ungraceful couple got tired of the proceedings and clattered down the noisy Armory metal chairs. Apparently if a great man is wrongfully put to death, someone will always be ready ignore the sin. We are all guilty. Everyone in the Passion Play is guilty of something, just like everyone else, the audience included. We had to sit there, exposed, and just take our guilt. But taking it was a transcendent experience.

Ethan Iverson is a pianist best known for his work in The Bad Plus.

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