Music Festival Celebrates Bach and other ‘Bs’

the 2005 graduatesKenneth J. Nafziger conducts the Bach Festival orchestra, chorus and soloists Lesley Andrew, Heidi Kurtz, Kenneth Gayle and Daniel Lichti in performing Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 9 in D Minor" the evening of June 18 to a full house in EMU’s Lehman Auditorium.
Photo by Jim Bishop

The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, held each year at Eastern Mennonite University, is a massive undertaking, requiring considerable planning, intense rehearsals of many singers and musicians and major financial support.

And, audience expectation levels keep going up – understandably so, given the quality of the programs.

So, why has Kenneth J. Nafziger invested his time and energy as artistic director and conductor of the weeklong event for 13 years?

"The people I work with sustain this effort," Dr. Nafziger, long-time professor of music at EMU, said. "There’s always enough music to select from, but it’s this incredible group that comes together every year that makes all the difference.

"The orchestra members come prepared, they know what to expect," Nafziger said. "Rehearsal begins for the opening concert, and we pick up where we left off from last year. Participants gain strength from the musical experience. Everyone benefits and is nourished," he added.

This year’s festival, held June 12-19 on the EMU campus, combined the glorious masterworks of prolific German composer Johann Sebastian Bach with the works of other "Bs" – Brahms, Bartok, Berstein, Britten, Boccherini, Bruch and Berlioz.

The opening concert featured Bach’s "Concerto for Flute, Violin and Harpsichord in A Minor" with Pedro Aponte, flute; Joan Griffing, violin; and Bradley Lehman, harpsichord. Other "Bs" on the program were Leonard Bernstein’s "Missa Brevis," Bela Bartok’s "Romanian Folk Dances" and Benjamin Britten’s "Simple Symphony."

musicians compare notes during rehearsal Viola players Christy Heatwole (l.), Lancaster, Pa., and Karen Johnson, Cincinnati, Ohio, compare notes during a festival orchestra rehearsal.
Photo by Jim Bishop

The "sense of community and family-like atmosphere" that pervades the Bach Festival was underscored by several participants.

Susan Black, a violinist in the festival orchestra, has returned to play each year since 1997. She said she comes back to experience the "excellent musicianship" and the "cameraderie in playing Bach’s music together," adding that she found playing Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’ "a challenge."

A teacher at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Black is in her 14th year of playing second violin in the Charlottesville and University Symphony Orchestra and has participated in the Eastern Music Festival at Greensboro, N.C., for 25 years.

Sandra Gerster, principal oboist in the festival orchestra, has taken part in every Bach Festival at EMU but the first one. "The music, friends, food and cameraderie among my colleages all bring me back every year," she said. "There’s a positive aura here."

Ms. Gerster, a regular performer with the North Carolina, Richmond and Annapolis Symphony orchestras, noted that she found the ‘Four Serious Songs’ by Brahms challenging to play and was "moved to tears" by soloist Daniel Lichti’s interpretation of them.

For mezzo-soprano Heidi Kurtz of Philadelphia, Pa., performing as a soloist in the Bach Festival is like coming home. A 1989 music graduate of EMU, she sang roles in "Les Nuits d’Ete, Op. 7" by Hector Berlioz in the opening festival concert, Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 9 in D Minor" and Bach’s "Cantata No. 45" in the closing Leipzig service.

"It’s great to do this," Ms. Kurtz said of the Bach Festival. "Ken [Nafziger] is a major reason for my returning several times. He encouraged me to work toward a professional career in music when I studied under him."

Kurtz is soprano soloist at All Saint’s Episcopal Church and a member of the Philadelphia Singers.

Kurtz found it challenging to sing three different types of music from Bach to Berlioz. "Receiving energy from the audience helps my performance. It’s so important," she said.

Sandwiched between the main festival concerts were daily noon chamber music programs that filled the Asbury United Methodist Church sanctuary in downtown Harrisonburg. The programs ranged from a young artists concert to lighter works by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II to Bach harpsichord numbers performed by Bradley Lehman.

In 2004, Lehman discovered Bach’s method of tuning harpsichords and organs, encoded graphically on the title page of the "Well-Tempered Clavier." His article about this finding was published in the February and May 2005 issues of "Early Music," published by Oxford University Press.

The festival concluded with the annual Leipzig Service June 19 in Lehman Auditorium. The program recreates an 18th century worship service at St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was cantor and composed a cantata for each week’s service.

"Many people cite the Leipzig service as the highlight of the week, a significant worship experience that speaks loudly to participants," said one observer.

“The Bach Festival reflects the cooperation of around 200 people directly involved as musicians, host families, ushers for concerts, board members, Asbury church staff and others,” said Beth K. Aracema, assistant professor of music at EMU and festival coordinator. “It is a comprehensive team effort, with far-reaching rewards. Add the participation of the audiences, whose numbers exceeded expectations this year, and the results are a music festival recognized for its excellence that enriches this community in so many ways,” she added.

The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is sponsored in part by the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Arts Council of the Valley.

Next year’s festival, to be held June 11-18 at EMU, will employ the theme, "Mostly Bach." Jeremy Wall, pianist and arranger, will return as guest artist.