Countdown to the Festival: The 105th Bethlehem Bach Festival

I spent an hour on air at WDIY this past Friday to listen to a little bit of our new St. John Passion recording, and to plug the upcoming 105th Bethlehem Bach Festival, and the host, Wally Vinoskis, asked me to summarize what was on tap for our audience.  I’m rather sure I prattled on for quite some time, and I’m not even sure I mentioned everything!  I will try to remedy that below with a hopeless partisan’s preview of the wonderful series of concerts  and related activities upon which we will soon embark.  Stay tuned for updates – our first rehearsal at Packer Memorial Church is tonight, and I’ll be posting all week (and weekend).   See, also, Steve Siegel’s preview in the Morning Call, here.

Fridays Afternoons, May 4 & & 11, 2 pm –Distinguished Scholar Lecture
Nicholas Kenyon: Bach in the 21st Century
Black Box Theatre, Zoellner Arts Center; Free Admission – no tickets required

Sir Nicholas will be coming to us from London, where he is the managing director of the Barbican Center.  Prior to that, he was was the director of the BBC Proms from 1996-2007, in which capacity he invited The Choir to perform at the 2003 Proms, which was the anchor of our wonderful tour of the UK that summer.  He recently penned an excellent book, The Faber Pocket Guide to Bach, which, I’m sorry to report doesn’t fit in my pocket (which is why I have both the print and Kindle editions of the book).  The Guide is an excellent overview of the Bach universe.  Sir Nicholas offers a surprisingly detailed overview, not just in terms of biography and repertoire, but also snippets of theological analysis, discussions of performance practice, and a very personal view of Bach and his music.  I read it straight through, in an afternoon.

His lecture, which Steve Siegel previewed in the Morning Call, here, is entitled Bach in the 21st Century, and it promises to be a very satisfying prelude to the festival.  Sir Nicholas is an exceptionally engaging writer and speaker, and I’m very much looking forward to his exploration of this subject.

Friday Afternoons, May 4 & 11, 4:30 pm – Bach Cantatas

The music starts with a joyful clatter:  the horns and timpani of Cantata No. 79, which is one of Bach’s two epic-scale cantatas in observance of the Reformation.  The Choir’s very good friend (and former tenor), Dr. Ellis Finger, headlined the Bach Choir News with an article exploring the music for the Festival, which you may find here.  To Ellis’ always-erudite ruminations, I’ll only add that Cantata 79, with it’s incorporation of the chorale tune,  Nunn danket alle Gott (“Now thank we all our God”), is an amazingly cheerful affair, full of beautiful, rousing music.  The concert will continue with Bach’s Cantata No. 170, a solo cantata for alto.  Joining the choir will be countertenor Daniel Taylor, who has riveted audiences in Bethlehem (and around the world – he’s worked with virtually all of the major players on the early music scene) for over a decade.  The program concludes with Bach’s Easter masterpiece, Cantata No. 4.  This cantata, which sets verses of the sturdy Easter chorale, Christ lag in todesbanden (“Christ lay in death’s bonds”), is an audience favorite, and is also widely held to be one of the best of Bach’s 200 surviving cantatas.  Ever the musical tinkerer, Bach added parts for cornet and three trombones to double the voices later in his career, and we’re happy to be presenting this scoring of the cantata.  The brass instruments add a kind of Brahmsian richness to the affair.

Following the afternoon concerts, audience members may elect to dine (with a reservation, of course) in the Asa Packer Dining Room in the Lehigh University Center.  Dr. Larry Lipkis, composer-in-residence at Moravian College, and deeply-esteemed member of the Baltimore Consort, will offer an informal discussion of the Festival repertoire.  Larry is an engaging and deeply-knowledgeable speaker (as well as a fantastic instrumentalist and composer), and his talks are always both fun and informative.

Friday Evenings, May 4 & 11, 8:30 pm – Bach Cantatas

The Friday evening concerts kick off with the tenors of The Choir declaiming the fugal subject based on the melody of Ein feste burg (“A mighty fortress”) which begins Bach’s wonderful cantata of the same name, No. 80.  Scholars have found this music in the Moravian Archives, dating from 1823, which leads us to the conclusion that Bethlehem was the site of the first performances of Bach’s music in America (this was 6 years prior to Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829).  A beast for musicians, and a treat for listeners, this piece is also an audience favorite, and it will be a wonderful overture to an evening of stunning music.  Also on the program is Bach’s early cantata, No. 21.  This piece is a musical, spiritual, and intellectual journey from sorrow and distress to rapturous joy.  Like Cantata No. 4 in the afternoon program, Bach later buttressed the singing parts with trombones, and we’ll be using that scoring for our performances.  The piece begins with an achingly beautiful sinfonia for oboe soloist and strings and concludes with full choir, brass, strings, winds and timpani.  It is a marvel, from start to finish, and will be a fitting conclusion to the program.

I will update tonight with some reflections on our first orchestral rehearsals, and tomorrow I’ll preview Saturday’s events, including an appearance by Eliot Fisk, Charlotte Mattax-Moersch’s performance of the Partitas for harpsichord in Peter Hall, and, of course, the Mass in B-Minor.  Stay tuned!

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