Proving the eternal appeal of Bach in the stately and apt St. Peter’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Bay Shore, the Island Symphony Orchestra and Long Island Symphonic Choral Association were masterfully conducted by the gallant and giddy Eric R. Stewart. With an audience filled to capacity, eventgoers were parking along Montauk Highway to be able to watch the first annual Bach Festival concert program on Long Island on Sunday, Jan. 26.
A grand, inviting, and surprisingly modern church, St. Peter’s by-the-Sea is a powerhouse as a concert hall, with its entire back wall fitted with echo-canceling architecture to optimize the sound quality and acoustics. Its thoroughly contemporary and American stained-glass windows feature a panel depicting Civil War figures with American and Confederate flags side-by-side. With 50-foot-high ceilings (for comparison, the average home is 9 feet), the music swelled and filled the mammoth performance space.
In introducing the Cantata BMW 25, Stewart introduced elements to the audience in anticipation and divulged behind-the-scenes details of the genius fueling the piece. One of Bach’s lesser known works, it was ironically composed for Lutherans and played in an Episcopalian church.
In describing the multiple fugues in the piece, Stewart said, “You can hear what the fugue will sound like with one voice, as another joins in, and another,” tantalizing the crowd with the forlorn and cult-like trance of the fugue movements.
A rarity in high-art performances, Stewart was refreshingly comic-con, fanboy excited about telling the audience of Bach’s background in the cantata. The transitions and merging of instruments and voices were flawless and moving, as Stewart guided his orchestra and choir in subtle but profound changes throughout the piece. Soprano Vivienne Grizzle and tenor Joseph Hailey were natural standouts, conveying the deep lyricism of Bach’s religious themes that read like a Russian novel: “The primal fall has stained everyone and infected them with the leprosy of sin, Ah! This poison rages through my limbs. Where shall I, wretch, find a healer?”