The sirens of downtown Washington miraculously held their peace for most of a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion last night. Their wails didn't penetrate the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes until what may have been the best possible moment: the crucifixion.

In a strange way, the noise may even have intensified an already dramatic, moving and heroic performance by the Washington Bach Consort led by J. Reilly Lewis. The Passion according to Lewis, performed with Picander's original text, was an alternately epic and intimate experience of occasionally excruciating beauty. There were the rough spots to be expected from so exhausting a masterwork, but overall, the evening was a triumph.

Presiding with unquestioned authority over more than 100 musicians, including a children's chorus from St. Columba's School, in the packed church, the conductor never let the music slip away, even when he dropped his baton. He won crisp musicianship from the two choruses and orchestra, plus decisive entrances and exits and generally tight ensemble.

The soloists ranged from adequate to extremely good. Tenor Robert Petillo, in the all-important role of evangelist, the passion's narrator, seemed the best, maintaining strong voice and crisp diction throughout, while singing his story with spirit and feeling. Baritone Wayne Jones began as a woebegone, weary Jesus, but gathered power as he approached his doom.

Mezzo Marianna Busching, soprano Nancy Krohn Young, contralto Beverly Benso and bass John Vroom all showed exceptional musical presence, as did Kenneth Slowik on viola da gamba and Jody Gatwood on fiddle.