Festival Keeps People Coming Bach for More

It’s been 15 years of “great music-making” at Eastern Mennonite University with no letup in sight.

The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, with Kenneth J. Nafziger as artistic director and conductor, continued its tradition of artistic excellence by offering unparalleled classical music concerts with the highest caliber of musicians. This year’s theme, “Bach and Some Admirers,” featured works that reflect other composers’ admiration for Bach.

Dr. Kenneth Nafziger directs the Bach Festival orchestra, chorus and soloistsDr. Kenneth Nafziger directs the Bach Festival orchestra, chorus and soloists Thomas Jones and Sharla Nafziger in Johannes Brahms’ “Requiem” the evening of June 16.
Photo by Jim Bishop

The ability of music to both inspire and bring healing was exemplified in the appearance on campus of internationally-acclaimed Canadian pianist Janina Fialkowska. She first collaborated with the Bach Festival in 1999 and was diagosed with a cancerous tumor in her left arm in 2002.

Ms. Fialkowska returned to the Lehman Auditorium stage to play Chopin’s “Concerto No. 2 in F Minor for Piano and Orchestra” and “Concerto No. 1 in E Minor for Piano and Orchestra” during the second festival concert June 15. She received a rousing standing ovation for each concerto performance.

In addition to her concert performances, Fialkowska told her inspiring story at the Thursday noon concert, June 14, at Asbury United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg.

The monumental Johannas Brahms’ “Requiem” was performed June 16 by the festival chorus and orchestra, with featured soloists Sharla Nafziger, soprano, and Thomas Jones, baritone. It was Ms. Nafziger’s fifth appearance as a guest artist and Jones’ third at the festival.

The opening concert Sunday afternoon, June 10, featured the Bach “Concerto for Two Violins” with soloists Joan Griffing and Susan Black, and music of South American composers Hietor Villa-Lobos and Astor Piazzolla and of Felix Mendelssohn.

Festival performers presented shorter works in well-attended daily noon concerts Monday through Saturday, June 11-15, at Asbury United Methodist Church in downtown Harrisonburg. On June 16, local young musicians were featured.

The festival concluded Sunday morning, June 17, with the Leipzig service, a re-creation 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’s service.

“For a brief period each year, Harrisonburg becomes Leipzig, Germany, and Lehman Auditorium is transformed into St. Thomas Lutheran Church,” Dr. Nafziger stated. Bach’s “Cantata No. 100” was the featured work, with Father James Massa, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., as homilist.

Some musicians return every year to participate in the Bach Festival; a few, like Harrisonburg native Mark Hartman, have participated every year since the festival began in 1992.

Hartman, who teaches violin, viola and music theory at Cental College in Pella, Iowa, looks forward to playing violin in the festival, noting: “The performers and the music come together and develop a personality under the direction of Ken (Nafziger).

Mark Hartman and colleague Philip Stoltzfus rehearse the Bach 'Orchestral Suite'Mark Hartman, now teaching in Iowa, and colleague Philip Stoltzfus, Northfield, Minn., rehearse the Bach “Orchestral Suite.” They return to Harrisonburg every year to play in the Bach Festival orchestra.
Photo by Jim Bishop

“The Bach Festival has become fine-tuned, with a different theme every year, but the basic purpose remains – an opportunity for musicians to perform and audiences to experience a week of great music,” Hartman said.

Suzanne K. (Sue) Cockley of Harrisonburg has sung in the festival chorus several years and read scripture at this year’s Leipzig service. She deemed it a “luxury to immerse myself in a full week of classical music – exhaustive but inspiring.”

“For 14 years I have returned to the Bach Festival for the great music, great performances and great camaraderie. It is one of the most meaningful constants in my life,” said Sandra Gerster of Baltimore, principal oboist in the festival orchestra.

“I come back every year because the trust, respect and integrity that Ken Nafziger brings to the Festival is unsurpassed. He cultivates a safe environment where we are encouraged to take artistic risks, to try to perform something in a new way, where the musical process is valued and where the performances are truly expressions of emotion, not plastic displays of static perfectionism,” she said.

“I return because my colleagues have become my family, and I am constantly inspired, awestruck, heartened and buoyed by them,” Gerster added.

Such sentiments were echoed by Mary Kay Adams, Bach Festival coordinator and principal flutist in the festival orchestra.

Ms. Adams said she relished the chance “to work closely with so many wonderful people who played a vital role in making the festival successful – the musicians, board members, community volunteers, EMU staff, donors, families who house musicians and Ken Nafziger and Joan Griffing.

“This festival continues to exceed my expectations on both musical and personal levels each year,” Adams said. “I’ve played in the orchestra since the beginning, 15 years ago, and have a deep appreciation for the outstanding musical quality. And because of the friendships established with returning musicians through the years, we look forward to working together each summer and renewing those bonds.”

Next year’s Bach festival will be held June 8-15, 2008, on the theme, “Bach and String Things.” Information is available on-line at www.emu.edu/bach.