DSO brings Bach to Ann Arbor

BY ABIGAIL B. COLODNER
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 20, 2008

Today, Bach fans will mark the composer's 323rd birthday. Also today, Christians will mark the death of Jesus Christ. That quirk of this year's early Easter calendar makes tonight's Hill Auditorium performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" especially timely. The choral piece that rocketed Bach into post-mortem popularity draws from the Gospel of Matthew's telling of Jesus's crucifixion and debuted on Good Friday in 1727 in Leipzig, Germany. The size and complexity of tonight's 7:30 p.m. performance - a collaboration between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the University Musical Society Choral Union, the Michigan State University Children's Choir and seven professional vocal soloists - lives up to the reputation of the piece itself.

This "Passion" is the first of its kind on campus. Jerry Blackstone, the director of the Choral Union and Chair of the Conducting department, will be directing the DSO for the first time, although the Choral Union routinely sings in the DSO's performances of large choral works.

The school of music is itself the eventual product of local church choirs wanting to collaborate in singing the perennial holiday blockbuster, Handel's "Messiah." Today, according to Blackstone, nearly 600 people sing in choirs on campus each week. The music school has 11 choirs, largely comprised of vocal performance students.

The huge scale of many choral productions is often a contemporary twist on choral pieces' original design. In an interview, Blackstone said that Handel probably wrote "Messiah" for about 20 singers.

"In the 19th century, when bigger was better, large groups began to perform these works," Blackstone said. "Besides that, Bach used only men and boys in the church. We use men and women, and the soloists are sopranos where he would have used boys. It's a modern performance."

The piece itself is a significant work in the Western Canon, one whose rediscovery by Felix Mendelssohn - nearly 100 years after the piece was written - helped redefine ecclesiastical music. The piece's masterful composition makes it an enduring and high-profile work, and its emotional impact is not lost on modern listeners.

"There are moments - no, 'moments' is too light. There are hours that move me," Blackstone said of "Passion."

For so many separate creative groups to come together successfully might seem to depend on weeks of rehearsal. In fact, the DSO played with Blackstone conducting for the first time on Tuesday. Blackstone explained that for professional orchestras, having a handful of rehearsals before a performance is "pretty standard," since the orchestra would likely have been booked with a different performance the previous weekend.

"They're at the top of their game," Blackstone said of the DSO. "That's why they're great - because they have to be great instantly."

According to Kathy Operhall, the manager of the UMS Choral Union, 3,000 of Hill's 3,538 seats had already been sold by Monday. "Messiah" is a reliable ticket-seller every year, and along with the Choral Union's collaboration with the DSO in "Beethoven's Ninth" in May, tonight's performance rounds out a surefire set.

Perhaps part of the appeal of "Passion" is how narrative the three-hour work is.

"Bach doesn't just present beautiful music - for him the story is paramount," Blackstone said.

He argued that the work is highly accessible (English supertitles will supplement the sung German), a fact that may be born out by the participation of the MSU Children's Choir, which is composed of young adults aged 10 to 14, according to Operhall.

"Bach uses all those arias (melodic solos) to make the story very personal," Blackstone said.

In a nod to the catgut stringed instruments Bach's musicians would have used, Blackstone intends for the DSO's string sections to play a "less brilliant sound," as is often heard from contemporary steel-wrapped strings.

"The piece sounds more beautiful to my ears given that elegant, crisp clarity associated with the original instruments," he said. "But with a big chorus, there will also be warmth and richness."

Expect a demanding performance that will be impressive for its gravity. In Blackstone's words, "It's living with greatness, the time I spend with this score."