The Bach Society Goes Big With A Double Orchestra, Double Choir Masterwork

Mar 28, 2019

Johann Sebastian Bach’s birthday is this Sunday, March 31st, and the Bach Society of Dayton will be performing one of his masterworks, a piece called St. Matthew Passion.

It’s been billed as “the most significant choral composition in classical music,” and with good reason.

In order to perform it, the Bach Society Choir will be partnering with the University of Dayton Chorale, members of the Dayton Philharmonic, and professional singers to tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.

John Neely, musical director for the Bach Society, will be leading this army of musicians.

“It’s a Highmark Johann Sebastian Bach piece,” Neely says of St. Matthew Passion.  “It has double chorus. It has two orchestras and superb soloists coming from various parts of Ohio and beyond. It’s just worth every minute of the two hours.”

For the performers, this piece is both a point of pride and problematic.

Sharon Norton is a member of the Bach Society and a singer. She says it’s not just all those people singing, but that they’re singing so many different parts: 

“You have the double choruses with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass lines in each. You have 9 soloists, and it’s in German. The only thing we don’t have to do is stand on our heads when we sing. That would probably add to the complexity, but it fits together. You’ll hear it, and it’s just beautiful. It’s great that we can perform something so epic here in Dayton.”

Alan Kimbrough, seated at the piano, is the Bach Society of Dayton's accompanist. He's been performing Bach in public for over forty years now, but St. Matthew Passion still represents risk and reward for him. He notes that some performances use three different keyboard players, but on Sunday, Kimbrough will be playing all the keyboard parts.
Credit Jason Reynolds / WYSO

This is the second collaboration with a college the Bach Society has worked on in the last six months, and that’s one of their missions: to get more young people involved in music, and not just Bach.

In the fall, they partnered with Central Sate, a historically black college, to put on a program of spirituals called “Songs of Hope and Freedom.”

Now, they’re partnering with the University of Dayton, a Catholic College, to perform the story of Jesus’ crucifixion from the Book of Matthew with Easter approaching.

University of Dayton sophomores Clare Carey and Maggie Feder say they’re up to the challenge.

“It’s one of the hardest choral pieces you can do in a lifetime,” Carey says, “and it’s wild that we’re doing it now.”

Feder agrees. “It’s one of the most intense things I’ve ever done,” she says. “I’ve never sang an entire work in German like this. It’s a big one!”

And Feder thinks that classical music in general, and Bach in particular, is a great starting point for anyone interested in music.

“It underlies all modern music,” she says. “In order to really write detailed good stuff, you have to know how to do it and how to write it. That comes from Bach. Bach was the first person to write counterpoint."

“Theorists came along later and said, ‘Wow! This is really good, and he does it pretty consistently, so we’re going to make this the school of thought.’”

Steven Hankle directs University of Dayton Chorale. His students have been working on this since January: rehearing, listening to tape, learning German diction. He says he sees big epiphanies on the horizon for these young performers.

“They haven’t really gotten a chance to ever sing something like this at this magnitude,” he says. “So, to do this, to do all baroque music for most of the semester, it was a challenge for a lot of them. But I think now they’re going to see, as they come together with the other choir, and when the orchestra comes, and the soloist comes, they’re gonna say “Bing! Ohhhh! This is what it is.”

Hinkle tells his students that they “should be excellent because they are sharing the gift of music with the community.”

This is just the fifth time that St. Matthew Passion has been performed in Dayton in the last 70 years, but the Bach Society of Dayton put it on just five years ago. That means they have a unique knowledge of what these kind collaborations take.

They also say the program—that little pamphlet you get when you walk in the door—is key. It has the German on one side and the English on the other, so everyone can follow the story of the crucifixion while the double orchestra and the choruses and the nine soloists put their passion into the performance.

The Bach Society of Dayton will perform St. Matthew Passion at the Kettering Seventh Day Adventist Church at 4PM on Sunday, March 31. Tickets can be purchased on their website

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