St. Matthew Passion a shining moment in Spoleto Festival 2015

Joe Miller conducts the Westminster Choir.

After conductor Joe Miller slowly put his hands down at the end of J.S. Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” Wednesday night, there was a long silence, then thunderous applause and repeated curtain calls. For three hours, with an intermission much shorter than the hour-long sermon Bach had to endure, the audience which packed a sold-out Sottile Theatre sat in rapt attention as Bach’s magnum opus was brought to musical life by a double choir (Westminster Choir and Taylor Festival Choir), double orchestra (players from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra and New York Baroque) and six principal soloists.

One of the rarest birds in the vocal world is the high tenor who can sing the demanding role of the Evangelist in the Bach passions; it sits uncomfortably high for too long for most tenors, but Rufus Mueller has been the go-to person here and abroad. What a delight to hear him, with his exemplary diction in the German narration, easily followed by English supertitles projected above the stage. His stage presence gave an added dimension to his interpretation.

Bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton was good as Jesus. The four outstanding aria soloists were crystal-clear soprano Jessica Petrus, resonant alto Virginia Warnken, clarion tenor Oliver Mercer and the stand-out of the group, Dashon Burton, who not only sang the bass arias but took on the important role of Pontius Pilate.

Other small roles (priests, witnesses, Peter, Judas, etc.) gave members of the Westminster Choir some cameo moments. Among the instrumentalists there were important solos beautifully executed for the violin, flute and viola da gamba, plus lots of work for the oboes who played both regular oboes plus the oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia.

The continuo group had cellos, basses, a bassoon, plus a large lute and two positive organs. This is the backbone of a Baroque band and it worked like a well-oiled machine.

Altogether, Miller conducted with great style, at times just shaping the music with his hands rather than marking time, and at other times letting the continuo players coordinate on their own. He kept the large forces in sync, despite a couple of times when the two sides of the stereo-like choral/orchestral group almost diverged.

The “St. Matthew Passion” is not easy to conduct; there are dozens of tricky places where the two choruses come in for only a few bars of complex material (such as the “Crucify” shouts from the crowd). Miller did not hesitate to let a little Romantic interpretation come the fore with some exaggerated dynamics as the passion story become more intense. He let the simple chorales (often overly “shaded” to destruction in many performances) stand solidly on their own as the hymns of the believers, though he couldn’t resist one final chorale sung pianissimo and a cappella without the instruments Bach marked in his score.

This was an evening of near-flawless execution and many moments of ravishing beauty and power. It will go down as a highlight (maybe even THE highlight) of this year’s festival, and, I think, as the work with which Joe Miller established his credentials to lead an extended choral/orchestral masterwork, not just recreating Bach’s music but also putting his own interpretive stamp on the whole.

William Gudger is an organist and professor emeritus of music at the College of Charleston.