www.mybaycity.com April 9, 2006
Arts/Theater Article 1101

Dr. Eric Nisula directs the combined choral and orchestral groups in concert in the Gothic setting of St. Mary Church on Palm Sunday.

J.S. Bach's Passion of St. Matthew
Fills St. Mary Church on Palm Sunday

Appreciative Crowd Thrills to Lengthy Program by 144 Singers, Musicians

April 9, 2006
By: Dave Rogers

Bay Chorale, Saginaw Valley State University Concert Choir and Orchestra and soloists, about 144 in all, performed one of the classics of the Easter season for a capacity crowd in St. Mary Church, Bay City, on Palm Sunday.

The elegant wood-pillared church rang with appreciative applause at the intermission and the conclusion of the nearly three hour long concert. The spirit of ecumenism was inherent in the scene: a Roman Catholic church hosting one of the most popular Protestant compositions of all time.

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The concert was ably led by Dr. Eric Nisula, director, with Cheryl Cheger-Timm as accompanist. The sonorous score was enlivened by soloists Julie Meyer, soprano and Jennifer Breneman, mezzo-soprano, joined with performers cast in biblical roles: Brian White as the evangelist; Marc Sprang, as Pilate; John Rickert, who played Judas; Tadd Sipes, Jesus and Eric Skibbe, high priest.

Program notes by Dave Fein indicate that the St. Matthew Passion by Bach "is nearly universally considered the greatest musical work ever composed within the Passion genre."

The soaring notes of the chorale "O man, bewailthy grievious sin," in the "Review of the Life of Christ" just before intermission transport the listener to musical realms akin to St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, on Good Friday in 1727 when it was first performed.

Particularly enchanting in this production were the exotic notes of the oboe d'amore, played by Jane Bellen and Ellen Sudia-Condron, both of whom also performed on the English horn. Next to the oboe, the oboe d'amore was the double reed instrument Bach used most frequently. The oboe d'amore sounds a minor third lower than the oboe, and its range extends the musical scale in an unusual way.

Among notable parts in "Two False Witnesses" were Christina DeVos and Tammy Snyder while Joe Holliday sang tenor in "I would be with my Jesu." Phil Burch sang bass in "Now has the Lord been laid to rest" and Bryan Sutherland was the tenor in the same piece.

Today's music lovers may thank Felix Mendelssohn, who as a twenty-year-old musical genius, revived the St. Matthew Passion after it had been dormant for eight decades.

Mendelssohn's performance of St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829 "created a sensation and had to be repeated several times," Mr. Fein points out. It led to a revival of interest by choral groups into Bach's work.

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His biography notes that Bach never was satisfied with the mere title of "Cantor" in Leipzig and always used the more impressive sounding Director Musices. Bach was not only a genius but also a social climber, who throughout his career flattered potential aristocratic employers and patrons with homage compostions and servile letters.

Bachs' life was not without personal tragedy during those years, an intrinsic quality evident in the tone of the music obviously reflecting both personal and religious themes. Between 1723 and 1737 his wife Anna Magdalena was continually pregnant. Eight of the twelve children died at ages varying from an hour to five years. Of the remaining four children, one was seriously mentally-handicapped (Gottfried Heinrich). The last child was born in 1742, when Anna Magdalena was 41 and Sebastian 57.

Bach's professional life was not entirely satisfactory either at the time. It was among Bach's official duties to teach Latin to the schoolboys and to train the choirs. Bach did not want to teach Latin and had to pay a replacement from his own pocket.

Bach's official salary was only a fourth of his previous salary and he was much dependent on extra earnings from musical services at funerals and weddings. In "good" years, the St. Thomas choirs had to sing at one funeral a day, but in his letter to Georg Erdmann (1730), Bach was complaining that due to mild weather his income was often reduced.

Last but not least, Bach got involved in an increasing number of conflicts with the many authorities he had to deal with.

The fact thatlarge crowds turn out to appreciate such a work as Bach's St. Matthew Passion pays tribute to the influence of the Bay Chorale and Saginaw Valley State University on the cultural life of the community.###

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