Festival Wrap-Up

The second weekend of the Festival was a grand success!  There were so many highlights to observe: from Suzuki violin students playing a prelude to the Friday evening concert (bathed in the beautiful glow of a stunning sunset), to the arch virtuosity of Eliot Fisk and the Bach Festival Orchestra;  a packed Packer Memorial Church for another encounter with the Mass in B-Minor, to the joy and camaraderie of the Bach Choir family, gathering to immerse themselves in the beauty of great music and fellowship; all point to a Festival very much in the spirit and tradition of excellence that has marked the association of Bach and Bethlehem from the very beginning.  Over the course of the two weekends, I had many conversations with friends and guarantors, and a pretty diverse cross-section of the Bach Choir family.  They were all very positive about the repertoire, the performances, and the new acoustical arrangements.  Friends from Philadelphia who have been attending for decades remarked that the Mass has never sounded better (one remarked that it was the best she’d ever heard us).  Prior to the first Friday afternoon concert, I chatted with one audience member who was very excited about the repertoire.  When I remarked that it’s just one amazing piece after another, he nodded in hearty concurrence.

At the conclusion of the joyful Osanna in the Mass, the character of the music, which has, for minutes, been a liturgical evocation of heavenly praise, returns to earth with the Benedictus.  This tenor aria, the most intimate of the Mass, seems to express a different kind of praise: humble, reverent, devout.  It’s a moment of rest for the singers, who have been standing from the beginning of the Confiteor.  We return with the second Osanna, which seems more an echo than a recapitulation, and then the music becomes even more earthbound with the Agnus Dei.  I have to confess, I always feel a little melancholy at this point.  Singers are certainly tired after the taxing demands of the music that precedes it, and the Agnus Dei, with its wrenchingly beautiful dialog between alto and unison violins, evokes powerful emotions. I also know that, by the second weekend of the Festival, we’ve reached the end of a long musical journey together.  The conclusion of the Mass, itself an echo of the Gratias, replaces thanksgiving with a plea for peace, and I can think of no better way to end, not only the piece of music, but the Festival, than with such a glorious and profound benediction.  Bach reaches forward, from the span of several centuries, to offer us the sum of his ambitions and life’s work, in a way that one cannot help but find deeply compelling, powerfully comforting and, paradoxically, wholly contemporary.  For some reason, the erasing of years felt particularly pronounced this time, and it was especially rewarding to feel past, present, and future in such an exceptional consonance.  Celtic spirituality treasures the notion of thin places -places where the spiritual and the natural worlds intersect.  Greg Funfgeld, our conductor, has often referred to the Festival as holy ground, and this year, which began with a remembrance of 9/11 in New York, and concluded with a Festival that remembered several elements of our heritage, and that saw the loss of one of our dear friends, seems to me to have concluded with the blessing of a kind of musical thin place.  I quoted Wendell Berry in an earlier post, about ascribing worth  and value to cultural enterprises that offer truth, beauty and justice, and I can’t help but think that this season saw our entire organization live out those standards in a wonderful way.  Many thanks to everyone involved for bringing to life such a profound and beautiful season of music.

This will mark my last post of the 2011-2012 season.  The Choir will gather for our year end dinner next Monday, and then we will be on hiatus until the fall (though there might be some informal rehearsals this summer, to acquaint us with the music of Mendelssohn’s grand oratorio, Elijah – but that’s a story for next year!).  It’s been an intense and deeply rewarding year for the singers, and, though I’m ready for a rest, I’m also very much looking forward to the rewards of the coming year.  I intend to post with less frequency this summer, but I’ll ping all our Facebook friends with news  from time to time, and you can subscribe to this blog if you’re not part of the social network world.

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6 Responses to Festival Wrap-Up

  1. Lynn Long says:

    David, I always enjoy your writing so much. Thanks for doing this for all of us! I had a wonderful time this year at the Festival. The music was amazing. The weather perfect. One funny comment from an audience member–you look like nuns in those new dresses!

  2. Allison says:

    For those of us unable to be there this year, this is a fantastic recap. Thank you for your thoughtful observations, David!
    All the best from Boston.

    • David Ruhf says:

      Thank you, Alison. I’m privy to a little inside information about next season, and hope you’ll be able to join us next time around – it’s going to be great! All our very best from Bethlehem!

  3. Karen says:

    Bliss, just bliss, as usual. I often wonder if the members of the choir and orchestra realize how truly grateful members of the audience are. Gas would have to be 100.00 per gallon for me to give up my annual pilgrimage to Bethlehem for the festival. My family now comes from all over the United States to attend. I always leave, though, with a certain sadness that there are any vacant seats in Packer Church. There really should be a waiting list for every concert, but I’d tear my hair out if I was unlucky enough to be on it. Nearly 30 years ago, I happened upon a description of the festival in a travel guidebook and figured if it had been going on for as many years as it had, it was worth checking out. This year, I pledge to do more to introduce others to this treasure. To everyone associated with the festival, Thank you!

    • David Ruhf says:

      Thanks, Karen! We’re so glad you make the pilgrimage, and are so grateful for your kind words! Hope you can come see us at Strathmore on 13 March 2013. We’ll be singing Mendelssohn’s powerful oratorio, Elijah, with this year’s Bach Vocal Competition for Young American Singers winner, Dashon Burton, singing the title role. It’s going to be fabulous!

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