Event: Bach Vespers
Place: Holy Trinity Church, Manhattan
Date: November 7, 2010 (day of the New York Marathon)
Today I attended church. Not a mass, but something called Bach Vespers in the Holy Trinity Church, a Lutheran Church on the upper west side of Manhattan across from Central Park.
When I arrived at Columbus Circle, where Central Park begins, I was expecting the New York Marathon to be over. But no, there were still a lot of people finishing the course, eight hours after the marathon officially started. I learned later that not everybody started at the same time, but were let off in batches. There were more than 45,000 people who participated in today's marathon. I cheered the runners on for a while, and then went back to the Holy Trinity Church.
The church was right at the junction where the road had been cordoned off from traffic and served as the exit point for marathoners who had finished the run . The runners were given mylar blankets to wrap themselves with because the weather was in the low 40’s and most of them were wearing nothing but shirts and shorts.
When I went through the door, I nearly stumbled on a young man in his twenties who sat leaning back on the wall by the vestibule, obviously recovering from the run.
“Did you finish?”I asked him.
“Yes,”he answered. “My time was four hours and thirty six minutes.”
“Congratulations!” I said. I entered the church.
I could see immediately that the Holy Trinity Church was Gothic revival in its sensibility. On the central wall at the altar was a full length mosaic Christ flanked by eight apostles/saints. They were set off by Gothic framed casements. The church had a precious Tiffany stained glass window on the left wall. Except for the absence of a tabernacle and a statue of the Virgin Mary, the church could been any Roman Catholic one.
I came to this specific church today because, alone among churches in New York, and perhaps in the United States, it has a famous concert series called Bach Vespers that it has held every Sunday for forty three years now. The season starts in the fall.
It is not so much a concert that was going to be presented here tonight so much as a regular Vespers service held in the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach’s time back in 18th century Germany. If Bach came back to become cantor in this church today, he would instantly feel at home.
There was a good number of attendees. Most of them, like me, were probably attracted by the prospect of hearing a Bach concert for free.
The organist struck up a Bach prelude on the pipe organ up on the choir loft back of the church.
The Lutheran minister, wearing exactly the same robes as a Roman Catholic celebrant, slowly made his way up the aisle towards the altar. Following him were deacons in surplices.
The service that followed was, for me, a unique experience. It was a real church service, but what made it stand out was the incidental music that a small chorus up at the loft sang. These were Bach motets sung in a precise and professional manner. Baroque contrapuntal delicacies were observed. It was hard to believe that I was at a religious service. The point of this particular evening was the performance of Bach's songs for the ritual they were written for.
The highlight of the evening was Bach’s cantata 52 for solo soprano, Falsche welt, dich trau ich nicht! (False world, I do not trust you!). The singer was soprano Jennifer Bates. She was accompanied by a twelve-piece baroque chamber orchestra . The ensemble began by playing the first movement of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto in F major. Ms. Bates followed with a full-voiced rendition of the intricate cantata. It was a short fifteen-minute piece, but its inclusion in the service gave me a good idea of how it must have been like when Bach was the organist at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig back in 1723. Would that every church had a service like this! But the Holy Trinity Church was blessed with its location, being just two blocks away from Lincoln Center and its satellite schools from which presumably it could draw its artists from. But then again, Bach Vespers had been going on for forty three years now, and has in fact been designated a New York City cultural landmark, so Lincoln Center or no, it had always been that way with this church. Once again, this showed me why New York is a very special city. It breathes and pulses culture, and has the artists to sustain it.
When the service was over, the organist played a postlude, Bach’s Fugue in G major BWV 541. Normally during this time in most churches, people would be filing out, ignoring the organ. Here the audience sat through the entire piece and only left after the last note had flown into the cold air. There was no applause at any time, because this was a religious service after all.
Post vespers, we were invited downstairs to the basement community hall for a free snack of wine, cheese, crackers and fruit. Faced with such generosity, I felt somewhat guilty at the measly one dollar donation I gave to the deacon’s plate during service. I probably will have to make a larger donation later to assuage this guilt and keep Bach Vespers going!
When I stepped out of the church, it was already dark but participants from the New York Marathon were still finding their way to the finish line. I saw a gentleman who seemed almost zonked out with fatigue. He looked about sixty..
“You made it!” I called out to him.
Barely able to raise his lips to smile, he looked at me shaking his head as if to say:”Whatever did I get myself into?”