Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Receives Largest Grant in its 141-Year History, $240,000 from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to Present the North American Premiere of the Mendelssohn Revised St. Matthew Passion

JUNE 17, 2014
Janelle McCoy, Executive Director
Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia
Edward McNally, Above The Fold

Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia Receives Largest Grant in its 141-Year History, $240,000 from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to Present the North American Premiere of the Mendelssohn Revised St. Matthew Passion

Landmark February 2015 Concert in The Chapel at Girard College Celebrates Mendelssohn Club’s Fifteen Decades of Performing


(PHILADELPHIA) Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia is proud to announce an award of $240,000 from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, a multidisciplinary grantmaker that supports culture in the greater Philadelphia area. The 140-member symphonic chorus, founded in 1874 and named for 19th century composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), will use the funds to produce the North American premiere of the composer’s 1841 revision of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  In addition to The Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, primary soloists will be tenor Yusuke Fujii, bass-baritone Eric Owens, soprano Susanna Phillips, and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson.  The historic concert will be presented on February 8, 2015 as part of Maestro Alan Harler’s 27th season as conductor of Mendelssohn Club and his final season as Artistic Director.

With this North American premiere, Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia hopes to validate and celebrate Felix Mendelssohn’s critical role in preserving Johann Sebastian Bach’s original dramatic masterpiece and restoring Bach’s position in the classical music pantheon.  The concert will serve as a fitting tribute to the namesake of one of the nation’s oldest symphonic choruses.

This major grant by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage will support a majority of the expenses to produce the February 2015 premiere concert at The Chapel of Girard College, as well as two other related events: a large community concert in October 2014 to celebrate the chorale format in choral music and a symposium in January 2015 exploring the differences between the Bach original and Mendelssohn’s revised St. Matthew Passion. The grant also enables Mendelssohn Club to produce comprehensive video and audio recording of all three events for HD video distribution by NAXOS for streaming and downloads. Twenty percent of the grant award will support Mendelssohn Club’s core operational expenses.

“Mendelssohn Club is thrilled and extremely honored that The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage has chosen to support our St. Matthew Passion so generously,” says Executive Director Janelle McCoy. “This multi-faceted project will offer the broader community many different opportunities to come together and experience this music.  Audience members will sing together, watch videos of our process and learn more about both Bach and Mendelssohn.” McCoy added, “Everyone involved is looking forward to being swept away by the sheer drama of the St Matthew Passion itself and the world-class soloists singing it at the North American premiere here in Philadelphia next February!”

“Through the many elements of this historic premiere production,” McCoy explained, “Mendelssohn Club is providing audiences with passive and very active ways to experience choral singing, classical music’s most accessible form, at both the micro and macro levels, both inside of and beyond the beautiful Chapel at Girard College.”

Mendelssohn Club has contracted with two of the world’s leading Bach and Mendelssohn specialists to support their extensive research for this season long project.  These include Masaaki Suzuki, one of the world’s foremost Bach conductors and founder/musical director of the Bach Collegium Japan, and Hiromi Hoshino, a Mendelssohn scholar whose work supported Suzuki for the Japanese premiere of Mendelssohn’s revised score of the St. Matthew Passion.

About the Bach Mendelssohn St. Matthew Passion

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (1727) is universally acknowledged to be one of the world’s supreme musical masterpieces. Yet in the years after Bach’s death it was forgotten by all but a small number of his pupils and admirers. The public rediscovered it in 1829 when Felix Mendelssohn conducted the work before a glittering audience of Berlin artists and intellectuals, Prussian royals, and civic notables. The concert soon became the stuff of legend, sparking a revival of interest in and performance of Bach that has continued to this day.

Mendelssohn went on to further revise the score for a performance he conducted in Leipzig in 1841. It was a case of one musical genius working to enhance and celebrate the work of another, and in doing so, restoring respect to the entire Bach canon around the world. By closely following the precise handwritten directions that Felix Mendelssohn wrote on his own copy of the score, Mendelssohn Club will be able to recreate the historic 1841 concert next year in Philadelphia.

Long time artistic director Alan Harler, who flew to Oxford University last year to study the original scores, puts the Bach-Mendelssohn St. Matthew Passion in a special historical perspective for the chorus. “We can’t think of a better work to research and present, especially considering how much of our own history is reflected in the original performances of this particular score.”  Harler explains, “Not only did Felix Mendelssohn spark a Bach revival with his performances of his revised St. Matthew Passion, but the beloved composer – conductor also energized community singing in a very large ensemble format.  In the years following the extremely popular 1829 and 1841 concerts, Mendelssohn Clubs, Choruses and Societies were founded all over Europe and North America, including our own chorus right here in Philadelphia over 140 years ago.”

“For the past five decades,” Harler admits, “I have longed to conduct Bach’s St. Matthew Passion having conducted the St. John Passion and Mass in B Minor numerous times. Yet, in my long career of teaching and conducting, the timing just never aligned with the resources required.” Harler explains that, “A symphonic chorus as large as Mendelssohn Club never seemed appropriate to this work because of the intimate size of the group required in Bach’s original score. The score poses other challenges for a chorus of any size including the delicate and quite difficult coloratura passages and the Baroque period practices related to instrumentation, vocal affect, etc.”

“All that changed,” says Harler, “when I heard Roger Norrington’s performance of Mendelssohn’s version. Here at last was a St.Matthew Passion that was compatible with the 140 voices of Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia!”

Putting Bach’s genius in perspective, Harler adds, “When we listen to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, we sense his deep concern for humanity and his desire that we hold ourselves to the highest values. After almost three centuries, audiences all over the world still respond strongly to Bach’s humanism and compassion. Thanks largely to the very generous support of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Philadelphia will have a very special opportunity to experience the brilliance and beauty of Bach in a whole new way.”

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage (the Center),established in 2005, is dedicated to stimulating a vibrant cultural community in the greater Philadelphia region. The Center makes project grants in two areas, Performance and Exhibitions & Public Interpretation, as well as awarding grants to individual artists through our Pew Fellowships. The Center also makes Advancement grants, substantial awards to high-performing organizations seeking to make lasting improvements to their programming, audience engagement, and financial health. Each year, Center funding makes possible numerous performing arts events, as well as history and visual arts exhibitions and other public programs for audiences in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties. The Center is also a hub for research and knowledge-sharing on issues critical to cultural practice.

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Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia

Since its founding fifteen decades ago, Mendelssohn Club Chorus has been devoted to sharing great choral music as a way to connect artists, audiences and communities.  Mendelssohn Club, one of America’s oldest choruses, continues to expand its repertoire in the 21st century by collaborating with a wide range of musical organizations, each of which is devoted to representing, or reaching out to, new audiences in innovative ways. Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia performs choral music to create a shared transcendent experience among its singers and audiences. Through the excellence of its adventurous performances, Mendelssohn Club advances the development of choral music as an art form.

During its long, rich history, Mendelssohn Club played a role in forming the Philadelphia Orchestra; gave the Philadelphia premiere of the Brahms Requiem, provided more than 300 singers for the American premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8, gave the world premiere of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13; and was nominated for a GRAMMY for its recording of the Vincent Persichetti Winter Cantata. The 140-voice chorus is a highly artistic, auditioned chorus, made up of 16 professional core singers; music teachers, professors, therapists, and instrumentalists; as well as those with music training but have other non arts-related professions. That their projects are recognized both for their artistic achievement and as the critical gathering place that it provides for a community passionate about singing speaks to the integral role that it plays in the region, particularly Philadelphia’s singers, instrumentalists, composers, collaborating organizations that they employ and the audiences that they inspire.

Mendelssohn Club believes in taking artistic risks that stretch and challenge its singers and  audiences; supporting the talent, passion, and dedication of its singers, and the powerful communal experience that comes from shared music making; respecting the commitment and appreciation of the audience members; and ensuring Mendelssohn Club’s long-term stability as an important cultural resource in the region and as an influence in the world of choral music.

“With a passionate commitment to artistic excellence, repertoire diversity, audience engagement, and commissioning new works, the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, under the direction of Maestro Alan Harler, continues to be a dynamic, vibrant, and relevant choral ensemble in the greater Philadelphia community.”

Rollo Dillworth, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Chorus America

For information about Mendelssohn Club’s concerts and programs, or to order tickets for the 2013-14 season, visit You can also find Mendelssohn Club on Facebook at

Alan Harler, Artistic Director

Throughout his distinguished musical career as Artistic Director of Mendelssohn Club, Alan Harler has been a strong advocate for new American music.  During his tenure with Mendelssohn Club, he has commissioned over 55 new compositions, including Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields (2014), David Lang’s battle hymns (2009), Jennifer Higdon’s On the Death of the Righteous (2009), Pauline Oliveros’ Urban Echo: Circle Told (2008) and Robert Moran’s Requiem: Chant du Cygne (1990). Other major commissions included Charles Fussell’s Specimen Days (1992), Robert Stern’s Returning the Song (1994), Cynthia Folio’s Touch the Angel’s Hand (1994), James Primosch’s Fire Memory/ River Memory (1998), Charles Fussell’s High Bridge (2003), and Andrea Clearfield’s The Golem Psalms (2006).

In 1994, Harler conducted Mendelssohn Club in a critically acclaimed recording of the Moran Requiem for Argo/London Records.  Under his baton the chorus also released Metamorphosis in 2011. The CD featured Mendelssohn Club commissions by Philadelphia-based composers Jennifer Higdon, Andrea Clearfield, and James Primosch.  In recognition of Harler’s contribution to new music, in 2007 Mendelssohn Club established the Alan Harler New Ventures Fund, an endowment to ensure the future commissioning and production of new works and innovative collaborations.

Alan Harler has been honored frequently by his peers nationwide and by leading arts organizations and educational institutions.  In 2009, his provocative programming vision was recognized by Chorus America with the Michael Korn Founders Award for Development of the Professional Choral Art. That same year, he was also honored by the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia with an Honorary Lifetime Membership for Distinguished Contribution to Musical Life of Philadelphia.

Harler received the 2007 Elaine Brown Award for Life-long Service to Choral Music given by the Pennsylvania Division of the American Choral Director’s Association.  That same year, he conducted the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in a performance of Handel’s Messiah, an honor typically offered to orchestral conductors.  In 1995, he was elected to the Board of Chorus America, the national association of professional and volunteer choruses, a position he held for several years.

Harler also served from 1981 to 2010 as Laura H. Carnell Professor and Chairman of Choral Music at TempleUniversity’s Esther Boyer College of Music.  As conductor of the Temple University Concert Choir, he conducted many Philadelphia concert premieres, including Moran’s Hagoromo, Alfred Schnittke’s Requiem, and Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Joannem.  In 2005, Temple University presented him with its Creative Achievement Award.

Alan Harler has been an active conductor outside of Philadelphia, having performed regularly at the Festival Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico and the Aspen Choral Institute. He has also given master classes and conducted performances in Taiwan and China under the sponsorship of the Taiwan Philharmonic Association. He has prepared choruses for many of the country’s leading orchestras and conductors including Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Charles Dutoit, Christoph Eschenbach, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, Ricardo Muti, David Roberstson, Max Rudolph, Wolfgang Sawallisch and Klaus Tennstedt.

Harler currently serves as a Conducting Mentor with the Conductors Guild, making himself available for consultation with young conductors internationally.  At Mendelssohn Club, he works with a young conductor apprentice each year through the Conducting Apprenticeship Program.

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