Wrap-Up: October Bach at Noon

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We had what looked like another capacity crowd for today’s Bach at Noon, and, as our conductor said, we were ecstatic to have everyone there.  Kristina Moditch offered a wonderful prelude to the cantata that followed.  I was especially impressed with the the spaciousness of her playing, and the delicacy of her touch.  Often, when young players interpret Bach, there’s a kind of monochromatic quality to their playing, in terms of both dynamics and rhythm.  Kristina played with a lovely sense of rubato, underlining all of the the contrapuntal details with great subtlety, and with a very wide dynamic range:  restraint where necessary, adept phrasing of inner voices, and exceptional balance throughout.  Her playing is very mature in a way that belies her 15 years of age, and we’re all very excited to see where her skills take her.  I suspect we’ll be able to say that we knew her when!

Our instrumentalists acquitted themselves beautifully on the cantata – it was, as always, a delight to hear the beauty of gambas and recorders, and our basso continuo players were, also as always, solid as a rock.  I was very proud of my colleagues in the choir, and delighted to hear our excellent quartet of soloists demonstrate their mastery of this challenging music.  How magnificent to have Fiona Gillespie back to sing the soprano solo.  Fiona was a choral scholar in the choir many moons ago, and now has a very impressive CV of study and performance.  Her “Ja, komm”  was ravishingly beautiful.  Barbara Hollinshead and Robert Pitello are well-known to our audience, and they both sounded amazing on their solos.  Robert’s aria is brutally demanding and he handled the high tessitura with panache and elegance.  Barbara’s aria and the long cantus firmus work were rendered with enormous precision and sensitivity, and perfect clarity.  We were also delighted to make the acquaintance of Steven Combs, whose debut with us today was most auspicious.  His voice is lovely and sensitive, and he sang the challenging high notes of his concluding aria very bravely, with exceptional steadiness and grace.  Next month, we’re taking on Cantata 71, another early gem, written for an inauguration of the town council.  Like other examples of Bach’s early choral writing, this one is full of incredible detail, fidelity to text, and many colorful elements.  I’ll post an essay about that soon.  Thanks to everyone involved in today’s concert!

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October 14th Bach at Noon: The Best Time

Join us this Tuesday for the continuation of our mini-series of Bach’s earliest cantatas, along with what promises to be a stellar performance by an amazing piano prodigy. Kristina Moditch was born in Allentown in 2000, and spent some time practicing and recording at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, where she came to our conductor’s attention.  She will offer a brief recital of mostly Bach, with a Liszt Nocturne to season the mix.  I think that her performance above is a far more eloquent introduction to her gifts than anything I could write, so please watch, and be prepared for some rapt listening!  And, if you’d like a further introduction, she’ll be appearing on air on WDIY 88.1 FM on Monday morning, October 13th, beginning at 10 am.  You can listen online here.

The theme of the prodigy continues into the cantata that members of the Choir will offer for the second half of the program.  Cantata 106, God’s Time Is the Very Best Time, is one of Bach’s earliest surviving cantatas, and one that we performed most recently at the Bethlehem Bach Festival, this past May.  I’ve adapted an earlier post for you to read below.  The opportunity to hear 106 is one you don’t want to miss, it is a favorite of Bach connoisseurs for many, many reasons!  Be sure to arrive early to get a good seat – the doors  Central Moravian open at 11:30 am.

One of Bach’s earliest vocal works, this Cantata, “God’s time is the very best time,” is widely considered to be, in an oeuvre brimming over with musical genius, one of Bach’s best works.  It is, in fact, a little daunting to write about – especially since some of the best writing about Bach’s life and music in recent times have included lengthy discussions about the piece.  If you’ve not read James R. Gaines’ An Evening in the Palace of Reason, I cannot commend it to you highly enough.  Likewise, the British conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s new examination of Bach’s life and music, Music in the Castle of Heaven, also offers extremely perceptive analysis (as do the liner notes of his recent recording of the piece, which you may read in their entirety by following the link from here, and from which I will quote in this post).

After we sang the work at a Bach at Noon a few years ago, my wife and I began a period of near-obsessive listening to the Actus.  As Gardiner puts it, “The more you peer below the surface, the more complex the Actus tragicus turns out to be.”  He is writing about the fusion of musical and textual symmetry, as well as the vast reserve of the work’s spirituality, and the intellectual and theological maturity of the composer.  This may suggest a kind of musical puzzle, or an intellectual exercise of the highest order, but what strikes the listener is not the dizzying complexity (and one’s incredulousness that the composer was a mere 22 years of age when he wrote it), but the deep empathy and humanity of the work’s author.  Scholars differ as to the occasion for which it was written, but the piece is definitely a funeral cantata, and one that fuses the twin purposes of consolation with worship in a way that strikes me as deeply similar to the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms.

Much like the Brahms Requiem, the Actus Tragicus begins with the pulse of a heartbeat in the continuo, followed by the rich sonorities of two duetting violas da gamba.  The gut strings of the gambas provide a burnished, understated tone that is heartbreakingly lovely.  Within a few seconds, Bach ups the emotional ante with the entrance of two recorders (this spare instrumentation, organ and basso continuo, with two gambas and two recorders is the reason for the reduced forces of singers).  What follows is an opening sonata of extraordinary beauty and devotion:  this is music of great consolation.  The pulsing continues, the gambas and recorders undulate, offering gentle dissonance and peaceful resolution, and the whole affect, it seems to me, is of a wistful sigh.

The chorus enters with a text elaborating on the work’s title, that God’s time is the very best time, and that, in an echo of Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being.”  Also, if God wills it, we come to our end. If this reads like boilerplate theological bromide on the screen, in Bach’s music, the result is quite different.  The chorus beings in a highly persuasive musical embrace, followed with vivid text painting of the words concerning living and moving.  The pace and character change when the topic moves to our death – a kind of choral transition to the tenor arioso that follows.  In the arioso, the tenor pleads with God to “teach us to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom,” a passage from the Psalm 20.  Next, an aria by the bass quotes Isaiah 38:1, “Put your house in order, for you will die, and not live.”  This instruction bridges another biblical passage that the choir offers in a stile antico fugue (highlighting the ancient nature of the law): “Man, you will perish.”  At this point, these Old Testament exhortations begin, to my 21st century ears, to sound a little clinical, and perhaps not-so-consoling.  Maybe Bach felt thusly, and one of the masterstrokes of his genius in this piece was the dialogue that the soprano soloists has, across the ages, with text from Revelation 22:20,”Ja (substituting for the Amen in the biblical passage), komm, Herr Jesu, Komm.”  “Yes, come, Lord Jesus, come.”  This fusion of a rather rote recitation of “the ancient law” with something so intimate and personal as the pleading from the soprano from the last book of the Bible brings both a sense of symmetry to the text, but also offers a kind of cosmic consonance, that death delivers us, at last, to our savior and Lord.  Bach concludes this dramatic fusion with breathtakingly vivid text painting.  As the choir concludes their singing of the ancient law text with parallel rising and falling motion (the counterpoint stops here), the soprano sings her last “Ja, komm, Herr Jesu,” in triplet figures as the instruments disappear from the texture, leaving her voice to trail off, unaccompanied, into silence.  Of this moment, Gardiner is particularly eloquent and perceptive:

Yet the most impressive feature of Bach’s fusion of music and theology occurs in that central silent bar to which we as listeners are irresistibly drawn. Bach’s final, masterly coup – to illustrate the believer’s crisis of faith and overwhelming need of divine help – is to leave the soprano’s immediately preceding notes tonally ambiguous – her voice just evaporating into that desperate cry. There is no resolution, not even a partial closure that might carry the harmony towards a stable cadence: so it is up to us how we interpret it in the silence that follows. If we hear it at face value as a weak perfect cadence (a tierce de Picardie in F minor), that would indicate death as a kind of full stop. But perhaps we are being gently nudged to hear the final oscillation between A and B flat as leading note and tonic respectively, in the key of the movement which follows, B flat minor. In that case Bach’s message is one of hope, the tonal upswing indicating that Christ’s intervention guarantees that death is only a midway point on our journey, the beginning of whatever comes after. 

As the performers musically accept the precept of the ancient law, a striking alto aria follows, with words from Psalm 31:6: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.  You have redeemed me, O God of truth.”  That sense of resignation is not unrewarded, what follows is a stunning dialogue between the bass soloist, and the altos of the choir.  The bass soloist quotes Jesus’ words to the thief who, during the crucifixion, asks to be remembered when Jesus reaches his heavenly kingdom (found in Luke 23:43), “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  After a few statements of this text over spare accompaniment, Bach underlines the import of Jesus’ statement with the reentrance of the gambas, offering the sturdiest and most devout counterpoint as the bass continues repeating Jesus’ words.  He then superimposes the melody of Luther’s chorale-based paraphrase of the Song of Simeon, found in Luke 2:29: “In peace and joy I now depart, according to God’s will…”  When the chorale quotation reaches the text, “I am consoled in heart and mind, gentle and still,” the bass drops out, and when the singers reach the words “sanft und stille (gentle and still),” the accompaniment pauses for a moment, panting a musical picture of of that gentle and rhapsodic stillness, the release that death offered that was so attractive to the faithful of Bach’s lifetime. It’s an extraordinary moment in a work full of them.  The cantata concludes with a doxological hymn of praise, first offered in an augmented chorale or hymn-like form, followed by thrilling counterpoint that combines a melisma on the word “amen” with fragments of the chorale.

In the Actus Tragicus, Bach moves through many emotions, moods, keys, from deepest grief to a foretaste of heavenly worship, all in under 20 minutes of vital, fresh, and impossibly beautiful music.  Not a single note is wasted, nothing is where it doesn’t belong, and each stroke of the composer’s pen brings about an expression of faith full of both deep empathy and astounding eloquence at which we can only marvel.  Again, Gardiner, in whose awe at this brilliance I share deeply:

This extraordinary music, composed at such a young age, is never morbid, saccharine or self-indulgent; on the contrary, though deeply serious, it is consoling and full of optimism.

Amen.

 

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Looking Back: Music for a Sparkling Summer Evening

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It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost a month and a half  (ed. note:  two months, now) since many Lehigh Valley Bach fans decamped to the Senaca Lake in Central New York State, to mingle with members of the Bach family from the region, as well as our friends from the Hermann Wiemer Vineyard, for an evening of delightful music-making,  delicious canapés and desserts, and the special treat of Wiemer’s fabulous wines, served in situ.  Greg Funfgeld was the master of musical ceremonies, and marshaled a merry band of instrumentalists, including Robin Kani, flute, Christopher Hanning, drums, and Dan McDougall, bass, as well as our dear friend, the soprano, Rosa Lamoreaux.  The program included some classics as well as some lighter fare, and everyone acquitted themselves marvelously.  I don’t have the date for next summer’s program, but I highly encourage those who are able to plan to head north for a wonderful evening of music, food, wine, and friends!  I’ve assembled a slideshow of photos I took at the event.

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Bach at Noon, September 9th

Join us for the first Bach at Noon of the Season, this coming Tuesday, September 9th.  Doors will open at 11:30, and the concert begins just past Noon.  Our conductor, Greg Funfgeld, will be playing Bach’s E-Major Harpsichord Concerto on the piano, to celebrate the acquisition of a beautiful Steinway M for our home at the Heckewelder House, an entirely fitting way to commemorate this wonderful moment in the life of the organization.

Below is what I wrote about Cantata No. 131, the vocal piece on the program, for our Festival in May (this performance is a reprise from then):

Some scholars speculate that Cantata No. 131, which isn’t specified for a particular liturgical occasion, might have been commissioned as a work of musical healing following a fire in the town of Mühlhausen.  Whatever its provenance, this work, based on Psalm 130, cries out to the Lord for deliverance, and Bach works mightily to offer a sound picture of that deliverance through the use of exceptionally beautiful music, and the interpolation of a chorale melody (and its text) in two of the movements as a cantus firmus above solo vocal lines.  In an earlier post, I mentioned John Eliot Gardiner’s newish book on the life and music of Bach, Music in the Castle of Heaven, and one of the repeated themes of that work is the ability of performers and listeners to find evidence of humanity in the compositions of one of our most “deified” composers.  That humanity is richly abundant in the movements of Cantata 131, along with evidence of great empathy, faithfulness, and compositional craft.

In his excellent introduction to the piece, Emmanuel Music’s wonderful conductor, the late Craig Smith, spends some time pointing out the youthful precociousness of the 22 year old composer.  Tracing Bach’s development as a composer, as well as the slight imperfections in his earlier technique,  is also a window to Bach’s humanity – there is great temptation among Bach partisans to romanticize his skill to such an extent that he no longer seems recognizably human.  One of the great gifts of Gardiner’s book was the frequency with which the shadows and contours of a living being, with many of the same passions, wants, and neuroses we all possess in various measure, but also an extraordinary sense of striving, haunt the pages.  I found it an exhilarating read.  With that in mind, I shall resist the temptation to over-romanticize the extraordinary accomplishment that is Cantata 131, if only because it resides on a program of extraordinary musical accomplishments (followed by more of the same on Friday evening, as well, as Saturday morning, and then there’s the Mass in B-Minor on Saturday afternoon…alas).  There is a danger in overuse of superlatives:  if applied indiscriminately, they begin to lose their meaning.  Forgive me if I lose this battle in the following paragraphs.

We begin with the dark key of g-minor, and short phrases of an oboe and violin duet over a lovely basso continuo line.  The choir enters on the opening words of Psalm 130, sometimes in duets, sometimes altogether.  In one arresting moment, on the word “rufe” or “call” Bach stacks the voices in astonishingly close suspensions, intensifying the call for deliverance. The mood and tempo shift as the choir declaims text asking for God to listen to their pleas.  As Smith notes, there’s some evocative melismatic singing on the word “flehens,” translated alternately as pleas or complaints.  At the end of that section, the music morphs into an accompanied bass solo, with the first statements of the chorale sung as a cantus firmus by the soprano section.  The bass questions the Lord, asking if we were to account for our sins, who could stand, and later reflects that forgiveness is from the Lord, which prompts our awe.  In the midst of many repeated phrases by the bass, the sopranos offer a prayer for relief from the burden of our sin.  Where Smith is not wholly convinced by the efficacy of this compositional approach, at least in the hands of the young Bach, I find the cantus firmus pierces the veil of gloom like rays of sunshine through a cloudy sky, particularly when sung with the great sensitivity we’ll be hearing on Tuesday.

Next, at the piece’s center, is a movement of extraordinary text painting.  The choir enters in block chords from which brief vocal cadenzas arise, first from the altos, a repeat from the choir of the block chords, then from the tenors, after which a slow-moving and deeply evocative choral fugue follows.  The theme of the movement is our collective souls waiting on the Lord, and Bach creates a sense of that waiting using suspensions, repeated patterns, and an extremely lyrical oboe obbligato.  There’s an unhurried, yet expectant sense of stillness that pervades the movement.  Then follows an aria for tenor, again with chorale interpolations from the alto section, again, on the theme of waiting for the Lord.

After the tenor aria, we reach the concluding movement, which begins by declaiming in block chords that “Israel hopes in the Lord” three times, each with gathering intensity.  This is followed by a more active moment, as the choir repeats the words “hopes in the Lord,” followed by another section of block chords on the text “for mercy is with the Lord, and much redemption.” After this moment, another fugue begins as the text promises God’s redemption for the faithful.  In this contrapuntal writing, which moves both up and down, to my ear, there seems to be a sense both of God entering the world (in the descending passages) and redeeming it (through the chromatic rising scales).  The fugue eventually evolves into one last homophonic (or chordal) cadence, and ends with movement and decoration between the alto and tenor lines.  Carol Traupman-Carr has a detailed analysis of Cantata 131 on our Bach 101 Page.

Cantata 131 journeys from a kind of despair to redemption – what I find fascinating is that this kind of journey is frequently undertaken in Bach’s music, but he never seems to chart the same musical route. Instead, with the text as his guide, and with his extremely sophisticated theological knowledge, he charts a path for believers, not from a distant remove, or with the prescriptive bromides of the pharisees of his day, but, rather, from the same ground upon which we all trudge, offering us all a sublime path, illuminated by some of the greatest music ever written.  Incredible.

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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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