Midsummer Update

 

If, like me, you’re beginning to feel a little bit of Bach Choir withdrawal (it’s been slightly more than two months since our last performance), there are two ways you can give yourself an infusion of Bach Choir magic.  The first is easy: watch the beautiful, short film above.  If you were at the 2014 Festival, you likely saw Anisa and Bill George (daughter and husband, respectively, of our fabulous Executive Director, Bridget George) weaving in and out of the action with video cameras.  Anisa is an accomplished actress and filmmaker, and she’s responsible for the insightful, impressionistic, humorous, and visually poetic video.  Enjoy!

Hermann J  Wiemer Winery Rosa and Greg

The second way requires a little bit more doing, but the rewards will be great. On Saturday, August 16th, beginning at 7:00 pm,  Hermann Wiemer Vineyards, perched high on a hillside above Seneca Lake in New York state’s bucolic Finger Lakes region, is hosting a fundraising event, entitled “Music for a Sparkling Summer Evening.”  Set in their scissors-trussed barn, the menu for the evening includes a delightful collection of musical bonbons featuring Greg Funfgeld on piano, Rosa Lamoreaux, one of our wonderful soprano soloists, and instrumentalists Robin Kani, Chris Hanning, and Dan McDougal.  The event also includes tastings of Wiemer’s exceptional wine (including rieslings that are consistently rated among the best produced in America) and delicious treats, both sweet and savory.  I’ll be attending for the first time this year (this is the third summer of this auspicious event), but we’ve been to the vineyard before, and the setting (and their wine) is exceptionally lovely.  The vineyard recently renovated their facilities, and, judging from a gallery on their website, things look even more posh than they did when we visited.  The proceeds will benefit our ambitious and award-winning educational outreach programs, which include Bach to School, the annual Family Concert, and the Choral Scholars program.

In other news, I’ve seen a draft of the upcoming season brochure and chatted with our intrepid leader about programming for the coming year, and, though some details are still to be cemented, I can guarantee you that we’re in for a stunning year of music.  We’re hosting the American Boychoir for our Gala concert, we’re offering Christmas Concerts that explore the Nativity through the lens of Mary, the Mother of God, and we’re collaborating with the Lehigh University Philharmonic, the Lehigh Valley Charter School for the Performing Arts, as well as the dance program at DeSales University. There will be fresh programming combined with cherished traditions at the 108th Bethlehem Bach Festival, including a reprisal of the Bach Chaconne Project, a new venue, and a rollicking Zimmerman’s Coffee House, MCed by our good friend, Larry Lipkis, and much, much more.  As the theme of the season invites, be prepared to “be surprised by joy!”  Once the details are finalized, and the brochures are in the mail, I’ll be blogging again to preview all of the upcoming season.

 

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Festival Weekend Two Recap

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Above:  David and Carol Beckwith at a reception following the Saturday Mass performance, honoring him for ten years as President of The Choir’s Board of Managers. 

The second weekend of performances of the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival brought the festival program to an even larger audience this past weekend.  Friday evening and Saturday afternoon were particularly well-attened (indeed, we almost sold out for Saturday’s performance of the Mass).  All of the choir members I’ve spoken with have mixed feelings about the end of Festival – on one hand, it was a challenging set of programs, and the time commitment was even more taxing, so we’re glad to be able to exhale, cut the grass, and attend to the myriad of details that are often put on hold for Festival weekends; on the other hand, for many of us, it’s hard to imagine what we’d rather be doing!  This was particularly the case at the conclusion of Cantata 131 – as my fellow basses and I made the chromatic ascents of one of the fugue themes, I sensed such unity and commitment.  Likewise, the great strife that begins Cantata 19 was uniformly thrilling, and Larry Wright’s cantus firmus in the tenor aria of the same was a masterwork of poise and precision (it’s fiercely high and nerve-wrackingly exposed).  Our vocal soloists made incredible contributions:  again, Dan Lichti’s Cantata 56 was incredibly moving, Bill Sharp’s Et in Spiritum Sanctum was a reference performance, Rosa Lamoreaux and Liz Field managed the counterpoint of the Laudamus Te with extraordinary grace and sensitivity, Ben Butterfield’s Benedictus was a beautiful display of humility and devotion (despite being set in the stratosphere), and Danny Taylor’s Agnus Dei had all the emotional complexity and tenderness for which he is justly famous.

As I wrote last week, with such a huge amount of music to perform in a compact timespan, it’s always interesting to see which moments resonate especially. Last week, I wrote about the concluding chorus of Cantata 34, which, again, this week, was full of gratitude and fire.  For me, this week, it was the center three movements of the Credo.  Volumes have been written about the symmetry of the Credo, and the three movements at its center are some of the most profound and powerful.  The Choir rises to sing the Et incarnatus est, which has almost Mozartean string figures, over which each section of the choir, in turn makes an extremely exposed entrance from near the top of their range.  Our fearless leader has to balance the need for precision while simultaneously creating no vocal tension, and so he carefully, lovingly breathes with each section as they make their entrance.  It’s an extraordinary balancing act, and he was in top form this week.  The entrances went very well, and the sense of awe and mystery that pervades this movement was, I believe, very apparent.  We then transitioned to the Crucifixus, which is a passacaglia, with the same bass line repeated thirteen times.  Over this structure, there are alternating figures between the strings and the flutes, which lend an almost clinical inexorability to the affair. The choir then sings sighing motives over this complex music, creating a mournful and profound affect.  The question of dynamics in this movement is a daunting one, in part, because of the brutality of the phonemes in the word “Crucifixus” as well as what it represents.  When the text shifted away from that word, Greg brought the dynamics down even further than he usually does, and my sense was that we followed very carefully, lending credence to a college professor’s assertion that, when a large choir sings pianissimoit can be a very powerful thing. That, too, is a difficult proposition, though, because if the choir’s tone loses its dynamism, the music can collapse in on itself.  I felt that we achieved a great deal in the moment, and had an uncommonly spiritual connection with Greg at the movement’s very hushed conclusion.  After a pause, we launched into an Et resurrexit brimming over with excitement.  Indeed, sadness turned to dancing, and it was an exceptionally powerful experience.  In all of the above, our orchestral colleagues played with great style, panache, and precision.

The Saturday morning performance of Young Meister Bach, and the Coffee Cantata went very well – it’s a delight to perform the work for an audience who can appreciate all the sort of in-jokes that permeate the libretto and score.  YMB is now on hiatus – I’ve heard that composer Chuck Holdeman will be making some tweaks, and I very much look forward to the day when this very witty and fiercely creative works receives some more performances.

Steve Siegel was at the McFarlane and Simms lute and theorbo recital, and has this very positive review up at the Morning Call’s music blog.  I’m sorry I had to miss it because of a performance conflict (YMB), as I’ve long been a fan of Ronn McFarlane’s playing.  I’m sure it was incredible.

At the conclusion of the Mass many of us made our way to a reception honoring David Beckwith, the estimable President of our Board of Managers, upon his retirement from that role.  David began his journey with The Choir as a singer of exceptional talent, eventually singing some of the roles in the Passion performances.  David is also extremely high-achieving in the worlds of healthcare and business, with a distinguished career as a microbiologist and laboratory and hospital administrator, having earning all kinds of lauds for his work in both roles. He brought his passion and administrative excellence to his role as President of our Board, all with a very steady and exceptionally gracious hand on the till.  A partial list of The Choir’s innovations during his tenure include the establishment of the Second Century Fund, which saw incredible growth in our endowment, the initiation of Bach at Noon (a huge accomplishment), celebration of our 100th Bethlehem Bach Festival, the Roots of Renewal celebration of the 100th anniversary of our guarantor system, an increasing profile in our region with concerts in Cleveland, New York City, and Maryland, and so much more.  During his comments at the reception, David was quick to share the credit, and, indeed, ours is an organization with many vital and moving parts. But, for creativity to flourish, vision must be tempered with sobriety and skill in preparation and execution, and I earnestly believe that David’s care and discernment were inestimable gifts to The Choir and its mission, at a time of dynamic expansion.  We look forward to his continued participation in the life of The Choir as an honorary board member (he’ll be in the excellent company of two titans and past presidents, Jan Bonge and Jack Jordan).  Congratulations, David, on a job exceptionally well done.

Thank you to everyone involved in making the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival such a grand success.  Plans are already being formulating for next season – make sure to visit the blog over the summer for news on that front.

Update: Steve Siegel offers a glowing review of the Friday cantatas concerts here.

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Weekend One Recap

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Above, an admittedly idiosyncratic slideshow of photos from your blogger’s exploits at the first weekend of the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival (Alas, I cannot take pictures while I’m performing in The Choir!).  

Though I couldn’t attend all the events (out of town guests precluded Dr. Lipkis’ lecture, which I’m sure was fantastic, likewise with Young Meister Bach’s conflict with the lute program at the Saal, which had to have been amazing), those that I did attend went smashingly.  Friday afternoon’s lecture with Dr. Michael Marissen was overflowing with good humor and erudition.  It’s always tantalizing to listen to recordings with Michael (I credit him with introducing me to the astonishing work of Philippe Pierlot, a few years ago), and to have a compare and contrast between recent and past recordings with his seemingly endless font of knowledge about performance practice, as well as the theological and cultural implications of details too few actually think about, combined to give those lucky enough to attend a new lens through which to view performances of Bach’s music.  Bravo, Michael!

Things went very, very well in the Friday afternoon concerts – among those who attended, who could forget the achingly beautiful sounds of gambas and recorders marking Bach’s “allerbeste zeit?” All of the soloists were wonderful, but Agnes Zsigovics singing during the middle movement of Cantata 106 was particularly moving.  Equally moving was hearing that mature lion, Dan Lichti, offer a stunning Cantata 56, some 25 years after recording it with The Choir on our CD, “Wachet Auf.”  40 years after his professional debut, Dan’s voice is as burnished as ever, with the added insight and maturity that comes with such an august career.  What an absolute treat!  Daniel Taylor and Agnes sounded incredible on the cantus firmus lines of Cantata 131, and, as always, Mary Watt’s oboing was transfixing.   A tip of my hat to all the orchestral players, who seem to have reached new heights of sensitivity and musicality.

Friday evening began with a fierce strife, and singing the opening movement of Cantata 19 was an utter thrill.  Larry Wright managed the stratospheric trumpet parts with elan and great care, with more than able support from his brassy colleagues.  After the immense sarabande that begins Cantata 78, the somber nature of the proceedings gave way to sunshine in the form of Daniel’s and Agnes’ Wir elin mit schwachen, which they offered with an exhilarating sense of play and precision.  The opening chorus of Cantata 34 was reliably thrilling, and Daniel’s Wohl euch was time-stoppingly beautiful, with incredible support from muted strings and the lyrical fluting of Robin Kani and Linda Ganus.

In an ensemble of 90 singers and 30 some players, the enterprise of finding musical and spiritual unanimity will always have varying results.  We hope to always be together, to breathe not only the same air, with demanding millisecond tolerances, but to be of one mind, to connect to the same source of energy, and to bring notes on a page vividly to life.  I think we accomplish that quite often, with kudos to our fearless leader, who succeeds at harnessing that disparate group of musicians into that singleness of purpose.  As such, some of our work is necessarily reactive, but once in a while, the stars align, our souls connect completely, and something transcendent is the result.  The concluding chorus Cantata 34, which begins with the rhapsodic plea, “Friede über Israel,” was one such moment.  To be sure, Greg was appropriately animated and dynamic in his gesture, but there was such a sense of joy, peace, and determination from all the musicians on the stage, we felt that alignment with the music of the spheres, and I felt totally carried away by the moment.  In those moments, there’s an inexorable sense of energy and passion, and it’s an almost disorienting wave to ride.  I hope the audience had some sense of it (I think they did, those I spoke with were uniformly thrilled).

The audience for Young Meister Bach wasn’t huge, but it was extremely engaged, and it was a delight to hear them chuckling at the work’s good humor.  The principal singers and the ensemble of singers from The Choir were wonderful, and or orchestral colleagues managed Chuck Holdeman’s demanding score with aplomb.  The second half of the program, Bach’s whimsical Coffee Cantata, was also a delight.  Choir members ate a quick box lunch, then headed over to Packer to regroup for the Mass.  There were many highlights in the first half, including Liz Field’s wonderful obbligato in the Laudamus te, an excellent counterpoint to Rosa Lamoreaux’s always-stellar singing, having Dan Lichti back to sing the Quoniam, with ennobling horn and playful bassoons, and the Cum Sancto was as thrilling as ever to sing.  The Choir then trudged up to Lehigh’s Alumni Hall for a new publicity picture, then returned to Packer for the second half of the Mass. Ben Butterfield’s Benedictus seemed even more touching than ever, and Daniel Taylor’s Agnus Dei was heartfelt and touching.  Greg’s tempo for the Dona Nobis Pacem seemed a smidge  slower than usual, doubtless reacting to the gravity of Danny’s singing, and the plea for peace was even more earnest as a result.

I need to tip my hat to Greg as well – this year’s program was extremely demanding to conduct, and the sheer amount of music he keeps straight in his head all at once is dizzyingly impressive.  As always, he lead with good spirits, generosity, precision, and his trademarked kindness.  A last tip of the hat to our colleagues on the administrative side of things, with the incomparable Bridget George at the helm.  They’re always welcoming, on top of an endless list of details, and accomplish their bevy of tasks with good humor and warmth.  All of the music making is possible because of their often unseen but deeply essential groundwork.   We now take a brief rest, and repeat the whole program next weekend.  Thanks to everyone who attended, and best wishes for felicitous travel for everyone making their way to next weekend’s programs.  I’m really looking forward to another weekend with the riches of this music, and all of us in the organization are looking forward to sharing it with our beloved audience!

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Wednesday Update

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Above are our excellent gambists and recorder players, playing the opening sonata from Cantata 106.  The gut strings of the gambas have a richness and resonance that harkens to another age, as does the pure, rossignol-like tone of the recorders.  Tonight’s rehearsal was for the reduced forces for the Friday afternoon concerts.  Even with a small group of singers, we had to be careful not to oversing, leading musical credence to the pretty much undeniable theories of recent Bach scholarship which suggest that he made use of much smaller performing forces than those to which we’re accustomed.  That having been said, historical accuracy is a bit of a moving target, particularly among an institution with a performing tradition like ours. We continue to benefit from the latest scholarship about Bach performance practice, and many of our instrumentalists are equally at home on period and modern instruments.   An insightful critic from Leipzig once suggested that Bach would’ve been delighted to know that a large choir from Pennsylvania is dedicated to his work.  All that said, it is fun and revealing to hear this music with smaller forces.  The orchestra is also reduced for Cantata 71, and there’s a transparency and clarity in the textures of that work with the smaller forces.  As always, Mary Watt, my personal oboe hero, is playing her obbligato in 71 with stunning musicality, entering end exiting the fray with incredible sensitivity and lyricism.  Likewise, the string players sound especially wonderful in this repertoire.

Our rehearsal of No. 106 was quite moving, especially with the addition of the soloists.  Bach’s spare textures, and the pastiche of moving texts from all around the bible remind me both of the Brahms Requiem, in which Brahms made his own, personal selection of texts, rather than hewing to the Latin Requiem rite.  Bach does so similarly, here, and what seems somewhat like a kind of stream of consciousness linkage among texts on the page comes vividly to life, something like a Malick film. The framing and composition of each movement is so complete and riveting.  Of particular note is Danny Taylor’s singing of the “In deine Hände” text – “into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Then, later, as Bill Sharp sings “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Agnes Zsigovics and Dan offer the most devout cantus firmus singing of Luther’s paraphrase of the Song of Simeon.  Also, Agnes’ singing of the “Ja, komm, Herr Jesu,” section is stunning.  If the notion of hearing three theologically deep cantatas on Friday seems kind of heavy, I assure you, there are so many grace-filled and aesthetically arresting moments, that you’re quite likely to leave buoyed by the totality of Bach’s deeply humane sense of empathy.

I can also guarantee that you’ll definitely leave with a spring in your step after the Friday evening program.  We finished our work on that last night, and it was a thrill (and less of a scare) to sing through the opening chorus of No. 19.  It’s ready to go, as are all of the movements of the mass, and the ecstatic praise of Cantata 34 is still ringing in my ears, a day later.  Tomorrow night, The Choir descends upon Zoellner to bring Young Meister Bach back to life.

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Festival Repertoire: Young Meister Bach, and an update

 

Watch the video above for an introduction to and taste of Saturday morning’s performances of our new comic opera.  You can also read more about the process of bringing it to life, both at our Family Concert, and at the German Society of Pennsylvania, by scrolling down below.

The Choir and the Bach Festival Orchestra met for our first rehearsal in Packer Memorial church last night.  There have been a few tweaks in how the orchestra is placed and, from my perch on the choral risers, I have to say that it seems that the clarity has increased.  As we rehearsed the opening passacaglia of Cantata 78, during the lengthy instrumental ritornelli, hearing the contrasting sections of winds and strings, the particular genius of Bach’s orchestration really seemed evident (it may also be that they were just in especially fine form).  There’s such a wonderful sense of collaboration among the players, who are now reuniting en masse after The Creation at the end of March (some played together at the April Bach at Noon).  Despite it being only the first go, the epic battle scene that is the opening chorus of Cantata 19 sounded thrilling, if daunting to assemble.  We also ran several movements of the Mass, and revisited the opening and closing choruses of Cantata 34.

A few practical notes:  longtime attendees will doubtless miss two of the beautiful stained glass windows from the front of Packer Memorial Church, as well as one of the windows in the south transept.  They are currently being restored (if you’ve ever read about that process, you know what a nerve-wracking enterprise that is), and their return to Packer is something for which to look forward in 2015.  If there’s less radiant sunlight in the space, we hope to make up for it with our singing and playing!

Second, if you are prone to seasonal allergies, take your meds before you come to the Festival.  The Lehigh campus looks stunningly beautiful with scores of blooming trees, but the late April showers we’re currently enduring can only mean that there will be an abundance of pollen when the weather dries up for the weekend.  Several of my colleagues are suffering already, and I can feel some sense of my allergy meds doing battle with the airborne particulates (or maybe it’s some leftover tension from the opening chorus of 19 – epic!).

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Festival Celebration: Happy Anniversary, Dr. Leaver!

 

I count myself extremely fortunate to have studied sacred music with our program annotator par excellence, Dr. Robin Leaver, at Westminster Choir College, in the early 90s.  I was already acquainted with his work in the form of his wonderful notes for Bach Choir programs – and it was an utter thrill to have a face and a voice to put with his incomparable scholarship.  Dr. Leaver is a true mensch, a scholar and a gentleman, who dispenses his wisdom with passion and humor.  This year, he celebrates 30 years as our program annotator, and after offering a little bit of the back story of his assumption of that role, he offers a brilliant discussion of the Mass in B-Minor in this year’s program notes, which may be found here.  His erudition leaps off the page, but I thought it might be nice for the Bach Choir family to see him in action in a wide-ranging interview from UC Santa Barbara, in 2008, found above.  In addition to his work at Westminster, Dr. Leaver has an extraordinarily impressive CV, with current positions at Yale and The Queen’s University, in Belfast.  His scholarship is noted in recent volumes on Bach by John Eliot Gardiner and Nicholas Kenyon, as well as countless scholarly journal articles books throughout the Bach universe.  He has also published numerous works, including, most recently, this compendium on the Mass for which he served as one of the editors.  Bravo and kudos to Dr. Leaver for so passionately expanding our understanding of Bach’s music!

 

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Festival Repertoire: The Mass in B-Minor, A Return to the Summit

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In my music library, I have, at last count, thirteen recordings of the Mass in B-Minor (not to mention the several books on the subject).  You could say that I’m a bit of a connoisseur – several times a year, I listen to what is my sort of dream-team Mass.  I assemble the tastiest bits from a large variety of the recordings, and I imagine what the perfect recording (were there such a thing) would sound like:  Herreweghe’s ritardando bridging the Gloria in excelcis to the Et in terra pax, Funfgeld’s and Taylor’s Agnus dei, Rosa Lamoreaux’s and Liz Field’s Laudamus te,  Suzuki’s Sanctus tempo, with Herreweghe’s phrasing, Gardiner’s Cum Sancto Spiritu and Et Expecto, Robert King’s Benedictus, with the late, great Anthony Rolfe Johnson.  I shall spare you the remaining details – the list is quite long, and much more detailed.  This work is quite easily at the top of my list, and is the cultural touchstone and wellspring that has animated my musical self for as long as it’s been since I first heard it.  And, as long as that’s been (I just did the math, it’s been 25 years), the place where I want to experience it most is here, in Bethlehem.

Most would agree that the jewel in the crown of the Bethlehem Bach Festival is the Mass, and there are surely members of our audience who have been making the pilgrimage for at least twice as long as me.  Greg Funfgeld will observe 31 years of ascending that mountain, and colleagues in the choir have been doing it even longer than him.  Few organizations have as venerable a history with this piece as we do, having given its American premiere, and having performed it most years since.  I think that contributes to an aura of reverence and respect, something that makes Packer Memorial Church especially holy ground (as Greg puts it) for two Saturdays each may.  If performances of the Mass are now far more varied and much more plentiful than in the early days of our Festival, I remain convinced that what we offer here remains quite unique and valuable, and equally importantly, fresh and vital.

For one, there’s the performing tradition – we’re an organization that knows the work forward and backwards.  I should hasten to add that we don’t take that for granted – Bach’s music is always prepared to ensnare the complacent.  But, our performances of the Mass have been honed over a century.  For some of us, it’s almost second nature, for newer members, it’s a white-knuckled baptism by fire (it took me a couple years to not feel anxiety about getting all the notes right – and I still remain quite on guard).  It is always exciting to perform.  Similarly, our instrumentalists and vocal soloists have used their extensive experience of the work, and performing it in Bethlehem, to hone and refine.  When Liz and Rosa tackle the Laudamus te, it’s with a simultaneous spirit of reverence and playfulness, offered with both humility and panache.  When they begin that ageless instrumental and vocal dialogue, I defy you to want to hear it anywhere else.  Or, for that matter, when Agnes Zsigovics and Rosa offer some sunshine between the gravity and solemnity of the two Kyries.  Their Christe eleison, with the obbligato of sinuous strings is the very essence of a baroque love duet – bring intimately close the plea for mercy that Bach couches in such effusive musical language.  How about the quartet of Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa on oboe, Chuck Holdeman on bassoon, with the incomparable Bill Sharp offering the Et in spiritu sanctam?  Loretta O’Sullivan and Charlotte Mattax Moersch playing cello and continuo organ, with Robin Kani duetting with Ben Butterfield, flute and tenor, respectively, offering the Mass’s most intimate and devout movement, the Benedictus.  Whenever I work with string players from the Bach Festival Orchestra at my church, we talk about the “Bach Pause” before the last notes of lento movements.  This is something that’s never conducted, but is the result of 120 or so musicians feeling and breathing together.  What about Dan Lichti offering the Quoniam with raucous bassoons and the majestic horn playing of Tony Cecere?  I could continue to wax rhapsodic about the experience – Danny Taylor and the strings, wringing every bit of emotion and devotion out of the Agnus Dei, or the whole company blazing away in the Cum Sancto Spiritu, with Larry Wright crowning the plenum with fearless and highly dexterous trumpetings.  One of my favorite moments is at the conclusion of the Et expecto, when we pause to take a few breaths with Greg.  We’ve just finished an ecstatic dance of melismatic brilliance, and I suspect you can feel our collective hearts racing.   I think what I’m getting at is that we are a group of players and singers who wear our hearts full of love for Bach and his music proudly on our sleeves.  As an amateur choir, we give a considerable amount of leisure time to the daunting project of making this music, of offering beauty and devotion, of refreshing our souls and those of our audience. Our orchestral members make the pilgrimage from near and far, often turning down other gigs, to partake in our rite of spring.

The Mass is Bach’s summa, the culmination of his life’s work, and for many of us, the summation of every gift bestowed upon him by his creator.  Its scope is vast, its design ornate, its theology dense and learned, its demands imposing, its effect undeniably overwhelming, and yet, at the same time, despite the loftiest of heights its composition achieves, I think it is recognizably and discernibly human.  There are moments when we are grounded in the most earthly of settings and emotions, and others when we ascend to the clouds of heaven in an ocean of praise.  I can think of no work of art that so readily offers an experience of spiritual, emotional, or aesthetic transcendence (or a combination of some or all of the three).  I love that we, all of us – audience and performers, alike, can return to our holiest ground and revel in such an overwhelming experience.  I encourage you to bring a friend, a loved one, someone new, to experience the heights of the Mass, and experience anew, the pinnacle of our musical offerings.

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