J.S. Bach's monumental "St. Matthew Passion" is a massive undertaking. In choral music terms, it's the equivalent of a Wagner opera: It's as long as it is musically rich, requiring two choruses (and a semi-chorus), two orchestras and multiple soloists.
For those reasons, this staple of the Lenten season is performed here infrequently. Bach Society of St. Louis artistic director A. Dennis Sparger has an unusual amount of experience with it, and his knowledge of, and love for, this score shone through in Sunday night's performance at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade Preparatory School.
The text is a setting of the 26th and 27th chapters of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, with interpolated poems by Christian Friedrich Henrici, who wrote as Picander, for the chorales and arias. The Gospel passages are straightforward; the rest is commentary, prayers, confessions and reflections, set to some of Bach's most beautiful music. The "Matthew Passion" is a very personal approach to a deeply held faith.
The Viragh Center has an odd acoustic that lacks immediacy and clarity. It was sometimes hard to hear the chorus, seated at the back of the stage, and the sound from chorus and orchestra was somewhat muddied. Still, they gave a fine account of themselves, with few missteps.
There are six major soloists, along with 10 from the chorus. Tenor William Watson's experienced Evangelist inhabited the score, investing every word with meaning. Bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck's Jesus was well-sung, if a bit stolid.
Sherezade Panthaki's crystalline singing and deeply felt interpretations left me wishing that Bach had provided another soprano aria or two. Tenor Lawrence Jones offered a sweet, lovely voice and touching readings of his arias.
Bass Curtis Streetman has a fine instrument and used it well. Countertenor Jay Carter's pallid tone lacked the warmth of a contralto, which undermined the beauty and meaning of the music. That was particularly regrettable in the Part II duet with concertmaster Lenorya-Marya Anop, who invested her part in "Erbarme dich, mein Gott" with beauty that Carter could not match.