Above: David and Carol Beckwith at a reception following the Saturday Mass performance, honoring him for ten years as President of The Choir’s Board of Managers.
The second weekend of performances of the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival brought the festival program to an even larger audience this past weekend. Friday evening and Saturday afternoon were particularly well-attened (indeed, we almost sold out for Saturday’s performance of the Mass). All of the choir members I’ve spoken with have mixed feelings about the end of Festival – on one hand, it was a challenging set of programs, and the time commitment was even more taxing, so we’re glad to be able to exhale, cut the grass, and attend to the myriad of details that are often put on hold for Festival weekends; on the other hand, for many of us, it’s hard to imagine what we’d rather be doing! This was particularly the case at the conclusion of Cantata 131 – as my fellow basses and I made the chromatic ascents of one of the fugue themes, I sensed such unity and commitment. Likewise, the great strife that begins Cantata 19 was uniformly thrilling, and Larry Wright’s cantus firmus in the tenor aria of the same was a masterwork of poise and precision (it’s fiercely high and nerve-wrackingly exposed). Our vocal soloists made incredible contributions: again, Dan Lichti’s Cantata 56 was incredibly moving, Bill Sharp’s Et in Spiritum Sanctum was a reference performance, Rosa Lamoreaux and Liz Field managed the counterpoint of the Laudamus Te with extraordinary grace and sensitivity, Ben Butterfield’s Benedictus was a beautiful display of humility and devotion (despite being set in the stratosphere), and Danny Taylor’s Agnus Dei had all the emotional complexity and tenderness for which he is justly famous.
As I wrote last week, with such a huge amount of music to perform in a compact timespan, it’s always interesting to see which moments resonate especially. Last week, I wrote about the concluding chorus of Cantata 34, which, again, this week, was full of gratitude and fire. For me, this week, it was the center three movements of the Credo. Volumes have been written about the symmetry of the Credo, and the three movements at its center are some of the most profound and powerful. The Choir rises to sing the Et incarnatus est, which has almost Mozartean string figures, over which each section of the choir, in turn makes an extremely exposed entrance from near the top of their range. Our fearless leader has to balance the need for precision while simultaneously creating no vocal tension, and so he carefully, lovingly breathes with each section as they make their entrance. It’s an extraordinary balancing act, and he was in top form this week. The entrances went very well, and the sense of awe and mystery that pervades this movement was, I believe, very apparent. We then transitioned to the Crucifixus, which is a passacaglia, with the same bass line repeated thirteen times. Over this structure, there are alternating figures between the strings and the flutes, which lend an almost clinical inexorability to the affair. The choir then sings sighing motives over this complex music, creating a mournful and profound affect. The question of dynamics in this movement is a daunting one, in part, because of the brutality of the phonemes in the word “Crucifixus” as well as what it represents. When the text shifted away from that word, Greg brought the dynamics down even further than he usually does, and my sense was that we followed very carefully, lending credence to a college professor’s assertion that, when a large choir sings pianissimo, it can be a very powerful thing. That, too, is a difficult proposition, though, because if the choir’s tone loses its dynamism, the music can collapse in on itself. I felt that we achieved a great deal in the moment, and had an uncommonly spiritual connection with Greg at the movement’s very hushed conclusion. After a pause, we launched into an Et resurrexit brimming over with excitement. Indeed, sadness turned to dancing, and it was an exceptionally powerful experience. In all of the above, our orchestral colleagues played with great style, panache, and precision.
The Saturday morning performance of Young Meister Bach, and the Coffee Cantata went very well – it’s a delight to perform the work for an audience who can appreciate all the sort of in-jokes that permeate the libretto and score. YMB is now on hiatus – I’ve heard that composer Chuck Holdeman will be making some tweaks, and I very much look forward to the day when this very witty and fiercely creative works receives some more performances.
Steve Siegel was at the McFarlane and Simms lute and theorbo recital, and has this very positive review up at the Morning Call’s music blog. I’m sorry I had to miss it because of a performance conflict (YMB), as I’ve long been a fan of Ronn McFarlane’s playing. I’m sure it was incredible.
At the conclusion of the Mass many of us made our way to a reception honoring David Beckwith, the estimable President of our Board of Managers, upon his retirement from that role. David began his journey with The Choir as a singer of exceptional talent, eventually singing some of the roles in the Passion performances. David is also extremely high-achieving in the worlds of healthcare and business, with a distinguished career as a microbiologist and laboratory and hospital administrator, having earning all kinds of lauds for his work in both roles. He brought his passion and administrative excellence to his role as President of our Board, all with a very steady and exceptionally gracious hand on the till. A partial list of The Choir’s innovations during his tenure include the establishment of the Second Century Fund, which saw incredible growth in our endowment, the initiation of Bach at Noon (a huge accomplishment), celebration of our 100th Bethlehem Bach Festival, the Roots of Renewal celebration of the 100th anniversary of our guarantor system, an increasing profile in our region with concerts in Cleveland, New York City, and Maryland, and so much more. During his comments at the reception, David was quick to share the credit, and, indeed, ours is an organization with many vital and moving parts. But, for creativity to flourish, vision must be tempered with sobriety and skill in preparation and execution, and I earnestly believe that David’s care and discernment were inestimable gifts to The Choir and its mission, at a time of dynamic expansion. We look forward to his continued participation in the life of The Choir as an honorary board member (he’ll be in the excellent company of two titans and past presidents, Jan Bonge and Jack Jordan). Congratulations, David, on a job exceptionally well done.
Thank you to everyone involved in making the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival such a grand success. Plans are already being formulating for next season – make sure to visit the blog over the summer for news on that front.
Update: Steve Siegel offers a glowing review of the Friday cantatas concerts here.