EMU Offering Bach to Bach Hits

 The Strings of the Bach Festival Orchestra
The Strings of the Bach Festival Orchestra, with Carlos Cesar Rodriguez, pianist, and Susan Sievert Messersmith, trumpet, perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Concerto No. 1 for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op. 35” during a concert at the 2003 festival.
Photo by Jim Bishop

The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is going Bach to basics, with the timeless music of the prolific German composer at the center of the programming.

This year’s festival, June 13-20, will celebrate its twelfth season at EMU. Reviewers have called the annual event “the jewel in Harrisonburg’s crown.”

According to artistic director and conductor Kenneth J. Nafziger, Johann Sebastian Bach has festivals all around the world named in his honor. So why hold one every summer in Harrisonburg?

“I suspect that there are so many Bach festivals because he is recognized as fundamental to the entire world of music since his death in 1750. Doing a festival is one way of paying appropriate homage to his genius,” Dr. Nafziger said.

“Bach, unlike a lot of other famous-name composers, has touched the music of many cultures and many styles. One of my favorite Bach concerto performances was by a bluegrass band. Jazz has been crossing over into Bach for a good while now. There is African Bach, there is Japanese Bach, there is Brazilian Bach – it’s universal.

“For me personally, the music of Bach is the most complete musical expression I know,” Nafziger stated. “All music touches various parts of us – intellect, emotion, spirit, beauty. His works are as complete as anything ever is in the world of music.”

Many music lovers agree with Nafziger. The festival audiences have included people from up and down the East coast and as far away as Oregon. Some have been life-long fans of classical music. Others have never before attended a concert. There are a variety of ages and cultural backgrounds and all feel welcome.

 Kenneth J. Nafziger directs the Bach Festival orchestra
Kenneth J. Nafziger directs the Bach Festival orchestra.

William and Frances Berry drive from Connecticut to EMU each year for the festival. While there are music festivals closer to their home, they feel like the one at EMU offers “something different” that brings them back year after year.

“We are presented with masterful, loving performances of great music made more meaningful because we have come to know and admire the musicians,” the couple said. “There is no fourth wall between audience and performer. We go to the rehearsals. We chat with players and singers. We have followed careers of young musicians as they have returned time and again. We almost feel that we are part of this place.

“We know that Bach was essentially a church musician. We also know that he was a devoted Christian churchman. Nafziger’s interpretations of Bach’s cantatas, motets, masses, passions, etc. have been memorable. We have felt the Eternal Presence in this great body of sacred music each year. This music is our accompaniment on the journey of faith,” the Berrys stated.

The Berrys aren’t the only ones who “come home” to EMU for the festival. This year, EMU alumni Madeline Bender, soprano, and Joseph Gascho, harpsichordist, are two of the featured soloists. Once students devoted to hours of practicing in the music department, they return to campus as accomplished professionals to share their gifts with the community.

 Madeline Bender
Madeline Bender

Ms. Bender earned a degree from the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater. She is a winner of the 1995 Amadeus Fund Grant, the Judith Raskin Memorial Award from the Santa Fe Opera Apprenticeship program, and was a 1996 finalist in the George London Competition, and the 1996 recipient of Manhattan School of Music’s Richard F. Gold Career Award Grant and master of music degree. After an apprenticeship with the Santa Fe Opera, Bender’s career has taken her all over the world to perform major operatic roles.

 Joseph Gascho
Joseph Gascho

Gascho’s recent accomplishments include first prize in the Jurow International Harpsichord Competition and a grant award for solo performance by the Maryland State Arts Council. He earned his masters degree from the Peabody Conservatory and is currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Maryland. He will be performing Bach’s “Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C Minor” with colleague Elena Tsai.

The Bach festival orchestra is made up of professional players from throughout Virginia and around the country who return year after year.

The choir is made up of singers primarily from the local area. Others come from many places in the eastern half of the United States because they enjoy singing, and because the choral experience is a strong one.

Highlights of this year’s festival will include:

* Jeremy Wall, founding member of the jazz fusion group “Spyro Gyra,” who will perform his Worldbeat Bach arrangement in the opening concert on Sunday, June 13.

* Mozart’s “Requiem” will be performed during Festival Concert I on Friday, June 18 with orchestra, choir, Madeline Bender, soprano; Carrie Stevens, alto; Kenneth Gayle, tenor; and Paul Whelan, bass.

* Saturday’s Festival Concert II features two Bach concertos and Dvorak’s “Symphony No. 8 in G Major.”

* The Leipzig Service on Sunday, June 20, is an annual favorite to conclude the week of music. The service, modeled after the ones at St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Bach’s time, will include a Bach cantata (with chorus, orchestra and soloists), hymns, organist Marvin Mills, and a homily given by Christian Early, assistant professor of philosophy and theology at EMU.

* Noon concerts presented throughout the week at Asbury United Methodist Church, downtown Harrisonburg, offer a chance for everyone to sample chamber music presented by the festival musicians.

More information on the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is available at www.emu.edu/bach. Advance tickets for the concerts are available from the EMU box office, 540-432-4582.