The first weekend of the 112th Bethlehem Bach Festival is behind us. Fortunately for those of us who weren’t there for it the Festival has long adopted the policy of repeating the program over the following weekend, now coming up. Both weekends come close to selling out, but it should still be possible to purchase tickets for all events.
The centerpiece of the festival is a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor in the Packer Memorial Church at Lehigh University. The first complete performance in America of this monument in Bach’s oeuvre was most likely in Bethlehem, and this kind of tradition, given the strong Lutheran roots of the community, is deeply significant. I have outlined the history of this performance and its successors in previously. (The articles are linked below.) What you will hear is a profoundly committed performance by instrumentalists playing modern instruments for the most part with a large choir, and a loyal core of soloists, well seasoned in Bach, most of whom have returned to the Festival year after year. To describe this as a Bach performance in the mid-twentieth century style, say of Richter or Rilling, is to miss the roots of the Bethlehem tradition, which goes back beyond Mendelssohn’s legendary 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion. When you make the easy trip to Bethlehem from New York City or Philadelphia, you must realize that you are making yourself a part of a Lutheran and Bachian tradition which is as direct and as close as any in Germany.
Over the weekend there are also performances of cantatas and chamber music. Some of these overlap, so you will have to make choices. I usually decide on the cantatas, since I will be almost sure to hear one or two that are new to me from Bach’s vast body of work in a performance that will remain in my heart and mind long after. This year the Bach Choir will perform BWV 111, 146, and 149.
The chamber music concerts take place in the historic Saal in the Moravian Museum, an intimate space dating back to the eighteenth century, intended as a meeting room for the members of the Moravian Church, who fled persecution to the New World, establishing a vital community in eastern Pennsylvania. This year, Grammy-nominated lutenist Ronn McFarlane and flutist and multi-instrumentalist Mindy Rosenfeld, both founding members of early music ensemble The Baltimore Consort, will play music of J.S. Bach, Allessandro Piccinini, John Dowland, William Byrd and S.L. Weiss. If you are looking for period instruments, this will be the place to go.
Saturday mornings are devoted to the Ifor Jones Chamber Music Concert, established in honor of a distinguished predecessor of Greg Funfgeld as Music Director of the Choir. This special concert combines performances of secular works by Bach with experimental and new commissions related to Bach. This year’s concert features the world premiere of The Day Is Done, a new work by distinguished composer Gwyneth Walker. The Bach Choir of Bethlehem commissioned this piece to celebrate its merger with the 25-year-old Bel Canto Youth Chorus. It will be performed by the young singers of Bel Canto and members of The Bach Choir and Bach Festival Orchestra. Joy Hirokawa, founder and artistic director of Bel Canto, will direct this work, along with additional repertoire for The Bel Canto Youth Chorus. The concert also includes J.S. Bach’s Concerti for Three and Four Harpsichords BWV 1064 and 1065. Although they are not often heard today for obvious logistical reasons, a vastly popular Vox recording of these works won many listeners over to the music of Bach and the Baroque in the 1950s and 1960s: Now isn’t that super OTW! (The first reader to identify this quote will win a copy of the recordings.) I imagine we owe this rare treat to the fact that one of the major harpsichord makers, Willard Martin, lives and works in Bethlehem.
And, following the B Minor Mass, stay on for Zimmerman’s Coffee House, a further opportunity to enjoy the results of the Bach Choir’s active work with young people in the Lehigh Valley, as well as some good German food and drink. You will then understand that the Bethlehem Bach Festival is all about the future!