"[…]the performance was vibrant, so moving a feast for the ear and visually, you should be so very proud."
"The chorales sounded fresh, and the undoubted masterstroke was the inclusion of a recording of the final Passion chorale sung by the youngsters, while a video mosaic of their faces gradually appeared on the floor."
"I thought I knew the Passion very well, but there were many new insights. Although I remain loyal to the Bach Choir performing tradition, it was a great privilege to look at it from a quite different perspective."
"A tour de force, a triumph and so utterly moving"
“The performance of the St Matthew Passion, staged by Patrick Kinmonth and conceived and conducted by Suzi Digby, was one of the most inspirational evenings I can remember.
The power and theatre and passion of Bach’s music, combined some of the greatest vocalists in the world, both solo and choral, with a virtual choir of 'Young Ambassadors', almost all of whom were new to “classical” music. This made for a performance that caused the hairs to rise on the back of the neck from the first bars to the great close.
It was beyond wonderful to see the Young Ambassadors in the audience (watching themselves in the projected Virtual Choir video for the final chorale) overcome by a music that might have at first glance seemed irrelevant to those of us who are secular and very 21st century. But the power and the infinite emotional depths of the Bach’s masterpiece clearly inspired those singers as much as it did the mesmerised audience.
If the Vocal Futures model does not provide a visionary example of how to develop the young audiences of the future, nothing will.”
“For a work not designed to be staged at all, Bach’s St Matthew Passion has endured some wacky theatrical maulings in recent years. But this staging, running for three nights in a disused concrete laboratory on the Marylebone Road, adds a new dimension. Several hundred youngsters, who have been immersed in the St Matthew for weeks and invited to these performances, will now have their receptivity to classical music monitered by a professor of music psychology. The optimistic thesis is that Bach will change their lives. The project has been devised by Suzi Digby and her new Vocal Futures foundation. As well as conducting the piece she also raised what must have been an astronomical sum of money to make it happen, for this is no cut-price kids’ show. The orchestra is the Age of Enlightenment, with its leader Margaret Faultless sublime in Erbarme dich. The superb chorus comprises 32 young professionals. The role of the Evangelist is divided with the outstanding Joshua Ellicott doing an anguished double-act with the promising Samuel Boden. Willard White, no less, sings Christ: stiffly but with immense nobility. And the aria soloists – Helen-Jane Howells, Robin Blaze, Catherine Hopper, Andrew Tortise and Stephan Loges – are riveting. The ensemble gets a little unhinged at odd moments; otherwise I have rarely heard the St Matthew sung and played so convincingly.
Patrick Kinmonth’s staging turns this austere venue into a rough wooden barricade – orchestra, chorus and audience raised on two sides; the action in between. A dozen silent actors and a lot of wooden tables, evoke (rather than literally deipct) the Passion story. Modern dress – High Priests looking like mafia thugs in their black leather – matches a striking new translation by Kinmonth and Jessica d’Este.
There are no tremendous insights; but equally, nothing jars – and the use of the space, as well as the mingling of soloists and miming actors, is as effective as Digby’s varied treatment of the chorales. None is treated more strikingly than the great Passion chorale itself. We hear a recording of the participating youngsters singing it, while a video mosaic of their faces gradually forms on the floor. What better way to symbolise how the resonances of the Passion, and Bach’s music, have echoed through continents, centuries and generations?”
“LONDON – Putting on a dramatized version of Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion would seem a big enough challenge on its own. But for musical polymath Suzi Digby, it has served as a launch pad for a largescale project whose aim is introduce disadvantaged youth worldwide to classical music.
She has raised prodigious amounts of money to do so and recruited 1,500 “young ambassadors” for one of the biggest social experiments the music world has ever seen.
The scheme, entitled Vocal Futures, aims to connect classical music with people who are least likely to encounter it in its normal environment. “Hard to reach” is the kind of challenge that Digby relishes, fired up by her own early experience of Bach’s work. “The ‘Matthew’ Passion blew my world apart when I was 17,” she told Classical Music magazine. “The piece has grown inside me ever since, pushing my horizons of what art can say about human expression. The greatest works of art have that power.”
Vocal Futures kicked off with three performances of the “Matthew” Passion on Nov. 28, 29, 30 with Patrick Kinmonth as director and designer. The event took place in a wacky venue known as Ambika P3. Despite its central London location, its original function was to test concrete in preparation for the building of a particularly labyrinthine road junction near Birmingham known as Spaghetti Junction.
After these London performances, the project is planned for Los Angeles, Cologne, Shanghai and Johannesburg. Dramatizing the Passions remains a tricky assignment, though no longer a rare one. In 2000 Deborah Warner offered food for thought in a controversial version of the “St. John” at English National Opera; in 2007 director Katie Mitchell stirred it up with a “St. Matthew” for Glyndebourne; and in 2010 Peter Sellars staged a “St. Matthew” for the Berlin Philharmonic. But first in the modern dramatized Passion queue was Jonathan Miller, who presented the “St. Matthew” in a London church in 1993, a production that has recently been revived at the National Theater.
In its original church staging, it was a gloriously intimate experience, the actors and singers interacting with the instrumentalists in a truly memorable way. Miller’s production provides a standard against which all others should be judged. Truth to tell, for all its strengths, drama was perhaps the least memorable part of the Vocal Futures version, with the question “Why?” hanging over much of it. But then this is a production aimed not at latemiddleaged music critics but at young people meeting the music afresh. On the first night, there were not that many young faces in the audience, but during an eightweek runup some 60 related workshops took place, the tangible evidence of which was a climactic moment when the floor was covered by the projected images of young people singing the great chorale “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” following Christ’s death.
It was very well handled, and more group participation of this kind would have been welcome. There was another moving moment following Peter’s denial, when he and Jesus stare at each other silently across a void. The building was fully used, with many staircases populated by characters from the drama. Half the time you didn’t know whether they were latecomers or about to sing. The production gives young people cultural references aplenty, highlighting mob violence and deploying odd hand gestures. It must certainly be the first time St. Peter has been seen wearing a hoodie. It was presumably also for the young audience that two of the disciples are seen making out while Jesus is praying and preparing for his death.
Whatever the effectiveness of the drama, musically this was on much surer ground, with a firstclass cast and chorus and tremendous playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Suzi Digby is a sensitive and accomplished conductor, and there were whole arias where she had the humility to stand motionless and let the musicians make their own way. They did so magnificently. The orchestra was placed on three sides of the playing area, with two banks of audience seats forming an amphitheatre. The front row of both seating areas was filled with the chorus, with extra singers sounding out at the beginning from higher in the building. It made for a highly involving aural experience, with the added quality of the soloists singing from all parts of the auditorium.
The chorus was the ABRSM Vocal Futures Consort, highlighting a collaboration with the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.
Willard White was exactly right for Christus, singing with great dignity and humility. The role of the Evangelist was split between Samuel Boden and Joshua Ellicott, both excellent, and the other members of a firstclass cast were Robin Blaze, Catherine Hopper, HelenJane Howells, Andrew Tortise and Stephan Loges.
This “St. Matthew” Passion should be looked on not just as a performance piece but as the start of what could be something really big in music education. It is greatly to Suzi Digby’s credit that she has put together such a groundbreaking project, and even more so that she is not content just to present an experiment. She has commissioned one of the world’s leading authorities on music psychology, Professor John Sloboda, to research the young participants’ perceptions of classical music as the project unfolds. The results should make fascinating reading.”
“I had better come clean at once. I subscribe firmly to the reactionary view that the emotional impact of great oratorios is diluted rather than intensified by attempts to stage or illustrate them: they are works of meditation not dramas, and the composers’ intention was that we create the scene in the theatre of our imaginations.
This being said, I thought that Patrick Kinmonth’s realisation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion had dignity and delicacy and showed a degree of good taste. In a bare concrete chamber in the bowels of the University of Westminster, Kinmonth has fashioned a striking theatrical space, separating audience, chorus and orchestra across two steeply raked blocks of seating. Between them the action is played out impressionistically by the soloists, two Evangelists (why two?) and 15 mute, choreographed actors. Dress is neutral modern mufti, and twelve tables on castors, variously combined to suggest beds, tombs, trolleys and platforms, form the setting.
Cliché is not altogether avoided: there is a good deal of aimless processing, a lot of rapt but pained emoting and phoney solemnity. But it’s all very fluently handled, with tableaux that are sometimes starkly beautiful and never insensitive to the music. I just can’t, in retrospect, see what the mise-en-scène contributes.
Choral wizard Suzi Digby conducted a crisp, swift performance. There was some lovely obbligato playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and some first-rate choral singing, enchanced by a hard but resonant acoustic.
Both Evangelists Joshua Ellicott and Samuel Boden had a strong presence and kept Bach’s wonderful story-telling vivid. Among the soloists I particularly liked the heavily pregnant mezzo Catherine Hopper. As Christus, Willard White looked and sounded faintly bored or bemused, or perhaps both.
But the performance was not primarily aimed at the conventional or converted audience. Suzi Digby’s Vocal Futures foundation had gathered 300 teenagers to follow the project through gestation and rehearsal, in an attempt to bring classical music alive to them. This group also forms a “virtual” choir which sang the great post-crucifixion chorale on tape, with video of their faces individually projected like postage stamps on to the floor.
Their responses and experiences – both before and after the performance – are now being collated as part of academic research into the reasons why modern youth feels so disengaged from the great tradition. I’ll be curious to hear the findings.”