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Soli Deo Gloria comes home

J. Nelson (© David Zaugh)

Chicago’s Soli Deo Gloria is coming home, in a glorious blaze of Bach.

Now, ask a Chicago music lover who Soli Deo Gloria is, and you are likely to get a blank stare in return. This is a rather mind-boggling state of affairs. Founded in 1993, with a stated mission of “enhancing, promoting and preserving the classical sacred music repertoire in the Biblical tradition”, Soli Deo Gloria (a Latin term meaning “Glory to God alone” - the astute among us may have a little “Ah-ha”, remembering the initials SDG found appended to sacred manuscripts by Bach, Handel, and others) has proved to be one of the most prolific musical commissioning entities around. In the last 17 years the organization has fostered a slew of new compositions, among them the Requiem of Christopher Rouse, Daniel Kellogg’s The Fiery Furnace, O Greening Branch, and Children of God, Peter Bannister’s Hemosura De Dios, and a host of other works by Jacob Bancks, Neal Harnly, Gil Shohat, Paul Ayres, George Arasimowicz, Augusta Read Thomas, and Paul Schoenfeld. A new piece by James MacMillan is on its way. There have been notable performances released on EMI Virgin CD and DVD of the Bach B Minor Mass and the Berlioz Te Deum, and in a sort of loving musical ministry, performances of the great sacred repertoire have been mounted in Russia, the Ukraine, and China, where opportunities to hear them are fraught with challenges and are profoundly appreciated.

Despite their international success, Soli Deo Gloria’s profile in the Windy city has been fleeting to the point of near invisibility. The organization made a huge impact in 1994 with a local performance and subsequent recording on Electra/Nonesuch of the North American premiere of Henryk Górecki’s Miserere under SDG co-founder and Artistic Director conductor John Nelson, featuring the combined choruses of the Chicago Symphony and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The recording hit Billboard’s top ten classical chart and sold over 100,000 copies - but SDG’s actual Chicagoland presence then vanished almost immediately as opportunities elsewhere took focus. This month, however, that is going to change in an undeniably major way.

This April, Soli Deo Gloria launches a new initiative - the Chicago Bach Project, which will be inaugurated with a performance of the composer’s monumental St. Matthew Passion performed at St. Vincent De Paul Parish on April 20th. The artistic lineup is formidable, with orchestral and choral forces drawn from the Chicago Symphony, the Music of the Baroque, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Grant Park Festival among others. The soloists include Stanford Olsen in an all-too-infrequent Chicago appearance, soprano sensation Nicole Cabell, Nicholas Phan (one of the most dulcet-toned young lyric tenors around) and Music of the Baroque regular Stephen Morscheck, as well as mezzo Jennifer Lane, bass Douglas Williams, and Anima, Chicago’s delightful youth vocal ensemble.

“It is absolutely a homecoming.” affirms Chandler Branch, Soli Deo Gloria’s President and CEO, and the upcoming April performance represents some years of planning on his part. Branch is an interesting fellow, a hard worker who clearly revels in the opportunity SDG provides for, in his words “uniting musical and spiritual passion”. An alumnus of the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music with a Bachelor of Music in violin performance, Branch filled several capacities at SDG before assuming organizational leadership. “It’s been a wild ride!” he chuckles, “we went through some downsizing about ten years ago and I was kind of the last man standing. I actually think it is a scenario that plays out pretty often in the non-profit world, where somebody who is eager and willing gets the benefit of developing a skill set and experience. That was me, and I am eternally grateful for it.”

Wild ride or not, things are coming together quite smoothly for Soli Deo Gloria’s first entry into the Bach festival. A primary issue was a physical one – the matter of appropriate venue. “We wanted to find a great sacred space ideally, because this is a different experience for the audience. There are a lot of great spaces in Chicago, but nothing jumped out at us. A friend introduced me to St. Vincent de Paul, and within seconds of walking in, John Nelson and myself were smitten with it. It’s got an acoustic that will work well for us, and of course it is visually beautiful, but the sanctuary platform is extremely wide and will allow us to do a purely antiphonal double chorus and orchestra. It is pretty rare to get that; it’s written into the music, but very often you get choir one and choir two smashed up against each other.”

The St. Matthew is particularly anticipated by company co-founder Nelson, for both artistic and spiritual reasons. One of the brightest luminaries among an elite list of contemporary interpreters of the Baroque (and an unusually jovial and accessible individual; the man emanates a sort of enveloping warmth of being), Nelson has conducted virtually all of the great orchestras of the world and has graced a myriad of recordings, including the Grammy-winning Semele on Deutsche Gramophone. He is particularly remembered in Chicago for his splendid leadership of Handel’s Alcina at Lyric Opera of Chicago some years ago, a production that no less than Brian Kellow of Opera News named the single greatest operatic evening of his entire experience. Bach’s oratorio is a thing apart however; a work the conductor names his “island piece”, and he blushingly admits that as a younger, less experienced musician, he dissolved into a puddle when first leading it. “That happened to me twice,” he recalls. “I was very young, just out of Julliard. I had not experienced this music coming out of my hands before; I had revered it, I had longed to do it. So when the first sound of that B minor opening lamentation came out of the orchestra, under my hands, I almost couldn’t take it, it was so emotional for me. The other time was with a semi-professional orchestra in Connecticut. I burst into tears; it was just overwhelmingly powerful. A performer really can’t do that in front of an audience, and a conductor must remain cool – but at the first rehearsal, I came apart. This is a piece I know inside out, a piece that never, ever grows old, and always brings new things to me. It haunts me to my depths. At this point in my career, at this point at my age, I am hoping I can bring a maturity and meaning to it that will communicate in a special way to people.”

The piece obviously communicates to Nelson himself in a viscerally “special way”, and one wonders why in his experience St. Matthew, of all Bach’s great masterworks, stands supreme.”I hardly know where to begin!” The conductor laughs, “But I will try. The breadth of the piece – it is so huge in conception, so understanding of the realm of Christ as he laid down his life, and this is shown in such an amazing way. Between the two shouts of the crowd that call for his crucifixion, Bach puts in an aria about love. The juxtaposition of that love against the hate and misunderstanding of the people is so dramatic, so operatic, real and powerful. It is incredibly moving, and spiritually it is incredibly discerning”.

Soli Deo Gloria’s goal is to follow this season’s performance of the St. Matthew with the St. John Passion during Holy Week next year, and complete the great Bach trilogy with the B Minor Mass the year after that – all to be rotated annually in an ongoing cycle.

“I have very high hopes,” Nelson continues, “that this will be not only a beautiful experience and a proper experience for those that are Baroque purists as I am, but beyond that, that it will be a spiritual experience – for this is the original intent of this piece. It was to be done as part of the liturgy, to be done in church on Good Friday, the most important day in the Christian calendar. People were swept up in its spiritual message, and I hope we can recreate that.”

If anyone could recreate that, it would certainly appear that Nelson and the forces at Soli Deo Gloria, with their pointed musical understanding and palpable sincerity of faith, would be the obvious contenders. Chicago will find out in a few weeks. Hopefully music lovers everywhere will be listening too, and applauding Soli Deo Gloria’s Chicago Bach Festival for years to come.

Welcome home, guys.

Mark Thomas Ketterson



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