The 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival: An Overview

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We are nearing the final stages of preparation for the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival, and it’s looking to be a stunner!  The Festival is the culmination of our season, and follows on the heels of the world premiere of our new comic opera composed by Chuck Holdeman, with the libretto by Bill Bly, as well as a delightful performance of Haydn’s epic oratorio, The Creation.  We also enjoyed the last Bach at Noon of the season with exceptional playing and singing of a Mozart horn concerto, and the second half of the Coronation Mass.  What follows, now, is a complete immersion into the genius of Bach, and an opportunity to experience his total grasp of the kaleidoscope of human emotions.  There is literally something for everyone in this year’s Festival programming, and, before I take a look at the individual components, I thought it might be helpful to pan out and look at the Festival as a whole.

For Friday afternoon and evening, Greg Funfgeld has selected, as the uniting thread, the theme of Bach and the Healing Power of Music.   Six of Bach’s most stunning cantatas will be offered, each jewel-like in its intricacy, and each an emotional journey of exceptional depth, empathy, incomparable spirituality, and clarity.  On Friday afternoon, with a reduced choir and more intimate orchestrations,  we will hear a funereal cantata, perhaps unsurpassed in its eloquence (I think in all of western music), speaking directly to the bereaved.  We will journey on a voyage by sea, with the metaphor of the cross at its center.  We will listen to Bach’s using the 130th Psalm as an attempt to cry from the depths  and offer the tonic of redemption with extraordinary creativity.  On Friday evening, the entire choir will assemble with the full Bach Festival Orchestra to present especially vivid music of great zest, whimsy, depth, and, to conclude, the eternal fire and the wellspring of life. There are also opportunities to hear from two scholars in animated discussions of Bach’s music: Michael Marissen in the Distinguished Scholar Lecture, and the wonderful Larry Lipkis offering his take on the music for the Festival in an informal talk coinciding with the buffet dinner in the Asa Packer room.

On Saturday morning, you may elect to either hear one of the great lutenists of our time, Ronn McFarlane,  playing with a wonderful colleague, William Simms, on theorbo, in the intimate setting of the Saal of the Moravian Museum, or a reprise of Young Meister Bach, our new opera.  On Saturday afternoon, the crown of the Festival, our performance of the Mass in B-Minor.  Throughout the Festival, there will be opportunities to socialize, to learn more about the work of The Choir, and to enjoy the delightful beauty of Lehigh University’s mountainside campus in the full bloom of spring.  The two weekends of the Festival promise to be wonderful encounters with some of the most moving and beautiful music ever written, lovingly rendered with expertise and passion by singers and players who do it all “for the love of Bach.”  Among the performers and our wonderful staff, the excitement is palpable.  We so hope you’ll join us!  Check back often for more updates on the music, the process of everything coming together, and previews and wrap-ups of the performances.  If you haven’t already, order your tickets now at the ticket page of The Choir’s website.

 

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Bach (Mozart) @ Noon Wrap-Up

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What a glorious afternoon, as well as a smashing way to conclude this year’s Bach at Noon series!  This year, we explored the confluence of Bach and Mozart with masterful and tantalizing programming by our esteemed conductor, Greg Funfgeld.  It was a study in contrasts, to be sure: a cosmopolitan wonder (who, nevertheless, died a pauper), and Kapellmeister, whose renown was only bestowed in the wider world long after his death.  But, in these two markedly different men, we also hear similarities – they shared a healthy disrespect for church authorities, and found great inspiration in the creeds and languages of their faiths.  It’s been such a treat to flesh out some of the tensions between two towering geniuses over the course of the season, and to ponder and experience both the contrast and similarity.

Today was less of a study of contrast, as the repertoire for this afternoon’s performance was exclusively Mozart.  Tony Cecere, our extremely accomplished principal horn, was on hand for a Mozart concerto.  He gave an extremely engaging introduction to the piece, discussing its provenance, as well as a little bit of biography of the composer and the individual for whom the horn concertos were written, and then played with an exceptional combination of elegance, panache, and bravado.  Our performance of the second half of the Coronation Mass was remarkably fun, and it was a treat to hear some of my colleagues in The Choir do some solo and quartet work.  Beth Allen-Gardner took the soprano solo in the Credo and and was the soprano for the quartet in the same, and sang as beautifully as ever: with a lovely tone and excellent command.  Her colleagues in the quartet also made lovely contributions:  Jennifer Brown Laubach offered a plush and regal alto sound, Kurt Anchorstar sang a lovely and lyrical tenor, and David Umla laid an excellent foundation with his trademarked flawlessness and vigor (I’m extremely lucky sit next to him for most rehearsals).  Shannon Aloise, sang the soprano solo at the beginning of the Agnus Dei (music that was later reworked into the Marriage of Figaro) just so beautifully, and also sang the soprano part in the quartet for the Dona Nobis Pacem.  I should also mention that both Shannon and Jennifer are new to The Choir, this year, and we look forward to their continued contributions to our sound in years to come!  Our colleagues in the orchestra, as always, sounded fantastic, and it was a wonderfully celebratory way to conclude a season of Bach at Noon.

We had well over a hundred school children in the audience for this performance, and I want to congratulate both Tony and, as always, Greg, for their excellent and engaging introductions to the music for today’s performance.  The children, students of The Choir’s Laura Welkey (who provided the picture above from the gallery) and Kurt Anchorstar, were impeccably behaved, and quite attentive.  It’s such a pleasure to share this music with the next generation.

The Choir now sets its sights exclusively on the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival for the coming weeks of rehearsal. We’ve been slowly and carefully learning the billion (or it seems like it) notes of melismatic bliss found in Cantata 19, and it’s been a delight to review the other repertoire.  I’ll be writing about all of that soon. Stay tuned for more reflection on the upcoming festival, and order your tickets now!  You won’t want to miss these performances of some of Bach’s absolute best music!

 

 

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

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Your intrepid blogger has been rather busy of late – apologies for the lateness of this post.  It’s been almost a week since The Choir’s big date with Papa Haydn, and we continue to revel in the afterglow.  The Creation is a piece of which I’ve been aware for years, and I’ve done an excerpt  (the ubiquitous, though deservedly so, The Heavens are Telling) from the oratorio with my church choir for years.  As we learned the choral parts, which, after a steady diet of Bach, aren’t too terribly hard, I my interest in the piece grew.  It reached its zenith during the orchestral rehearsals with the soloists.  The almost peerlessly dynamic text painting, the whimsy and charm, and the sheer dramatic thrust of the work can’t help but win over even the most agnostic listener.  On the challenging heels of the Young Meister BachI must confess, it was nice perform a piece that tends more toward the comfort side of the comfort/challenge matrix.  That’s not at all to give the work short shrift – it’s beyond brilliant, and I now know why it holds such a treasured spot in the repertory.  Many years ago, Phil Metzger reviewed our 2003 performance of the Mozart C-Minor Mass and opined that the effect singing Mozart had on The Choir was akin to being let out to play on a spring day.  Papa’s oratorio had a similar effect.

It also helped that the case for The Creation was made so eloquently by our peerless soloists, our fabulous orchestra, and, perhaps most of all, by our conductor.  Kendra Colton performs classical period repertoire flawlessly, but also with a great deal of charm and whimsy.  Ben Butterfield sang heroically, with great panache, but also great drama.  Dashon Burton sang a performance that will add to the depth of feeling when we all say, “We knew him when!”  Our young Adam and Eve, Trevor Sands and Ellen McAteer, delighted with polish and promise – we can’t wait to see and hear more from them in the future!  The Bach Festival Orchestra owned the score and played with fire, precision, passion, and technical mastery – it was a treat to see them play on a spring day as well!  And, of course, Greg Funfgeld, in a long-coming reprise of his choral/orchestral debut (it was the first such piece he conducted as a young Westminster Choir College grad, in the late 70s), was an eloquent advocate for the piece’s power and charm.  He conducted beautifully, and his vision for the piece animated a performance of which we’re all very proud.  Phil Metzger describes the performance in this very positive review.  The performance was recorded by the great John Baker, and you can listen to a broadcast on Friday, April 25th, beginning at 8 pm on WWFM.  We’ll remind our Facebook friends in advance.

Looking forward, we have Tuesday’s Bach at Noon, including a Mozart Horn Concerto with our fearless principal horn, Anthony Cecere, as soloist, and the second half of the Coronation Mass, which I previewed in an earlier post.  It promises to be a wonderful afternoon of music which may be titled, just this once, “Mozart at Noon!”

Also, there remains the little matter of the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival in what’s been a marvelous season.  As always, the musical bounty will be an embarrassment of riches – incredible cantatas (including a nod to our friend Daniel Lichti, who celebrates the 40th anniversary of his professional debut this year), Young Meister Bach, engaging lectures and talks by scholars Michael Marissen and Larry Lipkis, lutenists Ron McFarlanne and William Simms in the Saal of the Moravian Museum, and the Mass in B-Minor.  This winter was rough – if you’re in need of some springtime healing, you could hardly do better than our annual rite of spring!  I’ll be posting more in the coming weeks – stay tuned!

 

 

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Bach to School

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As an elementary school student, I remember when a dozen instrumentalists from the local orchestra visited to present an assembly.   God bless them, they were probably volunteering their time, and their dedication to musical forms not commonly heard in the households of the students was touching.  But, there was also a faint whiff of apology to their “Aw shucks, classical music can be fun, too” vibe, as though they didn’t entirely believe it themselves.  I recall that the most engaging moment in the presentation was when they played an arrangement of “The Entertainer,” sending the unintended message that ragtime as a precursor to jazz sounds lovely on classical instruments (quite true, no doubt).  If it seems that I’m being hard on these kind souls, that’s not my intention.  I hope to underline how perilously difficult it is to effectively introduce music that remains largely outside the zeitgeist of our youth today to students who may not be in the mood for such an introduction. 

My first experience of the Bach Choir, and Bach’s choral music, was sort of the opposite of that timid introduction.  At a Muskifest concert, 100 singers and 40 players loaded both metaphorical barrels, and BLAM: the Sanctus from the Mass in B-Minor.  It’s no exaggeration to say that it was a life-changing experience.  Many of us who love this music had cathartic epiphanies in our first exposure to it in a live setting, but I suspect that, for many of us, circumstances were just right, and we were likely primed for the experience.  Bach was already my favorite composer, but it had been his keyboard music that beguiled me. I was so excited,  I didn’t sleep well the night before the concert.  I was sure I’d like the music, but I had no idea what I was in for.   I fell in love, to be sure, but maybe I’m an outlier!

Imagine my delight, then, when I volunteered for my first experience singing at a Bach to School program.  The children are exposed to an hour of wonderful music with a variety of colors and textures.  Their experience begins as they assemble in the auditorium.  Greg Funfgeld works the crowd like a seasoned pro, introducing himself to the students with a hand shake and considerable charm as they’re seated.  After a few words of introduction, the Choir, usually around 30-40 volunteers, many of whom take the day off from work to do these programs, bursts into the “Alles was odem” fugue of the great motet, Singet dem Herrn.  Then follows a performance of the first two movements of the Gloria from the Mass in B-Minor, but not without ample introduction.  Greg deconstructs the instrumental and vocal parts, and Larry Wright, our phenomenal principal trumpeter gives an engaging introduction to the instruments of the orchestra.  The students are given something to listen for in the music, and they universally respond with respectful and attentive listening.  We bring a small ensemble of players from the Bach Festival Orchestra, usually one on a part strings, and some of the winds, trumpets, and timpani.  For many of the children, this is their first experience of the choral/orchestral canon, and we proudly make that introduction with very high quality.  That variety of moods I mentioned includes a lovely oboe solo offered by Nobuo Kitagawa, which always leaves the children (and performers) in stunned silence.  We offer a stately performance of Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, which the children usually recognize, and a zesty Ward Swingle arrangement of Sleepers, Wake.  Robin Kani, our principal flute, offers a movement of a flute sonata (slow, faster, fastest – wowing everyone with her virtuosity), accompanied by Greg, and Debbie Davis, our fabulous cellist, and after a Q&A (which often includes insightful, and sometimes just, plain hilarious questions), we sing the concluding movement of a chorale cantata, completely with trumpets and drums.  The program is fantastically paced, and a lot of care, research, and input from educators went into its construction.  Our Kapellemeister always offers engaging and age-appropriate commentary, and makes the music, and equally importantly, the experience of listening to the music, delightfully approachable.  Lesson plans are made available to the students’ teachers prior to the experience, so they might be primed for the assembly.  Afterwards, students are given fliers that entitle them to tickets to our performances throughout the year.  This is done without equivocation, and with honesty about what the children might expect of us, and what we might expect of them.  Greg often mentions that there’s room in their musical lives for Bach, and encourages them to investigate further.  I’ve no doubt that some do, either through taking us up on the offer of tickets, or taking to the internet and YouTube.  Appetites are whetted, and, while not everyone’s life is changed by the experience, what matters to us is that we might open a door to appreciation or more of this music.

In the midst of all of our Young Meister Bach preparations, we offered two days of Bach to School assemblies, the week before last.  On the first day, a nasty ice storm commenced just as third graders in the Bethlehem School District were to bus to Broughal middle school.  The superintendent prudently halted the buses, and we ended up performing for the third graders of Marvine Elementary School, who had beaten the storm.  They were an excellent audience, even if they didn’t exactly fill the auditorium.  Performers then gingerly made our way to Catasauqua Middle School, where we performed for a full house of students of Kurt Anchorstar, a tenor in the choir.  They were enthusiastic and attentive, and the day, despite the logistical nightmares (the ice storm, the collapse of the dolly that transports our priceless Brunzema continuo organ), was a success.

We gathered the next day, “Bach” at Broughal, for a second day of assemblies, this time to a very full house (alas, the organ left one prong of its power cord in Catasauqua, so Bridget George quickly engaged an electrician to repair it before the first concert – never a dull moment, and no seemingly insurmountable logistical problem is big enough to trip her!).  The program was wonderful, and many of the students gave a warm ovation to their teachers, Wendy Borst and Ryan Morrow, both singers in the choir.  After the program, we made our way to Strayer Middle School in Quakertown for an visit that was the highlight of this year’s Bach to School runout.  The students had been exceptionally well prepared by their incredible teacher, Cynthia Teprovich.  We were greeted at the door by costumed students (including Bachian wigs), who offered us printed invitations to Zimmerman’s Coffee House (their choir room) for coffee and treats, following the performance.  We were also greeted with music – their chamber choir, Messa di Voce, offered lovely arrangements of Bist du bei mir, as well as an amusing arrangement of Bach Fugue themes.  Their tone was glorious, their singing obviously well-prepared, and hearing them as we arrived was very moving.  After an acoustical rehearsal, we began the program, and the audience was very excited, enthusiastic, attentive, and amusing.  They asked great questions, and, among them, I saw several students who were visibly touched by the music and the performance. One may reliably expect a variety of reactions, ranging from yawns to delight.  It’s so rewarding, then, to look out into the audience and see students experiencing some of the captivation that felt the first time I heard the Bach Choir. We enjoyed some treats, afterward, and returned to our busy lives, doubtlessly uplifted by the wonderful reception at Strayer.

Later in the afternoon of our first day of Bach to School performances, some of us attended the meeting of the Choir’s Board of Managers, and bass Jim Rowland reflected on the powerful nature of the experience of singing for the students from Marvine – perhaps the school in the Bethlehem School District that might benefit the most from such an experience.  A fair portion of the The Choir’s financial support from foundations, including the National Endowment for the Arts, is earmarked for our award-winning educational outreach programs, of which Bach to School plays such a large and important role.  I think the importance of this program is best summed up by Cynthia Teprovich, the wonderful teacher from Strayer Middle School, who kindly gave me permission to share her thanks to the organization on this blog:

Dear Greg, Bethlehem Bach Choir and Orchestra,

Thank you for giving of your time, talents, and treasure to educate young people. Yes– you, the members of the “Bach to School” choir and orchestra are a treasure.  You and I may never see the long term results that may happen in the student’s lives due to presenting your “Bach to School” program, but I can tell you about the short term results that have happen at R. E. Strayer Middle School since your presentation on February 20th that to me, are worth gold.

 First, the students were not coached to give you a spontaneous standing ovation, and further more we do not have regular assemblies. In fact this was the first multi-grade level assembly for our students this school year. The students recognized from their hearts that you truly deserved a standing ovation. I actually felt that energy from them as they spontaneously rose to their feet.  I am so proud of my students. Thank you for inspiring that in our young people’s hearts.

 Second, after summing it all up on Friday, all of the students agreed that hearing a live choir and a live orchestra is by far so much better that hearing the recording or even hearing it on You Tube. They were, in their own words, “moved emotionally.”

 Third, you inspired them to do some research via You Tube and Google, and they did it!  Bravo to Greg Funfgeld!   You’re going to love this one. An 8th grade girl decided to look up the meaning of “Funfgeld,” and she just could not wait to tell everyone in chorus class that she found it. The meaning she said is “five money.”  It was unanimous from the choral students and from their choral director that Greg is worth far more than five.

We experienced a historic musical-vortex that came down to Quakertown from Bethlehem. I am saying that it was historic because history was made in our auditorium, as Greg mentioned, when you performed the “Gloria” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and I am so proud to be the choral director at Strayer when it happened.  And we successfully managed to schedule your outstanding inter-active performance between our historic polar-vortexes that we have been experiencing this winter.  Every teacher in the audience noticed the multiple uses of student engagement strategies that were successfully employed to make your presentation inter-active.  -Another bravo!

 The students received their cards for the 2 Free Tickets to a Bach Choir Concert. Thank you for providing that opportunity.  I look forward to seeing you all again this Saturday at the Young Meister Bach opera.  The newspaper review that hit our Sunday paper was outstanding. I cannot wait to see this opera. See you soon.

Most Sincerely,

Cynthia Teprovich

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Young Meister Bach Wrap Up

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It’s not entirely accurate to call this a wrap up, as there remain two performances of Young Meister Bach in our season, at the 2014 Bethlehem Bach Festival, but now the young Meister is going to take a well-deserved nap until May.  We completed the weekend with two performances of the one-act opera in two vastly different settings:  in the capacious Baker Hall at the Zoellner Arts Center of Lehigh University, and in the intimate auditorium of the German Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and, in doing so, we learned that YMB takes very well to the road!  The Family Concert on Saturday was very well-attended and everyone seemed to have a good time.  Greg’s introduction to opera was very well-considered, and set the stage for the exuberant performance to follow.  Steve Siegel has an excellent review up on the Lehigh Valley Music Blog of the Morning Call.  Choir members had to stand for the entire performance in Philadelphia, but, our placement afforded us much better view of the cast, and it was a treat to see what splendid actors they are, in addition to their excellent singing.  It was also a very intimate way to experience the orchestra, and we finally got to actually see Tom Goeman alternating between harpsichord and continuo organ to work his unbelievably dexterous magic.  Both audiences gave Chuck Holdeman and Bill Bly, composer and librettist, respectively, a warm ovation.

I must give hearty my congratulations to everyone involved – Christopher Schorr made an excellent director, his production staff was wonderful, particularly Emma Chong, who kept the whole enterprise on task with a firm hand and good humor. The Bach Choir family already knows and loves Leslie Johnson, who played Maria Barbara (and who is the daughter of an extremely proud member of the Choir, tenor Everett Johnson), and we’ve been treated to Stephen Ng’s gorgeously lyrical tenor before at Bach at Noon.   We’re delighted to have made the acquaintance of Jeffrey Chapman, who played the young Meister, and an especially ardent tip of the hat is due to Brian Ming Chu, whose agility in both character and costume gave great pleasure (not to mention his colorful singing). Big kudos to my colleagues in The Choir, who were featured ensemble performers:  Beth Allen-Gardner and Shannon Aloise, who both sang beautifully as soloists, and Wendy Borst, Stacy Gabel, Christina Lamonica, Grace Spruiell-Hochella, David Umla, Todd Fennel, and Bill Bly.  They had responsibilities with quick scene changes, and had to sing a folk tune while in various states of acted inebriation (and did marvelously, I’d add!) We’re also grateful to the German Society of Pennsylvania for hosting our Philadelphia performance – we received a very warm and gracious welcome, and it was a treat to rest in their opulent library.  Also a tip of the hat to Executive Director Bridget George and our administrative staff for their brilliant work keeping on top of the logistics and for their nurture in bringing all of this to life, and, of course, to Greg Funfgeld, for birthing another great commissioned work with his trademarked excitement, musical excellence, preternatural calm, patience, and love.  If you missed it, take heart, there are two more performances in May!

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Countdown to Young Meister Bach – Friday Edition

IMG_3146Above, a shot from the choir of Maria Barbara and Young Meister Bach.  Your intrepid blogger took this photo at some risk, and may have inadvertently aroused some gentle ire from our director, Christopher Schorr (whose staging is brilliant, and whose spirit is generous)!  We had two complete run-throughs of the opera this evening, with the performance making huge gains with each passing moment.  The more I see and hear how everything is coming together, the greater my admiration for our composer, Chuck Holdeman, and our librettist, Bill Bly.  It’s a really good time, and should have rewards for audience members of all ages and concert-going experience.  For the newbies, the story itself, and the inventive staging, replete with high drama, will surely engage.  For opera fans, there’s some marvelous solo and ensemble singing from our soloists and a small ensemble from The Choir.  For seasoned Bachians, the challenge and delight will be to listen carefully for the multiplicity of allusions to Bach compositions.  I suspect many in the audience tomorrow will take advantage of the additional opportunities to see the opera again at the Festival in May.

It’s very apparent that Chuck’s experience as our principal bassoonist has allowed decades of music-making in the Bach Festival Orchestra to seep into his compositional being, and, with every listen, I find more to marvel at in the way he incorporates themes from all over the Bach canon (with other nods to as wide a variety of composers from Joplin to Bernstein).  I also can’t help but chuckle the way he’s cast himself as a sort of leitmotif for Geyersbach, Bach’s principal adversary in the opera.  One hears faint wisps of the insane (in the best sense) bassoon part in Cantata 150, which, according to suppositions of several scholars and conductors, might have been written to tweak Geyersbach.  The part is virtuosic, and nothing like it really appears elsewhere in Bach’s corpus.  There’s also brilliantly inventive writing for all sections of the orchestra, and quotes of the E-Major Violin Partita, the rhapsodically beautiful aria from the center of Cantata 82 (the title of which is cleverly included in the libretto, elsewhere), Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, from Cantata 147, which is fashioned into an early Bach compositional sketch and then is developed into a basso continuo part.  These allusions abound, and will reward thoughtful listeners with their musical sparkle.

Please join us – the doors will open at 2:30, and there will be plenty of general admission seats available – Zoellner is a big hall!  I think the world premiere of a new opera is a grand occasion, and I think everyone’s in for a wonderful afternoon of discovery, delight, and quite a lot of fun!

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Countdown to Young Meister Bach – Thursday Update

IMG_3142Above is the view from the house for tonight’s first run-through of Young Meister Bach, the one-act comic opera that’s on the program for our 2014 Family Concert, this coming Saturday.  The cast and orchestra have been rehearsing today, and, this evening, The Choir joined them for a grueling and rewarding three hour rehearsal.  A LOT of details have to come together in these rehearsals, especially with the added elements of staging, lighting, balancing soloists, orchestra and chorus, as well as some moving of sets, and orchestration of the interaction between all the various singers and players.

At the helm, our fearless leader, Greg Funfgeld, is doing a wonderful job.  Somehow, in high stress situations, he draws on impressive reserves of patience and calm.  In his more than capable hands, this music is coming to life in a very compelling, exciting way.  Our colleagues in the orchestra are tackling a very challenging score with enormous aplomb.  I think everyone would join me in giving our resident keyboard genius, Tom Goeman, a hearty bravo for the extraordinary work he’s doing from the harpsichord and organ.  The basso continuo is the glue holding the musical component of this enterprise together, and Tom and his continuo colleagues are playing brilliantly.  Lastly, a huge tip of the hat to Chuck Holdeman and Bill Bly, for their exceptional work as composer and librettist, respectively.  Chuck’s neo-Bachian compositional language (fused with ragtime, what sounds a bit like mariachi in places, and some lovely French influences) is brimming over with wit, zest, contrapuntal mastery (as well as a great deal of fun), and his writing marries beautifully with Bill’s wonderful texts.  Our vocal soloists are doing a fantastic job, and The Choir sounded wonderful from the house (I wasn’t able to sing tonight because I’m recovering from the dreaded stomach bug, but I’m looking forward to singing at tomorrow night’s rehearsal, and in the performances).

You really don’t want to miss this fantastic work – there’s still time to call the office for tickets, and it’s quite likely tickets will be available at the door.  Stay tuned for another update tomorrow night!

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