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

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.

A major crossing

On June 24-26, 2016, at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, the Crossing will present Seven Responses — seven new works, by leading contemporary composers, created as modern responses to a group of seven cantatas Bach’s great predecessor, Dietrich Buxtehude, composed in 1680.

Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri is a series of responses to Christ’s suffering on the cross. The Crossing has commissioned a series of works that have dealt with contemporary issues and the Crossing’s conductor, Donald Nally, sees Seven Responses as a continuation of the series. In this case, the subject will be human suffering, seen from a contemporary secular viewpoint.

The seven composers commissioned by the Crossing form an international crew drawn from the United States, Latvia, Iceland, Germany, and Denmark. Their work will be premiered at two evening concerts, with the 21st-century responses alternating with Buxtehude’s cantatas.

The Crossing will join forces with two other music groups, Quicksilver Baroque and the International Contemporary Ensemble. The Mendelssohn Club will be accompanied by its regular collaborator, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, and the soloists for the occasion will include bass-baritone Eric Owens and mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson. Both projects will include special features such as lectures, scholarly conferences, and a specially designed book prepared for the Crossing.

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.

The Crossing will present Seven Responses: Buxtehude, Membra Jesu Nostri, with work by Caroline Shaw (USA), David T. Little (USA), Santa Ratniece (Latvia), Lewis Spratlan (USA), Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Iceland), Hans Thomalla (Germany), and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (Denmark), in partnership with Quicksilver Baroque and International Contemporary Ensemble, under conductor and Crossing artistic director Donald Nally. The shows will take place June 24-25, 2016 at the Episcopal Cathedral, 13-19 S. 38th Street, Philadelphia.