Festival Week

11188165_708094399301777_113873885609957607_nWe’ve had two nights of rehearsal for the festivities this weekend, and things are sounding very well!  Steve Siegel has an excellent preview up at the Morning Call, as does Melinda Rizzo at Lehigh Valley Live.  We’ve also sent word out on various NPR affiliates, and a complete compendium of the 108th Bethlehem Bach Festival’s events are available on our website.  Our fantastic administrative staff has been working overtime to attend to a myriad of new details, and I know that our already spectacular hospitality is going to be enhanced with several new touches, including shuttle busses, golf carts, and lots of opportunities to mix and mingle with guarantors, performers, staff, and Bach enthusiasts from all around the country.  I attend performances throughout the tri-state area, and I always take careful note of patron services, and I hope it won’t seem like bragging (particularly because I have no responsibilities in this area), but our staff really is second to none.

We’re really excited about this year’s program, beyond the excitingly enhanced amenities.  The opportunity to hear J. Reilly Lewis reflect on a lifetime of making Bach’s music will surely be a wonderful treat.  The conductor of the Washington Bach Consort and the Cathedral Choral Society is a longtime friend of our organization, and his insights will be a marvelous introduction to the rich fare on offer for the next two weekends.

Many in our Festival audience haven’t had the opportunity to experience our Bach at Noon performances, and the atmosphere of loving discovery carefully cultivated by our conductor par excellence.  The new Bach at 4 concerts seek to remedy this.  In an intimate, extremely acoustically favorable environment, you’ll be able to hear Greg explain the music with great insight, charm, and infectious enthusiasm (all in his sonorous baritone), and hear repertoire that’s hard to pull off by the full Choir (it’s nearly impossible to balance 90 singers against, say, a single recorder).  In addition to the two gem-like cantatas on the program, you’ll be able to hear Trish van Oers play Vivaldi’s Goldfinch concerto, a piece that should be rapturously beautiful as Spring has sprung around us.  I hope you like the setting of this special concert, The Incarnation of Our Lord Church, as much as we do.  The stone surfaces of this room produce a most pleasing reverberation, without any of the “swimminess” of Packer Church.  If you come early, you can join Greg in a Chorale Sing (one of two, the second preceding the Saturday Mass performances).  Singing for Greg is a treat, and it will be a very user-friendly experience to immerse ourselves in some of Bach’s most compact masterpieces.

After pre-concert preludes by some of our young friends, the Friday evening performances promise to be quite fantastic.  The Pentecost cantata, BWV 172, Erschallet ihr lieder,  is quite a treat, with deeply impressive trumpeting by the fearless Larry Wright and his colleagues.  This year’s artist-in-residence, Caroline Goulding, brings us an exciting collaboration on the E-Major violin concerto – she comes to us highly recommended, and we’re delighted to welcome such a talented, rising virtuoso to the Bach family.  We’ll conclude the concert with Cantata No. 69, whose opening chorus is an extraordinary tour de force – a riveting double-fugue with an extremely melismatic theme paired with a second theme that’s simultaneously sturdy and fleet of foot.

Saturday morning’s orchestral concert will feature three warhorses of Bach’s oeuvre, The First Brandenburg, the Fourth Orchestral Suite, and the Chaconne from the D-Minor Partita for Violin.  Interposed in this heady mix will be The Chaconne Project, led by the inimitable Larry Lipkis.  As part of this project, student musicians learned to improvise over the ground bass of the Chaconne, and their variations will be accompanied by Bach Festival Orchestra in a special composition by Larry, himself.  (Larry will also lead a discussion of this year’s repertoire in an informal dinner on Friday evenings  – see our webpage for more information).  After the performance by the CP, Caroline Goulding (the first weekend) or Elizabeth Field, our concertmaster (the second weekend), will perform the Chaconne from the Partita.

We completed our rehearsals of the choruses from our signature piece, the Mass in B-Minor, this evening.  Hearing this masterwork in Packer Memorial Church is a Bach Choir tradition dating well over a century.  We love it, and we love what singing and playing this amazing work evokes, both in us, and for our audiences.  This is the summation of one of Western civilization’s greatest artists’ life’s work!  It is a privilege of inestimable value to revisit it each year, and we hope that is so for our audience as well.

Finally, one last innovation (of many, visit the website for all the details), and that is our Zimmerman’s Coffee House performances at the Hotel Bethlehem.  Bach often arranged performances of the Collegium Musicum at his local coffee haunt – they’ve been described as free-wheeling, delightful displays of virtuosity and bonhomie. Larry Lipkis has agreed to serve as master of ceremonies, and, accompanied by delightful German cuisine by the Hotel’s excellent Chef, Michael Adams, local young musicians will offer musical bonbons in a convivial atmosphere of good cheer and delight.  There may even be an appearance by our own Kapellemeister and some of his friends, and these “unbuttoned” events should be an excellent way to wrap a wonderful, rich weekend of musical, aesthetic, and spiritual beauty.  Many of us have long pined for a party to end the festivities, and, I think Zimmerman’s Coffee House will be a dream come true!

If you’ve already purchased your tickets, you’ve made a wise investment.  Bach in Bethlehem is extremely good for one’s soul.  If you’ve been on the fence, now’s the perfect time to order tickets.  Ravishing music, beautiful surroundings, stimulating discussion, and wonderful people – all are facets of the Bethlehem Bach Festival, and we would be most delighted to welcome you to this august celebration!



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Spring Update

photo 1-2(Photo Credit: Linda Ganus)

It’s been a while since our last blog update, and much has happened in the intervening time!  Things are moving along beautifully for The Choir:  we’re on the heels of an excellent Spring Concert collaboration with the Lehigh University Philharmonic, the Chancel Choir of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, and the choir of the Cathedral Church of the Nativity, in celebration of Lehigh University’s Sesquicentennial. The repertoire included Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, and Mozart’s charming arrangement of Händel’s masterful setting of John Dryden’s Ode to Saint Cecilia.   The LU Phil’s conductor, Eugene Albulescu, and Greg shared conducting duties, which also included Eugene conducting from the piano for the Beethoven.

Eugene conducted the Stravinsky masterfully – a daunting task with mixed meters and all of Igor’s usual rhythmic and technical snares.  I thought the orchestra approached this challenging work with the necessary (and possibly warring impulses) of humility and bravado, particularly since the students were in the midst of an exams week, as well. Many moons ago, as a college singer full of hubris, I did not adequately prepare for an audition on the second movement for a performance with the LA Philharmonic and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and crashed and burned (my consolation was, instead, to sing in a performance of the Saint John Passion with Helmuth Rilling, but still…)! This score is not for the faint of heart or the ill-prepared.  My long-overdue redemption came this past weekend, and it was a thrill.  I also got to stand near the piano players (the score calls for two), and, like many of their colleagues, they’d obviously worked really hard on the especially challenging passages.  It was a pleasure to sing for Eugene, who has an excellent and nurturing rapport with his students, and who had an wonderful concept of the piece.  I hope we’ll get to sing it again sometime.

Eugene also led the Beethoven, combining his conducting panache with his remarkable faculties as a pianist.  I thought he captured the improvisatory nature of the prologue beautifully and marveled at his speed, musicality, and precision.  If you know the piece, you know it’s a musical bon-bon, a precursor to the Ninth Symphony, full of wit, charm, piano pyrotechnics, and, as it’s missing some of the darkness of the earlier movements of the 9, it brims over with a less-manic version of Beethoven’s infectious joie d’vivre.  Eugene played with abandon, and I think we all responded with vigor and joy.

Finally, the podium was handed over (most graciously, I should add – Eugene was kind and effusive in his spoken introduction of our conductor) to Greg for the Händel.  Our excellent soloists included Ben Butterfield, who evocatively sang the opening recitative, and the lovely soprano, Laura Heimes, who sang rhapsodically beautifully on the difficult arias (with excellent instrumental support from both the student musicians, and our own Loretta O’Sullivan).  I don’t think student orchestras experience much Mozart-inflected Händel, and the Lehigh players adopted period style beautifully and played with much cheerful energy.  Reflecting on the experience, a colleague underlined that sense of youthful enthusiasm as one of the lasting impressions of the concerts.  I wholeheartedly agree.  It was also a pleasure to see Greg work with the young players with efficiency and grace (we’d expect nothing less, of course).  A lot was accomplished in precious little time, and a hearty tip of the hat to everyone involved in bringing about this delightful and affirming week of music-making.

Members of The Choir also offered a performance of Cantata BWV 4, Christ lag in todesbanden, yesterday for the final Bach at Noon of the year.  I wasn’t able to attend, but understand it was a delightful performance to a packed house.  As a treat, Tom Goeman performed several Bach chorale preludes pertaining to Easter, a most excellent prelude to the cantata.

Next up:  the reimagined Festival!  I will be posting regularly as we approach those two hallowed weekends in May.  There will be cherished traditions and some innovation as we gather at Lehigh for the 108th Bethlehem Bach Festival.  There’s much rich fare on offer, and I’m anticipating a jolly good time!  Please check back here often!

PS.  As always, Steve Siegel has an excellent and insightful review of the performance here.




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New Year Update

It’s hard to believe, but we’re almost halfway through the first half of the first month of 2015!  We greeted the New Year with word of an excellent profile, podcast interview with Greg Funfgeld, and review of the Christmas Concert – all by Michael Miller of New York Arts.  You may find this wealth of media here.  Our kudos and gratitude to Mr. Miller for perceiving so much of what we find valuable about The Bach Choir, and on his first visit to Bethlehem, to boot!  There remains a happy glow about the Christmas Concerts, even as we look forward to an exciting new year of performances.

We had our first rehearsal of 2015 (and, as I write, are preparing to brave the cold for rehearsal number 2), and it was a great opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with movements of the Handel Ode to St. Cecilia, which we began learning in the fall.  This will be featured in our Spring Concert, with the Lehigh University Philharmonic (another piece on that program, Stravinsky’s ecstatic Symphony of Psalms, is promised similar treatment, tonight).  We also rehearsed some festival repertoire, looking even further ahead!

Tomorrow, you may join us for the first Bach at Noon of 2015, featuring music most appropriate to greet the New Year.  We’ll begin with with our organist and Assistant Conductor, Tom Goeman, playing the Prelude and Fugue in E-Flat, BWV 532.  This is one of his greatest organ works – a longer pair of pieces about which organists observe a quiet moment of introspective respect, before beginning to wax rhapsodic.  It begins, appropriately, in French overture style (fitting to raise the curtain on the new year), which is alternated with a fiercely moving contrapuntal section, the former lending it an impeccable elegance, the latter, great intellectual and musical rigor.  The fugue that follows has three sections.  It begins with a stile antico fugue on the theme of the melody that begins the hymn tune, St. Anne, which most of us know as O God, Our Help in Ages Past.  It sounds like a somewhat simple treatment, until you realize there are moments during which Bach has five independent voices of counterpoint moving simultaneously.  This section always feels noble and evocative of the past to me.  Then follows something we might term the “fierce urgency of now,” a perpetuum mobile for hands alone in four voices. It’s not easy to learn, but once the performer has it in hand, it’s hard to imagine such challenging music simultaneously feeling so good to play.  Halfway through the second section, the original fugue theme is reunited with the material from the second.  After a thorny passage that includes sequence, chromaticism, and suspensions galore, the fugue launches into a stunning dance (which has, to my spirit, seemed like the Omega of the Alpha and Omega this fugue evokes).  At this point, Bach begins throwing everything in his compositional palette at the themes in an ever-evolving, music of the spheres kind of moment.  This fugue is one of my favorites in the repertoire, and I’ve chatted with Tom about it in the past.  His ardor is similar, so it’s fair to expect that this will be a magical performance of a magical piece.  In its compositional style, BWV 532 looks back at the past, lives in the present, and anticipates the future.  How fitting!

Next, choir and orchestra will offer a cantata Bach wrote for the Feast of the Circumcision, which, in the Lutheran liturgical calendar, was New Year’s Day.  Cantata 171 begins with a brief opening chorus which attentive listeners will recognize as the zippy fugal dance that comprises the second movement of the Credo from the Mass in B-Minor.  It’s always amusing as Greg introduces a new cantata – often while noting from where we might know some of the musical source material.  Of course, with movements of the mass that are parodies of cantata movements, the notes are often a smidge different, which can cause amusing calamity in the first read-throughs.  We have mastered this cantata, and are eager to sing it for the Bach at Noon audience.  After the opening chorus, there’s a lovely aria for tenor (tomorrow, the marvelous Robert Pitello is at bat).  After a devout recitative, Rosa Lamoreaux will offer a virtuosic soprano aria, with an equally virtuosic violin obbligato, played by our concertmaster, Liz Fields.  We’re delighted to herald the return of Brian Ming Chu back to Bethlehem (he played several characters in our children’s opera, Young Meister Bach, last spring, to great comedic and artistic effect).  Brian will sing a lengthy and colorful recit for bass, followed by a wonderful chorale from the choir, offered with dramatic and festive interpolations from trumpets and drums.

It’s going to be cold tomorrow, but also sunny, so dress warm, and plan to arrive around 11:30 at Central Moravian to secure yourself a good seat, and great the New Year with the Bach Choir!

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2014 Christmas Concerts Wrap-Up

Before just about every Bach Choir concert, my mom and I do a little verbal dance.  I will extoll the virtues of the program in question, usually ending with the sentence, “This is going to be a really special concert.”  My mom responds, “I think all of your concerts are special.”  To which I usually reply, “Yes, but this one…”  I’m very lucky that my mother can attend all of our concerts, which she does faithfully, and I’m beginning to see the arch wisdom of her comment.  These two performances were special, particularly gratifying in many ways, but I’m unwilling to cede that they’re any more special than past concerts, or what’s on tap this coming spring.  And yet, and yet…

The Marian lens of the repertoire this year offered an oft-forgtten perspective in the Nativity story.  We are used to hearing about the things that happened to Mary, but less accustomed to hearing from her.  The Advent-y nature of BWV 147 seemed to me to connect the New Testament to the Old Testament prophecies in a very tangible way.  The cantata is justly famous for the Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring chorus that appears twice, but the recitatives and arias illustrate a compelling sense of musical drama and witness.  At dinner last night, there was much waxing rhapsodic about the stunning musical effects of those movements (as well as the beauty in their rendering by our orchestra and soloists).  That’s without mentioning the ebullient opening chorus, with its melismatic bliss and leaping arpeggiations in sixths (perhaps written to emulate the leaping of a child in the womb?).   This cantata is a joy to sing, and, hopefully, to hear.

The three shorter pieces that finished the first half of the program were extremely well-received.  The Choir surrounded the audience and began Robert Parson’s sublime Ave Maria.  I was standing in the front, blessed with an unobstructed view of the audience.  It took them a moment to settle into the new sonic landscape (spare lines of exquisite polyphony replacing exuberant orchestral accompaniment):  there was a moment of looking around, followed by a relaxation and an opening to the music.  I saw people literally relax into their seats, lean back, and close their eyes.  I have never heard “Woo!” in reply to the peaceful calm of the Parsons, but there were shouts of appreciation after we sang the piece in Allentown.  The Stanford Magnificat went very well – Tom Goeman’s playing and Ellen McAteer’s singing were amazing, and it was a delight to provide gentle choral accompaniment.  The women of The Choir sounded committed to a performance of great emotional depth on Dan Gawthrop’s Mary Speaks. The piece is a bit tricky – in addition to the challenging intervals, it often sits in a harmonically rootless position.  Many of the piece’s chords are in inversion, which means that they lack a bass tone (this is an admitted oversimplification of the musical theory of this piece, but it hopefully illustrates the piece’s challenge).  Without a foundational bass tone, tuning can be a trial.  The ladies sounded fantastic, singing with great passion and insight (and intonational accuracy!).   The audience was on its feet after this set in Allentown (and several individuals were wiping tears from their eyes -both in The Choir and the audience).  The Bethlehem audience was very spirited in their appreciation as well.

I thought the performance of the CPE Bach Magnificat that followed went extremely well. I would love to perform his setting as well as his father’s side-by-side sometime.  I alluded to the shadow of JS Bach’s Magnificat on CPE’s setting in an earlier post, and, in the extremely gifted hands of our orchestra and soloists (as well as my colleagues in The Choir), I think a very persuasive case was made for CPE on his own right.  There was much effervescence and joy in the performance, as well as the sense that, in performing this music, Mary’s ancient words were brought vividly to life.  I also can’t recall our orchestra, particularly the strings, ever sounding better.  The string figurations in the CPE are extremely challenging (exhausting, even), and they were played with such zest and fire (and that’s not to discount the beautiful and sensitive playing of the winds, horns, trumpets, and drums).

Our quartet of soloists was magnificent.  After Ellen McAteer’s appearance, last spring, as Eve in Haydn’s Creation, I asked Greg Funfgeld, “When are we having Ellen back?” He immediately responded, with a sparkle in his eye, and much enthusiasm, “Christmas.”  This was an extremely good call – the size, color, and agility of her voice are unusual in early music circles, and her performance of Bereite dir from BWV 147 is my new reference.  We’ve been so lucky to hear some amazing sopranos in Bethlehem, and it’s a sheer delight to number her among them, especially at this early point in a very promising career.  Daniel Taylor made a brief return from Europe for these concerts, and heads back soon, for what sounds like an endless series of Messiah performances.  He is one of the great countertenors of our time, something illustrated time and again by his performances here. The fearlessness and power of his initial entrance in the Deposuit of the CPE was thrilling, and the sensitivity of his recit in BWV 147 was deeply touching.  We were delighted to make the acquaintance of Isaiah Bell, whose career is clearly ascendant.  His sensitivity and beautiful tone were  much in abundance, and his power and projection, like Daniel’s, in the Deposuit were quite affecting.  Joshua Copeland is well-known to Bethlehem audiences, and his colorful and archly-intelligent baritone was put to excellent use in his arias. I’ve written elsewhere that there was something magical going on at Yale while Josh and Dashon Burton were there, because, despite having very different voices, their Bach interpretations are uniformly thrilling – full of panache and an enviable native intelligence. Josh has been with us for the performance of several fiery bass arias, and he acquitted himself beautifully, as always.  I had the opportunity to speak with all of the soloists, and their delight at performing in Bethlehem is quite evident (as is ours, hopefully, at having them join us!).

For his yeoman’s work in envisioning, preparing, and conducting these performances, Greg Funfgeld deserves a big tip of the hat.  In addition to the performing tradition and our kind audiences, I know a big part of why so many world-class soloists are happy to detour to Bethlehem from the great cosmopolitan centers of the world of musical performance is the opportunity to work with him. He is equal parts kind mentor, gifted collaborator, and spiritual visionary.  The intellectual and spiritual depth he brings to these performances compliments his passion and endless energy in bringing them to life.  That he accomplishes all of that with a spirit of generosity and human decency is very rare in the musical world, and we are ever-so-lucky to have him at the helm.  Thanks to him and to everyone who made the 2014 Christmas Concerts something very special!

The Choir now enjoys a brief hiatus through the holidays, before embarking on a stunning set of musical journeys, including Bach at Noon, Bach to School, the Family Concert, the Spring Concerts, and the Festival in May.  We’ll be singing quite a wide gamut of composers, from Vivaldi to Stravinsky, and of course, our beloved JSB!  Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

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The 2014 Christmas Concerts


As the product of a somewhat devout Roman Catholic upbringing, the notion of Marian spirituality has always been a part of my religious wheelhouse.  Beginning in grade school, I became acquainted with the text of the Magnificat, which was recited daily in a devotional society to which I belonged.  I know that the lens of Mary’s perspective is something that also speaks quite profoundly to our conductor, Greg Funfgeld, and he has, in the past few years, fashioned the Friday programs at the Bach Festival from Mary’s vantage in 2010, and, now, with our 2014 Christmas Concerts, continues to explore the extent to which Mary’s faithfulness inspired composers of several generations.

We begin the program with Bach’s Cantata BWV 147, which was begun in Wiemar as an Advent piece, but was later reworked to be appropriate for the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (in Leipzig, Advent was a penitential season, during which there was no concerted music).  Most listeners will surely be familiar with the chorale setting that appears twice in the cantata, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” but that popular movement is only one gem in the treasure chest this cantata represents.  The opening chorus is full of ebullience and joy with melismatic passages representing an overflowing of witness to the sovereignty of Christ:  “Heart and mouth and mind and life must give testimony of Christ…”  The first recitative uses Mary as an example of faithfulness and belief, and the librettist, Bach’s colleague Salomo Franck, uses those virtues, found in Mary, as an exegetical point of departure.  The cantata offers several perspectives on Christian witness, with Mary as an exemplar of obedience and faithfulness.  Lutherans of Bach’s time, and, indeed, Luther himself, were concerned about the perceived “idolatry” of Roman Catholic Mariology, but Luther himself also held her in great regard.  In his commentary on the Magnificat, Luther said, “The tender Mother of Christ… teaches us, with her words, and by the example of her experience, how to know, love and praise God.”  Bach and Franck seem to derive great inspiration from Mary’s faithfulness, and this cantata abounds with calls to witness and obedience, and brims over with ecstatic praise.

Following BWV 147, The Choir will surround the audience on two sides to perform three shorter Marian pieces.  The first is a setting of the Ave Maria text.  Recall that the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary with the greeting, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!”  Most of us are familiar with settings of this text by Schubert, or perhaps Charles Gounod’s adaptation of Bach’s first prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier into a vocal piece with the same text.  More niche-y is Bruckner’s rhapsodic setting, and, finally, some lucky souls might be familiar with Robert Parson’s masterpiece of Tudor Polyphony, his reverent and jaw-droppingly beautiful setting.  Composed for five-part chorus, unaccompanied, this masterwork is, itself, a vast cathedral of sound, at once sweeping and arch, but also incredibly crafted and intimate.  I have to confess to a little bit of initial skepticism about a choir as large as ours taking this piece on – to my ear, it is more ideally performed by maybe five or ten singers.  This skepticism has given way – our recent rehearsals of this piece, in situ, at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, have been deeply gratifying, and I can’t wait for our audience to experience the waves of exquisite polyphony surrounding and washing over them.

Next, we will sing Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s lovely setting of the Magnificat in G, for soprano soloist (in our case, the ascendant Ellen McAteer, whose singing of Eve in last spring’s Haydn Creation left us desperately wanting to hear more), choir, and organ.  Fans of the office of evensong will love this succinct and lovely setting of Mary’s rhapsodic song of praise found in Luke 1:46-55.  Stanford’s church music bridges a late romantic style with the very early 20th century, and this selection definitely tends toward the former.  Ellen will soar, The Choir will support gently.

Finally, in this set, the women of The Choir will conclude with a more recent composition, Daniel Gawthrop’s moving Mary Speaks, for four-part women’s chorus, unaccompanied, with a text by the late, great Madeline L’Engle.  Her poem connects Mary’s motherhood in a beautifully intimate way to the suffering of her son on the cross.  Gawthrop responds to the intimacy of this poem with music of tremendous depth and color.  It’s swiftly become a favorite of The Choir, and, I suspect, will become an audience favorite, as well.

After an interval, we’ll begin the second half of the concert with a performance of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s setting of the Magnificat.  CPE was an excellent composer in his own right, and our performance commemorates the 300th anniversary of his birth.  CPE is also known for bridging his father’s Baroque style with the sounds and manners of the early Classical period.  Indeed, as diverse a collection of composers as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn all held him in high regard and cited their study of his music as influential in their training.

I’m fond of his Magnificat – it strikes me as a cheerful and ruddy-cheeked effort, full of charm and beauty.  One is cognizant, however, of the large shadow that looms over the work, and, indeed, his life as a composer – that of both his father’s setting of the Magnificat, as well as the old man’s accomplishments as a composer, in general.  Musically literate psychologists would have a field day with this work, both to see where CPE chose to operate in the strictures of his father’s style, and where he set out to chart a new course.  The moments of homage are just as touching as his moments of innovation, though, on the whole, there is an ever-so-slight sense of the young man seeking to prove something in this composition.  Indeed, it’s thought that JS Bach arranged a performance of the piece in Leipzig as a sort of suggestion of succession at the Thomaskirche.  Devoted Bach fans will likely sense some of the tensions in the piece.  Everyone, however, will be assured a thrilling performance of this challenging and joyful music.   After CPE’s Mag, we’ll conclude the program with the audience joining The Choir in the singing of Christmas Carols.

Greg’s arranged an excellent quartet of soloists for the concerts:  the aforementioned Ellen McAteer, soprano, Bethlehem favorite (well, favorite in early music circles around the world), Daniel Taylor countertenor, Isaiah Bell (who is new to Bethlehem, but who had his Mostly Mozart debut this summer), tenor, and Joshua Copeland (he of the burnished tone and impeccable artistry), bass.  We’re in for a real treat this weekend – if you’ve not ordered tickets, they are (at the time of my posting this) still available in both locations, though the Bethlehem concert will probably sell out soon.  I’ll continue to post about the concerts as we rehearse and perform – check back here often!


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Wrap-Up: October Bach at Noon

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We had what looked like another capacity crowd for today’s Bach at Noon, and, as our conductor said, we were ecstatic to have everyone there.  Kristina Moditch offered a wonderful prelude to the cantata that followed.  I was especially impressed with the the spaciousness of her playing, and the delicacy of her touch.  Often, when young players interpret Bach, there’s a kind of monochromatic quality to their playing, in terms of both dynamics and rhythm.  Kristina played with a lovely sense of rubato, underlining all of the the contrapuntal details with great subtlety, and with a very wide dynamic range:  restraint where necessary, adept phrasing of inner voices, and exceptional balance throughout.  Her playing is very mature in a way that belies her 15 years of age, and we’re all very excited to see where her skills take her.  I suspect we’ll be able to say that we knew her when!

Our instrumentalists acquitted themselves beautifully on the cantata – it was, as always, a delight to hear the beauty of gambas and recorders, and our basso continuo players were, also as always, solid as a rock.  I was very proud of my colleagues in the choir, and delighted to hear our excellent quartet of soloists demonstrate their mastery of this challenging music.  How magnificent to have Fiona Gillespie back to sing the soprano solo.  Fiona was a choral scholar in the choir many moons ago, and now has a very impressive CV of study and performance.  Her “Ja, komm”  was ravishingly beautiful.  Barbara Hollinshead and Robert Pitello are well-known to our audience, and they both sounded amazing on their solos.  Robert’s aria is brutally demanding and he handled the high tessitura with panache and elegance.  Barbara’s aria and the long cantus firmus work were rendered with enormous precision and sensitivity, and perfect clarity.  We were also delighted to make the acquaintance of Steven Combs, whose debut with us today was most auspicious.  His voice is lovely and sensitive, and he sang the challenging high notes of his concluding aria very bravely, with exceptional steadiness and grace.  Next month, we’re taking on Cantata 71, another early gem, written for an inauguration of the town council.  Like other examples of Bach’s early choral writing, this one is full of incredible detail, fidelity to text, and many colorful elements.  I’ll post an essay about that soon.  Thanks to everyone involved in today’s concert!

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October 14th Bach at Noon: The Best Time

Join us this Tuesday for the continuation of our mini-series of Bach’s earliest cantatas, along with what promises to be a stellar performance by an amazing piano prodigy. Kristina Moditch was born in Allentown in 2000, and spent some time practicing and recording at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, where she came to our conductor’s attention.  She will offer a brief recital of mostly Bach, with a Liszt Nocturne to season the mix.  I think that her performance above is a far more eloquent introduction to her gifts than anything I could write, so please watch, and be prepared for some rapt listening!  And, if you’d like a further introduction, she’ll be appearing on air on WDIY 88.1 FM on Monday morning, October 13th, beginning at 10 am.  You can listen online here.

The theme of the prodigy continues into the cantata that members of the Choir will offer for the second half of the program.  Cantata 106, God’s Time Is the Very Best Time, is one of Bach’s earliest surviving cantatas, and one that we performed most recently at the Bethlehem Bach Festival, this past May.  I’ve adapted an earlier post for you to read below.  The opportunity to hear 106 is one you don’t want to miss, it is a favorite of Bach connoisseurs for many, many reasons!  Be sure to arrive early to get a good seat – the doors  Central Moravian open at 11:30 am.

One of Bach’s earliest vocal works, this Cantata, “God’s time is the very best time,” is widely considered to be, in an oeuvre brimming over with musical genius, one of Bach’s best works.  It is, in fact, a little daunting to write about – especially since some of the best writing about Bach’s life and music in recent times have included lengthy discussions about the piece.  If you’ve not read James R. Gaines’ An Evening in the Palace of Reason, I cannot commend it to you highly enough.  Likewise, the British conductor John Eliot Gardiner’s new examination of Bach’s life and music, Music in the Castle of Heaven, also offers extremely perceptive analysis (as do the liner notes of his recent recording of the piece, which you may read in their entirety by following the link from here, and from which I will quote in this post).

After we sang the work at a Bach at Noon a few years ago, my wife and I began a period of near-obsessive listening to the Actus.  As Gardiner puts it, “The more you peer below the surface, the more complex the Actus tragicus turns out to be.”  He is writing about the fusion of musical and textual symmetry, as well as the vast reserve of the work’s spirituality, and the intellectual and theological maturity of the composer.  This may suggest a kind of musical puzzle, or an intellectual exercise of the highest order, but what strikes the listener is not the dizzying complexity (and one’s incredulousness that the composer was a mere 22 years of age when he wrote it), but the deep empathy and humanity of the work’s author.  Scholars differ as to the occasion for which it was written, but the piece is definitely a funeral cantata, and one that fuses the twin purposes of consolation with worship in a way that strikes me as deeply similar to the German Requiem of Johannes Brahms.

Much like the Brahms Requiem, the Actus Tragicus begins with the pulse of a heartbeat in the continuo, followed by the rich sonorities of two duetting violas da gamba.  The gut strings of the gambas provide a burnished, understated tone that is heartbreakingly lovely.  Within a few seconds, Bach ups the emotional ante with the entrance of two recorders (this spare instrumentation, organ and basso continuo, with two gambas and two recorders is the reason for the reduced forces of singers).  What follows is an opening sonata of extraordinary beauty and devotion:  this is music of great consolation.  The pulsing continues, the gambas and recorders undulate, offering gentle dissonance and peaceful resolution, and the whole affect, it seems to me, is of a wistful sigh.

The chorus enters with a text elaborating on the work’s title, that God’s time is the very best time, and that, in an echo of Acts 17:28, “In him we live and move and have our being.”  Also, if God wills it, we come to our end. If this reads like boilerplate theological bromide on the screen, in Bach’s music, the result is quite different.  The chorus beings in a highly persuasive musical embrace, followed with vivid text painting of the words concerning living and moving.  The pace and character change when the topic moves to our death – a kind of choral transition to the tenor arioso that follows.  In the arioso, the tenor pleads with God to “teach us to number our days, so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom,” a passage from the Psalm 20.  Next, an aria by the bass quotes Isaiah 38:1, “Put your house in order, for you will die, and not live.”  This instruction bridges another biblical passage that the choir offers in a stile antico fugue (highlighting the ancient nature of the law): “Man, you will perish.”  At this point, these Old Testament exhortations begin, to my 21st century ears, to sound a little clinical, and perhaps not-so-consoling.  Maybe Bach felt thusly, and one of the masterstrokes of his genius in this piece was the dialogue that the soprano soloists has, across the ages, with text from Revelation 22:20,”Ja (substituting for the Amen in the biblical passage), komm, Herr Jesu, Komm.”  “Yes, come, Lord Jesus, come.”  This fusion of a rather rote recitation of “the ancient law” with something so intimate and personal as the pleading from the soprano from the last book of the Bible brings both a sense of symmetry to the text, but also offers a kind of cosmic consonance, that death delivers us, at last, to our savior and Lord.  Bach concludes this dramatic fusion with breathtakingly vivid text painting.  As the choir concludes their singing of the ancient law text with parallel rising and falling motion (the counterpoint stops here), the soprano sings her last “Ja, komm, Herr Jesu,” in triplet figures as the instruments disappear from the texture, leaving her voice to trail off, unaccompanied, into silence.  Of this moment, Gardiner is particularly eloquent and perceptive:

Yet the most impressive feature of Bach’s fusion of music and theology occurs in that central silent bar to which we as listeners are irresistibly drawn. Bach’s final, masterly coup – to illustrate the believer’s crisis of faith and overwhelming need of divine help – is to leave the soprano’s immediately preceding notes tonally ambiguous – her voice just evaporating into that desperate cry. There is no resolution, not even a partial closure that might carry the harmony towards a stable cadence: so it is up to us how we interpret it in the silence that follows. If we hear it at face value as a weak perfect cadence (a tierce de Picardie in F minor), that would indicate death as a kind of full stop. But perhaps we are being gently nudged to hear the final oscillation between A and B flat as leading note and tonic respectively, in the key of the movement which follows, B flat minor. In that case Bach’s message is one of hope, the tonal upswing indicating that Christ’s intervention guarantees that death is only a midway point on our journey, the beginning of whatever comes after. 

As the performers musically accept the precept of the ancient law, a striking alto aria follows, with words from Psalm 31:6: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.  You have redeemed me, O God of truth.”  That sense of resignation is not unrewarded, what follows is a stunning dialogue between the bass soloist, and the altos of the choir.  The bass soloist quotes Jesus’ words to the thief who, during the crucifixion, asks to be remembered when Jesus reaches his heavenly kingdom (found in Luke 23:43), “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  After a few statements of this text over spare accompaniment, Bach underlines the import of Jesus’ statement with the reentrance of the gambas, offering the sturdiest and most devout counterpoint as the bass continues repeating Jesus’ words.  He then superimposes the melody of Luther’s chorale-based paraphrase of the Song of Simeon, found in Luke 2:29: “In peace and joy I now depart, according to God’s will…”  When the chorale quotation reaches the text, “I am consoled in heart and mind, gentle and still,” the bass drops out, and when the singers reach the words “sanft und stille (gentle and still),” the accompaniment pauses for a moment, panting a musical picture of of that gentle and rhapsodic stillness, the release that death offered that was so attractive to the faithful of Bach’s lifetime. It’s an extraordinary moment in a work full of them.  The cantata concludes with a doxological hymn of praise, first offered in an augmented chorale or hymn-like form, followed by thrilling counterpoint that combines a melisma on the word “amen” with fragments of the chorale.

In the Actus Tragicus, Bach moves through many emotions, moods, keys, from deepest grief to a foretaste of heavenly worship, all in under 20 minutes of vital, fresh, and impossibly beautiful music.  Not a single note is wasted, nothing is where it doesn’t belong, and each stroke of the composer’s pen brings about an expression of faith full of both deep empathy and astounding eloquence at which we can only marvel.  Again, Gardiner, in whose awe at this brilliance I share deeply:

This extraordinary music, composed at such a young age, is never morbid, saccharine or self-indulgent; on the contrary, though deeply serious, it is consoling and full of optimism.



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