A German Bach specialist once observed that the music of Johann Sebastian Bach can be played successfully on modern or on period instruments, “but what you can’t recreate is the audience of the time.”
Ken J. Nafziger, artistic director and conductor for the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, notes the weeklong, mid-June festival at Eastern Mennonite University is blessed with enthusiastic and faithful audiences. At the conclusion of its 20-year anniversary festival this month, he said, “The community has claimed this festival as an important part of life here.”
Events included on-campus, ticketed festival concerts, and daily, free noon concerts downtown. In addition, Nafziger notes, “Anyone can sit in on any rehearsals all week long.”
Bach “just seems indestructible. You can do anything with him,” said 2012’s featured composer and cellist Eugene Friesen, a Berklee College of Music professor in Boston and artist-in-residence at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
The Saturday night concert featured the world premiere of Friesen’s “Glory” – commissioned to honor the Bach Festival’s 20-year history. The 20-minute cantata used Jean Janzen’s poem, “A Catechism.” Friesen and Janzen are cousins. The music incorporates Cuban and Latin rhythms along with compositional techniques that Bach used in his cantatas. The cantata was personalized for Friesen who found the words in Janzen’s poem to be an appropriate memorial to a young family friend.
Friesen’s touring, children’s “Cello Man” show was received enthusiastically in a noon concert. For reasons of the cello’s resemblance to the human voice and its versatility, the lifelong cellist said “I schlep the cello” rather than more portable instruments. He accompanied comic stories with pantomime and paired masks with music. After demonstrating cello blues and bluegrass, Friesen electrified the instrument for a haunting duet with a recording of humpbacked whales.
The orchestra for the concerts includes approximately 60 professional musicians from around the United States. The choir, 50 in number, is a volunteer, mostly local choir. Many return yearly.
Rehearsals are intense. Choral rehearsals began on the Saturday evening one week prior to the concert. Practice had to start earlier for “Glory,” says tenor soloist Les Helmuth, who has performed in 18 of the 20 festivals. He found “Glory” “very, very challenging” and also “a highlight for me.” Helmuth and Madeline Bender were the soloists in Friesen’s work. The first rehearsal of the new piece for the orchestra was on Wednesday prior to the Saturday concert.
The Bach “Mass in B Minor” opened the season. Nafziger described the work as the musical equivalent to the challenge of scaling Mount Everest. Conducting the piece for his 14th time, he said, “I learned so many new things this time around that influenced tempo and dynamics.” He reflected, with a slightly ironic smile, “I felt I figured out – anew – what Bach had in mind!”
A large crowd attended the noon performance of Igor Stravinsky’s tragicomic “Soldier’s Tale,” featuring Ted Swartz and Ingrid DeSanctis, along with a chamber music ensemble. Stravinsky’s work is a Faustian morality play in which a soldier returning home is tricked into trading his soul for power and possessions. There is no happy ending.
Each Bach Festival culminates in a Sunday Leipzig service (named for Bach’s primary job as cantor for the Leipzig churches, where duties included composing a new cantata weekly). This year’s service was centered on the Pentecost story, with one of Bach’s Pentecost cantatas (No. 34).
In addition to the cantata, there was a Baroque concerto for two trumpets and strings as the prelude, two hymn accompaniments arranged by Eugene Friesen, organ music played by Marvin Mills, and abundant congregational singing.
Michael A. King, dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary, delivered the homily. In response to King’s suggestion that we ask forgiveness for our trespasses rather than debts. one attendee said King’s words “added understanding to the Pentecost theme and closed the week with a power I was not expecting.”
The festival drew diverse participants, including high school students for an early-spring Young Artists’ Concert and learners for both a Baroque Workshop and the “Roads Scholar” (formerly Elderhostel) program, which organizer Phyllis Coulter reported brought 14 this year from homeplaces as distant as California.
Over the decades, Festival themes have paired Bach with such fellow-notables as Mozart and Mendelssohn, while connecting with Russian and Cuban traditions and American jazz and bluegrass. This season included music of Dvorak, including his beloved “Symphony No. 9: From the New World.” Next year’s theme, “Dramatic Connections: Bach, and Some Britten and Verdi,” will celebrate the anniversaries of Benjamin Britten’s 100th birthday and Giuseppi Verdi’s 200th.
As to theme ideas for the future, Nafziger says “I can’t imagine ever running out.”