Though the beginning of the 18/19 season is only a couple of months old, we’ve been quite busy, and there’s much upon which to reflect!
Bravo, Peter Serkin!
An audience of around 420 attended this year’s Gala Concert, a recital by the eminent pianist, Peter Serkin. We surpassed all of our fundraising goals for our educational outreach programs at the swanky dinner and auction that followed, which is very gratifying, but what will remain with me from the evening is the extraordinary power and magic of the recital.
Beginning with a profound and powerful Mozart Adagio, Mr. Serkin met the challenges of Mozart-channeling-Wagner with tightrope precision, stretching the cadences of diminished harmony to the breaking point, before offering eloquent resolution. There was a spaciousness to each of the musical lines and a strikingly linear sense to his playing that kept us all on the edge of our seats. Then followed a Mozart sonata, full of elegance, an unimpeachable technique, and much joie de vivre. Reflecting on the recital at Monday’s rehearsal, one of my colleagues in the choir commented on the deeply granular attention to detail that Mr. Serkin brought to this music. It seemed that every note was voiced and orchestrated with great intention. Melodies and countermelodies breathed with spectacular clarity and a sense of joyful interplay. The audience was applauded effusively when the work came to its charming conclusion.
After an interval, Mr. Serkin returned to offer an awe-inspiring performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. This is one of those instances when the use of too many superlatives threatens to impeach my critical thinking skills, but I will nevertheless continue. A few things stood out: this performance of an aria and thirty variations, concluding with a reprise of the aria was offered from memory, which was simply astonishing. Each variation in Mr. Serkin’s hands was a universe unto itself, or perhaps an individual room in a vast mansion. They sprung to life, fully, convincingly realized, though short in duration, filled to the brim with substance. Greg Funfgeld mentioned that he had a sort of duality of thought as he listened, awe at Peter’s playing, and awe at Bach’s compositional skills. I agree. There was some sort of cosmic mind-meld between performer and composer (born, doubtless, of decades of familiarity with the work, which he has recorded four times). Mr. Serkin’s technique was so flawless and responsive that, throughout the whole performance, he telegraphed his dense and complete knowledge of the architecture and compositional intent of the work in a way that didn’t at all seem lecturing or didactic, but, rather, as a way of communicating the full depth of Bach’s genius. After he finished the 25th Variation, a chromatic masterpiece that the famous harpsichordist Wanda Landowska referred to as “The Black Pearl,” the remaining variations seemed to surge forward with an inexorable sense of dramatic and psychological propulsion. We all regained our breath during the repeat of the Aria and then sat for a moment in one of the richest silences I’ve experienced in a lifetime of concertgoing (a few individuals understandably wanted to applaud, but silence was regained for a long moment). When the moment passed and the ovation roared back to life, I was instantly on my feet, tears streaming down my face. This was the highlight in a year of some really amazing concerts and an inestimable blessing for those privileged to hear it. Bravo! Steve Siegel, as always, has an insightful review here.
We were quite exhausted when we began recording the Händel Ode to St. Cecilia and Bach’s Cantata BWV 21 last May. We had managed a week full of orchestral rehearsals (while most of us continued at our day jobs), followed by a weekend of performances. After a Sunday off, we met in the balmy sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem (HVAC off, for sonic reasons), and began laying down take after take, track after track of the repertoire, with a very exacting (and skilled) production team guiding us and nudging us to the very best we could offer. Greg Funfgeld led us with his signature sense of patience and good humor, but most of us were quite relieved and glad when it was over (the thermometer continued to rise throughout the process). The editing process continued into June and the finished project is now available on all the streaming sources, from Amazon, and, of course, from us. It is marvelous (and makes all of the hard work more than worth it)! In addition to the large works on each of two discs, there are little gems in the forms of arias from some of our most revered soloists. The Choir sounds fresh as a daisy and the Bach Festival Orchestra was on fire in those sessions (was that why it was so hot in there?)! Carl Talbot, our engineer and producer did a marvelous job capturing the difficult balance of recording a large choir (too close with the mics, and you get lots of individual voices popping out, too far away, and it sounds like you’re in another room). These recordings will make fabulous Christmas presents, and, while you’re at it, treat yourself!
Next week promises to be a banner week for the organization. Bach @ Noon on Tuesday, an offering of Cantata BWV 61 and the Fourth French Suite is an excellent late autumnal-advent pair, combining cosmic praise and deep intimacy. A small cadre of singers has been working for weeks on polishing BWV 61, and they sound wonderful. I’ve heard Greg play the French Suite before, and am delighted our Bach @ Noon audience will hear it as well. That’s this coming Tuesday, November 13th, at Central Moravian Church. The doors open at 11:30 – be there soon thereafter if you’d like a good seat. Then, many singers continue on Wednesday and Thursday with Bach to School, the hour-long performance for elementary school students that is a core part of our educational outreach efforts.
In Memoriam, Paul Florenz
The busy week concludes with many members of The Choir singing at the memorial service for Paul Florenz, Esq., at the Cathedral of the Nativity, on Friday, November 16th. Paul served many roles in the Bach Choir family, including as a singer, house manager, legal counsel, member of the Board of Managers (rising to the office of Vice President), and ardent supporter. My experiences with Paul were always elevating: he was an empathic and enthusiastic listener, an incisive but always good-natured wit, gracious host, wise and learned counselor, proud father, grandfather, and husband, and, quite literally, the life of the party that always seemed to surround him. It’s rare to encounter someone so simultaneously joyful and effervescent for whom kindness and humility are equally-apropos descriptors, but that was Paul, a gentleman’s gentleman and a practitioner of lavish generosity. His absence is deeply felt, and we extend our sincere condolences to his lovely wife, Jane, and their family. We will sing with hearts full of love and gratitude at his service.