Thirteen Strings: Tenor offers thanks for the memory when singing Bach Passion

Tenor Zach Finkelstein will sing the role of the Evangelist in the 13 Strings performance of J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

What would the Easter season be without a bit of Bach to provide some spiritual passion. This year in Ottawa it’s the St. Matthew Passion as presented by Ottawa’s chamber orchestra Thirteen Strings on April 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Dominion Chalmers United Church. 

A central role in any performance of the Passion is the voice of the Evangelist. This concert will feature the tenor Zach Finkelstein in the role. Also singing are soprano Hélène Brunet, mezzo soprano Marjorie Maltais, tenor Jacques-Olivier Chartier, baritone Alexander Dobson Seventeen Voyces and the Ensemble vocal senior De La Salle.

Uniquely, the tenor with Canadian and American citizenship, will perform his part from memory. It makes for an interesting challenge.

Finkelstein, who calls Seattle, Washington home these days, was a late-comer to the ranks of a musical career.

“I’m 32. I have taken sort of a winding path towards singing.

“I only really started seven years ago. I was originally a political analyst, doing polling and focus groups. I studied political science and economics at university.”

Finkelstein did play piano and saxophone as a young student and he was an amateur singer. But nothing serious, he added.

“It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto in 2005 and had had an early mid-life crisis. It’s a rite of passage for millennials. An old roommate reached out to me and asked if I wanted sing back up on an album he was recording.

He took the job and “a bolt of blue” hit him. Finkelstein decided that he wanted to be a singer for the rest of his life.

So he saved up some money, auditioned and got into the Royal Conservatory in Toronto.

“I worked my butt off, graduated in 2011 on a scholarship and started working all over the place.”

It helps being a tenor. They are in demand. But it also helps that Finkelstein knows how to network, knowledge he picked up in the business world. He has developed a broad network of contacts over the years but he credits two summers singing at Tanglewood in New York State with really giving him a boost.

“It launched me into the international league of tenors. I met the Mark Morris Dance Group there and they took a shine to me.”

He started touring all over the world with them and that opened up more opportunities.

“A big part of this career is having an entrepreneurial bent. I’m always networking, sending out emails. Sometimes you hear back three years later.”

One of those connections is Kevin Mallon, who leads Thirteen Strings.

The two worked together in 2014 and Mallon has hired Finkelstein to perform as The Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion this year.

This presentation is doing things differently. The presentation will be semi-staged and the soloists, including Finkelstein, will be off book.

“This is the biggest challenge of my career so far,” Finkelstein says. “I have spent over a year training for this role.

“This is one of those roles that, if you have a certain voice type, you get ready for. My voice is a light lyric voice, perfect for the ‘high floaty stuff’,” he said.

He estimates he has spent about 300 hours learning the role which requires the Evangelist to be on stage for virtually the entire two hours and 40 minutes. He’ll be singing about an hour’s worth of recitatives in German.

Not only will he have to remember the words, he needs to know his cues because there is a lot of interplay with the choir and the soloists. There are no cue cards. No safety net. “It’s live music. You go out there and just have to go for it. That’s the fun part.”

Every singer has different tricks to memorizing music. For Finkelstein, it’s almost like a trade. “There is a way to lay brick and there’s a way to memorize, you have got to do the work.”

To begin with he spoke the words for about 50 hours before even picking up the score. Then he added the rhythms to get the vocalizing as natural as possible.

“If your voice gets tired, you clap the beat and say the words. I try to memorize before going to sleep because you do a lot of brain work when you are sleeping. You use every spare moment: waiting for a bus you hum the notes.”

At the end of the process he was running the piece in full, morning, noon and night. All that for one performance.

“I’m a young guy. I hope I have 35 and more years of doing this. And I know I’ll come across this piece again. So all that hard work will bear fruit over and over again.”

For more information and tickets please see

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.