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Music review: Los Angeles Master Chorale's 'St. Matthew Passion'

March 8, 2010 |  3:55 pm

For three hours on Sunday, Walt Disney Concert Hall felt duly transformed into a sacred space. The occasion was the debut Disney Hall performance of Bach’s soaring and sadly meditative “St. Matthew Passion,” in a refined, powerful performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

This impression of “sacredness” wasn’t necessarily in terms of creed, by which any listener relates depending on religious affiliation, but as a purely musical epiphany. The opportunity to hear a strong, lucid reading of this indisputable choral masterpiece, in an inspired venue like Disney Hall, made it a musical experience fit to worship.

Site does matter, and Bach himself incorporated site-specific staging elements in his home-base Thomaskirche in Leipzig when the piece premiered in 1727. On this night and in this hall, Master Chorale  music director Grant Gershon, celebrating a decade at the helm, exerted precisely the right touch. He beautifully marshaled and shaped the various forces -- the Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus abetted the Chorale -- all necessary to make the “Passion” sing, and on the grand and the intimate scale required.

Throughout Sunday’s performance, the work of soloists, drawn from the Chorale’s ranks, was potent and restrained, to suit. The roster included Pablo Cora as the evangelist and Steve Pence as Jesus, altos Kristen Toedtman, Adriana Manfredi and Leslie Inman, sopranos Tamara Bevard and Deborah Mayhan, tenor Jon Lee Keenan and baritone Abdiel Gonzales.

Unique and even today seemingly ahead of its time, “St. Matthew Passion” tells the “Passion” story of Jesus’ betrayal, trial, crucifixion and burial, mixing layers of drama and Bach’s supreme musical eloquence. With the work’s complex and shifting perspectives and degrees of narrative and symbolic reflection, the supertitles at Disney Hall were warranted. But the music itself made the deepest and loftiest impression, especially in this acoustically and atmospherically resonant space.

 -- Josef Woodard

Photo: Los Angeles Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Musica Angelica and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus; seated in front are from left, soloistis Bass Steve Pence (“Jesus”) and Tenor Pablo Corá (“Evangelist”). Credit: Gary Fung.