Matthew Lewis on St. George's Choral Society's fall concert and auditions
by Laura Daly for Vocal Area Network
Posted August 15, 2014

Matthew LewisSt. George’s Choral Society, founded in 1817, will present Bach’s Cantata 140, Wachet auf, and Magnificat this fall at the Church of the Incarnation. Auditions for the group will be held on Wednesday, September 10 at 6 PM at St. George’s Chapel, 5 Rutherford Place (on Stuyvesant Park). Matthew Lewis, The group’s Artistic Director, shares his insights on Bach, the concert and what it is like to sing in the group.

Laura Daly: SGCS will prepare an all-Bach program for their fall concert, including Cantata 140. Can you tell us what inspired this choice?

Matthew Lewis: For me, everything starts with Bach. Robert Schumann said that every pianist should make Bach their daily bread, and I have always believed that applies to all musicians. For a choir like SGCS, an all-Bach program is a wonderful way to sharpen technical and musical skills. In addition, the rich payoff of learning and internalizing this music is truly amazing.

I have always loved Cantata 140, having learned the middle movement (the popular one) as a young organist, in Bach's own transcription for organ. But the opening choral fantasia is truly remarkable -- a world in itself! The stately, procession-like nature of the orchestra introduction, and the amazing choral ornamentation around the chorale melody make this movement stand out from many of Bach's cantatas. Musicologists often refer to this cantata as one of the great ones, and its popularity is for good reason.

Bach's cantatas were written for liturgical occasions. Cantata 140 was composed for the 27th Sunday after Trinity, which is an extremely rare liturgical occasion, happening only when Easter is very, very early. It is generally performed during Advent (the season right before Christmas) when in a liturgical context. It is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, or Christ and the soul, or church. As with all parables, there are many possible points and interpretations, which is what makes them interesting. But one thing is clear: the concept of the bridegroom (Christ) and bride (Soul). As with all the works we sing, SGCS doesn't place them in liturgical context, but rather appreciates them as monumental works of art, which can edify and nourish each of us as artists -- a wonderful thing to experience!

LD: SGCS will also perform Bach's Magnificat. How does this work pair with the cantata?

ML: For me, the program really centers around the Magnificat. Cantata 140 seemed like a logical choice to go with it. The Magnificat text is the spontaneous hymn of praise that Mary recited when visiting her cousin, Elizabeth. It is a traditional evening canticle, along with the Nunc Dimittis. Of course, we are not doing these works in any liturgical context, but it's always interesting to know what inspired them.

Bach’s Magnificat is an explosive song of praise: a rather full orchestra introduction, including three trumpets and timpani, establish the exuberance of the text. But, the piece goes through so many emotions. It is humble, strong, joyful and reverent. Bach was an undeniable genius, but he coupled this with such artistry, which is what makes him who he is. It's a joy to sing this piece, and to hear it.

Bach composed Christmas interpolations for his setting of the Magnificat, which the SGCS Chamber Singers will perform. These interpolations are not done very often; usually the piece is performed without them. So the Advent/Christmas theme here made me think of Cantata 140. And, the orchestration of the two works is similar, but the Magnificat introduces trumpets and timpani. A thrilling program!

LD: SCGS will be holding auditions (all parts) prior to rehearsals for this concert. How does singing in this group differ from other choral groups in New York?

ML: SGCS is choir of around 70 singers, with a core of professionals. Singing Bach with a group like this is wonderful. We maintain agility, technical precision and clarity, while adding a rich choral sonority to these works. I also believe the balance with orchestra will be ideal. It's really a rare opportunity to sing an all-Bach program with such a fine group of musicians. And the interpretive journey we will all take together throughout the rehearsal process will be incredible. Great works of art offer many interpretations, many details, and many facets of beauty. I'm so very much looking forward to revisiting these masterpieces!


St. George’s Choral Society will present Bach’s Cantata 140, Wachet auf, and Magnificat on Sunday, November 23 at 3 PM at the Church of the Incarnation, 209 Madison Avenue at 35th Street. Tickets are $25. Visit www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org to reserve tickets or for more information on this concert and the St. George’s Choral Society.

Auditions for the group will be held on Wednesday, September 10 at 6 PM at St. George’s Chapel, 5 Rutherford Place (on Stuyvesant Park).  Please e-mail Matthew Lewis at stgeorgeschoralsociety@yahoo.com to schedule an audition. For more info on singing with the group, go to www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/members_become.html.

Laura Daly is manager of marketing and artist relations for the St. George's Choral Society.