Introduction/Bach at Noon, 14 September

Welcome!  My name is David Ruhf, and I will be blogging for the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.  For my first post, I would like to introduce myself, discuss the purpose of this blog, and write about our first concert of the 2010-2011 season.  I’m beginning my tenth season in the Bass I section of The Choir, and  I’m also the Parish Administrator and Cantor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, in Lower Nazareth Township.  I have been a dedicated fan of The Choir since first hearing it at a transformative Muskifest concert in the summer of 1988, when I was an eighth grader.  I received my musical training at Westminster Choir College and I am an unabashed choral music enthusiast.

I am also a passionate advocate and evangelist for Bach’s music, and I’m excited to share this enthusiasm with members of our audience new to The Choir and its music, as well as with experienced listeners who wish to be drawn further into a conversation about our repertoire.  I hope to write regularly about the music, as well as the process of making this music come alive, from two perspectives:  as a member of The Choir, and as someone with a great deal of experience listening to and thinking about Bach’s music.  I invite your questions or comments – the best blogs become a sort of dialogue between writers and readers, and that’s a conversation I’m eager to have!

Now, on to the music for our first program: Bach at Noon, on Tuesday, September 14th, beginning at 12:10 pm (doors open at 11:30 am – plan to be there early to get a seat!) at the Central Moravian Church in downtown Bethlehem.  The program includes an instrumental work, the French Suite in G Major, and a work for solo soprano with strings, continuo and trumpet, Cantata 51.  It’s hard to imagine a more elegant or joyful beginner to a season full of musical riches!   Our Artistic Director and Conductor, Greg Funfgeld, will be performing the Suite on The Choir’s beautiful double-manual (two keyboards) harpsichord, built by Bethlehem’s internationally-renowned harpsichord artisan, Willard Martin. Do take a moment to see the harpsichord at the concert’s conclusion. The Suite contains seven individual movements, or pieces, which were titled with the French names for various dances.  This is ornate, regal, and elegant music, beginning with a lovely allemande, a dance form one of Bach’s contemporaries, Johann Walther, argued should be “composed and likewise danced in a grave and ceremonious manner,” and ending with a gigue, better known to English speakers as a jig – which is about as unceremonious and ebullient as it gets!

The concert will continue with Cantata 51, a virtuosic romp for strings, basso continuo (at this concert, cello, bass, and organ) and trumpet and soprano solo.    The young Canadian soprano, Agnes Zsigovics, will be joining principal trumpet Larry Wright for this performance.  It’s not for nothing that we often say that musicians play music:  this piece is Bach at his most playful, with soprano and trumpet engaging in a vibrant exchange of musical ideas and melodies, sometimes soloing by themselves, sometimes entwined among one another.    The cantata begins with the text “Praise God in all lands,” with both trumpet and soprano making musical pirouettes as they work towards the top of their respective ranges.  The rapture of the first movement gives way to devotion in the second as the soprano sings of offering “our prayers in the temple,” accompanied by strings and continuo.  Following this, we will hear a beautiful and plaintive prayer for a renewal of goodness and thanksgiving for being called to a virtuous life, accompanied only by continuo.  Next, a duet for two violins commences, the two instruments calling back and forth to one another while accompanied by continuo.  Over this active musical dialogue, Bach adds a third voice, that of the soprano, who floats the text and melody of the doxological verse of a German Lutheran hymn (or chorale) of praise, “Laud, praise and honor.”  As the chorale concludes, the orchestra continues without pause into the final movement, an Alleluia that unites all of the performers into an extremely festive dance, with lots of melismatic singing (many notes to one syllable of text) by the soprano, and both trumpet and soprano reaching for the stratospheric heights of their ranges.  This promises to be an exciting performance by musicians more than equal to the demands of the music.  I can personally guarantee that you’ll leave with a spring in your step!

For further reading:

Dr. Carol Traupman-Carr has an excellent commentary on Cantata 51 on the Bach Choir’s site here.

Moravian College’s Alumni Magazine profiles Willard Martin, harpsichord builder, here.

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