In Dallas recently Jaap van Zweden conducted a series of performances of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. The performance I attended was extraordinary. For my detailed comments see my blog elsewhere on the LSM website.
I sat down with Maestro van Zweden the day after the performance and we talked about his approach to this great masterpiece. My own experience with the St. Matthew Passion goes back to the annual performances conducted by Sir Ernest MacMillan in Toronto in the 1950s. That was a different time. But in spite of the rather Victorian approach the essence of the work always came through when Sir Ernest conducted. It also helped that he had soloists of the calibre of Lois Marshall, Maureen Forrester, Jon Vickers and James Milligan and the fine Mendelssohn Choir.
Jaap van Zweden also grew up in a country where the St. Matthew Passion was often an annual event. Again, the performances tended to be more grandiose and romantic than they ought to have been. But during his long tenure as concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Jaap van Zweden came under the influence of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Harnoncourt was a pioneer in trying to discover the authentic performance practice for the music of Bach. For a long time major conductors ridiculed the early music specialists and many of them came to avoid Bach altogether for fear of seeming to be ill-informed and old-fashioned. Others, like Simon Rattle, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Jaap van Zweden took a different approach. Such conductors are born with the attitude that there is always more to learn. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They did their homework and started performing this great old music with a fresh and more informed approach, and the results have often been wonderful.
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