It is not often that I find myself humming music from a concert which I went to a week ago. Mostly, the music I have experienced in the interim, either heard on the radio or sung for myself at Choir practice, takes over.
But last Friday proved to be an exception. The Royal School of Church Music had held its annual conference here in Sydney and as its finale they put on a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Sydney Town Hall. Anne and I had mulled over going, decided against for a variety of reasons, and then were persuaded to go with friends.
The St Matthew Passion is never stunning or enjoyable. The story it tells, of betrayal, mob rule, a cruel, agonizing death, and disruption amongst friends, hardly fits those adjectives. But a good performance is deeply satisfying, both musically and emotionally. And that is exactly what the RSCM delivered.
All the performers, choirs, soloists and orchestral players, were excellent. The conductor, David Hill, co-ordinated and inspired everyone not only to produce beautiful music, but to tell the story in all its glory and its agony. Sitting just two rows from the stage, we could see his movements and facial expressions as if we were ourselves performers, making for an unusual degree of involvement in the proceedings.
For me, listening to the Passion was enhanced by its being sung in English. Occasional jarring of language which does not quite match the music is more than compensated for by being able to follow the narrative. No doubt David Hill has taken that approach over from his predecessor as conductor of the Bach Choir in London, Sir David Wilcox, whose annual Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday performances of the Passion at the Royal Festival Hall are the stuff of musical legend.
The Passion is such a rich work of art that something new strikes you every time you hear it. For me, this time, one thing I had not noticed before was the contrast between the two arias with violin obbligato accompaniment. One is smooth and lilting, with the violinist’s movements seeming to align gently along with the music. The other is strident and angry, with the violinist’s bow arm in particular making rapid jagged movements, somehow emphasizing the extreme pain represented in the music.
There was perhaps one disappointment. The Town Hall was barely half full. Perhaps due to a lack of publicity the word had not got around, Such a shame, as it was a performance to remember. Maybe our Publicity Officer, Kerry, who seems to have secured us a full house again in a few weeks’ time, might like to help them get a fuller audience for their next production.