The first weekend of the 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival is a wrap, and I’ve had a couple days to ponder the joy and significance of our offerings. A very hectic schedule had me sticking only to the two concerts I sang in, with plans to attend many more, this weekend. Word from the lectures was that both Dr. Christoph Wolff and Dr. Larry Lipkis did excellent jobs, peppering their talks with good cheer and erudition. I also heard that Bach at 4 was incredible, with the favorable acoustics of The Incarnation of Our Lord Church, and fabulous performing forces combining for a very special afternoon. Greg was pleased to give Daniel Taylor an opportunity to speak about some of the music he was to sing, and many in our audience, accustomed to hearing his gorgeous countertenor voice (pitched in the alto range), were delighted to hear his sonorous baritone speaking voice (and his always-illuminating thoughts about the music). I’m very much looking forward to hearing my colleagues in a small group of singers from the Choir offer Cantata No. 96, and our merry band of soloists and instrumentalists delight us with their playing and singing. I know from experience that hearing Daniel sing Where’er you walk from Handel’s Semele, alone, is worth the price of admission, and so much more was on offer!
I was at the Friday night concert with the full Choir, and that performance was a lot of fun! Kudos to our horn players, Tony Cecere and Dan Braden, for their yeoman’s work on the fiercely difficult obbligatos of Cantata No. 100. The Choir has it fairly easy in that selection, and it was very rewarding to hear the textural contrasts in the opening chorus, from festive tuttis (with the whole ensemble) to a de facto trio sonata for flute, oboe, and continuo. Excellent work from all the instrumentalists. Speaking of one aria being worth the cost of admission, Robin Kani, our principal flute, and Rosa Lamoreaux, soprano soloist, offered what I thought was the most beguiling aria of the evening on the enchanting Er wird mich wohl bedenken. Robin’s sinuous flute combined with Rosa’s gorgeous color to create several moments of transfixing beauty. Next up, the singers got a rest, and our colleagues in the orchestra were joined by trumpet soloist Terry Everson for an electric and elegant performance of Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto. The bar was high: we heard Guy Ferber perform the work earlier in the season, on a period trumpet, which, at the time, I called “the most egalitarian performance of the work I’ve ever heard.” Well, Guy has some fierce (and cheerful) competition from Terry. He worked mightily to foster a sense of ensemble, and there were absolutely no leaps in volume when the baton was passed to him. Instead, we marveled at the differing colors of the solo instruments: oboe, flute, violin, and trumpet. Additionally, Terry’s playing in the stratosphere of his instrument’s range was uniformly thrilling, his colleagues in the concerto grosso, Robin Kani, Mary Watt, and Liz Field, also acquitted themselves with great distinction. The program ended with Bach’s rousing Easter Oratorio, which was also a treat. Among my many favorite moments, surely Dan Lichti and Ben Butterfield singing the melismas of the B-section of the opening chorus with skill and ruddy enthusiasm stands tall. Kudos, also, to our own trumpeters for their excellent work on fanfare after fanfare of ecstatic praise. It had been a while since I listened to the EO, and I had forgotten about the fascinating multi-part recitatives, a compositional technique Bach saves for really special occasions. The aria singing was, again, impeccable, and we all brought the festivities to a close with the rousing closing chorus, complete with tenors and sopranos at the tops of their range, offering choral fanfares to match the energy and excitement of the orchestra.
Taylor 2’s performance with the Bach Festival Orchestra on Saturday morning generated much excitement. The program is a combination of some new (to Bethlehem) works, and a few audience favorites from previous visits. In addition to the captivating dance, Greg was full of praise for our instrumental soloists, including Charlotte Mattax Moersch, who had to play movement after movement from Bach’s many harpsichord concerti. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the repeat, this Saturday.
The Mass seemed to go very well. One of the things I love most about performing the work every year is the sense that it becomes a moment of reflection on the year that has passed. Individuals returning to the work might have joys to celebrate, or losses to mourn, or might just be wrapped in the ever-present sense of change and evolution that seems to enfold all of us. I always think of the Mass as a kind of therapeutic tune-up. One of my colleagues in the Choir, who retires at the end of this season, wrote about what her time in the Choir has meant to her, and kindly gave me permission to share it. Karen Votta shared the following picture from the Ifor Jones era of the Festival, and writes:
1961. Ifor Jones. 190 singers. My mother was a Soprano I and my uncle was a Bass. Both pictured in this photo on the Choir I side. My grandmother and I had perfect attendance out on the lawn every year. Sometimes an usher would come along with a ticket for me, the little girl who loved Bach, and I would enter this Holy space and be immersed in the great sounds of the Mass, which to me was Praise and Thanksgiving in the highest form possible. I fell in love with Bach at a very young age. I have immense gratitude for the family legacy I have been given.
Zimmerman’s Coffee House was apparently a spirited good time. I saw a video clip of one of our Choral Scholars singing some Rameau, and she sounded fantastic. I know the families of several of the performers, and they’re all ecstatic that they’re given this opportunity to join the performing legacy of the Bach Choir. All of this (including the Chamber Music in the Saal concert) is on offer again this weekend. If you were here last weekend, come back, and see something again. If you’re coming, you’re in for a huge treat! If you’re on the fence, buy some tickets and treat yourself to the latest, freshest iteration of a a performing tradition well over a century old!