Above, an admittedly idiosyncratic slideshow of photos from your blogger’s exploits at the first weekend of the 107th Bethlehem Bach Festival (Alas, I cannot take pictures while I’m performing in The Choir!).
Though I couldn’t attend all the events (out of town guests precluded Dr. Lipkis’ lecture, which I’m sure was fantastic, likewise with Young Meister Bach’s conflict with the lute program at the Saal, which had to have been amazing), those that I did attend went smashingly. Friday afternoon’s lecture with Dr. Michael Marissen was overflowing with good humor and erudition. It’s always tantalizing to listen to recordings with Michael (I credit him with introducing me to the astonishing work of Philippe Pierlot, a few years ago), and to have a compare and contrast between recent and past recordings with his seemingly endless font of knowledge about performance practice, as well as the theological and cultural implications of details too few actually think about, combined to give those lucky enough to attend a new lens through which to view performances of Bach’s music. Bravo, Michael!
Things went very, very well in the Friday afternoon concerts – among those who attended, who could forget the achingly beautiful sounds of gambas and recorders marking Bach’s “allerbeste zeit?” All of the soloists were wonderful, but Agnes Zsigovics singing during the middle movement of Cantata 106 was particularly moving. Equally moving was hearing that mature lion, Dan Lichti, offer a stunning Cantata 56, some 25 years after recording it with The Choir on our CD, “Wachet Auf.” 40 years after his professional debut, Dan’s voice is as burnished as ever, with the added insight and maturity that comes with such an august career. What an absolute treat! Daniel Taylor and Agnes sounded incredible on the cantus firmus lines of Cantata 131, and, as always, Mary Watt’s oboing was transfixing. A tip of my hat to all the orchestral players, who seem to have reached new heights of sensitivity and musicality.
Friday evening began with a fierce strife, and singing the opening movement of Cantata 19 was an utter thrill. Larry Wright managed the stratospheric trumpet parts with elan and great care, with more than able support from his brassy colleagues. After the immense sarabande that begins Cantata 78, the somber nature of the proceedings gave way to sunshine in the form of Daniel’s and Agnes’ Wir elin mit schwachen, which they offered with an exhilarating sense of play and precision. The opening chorus of Cantata 34 was reliably thrilling, and Daniel’s Wohl euch was time-stoppingly beautiful, with incredible support from muted strings and the lyrical fluting of Robin Kani and Linda Ganus.
In an ensemble of 90 singers and 30 some players, the enterprise of finding musical and spiritual unanimity will always have varying results. We hope to always be together, to breathe not only the same air, with demanding millisecond tolerances, but to be of one mind, to connect to the same source of energy, and to bring notes on a page vividly to life. I think we accomplish that quite often, with kudos to our fearless leader, who succeeds at harnessing that disparate group of musicians into that singleness of purpose. As such, some of our work is necessarily reactive, but once in a while, the stars align, our souls connect completely, and something transcendent is the result. The concluding chorus Cantata 34, which begins with the rhapsodic plea, “Friede über Israel,” was one such moment. To be sure, Greg was appropriately animated and dynamic in his gesture, but there was such a sense of joy, peace, and determination from all the musicians on the stage, we felt that alignment with the music of the spheres, and I felt totally carried away by the moment. In those moments, there’s an inexorable sense of energy and passion, and it’s an almost disorienting wave to ride. I hope the audience had some sense of it (I think they did, those I spoke with were uniformly thrilled).
The audience for Young Meister Bach wasn’t huge, but it was extremely engaged, and it was a delight to hear them chuckling at the work’s good humor. The principal singers and the ensemble of singers from The Choir were wonderful, and or orchestral colleagues managed Chuck Holdeman’s demanding score with aplomb. The second half of the program, Bach’s whimsical Coffee Cantata, was also a delight. Choir members ate a quick box lunch, then headed over to Packer to regroup for the Mass. There were many highlights in the first half, including Liz Field’s wonderful obbligato in the Laudamus te, an excellent counterpoint to Rosa Lamoreaux’s always-stellar singing, having Dan Lichti back to sing the Quoniam, with ennobling horn and playful bassoons, and the Cum Sancto was as thrilling as ever to sing. The Choir then trudged up to Lehigh’s Alumni Hall for a new publicity picture, then returned to Packer for the second half of the Mass. Ben Butterfield’s Benedictus seemed even more touching than ever, and Daniel Taylor’s Agnus Dei was heartfelt and touching. Greg’s tempo for the Dona Nobis Pacem seemed a smidge slower than usual, doubtless reacting to the gravity of Danny’s singing, and the plea for peace was even more earnest as a result.
I need to tip my hat to Greg as well – this year’s program was extremely demanding to conduct, and the sheer amount of music he keeps straight in his head all at once is dizzyingly impressive. As always, he lead with good spirits, generosity, precision, and his trademarked kindness. A last tip of the hat to our colleagues on the administrative side of things, with the incomparable Bridget George at the helm. They’re always welcoming, on top of an endless list of details, and accomplish their bevy of tasks with good humor and warmth. All of the music making is possible because of their often unseen but deeply essential groundwork. We now take a brief rest, and repeat the whole program next weekend. Thanks to everyone who attended, and best wishes for felicitous travel for everyone making their way to next weekend’s programs. I’m really looking forward to another weekend with the riches of this music, and all of us in the organization are looking forward to sharing it with our beloved audience!