10.4.14 – The two performances (October 7 and 8) that Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival scheduled of Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with staging by Peter Sellars at the Park Avenue Armory, apparently sold out almost instantly. (Or almost – there are a few seats left.) I hadn’t really thought about going, but when I got an email saying that they’d added a couple of open rehearsals, I decided to buy a ticket. I can almost never pass up an opportunity to see anything Peter Sellars does. I’ve been following him since he was a freshman at Harvard, and of course there he was at the Armory. We shared a nice hug, and I told him I’ve been trying to count how many productions of his I’ve seen in 35 years. Could it be almost 100? Definitely over 50, in Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, La Jolla, and Amsterdam.
This staging of St. Matthew’s Passion originated at the Salzburg Festival in 2010 and played in Berlin the same year. Peter said they’ve been trying to bring it to NYC ever since. And the Armory provided a perfect opportunity to create an unusual intimacy between the audience and the orchestra. I was lucky to get a seat (in section 107) that was the equivalent of sitting onstage, behind the musicians (two sections of orchestra) and next to one of the two sections of chorus. The brilliant conductor Simon Rattle was spitting distance away. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Berlin Philharmonic live, but this performance could not have been more exquisite. They had rehearsed part 1 in the morning, and in the afternoon we saw part 2.
This piece is almost always performed as an oratorio, but Sellars staged it as a ritual and had not only the featured singers moving around the stage reenacting the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus Christ but also brought musicians with key solos forward. So at times John the Baptist (here called Evangelist and sung by Mark Padmore with what one review aptly called “heartbreaking eloquence”) would be addressing the cellist, or the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozena (playing Mary Magdalene) would be standing in a circle with two violinists. Asking chorus members to emote in unison could sometimes verge on corny but mostly Sellars’ staging had the intended effect of making an already sublime piece of music extra-dynamic. When it was over there was a silent pause of deep satisfaction for at least a minute before the applause began, morphing into a (justified, for once) standing ovation.
Big props to Park Avenue Armory for adventurous programming and the extra care involved in creating a beautiful, thorough, free program with the text and translation and essay material about the event.