The Bethlehem Bach Choir: Christmas Concerts in Advent; Bach Festival, with a Performance of the Mass in B Minor in May
Click here for full schedule of the Festival and to purchase tickets.
These weeks following following Easter have proven rich in musical events that transcend the usual motives behind public performances, which usually have something to do with attracting large crowds to hear prestigious musicians in prestigious venues, or the annual ritual of Handel’s Messiah or one of Bach’s Passions. I’m thinking of really special occasions, either serving some higher human purpose or deeply rooted in the culture of a particular place—for example, a recent performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Westchester County, which was not only outstanding in itself, but was held to benefit an especially inspiring cause…of which more in another place soon. I’ve already written about the special power of the Bach performances in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which have continued under various local auspices since at least 1823. The music of J. S. Bach is as deeply rooted in the theology and liturgy of the local Moravian Protestant Church as music was in the Christianity of Martin Luther. Tradition is all-important to the Moravians, and the Bach performances, usually carried out in concert rather than as part of the liturgy—at least by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, the heir of a line of earlier organizations, originally but no longer linked to the Church—is as strongly felt as the Moravian liturgy itself.
To read the history of the early unsuccessful attempts of the Bach Choir’s predecessor, the Bethlehem Choral Union, to learn the B Minor Mass is to understand the seriousness of the challenges posed by this difficult, lengthy composition for an American volunteer choir, even under the direction of such a passionate and learned music director as J. Fred Wolle, who founded the Bach Choir in 1898, after disbanding the Choral Union in 1892. After successfully performing the American premieres of the St. John Passion in 1888 and the St. Matthew in 1892, they quailed at Wolle’s next goal, the B Minor Mass. This was not a challenge peculiar to the provincial Western Hemisphere, but part of the same Bach Revival which began in Germany and took decades to establish competent performances of the works of J. S. Bach in European concert programs. German choirs suffered the same growing pains as the Americans earlier in the century. And now Japan is a great center of Bach scholarship and performance!
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem gave the first complete performance of the Christmas Oratorio in America as part of the Bach festival in May 1901, a year after they set a similar milestone with the B Minor Mass.1
Neither work was written for a complete performance at a single concert, but that is how we listen to them today. The Mass was never performed as a whole in Bach’s lifetime, and Bach most likely never intended it to be performed that way—which should not diminish the unique power of hearing it as a whole, as has become the norm since the mid-nineteenth century. The Christmas Oratorio is a set of six cantatas written for performance over the course of the twelve days of Christmas, as it was presented in 1733-34, with Part 1 on Christmas Day, Part 2 on St. Stephen’s Day (December 26), Part 3 on the Feast of St. John the Evangelist (December 27), Part 4 on the Feast of the Circumcision (January 1), Part 5 on the First Sunday after New Year, and Part 6 on Epiphany. The Bach Choir’s Christmas Concert takes place during Advent, a festive time today, especially in Bethlehem, but in Bach’s Leipzig it was, like Lent, a time of fasting, with no musical performances at all, especially in church.
The inhabitants of Bethlehem are nothing if not robust in their celebration of the Christmas season. The image of the guiding star has pre-emptied the cross as the primary symbol of the Moravian faith. Hence, if you travel to Bethlehem for the Christmas Concert, you will find it a part of a rich mixture of traditional activity of spiritual and more earthy varieties, the latter in full bloom in the bars and restaurants of the historic district, above all in the Hotel Bethlehem, a time-honored mainstay for local business and political gatherings, weddings, and above all holiday cheer. I’ve attended the Christmas Concert three times now, and on each occasion it has been sold out or close to it, with locals and visitors enjoying both a festive celebration as well as a devotion to J. S. Bach. If you chat with your neighbors in the pews of the First Presbyterian Church, where the concerts take place, or mingle in the intermission conversation, you will be surprised at how well-informed this audience is. One might think that this Christmastide ritual had been going on since the nineteenth century, but in fact it was Funfgeld’s addition to the Bach Choir’s program, as he expanded it from the annual Bach Festival to a year-round schedule.
Although the Bach Choir, which is about 100 strong, has sponsored some historically informed chamber music on period instruments in the course of the Bach Festival, their own performances are accompanied by the Bach Festival Orchestra, which includes roughly 45 members playing modern instruments. The performances, conducted with energy, warmth, and insight by Music Director Greg Funfgeld, are generally in the vein of the best modern instrument performance practice, which, while not venturing into HIP, observes a serious regard for the practices current in Saxony in the early eighteenth century, much as you might hear from Karl Lehmann, Karl Richter, Helmuth Rilling, or David Hoose and his Cantata Singers of Boston. This is basically descended from the performance tradition that developed at the Thomaskirche through the course of the 20th century, as conductors shed the massive choirs and scores reorchestrated for the symphony orchestras of the 19th century, in favor of smaller groups more like what Bach used in his own time, but not entirely. What Mr. Funfgeld brings to this approach stems from his warm relationship of many years with the choir and the orchestra and his profound love for and knowledge of Bach’s music. In both the First Presbyterian and the larger Packer Memorial Church at Lehigh University, where the B Minor Mass is performed, Funfgeld shows his gift for producing textures of remarkable clarity without sacrificing weight or color in either the chorus or the orchestra.
The Bach Choir performed the first three parts of the Christmas Cantata in 2015 and the second three in 2016. In 2015 the soloists were Ellen McAteer, soprano; Daniel Taylor, counter-tenor; Isaiah Bell, tenor; and David Newman, bass-baritone. In 2016 Mr. Taylor was replaced by Laura Atkinson, mezzo-soprano, and Mr. Bell by Benjamin Butterfield. Canadian Daniel Taylor, renowned for his performances of Baroque music around the world, is a regular in the Bach Choir’s concerts. He is also Head of Historical Performance at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto, providing a link to the HIP world in Bethlehem’s modern instrument performances. Ellen McAteer shone with her brilliant, clear soprano, and Isaiah Bell with his strong, glowing tenor, crystalline diction, and flexible, strongly shaped phrasing. Butterfield and Newman, with his lithe phrasing—quite a feat for a bass!
The chorus sang with their characteristic commitment, passion, and precision. Greg Funfgeld conducted with full engagement—with his singers and players, with his community, and above all with Bach—and with full confidence that he could elicit all the warmth and expression he wanted from the chorus without compromising the clarity required in the fugal passages. The orchestra was as solid as one could wish as an ensemble, and included a full complement of outstanding soloists. The tone, phrasing, and expression of the wind and string solos were among the special excellences that give the Bethlehem concerts their unique quality.
Most of the same players and singers will gather again on the weekends of May 12 and May 19 to perform in the 110th Bethlehem Bach Festival. The same program is repeated both weekends to accommodate the many devotees the Festival has attracted over the years. The centerpiece is Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which is played on Saturday afternoon, beginning at 4pm, in two parts, separated by an intermission of thirty minutes or so, a welcome break to clear one’s head between Part I, which consists of the Kyrie and Gloria, derived from the Latin Lutheran Mass Bach presented in 1733 to Augustus III, the new Elector of Saxony in Dresden, in the hopes of gaining the title of court composer, and Part II, which consists of the rest of the Roman Catholic Ordinary, which he assembled late in life from movements adapted from earlier cantatas, stretching back as far as 1714, as well as some freshly composed sections.
Today, with the massive forces favored by Romanticism pretty much in the past, two basic approaches dominate performances of the B Minor Mass. As I have mentioned, the Bethlehem Bach Choir follow the purified style developed in Leipzig in the 20th century, but with a somewhat larger chorus. The second approach originated in the 1980s with the theories put forward by Joshua Rifkin. He believed that Bach intended the choruses to be sung with one singer to a part, doubling as soloists in the recitatives and arias, etc. The evidence is open to discussion, but the superb quality of some of the performances following this method—notably Rifkin’s own and more recently John Butt’s with the Dunedin Ensemble—show that it can be just as fulfilling for audiences as the richer sound of full choruses. (I write this solely on the basis of recordings I have heard.) However, the meaning of the event for everyone concerned, musicians and audience alike, is profoundly different. We can travel back to the 18th century and imagine two kind of performances which never took place: following Rifkin, an intimate reading before a small group of connoisseurs, perhaps the Elector and his court, or even a similar one in the Thomaskirche, since Rifkin believes that it was the practice there. Or, one the other hand, we can accept that the Romantic notion of the brotherhood of man, cultivated in the Singverein tradition, partially inspired by the final chorus of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, lives on in the reduced, but ample forces favored in Bethlehem. There are stories of the director of Bethlehem Steel and one of his workers singing side by side in the choir. In a performance I attended, as the Mass moved to its conclusion in the Dona nobis pacem, Daniel Taylor, the historical performance authority, deeply moved, turned to face the chorus and listened raptly—a powerful, if unscientific demonstration that Bach’s music is still rooted in a continuous tradition which extended through the 19th and 20th centuries, with Bethlehem a vital part of it for over two hundred years.
The Bach Festival includes many other lectures, concerts, and opportunities to eat, drink, and be sociable, above all the evening at Zimmermann’s Kaffeehaus, which includes intimate performances by the singers and musicians of the Festival, as well as by some of the young people, which have benefitted from the organization’s rich educational program.
Click here for full schedule of the Festival and to purchase tickets.
- There is a record of an earlier performance at St. Patrick’s Church in San Francisco on Easter Day, April 17, 1869. (The ecclesiastical calendar indicates that this is more likely to have occurred in 1870.) This is unlikely to have been complete, however, given that the performance was part of the liturgy. ↩