Salisbury Press

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Of Britten and Bach

Wednesday, December 5, 2012 by PAUL WILLISTEIN Focus Editor in Focus

Bach Choir of Bethlehem Artistic Director and Conductor Greg Funfgeld is clear about what the choir's annual Christmas concerts, 8 p.m. Dec. 8, First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, and 4 p.m. Dec. 9, First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, are all about.

"It's music in celebration of the birth of Christ, in celebration of the Nativity. Especially in what we affectionately call the Christmas City, the Christmas spirit is pervasive.

"The music gives that sense of hope and peace and good will toward one and other. This music incarnates that spirit. It gives voice to that spirit," Funfgeld says.

For this year's concerts, The Bach Choir presents two firsts: "Saint Nicolas" (1948), by English composer Benjamin Britten (1913- 1976), and a collaboration with the Bel Canto Children's Chorus.

The program, which includes "Magnificat in D Major" (1723), by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750), and soloists Benjamin Butterfield, tenor; Leslie Johnson, soprano; Barbara Hollinshead, mezzo soprano; Joshua Copeland, bass, and Bach Festival Orchestra, will be recorded for broadcast on WWFM, the Classical Network.

The Bach Choir recorded Britten's "Rejoice in the Lamb, Opus 30," for its CD, "Song of Hope." Britten is particularly suited to the choir, Funfgeld says:

"Next year is the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth. Britten was one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. He writes brilliantly for solo singers and choruses. He's very sensitive to the nuances of the text.

"It tells the story of St. Nicholas, who was a saint. He was a good and holy man and he was, of course, the inspiration for Santa Claus." Butterfield sings the role of Saint Nicolas.

The 36-voice Bel Canto Children's Chorus, directed by Joy Ondra Hirokawa, a Moravian College instructor, includes treble voices portraying a trio of boys and Nicolas as a boy.

Also, the Bel Canto Children's Chorus sings the "Suscepit Israel" in Bach's "Magnificat," as did the boys' choir, Thomanerchor, 289 years ago in Bach's Leipzig, Germany, church.

Says Funfgeld, "I think there are number of things that make this a good pairing. Bach wrote all of this choral music for the boys in the St. Thomas School in Leipzig. Britten wrote this piece for three boys' choirs and one girls' choir more than two hundred years later.

"Britten, at two points in the 'St. Nicolas,' uses two English hymns in the same way that Bach uses them in the 'Christmas Oratorio' or in the 'Passions,' to underscore key elements in the drama or in the way that the story is being told.

"I think Bach and Britten were very much kindred spirits."