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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Wednesday Update

Tragicus

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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