EMU Festival Offers Bach – and All that Jazz

Bach Festival performance 2006

Prolific German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) scarcely had time to catch his breath. No sooner did he compose a cantata for the Sunday worship service at the St. Thomas Lutheran Church in Leipzig where he was cantor than it was time to work on the next.

And Bach didn’t have access to computer software to help expedite this major undertaking. The melodies flowing from his mind were committed to parchment by hand and had to be duplicated manually for the orchestral and choral participants in the service.

Not only that, but he had to rehearse and conduct soloists, chorus and orchestra and serve as organist. And that was only a small part of his job description as official musician for four churches in the city of Leipzig.

The 14th annual Bach Festival program theme, “Mostly Bach,” at Eastern Mennonite University highlighted the richness and diversity of the composer’s massive output, opening Sunday, June 11, with his monumental “Mass in B Minor.” Featured soloists were Sharla Nafziger, soprano; Jennifer Cooper, alto; Kenneth Gayle, tenor; and Thomas Jones, bass; with Marvin Mills, organ continuo and the festival choir and orchestra.

The festival concluded Sunday, June 18, with a “Leipzig Service,” a sermon in music modeled after the liturgical pattern of Bach’s time. Many festival attendees deemed the service, which included a portion of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” as a “highlight” of the weeklong program.

Bach Festival performance 2006

Others might point to another distinct feature of this year’s festival, the return of guest artist Jeremy Wall, a pianist and arranger who has recorded a dozen well-received classical-jazz “World Beat” albums with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman.

Wall, a founding member of the 1980’s jazz group, “Spyro Gyra,” first appeared at the Bach Festival in 2004.

“The universal greatness of Bach’s music allows it to be adapted to other idioms,” Wall said during a rehearsal. “The harmonic syntax of Bach’s music has a common ground with the language of jazz that allows one to take some of his musical structures and adapt them into jazz arrangements.”

But, he added, “the process evolved out of a process of living with Bach’s music.”

During the June 17 evening performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” audience members were visibly moved as Wall and Pete Spaar, principal bass, and clarinetist Leslie Nicholas took sections of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and segued into a series of jazz improvisations that seemlessly combined the musical languages.

“This may be the first time this particular Bach composition has been performed publicly in this way,” said Kenneth J. Nafziger, artistic director and conductor of the week-long homage to Bach and his music.

With 2006 marking the 250th anniversary of another musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the Austrian composer’s music was featured on two of the seven daily noon chamber music programs held at Asbury United Methodist Church in downtown Harrisonburg. His “Symphony No. 35 in D Major” opened the June 16 evening festival program.

A recurring phenomenon of the Bach Festival is the diverse group of singers and players who gather in Lehman Auditorium for brief and intense rehearsal sessions and almost immediately sound like they’ve performed together for years.

Violinist Amy Helmuth Glick of Orrville, Ohio, is among the instrumentalists who returns every year to participate in the festival, having missed just one of the 14 seasons.

“I get to come back and stay with my parents, Ervie and Mary Glick, and to make wonderful music,” Glick said. “I especially enjoy the opportunity to play Bach’s choral works.” Glick, who attended EMU 1990-91, is a free-lance violinist in the Northeast Ohio area and is a member of the Akron Symphony. Ervie Glick was a member of the festival chorus.

Paul E. Groff, a bass in the festival choir, was intrigued by the fusion of Bach’s music with the jazz improvisations of Jeremy Wall and his colleagues. He felt that the inclusion of two different styles “added life to the concerts and helped make Bach feel more contemporary.”

A graphic designer from Harrisonburg and 1990 EMU graduate, Groff relished “the opportunity to sing with top-notch musicians from across the country.”

In opening the Sunday Leipzig service, Dr. Nafziger told the audience that “we’ve spent the week playing and praying Bach,” adding: “Perhaps through this experience Bach is teaching us that at their best praying and playing are one and the same thing.”

“We’re delighted that the community embraces the Bach Festival as ‘our’ music festival,” said Beth K. Aracena, associate professor of music at EMU and Bach program coordinator. “The noon concerts at Asbury United Methodist Church were extremely well-attended, and the strong turnout at Lehman Auditorium demonstrates this community’s commitment to supporting quality performing arts programs,” she added.

Next year’s Bach Festival will be June 10-17, 2007, on the theme, “Bach and Some Admirers.” Renowned pianist Janina Fialkowska will return to the festival with her interpretations of Chopin’s piano concertos.