By Emily Klingman
Johann Sebastian Bach’s classic oratorio, the St. Matthew Passion, originally performed on Good Friday in 1727, will be taking over Verizon Hall in Philadelphia on April 1 and April 4 at 8 p.m. with the help of the collaborators of the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
“This piece is one of the most beloved pieces in all of the classical music repertoire and so it was chosen to be performed during Holy Week because of the themes and the story of the St. Matthew Passion,” said Dr. Joe Miller, conductor of the choir and the chair of the department.
Because of its success with audiences back in 2013, a decision was made to perform the piece once again this year.
“We decided to bring the work back and do it because it was incredibly popular, with every performance being sold out the last time we did it,” said Miller. “So there was a demand from the audience to do the piece again.”
For students in the choir, the experience of working with such a renowned orchestra is full of both excitement and nerves.
“They are one of the greatest orchestras in the entire world and it’s an overwhelming joy and privilege to perform with them,” said Betsy Kowal, a Westminster graduate student and performer in the choir.
Miller said that because of how high-profile the orchestra and performance is, he expects the students to be riddled with nerves, but notes they are experiencing a range of emotions.
“Ultimately they’re just very grateful and excited to be singing this work with the orchestra,” he said.
Working with the Philadelphia Orchestra’s conductor, Yannick Nézet Séguin, Kowal is even more enthusiastic to perform the piece for audiences.
“Oh my goodness, sheer excitement,” she said. “Last [semester] we got to sing Mahler’s second symphony with Yannick Nézet Séguin as well as the Philadelphia Orchestra. You say Yannick Nézet Séguin, who is the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to anyone in Westminster Symphonic and everyone just has the biggest smile on their face because they know it is going to be an incredible experience.”
Kowal described what Miller said previously about what makes the Philadelphia Orchestra so special to work with in their joint performances.
“I think Joe Miller put it really beautifully [when he said] the way in which they have such devotion to the creation of their sound as well as there’s such a sense of working together,” said Kowal. “You see them play and you see that each individual section is really working together to create one beautiful sound.”
Past work with the Philadelphia Orchestra brings about a feeling of nostalgia for studens. Kowal described one of her experiences from the fall 2014 semester when Séguin warmly engaged every one of the instrumentalists performing.
“I have such a fond memory of when we got to work with them last semester, and we just were laughing the whole time,” she said. “Yannick Nézet Séguin comes out and he welcomes and greets every one of his instrumentalists. It’s just a wonderful, loving atmosphere that you get to work in.”
Preparation for this performance began a few weeks ago and continues into this week.
“We probably have about six weeks of work that we put in on the project and we’ll have a whole week with the orchestra this week,” said Miller.
After all of the hard work both the choir and the orchestra put in, Miller explained that the orchestra and the choir are staged in a visual way for this performance. Audiences can expect to be both sonically and visually entertained by the performance.
“The principal singers are on a stage built in the shape of a cross, so they will walk amidst the orchestra on this stage,” he said. “The choir has a series of movements that will go along with the piece.”
For Kowal, she believes the performance will resonate with listeners emotionally.
“[Audiences] can expect to be very moved. It’s the retelling of the entire story of the crucifixion of Jesus from the Bible,” she said. “It’s a story that holds a lot of gravity and a lot of weight. It’s really an opportunity to reflect upon this story.”
printed in the 4/1/15 edition