Time flies when you’re having fun! The first weekend of the 110th Bethlehem Bach Festival is in the can, and it’s hard to believe how swiftly the two-day total immersion in Bach passed. Here are some highlights from both sides of the stage.
Distinguished Scholar Lecture with Dr. George Stauffer
I have a few of Dr. Stauffer’s books in my library, and it was a delight to put a face and a voice with his erudition. His lecture was, by turns, scholarly, funny, insightful, and just a tiny bit spicy. If you missed it and are around and available on Friday, May 19th, you really must attend. He weaves several strands of Bach’s genius to make a very compelling case for the Kapellmeister’s continued prominent place in our culture. I’ll share his trenchant and hilarious observation about Bach biographers next week – I don’t want to ruin the fun for those attending this coming weekend!
Bach @ 4
I enjoyed this concert from the audience and was delighted by all of the fascinating music on offer. In a stunning aria, Rosa Lamoreaux, one of our fantastic soprano soloists sings of the union of the soul to Christ, the bridegroom, “I am resplendent.” This was not a stretch – Rosa sounded beautiful (and forgive me for saying so – looked very much the part in a resplendent blue gown of her own making – in addition to her musical talents, Rosa is a brilliant seamstress!). Her duets with Bill Sharp were fantastic, and Greg Funfgeld offered a real hoot of an organ sinfonia from our continuo instrument, accompanied by zesty orchestral accompaniment. One of our cellists, Debbie Davis, was then joined by Steve Groat, one of our bassists, to play a canonical sonata for cello and bass by Telemann. It is the 250th anniversary of his death, which we are observing with a few instrumental selections peppered throughout the Festival program. Debbie and Steve sounded fabulous, and Debbie offered excellent commentary before the piece began. The program concluded with Cantata BWV 103, which featured members of The Choir, along with our orchestral colleagues, and the Festival Artist-in Residence, Tricia van Oers, burning things up on the recorder. Daniel Taylor, countertenor, and Stephen Ng, tenor, both made wonderful contributions in their respective arias, and my colleagues in The Choir navigated the challenging chromatic counterpoint of the opening chorus with much aplomb. I’ll be off to the Saal for next week’s 4 pm concert – I can highly recommend Bach at 4 for a wonderful afternoon of music. Be sure to arrive early for the chorale sing!
Bach @ 8
This program features full choir and orchestra and was a lot of fun to sing. I have to confess, my favorite moment was unexpected (Cantata BWV 110’s exultant and exuberant opening chorus was my prediction going in). I have notes in my score about performing Cantata BWV 97, which opened the program, but I hadn’t really remembered much about it, beyond some vague recollection of practicing the difficult text underlay in my office some years ago (I consulted the handy list of repertoire and corresponding dates, and it’s been since 2008, when we sang it at a Bach at Noon). I didn’t recall the rhapsodic tenor aria with violin obbligato that happens halfway through the work, and I’m at a loss as to why! Elizabeth Field, our concertmaster, began the challenging violin line with such elegance and lyricism. There are all kinds of double-stopping (playing two notes at once) and contrapuntal invention, in the solo violin line, which dialogue with the tenor’s melody. Benjamin Butterfield, our tenor soloist, and Liz seemed to impel one another to greater heights of beauty and grace. Wow. Wow, also to Mollie Glazer and Tricia van Oers in their vigorous and elegant Telemann concerto (wow, also, to Charlotte Mattax Moersh, who paused to tune an errant F on the harpsichord between movements). Cantata BWV 110 completed the program with some fierce trumpeting, much melismatic laughter in the opening chorus, and another favorite moment, which lasted slightly over a second. Someone in the Times said of Dashon Burton, our bass soloists, that “he has a voice that could wake the dead.” In the opening chorus, Bach gives us a rare indication of the makeup of the singers in his choirs and is unusually particular about assigning a soloist to a bass part towards the end of the chorus. It’s particularly fiery passage, and takes the soloist up to a high E. Everytime we rehearsed it this week, Dashon would shake the rafters with a moment of pure vocal power, and in the concert, he was even more resonant. We are accustomed to the finesse and lyricism of his singing, but, as we learned in his revelatory performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah a few years ago, when Dashon wants to roar, it is hair-raisingly thrilling. Likewise, in a later aria, accompanied by Larry Wright’s fearless trumpeting, Dashon sang multiple repetitions of the phrase “Wacht auf” (literally, “wake up!”), testing the Times critic’s observation. Excellent stuff. In addition to Dashon’s excellent work, we also heard some fantastic aria singing by Agnes Zigovics, Daniel Taylor, and Ben Butterfield, with exemplary fluting by Robin Kani and Linda Ganus, and Mary Watt’s always-lyrical oboeing (lungs of steel, I tell you!).
After a complete run-through and a performance for the Family Concert, and another complete run-through and another performance on Saturday morning, I was curious how our infectiously cheerful collaboration with the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre would hold up. It remains a delight, and I’m looking forward to another run on next Saturday. A tip of the hat to Tricia, who gives voice to the Nightingale, to the actors and director from Mock Turtle, and to Doug Roysden, Mock Turtle’s leader, and Bridget George, our executive director, for bringing this all to life. I promised it would be a treat for children of all ages, and I heard laughter from across the age spectrum at the antics of a very colorful cast of characters. Pure joy. Prior to the Nightingale, we were treated to a brief recital by the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem. They sang beautifully, with splendid intonation and rhythmic spirit, but also with an enviable tone quality that reflects impressively on the talents of the singers, and the careful cultivation of the same by their director, Dr. Joy Hirokawa. They were also extremely flexible – Dr. Hirokawa was obligated to be at Moravian College’s commencement, so she handed the reins over to her capable colleague, Greg Funfgeld, who knows his way around directing a choir. The children responded beautifully to his leadership – testimony to a well-prepared choir!
I don’t know if they named the Nor’Easter that blew through on Saturday, but I think it should’ve been called Johann Adolph, after Bach’s critical nemesis, Scheibe, because it poured all morning and most of the afternoon. We moved the chorale sing and the Festival Brass Choir indoors, as a result, and the hearty singing of chorales set a ruddy and defiant tone (to the rain’s attempt to dampen the festivities) for the Mass that followed. I lost count around 30 of my personal performances of the Mass, but each one takes on a character of its own. Variables include the weather (sometimes it’s a bit of a swelter, as forecast for this coming weekend – dress accordingly!), illness to overcome (enough years have passed to mention that Greg once heroically led a Mass despite having a serious stomach bug – I honestly don’t know how he does it!), the particular energy of the audience, the cast of soloists, etc. The stars really seemed to align for Saturday’s performance, which had an extremely grounded feel to it from the choral risers. The audience seemed eager, the orchestra was at the top of their game, the soloists were connected and full of artistry, and Greg seemed especially determined. I hope it was as rewarding to hear as it was to perform.
We’ll be attending Zimmerman’s Coffe House next week, and are very much looking forward to hearing the next generation of Bach talent in a fun atmosphere.
If you have tickets for next week’s festivities, congratulations! You’re in for a wonderful time. If you attended this past weekend, it was such a privilege to perform for you and a delight to welcome you. I have a cheeky suggestion if you attended and are from the area: Come back – tickets are available for most, if not all, of the performances, and you will marvel at the permutations and subtle changes that take place. Greg’s tempo for the Cum Sancto Spiritu was on the more conservative side this week. Will the spirit (and the heat), cause a downshift and a woosh through the movement? How about a nice picnic on what we hope will be a dry lawn? Do you have children, grandchildren, neighbors with children who haven’t yet seen The Nightingale? We are throwing a splendid party for anyone who could stand to be moved by tremendous beauty, and we’d love to have an overflowing guest list. Also, is there such a thing as too much Bach (I’m biased, I will admit)?