From the City of Lights to Windy City, B Minor Mass now a Chicago tradition

By Donna Marbury

Chicago and Paris have more in common than most people realize. After the 1909 Chicago fire, the city was redesigned to be ‘Paris on the Prairie.’ In 1996, both cities officially became sisters. Conductor John Nelson’s Chicago Bach Project, a transplant from the City of Lights to the Windy City, is more proof of the two cities’ bond.

John Nelson, Photo by Charles Osgood

Nelson spent a decade directing the Chamber Orchestra of Paris, insisting that the group perform a trilogy of Bach’s works during the Easter season at the Norte Dame Cathedral. At the blessing of Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the performance filled the 6,000-plus seat cathedral. After Nelson left the Chamber Orchestra of Paris, he got a request from the Soli Deo Gloria in Chicago to continue his seasonal Bach performance at St. Vincent de Paul Church.

On March 27, Nelson will lead the third annual Chicago Bach Project, performing the Mass in B Minor. For tickets and more information, visit

What is the significance of performing at the St. Vincent de Paul Church?

It is one of the most beautiful liturgical spaces in Chicago. I will never forget the first time I laid eyes on the sanctuary. I immediately said: ‘This is the place!’ Not only for its beauty, but because the altar area was absolutely perfect for performing the St. Matthew Passion, the first of the trilogy. Since it requires a double orchestra and double choir, it needed ample space that only St. Vincent’s has. So it was a slam dunk.

Furthermore, the church officials and Rev. Christopher Robinson, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church, took to the idea amazingly well. I say amazingly because the church had traditionally not opened its doors to concert activities.

How does the event in Chicago differ from the one you did in Paris?

The idea is exactly the same, to do the three great Bach masterpieces at Easter time, in a great sacred space. One could say it’s different because, in Paris, I had my own orchestra that was engaged to do it; in Chicago, we have an orchestra made up of freelance players. In Paris, we used the Cathedral of Notre Dame Choir; in Chicago we use freelance singers. But, otherwise, essentially, we’re doing the same thing in Chicago as in Paris.

What can the audience expect from this year’s performance?

Bach wrote the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion for the Good Friday services, so they were liturgical services, they were worship vehicles; they were not considered concert as such. The B Minor Mass has its own very complicated history, and it was not performed as a whole during Bach’s lifetime.  But Bach, being who Bach was—a church musician—no doubt meant this music to be sung in church and to be a part of a liturgical service. So the St. Vincent performance comes far closer to that ideal than the purely concert version of the Chicago Symphony [performance of the B Minor Mass in April].

Chicago Bach Project will perform Wednesday at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Lincoln Park.

What projects are you working on outside of the Soli Deo Gloria?

As I look to the future, I will pick out two events that I am enormously looking forward to. One is The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s great opera of his maturity, at the Santa Fe Opera this summer. The other is a celebration of Benjamin Britten’s 100th anniversary of his birth, conducting the War Requiem, arguably his greatest work, in several places in Europe.

What is your favorite piece by Bach?

There’s no question what my favorite Bach work is, and that is the St. Matthew Passion because it tells the greatest story ever told in a depth of understanding that only the greatest of composers, and a believer himself, could write.

A year ago, I had the privilege of making a DVD of this work and am happy to say that the work of the producer, the playing and singing of all involved, was worthy of this great masterpiece. After I finished this project, I felt as if I could say goodbye to this world and be a happy man. The DVD is being released to the public on March 26th and will be available at the Chicago Bach Project performance on March 27th.

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