Bach Festival keeps ‘the rhythm of the week’ alive with virtual concerts

Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is bringing its collection of classical symphonic sounds to your home through daily video uploads by festival performers.

Going on its 28th year, anticipation was high before organizers announced the cancellation of the summer festival due to the pandemic in April. On Sunday, the virtual concerto began featuring music and soloists who would have been heard during the summertime festival.

“It is a fraction of what folks would have seen and heard in person, but we try to keep the rhythm of the week alive by presenting them virtual content each day that we would have had at in-person concerts,” said David McCormick, the festival’s executive director.

Last year’s festival gathered 80 musicians at Eastern Mennonite University and Asbury United Methodist Church as an homage to renowned composer Johann Sebastian Bach, drawing audience members from across the Atlantic region. This year’s online event is isolated and on a reduced scale of performers but attracting viewers from across the globe.

David Berry has been a pianist for the festival for the past three summers and participated in the intergenerational music event the previous two years. He said news of the festival’s cancellation was gut-wrenching, but he knew McCormick would pull a trick from his sleeve to keep the magic going.

“That’s a part of being a performer or being a musician is to be able to improvise, to be able to be creative and find different ways of doing things, and I think David McCormick is especially good at that, so I knew there would be something,” Berry said.

On Friday, Berry will upload two performances, shot in Lehman Auditorium — one, a 20-minute piano solo, and the second, a duet with baritone David Newman.

“We thought it’d be a good idea from doing it at Lehman Auditorium because that’s where the festival is held, and festival audiences know that space and in order to give some sort of sense of comfort,” Berry said.

Newman has accompanied festival performances in the past and returned this year to assist Berry’s rendition of Franz Schubert’s “Wanderer.” In addition to his baritone vocals, Newman volunteered his research and equipment to ensure the duet can be a successful socially distanced collaboration.

“The technology I’m using is literally old fashion technology. It’s all stuff we’ve been using for years in live sound applications, and I am not an expert on live sound, but I played in a rock band before I ever became a classical singer,” Newman said about his idea to set up real-time physically distant rehearsals and performances.

He said sound travels at approximately one millisecond per foot, so artists are obstructed from synchronized sound through lagging, regardless of internet platform, if there is adequate distance between musicians as necessary to combat contagion. To counteract the latency of traveling sound waves, Newman donated his sound equipment so audio can travel as electromagnetic waves at the speed of light.

“We just used regular microphones connected to a mixer on long tables and what that allows us to do was be physically separated by 70 or 80 feet but still hear each other as we made the sound as if we were right next to each other,” Newman said. “This is just showing there is a way forward even while maintaining physical distancing.”

Due to the surplus in the festival’s budget, scheduled performers are receiving an honorarium valued at a percentage of their original fee.

“Many of them are struggling and lost thousands and thousands of dollars, and applying for unemployment as a freelance musician is very difficult,” McCormick said.

During previous festivals, an empty violin case would sit before the performers to collect tips, and that tradition is continuing online as an illustration of an empty violin case on the festival’s website asks patrons to consider donating this year.

Berry said that in addition to any financial support stemming from this virtual transition, the ability to connect with audiences while apart has been nourishing.

“Hearing some of the responses to the video and the views and engagement around it, that’s been encouraging. Even though you can’t feel the community the same ways you would in a concert … to know that’s not lost, people are still engaged, people are still listening and to the degree they are, the level of response, has been very encouraging and surprising to me,” he said.

Diane Phoenix-Neal has been the principle violist of the festival for 16 years and said news of this year’s cancellation was disappointing since the event is an annual congregation of fellow artists, but the camaraderie remains strong despite physical separation.

“We interact like a family and the festival is a big reunion for the musicians who enjoy rehearsing and performing together,” she said. “I was very happy to do this but with a great deal of emotion and nostalgia for past seasons.”

McCormick said he expects some of the major heartstring-tugging videos will be Saturday’s “Ein deutsches Requiem” recording of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, which will also feature notes from artistic director Ken Nafziger, who traditionally writes segments of notes in the festival’s program booklet to accompany acts.

Organizers are erring on the side of caution and not planning any future events, but McCormick said he hopes the physical ensemble showcases return next June, and the festival will bring some tools adopted during the pandemic to future events.

“I think a lot of arts organizations, including ours, have really seen the power of having an online presence. We’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of views of our videos all over the world, and it’s increased the reach of our festival,” he said. “If we do live performances next summer, some would be livestreamed so folks can continue hearing and seeing what we’re doing.”

Sunday’s closing performances are from organist Marvin Mills, who will perform “Ascend the Mountain: A Walk with Doctor King,” depicting Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech through the organ, and “Three Spirituals,” accompanied by soprano Marlissa Hudson.

“There’s this nostalgia we can all have for what might’ve been, but we’ll still be able to hear that piece,” McCormick said.