We’ve Moved!

One of the perks of our fancy new redesigned website is the excellent integration of the blog, which has lived for some time on its own at this address.  As such, updating at this address will cease, and I imagine I will eventually close it up.  The complete archives of the blog (which I’ve been writing since the fall of 2010) are available at The Choir’s refreshed website.  Please follow the link and bookmark that page – I’ll be happy to see you (virtually) over there!

 

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Gala Preview: The Thomanerchor Leipzig, November 11th

By now, you’ve probably heard that our Gala Concert is sold out, something about which we’re very excited!  Hosting this very esteemed choir is a special delight:  earlier iterations of this group sang the first performances of much of the music we revere, with a performing tradition that dates 805 years!  For 27 years, our beloved J.S. Bach led the Thomanerchor, and his time in Leipzig was one of the most fertile and profound periods of his compositional output, spanning the Passions as well as the Mass in B-Minor.  There is a special consonance in hosting them at Central Moravian Church, which is where Bach’s music was first heard in the United States, and where his epic Christmas Oratorio and the Mass were heard for the first time, sung by The Bach Choir!

Required reading for those excited to attend the concert is this excellent preview by our friend Steve Siegel in the Morning Call (it’s so well-reported and written that I have little to add!).  I think listeners will be astonished by what’s achievable by the young voices of the Thomanerchor.  Steve touches on the differences between the quintessential men and boys sound of the English colleges and cathedrals and the more visceral Continental sound of groups like the Tomanerchor (those differences aren’t quite as stark these days – many English practitioners have been adopting the Continental sound – less breathy, sometimes even a smidge of vibrato – for some time).  Even so, you won’t mistake the boys’ voices for those of the adult women who sing the soprano parts in most of the professional choirs performing and recording Bach’s music at high levels these days.  There’s an astonishing earthiness that’s hard to replicate in the the boys’ singing: color for miles, ease with the high tessituras, and the sparkle of enthusiasm of young people stretched to the edges of their talent.  Saturday’s concert will be a real treat.

The program includes the music of Schütz and Schein (the latter, one of Bach’s predecessors at the St. Thomas Church), as well as three of Bach’s best motets (it’s hard to pick a favorite).  I have a recording of the choir singing one of the motets they’re offering on Saturday’s program, the rhapsodic Der Geist Hilft, which they sing with alarming accuracy and seeming ease.  There’s a linear quality to their singing that, when offered in their vibrant voices, is especially thrilling.  One feature of continental boys choirs is the use of boy altos, as opposed to the adult countertenors used in English choirs.  You’ll be able to hear some wonderfully earthy chest voice singing, colorful and full of core.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized the musical potential of young voices.  I spent a year singing at an Episcopal church with a fantastic men, boys, and girls choir, with an especially ebullient English conductor.  At my first rehearsal, we sight-read a lot of challenging works, and I struggled to keep up, even as a sophomore music major.  The boys and girls, however, sailed right through the repertoire.  As part of a little audition after that first rehearsal, I sight-read a challenging piece, and the music director turned to me after and quipped, “You can almost read music!” (He was known for his creative, if slightly backhanded compliments – he once told the basses of the choir that they sounded as though they were standing in water…)  He was right, though. Watching the kids plow through the music with considerably less difficulty than I was having was humbling, sure, but also deeply illuminating.  When a parental support structure is firmly in place, sufficient time is given to regular rehearsal and instruction, and an inspired leader is at the helm, there’s very little that young singers can’t accomplish.  After about a month of my immersion in the challenging repertoire and swiftly-paced rehearsals, I had advanced to a level of comfort with sight-reading that dwarfed my gains after an entire year of studying sight-singing in college.  My school’s proximity to The American Boychoir and two inspired church programs for young singers cemented in my mind what’s possible.

We’re lucky to live in an area with accomplished school choral programs, as illustrated at our Family Concert a couple years ago when we had a youth choir festival.  Talented young singers in the region are also very lucky to have the opportunities afforded them by the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.  The work that Joy Hirokawa and her colleagues do with the children is inspiring and deeply artistically satisfying.  You’ll be able to enjoy their work in our upcoming Christmas Concerts, held in both Bethlehem and Allentown.  I highly commend those concerts to you – plan now to attend.  We’ll be singing a panoply of carols, including Ralph Vaughan Williams’ timeless Fantasia on Christmas Carols, as well as a concert version of A Child’s Christmas in Bethelehm, our very-successful recording for Analekta.  You’ll hear children’s voices singing on their own, with us, and in the reading of poetry.  Visit our newly redesigned website for more information and to order your tickets (Bethlehem reliably sells out, with Allentown not far behind – you won’t want to miss it).  This concert is especially appropriate for children of all ages.  Bring the children/grandchildren/great-grandchildren/nieces/nephews, etc.  Experiences make great gifts, treasured memories, and, who knows, possibly a spark of inspiration to study music more intensely by our young.

I will preview Saturday’s concert, Tuesday’s upcoming Bach at Noon, and more on this coming Friday morning, November 10th, at 10 am, on WDIY.  Tune in for a little taste of the Thomanerchor, for a snippet of Cantata 69, which will be offered robustly at our 90th (!) Bach at Noon, and maybe an early carol!

 

 

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Bach at Noon Wrap-Up

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Nola Richardson, soprano, and Dashon Burton, bass

We had a near-capacity crowd for Tuesday’s Bach at Noon for a wonderful hour of music-making.  We were first treated to some excellent and succinct commentary about the esteem Mozart held for Bach, followed by an expressive and lyrical tour-de-force in the form of Greg Funfgeld’s and Tom Goeman’s performance of Mozart’s sonata for four hands in C, KV521.  In my preview of this performance, I promised a miraculous musical mind-meld between Greg and Tom, and they did not disappoint. Greg has described the work as symphonic in scope, and the two remained focused and engaging through the lengthy duration of the work, combining fire, regality, charm, and whimsy in a performance of exceptional accomplishment.  Bravo, gentlemen!

Our attention then turned to Bach’s Cantata No. 68, on the text from John 3:16.  We had one on a part in the orchestra, and their playing was lithe and expressive.  The opening siciliano went very well (you can watch a Facebook Live video of it on our page).  Then we were treated to the ebullient and charming soprano of Nola Richardson, who sang the first aria beautifully.  Nola was the 2016 winner of our Competition for Young American Singers, offered jointly with the American Bach Society.  She had more-than-able obligato support from Noelle Grand on cello.  At the end of the singing in this aria, the music morphs into a trio sonata, which featured zesty and beautiful playing from Mary Watt, our iron-lunged and endlessly lyrical principal oboe, and Elizabeth Field, our accomplished concertmaster.  After a brief recitative, Dashon Burton, our bass soloist, offered a delightful aria, with the accompaniment of three oboes, offering fanfares and even more whimsy aplenty.  If you’re wondering what the next generation of performers sounds like, the vocal dexterity, color, and impeccable scholarship of Nola is a great introduction.  I’d say the same for Dashon, but we’ve been reveling in his singing for years now.  It was a treat to have both of them here for this Bach at Noon.   We concluded with a choral double fugue that definitely kept us singers on our toes!   Cantata No. 68 was last sung in Bethlehem in the 1980s – it was rewarding to give it a long-overdue reprise.

Next month, we’ll observe and celebrate our 90th Bach at Noon, with Bach’s heraldic Cantata No. 69, Lobe den Hern, as well as his Second Brandenburg Concerto, with the Boston virtuoso, Terry Everson, reprising his spellbinding trumpeting in the work from a couple years ago at Festival.  He’ll be joined by Liz and Mary, and members of the Bach Festival Orchestra for a performance that’s sure to astound and delight.  In the meantime, be sure to order your tickets for our Gala performance by the Tomanerchor Leipzig, which promises to be a historic event:  a visit by Bach’s choir in the space where his music was first heard in America!  The Tomanerchor has a rich, 800-year history (!!!!), and has been sounding especially splendid in recent years.  You won’t want to miss this amazing fusion of performers and space.

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Bach at Noon, October 10th: Eternal Love

One of the most famous biblical passages, John 3:16, is given the Bach treatment in Cantata No. 68, Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, the choral selection for tomorrow’s Bach at Noon.  I find the text setting of that passage a little strange – it happens in a lyrical siciliano, a baroque dance form in compound meter (beats are divided into three instead of two), with lilting rhythms and strange harmonic twists.  The music actually recalls, in form and affect, the great aria from the St. Matthew Passion, Erbarme dich, music which represents with extreme clarity, the experience of weeping. I wish I could recall which cantata our Assistant Conductor, Tom Goeman, was once rehearsing, and, after a particularly odd harmonic progression, he quipped, “This is from Bach’s little-known heroin period.”  We chuckled.  BWV 68 has some similarly nettlesome harmonic moments, with modulations that would sound clunky in a lesser composer’s hands.  Even so, in this first movement on the “For God so loved the world…” text, there are a few quizzical gear changes.  That said, the movement is quite beautiful, despite the slightly downcast minor key and the harmonic oddities.

The next movement clears all the clouds, and will be a delightful romp for cello and soprano soloists, Noelle Grand and Nola Richardson (making her Bach at Noon debut), respectively.  This aria is a real toe-tapper, and will introduce Nola to our audience in a wonderful way.  She won our joint competition with the American Bach Society for young American singers in 2016 and has a glimmering voice which matches her radiant person quite beautifully. Most of the recent winners of the competition have study at Yale University in their educational pedigrees, and Nola is no different, she’s pursuing a DMA there with a full scholarship.  The libretto bids sorrow and lamenting away, and compels the heart of the believer to sing, delight, and play.

After her aria, Dashon Burton (another Yalie and winner of the competition, recently back from his engagement with the Cleveland Orchestra in acclaimed performances of The Cunning Litte Vixen) will take over the proceedings, with a recitative and a jaunty gigue with fanfares from three oboes and bassoon.

After two dance movements, we take another turn (the late, great Craig Smith of Boston’s Emmanuel Music characterizes this cantata as “an oddly schizophrenic piece”) to a stile antico fugue of significant difficulty (I was practicing the bass part in anticipation of tonight’s rehearsal along with a recording, and my gentle bobbing of the musical score through the challenges of the rhythm made me momentarily seasick – what we do for love!).  The libretto for this movement heralds a warning to unbelievers, and Bach responds with very dogmatic-sounding music (during such moments throughout the cantatas, Bach seems to respond to scriptural dictates with a kind of almost-perfunctory, ancient-style music).

Besides the leavening of the inner movements of the cantata, we’ll also hear a delightful Mozart piano sonata for four hands, performed by Greg Funfgeld and Tom Goeman, who always complete some sort of miraculous musical mind-meld that allows their personalities and differences of touch to cohere into a unified interpretative whole.  They’ve been working together for several decades, and their connection as artists, colleagues, and friends is a rare and beautiful thing.  Prepare to be transfixed in music of great panache and elegance. Also prepare to arrive by 11:30 if you want to be assured a good seat!

 

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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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