By Jeremy Eichler, Globe Staff | April 4, 2009
Since Craig Smith's death in 2007, composer John Harbison has been in a caretaker role at Emmanuel Music, serving as acting artistic director. This season, Emmanuel has been honoring Smith's legacy with a series of Bach concerts culminating this weekend with two performances of the composer's mighty "St. Matthew Passion."
The first of these took place last night, with Harbison leading the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a moving and thoughtful rendition of Bach's expressive masterpiece. This was not an account that prioritized grand theatrical effect, period style, or even necessarily a high-gloss ensemble sheen. But Harbison brought unostentatious musicianship and his experience with Baroque music to the task. He also approaches Bach's work with a composer's sensitivity. That awareness, and the impressive skills of the Emmanuel chorus so thoroughly steeped in Bach's music, made the choral singing in particular the gem of this performance.
Charles Blandy sang the role of the Evangelist with a clear, reliable, well-shaded, and articulate tenor. Vocally he had everything he needed; dramatically though, there was room to continue deepening, as at times he slipped into a more passive recounting of events instead of choosing to inhabit them himself by sheer force of empathy. As Jesus, Donald Wilkinson sang with a big and warm baritone.
Among the soloists from the chorus Pamela Dellal conveyed the necessary deep consolation with her heartfelt "Erbarme dich," dispatched with great vocal control and a beautiful depth of tone. Kendra Colton's "Aus Liebe" floated handsomely over the undulating woodwind lines. And Emily Walhout's viola da gamba playing elegantly embroidered Nikolas Nackley's entreaties in "Komm, süsses Kreuz."
The orchestral playing was vibrant, shapely, and responsive and the chorus sang with an immaculate and luminous blend throughout.