114th Bach Festival: Live in Bethlehem with Greg Funfgeld
BY PAUL WILLISTEIN
It’s the 114th Bach Festival.
Let that sink in.
The 114th Bach Festival.
The impetus for the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, the United States’ oldest choir continuously performing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, was from a Moravian church organist and a scion of Bethlehem Steel.
The Steel is gone.
The Bach Choir is still standing.
One might say the Bach Choir is stronger than Steel.
Be that as it may, and it is during two weekends each May at the Bach Festival, when Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” sung by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and guest soloists, accompanied by the Bach Festival Orchestra, conducted by Bach Choir of Bethlehem Artistic Director Greg Funfgeld, produces a blast of sound as profound as the Steel’s blast furnaces that, in a way, made the Choir and Festival possible.
The tradition of heavenly music in Bethlehem goes back even further, perhaps to trombone-toting Moravian farmers, pausing on their lunch break in the fields from turning the soil to break out the Handel and practice, a practice that legend has it frightened off an attack by a tribe of indigenous people on the little town of Bethlehem founded in 1741 along the Monocacy. The Moravian Trombone Choir was founded in 1754.
Bethlehem has always had a lot of brass, which you will hear along with near-shouts of joy in the Bach Choir and soloists’ singing and as well as the eruption of applause at the conclusion of concerts during the Festival. We don’t know if the Native Americans applauded. The story goes they headed for the hills, notably and unfortunately, to Gnadenhütten in 1755.
The tradition of the brass choir lives on at the 114th Bach Festival, May 13, 14, 20 and 21, with the Mass in B Minor presented live and in-person on May 14 and 21, and live-streamed for the first time from the Festival on May 21 for viewers worldwide. The all-volunteer Choir has 85 members.
The 114th Bethlehem Bach Festival is back after being absent from the Lehigh Valley music scene since 2019. A Virtual Festival was presented in 2021.
The 2022 Festival marks the conclusion of Funfgeld’s 39-season career with The Bach Choir.
There are lectures, dinners, luncheons, and pre-concert performances by the Festival Brass Choir and Youth Ensemble from the Lehigh Valley Suzuki violin program, plus a Bach Chorale Sing the afternoons of May 14 and 21 outside Packer Church on the campus of Lehigh University, Bethlehem.
There’s Artist-in-Residence, Eliot Fisk, guitar; Charlotte Mattax Moersch, harpsichord, and the return of The Chaconne Project, featuring music from young composers.
World-class Festival solo vocalists are Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; Rosa Lamoreaux, soprano; Daniel Taylor, counter-tenor; Meg Bragle, alto; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; Isaiah Bell, tenor; William Sharp, baritone, and Dashon Burton, bass-baritone.
In addition to the Mass in B Minor, J.S. Bach’s “The Saint Matthew Passion” Part 1 and 2 will be presented May 13 and 20.
The Bach Choir press release perhaps says it best about “The Saint Matthew Passion,” that it is “cosmic and operatic in its scope, yet moments of stunning intimacy shock listeners with their equal power and beauty. From the opening chorus, with choirs crying back and forth ... to the trio of wind instruments and the soprano’s time-stopping aria, this work goes straight from Bach’s heart and mind to those of the listeners.”
The Bach Choir, founded in 1898 by Central Moravian Church organist John Frederick Wolle, performed the American premiere of Bach’s Mass in 1900, and Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” in 1901.
Charles Schwab, who helped found Bethlehem Steel Corp., brought Wolle back from California to Bethlehem to lead the festival. Bethlehem Steel, which first began operations in 1899, filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
Of the “Mass in B Minor,” one can say, and many do, that it’s the greatest work of music ever written. The Mass has restorative power. Year after year, Bach devotees make the annual Bethlehem pilgrimage to bask in the colossal sound of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, orchestra and soloists. This year’s festival promises to be especially moving with Funfgeld at the podium for a final turn. It’s an event for the ages and one not to be missed.
Information, tickets: www.BACH.org; 610-866-4382