Nearly half of the members of The Choir took advantage of some free time (or cleared out their schedules to make some) and headed into schools in Allentown and Easton to offer our Bach to School program. Teachers and students prepare for the experience with curriculum specially designed to introduce Bach’s music and biography to our newest listeners. In addition, copies of our Classical Kids DVD, Mr. Bach Comes to Call, are made available for viewing in class. The Bach Choir has an ambitious educational outreach program, which includes the free Bach at Noon performances at Central Moravian Church, our Choral Scholars program, where interested high school seniors audition to sing with the choir for a year of performances (those who are successful will have the choral experience of a lifetime!), and the Bach to School program. These efforts have been received with great acclaim. Our Educational Outreach program was recently a finalist to receive Chorus America’s honors in that category, and we recently received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to support these programs in our 2011-2012 season (congratulations are due to Executive Director Bridget George for writing the successful proposal).
On Wednesday, members of The Choir and the Bach Festival Orchestra gathered at William Allen High School in Allentown to present the Bach to School program to all of the 5th Graders in the Allentown School District, in two assemblies. They then repeated the program for students in the Easton School District on Thursday afternoon. For many of these students, this will be the first time they’ll hear a choral/orchestral performance, and the virtuosi of the orchestra and the fine singers in the choir make for an excellent introduction to Bach’s music and the idea of hearing an un-amplified performance at the highest levels of quality. The program includes demonstrations of some of the more uncommon instruments in a baroque orchestra, including the piccolo trumpet and continuo organ (students often can’t believe we travel with our own small pipe organ), performances of beautiful music for oboe and flute with orchestra, and a very generous and healthy dose of Bach’s glorious choral music. The audience receives age-appropriate and engaging explanations of Bach’s compositional technique, with the pieces often deconstructed and reassembled for them. Pieces sung include the Gloria and et in terra pax from the Mass in B Minor, the chorus from Cantata No. 147: Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, a zesty jazz arrangement of the middle chorus of Cantata No. 140: Sleepers, Wake, the final chorus from the motet No. 225: Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord, and the final chorus from Cantata No. 129.
You might worry that this much “serious” repertoire might tax the attention span of our youngest audience, but we’ve found that, with the right preparation, they’re often transfixed by the sounds they hear: beautiful baroque counterpoint, lovingly and enthusiastically offered by musicians on a mission to evangelize this music we treasure so much. And, of course, one of the best things the students learn is that this isn’t stuffy music, and classical concerts aren’t inhospitable or unwelcoming to them (ours certainly aren’t!).
Audiences are treated to the incomparable rapport of our Artistic Director and Conductor, Greg Funfgeld. If you’ve seen him working the crowd at Bach at Noon, you’ll have a taste of his unfailingly friendly and inviting manner with young people. As they assemble in the auditoriums, they’re greeted by him personally, often with a handshake and a few cheerful words of welcome. Greg brings the music to them in a completely unintimidating way, seasoned with good humor, and the passion of someone who has something wonderful to share. In a season full of musical delights, and wonderful experiences, members of The Choir invariably number Bach to School as one of the most uplifting things we do all year. I was unable to attend the fall performances, but I’ve planned a few days of vacation in the New Year so I’ll be able to sing in the spring performances.
Our contact with the students doesn’t end with the conclusion of the program. Each student receives a flier with the generous offer of a free ticket to one of several of our performances. Many students and their parents take us up on this offer, and become members of the Bach Choir family. Because of the difficult economy, we’re in an era of unprecedented cuts in arts funding and instruction in almost all strata of society. The Bach Choir is proud to be able to reach out to thousands of students each year, to present them with a wonderful hour of music and learning. It also bears saying that the first contact with this music in a live performance can be a life-changing event (and I speak from personal experience!). We don’t expect that we’ll reach every student in the same way, but an introduction to classical music this cheerful and at the level we offer is likely to have a lasting effect on those who hear us. Below, you’ll find a YouTube produced by our Executive Director, Bridget George, and her husband, Bill, about both Bach at Noon and Bach to School.