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‘Grace’ notes: Bach Choir of Bethlehem forges ahead with season

With guidelines to mitigate the community spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic still limiting gatherings, it’s been a tough year for the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.

After having to cancel the acclaimed annual Bach Festival in Bethlehem in May, the choir postponed its Germany and Eastern European concert tour and has postponed its gala concert in October that was to feature world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

With in-person concerts out of the picture, the Bach Choir is now embracing the virtual stage and will continue to bring beautiful music to its audience, whether through live or online concerts in what it’s calling “The Season of Grace” for the 2020-2021 season.

“It’s sad we can’t be live right now, but we are doing wonderful things,” says Bridget George, Bach Choir of Bethlehem Executive Director.

She says Choir officials are “very hopeful” to be able to reschedule the Yo-Yo Ma performance for fall 2021.

“It was to be a baton-passing celebration,” says George, referring her retirement and that of Greg Funfgeld, Bach Choir of Bethlehem Artistic Director and Conductor, who plans to retire in June 2021.

During the past summer, the Bach Choir videotaped performances of small ensembles and soloists for its “Bach at Noon” series at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Allentown, which have gone virtual, as well as online “Moment of Comfort” videotaped concerts.

The Bach Choir will present its first virtual concert for the holidays.

“When we realized we couldn’t do our Christmas concert in person, we pivoted to Plan B to have everything virtual through Dec. 31,” George says.

For its annual Christmas concert, “Opening our hearts: Music and Inspiration of Christmas,” the Bach Choir will record music outdoors and at Central Moravian Church, Bethlehem, which will be edited and presented online Dec. 13.

George says 63 singers of the Bach Choir have agreed to take part in the concert which will be recorded and filmed outside at Little Pond Arts Retreat, Nazareth, which is owned by George and her husband Bill George.

“We are bringing the music from Nazareth to Bethlehem,” George says.

She says there is “plenty of room to social distance” and plans are to videotape Choir members standing around the “great circle” at the retreat.

“The singers can’t wait to be together,” she says.

Classical music radio station WWFM officials will engineer the audio. Bill George and two assistants will be doing the videography.

There will also be recording at Central Moravian Church of soloists and instrumentalists.

The repertoire will include arias from Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio;” Robert Parsons’ “Ave Maria;” Franz Xaver Gruber ‘s “Silent Night” and seasonal classics, including “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Ding Dong Merrily on High.”

Soloists are Nola Richardson, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Lawrence Jones, tenor, and Christòpheren Nomura, bass-baritone.

Robin Kani will play flute and Funfgeld and Thomas Goeman, will play organ and piano.

“I think it will be lovely,” says George.

The virtual concert Dec. 13 is free but will require registration. Donations will be accepted.

“It’s not inexpensive to put something like this together,” George says.

The Bach Choir is ready to pivot to live concerts “as soon as we’re able,” says George.

The Greg Funfgeld Family Concert is scheduled for Feb. 28, 2021, at Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Bethlehem.

The Bach Choir’s annual youth outreach will include a performance of Benjamin Britten ‘s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” in a collaboration with Lehigh University Philharmonic, the dance department of Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts and members of the Bach Festival Orchestra.

“If we can’t do a live concert, we will record an educational concert and send out to music teachers,” George says. “We want to continue that part of what we do.”

She says the Bach Choir will make a decision in November as to whether the family concert will be in-person or virtual.

The spring concert, at which the choir will perform Durufle’s “Requiem,“ and the second part of Handel‘s “Messiah,” is scheduled for March 31, 2021.

George is most hopeful about the 113th Bethlehem Bach Festival, May 14 and 15 and May 21 and 22, 2021.

It will be Funfgeld’s final festival and George hopes it can be a “celebration of Greg’s tenure and final season.”

The festival will feature performances of Bach masterpieces, “St. Matthew Passion,” and “Mass in B Minor.”

It will include the Paul Taylor Dance Company as festival artist-in-residence, presenting a performance by the full company the first Saturday of the festival.

Also returning is guitarist Eliot Fisk, who was scheduled to perform in 2020 but was rescheduled for the second Saturday of the 2021 festival. Fisk will perform with students as part of The Chaconne Project, also postponed from 2020.

George says Choir officials will wait as late as they possibly can to make a final decision on the Festival, as to whether it will be in-person or virtual.

“After the disappointment of this past year, people are really buying tickets and there is a feeling of optimism,” George says. “I so much want a wonderful ending for the leadership. I hope it can be as spectacular an event as we hoped it would be. There is so much to look forward to.”

George says the search for a successor for Funfgeld, who is now in his 37th season as conductor, has made good progress.

“The search committee has narrowed it down to five excellent finalists,” she says.

George, who has been in her post for 24 years, says the opening for the executive director will be advertised in November.

“We plan to have someone in place by the beginning of June,” she says.

The 2020-2021 season is to conclude with the postponed but much anticipated appearance by the Bach Choir at the Bachfest, Leipzig, Germany, in June 2021. The international trip, the choir’s first in more than 10 years, will also include concerts in Herrnhut and Dresden, Germany, and Prague, the Czech Republic.

Bel Canto Youth Chorus, the children’s choir under the umbrella of the Bach Choir, also will stay virtual through Dec. 31, George says.

Bell Canto, composed of auditioned treble singers from five counties, “did a wonderful job” with virtual programming this past summer.

Bel Canto, led by founder and director Joy Hirokawa, took part in the annual Choral Village summer camp and its “Stand-up” summer camp, a partnership with The Choir School of Delaware for a Choral Intensive, featuring music from the movie “Harriet.” This new choral collaboration, celebrating the legacy of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in the Brandywine and Lehigh valleys, focuses on building empathy and understanding.

George says a video is being created to share the youth choir’s experiences.

This fall, Bel Canto is starting an ensemble, Knabenchor (German for boys choir), for boys ages 8 to 14.

Hirokawa says she was seeing interest among young boy singers and decided to start a pilot program for October and November, to see if there is enough interest to maintain it as a separate ensemble. If not, the singers will be folded into Bel Canto’s prep-intermediate choir. The curriculum will focus on music from the African-American tradition and by African-American composers.

Bel Canto choristers will take part in Bach’s “Saint Matthew Passion” at the 2021 Bethlehem Bach Festival.

Bach Choir of Bethlehem information, and to register for the Bach Choir Christmas concert: www.bach.org

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Bach Choir of Bethlehem Artistic Director and Conductor Greg Funfgeld leads the Choir in concert.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Joy Hirokawa leads Bel Canto Youth Chorus Founder and Director Joy Hirokawa leads the Chorus in concert.
Bridget George
Greg Funfgeld
Joy Hirokawa