109th Bethlehem Bach Festival Wrap-Up

Agnes Zigovics and Daniel Taylor

Agnes Zigovics and Daniel Taylor

A couple hours ago, the last event of 109 concluded in Peter Hall on Moravian College’s lovely Priscilla Payne Hurd Campus, with the awarding of the prizes in the Ninth Biennial Bach Vocal Competition for Young American Singers.  I attended everything on offer at this year’s festival, except Zimmerman’s Coffee House, the dinner and informal talk by Dr. Larry Lipkis, and the Chamber Music in the Saal (all of which created considerable appreciative buzz), and am delighted to share my impressions below.  What an amazing two weekends of brilliant festivities!

Distinguished Scholar Lecture, Christoph Wolff

We were delighted to welcome Professor Wolff back for a lecture entitled, “Never-Ending News about Bach’s Life and Works.”  Dr. Wolff is probably the apotheosis of the word “distinguished,” and he was a charming and beyond-brilliant guide to some exciting news from the world of Bach scholarship.  As Director of the Bach-Archiv, Leipzig, he set the course for a project that became known, internally at the Archiv, as the Bach Expedition, which involved a wide-scale cataloging of primary sources throughout the region around Leipzig, many of which were hiding in church archives and all kinds of unideal conditions.  In his presentation, we saw slides of organ tablature in Bach’s hand of one of Buxtehude’s most difficult organ chorales, authenticated to when Bach was 13 years old!  Dr. Wolff also shared the story of the discovery of a Bach work no one in recent times had known about, the aria Alles mit Gott, which was discovered in Weimar in 2005.  There was much historical intrigue, lots of examples in images of historic editions and recordings, all presented with Dr. Wolff’s signature enthusiasm and erudition.  This excellent time with so bright a light in the area of musical scholarship set a marvelous tone for what was to follow.  As a Bach enthusiast and trained musician, I was rapt the entire time.  My companion for the afternoon, my dear mother, also commented on the accessibility of Dr. Wolff’s lecture – she had a fantastic time, as well!  Danke, Professor Wolff!

Bach at 4

We made the easy walk (with the option of a shuttle bus – our dedicated staff has made accessibility for all of our audience a very-important priority, and it shows) to the Incarnation of Our Lord Church, for an intimate and infectiously cheerful concert.  A word about the venue, pictured above.  If you’ve not been in the veritable world showcase of churches on Bethlehem’s South Side, you owe to yourself to have a look around.  Many are just stunningly beautiful.  Among the fairest is Incarnation Church, which is a wonder of stained glass, marble, and plaster.  It’s perhaps a third the size of Packer Memorial Church, but with achingly good acoustics, vivid statuary, and beautiful stained glass.  We began our time together in this hallowed and inspirational space with a chorale sing.  Greg Funfgeld gave his typically winsome introductions to the chorales, complete with historical details and much cheerful encouragement, and we responded with vigorous singing of the chorales.  The instrumentalists began the concert proper with the Entrance of the Queen of Sheba from the oratorio, Solomon, one on a part, with Greg leading from the harpsichord.  It was the perfect overture as it set the tone for a series of arias and duets from Händel’s considerable cache of vocal music.  This will be a long post if I detail all of the excellence we experienced, but each of our soloists, Agnes Zigovics, Daniel Taylor, and Ben Butterfield, were just utterly captivating, with splendid contributions by the accompanying instrumentalists.  The concert continued with Loretta O’Sullivan, ‘cellist extraordinaire, who offered a brilliant Vivaldi sonata, with Greg, again, on the harpsichord.  Her playing was, as always, lyrical, and full of panache.  Her colleague instrumentalists returned for Bach’s radiant Cantata 96, which also featured Tricia Van Oers on sopranino and tenor recorders.  I offer a wistful sigh to think of all of this – the program was a perfect union of space, repertoire, and performers.  A small group of singers from the Choir sang the opening chorus with vocal dexterity and an ideally lean sound.  Dan Lichti joined the performance near the end, and sang a lovely and evocative aria, complete with vivd text-painting from the orchestra.  We concluded the afternoon by singing the closing chorale together (having had a go at it already in the chorale sing).  A bonus in the program were the opportunities to hear Daniel and Benjamin speak about the music, with signature wit and much humor.  What an excellent program!

Friday Evening

I wrote about Friday evening last week, but this week’s performance of the same repertoire was equally affecting.  Cantata 100 went very well, with a serious tip of the hat to our horn players, Tony Cecere and Dan Braden, for their yeoman’s work in navigating the fiercely difficult obbligatos.  The arias were brilliantly rendered, and the choruses seemed to go well.  Terry Everson’s playing on the Second Brandenburg Concerto was just magnificent, as was his sensitivity to the rest of the instrumental group – #2 is a concerto grosso for flute, violin, oboe, and trumpet, with support from the strings.  Everyone played marvelously  – I especially enjoyed hearing the soloists trading off a turn-filled figure in the first movement.  I also enjoyed the fleet and deft contributions by our continuo players.  We were thrilled to have the brilliant Debbie Davis join Loretta O’Sullivan on cello – she returns to us by way of Chapel Hill, NC, where she relocated to last summer.  Likewise, Steve Groat and Dan McDougall offer a firm foundation from behind their double basses.  To my ear, one of the first signs of mediocrity in baroque orchestras is clumsy bass playing.  Not so with our two bassists, who play with sensitivity, clarity, and amazing dexterity.  A tip of the hat to Debbie, Loretta, Steve, and Dan!  The Easter Oratorio went very well, too – with powerhouse contributions by trumpets and timpani, and Mary Watt’s no-superlative-is-too-strong rendering of the gorgeous oboe obbligato in the second movement.  Likewise, Nobuo Kitagawa joined Daniel Taylor for a beautiful aria, with stellar playing and singing from both gentlemen.  So many magical moments!

Saturday Morning:  Taylor 2 and the Bach Festival Orchestra

I’ve thus far wanted to describe all of these performances as tremendously life-affirming (perhaps that applies to the Festival, as a whole), but I’ve saved it for the program of dance and exceptionally beautiful orchestral music offered by the BFO and Taylor 2.  By turns lyrical, humorous, jaw-droppingly athletic, pyrotechnic, and always archly-elegant, having Paul Taylor’s iconic choreography combined with some really stunning orchestral playing made one ecstatic to be alive and in the presence of such greatness.  The program explored a panoply of moods and emotions, and built to an effervescent climax in Taylor’s signature Bach work, Esplanade, which evoked gasps of wonder and delight from the audience during the performance, followed by a roaring ovation at its completion.  More tips of the hat to our instrumental soloists, particularly Liz Field and Claire Bright for expert contributions from the violin, and to Charlotte Mattax Moersch, who played, rapid-fire, six movements from Bach’s harpsichord concert, and made it look terribly easy.

Saturday Afternoon:  The Mass in B-Minor

We returned to hallowed ground, again, with what felt like an exceptional performance of the Mass.  As I mentioned in my preview, the Mass got a little extra love in rehearsal, this year, and I think that time paid dividends.  Each performance is necessarily different, and Greg’s interpretation seems to continue to evolve and deepen.  From where I stood, halfway up the choral risers, and to the far right, the hushed sound he achieved at the end of the Crucifixus was especially powerful, as was the ecstatic joy of the Resurrexit. For several retiring singers, this was their last performance, and emotions were running high – one of the things we treasure as musicians and members of this august organization is the legacy shared from one generation to the next.  Our esteem for our retiring colleagues is endless, and our gratitude for their contributions is inexhaustible.  Another tip of the hat to them!

Sunday Afternoon:  The Ninth Biennial Bach Vocal Competition for Young American Singers

After a long morning at church, today, I quickly headed over to Peter Hall for the competition.  I have to admit, my heart sank a little when I saw that there were nine finalists, each of whom sang two arias.  Sunday afternoon is usually prime nap time for church musicians, and I wondered if I could stay alert for such a long program.  A few moments into the stunning displays of talent, and I had my answer – this was a riveting afternoon of music-making!  Two of our exceptional soloists, Rosa Lamoreaux and William Sharp, narrowed the large pool of entrants down to the nine who sang today, and were joined by Ben Butterfield, Greg Funfgeld, and Stephen Crist (President of the American Bach Society, who co-sponsors the competition), as judges.  Each singer was prodigiously talented, and I suspect that we’ll recognize many of their names in programs and on marquees in the future.  That said, I see futures for some of them elsewhere than the baroque oratorio and opera stage – some of the singers seemed better suited to roles requiring larger voices, but each made a persuasive argument for Bach with their own interpretative excellence and accomplished performances.  The winners included Brian Giebler, from Long Island City, NY, a resonant and sensitive tenor, who received an honorable mention.  Sharing first place honors were Christopher Edwards, from College Park, MD, a baritone with exceptional color and finesse, and soprano Nola Richardson, who is working on a DMA at Yale (singers from Yale always seem to do well in this competition: past winners include Joshua Copeland, Laura Atkinson, and Dashon Burton, all alumni from that excellent institution).  Nola received an honorable mention in 2014, has a lovely and radiant voice, and is clearly ascendant.  A hearty bravo(a) to all of the competitors – the afternoon flew by on a wave a youthful energy and stunning talent.  I should also mention that our Assistant Conductor, Organist, and Accompanist, Tom Goeman, accompanied all eighteen arias with unflappable precision, and, frankly, ridiculous musicality (after playing continuo in nearly all of the concerts of the Festival).  How Tom can render every note he plays with contrasting dynamism and color remains a perplexing mystery to me – his musical support for the competitors was a complete wonder to behold.

Final Thoughts

When we set out to re-imagine the Bethlehem Bach Festival, we sought to maintain and preserve our treasured traditions, spruce up our audience services, and introduce a wider range of experiences, using what we’ve learned in offering Bach at Noon and in our ever-evolving and widening educational outreach efforts, and with an ear to rail for what’s working for other organizations of our size and scope.  The 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival represents our second effort at this, and I’m very proud of what we offered to audiences from the region and beyond.  Kudos to our Festival Hospitality Committee, to Greg Funfgeld for conceiving, rehearsing, and leading such an immense array of concerts, and to our peerless administrative staff, in particular our Executive Director, Bridget George, our Deputy Executive Director, Karen Glose, and our wunderkind (relatively speaking) Administrative Assistant and Special Events Coordinator, Andrea Fritchey, for a job marvelously done.  My final tip of the hat goes to those of you who joined us as audience for all the concerts and events of 109.  We are flattered and humbled by your presence and support, and we are beyond delighted to share our musical offerings with you as members of our beloved Bach Choir Family!

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Festival Weekend I Wrap-Up

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Photo Credit: Joe Fink

The first weekend of the 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival is a wrap, and I’ve had a couple days to ponder the joy and significance of our offerings.  A very hectic schedule had me sticking only to the two concerts I sang in, with plans to attend many more, this weekend.  Word from the lectures was that both Dr. Christoph Wolff and Dr. Larry Lipkis did excellent jobs, peppering their talks with good cheer and erudition.  I also heard that Bach at 4 was incredible, with the favorable acoustics of The Incarnation of Our Lord Church, and fabulous performing forces combining for a very special afternoon.  Greg was pleased to give Daniel Taylor an opportunity to speak about some of the music he was to sing, and many in our audience, accustomed to hearing his gorgeous countertenor voice (pitched in the alto range), were delighted to hear his sonorous baritone speaking voice (and his always-illuminating thoughts about the music).  I’m very much looking forward to hearing my colleagues in a small group of singers from the Choir offer Cantata No. 96, and our merry band of soloists and instrumentalists delight us with their playing and singing.  I know from experience that hearing Daniel sing Where’er you walk from Handel’s Semele, alone, is worth the price of admission, and so much more was on offer!

I was at the Friday night concert with the full Choir, and that performance was a lot of fun! Kudos to our horn players, Tony Cecere and Dan Braden, for their yeoman’s work on the fiercely difficult obbligatos of Cantata No. 100.  The Choir has it fairly easy in that selection, and it was very rewarding to hear the textural  contrasts in the opening chorus, from festive tuttis (with the whole ensemble) to a de facto trio sonata for flute, oboe, and continuo. Excellent work from all the instrumentalists.  Speaking of one aria being worth the cost of admission, Robin Kani, our principal flute, and Rosa Lamoreaux, soprano soloist, offered what I thought was the most beguiling aria of the evening on the enchanting Er wird mich wohl bedenken.  Robin’s sinuous flute combined with Rosa’s gorgeous color to create several moments of transfixing beauty.  Next up, the singers got a rest, and our colleagues in the orchestra were joined by trumpet soloist Terry Everson for an electric and elegant performance of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto.  The bar was high:  we heard Guy Ferber perform the work earlier in the season, on a period trumpet, which, at the time, I called “the most egalitarian performance of the work I’ve ever heard.”  Well, Guy has some fierce (and cheerful) competition from Terry.  He worked mightily to foster a sense of ensemble, and there were absolutely no leaps in volume when the baton was passed to him.  Instead, we marveled at the differing colors of the solo instruments: oboe, flute, violin, and trumpet.  Additionally, Terry’s playing in the stratosphere of his instrument’s range was uniformly thrilling, his colleagues in the concerto grosso, Robin Kani, Mary Watt, and Liz Field, also acquitted themselves with great distinction.   The program ended with Bach’s rousing Easter Oratorio, which was also a treat.  Among my many favorite moments, surely Dan Lichti and Ben Butterfield singing the melismas of the B-section of the opening chorus with skill and ruddy enthusiasm stands tall.  Kudos, also, to our own trumpeters for their excellent work on fanfare after fanfare of ecstatic praise.  It had been a while since I listened to the EO, and I had forgotten about the fascinating multi-part recitatives, a compositional technique Bach saves for really special occasions.  The aria singing was, again, impeccable, and we all brought the festivities to a close with the rousing closing chorus, complete with tenors and sopranos at the tops of their range, offering choral fanfares to match the energy and excitement of the orchestra.

Taylor 2’s performance with the Bach Festival Orchestra on Saturday morning generated much excitement.  The program is a combination of some new (to Bethlehem) works, and a few audience favorites from previous visits.  In addition to the captivating dance, Greg was full of praise for our instrumental soloists, including Charlotte Mattax Moersch, who had to play movement after movement from Bach’s many harpsichord concerti.  I’m very much looking forward to seeing the repeat, this Saturday.

The Mass seemed to go very well.  One of the things I love most about performing the work every year is the sense that it becomes a moment of reflection on the year that has passed.  Individuals returning to the work might have joys to celebrate, or losses to mourn, or might just be wrapped in the ever-present sense of change and evolution that seems to enfold all of us.  I always think of the Mass as a kind of therapeutic tune-up.   One of my colleagues in the Choir, who retires at the end of this season, wrote about what her time in the Choir has meant to her, and kindly gave me permission to share it.  Karen Votta shared the following picture from the Ifor Jones era of the Festival, and writes:

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1961. Ifor Jones. 190 singers. My mother was a Soprano I and my uncle was a Bass. Both pictured in this photo on the Choir I side. My grandmother and I had perfect attendance out on the lawn every year. Sometimes an usher would come along with a ticket for me, the little girl who loved Bach, and I would enter this Holy space and be immersed in the great sounds of the Mass, which to me was Praise and Thanksgiving in the highest form possible. I fell in love with Bach at a very young age. I have immense gratitude for the family legacy I have been given.

Zimmerman’s Coffee House was apparently a spirited good time.  I saw a video clip of one of our Choral Scholars singing some Rameau, and she sounded fantastic.  I know the families of several of the performers, and they’re all ecstatic that they’re given this opportunity to join the performing legacy of the Bach Choir.  All of this (including the Chamber Music in the Saal concert) is on offer again this weekend.  If you were here last weekend, come back, and see something again.  If you’re coming, you’re in for a huge treat!  If you’re on the fence, buy some tickets and treat yourself to the latest, freshest iteration of a a performing tradition well over a century old!

 

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Guest Post: Creating a (Fictional) Cantata By Johann Sebastian Bach

Ed. Note:  For a very special post, I’m delighted to turn over the reins to New York Times Bestselling Author, Lauren Belfer, who shares the story of her new novel, And After the Fire, written with musicological assistance from her husband, longtime friend of the Choir, Michael Marissen.  This exciting new work should be of particular interest to the Bach Choir family, of which Michael and Lauren are most esteemed members!

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By Lauren Belfer

Many of my fondest Bach-related memories concern traveling to Bethlehem with my husband, Michael Marissen, long-time Festival lecturer, for his Friday afternoon presentations. Not only were his lectures fascinating and fun (I’m a person renowned for my objectivity), but of course we stayed the weekend, attending Festival luncheons and dinners, concerts, and intimate chamber recitals amid the evocative and historic Moravian architecture of Bethlehem. We basked in the wondrous atmosphere created by passionate lovers of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach gathered en masse, complete with ardent discussions of Bach’s music into the wee hours of the morning. Or until at least 10pm.

I tried to bring the passion for Bach that I discovered in Bethlehem into my new novel, And After the Fire (HarperCollins, May 2016).

Lauren Belfer

The novel opens when an American soldier finds a mysterious music manuscript in the ruins of Germany at the end of World War II. Then the story shifts to present-day America, where he bequeaths the manuscript and its mysteries to his niece, Susanna Kessler.

Susanna’s investigations into the manuscript’s history led me back in time to a remarkable real-life woman who became a character in the novel: Sara Itzig Levy, of Berlin. She was born in 1761 and lived for ninety-three years, until 1854. Sara and her family members collected Bach manuscripts. Festival friend Professor Christoph Wolff has reported on a veritable Bach “cult” existing in the Itzig family. Sara was a brilliant harpsichordist and the only Berlin student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. She organized a musical salon that brought together the cultural leaders of her day. Sara was also the great-aunt of the composers Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, both of whom became central figures in my novel.

During the course of And After the Fire, the manuscript is proven to be an authentic, unknown cantata by J.S. Bach, and its libretto turns out to be ethically problematic. Susanna Kessler must decide what to do with this authentic Bach autograph, whether to make it public, conceal it, or even destroy it. In writing the novel, I wanted to explore how a great work of art can be exalting and horrifying all at once.

And After the Fire was inspired by Michael’s scholarly work, and the novel is dedicated to him. He and I worked together closely to create the fictional masterpiece at the center of the novel, making certain, step by step, that it was plausible in every detail. My fictional cantata may not be real, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a scholar some day unearthed a lost choral masterpiece that was quite similar – that’s how close to reality my fictional choral work is, thanks to Michael.

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I’m not a musicologist, however, and to begin, Michael did the tough job of writing the fictional cantata’s libretto, recreating the 18th-century rhyming German of Bach’s works. Regarding the libretto’s meaning, and its Biblical allusions, Michael’s efforts were abetted by Cantatas 18, 42, 44, and 126. Then, he visualized (or the aural equivalent thereof) the cantata’s music. For the fictional scholars involved in examining the manuscript in the novel, the music itself is a crucial element in proving its authenticity. Michael provided the description of the first episode of the piece as “an extended augmentation canon in contrary motion, set in the dense, chromatic, baroque harmonic language of … Johann Sebastian Bach.”

I was able to be more involved with imagining the physical characteristics of the manuscript. Through Michael’s connections, we spent an afternoon studying an actual original composing score of Bach’s. This was an extraordinary and deeply moving experience: to touch the very paper that Bach had touched; to see the corrections he made to his work, the cross-outs, the ink blots and smudges, the small musical sketches Bach made at the bottom of pages to remind him of what he wanted to write at the top of the turned side of the page after the ink on the front had dried, and the Tintenfrass – the bleeding through of the iron gall ink over time, creating mirror images on the opposite side of the paper. I tried to give my own sense of awe to my character Susanna Kessler, as she examined the realistic, albeit fictional, manuscript her uncle bequeathed to her. Finally, Michael and I chose a watermark for our fictional manuscript, one that linked the autograph to a specific moment in Bach’s composing life.

As I completed And After the Fire, Michael was finishing his new book, Bach & God (Oxford University Press, published in May 2016), a collection of essays on the role of religion in Bach’s music. Several of the chapters jump off from lectures that Michael gave for the Bethlehem Bach Festival. As we read multiple drafts of each other’s work, suggesting revisions along the way, we saw that the themes of the two books overlap in surprising ways – as we hope you’ll discover when you read them!

Michael and I are grateful for the opportunity to share our new books with the dedicated audience of the Bethlehem Bach Festival. I’m especially happy to see that the Festival’s Friday evening concert includes one of my favorite cantatas, which is also pivotal in the novel: Cantata 100, Was Gott tut, daß ist wohlgetan.

 

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Festival Week Update

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Packer Memorial Church

Brace yourself for a long, omnibus post.  It’s the week of the 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival, and things are coming together marvelously.  Follow this link to a complete schedule of the events.

Rehearsal Update:

We’ve had two evening choral/orchestral rehearsals, and things are really coming together.  The Choir has acquired a new acoustical shell, which stands mostly unobtrusively behind the choir, and has served to focus our sound in the vast, voluminous acoustics of Packer.  Hearing has improved slightly for individuals in my section, and my wife reports that in the center front of the Choir, it’s much easier to hear the other sections.  Reports from the audience side of things suggest that there’s greater immediacy and focus from the performing forces, which is great news!  We’ve been working on movements of The Mass, as well as the choruses from Bach’s ebullient Easter Oratorio, which is featured in the Friday night concerts.

Friday Night Concerts

Those concerts are going to be banner events for lovers of the trumpet – the EO has the trumpets in the Bach Festival Orchestra in the stratosphere, and they’re tackling the parts with great panache, elegance, and, perhaps most of all, courage!  The icing on the cake will be Terry Everson’s performance of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto – which will be an exciting contrast to a work we last heard on a natural trumpet (played by the amazing Guy Ferber), with the period instruments of the Bach Collegium Japan, at our Gala Concert, this fall.  Terry will be playing a modern piccolo trumpet, and it will be a thrill to hear (and see) him ascend the heights of that notoriously difficult, extremely rewarding work!  Tony Cecere and Dan Braden, our two horn players, will also be applying their prodigious skills to a fiercely nettlesome horn duet in Bach’s Cantata No. 100, Was Got tutt, das ist Wohlgetan.  Greg described it tonight as a horn duet, with a trio sonata (for flute, oboe, and basso continuo), in the midst of a chorale cantata.  It is charming music, with a rousing melody, and florid accompaniment.  Great stuff!   Here’s Greg Funfgeld introducing the concert:

 

Distinguished Scholar Lecture

I would show up to hear Dr. Christoph Wolff, our distinguished (in a vast understatement!) scholar, read the phone book, such is the allure of his learned and singular contributions to the arena of Bach scholarship.  Luckily for us, he’ll be bringing us news and insight into the ever-evolving field, from his perch as the Director of the Bach-Archiv Leipzig.  If you join us for this free lecture, you will be in the presence of greatness (no hyperbole).  Dr. Wolff, to my thinking, is the dean of a worldwide community of Bach scholars, someone who has illuminated so much of our current understanding of the Kapellmeister.  In fact, his Bach biography was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize!

Friday Afternoon Concerts

I’m going to let Loretta O’Sullivan, our fabulous principal cello, preview the Friday afternoon concert of Bach, Händel, and Vivaldi, at The Incarnation of Our Lord Church.

 

Those who are attending the concert at the Saal of the Moravian Museum will be treated to intimate concerts exploring the Italian influence on Bach, Händel, Vivaldi, and Corelli, including two Bach cantatas written (and sung) in Italian.  The concert is titled “Treacherous Love,” which promises an afternoon of stirring and stimulating music!

Saturday Morning: Taylor 2

 

The amazing dancers from Taylor 2 are always happy to come to Bethlehem, not least of which for the privilege of performing with live instrumental music.  The performance will feature some works new to Bethlehem, as well as a reprise of Esplanade, a Bach Festival audience favorite.  The first time I saw Bach’s music danced was a disorientingly joyful one – our talented friends in Taylor 2 make the architecture and spirit of Bach’s music come alive in another dimension, and these performances promise to be revelatory.

Saturday Afternoon:  The Mass

The Mass has received a little extra love and polish this year, and, in rehearsal, it’s been sounding glorious. I’m somewhere around my 32nd performance of the piece, and each year, I never tire of it.  It’s a splendid homecoming to some of the most inspiring, most joyful, most deeply-spiritual music ever composed.  I’ve written before that the extreme order and beauty of Bach’s music is logic made sound, and the thorough grounding we experience in the very stuff of life as we make our way through this epic composition is deeply compelling and life-changing.

Saturday Evening:  Zimmerman’s Coffee House

I know a few of the performers for this year’s ZCH, and they’re quite excited to be singing and playing for this new, exciting affair.  You can relax, hear the next generation of future Bach performers offer charming performances in a casual venue, with great food and drink.  This is, perhaps, the best way to wrap-up a weekend of spectacular music-making.

Other Festival Activities

There will be two chorale-sings, leading up to performances.  One will be prior to the Bach at 4 concert at Incarnation Church, and the other will be prior to the Mass on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by the Festival Brass Choir.  Come sing some of Bach’s glorious harmonizations of the hymnody of his time – no matter your level of experience or skill singing German, it ends up being a light-hearted and wonderful time.

Dr. Larry Lipkis, one of the region’s great musical raconteurs and renaissance men, will offer an informal talk at the buffet dinner offered on Friday evening, between concerts.  Larry is a genius – a composer whose commissions include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, and, among many others, the Bach Festival Orchestra!  He teaches all manner of music and musicianship at Moravian College, where he is the composer-in-residence, and he’s also one of the founding members of the Baltimore Consort, titans of the early music scene.  His remarks are always illuminating and leavened with a great deal of humor and good cheer.  If you avail yourself the opportunity to hear Doctors Wolff and Lipkis, and attend some of these concerts, it will have been like taking a graduate course in Bach, only a lot more fun!

Finally, on Sunday, May 22nd, you can come hear the finalists of our Competition for Young American Singers, co-sponsored by The Bach Choir and the American Bach Society.  Past winners have become audience favorites here in Bethlehem, and several have gone on to careers of international stature.  The competition begins at 1 pm in Peter Hall, on Moravian College’s Priscilla Payne Hurd Campus.

Finally, one pro tip:  If you suffer any kind of seasonal allergies, the campus of Lehigh University, resplendent with flowering trees, bushes, and shrubs is like an allergen obstacle course. It’s a stunning environment, full of spring colors and fragrances, but you’ll want to medicate, and medicate thoroughly!

I am going to try to attend as many of these events as possible (including those in which I am not singing), and I’ll wrap them up here as time allows.  Visit our website for more information and to order tickets – 109 is a festival you won’t want to miss!

 

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Bach at Noon Wrap-Up

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By the end of the 81st Bach at Noon, this afternoon, at Central Moravian Church, the sun had broken through the morning gloom, and all seemed very well with the world.  We can’t give credit for that to the wonderful happenings inside the church, and yet…

It was a full house – we had students from both Southern Lehigh and Catasauqua School Districts, and all of the regulars, as we shared in a delightful afternoon of music-making.  The festivities began with a beautiful four-hand piano arrangement of the aria “Sheep May Safely Graze,” from Cantata 208, which ably demonstrated the complete mind-meld Greg and Tom, our conductor and assistant conductor, respectively, share when they collaborate at the keyboard.  What’s fascinating to me is that, as pianists, they have very different styles and touches, and yet, when they collaborate, there’s a coming together of their techniques, phrasings, and touch that is astoundingly unanimous.  This artistic symbiosis continued with their bravura performance of Max Reger’s (or as Greg enjoyed pointing out to the audience, Johann Baptist Joseph Maximillian Reger’s) arrangement of Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto.  Greg has mentioned a few times (uncharacteristically) that the arrangement is quite challenging (indeed, at lunch afterwards, every time someone complimented the performance, he would note, “It’s really hard!”), and it was definitely as dense as you might imagine a piece for three violins, three violas, three celli, and basso continuo might be.  There were voice-leadings to consider in every register, and the architecture of the piece, written for those instrument groups, isn’t terribly pianistic.  Still JPJMR’s arrangement seems to get all the broad strokes, and then some, and, I have to say, Greg and Tom were beyond splendid in performance.  Their playing brimmed over with nuance, elegance, and flair, not to mention the challenging choreography of staying out of one another’s way as they brought it to life.  At the conclusion, the audience gave generous applause, appropriately so!

We then continued with Singet dem Herrn, which seemed to go very well.  The piece is so much fun to sing (once you’ve mastered it), and we gave it our all.  I want to make particular mention of the work of Katherine Keiser, Annette Thiel, Guy Rauscher, and Todd Fennell, who magnificently sang the aria in the slow, middle section. I’ve long known and admired Guy’s and Todd’s singing, but Katherine is new this year, and I’ve never heard Annette in a solo context.  I’ll just say it:  wow.  Katherine’s soprano offerings were full of color, line, impressive diction, and elegant musicality.  Likewise, Annette’s voice was plush, linear, and full of nuance.  The gents acquitted themselves beautifully, as well.  How exciting and humbling to hear such talented colleagues!

If you’re a regular attendee at Bach at Noon, chances are you attend our other concerts throughout the year.  If not, consider joining us for some Festival concerts this year.  The ones most like Bach at Noon will be the Bach at Four concerts at The Incarnation of Our Lord church, a stunningly beautiful space with absolutely stellar acoustics (plaster and marble abound!).  They’ll feature the informal introductions from Greg, a la Bach at Noon, with which we’re all so cheerfully familiar.  Or, consider seeing the full choir and orchestra (a much larger group) put through our paces at the Friday evening concerts.  Or hear the orchestra accompany Taylor 2 in bringing Bach’s music vividly to life in irresistible choreography by one of the modern dance masters.  Or hear The Choir sing its signature piece, the Mass in B-Minor, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.  There’s lots more information and ticketing, here.  I think everyone left this afternoon’s concert with a spring in their step (accompanied by some lovely sunshine) – the Festival promises all of that, and so much more!

PS.  Bach at Noon takes a one month hiatus for Festival, and then makes a geographic shift to Allentown, to the Gothic revival confines of St. John’s Lutheran Church, a breathtakingly beautiful edifice, for a series of three summertime concerts.  The first is on Tuesday, June 14th, and will feature a reprise of another Bach motet, this time the dexterous and rhapsodic Lobe den herrn, alle Heiden, BWV 230, featuring members of The Choir and members of youth choirs who participated in this year’s Family Concert.  The Philadelphia Brass will also be on hand to offer arrangements of Bach and Vivaldi, and the forces will unite for another motet, this time the gorgeously elegiac O Jesus Christ, meins liebens licht, which is Bach channelling both Schütz and Brahms in one utterly stunning piece.  It’s going to be quite the treat!

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The Festival Countdown Begins!

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One of my favorite architectural details of the Packer Memorial Church, with its soaring beamed ceilings, radiant stained glass, intricate tile floor,  and resonant acoustics is actually something tiny and almost whimsical – this fleur-de-lys, hidden in a corner adjacent the sacristy, leading to what is a sort of apse of which The Choir frequently makes use as a passageway from one side of the chancel to the other.  The painters didn’t have to adorn that spot – only those making use of the passageway will ever see it, and yet, it appears he or she couldn’t help it.  In the midst of all that grandeur, a secret act of devotion, of craft, of beauty, and of faith.  It seems somehow fitting that the 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival, an affair full of majestic sweep and myriad intricacies, should make use of a space full of the echoes of history (musical, academic, industrial), and the undeniable presence of the cheerful spirits of those who have contributed to this august enterprise for over a hundred years. There is so much to hear and see, even before the first note is played.  Other favorite details include the painted vines in the baptistry in the rear left of the church, the cool blues of the mural under the rear rose window, and the dusky jewel tones of the stained glass as the sun sets to the west.

For two evenings and two afternoons, instrumentalists, singers, and audience, alike, will become part of the architecture of the place, animating it, pausing in the busy pace of life to remind ourselves of the breathtaking power of beauty, as ordered by one of the greatest minds in Western Civilization, J.S. Bach.  To someone not versed in the Bach Choir’s history and tradition, this may seem a peculiar act – of how much truth and beauty is one man capable?  I sometimes wonder what it must look like to an outsider (indeed, it’s one of my jobs as chair of our Marketing Committee), but I also consider how we don’t balk at the idea of a Shakespeare Festival, nor was I surprised by the immense difficulty we had finding a parking spot at a blockbuster exhibition of Van Gogh this summer in the Berkshires.  I’ve referred to our Festival as our “Rite of Spring” in the past, and it’s also a tremendous moment of homecoming for Bach fans from around the country. It is such a joy to see members of the Bach Choir Family join us from parts near and far, each May.  Despite that, and despite our international reputation (this winter, I spoke for a few moments with the music director of the ridiculously-accomplished Belgian early music choir, Voix Luminis, Lionel Meunier, and mentioned that my wife and I sing with The Choir – he replied, “Oh yes, I’ve been to your website more than once.”), reviews by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and Gramophone, it sometimes feels like we’re maybe a little too much of a well-kept secret.  We have more tickets to sell, more seats to fill, and, most importantly, many more souls to reach, with an communal aesthetic experience quite unlike any other that most of us have ever encountered.

It is my invitation to you, in light of all of that, to watch the evocative video, below, by Anisa George, with help from her father, Bill (daughter and husband, respectively, of our fabulous Executive Director, Bridget George), and then follow the link to a PDF of a detailed Festival schedule, and order some tickets, not just for you, but for your children or grandchildren, or a neighbor who might be a soul in need, or a recent widow from work, or someone who could use an infusion of the joy and radiance of Bach’s music.  What about the budding instrumentalist or singer in your neighborhood, the young dancer, the longtime classical music fan, or the devout parishioner from church?  Bach’s music will resonate with each of them, and the Festival is a wonderful immersion in a world brimming over with the very stuff of life.  As our passionate and learned conductor, Greg Funfgeld, says in the video below, “We feel more deeply because of what Bach helps us understand.”

 

A detailed schedule of the 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival.

You may order tickets from this link.

Stay tuned to the blog – I’m going to try to preview as many of the events and as much of the music as I can.  109 is going to be extraordinary. 

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White Knuckles: Bach @ Noon, April 12

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We have an exciting program coming of up for Bach at Noon, this Tuesday, April 12th.  It will begin with our conductor and assistant conductor playing an arrangement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto, arranged for piano by the German romantic (and keyboard sadist), Max Reger.  Audience members who attended last month’s Bach at Noon will have heard the original, and it will be rewarding to contrast that performance with that of our Kapellmeister  and his worthy assistant.  I’m curious to hear how fast they’ll take that nettlesome last movement (one of my favorite performances on recording, that of Musica Antiqua Köln, seems to go several bars to one beat, which is insanely fast, but, somehow they pull it off – look it up on iTunes!).  I’m confident that Greg and Tom will be brisk but won’t sacrifice any musical nuance for the sake of speed.

The program will continue with a work (Bach’s virtuosic motet, Singet dem Herrn),  about which Dr. Robin Leaver, our program annotator, writes:

All the verbal superlatives that have been heaped on this work – and there have been many – cannot do justice to the impact that this marvelous sound makes on performers and hearers alike.

This motet, composed for an indeterminate occasion, has scholars speculating on its provenance – we’re just not sure of the occasion (if any) for which Bach composed one of his greatest contrapuntal masterpieces.  That’s quite alright – just performing or hearing this piece is a grand occasion.

Bach sets verses of Psalms 149 and 150, along with a paraphrase of Psalm 130 for double choir, meaning that there are two four-voice choirs, often with colle parte instruments (instruments that double the vocal lines, note for note), and continuo (organ, ‘celli and basses).  When members of The Choir are polled about their favorite pieces, this one is invariably at or near the top of the list.

The piece begins with the two choirs duetting, followed by an lovely call and response section, the two choirs imitating one another in a strikingly exuberant way.  This beginning section constitutes a sort of prelude, matched to a ridiculously (in the best possible sense of the word) ornate fugue.  The text begins:

Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise His name in dances,

On the word dances” (or reihen), a long melismatic passage begins – many notes are sung to one syllable, creating the aural image of a florid dance.  With each succeeding entrance of the fugue, there is accompaniment from the opposite choir – when all of the voice parts have entered, it’s hard to describe the sheer thrill of the moment.  It requires a lot of vocal and rhythmic dexterity on the part of the choirs – the piece requires a lot of cogs and gears working in perfect synchronicity.  This is one of the reasons this section of the piece is such a white-knuckle thrill for the performers – the fugue moves along at an exciting clip, and the texture is quite thick.  Usually I like to imagine Bach’s faster fugues as dances after seeing the wonderful choreography of Barbara Pearson to the Cum Sancto Spiritu from the B Minor Mass at a Family Concert a few years ago.  Such is the density of this music, that this is next to impossible to do (a large company would be necessary, and there would be lots of acrobatics)!

Following the fireworks of the first two sections, the singers are given a kind of a rest with a more lyrical dialogue that has four singers – in our case, a quartet of excellent soloists from The Choir – singing aria-like extrapolations on a chorale theme that is sung by the two choirs.  This dialogue is slow-moving, and quite beautiful, an invocation for God’s continued protection in the future.

After the relative rest, the choir begins working towards the final fugue, by way of another prelude, this time set to a verse of Psalm 150.  The dialogue comes quickly with rapid calls and responses, and then the two choirs unite into one on a final section to the text:

Everything that has breath, praise the Lord,
Hallelujah!

This section is, again, pure vocal dance with long melismas in an act of text painting: the first is on the word “alles” or everything – underlining the how vast a quantity of souls that would mean.  In a sense, Bach creates a valedictory lap for the two choirs – the music of this last fugue is so infectious in its exuberance that it sort of sings itself (though no vocal complacency is possible – we work hard in this movement!).  The fugue theme is quite bravura, and the piece climaxes with a high b-flat at the end for the sopranos.   Greg often says that this music isn’t for the faint of heart, and that’s quite true – it’s a kind of inexorable musical journey, and one that is a pure delight to sing, provided the singers have put in long hours of rehearsal (ed note: which we have!).  Remember to arrive early – doors will open at 11:30 am – to assure yourself of a good seat!

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