Ours is a musical family, so our traditions are often musical. Good Friday 2018 was spent in the usual way: attending the performance of J.S. Bach’s “Passion According to St. Matthew” in Lindsborg, Kansas. This annual pilgrimage has been a family tradition since before I was born. My mother sang in the chorus more than once, and has only missed a few performances over the past 60 years. I’ve only missed a handful over the past 40 years. The first time I attended, I was probably 10 years old.
Lindsborg is a small Swedish community located in the Smoky Hills of central Kansas. For 89 consecutive years, the Bethany Oratorio Society has presented “The Bach” in Presser Hall, on the campus of Bethany College, as part of its annual Messiah Festival of the Arts. It’s an ambitious undertaking, with a proud history and a world-class reputation. The festival features recitals, art exhibits, master classes, and three major musical presentations on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.
Dr. Mark Lucas is co-chair of the Bethany College Department of Music, and the director of the Bethany Oratorio Society. He knows this piece well; while he was a student at Bethany, he sang in the festival chorus. This year, he invited us to experience Bach’s music the way it was first presented in the St. Thomas Church of Leipzig in 1729. Our new Lindsborg venue would be the sanctuary of Bethany Lutheran Church. The venue change made this year’s production more historically authentic, and for me, more meaningful.
By Kansas standards, Bethany Lutheran Church is an ancient treasure. The congregation first gathered in 1869 in a limestone building with a grass roof; today’s sanctuary was completed over 100 years ago. Murals by Birger Sandzen and Gustav Malm flank the altar, and an ornate raised pulpit extends from one corner of the choir out into the nave, easily viewed from pews in the north and south transepts. Organ pipes soar from a rear balcony. The brightly whitewashed interior pulls the eye upward, toward a grandly patterned ceiling. Though considerably smaller than Bach’s church, it’s a delightful setting for Bach’s greatest liturgical work.
As a long-time attendee at this event, I approached this venue change with some doubts. It was hard to imagine how we could all fit. Seating capacity of Presser Hall is 1742. Seating capacity of Bethany Lutheran’s sanctuary is perhaps 400 or so. It’s true that for several years now, we have not sold out Presser Hall for the Good Friday performance, but ticket sales are not the only consideration. There are a lot of performers: double chorus, double orchestra, and vocal soloists.
As a musician, I firmly believe the best house is a packed house, regardless of the size. As it turned out, the house was indeed packed. As always, I had brought my own score, but I only referred to it once before the performance began. I was busy with the music. My experience was magical, visual, temporal, spiritual.
The conductor positioned himself with Orchestra I in front. Orchestra II was located in the balcony. At the first downbeat, Chorus I filed in on either side of its orchestra, and began the choral invitation, “Come, ye daughters.” Chorus II then processed into the aisles to join the conversation: “See Him?” “Whom?” “The bridegroom see.” “See Him?” “How?” “A lamb is He.” The chorale of treble voices (“O Lamb of God, most holy…”) soared from the balcony above. I was not a spectator this time. The music was all around me; I was inside the music.
At the conclusion of the opening number, Choir II recessed to the balcony, and the Evangelist commenced with his narration from the pulpit. Soloists appeared out of the crowd, taking center stage when they had something to say. Whereas the tradition in oratorio singing is to present the music without much action, these soloists performed their roles with animation; the High Priest nearly lunged at the choral crowd with a pompous snarl, and the mob shook their heads with narrowed eyes and visible rage. Scattered false witnesses and double choruses on all sides held me spellbound: “Now tell us, by whom (by whom) Thou art struck (thou art struck)!” As a congregation, we sang all the chorales except the final one, which the chorus sang softly as “He departed.”
Over the years, I’ve come to know this piece quite well. At one time, it was common to see audience members entering the hall with a vocal score under their arm, so they could read along. After all, it’s a community event, and many in the audience are former chorus members. Sometimes I’d pick a part to read, and marvel at Bach’s genius at writing harmony. One year I studied Choir II Tenor, and another year I studied the way the orchestrations were reduced for piano. If I had been in attendance this year as a music critic, I might have tallied notes that were missed, and marked the occasions when the delay from the front of the hall to the balcony nearly caused a musical train wreck. But those moments were rare and brief, and probably went mostly unnoticed.
Professional soloists are chosen annually for this performance and for Handel’s “Messiah”, which is performed in Presser Hall on Palm Sunday and Easter. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious their talents are better suited for Handel’s work than for The Bach, but this year’s soloists were simply excellent. Baritone Leslie John Flanagan has performed the various (non-Jesus) roles in Lindsborg for several years now. That familiarity with the work allowed him to own each role; his vocal delivery was electric, and his acting was stellar. Performances by mezzo-soprano Clara Osowski were simply exquisite.
The Bethany Oratorio Society made a bold move in changing the venue for Bach’s St. Matthew in Lindsborg. Presser Hall was designed specifically for the Messiah Festival, and their first complete performance of The Bach took place there, when the hall was new. Kansans take their traditions seriously, but I believe this change is a good one. Personally, I hope this is a start of a new tradition. I think Bach would be pleased.