Craig Jessop and his American Festival Chorus brought a magnificent Easter gift to the people of Salt Lake City on Saturday: a profoundly moving presentation of Bach's great St. Matthew Passion. Hundreds of listeners sat transfixed in the Cathedral of the Madeleine for the oratorio's nearly 3-hour running time, hearing the story of Jesus' trial and crucifixion unfold.
Opportunities to experience the St. Matthew Passion live are infrequent, partly because of the musical forces required: a double choir (plus an antiphonal chorus of treble voices), a double orchestra and numerous soloists. The headlining roles of Jesus and the Evangelist are unusual in that they are sung entirely in recitative, which more or less resembles normal speech. The vocalists who sang these roles — tenor Paul Phoenix as the Evangelist and baritone Darrell Babidge as Jesus — were ideally cast. Both men sang with clarity, power and consummate expressiveness.
They were joined by a first-rate quartet of soloists: soprano Celena Shafer, alto Holly Sorensen, tenor Robert Breault and baritone John Buffett. Shafer's poignant delivery of the aria "For love now is my Saviour dying" drew tears from several in the audience and even a couple of orchestra members.
Holding it all together was Jessop, whose mastery of the score was evident throughout the afternoon. His chorus, augmented by members of the Utah State University Chamber Singers and Women's Chorus, was impeccably prepared. The 10 choir members who had brief solos all acquitted themselves well. The accompanying orchestra gave a sensitive performance, with noteworthy solo turns from concertmasters Mark Oshida and Meredith Campbell, and was underpinned by the excellent continuo ensemble of Craig Trompeter (viola da gamba), Kevin Olson (portative organ) and Phillip Rukavina (theorbo).