CONCERT REVIEW The music of Bach abides in Bethlehem
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem was forged by Bethlehem Steel Corp. chieftain Charles M. Schwab who lured J. Fred Wolle back from a University of California professorship to again lead the choir in 1911, with the Bethlehem Bach Festival resuming the next year in Packer Church, Lehigh University.
Wolle had rehearsed and conducted The Bach Choir of Bethlehem's first American performance of Bach's The Mass in B Minor in 1900 in Central Moravian Church in downtown Bethlehem.
While "The Steel" disbanded in 2003, just shy of its 100th anniversary, The 106th Bach Festival, led by Greg Funfgeld as artistic director and conductor in his 30th anniversary year, continues May 10 and 11 in Packer Church and Zoellner Arts Center.
The Bach Fest, the Bach Choir and Johann Sebastian Bach's music is strong and has outlasted the Steel and many other businesses, institutions and personages, and will outlast you and me. The Bach abides.
Funfgeld put together an especially ambitious program this year. There are so many moments of exultation, we draw attention to a few at the risk of omission. The Friday program is one of astounding variety.
The Friday afternoon concert is Bach Cantata 71 "Gott ist mein König," Cantata 180 "Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele," and Beethoven "Choral Fantasy" for chorus, orchestra, and piano solo, Op.80.
Cantata 71 was commissioned for the installation of the Muhlhausen town council in 1708. Bach, drawing from the wisdom of Exodus, Samuel, Deuteronomy and the Psalms, metaphorically advises the officials: "May your agedness be like your youth."
Cantata 180 has a melody of devastating beauty. Benjamin Butterfield's tenor aria with Robin Kani, flute, is propulsive and compelling. Rosa Lamoreaux's soprano recitative is particularly energetic. Countertenor Daniel Taylor's alto recitative with Kani and Linda Ganus, dual flute solos, is thrilling.
Thomas Goeman, Bach Choir assistant conductor and Bach Festival Orchestra organist, makes the music dance in Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" for chorus, orchestra and piano solo, Op. 80. Goeman's fully-realized achievement provides edge-of-your-seat emotions.
The Friday evening concert is Bach Cantata 119 "Preise Jerusalem, den Herrn," Lauridsen "Lux Aeterna" and Bach Cantata 1, "Wie Schön leauchtet der Morgenstern."
Cantata 119, with its exquisite strings and brass, is a heraldic and formal tribute. No "Hail to the Chief" here, though. The good burgomeisters and councillors of Leipzig in 1723 were told in no uncertain terms: "Authority is God's gift."
With the meditative and mournful Lauridsen "Lux Aeterna," the choir, under Funfgeld's skilled direction and interpretation, achieves new heights of grandeur. Tremendous washes of strings and winds and brass complete this most visceral work.
In Cantata 1, baritone William Sharp's bass recitative is especially clear and moving.
Saturday morning's program in Baker Hall in Zoellner is an adventurous pairing of Rioult Dance and the Bach Festival Orchestra in "Views of the Fleeting World," to seven movements of Bach's "Art of Fugue"; "City," to "Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord No. 6 in G Major"; and "Celestial Tides" to "Brandenburg Concerto No. 6."
"Fleeting World" is augmented by sound effects of rain and wind and surf. "Moonlight," pairing Penelope Gonzalez and Brian Flynn, and "Flowing River," featuring the Rioult company, are particularly moving.
"Celestial Tides," also with choreography by Pascal Rioult, is wonderfully fluid and inspired.
The delicate power of the mesmerizing "B Minor Mass" begins with the opening "Kyrie," with cellos and basses resonating deeply balanced against the ethereal choir and strings.
Lamoreaux and Kendra Colton, soprano, are superbly matched in the "Kyrie" sopranos' duet.
Christòpheren Nomura's "Gloria" bass aria is extremely powerful.
At the center of The "Mass" is the core Christian belief, that of the Nicene Creed. With the "Sanctus"' and "Agnus Dei" portions, the "Mass" concludes with reassurance and celebration.
There is plenty of that at the 106th Bach Fest. Funfgeld was presented a bouquet by Lamoreaux at the May 4 conclusion. He, the some 100-member choir, six vocal soloists and 38 musicians received a standing ovation and were brought back for extended applause.
The 106th Bach Fest is not to be missed. Plan to attend all or a portion of it.