EMU Gives Bach To The Community

‘Bach & String Things’ Pairs Classic With Contemporary

By Elizabeth Rome, Daily News-Record

Ken Nafziger and Bach Festival musicians
Conductor Kenneth Nafziger leads the Bach Festival Choir and Orchestra in last year’s Leipzig Service. This year’s Leipzig Service will be at 10 a.m. on June 15 at the Lehman Auditorium. Admission is free. (Photo by Jim Bishop)

There are two things everyone needs to know about EMU’s 16th annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, says artistic director and conductor Kenneth Nafziger. “One, I don’t want everybody to say that they’ve done it all. Every year has a different focus, flavor. We don’t repeat,” he said.

“Two, [Bach’s] a musician that has inspired the work of other composers and caught the imagination of people all over the world in a way no other composer has done.”

This year’s festival will celebrate Johann Sebastian Bach’s inspiration through the theme “Bach & String Things” with a series of string instrument driven concerts from June 8-15.

Cello Sounds

Bach Festival musician Eugene Friesen
Bach Festival musician Eugene Friesen

Impressed with cellist Eugene Friesen‘s work during a 2006 concert in California, Nafziger decided to make string instruments the theme of this year’s festival in order to feature Friesen. A two-time Grammy Award winner, Friesen will serve as composer-in-residence and perform several times during the Bach Festival.

Because Bach is so well known for his choral work, Friesen says it is unusual but delightful for a Bach festival to focus on string instruments.

“It’s really wonderful,” said Friesen. “Performers on almost any instrument consider Bach to be the premier composer for their instrument.”

In addition to concert performances, Friesen will present his children’s show “CelloMan” at noon on June 14. He will don multiple masks and play the cello in unique ways, including accompanying the sounds of humpback whales. Designed primarily with third-graders to college students in mind, Friesen describes the show as “an entertaining and fast-moving program for all listeners.”

The festival will also feature a variety of other string instruments in solo performances, including harp, harpsichord, violin, viola and guitar, said Nafziger.

“To get artists of that caliber and hear them for free or at the prices that we charge is quite a treat,” said Mary Kay Adams, executive director of the Bach Festival. “We’re having international professionals from all over the country [perform].”

The three afternoon and evening concerts require paid admission (see schedule). Pre-purchased tickets are $20 for adults, $17 for seniors, $15 for students and $5 for children. Prices at the door will be $2 more. Group prices are also available.

The remaining daytime performances – the five noon concerts, the “CelloMan” program and the traditional Leipzig service on June 15 that is modeled after Bach’s role as a cantor in the German town, are the festival’s “gift to the community,” said Adams.

Group Work

Bach Festival musician Michael Partington
Bach Festival musician Michael Partington

Guitarist Michael Partington is not surprised that Nafziger chose “Bach & String Things” as this year’s theme. A longtime acquaintance of Nafziger, this is Partington’s second time participating in the festival as a featured performer. Having such a theme “gives the opportunity for more creative programming,” said Partington. “Ken’s strength is the interesting mixture of music that he brings together.”

Joan Griffing, concertmaster and violinist, agrees. She has worked with Nafziger on the festival for more than a decade. “One of the highlights of the festival is the repertoire Ken comes up with,” she said. “You never hear this music in this combination anywhere else.”

Partington called his first visit to the Bach Festival in 2001 “great quality music making,” and is “very excited to have the opportunity to come back,” he said.

The feeling is mutual for Nafziger. “He’s an awesome guitarist, incredible musician,” said Nafziger. “I use every excuse I can [to see him perform].”

Audiences will be able to see Partington perform several times, including solos at the festival’s first concert on June 8 and final concert on June 14. He will also participate in two of the free weeklong chamber music performances held at noon, Monday-Friday in Asbury United Methodist Church.

“The noon concerts are put together by all the musicians,” said Griffing. “There’s going to be a lot of variety.”

Musical Immersion

The majority of the 50 to 60 musicians who participate in the Bach Festival return each year, said Adams. “We’ve had some people stay with it the whole time. Eighty to 90 percent return over and over,” said Adams. “We hear from them that it’s like a family reunion. They give it that loyalty. They count on this every year.”

Ken Nafziger and Bach Festival musicians
Diane Phoenix-Neal, principal violinist of the Bach Festival Orchestra, performs. (Photo by Jim Bishop)

Although musicians are given their music ahead of time and expected to know it upon arrival in Harrisonburg, “putting it all together and finding the exact tempos, that’s a different story,” said Adams.

There are morning and evening rehearsals on top of performances each day of the festival. The public is encouraged to attend rehearsals in EMU’s Lehman Auditorium from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Monday- Thursday. “I think it’s an incredible opportunity. Most people only see the finished product and it looks easy,” said Nafziger. “People just don’t have any idea what goes into shaping sound. I think people will find that entertaining.”

A music professor at EMU, Nafziger has been executive director of the Bach festival since its inception.

“It’s nice for me to be able to do nothing but what I love doing for those 10 days,” said Nafziger. “Of course, I collapse into a heap afterward.”

Click here for the schedule of concerts, information on artists, and more.

For more information on the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, visit www.emu.edu/bach or call 432-4367. To order tickets, call the box office at 432-4582.