"There are, it is true, some people who take pleasure in such idle things, especially if they are of sanguine temperament and inclined to sensual pleasures." The idle things this 18th-century critic was referring to was a performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion." Clearly this crotchety gentleman was unaware that musical settings of the passion had been a church tradition since the 9th century and, indeed, held an honored place as the first musical dramas.
If he was offended by a church performance that involved perhaps a hundred musicians, imagine what he would have thought of the goings-on at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall yesterday where Norman Scriber led his 150-voice Choral Arts Society and soloist and instruments to match in a really big production of the piece.
Styles of performance of the music of Bach and his ilk have gone through many phases since then, from the romantic instrumentation of Mendelssohn's day, the Victorianisms that G.B. Shaw objected to so strenuously, to what we seem to have today -- which is a willingness to find a compromise that includes the requirements of the available forces, the hall, the occasion and, above all, the music and the text.
Scribner has a fine large chorus and collected able soloists and excellent instrumentalists for this performance, but he couldn't seem to find a compromise that made musical and artistic sense. Much of the time he seemd content to simply beat time, heavily at that, and musicians threw this right back him, mirroring his beat in their sound.
Evangelist John Humphrey, who was on his own most of the time, sang superbly, as did Douglas Lawrence as Jesus. The chorus in its guise of angry crowd was extremely effective, a heavy beat being in the nature of its character. But instrumental accompaniments were allowed to trample all over the other soloists, and when the chorus was being sympathetic, it sounded bored instead.
The St. Columba's Boy and Girl Choirs sang nicely in the first half, and Richard Dirksen provided excellent continuo.