I am writing my wrap-up of the second weekend of Festival before it’s officially over because I tarried too long, and didn’t secure our tickets for Zimmerman’s Coffee House before it sold out. Dear reader, it’s probably for the best – I’m beat. For Choir members, there’s what some affectionally call “Hell Week,” for some singers, as many as four evening orchestral rehearsals before the first weekend of the Festival. Some of us sang Friday afternoon and evening, Saturday morning, and Saturday afternoon. As we were making our way to Packer Memorial Church for the Mass, this afternoon, my wife tried to offset the exhaustion by saying “Just one more performance!” My reply, “Yes, of one of Western Civilization’s towering masterpieces. No pressure!” Consider it weariness overcome, because today’s Mass was an extra ebullient affair!
But first, back to the beginning of the weekend. I did not attend this week’s Distinguished Scholar Lecture (having seen it last week), but our marvelous Executive Director, Bridget George, shared with me that it was well-attended and well-received. No doubt. My favorite moment last week was when Dr. Stauffer pithily observed that, given the paucity of primary (non-hagiographic) sources about Bach, the human, that his biographers have all seemed to fashion him somewhat in their own image. It was somewhat amusing when he mentioned Forkel and Spitta, and then a slide of the cover of Christoph Wolff’s monumental work, “Johann Sebastion Bach, the Learned Musician,” appeared on the screen, and Dr. Stauffer mused on how his Pulitzer-nominated, Harvard Dean, Bach-Archiv Leipzig President friend and colleague absolutely typifies such an honorific. Maybe you had to be there, but there were numerous hearty laughs.
Chamber Music in the Saal
Attendees were promised an intriguing program: Bach and the Viola of Love. Our new violist, Paul Miller, began the proceedings with a brief description of the viola d’amore, which has a second set of strings that vibrate in sympathy with the bowed strings and passed around an example from Dr. Alfred Mann’s (an early music dynamo and earlier conductor of The Choir) personal collection. He was then joined by Charlotte Mattax-Moersch, at the harpsichord, Mollie Glazer on ‘cello, and a colleague from the viola section, Maureen Murchie, for a Heinrichen trio sonata. Wow. The sound of chamber music in a….chamber. For those not in the know, you can swiftly be transported back into the 18th century by securing yourself a spot on one of the benches (pews?) of the Saal of the Moravian Museum, on Church St. It’s a beautiful space, with what have to be the original wide-planked floors, a slightly bowing giant beam across the room, and intimate acoustics. Highlights of the program included some beautiful aria singing by Ben Butterfield, Agnes Zsigovics, and Dashon Burton, accompanied by the d’amores, harpsichord, and Mollie’s frequent switching between viola da gamba and ‘cello. Paul, in his spellbinding and deeply-amusing remarks about the program, traced the lineage of Telemann’s use of the d’amores in his own Brockes Passion, to Bach’s nod to Telemann in his own use of the instruments in two powerful movements in the St. John Passion. Dashon sang with such devotion and craft in the arioso, Betrachte, meine Seel, and Ben offered a gorgeous Erwäge. All of that would have been worth the price of admission, alone, but we also got to hear Agnes sing one of my all-time favorite arias, Auch mit gedämpften, from Cantata BWV 36. It was a real time-stopper. The program concluded with Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Partita No. 7 from “Harmonia artificosa,” which was an absolute tour-de-force. There was copious double-stopping, creating rich harmonies and compelling sonorities, and Paul and Maureen navigated some highly ornamented playing beautifully (some of their ornaments seemed flawlessly improvised, some were clearly written in the score). I attended Bach @4 last week and was so glad that I had the opportunity to hear music in the Saal this week. Next year, if you’re in the region, you should plan to attend both.
Bach @ 8
Our orchestral colleagues played with particular panache throughout Festival, perhaps none more than in the French overture that begins Cantata BWV 97. The strings are launched into the stratosphere, and the intonation was remarkable, as were the 32nd note runs many sections of the orchestra had to travail. Such elegance! The opening chorus seemed to go very well. The arias and recits all went well – Bill Sharp sounded very plush in his, with accompaniment by the basso continuo instruments. Likewise Ben and Liz Field shared in another spirit-meld of exceptional eloquence in their duet. Daniel Taylor sounded assured and shimmery in his aria, accompanied ably by strings and continuo. Rosa Lamoreaux brought her consummate artistry to a duet with Bill and in an aria, by herself, with excellent obbligato contributions by Mary Watt and Nobuo Kitagawa on oboe, with Chuck Holdeman offering a rock-solid continuo foundation.
The Telemann concerto was given another vigorous and vivacious reading by a smaller ensemble from the orchestra, with dialoguing viola da gamba and recorder. Brava to Mollie, Tricia, and their colleagues for putting Bach into focus through the music of one of his most esteemed contemporaries.
It was Christmas in May with Cantata BWV 110. The opening French overture was as regal and majestic as you could hope for, and the choral parts of the opening chorus, superimposed over the instrumental parts from the Fourth Orchestral Suite were a blast to sing. Agnes, Dan, and Ben sang with excellent ensemble sense and dexterity in their trio in the opening chorus, and Dashon roared away on his solo. Greg often sings this by himself when rehearsing with the choir (usually down the octave), and always has an enormous amount of fun rolling the r in a dramatic octave drop on the word “grosses,” and Dashon demonstrated the same vigor in his singing. Mary Watt and Dan had a particularly transfixing aria together, which demonstrated their total mastery of their respective instruments. When I listen to those playing oboe on reference recordings of the Bach cantatas, I always come away thinking that they’re sometimes a little different, but never better, than Mary. How deeply she is able to get inside the genius of Bach’s melodies, with an endless array of shadings and colors, with a seemingly infinite matrix of expressivity, utterly stuns me, every time she plays. Likewise, with Dan, the depth of his interpretation and the technical skill he utilizes in bringing melodies and texts to life is so very, very inspiring. Our very late (or very early) Christmas feast also included wonderful singing from Agnes and Ben, obbligato beauty from flautists Robin Kani and Linda Ganus, and fearless trumpeting from Larry Wright.
We had a slightly bigger crowd this week, and they really seemed to revel in the joy and depth of our adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s timeless tale, offered in collaboration with the Mock Turtle Marionette Theatre (which involved actors from the Charter Arts High School and Touchstone Theatre). In his opening remarks, Greg spoke of the value of authenticity and realness in the art. Doug Roysden, the founder of Mock Turtle took Greg’s defense of organic creation and added to it local art, noting that this production was a Bethlehem original, from the organizations involved in its genesis, to the construction of The Choir’s harpsichord by local (and internationally-renowned) builder, Willard Martin, whose studio is a stone’s throw from the Zoellner Arts Center. There was lovely playing, particularly by Tricia van Oers, our Festival Artist-in-Residence, by Greg at the harpsichord (he played passages from the Art of the Fugue, and dueted with Liz Field in a whimsical Graceful Ghost Rag by contemporary composer William Bolcolm). There was also high silliness from the beautiful marionettes and the extremely mischievous ghosts. Again this week, we had a beautiful prelude by the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, this time led by their wonderful conductor, Dr. Joy Hirokawa. With these talented, well-trained young voices, the future is in good hands!
Last week, I playfully posed a question: Greg’s tempo for the Cum Sancto Spiritu was a little bit on the more conservative side – would that be the case this week? After we finished, and while we were catching our breath, Tom Goeman, who plays continuo on the large organ in Packer Memorial Church when The Choir sings, turned to me and mouthed the words, “That was FAST!” Indeed! We were scampering to keep up, but it was a total thrill. If last week’s performance felt solid and grounded, this week’s felt solid, but also adventurous (no two performances will ever be alike). All of the magic we’ve come to expect from our vocal and instrumental soloists was conjured once again, and things seemed to go very well, chorally. What a blessing and a privilege to revisit this music every year, and to be nourished, moved, inspired, and uplifted by its particular genius, in such loving and convivial company!
My wife and I call Greg “The Maestro” semi-ironically for a few reasons: Like us, he’s a big fan of Seinfeld, we know he would bristle at the honorific out of humility, and, last but not least, in the very best sense of the word, it absolutely applies. Of the many things that have inspired so many of us over the years about Greg, a new one has emerged, one that has always been evident, but becomes even more impressive over time: he never stops challenging himself. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen him take the easy way out of anything, particularly when no one would fault him for doing so. Some artists yearn for fame, for recognition, for admiration. Others are motivated by an unseen force, chasing after more mastery, more depth, more humanity. Greg is so firmly in the latter camp, and this year’s Festival put that powerfully on display. From harpsichord solos to organ obbligatos, from cheerfully interacting with the Bach Choir family, to conducting an extremely wide range of music, there he is, challenging himself, and inspiring the rest of us. Bravo!
Happy Anniversary, Bridget George
You may have noted in the program that our wonderful Executive Director, Bridget George, is observing her 20th anniversary with the organization. I want to add a few words of appreciation, myself. We came to know her in my first few years in The Choir. One is immediately impressed with her erudition, her deep knowledge of Bach’s music, her Energizer bunny level of drive, and her arch-kindness. The summer before our UK tour in 2003 was a scorcher, and my wife and I would often take a walk after sundown through Bethlehem’s Historic District, often passing The Choir’s office on Heckewelder Place (a few doors down from our current, much-beloved home). There, through the window, often after 9 pm, would be Bridget, working at her computer, finalizing details for our trip. She and I have had many conversations over the years on topics that touch on her wide range of experience and skills, music, of course, theater, of course, art, literature, poetry, faith, familiy, and more. Hers is a hard-won, generous, and empathetic wisdom, and, when coupled with what others have characterized as her “indefatigable passion,” it seems to many of us that there isn’t anything she can’t accomplish. Her thoughtful and inspired stewardship have helped the organization expand dramatically and achieve new heights. Her love for the Bach Choir is evident in everything she does, and I am so grateful to call her a colleague and a friend. Brava!
Many thanks to everyone who attended 110 – stay tuned for more information about this summer’s Bach at Noon performances, as well as our annual outing to the Finger Lakes for a benefit concert at Hermann Wiemer Vineyard. There’s much wonderful music on tap!