The Portland Symphony Orchestra, local choristers and invited vocal soloists assembled on the wide stage at Merrill Auditorium in Portland on Sunday afternoon to perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s monumental “St. Matthew Passion.”

At about three hours in length, this sacred oratorio based on Jesus’s last days on earth challenges both performers and listeners to go deep into a story that is fundamental to western culture. Both spiritually and artistically trenchant, this seminal work is particularly resonant in these uneasy times.

After its initial appearance in the 18th century, this Passion has gained increased favor over the years. In 2022, one can hear the roots of modern music in some of its openness, if one can wait out (and hopefully enjoy) its signature Baroque stylizations. Moments of sober reflection and transcendent beauty inform both the small- and large-scale passages that are in abundance throughout this creatively rich piece.

Guest soloists Gene Stenger (The Evangelist), Kevin Deas (Jesus), Nola Richardson (soprano) and Teresa Buchholz (mezzo-soprano) emerged within the enhanced polyphony of a bifurcated PSO and the ChoralArt Singers, University of Southern Maine Chamber Singers and the Portland Symphony Orchestra Youth Festival Chorus for a full afternoon of music making (to be repeated Tuesday evening). The indefatigable Eckart Preu animatedly conducted them all from center stage.

English translation to the German text was offered in supertitles projected above and behind the performers. The bittersweet themes of guilt, mercy and salvation were, of course, present in the sonorities of this most passionate work.

Even as it grounded the performance in a sense, the rich baritone voice of Deas suggested the otherworld presence of the awe-inspiring Lord. Stenger’s recitative tenor effectively set the scenes of betrayal and torment wrought by so many envious and avaricious competing forces within the ancient (but sadly not unfamiliar) zeitgeist of Biblical times.

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Richardson and Buchholz offered surrounding arias of compelling drama and beauty including one each with a strong assist from a different PSO violinist. Richardson’s emotive delivery was particularly appealing while Buchholz intensified the focus of her parts.

Vocal soloists from the choruses also came forward to take minor roles while their chorus mates emboldened their tone from moments of gentle reflection to those of savage mockery replete with mob-like exhortations. Their harmonies often formed out of an unsettling mixture of motives within the complexities of the work.

PSO instrumentalists in solos and small groupings, from flutes to high woodwinds to low strings with organ, added immensely to the variety and depth located within this troubling but ultimately uplifting masterpiece so spiritedly performed a week before Easter.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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