Bel Canto’s Most Ambitious Concert?

Joined by Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, the Bel Canto takes on Bach's mighty "St. Matthew Passion," last performed in the 1940s.

By - Mar 19th, 2015 09:56 am
Richard Hynson. Photo courtesy of Bel Canto Chorus.

Richard Hynson. Photo courtesy of Bel Canto Chorus.

The Bel Canto Chorus is reaching for the stars this Sunday afternoon, with their ambitious offering of J. S. Bach‘s “Saint Matthew Passion.” Music Director Richard Hynson reflects “I would not program the work until I felt mature enough to plumb its emotional and spiritual depths and to bring the drama to vivid, dramatic life. This is not simply a musical retelling of the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.” Rather, he says, it is a still “remarkably contemporary” creation (it was written in the 1720s) and “the pinnacle of Bach’s remarkable body of works.”

James Doing (Tenor/Evangelist)

James Doing (Tenor/Evangelist)

But also a daunting work to perform. “Because of its scope, the Saint Matthew Passion receives few ‘live’ performances [whereas there are many recordings available] so the opportunity to witness it is rare,” Hynson notes.

The Bel Canto Chorus will be joined by the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra and Bel Canto Boy Choir. The performance will be held in a large Brookfield church, St. Dominic Catholic Parish. Bel Canto last performed the work in 2002.

Saint Matthew Passion should not be confused with “simpler” large-scale structures – masses, requiems or cantatas. The Passion is sacred drama of operatic proportions. The story is told through the text of the book of Matthew (chapters 25 and 26.) covering the capture, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. (Designed for Palm Sunday, the work ends before the Resurrection.) Matthew’s biblical text reads like a play. A soloist representing the Evangelist sings the narrative. Individual soloists sing roles directly from the text – Jesus, Judas, Peter, Pontius Pilate and others. Choruses voice the views of crowds, priests and government officials.

Gerald Sundberg (Bass/Christ)

Gerald Sundberg (Bass/Christ)

Brief chorales break from the biblical text to comment on the action. More introspective arias permit a soloist to voice more personal thoughts. The story is bracketed at key points by four masterful choral works that offer more personal reflection. David Gordon, a critical interpreter of the work, observes that the chorales “comment introspectively on the meaning of the events, often explicitly inviting the listener’s heart to become involved in the unfolding drama, to react to it and be changed by it. This skillful and repeated invitation to the listener actually to join the story is a crowning touch of Bach’s genius, and it is this element above all which makes the entire work so moving and powerful.”

The dramatic structure is shaped by basic building blocks – six soloists and ten smaller solo parts, two orchestras, two choirs and an additional youth choir. Choirs and orchestras are physically separated. Choirs may dialogue with one another or sing together. The youth choir adds an additional textural overlay in critical chorales. Orchestra texture adapts to the action – sometimes both orchestras play together. For lighter texture, an aria may be backed by only cello and organ.

Patrice Michaels (Soprano)

Patrice Michaels (Soprano) – photo by Devon Cass

Bach wrote St. Matthew Passion in German, rather than Latin, to allow his audiences to have a more immediate and intimate experience with the text. The Bel Canto is performing this piece in an English translation by Robert Shaw. Hynson reflects on the power of the work to move the listener; “All of the pronouns that Bach uses are I and me.” The work, he notes, “uses an incredibly intimate language” to create “a one-on-one relationship between the believer and God.” As a result, Hynson says, we hear the work “through the lens of our own experience.”

The performance begins at 3 PM, March 22nd at St. Dominic Catholic Parish, 18255 W. Capital Drive in Brookfield – between Calhoun and Brookfield roads. (Those who usually attend concerts by bus will need to find a friend with a car. But it’s only a 25 minute drive from downtown Milwaukee.) Tickets ($29 – $37) are available online at or by phone at (414) 481-8801 (Monday – Friday, 9 AM to 5 PM). Senior, student, and group discounts are available.

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