Christmas Concerts 2015 Wrap-Up

Photo Credit:  Charles Lutte

Photo Credit: Charles Lutte

There is a danger, among seasoned concertgoers, of become complacent about hearing familiar repertoire another time.  I faced this earlier this fall, after hearing the Allentown Symphony’s satisfying performance of excerpts of Stravinsky’s Firebird.  A smaller, less pyrotechnic bird keep chirping in my ear to get tickets to see Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra perform the same a few weeks later in New York.  “How many Firebirds do you need to hear in a month?” reason queried.  “Gergiev!  London!  Could be exciting!” the little bird replied.  In the end, I took the plunge, and was rewarded with one of the most exciting orchestral concerts of my life.

It had been ten years since we’ve done the first three cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio, and, while I’m very fond of the piece, I thought to myself, “at least this will be an easy fall.” And, in a sense, it was easier than were we to have been learning new music, but, at the same time, the Oratorio is no walk in the park:  there are the trills and upper neighbor tones of the opening chorus, the crazy melismas of “Ehre sei der Gott,” the tricky text underlay of the turba choruses. It was more rewarding than I expected to revisit this music with a choir full of new members and some older members new to this music, and to see Greg Funfgeld make an exceptionally persuasive case for his interpretation of the piece over the weeks of rehearsal.  At the end of that process, feeling well-prepared, and feeling a little drained by the busy season, I thought to myself, again, “at least these will be easy concerts.”  From the opening moments of our orchestral rehearsal, I found myself falling in love with the Christmas Oratorio all over again!

It certainly helps that our orchestral colleagues were doing such a dynamite job with the music (especially the challenging 32nd notes in the opening chorus), and that we had an exceptionally good quartet of soloists, and certainly The Choir felt well-prepared, and there was a very cheerful and expectant vibe from our audiences in both Allentown and Bethlehem.  One friend, a longtime guarantor from Philadelphia (who has been coming to Festival since the ’60s), wrote to me after the concert, “Terrific concert – my goodness!”  A writer from New York’s Lucid Culture blog certainly seemed to get what makes Bach in Bethlehem so special in a wonderful post.  Word of mouth and social media brought assessment from two honest brokers, both of whom asserted that “The Choir’s never sounded better!”  With 15 years of experience in The Choir, it’s lovely to be reminded, not only how important these experiences are to singers, but to friends, family, and the general public, as well.  I’m pleased to report that we sold out the Bethlehem concert, and that we had a very healthy attendance in Allentown.  All told, over 1,200 patrons attended these concerts.

The theme for this season, “Bach at the Heart,” was chosen for many reasons, one of which was to remind the public that Bach’s music, however intellectually and technically accomplished, came from the heart of an extraordinary human being, and that we who are so privileged to perform his music put a lot of our heart and soul into it, as well.  The writer of the Lucid Culture post wrote, “An unselfconscious joy and optimism radiated from the stage to the crowd… a sleekly detailed, confidently interwoven celebration of the triumph of the human spirit, Teutonic 18th century style. That’s exactly how this group delivered it, letting their enthusiasm shine through its endless series of interchanges without getting carried away.”

A few highlights come to mind:  Isaiah Bell’s utterly elegant and not-at-all-self-aggrandizing 32nd note runs in his aria, Frohe Hirten were absolutely astounding (as was Robin Kani’s marvelous fluting on the same).  The radiant joy and ebullient charm of Ellen McAteer and David Newman in their duet, Herr, Dein Mitlied, was elevating and beguiling.  As always, Daniel Taylor brought beautiful color and spiritual gravity to his singing.  The instrumental contributions of Elizabeth Field, Mary Watt, Nobuo Kitagawa, Gerald Serfass, Robin and Linda Ganus, and so many others brought so much color and zest to the proceedings.  As always, Greg lead with a steady and communicative hand, and his exhortation to the Bethlehem audience (and indirectly, to the performers) to imagine hearing this piece for the first time in 1734 set the stage marvelously for the music to follow.

If you weren’t able to attend, take heart – WWFM will be rebroadcasting the concert on Christmas night.

Next, we turn our attention to the Family Concert, which will feature collaborations with young singers in four area ensembles, and the iconic St. John Passion, which we’ll offer in a rare, Palm Sunday performance.  Stay tuned for more information about those concerts – they promise to be exceptionally rewarding!



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Gala Wrap-Up


Above is the Bach Collegium Japan, following their performance of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto.  If you look to the far right, you’ll see their trumpeter, Guy Ferber, holding what I thought looked like a Christmas tree ornament.  In fact, it’s a coiled natural trumpet, which Guy played to amazing affect.  I’ve never heard one in person, and when I saw him take the stage, I began to worry – they’re fiendishly difficult to play, and most fans of early music sort of accept that the accuracy to which we’re accustomed on modern instruments is a bit of a moving target for players of their forbearers, one of whom is represented below, holding a coiled instrument.  The portrait is actually Haussmann’s famous portrait of Gottfried Reiche, Bach’s trumpeter.


If Reiche’s abilities were renowned in Bach’s time, then Guy’s amazing playing should surely be equally famous in ours.  In fact, Greg Funfgeld approached Guy after the concert and said, “You’re our Reiche!”  Guy demurred, but there was much admiration for his playing, both on the Brandenburg, and the thrilling obbligato in Cantata 51, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen.  The man has nerves of steel, and his accuracy, particularly on such a challenging instrument, was more than admirable.   The Brandenburgs are actually a collection of concerti grossi, and the second includes a quartet of soloists:  trumpet, oboe, recorder, and violin. The contributions from Guy’s colleagues – Masamitsu San’nomiya on oboe, Andreas Böhlen on recorder, and Ryo Terakado on violin – were equally thrilling.  It was also interesting to hear the trumpet at a level of dynamism that complimented the other instruments.  One is usually accustomed to hearing the trumpet as a kind of first, even among equals.  In this performance, the most egalitarian Second Brandenburg I’ve ever heard, the dialogues between the instruments had far greater clarity than is usual, and I was grateful to hear the lines of counterpoint rendered with such proportionality.  The performance also put the audience on warning – we were in for a spectacular night of music making.

Andreas Böhlen’s performance of Vivaldi’s Concerto in C Major, RV 443 for recorder followed the Bach, and so dexterous, so exciting was his playing, that the audience was soon on its feet at the conclusion.  If you take a gander at Vivaldi’s manuscript below, you can see why:


The solo part (the top line) is extremely fierce, and Andreas pulled it off with a thrilling combination of lightning speed and stunning musicality.  He had excellent support from his colleagues in the BCJ – they played with fire appropriate to the Red Priest’s zesty music.

At this point, I was wondering how the concert could get any better, and then the stellar British soprano, Joanne Lunn, took the stage to offer Händel’s recently-discovered Gloria in B-flat Major.  I can no longer claim any objectivity about Ms. Lunn – I have long admired her on recording, and was rapt to hear her live.  On recordings, sight unseen, she conveys a rare warmth in this repertoire, and, in person, she was radiant.  Her declamation of text, in Latin or German, demonstrates a keen understanding of not just the principles of diction, but how excellent diction can convey a depth of meaning when employed with great artistry.  Her handling of the melismatic passages and coloratura elements in the Händel (pun only partly intended) was impeccable, but the joy and warmth of her singing in person took things even further over the top.  Brava!


(Confession:  I encountered Joanne after the concert, on my way to have a few words with our fearless leader.  I fairly stammered some praise, and she was exceedingly gracious and kind, and full of the warmth that is her musical trademark.  I hope we can have her back to Bethlehem again!)

I had the opportunity to visit with several colleagues and friends during intermission, and the consensus was one of near-disbelief.  The instrumental ensemble was made up of one player on a part, but the gut strings under less tension than modern instruments made for a slightly more quiet, but very rich, sound.  The artistry I alluded to in my preview for the performance was on great display, and watching the blistering technique, and hearing the stunning array of colors was quite a treat.

The second half of the concert began in a more introspective tone, but the change of energy was most welcome.  Kiyomi Suga offered Bach’s Flute Sonata in E Minor, BWV 1034, with Maestro Suzuki at the harpsichord, and the wonderful Emmanuel Balssa offering continuo support from his beautiful ‘cello.  The color of a baroque flauto traverso has a slightly breathy quality, and there’s a remarkable (and to my ear) extremely desirable rusticity in the varieties in the onset of the instrument’s sound.  Ms. Suga’s playing had such intellectual and spiritual depth in the slower movements, and she was admirably dexterous in the quicker stuff.  The reduced orchestration gave the audience and some of the players a breather, and we were wowed by Kiyomi’s consummate artistry.

The concert began building to the fireworks of its closing with another Vivaldi Concerto, this time featuring Masamitsu San’nomiya’s glorious playing on the Concerto in C Major, RV 450. Gone are the quacky baroque oboes from the early days of the period instruments movement (and God bless those pioneers!).  Masamitsu’s total mastery of the instrument fuses the accuracy of modern instruments players with the color and quirks of the baroque instrument.  Again with the amazing dexterity, again with the humbling musicality. The performance was a tour-de-force.

Who wouldn’t want to hear Joanne Lunn and Guy Ferber play musical tag (as someone brilliantly wrote in our promotions for this concert) in Bach’s virtuosic cantata, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51?  Theirs was (again) a thrilling performance – melismatic bliss, deep devotion, a race to the rhapsodic top Cs, etc!  Joanne’s Höchster, mache deine Güte, the third movement, was full of passion and impossibly elegant phrasing.  The duetting violins of Ryo Terakado and Cynthia Roberts in the fourth movement provided a rock-solid foundation for Joanne’s pitch-perfect floating of the doxological cantus firmus, and then the whole ensemble launched into overdrive with the precision and euphoric woosh of an Italian sports car.  I was particularly delighted to have a sense of both the arch intricacy and the dramatic sweep of this movement.  And the joy, which cannot be overstated.  We were treated to the wonderful concluding movement of Cantata 199, a sprightly and succinct aria, to allow us a few moments of afterglow, as an encore.

I have thus far mentioned everyone in the ensemble except the violinist, Yuki Yamaguchi, the violist, Mika Akiha, and the bassist, Frank Coppieters, because they didn’t have any solos.  What they did offer, however, was achingly beautiful and archly competent playing on everything in the program that required them.  The flawless intonation, the sympathetic phrasing, and the sheer artistry of their work was greatly admired and appreciated.

Finally, a few words about Masaaki Suzuki, one of my musical heroes, and the leader of this intrepid ensemble.  He is one of our most cerebral and spiritually and intellectually accomplished Bach interpreters, and one of our rare practitioners who combines thorough scholarship with total musical mastery.  One might expect that this would make for a serious or grave package, and yet, Suzuki’s is a quiet, charming, and whimsical presence.  In the performances, he led with small gestures, a sympathetic breath, or a nod, and was eager to hand the spotlight to his immensely talented colleagues.  But, make no mistake, the animating spark of the musical pyrotechnics of this performance comes clearly from this learned and richly accomplished man.  Many thanks to our friends from the Bach Collegium Japan for a night of inspiration and joy.

I understand that the swanky party that followed was a grand success, and I’m guessing that we hit all of our goals for attendance and tickets sold – there was a pretty full house.  We sat near some high school students who were able to see some of the rehearsal (and who had rehearsed earlier, themselves, for their participation in our Family Concert, which will be a festival of youth choirs, of sorts), and it was edifying to see their delight at these reference performances of this music.  In a sense, we’re doing all this for them – the Gala benefits our ambitious educational outreach program, of which they’re a big part!


Next up:  Bach at Noon, this coming Tuesday, November 10th, also at Central Moravian Church.  On tap:  the Bach Choir premiere of Bach’s Flute Sonata in A Major, BWV 1032, featuring our own accomplished Kapellemeister, Greg Funfgeld, and the always-wonderful Robin Kani on flute.  The choral selection will be Bach’s exuberant cantata, Es ist dir gesacht, BWV 45, in a reprise from The Choir’s Bach at 4 performance at the Festival, this past May.  I won’t be singing, but I know that the singers’ mastery of this piece is hard-won.  It’s a thrill to hear, and quite nettlesome to sing.  They worked really hard to master it, and sounded in especially fine form at our last rehearsal.  As always, plan to arrive early to ensure a good seat.  The doors will open at 11:30 am.

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The Bach Collegium Japan in the News

BJC Masaaki Suzuki Frauenkirche Dresden 15 november 2008 photo: Marco Borggreve

BJC Masaaki Suzuki Frauenkirche Dresden 15 november 2008
photo: Marco Borggreve

As our Gala artists make their way east, I thought it might stir up a little excitement to compile press about the tour, with a few annotations.  Remember that the Bach Collegium Japan, under the inspired direction of Masaaki Suzuki, will be performing in Bethlehem, at the Central Moravian Church at the intersection of Church and Main Streets on Saturday, November 7th, beginning at 4 pm.  For benefactors, a swanky dinner with a wonderful auction will follow at the Hotel Bethlehem (if I had deeper pockets, I’d bid on a trip to Manhattan to see Otello at the Met, complete with car service from the Lehigh Valley!).  Information about the auction is available here, and information about tickets is here.  I will continue to update this post, as more buzz makes its way to our neighborhood.

Omar Willey of the Seattle Star has a lengthy review of the BCJ’s tour opener at Town Hall in Seattle.  I get the sense that maybe he doesn’t attend a lot of early music performances, but he has glowing things to say about this concert.

Stephen Raskauskas of WFMT in Chicago has Masaaki Suzuki’s 8 Tips to Better Your Bach on that station’s blogs.  It’s an insightful discussion of how Suzuki approaches performance practice through the lens of expression.  Singers:  take note of his excellent thoughts on vibrato (they may surprise you!).

Mark Swed, the inimitable classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times has a review (a rare gush, actually) of Sunday’s performance in LA at Frank Gehry’s stunning Walt Disney Concert Hall (they’ll be playing the identical program here in Bethlehem).  His quibble about not being able to hear Suzuki’s harpsichord won’t be an issue in the splendid and intimate acoustics of Central Moravian.  He describe Joanne Lunn’s voice as “contagiously vibrant,” which seems just about right, and makes note of Suzuki’s whimsical cool:

“Suzuki is a cool customer with long, straight white hair who exudes a priest-like air when he leads his players from the harpsichord. His approach is that of a chamber music leader. He doesn’t conduct. But he is clearly in charge.

There is similar cucumber coolness to the players as well. But that only makes their virtuosity all the more memorable, especially when the disarmingly sly Suzuki pushes them almost to edge while hardly seeming to move.”

Jane Dunlap Norris has this nice interview with Masaaki about the other program they’re offering on the tour (the personnel is all the same) in the Charlottesville Daily Progress.

Don Dagenais has this cheerful review up on I like his title: “Bach and Suzuki: Perfect Pair.

The Valley’s own Steve Siegel has an excellent preview of Saturday’s concert up at the Morning Call’s website.  He scores some more Suzuki wisdom-bombs – we love it when he previews our events!

Charles T. Downey bills the BCJ’s performance at the Library of Congress a “Triumphant Return” in the Washington Post.  Our conductor, Greg Funfgeld, heard from some friends at the performance who said that the audience was completely rapt throughout the concert.  I’m especially glad to see one of my soprano heroines, the remarkable Joanne Lunn, receive some love from the critic, who praised her vocal pyrotechnics and her “limpid clarity and sensitive phrasing.”  Word on the early music street also holds that Andreas Böhlen, who will be playing recorder for a Vivaldi concerto, set the audience on fire with his dexterous and virtuosic playing.

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Gala Concert 2015: The Bach Collegium Japan, November 7, 4 PM

Masaaki Suzuki photo: Marco Borggreve

Masaaki Suzuki
photo: Marco Borggreve

Some time ago, Bridget George, our fabulous Executive Director, mentioned that she was in negotiations to for us to host the Bach Collegium Japan for the 2015 Gala Concert, deeply gladdening my heart.  Then she mentioned that they would be touring with the exceptional English soprano, Joanne Lunn, and I’m fairly certain my reaction was over the top (there may have been squeaks of delight).  The joining of these forces promises an experience that will delight connoisseurs and newcomers to the repertoire, alike.

Under the leadership of Maasaki Suzuki, the musicians of the BCJ have a richly-deserved reputation as some of the premiere Bach interpreters of our time, and their concerts are reliably revelatory.  They recently celebrated a significant milestone with the release of the last volume of their epic project to record all of Bach’s existing cantatas, which puts them in the company of only a handful of ensembles who have succeeded in reaching this most estimable goal.  One such ensemble is the Amsterdam Baroque Choir and Orchestra, under the direction of one of Suzuki’s principal teachers, the Dutch master, Ton Koopman. As such, there is more than a slight family resemblance in their recordings: both conductors produce performances that are impossibly elegant, full of polish and panache, and a level of instrumental accuracy from period instruments that equals that of their modern instruments counterparts (this will definitely come into play in my discussion of the repertoire).  Where Suzuki excels in a crowded field of advanced Bach interpreters is his grasp of the theological underpinning of Bach’s music, and his ability to evoke performances from his players and singers that communicate this understanding rather directly.  This may sound esoteric, but I defy you to hear the BCJ and not feel the result of Suzuki’s artistic and theological empathy.

I need to don my High Fidelity-style choral geek’s hat for a moment to discuss the recordings (feel free to skip to the next paragraph, if you like…) If you have Spotify or Apple Music, I strongly encourage you to comb their libraries for the BCJ’s excellent work.  They’re recorded by the Swedish boutique label, BIS Records, and the engineering and sound quality are as fantastic as the performances (another plus is that the BCJ records in very generous acoustics). These are probably the gold standard for audiophiles.  I’m waiting for the complete cantatas to be released in an anthology, before procuring them all, but I have countless individual tracks purchased from iTunes.  You’ll recognize at least one name from the Bach Choir family: our dear friend, the countertenor Daniel Taylor has recorded with the BCJ (his performance of the zippy duet, Wer Eilen mit Schwachen from Cantata BWV 78 is about as good as it gets). Likewise, the ensemble’s performance of the opening chorus of Cantata BWV 75, Die Elenden sollen essen, to my ear represents a rare combination of musical, sonic, and spiritual perfection.  Beginning around 3:27 into the chorus, the choir enters a sequence that includes a leap of a sixth.  In turn, the lower three voice parts sing a minor sixth, and then the soprano section makes a leap of a major sixth, which pivots the proceedings, for a moment, into a music of the spheres kind of moment – sunshine bursting through for only a moment on a cloudy day, making the brightness all the more achingly beautiful. Such moments bear the temptation to underline the text painting (the singers are illustrating the word “forever” with the leap) with extra articulation or an accent, but Suzuki and his forces show extraordinary restraint, and allow Bach’s compositional power to speak for itself, with what feels like a complete sublimation of their musical egos, all in service to this stunning music.   It’s not a flashy moment, just everything is absolutely as it’s supposed to be, in every possible way.

Having long admired them on recordings, I was nevertheless unprepared for the depth of their artistry in person, when we hosted them for our Gala Concert in the mid ‘aughts.  One critic quipped that just to watch them tune was worth the price of admission.  We chuckle, but, honestly, she was pretty much on the mark!  I recall watching the continuo players hold what’s called a pedal point – a long-held bass note, in the Second Orchestral Suite.  Whereas most players would hold the tone by changing bow directions more than once for the duration of the note, the BCJ players measured out precisely how much bow and how much pressure would be needed to do it with only one pass of the bow.  Again, this may seem like esoterica to read about, but the artistry and craft in the physicality of their playing yields dividends in the sound and impact of the ensemble.

The program will begin with Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1047.  This concerto includes spectacularly difficult music for trumpet, made all the more thrilling by the use of a baroque trumpet (the kind in use before brass instruments had valves).  Guy Ferber, the soloist, is one of a few individuals (in the world) who have complete mastery of this challenging instrument, and I’m very excited to hear him in person, after admiring his playing for many years on recordings by most of the shining lights in early music. It would definitely be easier to play this concerto (though, still devilishly hard) on a modern piccolo trumpet, but the volume and scale of the earlier trumpets make them ideal duetting partners, and, when played well (as Guy surely will), they add a burnished color to instrumental ensembles who make use of them.  Also on the program are concerti by Vivaldi, a sonata by Bach, and two vocal works.  The first, a setting of the Gloria by Händel, was only recently discovered, in 2001.  The second is Bach’s virtuosic cantata, Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, which is quite a romp for soprano and trumpet soloists.  We’ll delight in hearing Guy put his trumpet through its paces, and in hearing Joanne Lunn, an artist of pleasing warmth and stunning virtuosity offer this tour de force.  We first came to admire her singing on recordings from John Eliot Gardiner’s Bach Cantata Pilgrimage in 2000.  A few Christmases ago, her singing on a few of the arias from Bach’s Advent cantatas was in heavy rotation in my Advent playlist, and we’ve followed her career, ever since.  It’s such a thrill to finally get to hear her in person.

The Gala Concert supports our award-winning educational outreach programs, with funding for Bach at Noon, Bach to School, our Family Concert, and our Choral Scholars program.  The Choir is extremely generous with these initiatives.  We believe passionately in giving students and the community the opportunity to make contact with Bach, to hear choral/orchestral performances in their schools, and to make Bach’s music understandable and accessible for future fans (and singers) through a broad range of programs.  As such, the purchase of a ticket entitles you to an extremely rewarding concert (other venues on this tour include the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and Carnegie Hall in Manhattan – we’re delighted to be among such an august group of presenters), as well as the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping to maintain our organization’s reach to students whose imagination is often sparked by their encounters with our beloved JSB.  For more information about this concert, including links to purchase tickets, please click here.

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October Bach at Noon

Tom Goeman and Rosa Lamoreaux

Tom Goeman and Rosa Lamoreaux

The October Bach at Noon will feature two titans of the Bach Choir Family, Tom Goeman, our fabulous assistant conductor, rehearsal accompanist, and organist, and Rosa Lamoreaux, one of our favorite soloists, and an exceedingly generous friend of the organization.

The program will begin with Tom’s performance of Bach’s cerebral and intense Passacaglia and Fugue in C-Minor, BWV582, for organ.  Tom will doubtless put Central Moravian Church’s Möller/Walker instrument through its paces – the P&F is an utter tour de force for performer and listener alike. A passacaglia is a compositional form that most often is a series of variations over a ground bass, or repeated bass line.  If you attended the Saturday morning orchestral concert at the Bethlehem Bach Festival last May, you may recall the work of the Bach Chaconne Project, in which talented student musicians improvised variations over the bass line of Bach’s Chaconne for violin (which was played so rivetingly by Caroline Goulding in the first week, and Elizabeth Field in the second). The construction of a passacaglia is similar to that of a chaconne. Tom will offer Bach’s exploration of the colors and harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of this compositional form extended to the organ.  The repetition of the bass line accustoms listeners to the harmonic foundation of the piece, which brings the sheer virtuosity of composer and performer in bolder relief as the variations evolve and become evermore intense and complex.  Bach then continues in the C-Minor vein with an active and dexterous fugue, which moves swiftly, with complex chromatic harmony in places, and a thrilling fugue theme, which volleys between hands and feet several times through the piece.  Tom’s renowned articulation and deep grasp of the musical building blocks of pieces of this complexity will make for an exciting and satisfying performance.

Greg Funfgeld has paired the Passacaglia with a solo cantata for soprano that will match the organ work’s complexity and variety of vocal and orchestral colors.  We’re delighted that Rosa will sing this piece, with which she and the Bach Festival Orchestra have had a long and distinguished history, including a performance of the work on our 2003 UK tour.  Rosa owns this piece – her performances are filled with great insight and beauty, and it’s extremely gratifying to give her the spotlight for a Bach at Noon.

This cantata has the charming title, Mein Herz Schwimmt im Blut, or My heart swims in blood, and there’s no getting around the fact that the text, written by Georg Christian Lehms is one of the more self-flagellating items in Bach’s œuvre.  In fact, the late, great Craig Smith, of Emmanuel Music in Boston wrote about it:  “Of all of his texts, the one for BWV 199 is perhaps the bloodiest. This is one of those texts that, if it weren’t set with such penetration and sincerity that one could not take it seriously. It has, however, generated one of the great Bach cantatas that is almost unique in its intensity and passion.” It was composed while Bach was serving in Weimar, and received its first performance in August of 1714.

The cantata’s theme is a lengthy exploration of repentance, and ends joyfully with the release of forgiveness.  If the text makes it seem like a hard sell, I want to assure you that, for all the nearly operatic contrition, Bach redeems the poetry with music of extraordinary creativity and empathy.  The work begins with a recitativo accompagnato, with the words offered in the rhythm of speech, accompanied by the orchestra.  I won’t include the complete translation of the first movement, but mention is made of a dessicated heart, the hangman of hell, and, at one point, the penitent refers to herself as a monster.  Clearly, Lehms was the life of the party!

The second movement is an aria and recitative of extraordinary beauty for soprano, oboe, and continuo, again on the theme of penitence.  Then a follows another recitative, and a beautiful aria for strings and soprano, which begins to add an atmosphere of grace to the proceedings with a beautiful plea for God’s patience.  This kind of aria, where Bach pivots from tortured penitence to the anticipation of the grace of forgiveness, is one of his specialities.  To my ear, this aria, Tief gebückt und voller Reue, is filled with autumnal light (or maybe it’s just projection after a rainy fall day).  We can expect a transfixing performance by Rosa, Greg, and the Bach Festival Orchestra.

The cantata continues with another pivot – a brief recitative sets up a beautiful chorale setting for cello solo and continuo as the soprano floats the melody of the hymn, Wo soll ich fliehen hin, over the proceedings.  Another recit follows, and then the clouds part once and for all in forgiveness, with an extremely succinct but joyful aria, in which the soprano and oboe share in a fleet dance of bliss.

So many of Bach’s cantatas can be seen as spiritual and exegetical journeys, and what’s fascinating about Cantata 199, with its dour text (to say the least) is how Bach redeems the  anguished self-reproach that was so fashionable in his lifetime with music that polishes the jagged contours of the poetry.  He doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of the challenging sentiments contained therein, but seems to cast them in a spirit of rich empathy, which offers healing and grace, even in the darkest moments.  Plan to arrive around 11:30, when the doors open at Central Moravian Church, to be sure of a good seat!

In other news, The Choir had its first rehearsal of the season this past Monday, and it was great to be among our colleagues again.  The festivities of May seem a distant memory, and it’s especially rewarding to dig in to some of the challenge works on tap for this season.  We began with Händel’s Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest, and it was extremely heartening to see the faces of this years choral scholars as they heard the Bach Choir’s 90 singers wrapped around them as we sang the thrilling opening of the piece.  The joy and wonder of that moment was followed by a slight panic as we moved on to the swift melismas of the second section (they have until February to master them).  We also began our work on the Christmas Oratorio, the St. John Passion, and a lovely Randall Thompson piece that we’ll be performing at the Family Concert in February.

I’ll be writing more about our 2015 Gala Concert, which will feature The Bach Collegium Japan, but, really, if you’ve not already, order your tickets now.  It’s going to be a thrilling concert!

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The 75th Bach at Noon, September 15th

Below is an introduction to Cantata 130, a most fitting selection for our 75th Bach at Noon, that I wrote back in April of 2012, when we last performed it.  Also on offer is a performance of Bach’s A-Minor Violin Concerto, with our fabulous concertmaster, Liz Field, as soloist.  It’s going to be a grand occasion!  Plan to join us at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem.  The doors open at 11:30, and you’ll want to arrive very early to be assured a good seat!

The first time I heard the full accompaniment to Cantata No. 130 was in the rehearsal before a Bach at Noon.  The work is based on the hymn tune, Old 100th¸ which most listeners will recognize as the doxology from many Protestant liturgies, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”  The tune comes from John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter, whose metrical psalmody (or metered hymn settings of the psalms) worked its way to Bach’s liturgical neighborhood, and, thus, we have another example of the omnivorous nature of Bach’s musical appetite.  Back to that Bach at Noon:  Greg and the orchestra were running the first movement as the choir was arriving, and, I have to confess, I thought, “Oh dear, he’s going much too fast.”  I’d heard Tom Goeman burn through the piano reduction, which simplifies the many lines of counterpoint, but this was the first time I’d heard all of the orchestral parts, in all of their synchronicity.  This music is both dense, in a textual sense, and extremely fleet of foot.  But, that fast?

Yes, actually.  About halfway through, I was able to exhale as I noticed our orchestral colleagues tearing it up on their respective parts.  The accompaniment is, among other things, a perpetuum mobile –there are extremely zippy sixteenth notes flowing for its duration.  On top of this, there are white-knuckle dialogs and echoes between the winds, the trumpets, and the strings.  The whole thing is a churning, swirling musical contraption, much like the wheels of a clock that has been wound perhaps a little too tightly, and I hope you won’t think it hyperbolic for me to suggest that the whole thing could easily go spinning out of control (it won’t, though).  Did I mention that, at this point, I’m only talking about the instrumental parts?  The soprano section is the first of the vocal parts to enter the fun, blazing away on the melody as the lower three voices latch on to different parts of the counterpoint with melismas that occasionally double the instrumental writing, and sometimes fling off on their own.  After each line of the hymn, there are instrumental interpolations of varying lengths to flesh out the movement.  There’s a sort of rapture to this movement that seems almost Mozartean in its ecstatic joy, but it’s also recognizably Bach at the helm.

The liturgical occasion for which it was written is the Feast of St. Michael, the archangel, and the imaginative texts abound in angels.  In the first movement, described above, the singers thank God for the blessing of angels.  The second movement, a recitative for alto, reflects on the presence of angels as protectors of the faithful.  Next, and elaborate aria for bass, trumpets, and timpani, evokes, according to the late, great Craig Smith (of Emmanuel Music in Boston), “the wagging of the dragon’s tail,” in a battle with St. Michael.  A duet in recitative style for tenor and alto again praises the assistance of angels in the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, as well as in our daily life and work.  This is followed by a gallant tenor aria that requests a journey on Elijah’s chariot for the faithful on their return to heaven.   A beautiful, characteristically elegant harmonization of the tune concludes the piece with continued praise for the intercession of angels, and a request for their protection.  In contrast to the overflowing exuberance of the first movement, Bach adds descants of trumpets and timpani at the end of each of the phrases, a sturdy and noble way to conclude a most ebullient cantata.

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At the Dawn of a Fantastic Season

When Greg Funfgeld shared his plans for the upcoming Bach Choir of Bethlehem season, I was quite tickled with his design for a fantastic year of music-making.  One of the wonderful things about his programing is that, in some years, we explore Bach’s musical universe by encountering music that influenced the Kapellmeister, as well as music clearly influenced by his genius.  Last year, we encountered, in addition to our beloved JSB, the music of Stanford, Gawthrop, CPE Bach, Stravinsky, Händel, composers of the French Court, Vivaldi, and more!  It was fascinating to experience Bach’s reach throughout the ages, and encounter the depth of his influence on a seemingly disparate band of composers.  That kaleidoscopic view is much appreciated – with Bach at the center of many colorful prisms (who can forget the Bachian influence heard in Stravinsky’s colossal and evocative Symphony of Psalms?).  This dialogue across the centuries enriches our understanding of Bach (and the other composers), and hones and stretches the skills of the performers, all the while exposing performers and audience, alike, to the full breadth of our beloved JSB’s reach.

This season, however, will mark a return to first things, those being the major works of our namesake.  It also will be a fascinating opportunity to experience those works in the context of one of Bach’s working liturgical years.  We will experience the first three cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio in mid-December, just as we’re all gearing up for the holiday.  We will encounter his deeply moving and powerful St. John Passion on Palm Sunday, at the precipice of Holy Week.  Finally, in the midst of High Spring, the rhapsodic joy of his Easter Oratorio will be ours to share in the midst of the second year of our re-imagined Bach Festival.  Those are the broad strokes; along the way there will be all kinds of opportunities for musical and spiritual refreshment and invigoration.  They include a youth choir festival at this year’s Family Concert (I can’t wait for young singers to experience Händel’s riveting coronation anthem, Zadok, the Priest, as well as JSB’s delightful motet, Lobet den Hern), a year-long series of Bach at Noon, including our 75th B@N in Bethlehem on September 15th (including three performances in Allentown, next summer, after the ecstatic success of this summer’s two performances), and the opportunity to hear some of the foremost Bach interpreters of our time, the Bach Collegium Japan, offer a program of instrumental and vocal delights at our Gala Concert.  The treasures abound!

The theme of the season is Bach at the Heart, and this was chosen to express something that can sometimes be lost in the technical revelation of Bach’s music:  Bach, however perfected his musical gifts were, was composing from his heart, to express the depth and breadth of his faith.  As interpreters and listeners in the 21st century of this music, varied in religious denomination and understanding, we may still experience the clarity and focus  of Bach’s skills in ways that are fresh and new and full of life-giving energy.  I heartily encourage you to take advantage of the opportunity that this season’s journey offers all of us:  to experience music lovingly rendered with technical skill and interpretative excellence, but also a rich depth of feeling and tremendous heart.  I don’t think any of us who sing or play would be half as passionate about all of this if we didn’t feel, in our bones, in our souls, the rich rewards that come with this enterprise.

For more details about the upcoming season, visit the overview on the Choir’s page by clicking here.

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