Exalted, Exultant, Exhausted

Three unchallenged masterworks, each over 250 years old, serve civilization as the musical translation of the essence of humanness. On successive evenings over one weekend early this month, all three – the St. John and St. Matthew Passions of J.S. Bach, the Messiah of George Frideric Handel – filled and consecrated the air at UCLA’s Royce Hall. When have we earthlings proved worthy of such bounty?

If any music can qualify as “essential,” these works surely do. They tell basically the same story. Handel surveys a historical panorama – the coming of Jesus, the betrayal and crucifixion, the promise of redemption. Bach expands upon the central tragedy. Each of his two evangelists tell similar stories, each in different dramatic accents: John with the dark chromaticism of his own internal suffering – you hear this in the very first stabbing notes of the chorus – and Matthew in broader strokes in which the world’s entire population participates. The beauty of the music, the genius of both composers’ reactions to the drama, achieves a universality beyond any narrow identity as a Christian tract. The moment of deepest personal tragedy in all three retellings – Peter’s denial of Jesus, and his immediate stab of conscience – is set to music of such poignancy (“Thy rebuke” in Messiah, the harrowing dissonance of the “bitter weeping” in John and, most of all, the aria “Erbarme dich” in Matthew) that just writing about it brings on the shivers. These episodes most meaningfully hold the mirror up to humanity’s vulnerable center. No composer since the time of Bach and Handel has had the effrontery to invent new music to retell the power of this ancient, vivid legend – nobody, that is, until Osvaldo Golijov in his St. Mark Passion, which is more like chutzpah than effrontery (and wonderful of its kind).

Word had been circulating for years about the work of Masaaki Suzuki and his Bach Collegium Japan, and here they were, starting a countrywide tour (but performing both the St. John and St. Matthew Passions only in Los Angeles, lucky us). Born in Kobe in 1954, Suzuki began as a harpsichordist and organist, studied in the Netherlands, and returned to Japan with the single ambition of conducting Bach in historically informed performances with all that implies – gut strings, wooden woodwinds, portative organs. He and the Collegium are currently recording all 200-plus of the Bach cantatas. In a radio interview he claimed to have never conducted a “normal” orchestra. At Royce he used a chorus of 12 and an orchestra of 18 for the St. John, doubling those forces for the polychoric demands of the St. Matthew with, in that work, two of the vocal soloists substituting for the third chorus of treble voices in the opening section. Of the soloists, two were Japanese, three European. The smallest, and the loudest, was a tenor named Makoto Sakurada, and he was phenomenal.

So, in fact, was quite a lot else as well. Looking from the back like a ghost from early Kurosawa, his crown of pure-white hair grazing his shoulders, both his hands seeming to mold the music in midair, Suzuki drew from his mostly young orchestra sounds lithe and bright, marvelously in tune. Tempos tended toward the fast side, perhaps a shade excessively in the chorales. Gerd Türk was the Evangelist both nights, performing with remarkable dramatic intensity, particularly memorable for his hate-filled pronunciation of the name “Barabbas.” Jochen Kupfer, a Boris Godunov kind of bass, was the Jesus in St. John. Peter Kooij, the St. Matthew Jesus, performed with less voice but better style. Male alto Robin Blaze sang the “Erbarme dich” rather coldly; soprano Yukari Nonoshita sang her arias prettily, aside from a tendency to bite off the ends of phrases.

The miracle of these passions, one of them, anyway, is the richness in the interaction of words and harmonies. It was sheer incompetence, therefore, that the management at Royce furnished no complete printed text, and no hall lighting to read even the fragments of text that were provided. I complained to a couple of the powers that be, but UCLA’s David Sefton was too busy shaking hands, and Frank Salomon, the tour manager (and head of the distinguished Marlboro Festival), suggested that people could just listen to the music – a most unsatisfactory response. UCLA has produced some splendid music making in the past; can it be that people there have now stopped caring?

Messiah was part of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra’s series; that management at least knew to provide a full printed text, along with Alan Chapman’s enlightening pre-concert narrative. Grant Gershon conducted, with a small contingent from his Master Chorale; among the soloists, soprano Elissa Johnston and tenor Michael Slattery were outstanding, bass-baritone James Creswell slightly less so, and mezzo-soprano Kate Butler practically inaudible.

In 1789 the distinguished music patron Baron von Swieten, who was sparking a one-man baroque revival in Vienna, hired Mozart to prepare an update of Handel’s by-then-famous score; in contrast to our own history-obsessed times, an “authentic” Messiah in Handel’s pristine scoring would have been unthinkable to a 1789 audience. (Similarly, all the famous Bach “revivals” instigated by Felix Mendelssohn and his followers four decades later were perpetrated to heavily romanticized re-orchestrations. Heaven preserve us from some future well-intended festival of Bach cantatas re-scored for clarinets, harps and tinkling chimes as installed in the 1850s by the fine Victorian hand of Sir Joseph Barnby – best known today for his royal-purple song setting of Lord Tennyson’s “Sweet and Low.”)

The “Mozart” Messiah, used in the Royce Hall performance, was an occasion of misguided exhumation. For every new touch that might properly be linked to a Mozartian sensibility – the notion of starting some of the big choral numbers with just a vocal quartet so as to enhance the big-bang entry by the chorus later on, the timpani under the great outbursts in “For unto us a Child is born” – there were other moments in which the familiar Mozartian orchestral magic, of winds and horns in rich harmony, or of the strings dancing out a countermelody above one of Handel’s solemn tunes, were simply alien to enlightened 2003 ears. If such stiff-backed tributes to the ideals of the past must be inflicted on us, better so at least with the marvelous winds and brass of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. It would be even better so, however, with the unbroken strength of Handel’s masterpiece as he himself had once dreamed it, not yet in need of fixing.