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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2 Responses to Festival Weekend Two Recap

  1. Karen says:

    I attended the mass both Saturdays this year, and was also able to attend the Friday night concert on the 9th. It’s taken me 2 weeks to clear my head and get back into the swing of “real life”. Sitting in that soaring, yet intimate Packer church, having those waves of beautiful music wash over me; it just defies words. And then, to leave the church, and be surrounded by spring in all its glory in your leafy little city. Heaven! I’ve decided that I will never again attend only 1 weekend of the festival; it’s too painful to wonder (or know) what I’m missing on the weekend I’m not there. I have a dream that one year I find out the names and addresses of people who have loved the festival over the years, but no longer have the independence to get themselves there. I’ll rent a bus, pick them all up, and allow them to experience it once again. And then, when I’m older, someone does the same for me. Until then, count me in for both weekends in early May. Keep up the good work!!!!

    • David Ruhf says:

      Thanks much for your kind words, Karen. Doubtless, our performances evolve over the two weeks of Festival, and, as a singer, it’s often striking how something fairly innocuous (if that’s possible in Bach’s music) can shift to the fore from one weekend to the next. I think if I weren’t singing, I’d join you for the bus project – I often feel the same way. Throughout the entire organization, we care very much about members of the Bach Choir family unable to make the pilgrimage and feel wistful about and diminished by their absence. Hopefully, our recordings and radio and webcasts of other concerts in the season help, but there’s nothing quite like being there, is there? I wholeheartedly endorse your new plan – despite the hectic pace for performers, the Festival brings a lot of intellectual and spiritual order to my mind, which is usually deeply in need of that after a long winter! Thanks for the words of encouragement (the staff is in the midst formalizing the details of many exciting developments for next season), and we’ll be eager to have you back again soon!

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