[Yesterday I started to share Carl Crosier’s 2008 article from Cross Accent, the journal of the Association of Lutheran Church Musicians, “A Personal Journey to the Bach Passions.” Here’s the second part.]
“Although the St. Matthew Passion had been presented several times before in Honolulu, it had only been sung in English, in an adapted form, and always severely cut. So it was my goal to present this masterwork complete and in a historically informed way, sung in a church and not a concert hall.
“In the summer of 1999, I had the great opportunity to attend a ten-day in depth study of the Bach St. Matthew Passion, led by Dennis Keene, which culminated in two performances (complete and in German), one at Kent School Chapel (Connecticut) and the other at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center. I sang alto (countertenor) in Choir II. [Editor’s note: Please check out my post about the adventure Carl had when I mistakenly booked a hotel for him many miles away from the venue and it took an awfully expensive cab ride to get to the hotel!]
“It was also our very good fortune to have tenor Joseph Z. Pettit living in Honolulu at the time all of this was being formulated. Not only had he spent several years in Amsterdam studying with renowned early music baritone Max van Egmond, but while there had also toured and recorded the St. Matthew Passion with Gustav Leonhardt and La Petite Bande (a highly recommended recording using forces similar to those of Bach’s time). Not only was he a superb Evangelist, but also served as our accompanist and language coach as we prepared this daunting work.
“The choirs began preparations immediately after Christmas. I made the decision to use a professional choir of fourteen singers for Choir II as they would be eighty feet away from me during the performances, and I needed to rely on their ability to follow what they “saw” from the conductor and not what they “heard” in the room. Choir I was made up of thirty singers which included all of the soloists of Choir I and those singing the minor characters (except for the two false witnesses in Choir II).
“For the soloists, I tried to use the very best of our local artists. And only after exhausting that list did I engage professional early music singers: Philip Cutlip (Jesus), Jennifer Lane (alto I), Mary Phillips (alto II), Vernon Nicodemus (Bass II), and John Dornenburg (viola da gamba).
“The orchestral musicians were the professional players of the Honolulu Symphony. I would be asking them to play very differently than they do normally in the concert hall. However, after working with concertmasters of both Orchestras I and II, we meticulously marked the parts with the desired bowings, articulations and discussed at length the performance style.
“Considerable fundraising went on and “awareness” was built up not only by newspaper and media publicity, but also by a five week “in depth” study course that I conducted during which we reviewed every note of the Bach St. Matthew Passion in detail.
“The whole parish got behind this celebration. Nearly every parishioner was involved in some way. The church interior was completely painted, the “Swallow’s Nest Gallery” was prepared, a new lighting system was installed, the modular choir risers expanded, the central air conditioning system replaced, and a 3-stop Beckerath continuo organ was shipped for free from New York, courtesy of United Airlines.
“For these performances, we decided to configure the church to resemble St. Thomas, Leipzig—that is, with collegiate style seating (facing each other) in the central nave and a traditional orientation toward the crucifixion window for the rest of the church. We were able to seat 300 people in the nave (plus) the choirs and orchestras on either end with the children’s choir seated in the gallery above the assembly corresponding to the historical “Swallow’s Nest Gallery.” Both evenings were completely sold out.
“I won’t relate in this article the many challenges that unfolded during the course of the dress rehearsals and even up to the opening performances. [Editor’s note: You can read about some of the mishaps in my post here. In addition, on the night of the performance, one of the violinists came in jeans, thinking it was a rehearsal, and had to go home to change, not returning until the second half. The concertmaster of Orchestra II thought the performance started at 7:30, not 7:00, and was not present for tuning or the opening chorus!) However, when I raised the baton to begin “Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mit klagen” at the opening night performance, a great calm swept over me, completely removing any anxiety and frustration I had been experiencing up until minutes before. There was a hushed intensity in the church, as the drama of the passion story unfolded as told through Bach’s glorious music. You could have heard a pin drop. It was incredible to hear everyone turning the pages of the libretto (in unison). People were totally captivated.
“To this day I continue to encounter people who were present for those performances expressing their deep gratitude for the Lutheran Church of Honolulu in providing one of the most memorable and profound experiences of their lives. Yes, the inspired music of Bach still touches listeners today, nearly three centuries after it was written.”