Farewell to Summer!

It was a busy summer in Bachville  – we offered three Bach at Noons in Allentown, decamped to upstate New York for a wonderful benefit at the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, and kicked off the 2017-2018 season in Bethlehem with Bach at Noon this past Tuesday (not to mention the myriad planning meetings and legwork to prepare for the new season).  Auditions for The Choir are ongoing this weekend and the first rehearsal with the full ensemble is this coming Monday. Whew!  A quick recap of the summer’s events follows.

July Bach at Noon

I was away for the July B@N, but was able to watch a bit of it on the terrace of our hotel in the Outer Banks (coastal isolation comes with the price of spotty internet), via Facebook Live video.  If you’re out of town, are on Facebook, and haven’t liked us, you’re missing out!  In any case, it was a celebratory affair, and all three of the summer events at St. John’s Lutheran Church were at or near capacity.  A large contingent from the Choir sang Bach’s epic Cantata No. 80, Ein Feste Burg, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  Special guests included children of Allentown’s Community Bike Works, who cycled to the church, and participants in the Moravian College’s joint program with the National Endowment for the Humanities on Bach and the Music of the Reformation Churches.  All reports from those in attendance confirm it was a lovely afternoon.

A Vineyard of Musical Delights

At the end of July, several of us headed up to offer a program at the Hermann J. Wiemer Vineyard, an annual benefit the vineyard hosts for us.  It was a glorious time, and the concert, which featured works of Schubert, Fauré, Korngold, and Vaughan Williams’ stunning Serenade to Music.  The weather was most salubrious and the audience was very appreciative.  I highly commend next year’s offering to you – we’ll be sure to share the date when it’s set.

August Bach at Noon

We were back in Allentown for August’s ‘Noon, where we reprised the Vaughan Williams Serenade and heard Tom Goeman play Bach’s mammoth Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540.  Tom’s performance was extremely fleet and dexterous, and the audience rose in a mighty ovation in response.  A friend anticipated a seismic performance, and that’s what we got, with St. John’s large pipe organ shaking the rafters.  The audience rose again to join us in the chorale that concludes Vaughan Williams’ anthem O How Amiable, which we offered before the Serenade.  It was a glorious afternoon.

September Bach at Noon

Back in Bethlehem at Central Moravian Church, we offered a program including Bach’s B-Minor flute sonata (performed with aplomb by Greg and Robin Kani), a Händel German aria (sung enchantingly by Rosa Lamoreaux), and The Choir’s contribution, Händel’s Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest.  After all of our wanderings, it was good to be home to another near-capacity audience.  Greg spoke movingly about music of consolation in light of the 16th anniversary of 9/11, which preceded our concert by a day, and we ended on the uplifting note of Zadok’s jubilation.

Looking Ahead

There’s much to share about upcoming concerts, including the October Bach at Noon, which will feature the Bach Choir debut of the soprano Nola Richardson, who won our most recent competition for young singers in conjunction with the American Bach Society (in May of 2016), and the return of another winner of the same, audience favorite and baritone Dashon Burton.  Greg and Tom will be playing a four-hands Mozart piano sonata, and The Choir will be singing a cantata last heard in Bethlehem in 1981, No. 68, which includes two barn-burning arias for Nola and Dashon.  I heard Nola sing in the competition, and am very excited for Bethlehem audiences to make her acquaintance.  Dashon needs no introduction, his every appearance here is a treat!

In November a number of banner events will be happening, including our hosting of the Tomanerchor Leipzig, the choir Bach conducted during his tenure at the Tomaskirche in Leipzig for our Gala Concert and Fundraiser.  Order your tickets now – they sound absolutely fabulous (especially so in recent years). November’s Bach at Noon will be our 90th, and will feature Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto, along with Cantata No. 69, Lobe den herrn, meine Seele, another real barn-burner. In the same week, members of The Choir will head out to perform two-days’ worth of Bach to School performances.  Whew!

I’ll be penning a great many more posts about each of these events – hopefully, this will whet your appetite.  Our 2017-2018 season is going to be fantastic!

 

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Bach at Noon in Allentown, June 13th: Sweet Eternity

The Bach Choir’s Lehigh Valley reach will continue to extend into our valley neighbors this year, beginning this coming Tuesday, with Bach at Noon in the glorious gothic confines of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Allentown.  These are packed affairs, as you can see from this older photograph from the two summers ago, so you’ll want to arrive early to get a good seat.  We trade the almost-Shaker simplicity of Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem for vaulted arches and elaborate carvings, and Bach’s music takes on a slightly altered character in the beautiful stone sanctuary.  We’re really excited about what we have in store for our Allentown audience (which, it should be said, will include many of our friends from Bethlehem who will make the trek out Broad Street and across the Lehigh River).  Our three-concert Allentown Bach at Noon series will begin with a classic Bach cantata and a charming Vivaldi bassoon concerto.  In July, we’ll celebrate the 500 Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation with a performance of Bach’s barn-burning cantata, Ein ‘feste Burg, along with piano prodigy Kristina Moditch offering Bach’s A-Major Concerto with members of the Bach Festival Orchestra.  At the August performance, we’ll hear Ralph Vaughan Williams rhapsodic Shakespeare setting, the Serenade to Music (with a spine-tinglingly evocative text excerpted from the Merchant of Venice) along with our organist, Tom Goeman, offering Bach’s mammoth Toccata and Fugue in F-Major on St. John’s equally mammoth Reuter pipe organ.  We are delighted to offer these concerts for free.  If you’re in the region and are free, what better infusion of joy and beauty could you hope for?

We begin on Tuesday by featuring one of the bedrocks of our orchestra, the bassoonist and composer, Chuck Holdeman.  He’s also one of the longest-serving members of the Bach Festival Orchestra, and his continuo playing always elicits raves (as did his children’s opera, Young Meister Bach, which we performed as our Spring Concert in Bethlehem and Philadelphia, as well as at Festival, a couple years ago).  We’re accustomed to the bassoon as providing the bass line to much of Bach’s music (there are a few arias with bassoon obbligato, which Chuck plays marvelously).  In the Vivaldi, he’ll step up and offer some virtuosic melodies with accompaniment by the strings and continuo.  The middle Largo movement is especially lyrical, and the last movement is especially a toe-tapper, with long, fast lines for the soloist, and Vivaldian zest for the strings.  It’s going to be delightful.

Cantata 78 was composed for the 14th Sunday after Trinity and first performed on September 10, 1724.   The text of this cantata is somewhat dark, charting the depth of sin and shame, wrapping it in the sacrifice of Christ, and finding redemption and peace in “sweet eternity.”  If the text, written in the theological lingua franca of its time, seems severe, Bach balances that severity with sublime music of a stunning variety of textures and moods. Indeed, perhaps the greatest contrast is between the first and second movements:  the first being a massive effort, composed over a ground bass, and the second, a fleet-footed delight of extraordinary whimsy and wit.

A ground bass, or repeated bass pattern was utilized many times in Bach’s compositions, from one of his earliest cantatas, No. 150 (whose last movement, a spirited chaconne was an earlier signifier of the genius of Bach’s cantatas), to the twin movements: the opening chorus of Cantata 12, which was later refashioned into the Crucifixus of the Mass in B-Minor.  Over this repeated bass line in Cantata 78, we hear contrapuntal work from the lower three voices, followed by the work’s main chorale melody, declaimed by the sopranos of the choir. Bach creates a stunning variety in the repeated patterns, sometimes maintaining the harmony over a pedal point (a single note held by the basso continuo instruments for a long time), sometimes with very dance-inflected inner voices.  The text references the devil’s pit, Christ’s bitter death, and ends on a hopeful note (thankfully – it’s all very dark).  The voice in the libretto of this cantata, mostly by an anonymous author, with some verses of the chorale upon which it’s based, is somewhat self-flagellating.

The text of the second movement speaks of our haste with “weak yet eager footsteps,” to our Savior, and Bach, perhaps weary of the darkness and lament can’t help but respond with a duet almost unparalleled in its whimsy.  To my ears, there’s nothing weak about it, and I can more easily imagine the rhythmic raising of beer steins than a devout offering in the middle of a Sunday morning service.  In the record of Bach’s papers, we do have invoices for brandy and wine.  I’m tempted to surmise that old JS might have nipped into some of that for the writing of this movement.  It’s irresistibly joyful.

After an extended tenor recitative, there is some more musical sunshine with a lovely aria that includes an instrumentalization similar to to the Benedictus from the B-Minor: flute and basso continuo.  Though, in this setting, the low strings play pizzicato or plucked.  With the atoning blood of Christ, the singer’s heart is made light and is encouraged and triumphant.

Next, a long bass recitative, reflecting on Christ’s wounds as an atoning sacrifice that lightens the heart of the singer.  The recit is accompanied by strings and is quite dramatic.  It is then followed by vigorous bass aria, with an oboe obbligato.  Bach paints a sound picture of a clamoring conscience, brought still by the love of Christ.  The cantata then concludes with a lovely harmonization of the chorale.

We have an excellent quartet of soloists joining us, including the rising soprano, Julie Bosworth, the plush mezzo, Janna Critz, longtime friend of The Choir, Stephen Ng (recently back from a series of performances in Hong Kong), and another longtime friend, the bass, David Newman, who will decamp a little later this summer to work with our friends at the Carmel Bach Festival in California.  It promises to be a lovely afternoon – as I said, please plan to arrive early to secure a good seat!

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110.2 Wrap-Up

I am writing my wrap-up of the second weekend of Festival before it’s officially over because I tarried too long, and didn’t secure our tickets for Zimmerman’s Coffee House before it sold out.  Dear reader, it’s probably for the best – I’m beat.  For Choir members, there’s what some affectionally call “Hell Week,” for some singers, as many as four evening orchestral rehearsals before the first weekend of the Festival.  Some of us sang Friday afternoon and evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon.  As we were making our way to Packer Memorial Church for the Mass, this afternoon, my wife tried to offset the exhaustion by saying “Just one more performance!”  My reply, “Yes, of one of Western Civilization’s towering masterpieces.  No pressure!”  Consider it weariness overcome, because today’s Mass was an extra ebullient affair!

But first, back to the beginning of the weekend.  I did not attend this week’s Distinguished Scholar Lecture (having seen it last week), but our marvelous Executive Director, Bridget George, shared with me that it was well-attended and well-received.  No doubt.  My favorite moment last week was when Dr. Stauffer pithily observed that, given the paucity of primary (non-hagiographic) sources about Bach, the human, that his biographers have all seemed to fashion him somewhat in their own image.  It was somewhat amusing when he mentioned Forkel and Spitta, and then a slide of the cover of Christoph Wolff’s monumental work, “Johann Sebastion Bach, the Learned Musician,” appeared on the screen, and Dr. Stauffer mused on how his Pulitzer-nominated, Harvard Dean, Bach-Archiv Leipzig President friend and colleague absolutely typifies such an honorific.  Maybe you had to be there, but there were numerous hearty laughs.

Chamber Music in the Saal

Attendees were promised an intriguing program:  Bach and the Viola of Love.  Our new violist, Paul Miller, began the proceedings with a brief description of the viola d’amore, which has a second set of strings that vibrate in sympathy with the bowed strings and passed around an example from Dr. Alfred Mann’s (an early music dynamo and earlier conductor of The Choir) personal collection.  He was then joined by Charlotte Mattax-Moersch, at the harpsichord, Mollie Glazer on ‘cello, and a colleague from the viola section, Maureen Murchie, for a Heinrichen trio sonata.  Wow.  The sound of chamber music in a….chamber.  For those not in the know, you can swiftly be transported back into the 18th century by securing yourself a spot on one of the benches (pews?) of the Saal of the Moravian Museum, on Church St.  It’s a beautiful space, with what have to be the original wide-planked floors, a slightly bowing giant beam across the room, and intimate acoustics.  Highlights of the program included some beautiful aria singing by Ben Butterfield, Agnes Zsigovics, and Dashon Burton, accompanied by the d’amores, harpsichord, and Mollie’s frequent switching between viola da gamba  and ‘cello. Paul, in his spellbinding and deeply-amusing remarks about the program, traced the lineage of Telemann’s use of the d’amores  in his own Brockes Passion, to Bach’s nod to Telemann in his own use of the instruments in two powerful movements in the St. John Passion.  Dashon sang with such devotion and craft in the arioso, Betrachte, meine Seel, and Ben offered a gorgeous Erwäge. All of that would have been worth the price of admission, alone, but we also got to hear Agnes sing one of my all-time favorite arias, Auch mit gedämpften, from Cantata BWV 36.  It was a real time-stopper. The program concluded with Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Partita No. 7 from “Harmonia artificosa,” which was an absolute tour-de-force.  There was copious double-stopping, creating rich harmonies and compelling sonorities, and Paul and Maureen navigated some highly ornamented playing beautifully (some of their ornaments seemed flawlessly improvised, some were clearly written in the score).  I attended Bach @4 last week and was so glad that I had the opportunity to hear music in the Saal this week.  Next year, if you’re in the region, you should plan to attend both.

Bach @ 8

Our orchestral colleagues played with particular panache throughout Festival, perhaps none more than in the French overture that begins Cantata BWV 97.  The strings are launched into the stratosphere, and the intonation was remarkable, as were the 32nd note runs many sections of the orchestra had to travail.  Such elegance!  The opening chorus seemed to go very well.  The arias and recits all went well – Bill Sharp sounded very plush in his, with accompaniment by the basso continuo instruments.  Likewise Ben and Liz Field shared in another spirit-meld of exceptional eloquence in their duet.  Daniel Taylor sounded assured and shimmery in his aria, accompanied ably by strings and continuo.  Rosa Lamoreaux brought her consummate artistry to a duet with Bill and in an aria, by herself, with excellent obbligato contributions by Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa on oboe, with Chuck Holdeman offering a rock-solid continuo foundation.

The Telemann concerto was given another vigorous and vivacious reading by a smaller ensemble from the orchestra, with dialoguing viola da gamba and recorder.  Brava to Mollie, Tricia, and their colleagues for putting Bach into focus through the music of one of his most esteemed contemporaries.

It was Christmas in May with Cantata BWV 110.  The opening French overture was as regal and majestic as you could hope for, and the choral parts of the opening chorus, superimposed over the instrumental parts from the Fourth Orchestral Suite were a blast to sing.  Agnes, Dan, and Ben sang with excellent ensemble sense and dexterity in their trio in the opening chorus, and Dashon roared away on his solo.  Greg often sings this by himself when rehearsing with the choir (usually down the octave), and always has an enormous amount of fun rolling the r in a dramatic octave drop on the word “grosses,” and Dashon demonstrated the same vigor in his singing.  Mary Watt and Dan had a particularly transfixing aria together, which demonstrated their total mastery of their respective instruments.   When I listen to those playing oboe on reference recordings of the Bach cantatas, I always come away thinking that they’re sometimes a little different, but never better, than Mary.  How deeply she is able to get inside the genius of Bach’s melodies, with an endless array of shadings and colors, with a seemingly infinite matrix of expressivity, utterly stuns me, every time she plays.  Likewise, with Dan, the depth of his interpretation and the technical skill he utilizes in bringing melodies and texts to life is so very, very inspiring.  Our very late (or very early) Christmas feast also included wonderful singing from Agnes and Ben, obbligato beauty from flautists Robin Kani and Linda Ganus, and fearless trumpeting from Larry Wright.

The Nightingale

We had a slightly bigger crowd this week, and they really seemed to revel in the joy and depth of our adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale, offered in collaboration with the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre (which involved actors from the Charter Arts High School and Touchstone Theatre).  In his opening remarks, Greg spoke of the value of authenticity and realness in the art.  Doug Roysden, the founder of Mock Turtle took Greg’s defense of organic creation and added to it local art, noting that this production was a Bethlehem original, from the organizations involved in its genesis, to the construction of The Choir’s harpsichord by local (and internationally-renowned) builder, Willard Martin, whose studio is a stone’s throw from the Zoellner Arts Center.  There was lovely playing, particularly by Tricia van Oers, our Festival Artist-in-Residence, by Greg at the harpsichord (he played passages from the Art of the Fugue, and dueted with Liz Field in a whimsical Graceful Ghost Rag by contemporary composer William Bolcolm). There was also high silliness from the beautiful marionettes and the extremely mischievous ghosts.  Again this week, we had a beautiful prelude by the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, this time led by their wonderful conductor, Dr. Joy Hirokawa.  With these talented, well-trained young voices, the future is in good hands!

The Mass

Last week, I playfully posed a question:  Greg’s tempo for the Cum Sancto Spiritu was a little bit on the more conservative side – would that be the case this week?  After we finished, and while we were catching our breath, Tom Goeman, who plays continuo on the large organ in Packer Memorial Church when The Choir sings, turned to me and mouthed the words, “That was FAST!”  Indeed!  We were scampering to keep up, but it was a total thrill.  If last week’s performance felt solid and grounded, this week’s felt solid, but also adventurous (no two performances will ever be alike).  All of the magic we’ve come to expect from our vocal and instrumental soloists was conjured once again, and things seemed to go very well, chorally. What a blessing and a privilege to revisit this music every year, and to be nourished, moved, inspired, and uplifted by its particular genius, in such loving and convivial company!

Kudos, Maestro!

My wife and I call Greg “The Maestro” semi-ironically for a few reasons:  Like us, he’s a big fan of Seinfeld, we know he would bristle at the honorific out of humility, and, last but not least, in the very best sense of the word, it absolutely applies.  Of the many things that have inspired so many of us over the years about Greg, a new one has emerged, one that has always been evident, but becomes even more impressive over time:  he never stops challenging himself.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him take the easy way out of anything, particularly when no one would fault him for doing so.  Some artists yearn for fame, for recognition, for admiration.  Others are motivated by an unseen force, chasing after more mastery, more depth, more humanity.  Greg is so firmly in the latter camp, and this year’s Festival put that powerfully on display.  From harpsichord solos to organ obbligatos, from cheerfully interacting with the Bach Choir family, to conducting an extremely wide range of music, there he is, challenging himself, and inspiring the rest of us.  Bravo!

Happy Anniversary, Bridget George

You may have noted in the program that our wonderful Executive Director, Bridget George, is observing her 20th anniversary with the organization.  I want to add a few words of appreciation, myself.  We came to know her in my first few years in The Choir.  One is immediately impressed with her erudition, her deep knowledge of Bach’s music, her Energizer bunny level of drive, and her arch-kindness.  The summer before our UK tour in 2003 was a scorcher, and my wife and I would often take a walk after sundown through Bethlehem’s Historic District, often passing The Choir’s office on Heckewelder Place (a few doors down from our current, much-beloved home).  There, through the window, often after 9 pm, would be Bridget, working at her computer, finalizing details for our trip.  She and I have had many conversations over the years on topics that touch on her wide range of experience and skills, music, of course, theater, of course, art, literature, poetry, faith, familiy, and more. Hers is a hard-won, generous, and empathetic wisdom, and, when coupled with what others have characterized as her “indefatigable passion,” it seems to many of us that there isn’t anything she can’t accomplish. Her thoughtful and inspired stewardship have helped the organization expand dramatically and achieve new heights.  Her love for the Bach Choir is evident in everything she does, and I am so grateful to call her a colleague and a friend.  Brava!

Many thanks to everyone who attended 110 – stay tuned for more information about this summer’s Bach at Noon performances, as well as our annual outing to the Finger Lakes for a benefit concert at Hermann Wiemer Vineyard.  There’s much wonderful music on tap!

 

 

 

 

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110.1 Wrap-Up

Rosa Lamoreaux, Greg Funfgeld, and Bill Sharp receive a hearty ovation for their efforts on BWV 49

Time flies when you’re having fun!  The first weekend of the 110th Bethlehem Bach Festival is in the can, and it’s hard to believe how swiftly the two-day total immersion in Bach passed.  Here are some highlights from both sides of the stage.

Distinguished Scholar Lecture with Dr. George Stauffer

I have a few of Dr. Stauffer’s books in my library, and it was a delight to put a face and a voice with his erudition.  His lecture was, by turns, scholarly, funny, insightful, and just a tiny bit spicy.  If you missed it and are around and available on Friday, May 19th, you really must attend.  He weaves several strands of Bach’s genius to make a very compelling case for the Kapellmeister’s continued prominent place in our culture.  I’ll share his trenchant and hilarious observation about Bach biographers next week – I don’t want to ruin the fun for those attending this coming weekend!

Bach @ 4

I enjoyed this concert from the audience and was delighted by all of the fascinating music on offer.  In a stunning aria, Rosa Lamoreaux, one of our fantastic soprano soloists sings of the union of the soul to Christ, the bridegroom, “I am resplendent.”  This was not a stretch – Rosa sounded beautiful (and forgive me for saying so – looked very much the part in a resplendent blue gown of her own making – in addition to her musical talents, Rosa is a brilliant seamstress!).  Her duets with Bill Sharp were fantastic, and Greg Funfgeld offered a real hoot of an organ sinfonia from our continuo instrument, accompanied by zesty orchestral accompaniment.  One of our cellists, Debbie Davis, was then joined by Steve Groat, one of our bassists, to play a canonical sonata for cello and bass by Telemann.  It is the 250th anniversary of his death, which we are observing with a few instrumental selections peppered throughout the Festival program.  Debbie and Steve sounded fabulous, and Debbie offered excellent commentary before the piece began.  The program concluded with Cantata BWV 103, which featured members of The Choir, along with our orchestral colleagues, and the Festival Artist-in Residence, Tricia van Oers, burning things up on the recorder. Daniel Taylor, countertenor, and Stephen Ng, tenor, both made wonderful contributions in their respective arias, and my colleagues in The Choir navigated the challenging chromatic counterpoint of the opening chorus with much aplomb.  I’ll be off to the Saal for next week’s 4 pm concert – I can highly recommend Bach at 4 for a wonderful afternoon of music.  Be sure to arrive early for the chorale sing!

Bach @ 8

This program features full choir and orchestra and was a lot of fun to sing.  I have to confess, my favorite moment was unexpected (Cantata BWV 110’s exultant and exuberant opening chorus was my prediction going in).  I have notes in my score about performing Cantata BWV 97, which opened the program, but I hadn’t really remembered much about it, beyond some vague recollection of practicing the difficult text underlay in my office some years ago (I consulted the handy list of repertoire and corresponding dates, and it’s been since 2008, when we sang it at a Bach at Noon).  I didn’t recall the rhapsodic tenor aria with violin obbligato that happens halfway through the work, and I’m at a loss as to why!  Elizabeth Field, our concertmaster, began the challenging violin line with such elegance and lyricism.  There are all kinds of double-stopping (playing two notes at once) and contrapuntal invention, in the solo violin line, which dialogue with the tenor’s melody.  Benjamin Butterfield, our tenor soloist, and Liz seemed to impel one another to greater heights of beauty and grace.  Wow.  Wow, also to Mollie Glazer and Tricia van Oers in their vigorous and elegant Telemann concerto (wow, also, to Charlotte Mattax Moersh, who paused to tune an errant F on the harpsichord between movements).  Cantata BWV 110 completed the program with some fierce trumpeting, much melismatic laughter in the opening chorus, and another favorite moment, which lasted slightly over a second.  Someone in the Times said of Dashon Burton, our bass soloists, that “he has a voice that could wake the dead.”  In the opening chorus, Bach gives us a rare indication of the makeup of the singers in his choirs and is unusually particular about assigning a soloist to a bass part towards the end of the chorus.  It’s particularly fiery passage, and takes the soloist up to a high E.  Everytime we rehearsed it this week, Dashon would shake the rafters with a moment of pure vocal power, and in the concert, he was even more resonant.  We are accustomed to the finesse and lyricism of his singing, but, as we learned in his revelatory performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah a few years ago, when Dashon wants to roar, it is hair-raisingly thrilling.  Likewise, in a later aria, accompanied by Larry Wright’s fearless trumpeting, Dashon sang multiple repetitions of the phrase “Wacht auf” (literally, “wake up!”), testing the Times critic’s observation.  Excellent stuff.  In addition to Dashon’s excellent work, we also heard some fantastic aria singing by Agnes Zigovics, Daniel Taylor, and Ben Butterfield, with exemplary fluting by Robin Kani and Linda Ganus, and Mary Watt’s always-lyrical oboeing (lungs of steel, I tell you!).

The Nightingale 

After a complete run-through and a performance for the Family Concert, and another complete run-through and another performance on Saturday morning, I was curious how our infectiously cheerful collaboration with the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre would hold up. It remains a delight, and I’m looking forward to another run on next Saturday.  A tip of the hat to Tricia, who gives voice to the Nightingale, to the actors and director from Mock Turtle, and to Doug Roysden, Mock Turtle’s leader, and Bridget George, our executive director, for bringing this all to life.  I promised it would be a treat for children of all ages, and I heard laughter from across the age spectrum at the antics of a very colorful cast of characters.  Pure joy.  Prior to the Nightingale, we were treated to a brief recital by the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.  They sang beautifully, with splendid intonation and rhythmic spirit, but also with an enviable tone quality that reflects impressively on the talents of the singers, and the careful cultivation of the same by their director, Dr. Joy Hirokawa.  They were also extremely flexible – Dr. Hirokawa was obligated to be at Moravian College’s commencement, so she handed the reins over to her capable colleague, Greg Funfgeld, who knows his way around directing a choir.  The children responded beautifully to his leadership – testimony to a well-prepared choir!

The Mass

I don’t know if they named the Nor’Easter that blew through on Saturday, but I think it should’ve been called Johann Adolph, after Bach’s critical nemesis, Scheibe, because it poured all morning and most of the afternoon.  We moved the chorale sing and the Festival Brass Choir indoors, as a result, and the hearty singing of chorales set a ruddy and defiant tone (to the rain’s attempt to dampen the festivities) for the Mass that followed.  I lost count around 30 of my personal performances of the Mass, but each one takes on a character of its own.  Variables include the weather (sometimes it’s a bit of a swelter, as forecast for this coming weekend – dress accordingly!), illness to overcome (enough years have passed to mention that Greg once heroically led a Mass despite having a serious stomach bug – I honestly don’t know how he does it!), the particular energy of the audience, the cast of soloists, etc.  The stars really seemed to align for Saturday’s performance, which had an extremely grounded feel to it from the choral risers.  The audience seemed eager, the orchestra was at the top of their game, the soloists were connected and full of artistry, and Greg seemed especially determined.  I hope it was as rewarding to hear as it was to perform.

We’ll be attending Zimmerman’s Coffe House next week, and are very much looking forward to hearing the next generation of Bach talent in a fun atmosphere.

110.2

If you have tickets for next week’s festivities, congratulations!  You’re in for a wonderful time.  If you attended this past weekend, it was such a privilege to perform for you and a delight to welcome you.  I have a cheeky suggestion if you attended and are from the area:  Come back – tickets are available for most, if not all, of the performances, and you will marvel at the permutations and subtle changes that take place.  Greg’s tempo for the Cum Sancto Spiritu was on the more conservative side this week.  Will the spirit (and the heat),  cause a downshift and a woosh through the movement?  How about a nice picnic on what we hope will be a dry lawn?  Do you have children, grandchildren, neighbors with children who haven’t yet seen The Nightingale?  We are throwing a splendid party for anyone who could stand to be moved by tremendous beauty, and we’d love to have an overflowing guest list.  Also, is there such a thing as too much Bach (I’m biased, I will admit)?

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110: First Weekend Preview

*Artist’s Rendering of Forecast Weather

One of my friends on social media asked, this morning, “Are we in for a Nor’easter this weekend?”  At first I thought it was a bit of colorful hyperbole, but, alas, it looks as though we may have a bit of a tempest!  I shall hasten to add, I became hooked on the Bethlehem Bach Festival in 1989 as a 9th grader, during some particularly treacherous weather, so I don’t think that should be at all an impediment to one’s attendance.  Bring an umbrella, wear some galoshes, and brace yourself for an immersion, in addition to the forecast rain, into the beautiful music of Bach!

You’ve surely been to the website to order your tickets, you’ve pondered all of the fantastic offerings, you may have read my Festival preview in the Bach Choir News and you’ve received our e-mails about backup plans for bad weather (the Festival Brass and Saturday Chorale Sing may be indoors in Packer Memorial Church), and now you’re excited for the feast of excellent music, happy homecomings, and other Festival happenings.  I have a few additional thoughts and pro tips to offer:

1. Get thee to one (or more) of the lectures!

George Stauffer, the Dean of the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, is one of the great Bach scholars of our time (most of whom regularly decamp in Bethlehem to offer these lectures).  The intriguing title of this year’s offering is “Why Bach Matters.”  Most of us could gush on for hours, and it will be most rewarding to hear how one of our finest thinkers about Bach will distill the sum of his wisdom and knowledge into a single lecture.   Likewise, Larry Lipkis, the highly credentialed luminary from Moravian College, will offer an informal talk during dinner on Friday night.  His erudition is only equalled by his good humor.  You will laugh and learn.   Visit the website for more information and tickets.

2.  Both Friday Afternoon Programs will be fantastic.

I was unable to choose, so I’m going to both (Bach @ 4 this week, the concert in the Saal, next).  The Saal usually sells out, but it’s worth calling the office to see if any tickets remain.  How often can you hear chamber music in an actual chamber?  Plus, the soprano aria from Cantata 36 is on offer, and I’d travel further than across the river to hear Agnes Zigovics sing it.  I’m sure there are a few available to Bach @ 4, which also features a chorale sing (you can sing with the Bach Choir!) as a prelude to the performance.  The acoustics and the visual environment at Incarnation of Our Lord Church are spectacular.  So is the program it’s worth taking an afternoon off to attend.

3. In addition to galoshes and an umbrella, pack your allergy medicine.

I offer this bit of wisdom every year, but Lehigh University is in full bloom, and though one side-effect of the rain may be to tamp down some of the pollen, the Lehigh Valley, in general, is an allergist’s dream.  Your lungs, ears, and eyes will thank you.

4.  Come to The Nightingale.

Last year for the Saturday morning performances, we had Taylor II Dance to thrill us.  This year, we’re reprising our collaboration with Bethlehem’s excellent Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre, which received great acclaim at our Family Concert this year.  The marionettes, themselves, are fascinating works of art, and in the hands of our extremely talented marionettists, they come to life in ways that are whimsical, deeply entertaining, and touching.  The music will range from Couperin to Bolcolm, by way of Bach, Mozart, and others.  If you don’t leave with a grin on your face and a spring in your (galoshed) step, come find me and we’ll chat.

5.  Prepare to be rocked by the recorder.

I always grimace when I see a certain kind of social media post.  It usually has a picture of a recorder, and the wiseacre who posts it says, if you want to punish your enemies, give their children a recorder.  As the husband of an elementary school music teacher, and a musical connoisseur, I usually end up commenting with a link to a performance of one of Vivaldi’s concerti, and drop the mic at that.  Tricia van Oers, this year’s Festival Artist-in-Residence, is a virtuoso, and both the lyrical and pyrotechnic potential of the instrument will be much on display.  We’ll be hearing her in Bach, Telemann, and a number of other composers, and you’ll be both thrilled and moved by her artistry.

6.  Allow the Mass to work its magic.

The American composer Michael Torke once said, “Who needs a therapist when we have Bach’s B-Minor Mass.”  I’m not sure Bach is a reliable replacement for time, if necessary, on the couch, but I will attest to the flip side of his deeply spiritual music, it is logic-made-sound.  In the chaos of our current historical moment, sometimes it is soothing and healing to experience extraordinary beauty in the form of exquisitely composed music.  Bach was an unsurpassed master of counterpoint, and hearing his genius solutions to the challenges of composing in a contrapuntal style brings order to our minds and souls, and the experience of the Mass will echo in your psyche for some time.

7.  After the spiritual rhapsody of the Mass, let your hair down at Zimmerman’s Coffee House.

For years I bemoaned the lack of a sort of after-party for the Festival.  It always felt a little anti-climactic to share in the power and majesty of the Mass, and then all go our separate ways.  Now we have another option.  You can enjoy German food and drink, and hear the next generation of Bach performers (auditioned high school and college students) pick up the torch for this incredible music.  There are usually some surprise guests, and you’ll surely appreciate the opportunity to share in the Bach fellowship a little longer.

8.  Bring a friend.

We’ve been at this for a while (this is the organization’s 110th Festival), and we’re confident of the music’s power to create an atmosphere of cheerful fellowship, spiritual nourishment, intellectual simulation, and aesthetic pleasure.  We love it when someone new joins us – while the Festival’s grand traditions are inestimably valuable, we’re so very, very delighted to welcome first-timers to the family.  Shared experiences form some of the most powerful memories – bring your child or grandchild, your neighbor or friend, and welcome them, with us, to a weekend brimming over with the very stuff of life.

I’m going to many of the programs (in addition to singing in a few), so I’ll have a wrap-up of the first weekend up on the blog at the end of the weekend.  Check back – I might have a few more tips if you’re coming on Weekend II!

 

 

 

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Bach at Noon, April 11th: Spiritual Revival

I really wish I could sing at Tuesday’s Bach at Noon, but I’ll be too deep in the Holy Week Machine of bulletin editing and practicing to take the morning off from the day job.  Alas, it sounds like it’s going to be quite the affair!  It will be the last Bach at Noon in Bethlehem until September, we’re recognizing 275 years of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem (with remarks by the incredibly eloquent Pastor of Central Moravian Church, The Rev. Hopeton Clennon), our friends from WLVT PBS 39 will be on hand to film the performance, and, there’s also the matter of the music!

We’ll begin by putting trumpeters Larry Wright and Bryan Kuszyk through their paces in a fiercely elegant Double Concerto in C-Major, RV 537, by Antonio Vivaldi.  They’ll join the strings of the Bach Festival Orchestra in this delightful romp, full of Vivaldi’s trademark zest, and a particularly Italiante collection of fanfares and stratospheric dialogues.  Larry and Brian are both serious virtuosos, and I’m sure it will be a thrill to hear them crown the orchestra in this charming piece.

Also on tap, a trio by the Moravian composer, John Antes (1740-1811) featuring Liz Field, Linda Kistler, and Loretta O’Sullivan.  I am unfamiliar with his work, but his biography is very interesting, and I’m sure the three Ls will bring his music vividly to life, and everyone will enjoy his deep connection to our fair little town!

If that weren’t enough, then there’s the matter of the cantata on offer, Bach’s delightful Easter work, BWV 66, Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen.  This is the second Easter cantata I heard by The Choir as a rapt teenager at Festival (the first being Cantata No. 4, Christ lag in Todesbanden). Such was the depth of my musical insight that my favorite part of that first performance was how Bach’s librettist rhymed “Herzen,” with “Schmerzen.”   I’m please to report that my connoisseurship of the cantatas has given me at least a little more depth in my perception of the musical features of this remarkable work.

The opening instrumental ritornello is extremely fleet and in three:  the strings soon offer a figure that whips through most of their range, all while winds and trumpets offer zesty punctuation.  The singers enter the festivities with solo statements of the first line of text, with response by the rest of the choir making those -zen rhymes.  The libretto promises believers that Christ’s resurrection “revives his spiritual kingdom.”  In the B-section of the opening chorus, we hear from alto and bass about the mourning, fear, and anxious despair that the Savior drives away, with much chromaticism in the melodies, which are nonetheless decorated with some of the wind figurations from the opening ritornello.  One gets the sense that Bach was very conversant, in both psychological and spiritual realms, of exactly what victory over the grave procured for believers, as well as what it cost.  This duality animates much of his Easter music, perhaps no more than in Cantata No. 4, but certainly in this work, as well.  There is the rhapsody of resurrection and eternal life, and a sense of awe over the incarnation and crucifixion.

After a brief recit, we’ll hear a dance-y aria for bass, in our case, the redoubtable David Newman, who will bring his uncompromising artistry and ebullient spirit to the task.  We’ll also hear a beautiful arioso with longtime Bethlehem favorite, Stephen Ng, and a Bethlehem newcomer, the mezzo soprano, Janna Critz (whose bio is impressive, including participation with our friends at the Carmel Bach Festival in their Virginia Best Adams masterclass).  Then follows a duet with the alto and tenor, with a lovely violin obbligato, followed by three emphatic Easter allelluias in the concluding chorale.

The cantata comes perhaps a week early in liturgical real time, but I don’t think anyone could be faulted for leaving Central Moravian with a sense of Easterly revival (particularly since the flowering trees are in bloom all around town).  An august occasion, a cheerful and remarkable group of performers, and infectiously joyful music should make for quite an afternoon.  Plan to arrive by 11:30 am, when the doors open, to secure a good seat!

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Spring Concert Wrap-Up

I needed a day to think about yesterday afternoon’s concert before writing a wrap-up.  There was so much to ponder, and I also wanted some audience statistics, which were tabulated and arrived this afternoon.   The concert was a grand success by every measure:  it was profoundly rewarding to offer this challenging program, and the five-minute ovation that followed from the near-capacity crowd was deeply humbling.  I think the concert also exhibited several enviable synergies throughout our organization, and pulled together several facets of our mission in a new and compelling way.

For one, it was a treat to be joined by the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, with whom were are sharing in joint due-dilligance for the possibility of a merger.  The kids were fantastic – it was lovely to have them join us for Bach’s epic motet, Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227.  They brought lovely color and tone to the chorale movements of the motet, and we greatly appreciated their energy.  Likewise, it’s hard to imagine MASS without their youthful exuberance, particularly in the Simple Song and the Sanctus.  Diane DiLabio, a member of the Chorus had an extended duet with Isaiah Bell at the end of the work, and her singing was breathtakingly beautiful and remarkably poised.

Our timpanist, Dr. Christopher Hanning, brought four of his students from West Chester University to help him with the extensive and challenging percussion parts in the Bernstein.  As someone who enjoyed playing percussion in high school, watching them devour the challenges of the score and play with such finesse and bravery was such a thrill.   In particular, Jennifer Cho’s commanding presence at the timpani during the Gloria was absolutely enthralling (I had to labor not to watch, as the choral part of that movement was daunting enough).

It was strange to see the orchestra personnel listed in the program, and see parts for electric guitar and electric bass.  Particular kudos to bassist Mark Wade, who brought our continuo group into the 21st century.  It was also a treat to have Lehigh University’s orchestral conductor Eugene Albulescu at the piano- like the percussionists, Eugene knows how to count, and he got a demanding workout.  He also brought out many colors and textures in the piano part.  Eugene has been a stalwart supporter of The Choir – in fact, our Spring Concert of 2015 was an exhilarating collaboration with the LU Philharmonic, principal players from the Bach Festival Orchestra, and some talented choirs in the community.  What a pleasure to have our accomplished friend in our orchestra.

Speaking of the orchestra, it was such a delight to hear our fine assembly of baroque experts demonstrate another facet of their artistry in the kaleidoscopic music of Lenny.  There are moments of such solemnity, then moments that evoke his other works, including West Side Story, the  Chichester Psalms, and even Candide.  They were spectacular instrumental shape-shifters, always exuberant, tremendously flexible, and full of sensitivity to one another and the singers.  Tom Goeman’s continuo playing (on the piano for the Bach, no less) and the organ for the Bernstein, was suave and sensitive, as well.  Hearing him enter the texture in Simple Song, added a timeless quality to music, deeply enriching the colorful sonorities.

We were delighted to welcome the fearless coloratura soprano, Barbara Kilduff, to ascend into the stratosphere in Bernstein’s punishing and aleatoric Kyrie. It’s a page of her singing alone at the top of her range (with just a tiny bit of color from percussion), and then the choir’s sopranos join, in another key, and begin some challenging Bernsteinian ululations in Greek.  Barbara was commanding, unflappable, and tremendously compelling as she deftly managed the challenges of her part.

One of The Choir’s tenors, Lane McCord, joined Isaiah in a similarly difficult moment at the end of the sing, I don’t know.  Last heard as Prince Charming in Warren Martin’s The True Story of Cinderella, Lane acquitted himself, again, marvelously.  I was also so proud of my colleagues in The Choir, who dove into this challenging music with great purpose and courage (it’s maybe a little out of our collective wheelhouse, after all…).

Even with such a long list of acknowledgments, there remain two individuals who took this performance to rarified heights.  The first, the exceptional tenor, Isaiah Bell.  Last year, we all marveled at his singing of the Erwäge from the St. John Passion.  I had a really hard time imagining it sung better, and have combed my extensive recordings of the work to verify.  I knew that he’d do the Bernstein very well, but also knew that the tenor solos in the work usually go to someone a little more disposed towards the musical theatre side of the vocal spectrum.  Would someone with Isaiah’s polish and refinement sound at home in that neighborhood? The answer is another question:  will anyone else ever sing it as well as he did?  Seriously.  He was completely uncompromising, and every facet of his artistry was put to use for the purpose of communicating Bernstein’s conflict between faith and doubt.  If the libretto can feel a little clunky and dated, it was also completely redeemed by Isaiah’s fearless performance.  As a church musician, I can be pretty snobby about this terrain, and when Isaiah navigated the trope in the Credo, ascending higher and higher in his range, with the full orchestra swinging beneath him, fairly taunting the Almighty like a latter-day psalmist,  it was one of the most powerful musical moments of my year, full stop.  Please mark my words: Isaiah is already well on his way to being one of the great tenors of our time.

As a preface to my last plaudit, I recall the time one of my college professors remarked that putting on a fully-staged performance of MASS at his church in Los Angeles, “damn near killed me,” and that the event closed that chapter of his career.  At the time, I thought it was a slightly strange hill do die on, but now I think I understand.  MASS is a powerful reflection of Bernstein’s musical and spiritual psyche, and to harness its energy is to come to grips with all of the various facets of the man, himself.  We sometimes forget that Bernstein the composer was only equalled in talent, genius, and stature by Bernstein the pedagogue, and Bernstein the interpreter, and Bernstein, the exhilarating and (at times) maddening human being.  The inner-strife and conflict can be seen on a continuum with those of his own idols, Mahler and Beethoven.  In a sense, MASS can very much feel a product of its time, but, on Sunday afternoon, it felt both timeless and timely.  For that, we have Greg Funfgeld to thank – his vision in taking this on, in challenging himself to master all of the rhythmic permutations and complexity of the score, in connecting with the composer with his trademark depth and insight, and in shepherding a group of musicians who don’t often perform this kind of music, reaped extraordinary dividends.  I hope he found that the lengthy ovation at the work’s conclusion conveyed some sense of our collective gratitude for his leadership on this remarkable musical and spiritual journey.

Steve Siegel covered this concert extensively in the Morning Call, with a preview, a local color piece, and, finally, a glowing review.  We are most grateful for his enthusiastic previews and his insightful and fair reviews. Arts coverage in markets the size of the Lehigh Valley are often a luxury, and we’re so lucky to have Steve cover us.

 

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