There is a reason that you rarely see professional ensembles outside of big cities like Chicago and New York perform Bach's behemoth St. Matthew Passion.
It's a tremendous lift that calls for a double choir, a double orchestra and soloists. And it's 3 1/2 hours long, a pretty big ask of audiences in an age where two-hour concerts are the norm.
But don't tell any of that to the folks at True Concord Voices and Orchestra.
On Saturday night, before a packed house at Catalina Foothills High School Auditorium, the group made Tucson history by being the first professional ensemble to mount the St. Matthew Passion here. It was the group's third performance of the work since Thursday, when they performed it in Phoenix as the cornerstone of the Arizona Bach Festival. It repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, at Catalina United Methodist Church, 2700 E. Speedway.
Frankly, given its history of tackling choral masterpieces over its 15 seasons, it was a no-brainer that Eric Holtan and his estimable ensemble would blaze that trail. The St. Matthew concludes the group's Bach trifecta that included the B Minor Mass and St. John Passion.
The first for the city was also a first for Holtan, who had never tackled the St. Matthew before now. But he assembled all of the pieces with the deft hand of someone who had been there, done that, from dividing the orchestra into two — doubling up on roles from the violins to the oboes.
He brought in two critically-acclaimed soloists — tenor Brian Giebler in the role of the Evangelist and lyric baritone David Farwig as Jesus — and added the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus to the mix, placing the 16 boy choristers in the balconies to create a surround-sound effect when their sweet voices joined in.
He also tapped several singers from within the choir to perform solo roles including the wonderful, muscular baritone Elijah Blaisdell, who sang a recitative and aria in the concert's first half and returned in the role of High Priest in the second; and Canadian Megan Chartrand, who performed delicate and commanding coloratura runs in her solo turns and whose soaring, sweet soprano emerged as a singular voice as the choir mourned Christ's death.
St. Matthew Passion is based on the biblical texts of Matthew Chapters 26 and 27, retracing the story of Good Friday and Jesus's betrayal by Judas that led to his trial by Pilate and conviction. It's a dramatic story, one befitting an opera, and in many ways Holtan seemed to approach it as an unstaged opera. Tension was magnified by facial expressions and body language from the solo spotlights to the choir. When the chorus cried out "Let him be crucified!" there was a palpable sense of a mob gathering around the innocent Jesus demanding his end. It was goose-bumps inducing.
The twin choirs played out the ying and yang of Christ's crucifixion — one wanted to convict Christ and the other questioned the wisdom of condemning an innocent. The result was spectacularly dramatic, with the orchestra bringing out the intense drama to its full extent.
The orchestra, which performed Bach's score with thoughtful nuance and passion, is one of the finest ensembles Holtan could assemble. It featured several Tucson Symphony Orchestra players including flutist Alexander Lipay, violinists Ellen Chamberlain and Anna Gendler, and violist Ann Weaver. He also brought in the very fine cellist Mark Dupere and brought back popular former TSO oboist Lindabeth Binkley for her first Tucson appearance in several years. Her terrific spotlight duet with tenor Derek Chester reminded us how much we missed her.
It's hard to say when we will get to experience St. Matthew Passion on a professional stage in Tucson again, but True Concord did a fine job of setting the bar high for whomever follows.
Next up on True Concord's plate: Mozart's heavenly Requiem March 29-31.