A Steady Diet of Bach (A Dallas Symphony Orchestra/St. Matthew Passion experience: March 29, 2012)

As an undergraduate music student at Baldwin-Wallace College (now Baldwin-Wallace University) in Northeast Ohio, we were force-fed an unrelenting amount of music by, arguably, the greatest composer to have ever lived, Johann Sebastian Bach (just don’t tell Mozart or Beethoven…and for goodness’ sake, don’t breathe a word to Wagner!).  The B-W Conservatory of Music was almost irrationally obsessed with Bach, and by default, the music of the Baroque period in general; with everyone in lock step…well, almost everyone.

I cannot keep writing, however, without giving this institution the appropriate “props”.  It boasted an incredible faculty in the 70’s and 80’s, maintained one of the finest “critical edition” libraries of archive worthy music–including rare, original Bach manuscripts; produced a regular scholarly publication (“The Bach Journal”, as we referred to it); possessed an incredibly supportive administration; provided a top-notch musical education; and continues to host one of the most critically acclaimed Bach Festivals in the world…this year celebrating their 80th annual.

Without trying to push a food metaphor unfairly; too much Bach in school was like being fed too many bitter greens when you were a kid (kale and broccoli di rabe come to mind).  Then you grow up!  That which you hated when you were a kid, becomes a craving that simply cannot be denied as an adult!!

Enter: Bach’s most enduring and greatest masterwork, the Saint Matthew Passion (BWV 244).  (I KNOW, the great musical minds over the centuries have decided that the Mass in B minor (BWV 232) is superior.  I respectfully disagree, based mostly upon my love for the theatrical component that The Passion employs.)

The 1727 exposition of Chapters 26/27 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew (for double chorus, solo voices, as well as double orchestra) was/is being presented this weekend in dignified fashion by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Jaap van Zweden.  To wit, the Maestro rarely missed the opportunity to direct his soloists and instrumentalists toward the exquisite art of “text painting”—something that is rarely alluded to in critical commentary.  Bach was perhaps music’s greatest executor of this compositional technique.  It’s true magic to be discovered in moments when it is virtually undetectable to the ear, or at least secondary to other primary melodies.  Bach often “buried” these intricacies for the greater good of the whole, while others are wildly stark and unmistakable.  The genius of Bach is that he knew exactly when to hit us over the head (“Barrabam”–choral exclamation), and when to quietly withdraw (Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben—soprano aria), all within the construct of superb musical design.   A series of interlocking recitatives, arias, choruses and chorales are woven into one seamless fabric, with the occasional reach-back to employ classic Renaissance dissonances that provide a necessary splash of tonal color (So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen).  Theatrically speaking, the Passion is a work where matters of the physical, metaphysical, and the spiritual, are joined, separated (“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”) and joined again as the drama reaches its climax.

The evening unfolded nicely and the addition of a children’s chorus–an often underutilized performance practice–was a nice touch, as they added their voices to the adults as natural spectators.  I must admit, however, that witnessing 41 children sing the words “He bore all our sin…” was especially heartbreaking.  With one exception (who did improve as the evening progressed), the vocal soloists were all top grade, with Camilla Tilling and John McVeigh as particular standouts.  McVeigh’s Part II aria Geduld being especially well delivered.  Concertmaster Alexander Kerr lent his considerable virtuosic talents to Jennifer Johnston’s gorgeous rendition of Erbarme dich, resulting in a half-swoon of pure satisfaction from a nearby audience member upon completion.  Alastair Miles (bass) provided serene relief late in the game with the touching aria Mache dich, mein Herze, rein. The chorus was well prepared and took the roles of angry mob and sympathetic believers well in hand.  The Passion is a solemn work, heavy-laden with poignancy, and Mo. van Zweden never lost sight of this; conducting with pathos and insight throughout.  The moment of Christ’s death, and the quiet, dignified lying of his body in the tomb were highlights certain.

The original German language, with its natural textures and depth of assortment regarding delivery (trust me, I AM an expert on this issue) provides the perfect vehicle for transmitting the vicious, as well as the most gentle and plaintive of moods.

I knew when we performed all of Bach’s major works at Baldwin-Wallace, and witnessed other great Baroque works executed by highly acclaimed, world class artists, that it was good for me.  I never would have expected, however, that my appetite could hardly be satisfied for this fare later in life.  The Dallas Symphony performance—while certainly a full, gourmet meal—seemed only an appetizer for such a hunger.

I busy myself professionally in Dallas (when I am here) with a full plate of opera–being an opera singer of course–as we ready The Magic Flute, and La Traviata for presentation at the new Winspear Opera House–right next door to the Meyerson Symphony Center.  The Dallas Opera will toast to its own bragging rights soon, as it will present its wonderfully cast Magic Flute in a live simulcast at Cowboy Stadium on April 28 to an already sold-out crowd.  But this Palm Sunday weekend is The Dallas Symphony’s chance to shine, and it is doing so in vast array.

While the Dallas arts community, like all others nationwide, is addressing the delicate issue of funding via slightly shorter seasons, fewer performances, contract concessions, and reduced staffing; it is still ‘beyond-incredible’ to be at the center of an arts universe that presents Bach, Verdi, and Mozart side by side (not in competition with, but as complements to one another) in this rather incredible Texas town.

Yes, Dallas may be considered a major city worldwide; but its residents, corporate stewards, philanthropists and arts donors are so down-to-earth and community friendly, you would swear you were in Any-TOWN, U.S.A.; and a ‘town’ is a nice place to be these days.  And while Dallas has gone through celebrated boom/bust cycles since its founding; it is surely a blessing to note that its arts community is just as active as its sports community in leading the way back.


Jaap van Zweden, conductor
Camilla Tilling, soprano
Jennifer Johnston, alto
Johannes Chum, tenor
Morgan Smith, baritone
John McVeigh, tenor
Alastair Miles, bass

(Please note for the sake of good order:  I do not, have not, and do not expect to perform with the Dallas Symphony.  This article is solely based upon my thoughts after attending the Thursday March, 29 2012 performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, at the Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas TX.)

“You can’t go home again”…or “CAN you”?? (A Visit to ‘Normandy High School’)

On this 23rd of March, I sit in the living room of my corner-unit residence in Chicago.  With over-sized windows that feature Gotham City views, I watch the rain come down, as well as witness the fog engulf the downtown skyline in which my own building is nestled.  I think about my other home in NYC where a Metropolitan Opera colleague is currently staying, eager to go back next season to participate in the new Ring Cycle.  But these are fleeting thoughts of the current, and the future; when in actuality I am being constantly drawn back to the events of the last 22 days, which include the now mad dash to sign my tax forms, pay next month’s bills, and get packed to head to Dallas for my next work assignment.

The beginning of the month was marked by the biggest, busiest, and most successful Vann Vocal Institute (Montgomery, Alabama) that we have ever had.  As the program director, I am charged with a myriad of duties and responsibilities (see previous post), but nothing could have prepared us for the line of tornadoes that caused us to evacuate to a storm/bomb shelter where guest speaker/instructor Teresa Eickel continued her lecture to the eager student body one evening!!  Having to turn away participants this year, you can only imagine our surprise when a student from the ‘alternate list’ took to the stage and won two of our top prizes!!  The excitement created by our outstanding faculty (Mo. Steven Crawford, Patricia Risley, Dr. Caren Levine, and the aforementioned Ms. Eickel) set off a fundraising frenzy at our opening night kick-off party that put most of us into a catatonic state (thank you Mr. Mayor!).  ‘Yours truly’ even sat at the piano to play and sing a few tunes that night (something I have not done in 25 years)!!  Exhausted, I decided to fly to Shanghai, China with my lovely girlfriend (those of you who know me, understand that I love long airplane rides) to experience the energy and forward trajectory that ‘Big-City China’ seems to offer at every turn these days…I was NOT disappointed.

Re-energized, I returned to the States to go where…???  To Parma, Ohio; of course!!

The Parma City School district in the 1970’s/1980’s was virtually second-to-none in the state of Ohio–if not the nation–when it came to providing a quality education on a par with private/classical institutions.  Academics, Theatrical and Musical Arts, Vocational Training, Sports, and a whole host of other avenues provided students with something that met their particular talent/skill set.  But neighborhoods and their residents grow old, matriculation occurs, stagnation sets in, and the once thriving campuses of school districts grow slim…in other words, the natural affects of attrition take hold.  The net result is usually less money for school systems, as an aging population in any given area does not wish to vote for higher taxes once their children have been educated.  This is not unusual in “Anytown, USA”, and not the only reason that school systems suffer; but suffer mightily many of them do.

The first things to go…???…the arts, sports, and extracurricular faire.  Unless, of course, students and parent “booster committees” raise the money separately.  It’s all a part of that terrible descriptive, “The New Normal”.  So what does one do when their Alma Mater suffers from these ailments??  The one thing we all should do when we realize that we had been given so much from those educators we made fun of, and may have even despised at the time, is…go back home and give something back to your school, school district, and community.  You give the gift of experience:  Good or bad, timely or antiquated; experience is always relevant!!

I took to the stage of the large auditorium of Normandy High School, where I was infected with the ‘virus of enthusiasm’ over 30 years ago, to work with 9 students, from a thinned-out music program, in a masterclass format.  Vocalists from all three high schools in the district participated, while a few hundred(?) other interested students watched respectfully, attentively, and with the utmost support for their on-stage colleagues (especially when they came from their specific high school).  The result was nothing short of magical for the entire 3-4 hours of admittedly hard and intense work.

Tears and cheers prevailed, as football-player sized young men stood to sing songs entitled Loveliest of Trees, The Roadside Fire, and The Prayer.  Eager and talented young ladies sang Broadway and Opera classics such as Stranger to the Rain, and O mio babbino caro.  Others stood to sing Italian art songs such as Nina (fantastic, mature rendition), O del mio dolce ardor, and Caro mio ben; and new American Classics such as Into the Night.  The song choice was broad, and the desire to learn was even more profound.  You see; kids (actually, young ladies and gentlemen) really do want to learnThey sop up the offerings, renderings, and remains, like a piece of soft Italian bread into my mother’s pasta sauce…then (just like my mother’s pasta sauce) they always want seconds and thirds if the supply holds out.  The only way to give it to them, is for more of us to take the time to go back and offer it; especially if we have done well and have been given many gifts along the way.  Not trying to moralize here, but I do think there is a moral imperative that should be implied.  I ask for no money, and would take none…this is one time when it really is “just about the kids”!

The real reward was having my parents in attendance, as well as many a former teacher (including Michael Seredick, my Elementary AND High School music instructor)…many of whom I have finally been able to thank personally for all they had given me so long ago.  I try to tell the students that the learning never ends; and that “As there is dignity to be found in all forms of employment, there is a profound dignity to be discovered in all forms of learning

So I guess you CAN go home again…; in fact, I think they are waiting for you!!!!!


P.s. I wish to thank Jared Plasterer for all of his hard work with setting up this event, and Fox 8 News of Cleveland for coming out to cover this story so completely.  You can see the news report via the following link:


The other good news here is that the Parma City Schools are enjoying a resurgence these days!  Much to look forward to, thanks to a dedicated Administrative Staff in the schools themselves, as well as at the District head offices.