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Concerts Review: Bach Choir of Bethlehem goes deep for 115th Festival

If Johann Sebastian Bach were composing music in the phonograph record era, one imagines him becoming a rock star with numerous vinyl records that would include “deep cuts,” or particular tracks, or works of music, savored by devotees.

The music of J.S. Bach is available over the decades on many recordings by numerous orchestras and prestigious ensembles, including the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.

Bach (1685 - 1750) is believed to have composed 1,128 works of music, plus 23 works that were lost (Minus one: More on that later.) or unfinished.

The 115th Bethlehem Bach Festival is a delight on many levels: the astounding performances of the Bach Choir, Bach Festival Orchestra, soloists and the superb conducting of Dr. Christopher Jackson, in his first festival as the seventh artistic director and conductor in the 125-year history of the Bach Choir, the United States longest-running Bach Choir; the lovely ambiance of the Festival itself, which takes place on and around the campus of Lehigh University (with a few venues off-campus), and especially the deep cuts of little or never-before-heard works by J.S. Bach.

The 115th Bethlehem Bach Festival, with identical programming, continues May 19 and 20. The first weekend of concerts and events, May 12 and 13, 2023, was attended for this review.

The 2023 Bach Festival made history with the first United States’ performance during “Bach at 4” May 12 of the Aria, “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn,” BWV 1127, by J.S. Bach, discovered in 2005 by Dr. Michael Maul, of the research department of Bach-Archive Leipzig, and artistic director of Bachfest Leipzig, Germany. Maul presented The Barnette Distinguished Scholar Lecture May 12, to be repeated, 2 p.m. May 19, Room 145, Zoellner Arts Center, at the Festival.

“I’ve heard what’s going on with Bach here for 100 years. Now I am seeing it in person. I am very impressed. And I can’t wait to see the Bach Choir in Leipzig in 2024,” said Maul prior to the “Bach at 4” performance of “Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn’ ihn (All things with God, without him nothing)” in the Incarnation of Our Lord Church, Bethlehem.

The Bach Choir of Bethlehem has been invited to perform at Bachfest Leipzig in 2024 for a tour twice delayed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shutdown.

The Bach Aria was so deep that its existence wasn’t even known until it was discovered by Maul. It’s one less work of Bach that is lost.

“Alles mit Gott” is performed by Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; Linda Kistler and Claire Bright, violins; Nina Falk, viola; Deborah Davis, cello; Daniel McDougall, bass, and Charlotte Mattax Moersch, harpsichord.

The crystalline quality of Panthaki’s voice races around the ornate interior of the church like pure light. Indeed, the afternoon sun’s rays seemed to brighten, as if on cue. The cello of Davis and the bass of McDougall provide plaintive moments as if a beautiful orb is being delicately handed back and forth.

The “Bach at 4” concert includes “Suite No. 2 in C Minor-Major (for two violas da gamba)” by Matthew Locke (1621-1677) in a blazing performance by Mollie Glazer and John Mark Rozendaal, violas da gamba, with intricate interplay, rapturous runs and scintillating sustains.

“Trio Sonata in B-Flat Major (for two recorders and basso continuo,” BWV 1039, by J.S. Bach is performed by Tricia van Oers and Rainer Beckmann, recorders; Deborah Davis, cello, and Charlotte Mattax Moersch, organ. The recorders of Van Oers and Beckmann are like the very pipes of Pan in a first-time Festival performance for recorders of the “Trio Sonata” in a whimsical confection that is a delight.

“Throughout the Festival, I programmed the cantatas of Bach that made me fall in love with his music,” said Dr. Christopher Jackson, introducing the Cantata “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (God’s time is the very best time),” BWV 106 by J.S. Bach, sung by members of The Bach Choir with soloists Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; William Sharp, baritone, and Edmund Milly, bass-baritone.

Panthaki soared. Butterfield was intimate. Milly was almost startling. Sharp was amazingly expressive. Bragle was supple. Jackson conducted with grace and a gentle elegance. The soloists combined for a triumphant return for a finale that took the work to new heights with the Choir providing the finishing touch.

During the May 12 dinner, Butz Lobby, Zoellner Arts Center, Lehigh University, Dr. Larry Lipkis, Composer-in-Residence and Director of Early Music at Moravian University, spoke. “It follows the theme of featuring Bach’s earlier works,” Lipkis said of the “Bach at 8” program. “They have a very fresh sound. They have more of a free-flowing quality,” Lipkis said, referring to Cantata 131.

Indeed, Cantata “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr zu dir (Out of the depths, I cry unto you o Lord),” BWV 131, performed during “Bach at 8” May 12 concert in Packer Church, Lehigh University, has a buoyancy that is irresistible, exemplified by Nobuo Kitagawa, oboe.

“Bach at 8” includes “Cello Suite in A Minor,” Wq. 170 by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who Lipkis called “the most talented of the [J.S.] Bach children.” The fiery work has a modern, almost avant-garde, intensity that is exhilarating with swirling, vivid playing by the strings.

Cantata “Ich hatte viel Bekummernis,” BWV 21 by J.S. Bach, which concludes the “Bach at 8” concert, has one of the nicer pairings for the soprano and tenor Aria duet in Sherezade Panthaki and Benjamin Butterfield, respectively, rendered with resounding clarity.

The Bach choir sings the “Welt, ade! (World farewell)” chorale from Cantata 27 in memory of departed friends prior to “Bach at 8.”

The Ifor Jones Memorial Chamber Music Concerts May 13 and 20, Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center, includes The Bel Canto Youth Chorus Concert Choir, with Artistic Director Dr. Joy Hirokawa, accompanied by Loretta O’Sullivan, cello, for the Aria from “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten (We race with weak but eager strides)”, BWV 78, by J.S. Bach, and “God Will Give Orders” and “Sweet Child” from “Snow Angel,” by Sarah Quartel.

“Remember,” based on a poem by Joy Harjo and composed by Julia Sobrinski, a Stroudsburg High School freshman and member of the Bel Canto Youth Chorus, was given its world premiere. The piece displays the wonderfulness of naivety, highlighted by Middle-Eastern sounding modalities.

The Ifor Jones concerts include “Concerto for Two Cellos in G Major,” RV 531, by Antonio Vivaldi, with Loretta O’Sullivan and Deborah Davis, who are a “two de force” in a tour de force.

“Orchestral Suite in D Major,” BWV 1068, by J.S. Bach, has the exquisite and well-known “Air.”

For the Bach Festival, there are several pre-concert events, including noon May 12, 19, “Bach Outdoors,” Payrow Plaza, Church Street, Bethlehem, with the Main Street Brass; “Bach Chorale Sing Part I,” 3:40 p.m. May 12, 19, Incarnation of Our Lord Church; “Bach Chorale Sing Part II,” May 13, 20, with the Main Street Brass, prior to “Mass in B Minor,” outside, Packer Memorial Church, and Suzuki Violin Program, 7:15 p.m. May 12, 19, outside, Packer Memorial Church.

The “Bach Chorale Sing Part II” is at 12:30 p.m. May 20, prior to the “Mass in B Minor,” 1 and 2:30 p.m. May 20, Packer Church.

The 115th Bethlehem Bach Festival “Heritage Luncheon,” noon May 13, Butz Lobby, included remarks by Bach Choir President Hal Black and Bach Choir Executive Director Leela Breithaupt.

Black mentioned the benchmarks of the 115th Bach Festival, 125th year of the Bach Choir and the 30th year for the Bel Canto Youth Choir.

“I’m always fascinated by the geographic feature of the states of our guarantors [those who donate funds to the Bach Choir],” said Black.

By my count, 25 states, plus the District of Columbia and Iceland are represented by guarantors listed in the Bach Festival program booklet.

Black asked how many years those at the luncheon had been attending the Bethlehem Bach Festival. One woman said she has attended the Festival since 1949.

Loretta O’Sullivan, Bach Festival Artist-in-Residence, spoke. “I started preparing last summer for the CPE Bach,” she said.

The centerpiece for the Bethlehem Bach Festival is the “Mass in B Minor,” BWV 232, presented each Saturday of the annual event in Packer Church. On May 13, Packer appeared to be filled to near-capacity.

The “Kyrie” opening Chorus by the Bach Choir was pure and soft, but not soft as in shapeless. It had a soft power, with Dr. Christopher Jackson coaxing the notes from the, by my count, 84-member Bach Choir and 39-member Bach Festival Orchestra.

The “Kyrie” Duet of Sherezade Panthaki, soprano, and Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano, is a perfect blend.

The orchestra brass during the “Gloria” presages a superb “Gloria” Aria by Sherezade Panthaki, with lovely accompaniment by Elizabeth Field, violin.

Sherezade Panthaki and Benjamin Butterfield, tenor, were magnificent together in the “Gloria” Duet, accompanied by Susan Charlton, flute.

Nobuo Kitagawa, oboe d’amore, and Anthony Cecere, French horn, were memorable soloists in separate Arias.

The Choir rounded out the first session with a thrilling chorus of “Sancto Spiritu.”

The Choir began the second session with a “Credo” that had a propulsive rhythm that was undeniable. The individual Choir member’s expressions as they sang attested to their enjoyment and commitment to the score. The Choir’s singing of the “Crucifixus” was relaxed, making the Choir’s “Et resurrexit” all the more powerful.

William Sharp, baritone, was soaring in the “Credo” Aria, accompanied by Nobuo Kitagawa and Lynne Cohen, oboes d’amore, and Charles Holderman, bassoon.

The Choir’s Chorus in the “Sanctus” was beautiful beyond description. The Choir’s singers swayed, almost dancing in place, during the “in excelsis.”

The “Agnus Dei” Aria, sorrowful as it is sung sensitively by Meg Bragle, brings the focus back to man, and woman. Finally, the “Dona nobis pacem” is a prayer going up from mere mortals. When the Bach Choir of Bethlehem sings, the sound is that of no mere mortals.

Keep your streets paved with gold. Give me a heaven with the Bethlehem Bach Choir singing the “Mass in B Minor.”

Soon after the “Mass in B Minor” ended, many members of the Choir seemed reassured and, taken up in the moment, gave Dr. Christopher Jackson a standing ovation. The audience soon did the same, bringing conductor and soloists back for several ovations. It was a rousing conclusion to the 115th Bach Festival, deep reverence and all.

Bach Festival of Bethlehem ticket information: Bach Choir office, 440 Heckewelder Place, Bethlehem; office@bach.org; 610-866-4382, ext. 110 or 115; https://bach.org/tickets/

PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEIN Dr. Christopher Jackson conducts the Bach Choir of Bethlehem and Bach Festival Orchestra in the May 13, 2023, performance of the “Mass in B Minor” by J.S. Bach.
PRESS PHOTO BY PAUL WILLISTEIN From left: Dr. Christopher Jackson, Bach Choir of Bethlehem Artistic Director, and Bach Festival soloists Sherezade Panthaki, soprano; Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano; Benjamin Butterfield, tenor, and Edmund Milly, bass-baritone, at conclusion of May 13, 2023, concert of the “Mass in B Minor” by J.S. Bach.