The St. Matthew – a New Song

IMG_9352 4Ours 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.F9A35349-7916-4389-B75E-2B6B89DB2FF4

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.663BE014-4692-40E8-ACA6-F3C5D3992CD8

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.



Family Sayings

My grandpa, Ray Wolfe, was the source of a lot of funny family stories and sayings.  There was a lot of good humor on his side of the family.  The stories were often first told by his older sister, Ruth, who was a barrel of fun.  Even when she was trying to be the responsible big sister, she found fun.  [She was left in charge when her much younger brother, Brick (Wilbur), climbed up on top of the outhouse.  She discovered him and shouted, “If you don’t come down from there, I’m coming up after you.”  He was thrilled!  Knowing her, I’m betting she giggled and joined him.]

We Have It Every Day

I would imagine this family story happened in the summertime, when it was hot like it is now.  You see, when Grandpa was a child in the early days of the 20th century, no one in his town had air conditioning.  Summertime in Kansas could be very, very hot.

Grandpa’s father was a preacher, so they didn’t have a lot of money.  They didn’t spend money on things that they didn’t need.  One day, the children were told that a very special guest would be joining them for Sunday dinner.  It was important to make a good impression.

His folks did a lot of fussing over plans for the meal, and even gathered the ingredients to make ice cream.  This was a very big deal.  Ice cream was a most unusual treat, but the kids were told to go on that day as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

The important day came.  The important guest arrived.  The meal was wonderful.  At the end of the meal, as the grownups served up the ice cream, the children of the house came waltzing down the stairs singing, “Oh, we have it every day, we have it every day.”

Ever since then, when someone in our family enjoys a very special treat, like ice cream or some other foolish delight, we’re quite likely to sing, “Oh, we have it every day, we have it every day.”


When my mother was serving up the evening meal, she’d let us know whether or not we could expect a second helping.  If there was Plenty More In the Kitchen, she’d say “PMIK on the potatoes.”  If she was trying to make a little food stretch further, she’d say “FHB”, that is, Family Hold Back.

Mealtime Memories

Holiday meals at our house included a variety of friends and family through the years, but they always included Grandma and Grandpa Wolfe, because they lived in town, as well as Aunt Hayde (Hazel), who was grandma’s sister.  Sometimes, as sisters do, my sisters and I disagreed about something.  Our discussions could get very serious, and eventually Aunt Hayde would start laughing about it.  I couldn’t understand it at the time.  It seemed strange to me that she laughed when we were mad at each other.  Now I think she was laughing with delight, because we reminded her of mealtimes with her own brothers and sisters.  She was grateful to be gathered with family.

My dear ones, gather with family often.  Don’t worry about impressing anyone, or about saying or doing everything just right.  Just gather together.  Make memories.  Love is everything.

Family Stories

On the eve of Fathers Day, I’ve stumbled upon buried treasure.  It’s a recording of my grandfather, telling stories of his childhood.  Grandpa loved to tell stories, and in the last few years of his life, my mother urged him to record some of them.  It wasn’t a lot, but he made two cassette tapes, and wrote a few pages in a journal.  In 2003, 100 years after his birth, I had the recordings cleaned up and recorded on CD (with some nice piano music added between stories), and I typed the journal entries into the liner notes.  I gave away some copies to family members, and kept one for myself.  I’d forgotten which “safe place” I’d chosen for its keeping.  What a gift to come across it today.

At the sound of my grandfather’s voice, I’m once again that little girl sitting at his feet.  He speaks smoothly, muttering  in a rhythm so familiar to me, about the first telephones, the first horseless carriage, and the first car in town.  He remembers seeing Halley’s Comet twice in his lifetime.

I’ve tried before to share it with others, but they can hardly follow his stories.  The low quality of the original recording, although cleaned up, still has a hiss.  There is a radio playing ’80s music in the background.

I’m troubled by the knowledge that the real magic of this recording is lost on future generations, because I hear it differently.  I smell his pipe tobacco.  His eyes gleam beneath bushy eyebrows.  His belly bounces up and down when he chuckles.  I can see him in my mind’s eye, with his big fire agate ring, the turquoise watch, eyeglasses in hand, dressed in a soft wool shirt.  I feel love and respect for all that he was, for all that he gave to me and to others.  Mine is a more complete picture; I fill in details that aren’t there for those who never met him.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing a book, Letters to My Grandchildren.  Where would I start?  I could write volumes, and never really tell them what they’d like to know.  Maybe that was his struggle.

I’m so grateful that he made the attempt.


Grammar Geek

My grammar is not perfect.  Yet, I am a self-proclaimed, self-appointed, self-righteous language snob.  I find myself constantly proofreading other writers’ work, and I am quite merciless.  If I find misplaced apostrophes, bad spelling or poor syntax, I instantly start drawing negative conclusions about the education and/or intelligence of the writer.  I realize this is extremely unfair on my part, but even when my own errors are discovered, I seem to be unable to avoid passing judgement on others.

I’m not a bad person, and I’m not a grump.  I look for common ground in my political discourse.  I believe I am open-minded and I love to learn.  I do my best to receive criticism, and to learn from my own mistakes as well as the mistakes of others.  I am well aware of the ancient text, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  I realize I live in a glass house.  Still, I grind my teeth (or worse) with every error I discover.

Social media is the worst, but not the only place, where we Americans have become sloppy in our writing.  Of course, there are the popular complaints — there/their/they’re, your/you’re, etc. — which are enough to raise my blood pressure, but it doesn’t stop there.  Sometimes I find myself criticizing a writer’s clarity, a poor word choice that muddies the message.  Have you read the book, “Eats(,) Shoots and Leaves”?  I often catch myself scowling at the television when the news anchor mispronounces the word “nuclear.”  Yes, I usually correct them.  This is a bad habit for anyone, but I’m a musician.  Isn’t this a ridiculous way for me to occupy my time and attention?  If grammar is such a passion for me, why don’t I use that college training of mine, and teach Language Arts?

The answer is a simple one.  My spirit calls me to write music.

My confession lacks any trace of remorse; my affliction goes untreated.  I am exploring a 12-step program for Grammar Geeks.  I’m currently on Step 1.