Bach at Noon Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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The Festival Countdown Begins!

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

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

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

 

A detailed schedule of the 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival.

You may order tickets from this link.

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

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White Knuckles: Bach @ Noon, April 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything that has breath, praise the Lord,
Hallelujah!

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

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St. John Wrap-Up

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Our 2016 performance of Bach’s monumental St. John Passion is now a very powerful memory.  I’ve gotten some feedback from family and friends, and they all seem unanimous with the audience, which quickly rose in a lavish ovation the moment Greg acknowledged Thomas Cooley, as the applause began at the conclusion of the performance.   His was the most dramatically and musically committed performance of that challenging role that I’ve seen in my lifetime.  The variety of colors, inflections, dynamics, emotional temperatures, and artistic nuances he brought to every bit of text and every scene of the work was simply astounding.  As I noted earlier, I think most of us are accustomed to a more omniscient evangelist-cum-narrator, which is, in a way, the safer route.  The role is set in a punishing part of the tenor’s range, and one must take great care to preserve one’s voice through a performance that’s going to include a lot of singing.  Thomas held back a little bit in rehearsal, and his singing in performance was a revelation.  I remember writing with a sense of enormous gratitude after Hillary Hahn’s performance here at a Gala concert a few years ago – the way she balanced passion and precision in perfect measure was something for which we were all grateful.  Thomas’ singing was balanced perfectly on a very exposed tightrope. The care an attention he lavished on every syllable and every note was something that I think will continue to inspire all of us over time, and definitely made this afternoon’s concert one for the ages.

Which isn’t to discount all of the other offerings:  each of the vocal and instrumental soloists brought unceasing artistry to their roles.  Whom among us there today could ever forget Dashon Burton’s Betrachte, meine Seel, with wave after wave of lovingly rendered devotion, complemented by the achingly beautiful violas d’amore of Paul Miller and Henry Valoris?  In Laura Atkinson’s Es ist volbracht, she paused for an extra few milliseconds, before the final recapitulation of the melody, displaying an artistic maturity well beyond her years (such talent!).  David Newman turned to us during the Kreuzige, and then channeled all of our energy in his succeeding recitatives, creating a symbiotic dramatic propulsion that made Pilate’s interactions with Bill Sharp’s Jesus absolutely electric.  Hearing Laurie Himes sing the soprano arias gave voice to the believers in two exceptionally challenging pieces: radiant devotion in the first, deeply-moving despair in the second.  Isaiah Bell reconciled the challenging text and fiendishly difficult music of his Erwäge with a panache and seemingly effortlessness that made the aria work in a very uncommon way.  Witnessing the genuine connection, on stage, and the sincere camaraderie, off stage, of the soloists was very gratifying.  As most of them are now a generation younger than our fearless leader, it’s also very rewarding to see such world-class musicians come to Bethlehem for a visit with Uncle Greg, who relates to them as a kind mentor and gracious host.  That so many of them detour to Bethlehem from major artistic centers, in the midst of ascendant careers, speaks to the mutual affection and respect kindled between singers and our tremendously talented Kapellmeister. 

Likewise, I don’t recall when the Bach Festival Orchestra has ever sounded better, and many kudos are owed to our fierce and fiercely elegant instrumentalists. Such was the unanimity of tone, inflection, and phrasing of Robin Kani and Linda Ganus on the obbligato of the soprano aria, Ich folge dir gleichfalls, that I thought, for a minute, that someone was playing a giant, double-sized flute.  The entire string section played with exceptional sensitivity and care, with deeply-impressive intonation, and beautiful phrasing.  Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa played a variety of double reed instruments, always with uncommon sensitivity and color.  Special kudos to John Mark Rozendaal for his stunning work on the viola da gamba, and for rounding out the cello section with Loretta O’Sullivan, who, with Charlotte Mattax Moersch, formed a continuo dream team.

As always, a tip of the hat to Greg for leading a performance that crackled with dramatic intensity, devotion, and spectacular musicianship.  The care with which he shapes every phrase and the inspiring depth with which he conjures all of this to life are blessings to each of us, performers and audience, alike.  I’ve sung in four performances of the St. John with him, now, and, though each one is special, I can’t remember one that had such a unyielding sense of drama and purpose as what we shared in this afternoon.  Early twentieth century musicologists often referred to the heights of Bach’s compositional prowess achieved in Leipzig as his “mature master period,” and I feel that slight bit of hagiography could equally be applied, without risk, to the music Greg is making these days.  New heights.

Finally, I was so proud of my colleagues in the Choir.  Most of us were tired – I, personally, had a long morning at church, but we were also elated to have this opportunity to make music in such inspiring company.  I gave three media interviews, two weeks of presentations to our adult bible study at church, wrote a lot for this blog and Facebook, and each time I promised everyone a special, moving experience.  I hope it was a promise kept for everyone, because it was certainly a performance I’ll never forget.  Audience who derived meaning from the experience are most cordially invited to continue the thread we began in Advent with the Christmas Oratorio at the Festival in May.  Bach’s ebullient and euphoric Easter Oratorio is on tap, along with a rich kaleidoscope of performances, including Taylor 2 dance, one of our great American trumpet virtuosos, Terry Everson, the pre-eminent Bach scholar of our times, Christoph Wolff, and much, much more.  Stay tuned for previews of all of that, as well as a special performance of Bach’s epic motet, Singet dem Herrn, at April’s Bach at Noon.

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St. John Eve

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We’ve now had our full run-through, and things are sounding exceptionally beautiful.  I was in the car the other day, thinking deep thoughts while stuck in traffic, and it occurred to me that Bach introduces one more paradox into John’s recounting of Christ’s passion (which is full of paradoxes and dualisms:  darkness and light, life and death, love and evil):   that a topic so horrifying as the torture and death of Jesus could be rendered with such utterly exquisite beauty.   Beauty takes many forms, of course, and Bach chases it to the farthest corners of the human experience, rendering each scene or tableau in the passion with extraordinary fealty to the text, an unerring sense of the dramatic arc, a cinematic sense of text-painting, and an achingly humble sense of devotion.  Because Christ’s passion moved Bach so deeply, he, in turn, moves all of us with a sense of gravity and power that simply is unparalleled.

Something else struck me this afternoon while in the midst of our rehearsal:  tomorrow’s performance would be one that would be greeted gladly by early music circles in any major metropolitan area.  Our orchestra is playing with such sensitivity and skill, our band of soloists is absolutely top-notch.  Isaiah Bell’s Erwäge is so deeply moving.  Often, because of the extraordinary demands of the piece (in terms of its tessitura or range), one just hopes the tenor soloist makes it through without hurting himself.  Not so, in Isaiah’s case.  His singing is strikingly beautiful.  The energy between William Sharp’s Jesus and David Newman’s Pilate crackles with dramatic zeal.  Thomas Cooley continues to wow us all with his dramatic sense and the care and sensitivity he lavishes on every note of his page after page of recitative.  My wife rightly observed that we’re very much accustomed to a somewhat omniscient style of Evangslist, but Thomas is completely integrated into this performance, and the synergy between him, the other performers, and the Choir is palpable.  Laurie Himes sounds devout and beautiful in her first aria, and full of achingly evocative lament in her second.  Dashon’s movements are full of devotion and great beauty – it was as though time stood still during his Betrachte meine seel. We’re especially delighted to make the acquaintance of Laura Atkinson, our mezzo soprano soloists, who has a rich and expressive voice, which she uses with great skill.

Instrumental soloists are also sounding fabulous, as well.  The viola d’amore dream team of Paul Miller and Henry Valoris will raise the hairs on the back of your neck as they duet.  John Mark Rozendaal, in his first Bethlehem performance, is taking the gamba solo in Laura Atkinson’s profoundly moving Est ist volbracht to new heights.  Loretta O’Sullivan and Charlotte Mattax Moersch bring such experience and skill to their continuo roles. Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa and Robin Kani and Linda Ganus bring the long phrases and cross relationships of their respective parts on oboes and flutes into such bold relief.  Indeed, I’ve never heard our orchestra sound finer (and am tempted to name every player, such is the extent of their fabulous contributions). Greg’s hand on the till is sure and committed, and he’s leading us all with the passion, zest, and emotional commitment for which he is justly renowned.

In short, I feel confident that tomorrow’s concert will definitely be one for the ages.  In the Choir, we feel very well-prepared, and I sense in all of my colleagues a desire to bring all of this to life with every fiber of our beings.  If you’re reading this and don’t yet have tickets, come hear us.  Tickets will be available at the door.  I can personally guarantee that you won’t regret it.

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Countdown to the St. John

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The first full choral/orchestral rehearsal of the St. John Passion is complete, and just how special a performance this will be is coming into focus.  We’ve heard Dashon Burton sing the music of a number of composers in a number of styles, and his vocal color and presence are absolutely ravishing on the bass arias in the St. John.  The orchestra sounds in especially fine form, and we’re delighted to welcome some new faces among us, including the gambist and cellist, John Mark Rozendaal, and Henry Valoris, who’s playing viola and viola d’amore (along with his colleague, Paul Miller, who frequently joins us on the d’amore).  Finally, we were introduced to the tenor, Thomas Cooley, who’s singing the Evangelist role.  When I saw that he’d be joining us in that capacity, I made a quick survey of YouTube, on which he can be found singing beautifully (especially the Nigra Sum from the Monteverdi Vespers), but nothing had prepared me for the strength, presence, sensitivity, and dramatic flair that he brings to this music.  He sings with exceptional color and finesse, and, though we’ve been blessed to hear many fine evangelists over the years, here in Bethlehem, I think Thomas brings something special and rare to this extremely demanding role.  We’re excited to hear the remaining soloists tomorrow as we gather to run the entire piece.  We sang all the chorales and turba choruses, and they’re sounding in quite good.  The opening chorus sounds especially thrilling – no matter which recording you listen to, little prepares you for the impact of hearing it live.  There is an electricity in the room that is very palpable, and I think the rest of the performance will crackle with immediacy, extraordinary drama, and much devotion.

Steve Siegel has a great preview up on the Morning Call.

Finally, the weather.  I did two radio interviews, and my hosts had to read the weather before both conversations, which made me wince a bit.  I would trudge through a lot more snow than is forecast to sing/hear the St. John, and the show will definitely go on.  If it does, indeed, snow, please plan for some extra time to arrive and take care in the parking lot (and plan to arrive in plenty of time for Greg Funfgeld’s pre-concert lecture, which begins at 3).  Online ticketing is now closed, but there will be plenty of tickets at the door, and they’ll go on sale at 2:45.  You don’t want to miss this concert!

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Love Beyond Measure: The St. John Passion

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We’re very excited about our Spring Concert, which will be a performance of Bach’s masterwork, the St. John Passion, BWV 245, this coming Sunday, March 20th, beginning at 4 pm (though you should definitely plan to attend the pre-concert lecture, offered by Greg Funfgeld, beginning at 3), at the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem.  Tickets are available online from http://www.bach.org until early Friday afternoon, March 18th, and will also be available at the door on Sunday.  One element of the performance that we find especially compelling is that it will be offered on the afternoon of Palm Sunday, at the dawn of Holy Week.  Those of us in the Choir who are church musicians and clergy were a little concerned, initially, about an afternoon performance of work so technically, emotionally, and physically challenging, but the opportunity to experience all that it offers in the context of Holy Week soon won us all over.  Here are three of our members who are clergy, reflecting on the work:

There seems to be a scholarly pushback against the long-held notion that Bach’s St. John Passion lives in the shadows of his even more expansive setting of that of St. Matthew, and, indeed, our estimable and learned program annotator, Robin Leaver, explores these comparisons in his notes for this performance (Dr. Leaver’s program notes are wonderful introductions to the pieces we perform, by one of the world’s leading Bach scholars).  If you’ve read John Eliot Gardiner’s remarkable tome, Music in the Castle of Heaven, you may recall his conclusion about the St. John:

“It is as bold and complex an amalgam of storytelling and mediation, religion and politics, music and theology as there has ever been, and a climactic manifestation of the spirit of musical drama.”

I think I favor the work for personal reasons (it was the first of Bach’s two surviving Passions that I encountered as a child), but also because of its photo-realistic text-painting, which is cinematic in its evocative power.  Bach prevails (one might say overtakes) our imaginations with music and drama that are so instantly compelling that there are moments in performance that bring the events described in the work vividly, almost eerily, to life before all of us.  As the student of a classical education, Bach would have been well-versed in the Greek ideals of rhetoric and drama, and his apparent mastery of those disciplines are fused with his peerless compositional abilities, and, not least of which, his abiding faith.  The result is a work that easily earns all of the superlatives and more, and, like his Mass in B-Minor and St. Matthew Passion, sit at the summit of his oeuvre.

I had a conversation with the lovely Erika Funke of WVIA Radio about my first experience of Bach’s choral music as a young fan of the Choir, and, in particular, the St. John Passion, as well as some of my favorite elements of the music, which the station has archived into a podcast, which I’ll share below:

Greg Funfgeld has assembled a magnificent group of vocal and instrumental soloists for what’s sure to be a memorable performance of some of Bach’s most powerful music.  Please plan to join us!

 

 

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