ABS Oboist Debra Nagy Discusses Bach’s St. Matthew Passion

I hope you already have your tickets for ABS’s performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, February 27-March 2 as they are going fast (March 1 & 2 are already SOLD OUT)! ABS oboist Debra Nagy will play oboe, oboe d’amore, & oboe da caccia in all four performances. She will also present the pre-concert lectures in advance of each performance. We asked Debra about her experiences performing this masterpiece with ABS and the discoveries each encounter brings:

Debra Nagy, oboe

Debra Nagy, oboe

What are the challenges and thrills of performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion?

Playing the St. Matthew Passion as first oboe in the first orchestra is a singular challenge. As crazy as it sounds, I liken it to running a marathon—you have to be in great shape, and you also have to pace yourself over the course of the nearly three hours. It’s an emotionally heart-rending piece to perform, and it’s actually a rather difficult task to keep the focus that’s required to perform at your best as the emotions swirl around you in arias like “O Süßes Kreuz,” “Können Thränen,” or “Geduld” (you can tell I’m drawn to the really tortured ones!). Add to that the frequent “dives for the carpet” (the many fast instrument switches from oboe to oboe d’amore to oboe da caccia and back again), and you can start to understand the challenges!

Playing St. Matthew is a big challenge, but also extremely rewarding. You’re exhausted afterwards but also so inspired by the journey through the work and through the narrative. Because of the double choir/orchestra structure, I’m also always struck by the various symmetries in the work and never fail to notice something new and interesting.

 What is it like performing this work with ABS under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas?

I think this is perhaps my 3rd time doing this work with Jeffrey. As always, Jeffrey has a uniquely powerful, focused approach to the Matthew Passion. There’s not a moment that doesn’t feel taut with energy. I’m always inspired by the vocal soloists and I know that they are selected with the utmost care. In taking a look through the score and thinking about the “cast,” I can see and hear precisely his thinking … We first heard Agnes Vojtko last summer at the ABS Academy and I know she will sing a most beautiful “Erbarme dich,” I love Jay Carter’s expressive yet crystalline countertenor which will cut all the right corners in “Können Thränen,” and Bill Sharp is just about the most wonderful Jesus there is. I’m also very much looking forward to hearing and working with Hélène Brunet for the first time (we’ll see what special magic she brings to “Aus liebe!”)

What is it like performing this work from the oboe chair in the orchestra?

St. Matthew is a gold mine for the oboist—so many arias—yet so many fast switches! Pace yourself! 😉

What are some aspects of the piece that ABS concertgoers might listen for or be aware of when they hear Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at the end of this month? 

In my lecture, I will talk about (and draw the listeners’ ears towards) the accompanied recitatives (especially those preceding the arias). Often, I think when we think about the Matthew, we’re focused on our narrator/Evangelist, the symmetry created by the big opening, closing and interior choruses, and of course some of those famous arias – “Erbarme dich,” “Ich will bei meinem Jesu,” “Mache dich,” etc. But I find the many accompanied recits in the St. Matthew Passion remarkable (and not just those for Jesus!). In Baroque opera, accompanied recit was used sparingly to create the most heightened emotional content in the work. We’ll consider the rhetoric of Bach’s accompanied recits in the St. Matthew, which use a very wide range of orchestrations and effects (from 2 oboes da caccia and a pair of recorders, to flutes with gamba, etc.).


Debra Nagy’s pre-concert lectures will occur in each venue, one-hour before the performances begin. For more information about St. Matthew Passion or to purchase tickets, please visit our website or call the ABS Office at (415) 621-7900.