109th Bethlehem Bach Festival

Choir Informal Portrait
Photo of BCB from bach.org.
When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to play the oboe. I have no idea why I wanted to play this obscure instrument. It's not sexy like the trumpet  or the sax, and it's not quirky like the trombone or fun like the drums, but regardless the oboe was for me. (I never did play the oboe, but that is another story.) I think I knew intuitively what the oboe could do was special. 

This weekend at the 109th Bethlehem Bach Festival in Pennsylvania I heard what might just be the very reason the oboe exists. Friday night, at Packer Memorial Church at Lehigh University, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and the Bach Festival Orchestra, under the baton of veteran conductor and artistic director Greg Funfgeld, gave us Songs of Joy, including Bach's Easter Oratorio BWV 249. In the second movement, an unusual second orchestral sinfonia before the joyous aria, is centered on a mournful oboe solo. It reminds us that Christ has died and lies within the tomb, the perfect counterpoint to the bright, jubilant brass that follows. Principal oboist Mary Watt was brilliant and deserved to be included in the program like the other soloists, but alas both oboe soloists were excluded.

All in all, the Bethlehem Bach Festival was filled with some of the best orchestral and choral music being performed anywhere, and not just because it is Bach's music they are playing. The performances, including Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major BWV 1047, Cantata BWV 100, Violin Concerto in E Major BWV 1042, and Double Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor BWV 1043, were filled with equal amounts of technical skill, passion, and delight. 

One of the most innovative presentations of Bach's music in conjunction with a modern dance performance from the Paul Taylor 2 Dance Company. Honestly, I did not quite no what to make of the first number Aureole, set to music by Handel. The music was lovely, but the style dance was so unusual I was , to be honest, less than impressed. Learning that Taylor's style was to incorporate everyday movements - walking, jumping, skipping, posing - in a stylized form. In the second pieces Cascade, the dance began to make for sense, and the final piece, Esplanade, was quite outstanding. 

Most impressive of all in this Saturday morning performance was the playing of harpsichordist Charlotte Mattax Moersch. For Cascade, she played three of Bach's Concerti for Harpsichord and Orchestra: No. 4 in A Major BWV 1055, No. 5 in F Minor BWV 1056, and No. 7 in G Minor BWV 1058. Each piece demonstrated what I love most about Bach's music, complex with depth created from layer upon layer of different ideas twisted and turned this way and that, creating a harmonious whole. The concertos are a conversation between the harpsichord and the orchestra, and Moersch's virtuoso effort was one of the highlights of the Festival.

Finally, Saturday afternoon featured a 2+ hour performance of Bach's Mass in B Minor BWV 232, which was first performed in the United States by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem in 1900. The conceit of the Bach Choir is that it is a community chorale, composed of approximately 100 amateur singers committed to performing Bach music out of love for the composer, his music, and the very act of singing. Performing this monumental work with such zeal and skill for what has to be the best classical music audience anywhere, is a testament to the singers, Mr. Funfgeld, and the entire BCB organization.

My only real complaint regarding the festival was that I waited too long to order my tickets and missed out on Chamber Music in the Saal (which included more harpsichord) and Zimmerman's Coffee House, (where students and professionals performed together) both of which were sold out.

The Festival continues next weekend, May 20 - 21, 2016. If you are anywhere nearby, try to catch at least one of these fantastic concerts.

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