VALLEJO and BENICIA — The Vallejo Choral Society will host performances in Vallejo and Benicia this weekend of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”, known as one of the great masterpieces of Baroque music which was first performed in 1727.
“It's almost three hours long, but I promise there's not a dull moment,” Vallejo Choral Society artistic director and conductor Derek Tam said.
Performances will be held in Benicia at St. Dominic’s Church at 7 p.m. Saturday and at Vallejo’s Empress Theatre at 4 p.m. Sunday.
“St Matthew Passion” is a formidable composition of 68 movements. It is usually performed with two orchestras, which for this performance are combined into one.
“It's a leap of faith that we've taken,” Vallejo Choral Society board president and choir member Laura Pyles said, “It's a step up for folks who have never performed something this large before.”
“We're a small but mighty choir,” Pyles said. She asked an expert on Bach if her group had ever performed the piece “She was like, ‘Oh my heavens no!’” Pyles said. “It's a little challenging, but everybody's game for it.”
Singing in German is another challenge for the choir of more than 40 people. Only one of the members speaks German, who helped teach the others the correct pronunciation.
Pyles is enthusiastic about performing “St Matthew Passion” despite the challenges. She describes Bach as one of the greatest composers of all time who inspired music for generations.
“Even though it’s nearly 300 years old it’s an affirmation of the future,” Pyles said. “People coming to this are going to feel that sense of hope and excitement for things to come. It's still new every time you hear it.”
Pyles notes that themes from “St Matthew Passion” have been picked up in other music over the centuries. Paul Simon's “American Tune,” which borrows the melody of the 54th movement, is one of the best known.
The nonprofit community choir’s members range in age from their early 30s and up. No audition is required to join.
“I hold very firm to being a non-auditioned choir because it allows folks who aren't experienced to step out of their comfort zone,” Pyles said. “We have folks who don't read music or have never sung in a choir before join us, and it opens up a whole new area of their life.”
Beginners are not expected to sing solos. “All our voices blend,” Pyles said. “If we're singing the notes in the right rhythm at the right tempo we make beautiful music together.”
The soloists performing this weekend are all seasoned vocalists. Tenor Steven Brennfleck, baritone Constantine Novotny, soprano Bethany Hill and countertenor Daniel Cromeenes all have extensive résumés in classical and opera music. Brennfleck and Cromeenes are also vocal instructors.
The group’s fundraising efforts and a grant from the city of Vallejo have put them on target to pay the orchestra. They hope ticket sales will fill in the rest. “We have an amazing group of early music specialists, people who live and breathe this style of music to help bring it to life,” Tam said.
The Vallejo Choral Society was founded in 1917. “We like to call ourselves the oldest continuing performing arts group west of the Mississippi,” Pyles said.
But the COVID-19 pandemic threatened that continuity. Internet latency made it impossible to sing together in real time online. Pyles was determined to find a way to keep the group going.
“We watched with a degree of grief and sadness as other choirs around us were disbanding and couldn't make it back together,” Pyles said. “I just looked at everyone and said, ‘We're over 100 years old. We're not going to give up.'”
They held online workshops to enhance their musicianship and understanding of music history and culture. In the fall of 2020, Pyle challenged the board: “Why don't we try to do something we could not do if we were in person together, something out of our reach?”
They learned to record their own voices singing solo and Vallejo Choral Society vice president Rebecca Gulick learned video editing to blend them together. Videos of Bach’s “Kyrie II, Mass in B minor” and George Frederic Handel’s “Israel in Egypt” are among the results.
Pyles said she is proud of how Tam and the volunteer choir pivoted to the online format. “It goes to show you how communities can come together and be very strong,” Pyles said.
Pyles describes the choir as a sanctuary for members who otherwise have very different interests. “I don't know that our paths would cross but for choir, and yet we have these really strong bonds over decades,” she said. “We breathe together, our hearts beat in time together as we're singing, so it's really a special thing.”
For concert tickets and more information visit vallejochoral.org.
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- Vallejo Choral Society
- Derek Tam
- Laura Pyles
- Steven Brennfleck
- Constantine Novotny
- Bethany Hill
- Daniel Cromeenes
- Rebecca Gulick
Gretchen Zimmermann started volunteering with Vallejo Open Studios in 2010, launched the Vallejo Arts and Entertainment website in 2014 and creates mixed media sculpture at Mare Island Art Studios.
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