Time, space, and countries collide with major musical grants in Philly

Broad Street Review, , June 24, 2014

Bach wasn’t always the icon he is today. Philly gets ready to explore his 19th-century revival.

The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage has presented two Philadelphia vocal organizations with grants that total almost half a million dollars — $240,000 to both the Mendelssohn Club and to Donald Nally’s The Crossing. These are exceptionally large grants — several times larger than the grants music groups usually vie for — and both awards will fund events that center on an encounter between different historical periods.

On February 8, 2015, in the Chapel of Girard College, the Mendelssohn Club will recreate one of the great moments in music history: the historic 1841 performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, which inaugurated the revival of Bach’s work.

Amateur singers, professional batons

Bach’s work slipped into obscurity after he died and musical fashions changed. Mendelssohn’s performance began the rediscovery that elevated Bach to his current towering position in the musical pantheon.

The Mendelssohn Club’s artistic director, Alan Harler, has never conducted the St. Matthew Passion because Bach’s original scoring requires a smaller chorus than the 140 voices the Mendelssohn Club places on a stage. Mendelssohn adapted Bach’s work for the larger forces favored by 19th-century tastes, and Harler will conduct a carefully researched recreation of Mendelssohn’s adaptation. This will be the first time Mendelssohn’s version has been performed in North America.

Founded in 1874, the Mendelssohn Club is the oldest exponent of Philadelphia’s grand tradition of volunteer choruses — choral groups in which dedicated amateur vocalists sing major works under the baton of a professional conductor. The Crossing, by contrast, is a small, 24-member chorus of professional singers devoted to presenting new works.

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Achieving a living classical tradition

The Mendelssohn Club audience will receive a 21st-century view of a 19th-century approach to an 18th-century masterpiece. The Crossing audience will experience a similar event as the seven modern works interact with an 18th-century outcry. Together, these two projects will fulfill one of the major purposes of a living classical tradition: a continuous dialogue between cultures separated by time rather than space.

Mendelssohn Club will present Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (adapted by Felix Mendelssohn), with tenor Yusuke Fujii, bass-baritone Eric Owens, soprano Susanna Phillips, and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, in partnership with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, under conductor Alan Harler. The show will take place February 8, 2015 at the Chapel of Girard College.

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