A little over two weeks ago, I had the good fortune to sing in the final concert of the St. Matthew Passion with the Nederlands Kamerkoor and Holland Baroque, conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw.
Coming from rural Australia, the music of Bach had never been a significant part of my cultural landscape before moving to the Netherlands, a country which unfailingly each year has almost daily performances of the Bach Passions in every church and concert hall in the weeks that surround Easter.
Given that I would be performing with musicians who have quite literally performed the St. Matthew Passion hundreds of times, whereas I would be performing it for the very first time, I expected to have a distinctly different experience rehearsing and performing this work than my colleagues. I went into the project feeling ignorant and ill-informed, expecting those around me to be filled with a profound gratification that surely must come from having such a degree of insight and understanding of any piece of music.
It seemed, however, that both ignorance and over-exposure can breed a certain unintentional indifference. Before this project, I had no personal musical or emotional connection to the Matthew Passion. From some of the conversations I had with colleagues, it would appear that performing this piece with such regularity and often with a consistency of approach had led to a certain numbness, the intense personal connection they once had felt so strongly had been stripped away through familiarity. The unrelenting pace of Passion Season inadvertently created musical somnambulists.
How lucky then to have Reinbert de Leeuw to shake us out of our apathy! He came to this work completely convinced and convincing in his own unique, individual understanding of the text and the music. For every single chorus, chorale, aria, or recitative, Reinbert had a clear and considered vision. He was able to take all of us, whether we were singing this music for the first time or hundred and first time, on a path of discovery, stopping at moments along the way to point out a perspective, colour, or detail that would have otherwise slipped by unnoticed.
The sensitivity to the text in the chorales was a particular revelation. The expression was not subjugated to a ruthless tempo, but was instead dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the meaning of the text. Many times during rehearsals, I heard people saying they had never realised how moving a particular moment could be, or they had forgotten the true power of the text. Some singers were moved to tears during rehearsals.
Personally, I was struck by the quintessential humanity Reinbert was able to connect us with. I am not religious, yet the magnitude of the crucifixion story touched me like never before. The degree of suffering, and the injustice of the most innocent being punished for the sins of humanity took on a universal relevance, a story not only for believers, but for all of us who live, and love, and hurt. The clarity of Reinbert’s message made it on occasion profoundly uncomfortable to sing the words. It was not pleasant to mock Jesus on the cross, to rejoice in the spilling of his blood, with the full and deliberate awareness that the consistent cruelty of mankind renders us undeserving of the sacrifice.
But this should not be an easy work to sing.
As a student of historically informed performance, singing the St. Matthew Passion with one of the world’s most versatile choirs and a leading Baroque orchestra, I was initially focussed on how I should sing this music stylistically, thinking that through my correct use of appoggiatura, vocal tone, vibrato, and articulation I would show my engagement with the music. It took working with a conductor from a completely different world to reveal to me the superficiality of those questions. The initial difficulty I had adapting to an unexpected tempo, character or dynamic revealed to me how Early Music has come to be defined by a collection of conventions and expectations, the same Early Music movement that started off as a rejection of unquestioning acceptance of tradition.
Reinbert de Leeuw’s interpretation of the St. Matthew Passion convinced me that instead of asking how we will play a particular piece, perhaps we should be asking why. The style is the way in which we communicate the message, but it is not the message itself. A particular tempo or ornament means nothing in isolation, these musical elements are how we express the thought, feeling, or story that inspires the creation of music in the first place. Even within the realm of Early Music, there is no such thing as a right performance, we should not be concerned whether we are correct, but rather whether we are convincing. And whether the audience or performers personally agreed with each of Reinbert’s musical decisions, there is no denying that each choice proved the contemplation and raw honesty behind his approach, making this one of the most compelling performances I have ever experienced.