Festival Goes Bach to Basics

Bach Festival choir, orchestra and featured soloists
The Bach Festival choir, orchestra and featured soloists combined their talents in performing Mozart’s introspective “Requiem in D Minor” under the direction of Kenneth Nafziger, professor of music at EMU.
Photo by Jim Bishop

Of various reasons musicians give for returning each year to the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival on the Eastern Mennonite University campus, one seems to tug hardest at the heartstrings – a sense of “community.”

Some are drawn because they “thoroughly enjoy the creativity of the programs” assembled by the festival’s artistic director and conductor, Kenneth Nafziger. Dr. Nafziger, professor of music at EMU, is considered a foremost authority on the music of prolific German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Others cite the “family feel” that flows through the week’s activities.

Philip Stoltzfus has attended every Bach Festival since its inception in 1992 and has played violin in the orchestra for 10 of those 12 years.

Stoltzfus, an assistant professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn., said, “This event fosters a sense of community among participants – it makes you want to come back. The material is fresh and challenges both the players and audiences.

“With only a few days to rehearse, the music isn’t beaten to death,” he said. “The intense practices help us develop a certain higher level of musicality, and I enjoy hearing Bach juxtaposed with other composers’ musical styles.”

Stoltzfus especially enjoyed playing in Dvorak’s ‘Symphony No. 8,’ which he said “showcases the strings and brass – it’s what orchestra playing is all about.”

(L. to r.): Paul Whelan, bass; Kenneth Gayle, tenor; Carrie Stevens, mezzo soprano; and Madeline Bender, soprano, were featured soloists for Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor” performed June 18 at the 12th annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival.
Photo by Jim Bishop

This year’s program went “Bach to Basics,” with the timeless, majestic works of the prolific German composer (1685-1750) featured prominently throughout the June 13-20 program.

Nafziger acknowledged that while there are numerous programs worldwide that recognize Bach’s musical genius, the festival each year at EMU is but “another way to show appropriate homage to a composer whose music has become fundamental to the entire world.”

The festival opened June 13 with Bach’s “Concerto for Two Pianos in C Major and Strings,” with Carolyn and Stephen W. Sachs as pianists. The program included Antonin Dvorak’s “Serenade in E Major for String Orchestra,” preludes from Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier” and a musical variation on Bach featuring pianist Jeremy Wall, best known as one of the creators of the 1980’s jazz-fusion group, Spyro Gyra.

Two EMU graduates returned to their alma mater to share their artistic gifts as featured soloists at the festival.

Madeline Bender, a 1993 alumna, was soprano soloist for Mozart’s magnificent “Requiem in D Minor,” performed June 18 with the festival choir and orchestra. She also sang Bach’s “Cantata No. 51” as part of a second festival concert and selections by Cole Porter and George Gershwin during a noon program.

Ms. Bender, who went on to graduate from Manhattan School of Music, is a full-time, free-lance musician who performs primarily operatic roles around the world.

“It was a wonderful, almost surreal feeling to come back to EMU, to be surrounded by family and friends while doing this Bach Festival,” she said. “It was also interesting to see it [the festival] through the eyes of my friend Paul (Whelan),” who was bass soloist in Mozart’s “Requiem.”

Bender, who plans to go to Luxembourg for a performance before taking a summer break, hopes to “keep going the direction I’m going” with her music, which may include some additional training to hone her craft.

Joseph Gascho, a 1995 EMU graduate, joined with colleague Elena Tsai to perform works on harpsichord by Bach, Handel and Scarlatti with the festival orchestra.

Gascho went on to earn a degree from the Peabody Conservatory and is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Maryland, where he also teaches basso continuo.

He “happened” to encounter Ken Nafziger en route to a music performance in North Carolina, and Nafziger later invited him to take part in this year’s Bach program.

Gascho, like Bender, said he was “excited” to play in the festival and to reunite with friends on campus.

Noon concerts Monday through Saturday, a popular aspect of the weeklong program, moved this year to the sanctuary of Asbury United Methodist Church in downtown Harrisonburg.

The daily programs of shorter pieces offered by various festival musicians “filled the church sanctuary, some days to overflowing,” according to Beth K. Aracena, acting head of EMU’s music department and festival coordinator. “It was certainly one indicator of enthusiastic response to this year’s program,” she said.

“Attendance greatly increased overall this year,” Dr. Aracena noted, “especially for the June 18 concert which featured the Mozart ‘Requiem.'”

A third festival concert June 19 featured Bach’s “Concerto in C Minor for Two Harpsichords and Strings,” featuring Joe Gascho and Elena Tsai; Bach’s “Concerto in A minor for Violin and Strings” with Joan Griffing of EMU’s music department as soloist; and Anton Dvorak’s soaring, joyful “Symphony No. 8 in G Major.” At the close of that performance, the orchestra received a sustained, standing ovation.

Again this year, a festival high point for many attendees was the Leipzig service, Sunday morning, June 20, a recreation of an 18th century worship service at St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was cantor and composed a cantata for each week