Bach reimagined: Renowned Bethlehem Choir marries tradition, innovation for 110th edition of Festival
In the 34 years that Greg Funfgeld has been artistic director and conductor of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, he’s found new ways to showcase the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Leipzig cantor whose music, you might say, “baroque” through to lay the foundation for classical music.
“We’re always thinking about how we want to present Bach’s music and how to engage and how to intrigue the listener,” Funfgeld says.
The 110th Bethlehem Bach Festival, May 13, 14 and May 19, 20, with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, Festival Orchestra and world-renowned soloists, is billed as a celebration of the human voice, “the organ of the soul.”
Says Funfgeld, “I’ve always been fascinated by the voice. I’ve always loved the voice. And think, from a spoken voice, if I hear my daughter or my wife or one of my siblings, I know who it is. The voice just tells people who we are. It’s one of our main indentifiers.”
The 110th Bach Fest marks the festival premiere of Cantata 49, “Ich geh und such emit Verlangen” (“I go and search for thee with longing”), 4 p.m. May 12, 19, Incarnation of our Lord Church, Thomas and Buchanan streets, Bethlehem.
“One of my goals in Bethlehem is to have performed all of Bach’s cantatas. Cantata 49 we’re doing for the first time in Bethlehem. It’s a beautiful dialogue cantata where the bass is the voice of Jesus and the soprano is the voice of the believer’s soul,” says Funfgeld.
“He wrote many works in this genre where the two voices are dialoguing, and there’s a kind of longing on the part of the soul, and he uses some words from the ‘Song of Solomon,’ and there’s this image of yearning. One Aria is of anguish and one aria is of rejoicing when the believe recognizes the presence of Christ.
Cantata 49 soloists are Rosa Lamoreaux, soprano, and William Sharp, baritone.
“Rosa and Bill will be singing the 49 and it will be quite beautiful. They are such fine Bach singers and they’ve sung so much together that they have this wonderful rapport.”
Also on the 4 p.m. May 12 and 19 program are Telemann’s Canonic Sonata No. 1 in G Major TWV 40: 118 for cello and bass, with Deborah Davis, cello, and Stephen Groat, bass, and Bach’s Cantata 103, “Ihr werdet weinen und heuten” (“Ye shall be weeping”), featuring festival artist-in-residence Tricia van Oers, recorder virtuoso, and soloists Daniel Taylor, Stephen Ng, Lamoreaux and Sharp. The concert is preceded by a “Bach Chorale Sing,” Part 1.
A second choice at 4 p.m. May 12 and 19 is “Chamber Music in the Saal: Bach and the Viola of Love: Arias and Chamber Music for the viola d’amore,” Saal, Moravian Museum, Church Street, Bethlehem.
Funfgeld chose Cantata 110, “Unser Mund sei voll lachens” (“Make our mouth full with laughter”), for the 8 p.m. May 13 and 19 concerts, Packer Memorial Church, Lehigh University, to underscore the numerical importance of the 110th festival. But that’s not the only reason.
“The 110 is a very special piece because Bach takes music from the fourth orchestral suite, which was written as instrumental music, and he adds words from the psalms and makes vocal music. He reimagines it.
“It’s all about how our mouths will be full of laughing. And he writes this text-painting where the words sound like what they mean. And you actually hear the laughing in the chorus, all the voices laughing together,” explains Funfgeld.
On the 8 p.m. May 12 and 19 program at Packer is Cantata 97, “In allen meinen Taten” (“In all my undertakings”).
Funfgeld says Cantata 97 “is just a really wonderful cantata. It’s just so accessible and happy. It’s got this beautiful opening chorus, kind of in the style of a French overture, like Cantata’s 110 opening chorus. There’s a slow rhythmic opening and then it goes into a rhythmic dance.
“Bach uses the verses of a hymn as a libretto and each movement sets another verse of the hymn.
“This cantata has some of the most beautiful arias and one of the most lovely violin solos in all the cantatas. It’s just exquisite the way he writes for the violin and voice, very beautiful and touching.
“There are arias for each of the solos, and then Rosa and Bill get to sing again. And we invite the audience to sing the closing chorale.”
Also on the 8 p.m. May 12 and 19 program is Telemann’s Concerto for recorder and gamba in A Minor TWV 52 a1, with Tricia van Oers, recorder, and Mollie Glazer, gamba.
Of the process of putting the Bach Festival together, Funfgeld says, “It’s kind of a collaborative effort between many of the musicians and other colleagues. As we talk about different pieces, then different themes, or thematic ideas emerge.”
An example of this is the festival premiere of “The Nightingale,” the Bach Choir’s first collaboration with Mock Turtle Marionette Theater, 10:30 a.m. May 13 and 20, Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center.
Mock Turtle founder and director Doug Roysdon created large puppets, articulated by actors as they participate in the dance of the story’s characters in the adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale.
Music by Bach, Couperin, van Eyck, Mozart and Bolcom is performed by members of the Bach Choir, Bach Festival Orchestra and the Bel Canto Children’s Chorus, featuring Tricia van Oers, recorder, as the voice of the Nightingale.
“That turned out better than we could hope for,” says Funfgeld. “Doug Roysdon did a superb job. The puppets are incredible. That is really something for children of all ages. People should bring their children and grandchildren.”
Bach’s mighty Mass in B Minor returns for performances at 2:30 p.m. 4:30 p.m. May 13 and 20 in Packer.
At 7 p.m. May 13 and 20, Peter Hall, Moravian College, Main and Church streets, Bethlehem, is Zimmermann’s Coffee House, named after the venue that offered many of the first public performances of Bach’s music in 18th century Leipzig.
“Zimmerman’s coffee house attracts an ever-increasing group of high school and college students. Every year, we’re just amazed at the level of talent of the young people in our community. The other thing that’s very touching is how much they love Bach and baroque music. That really is inspiring to all of us.”
Lectures, luncheons and dinners are also part of the festival.
The Bach Choir of Bethlehem performed the American premiere of Bach’s Mass in 1900, as well as his Christmas Oratorio in 1901.
The volunteer 85-member choir maintains its community roots, while working with professional musicians in the Bach Festival Orchestra and performing with soloists from around the world.
“We’ve been in the process of reimagining the festival. I think a lot of amazing things have been happening.
“We look forward to the 110th festival. It’s a milestone.
“Not many community’s can boast the history and heritage that the Bach Choir has. I think we’ve done a wonderful job of wedding tradition and innovation,” Funfgeld says.