It was a new setting for a newly formed musical organization to perform an age-old work depicting the most sacred week in world history.
The occasion was the Temple Square Chorale's performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," depicting the crucifixion of Christ and the events leading up to it.
Presented as one of the inaugural events in the Libby Gardner Concert Hall at the University of Utah, the performance was held April 22, the night before Easter Sunday. Mack Wilberg, associate director of the Tabernacle Choir and music director of the chorale, conducted the performance. Augmenting the chorale were members of the new Orchestra at Temple Square, a soprano chorus from the Tabernacle Choir and six renowned soloists brought in from different parts of the nation especially for the occasion.
The performance was presented the previous evening in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square as part of the Temple Square Concert Series. On each evening, the audience rewarded the musicians with a prolonged standing ovation and shouts of "Bravo!"
"St. Matthew Passion is probably the greatest work of western art in commemorating the last week of the life of the Savior," said Craig Jessop, music director of the Tabernacle Choir, in a conversation prior to the performances.
He said Bach composed it in Leipzig, Germany, between 1728-29, conducting the first performance on Good Friday, April 15, 1729.
"In the Protestant world in Bach's time, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday was the most sacred week of the church liturgical year," he said. "At the Vesper service on Good Friday, the tradition in Leipzig was to review each year the account in one of the gospels commemorating the 'Passion,' which starts at the last supper, continues through the betrayal, the prayer in the garden, the trial and the mocking and scourging, and ends with the crucifixion of the Lord."
According to the tradition, the resurrection of Christ would then be joyfully celebrated on Easter Sunday.
"It was never written as a concert," Brother Jessop noted regarding Bach's work. "It was a religious service. It is not considered an opera or an oratorio; it is a Passion."
Bach wrote five such Passions, including one for each of the four gospels in the New Testament. Of the five, only the St. Matthew and St. John Passions remain. The Tabernacle Choir performed the "St. John Passion" three years ago at Easter time.
Brother Jessop said the "St. Matthew Passion" is uniquely written for double choir and double orchestra. Matthew's narration from the scriptures is sung by a tenor, in this case Christopher Cock, a music professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Veteran baritone James Morrow sang in the role of Jesus. Four additional artists, soprano Janice Chandler, mezzo-soprano Martha Hart, tenor Robert Breault and baritone Clayton Brainerd took auxiliary roles, such as Peter, Mary, Judas and Pilate. They also performed arias interspersed in the performance, which Brother Jessop said "are not based on scripture, but are really poetry, the individual soul's reflection on what the Savior is doing for him."
A recurring hymn melody was sung at times by the chorus; the melody would have been recognizable to many Church members as "O Savior, Thou Who Wearest a Crown" (Hymns, No. 197). Bach adapted the music from a hymn written earlier by Hans Leo Hassler.
University officials, knowing that the work was to be presented as part of the Temple Square Concert Series, asked that it be presented a second night as one of the opening events for the concert hall. The new facility, complete with an impressive pipe organ, is in the David P. Gardner Hall, which has undergone three years of renovation.
You can reach R. Scott Lloyd by e-mail at [email protected]