Celebrating 30 years with Funfgeld
The 106th Bethlehem Bach Festival is an occasion for celebration, notably Greg Funfgeld's 30th festival as Artistic Director and Conductor.
This year, the two weekends in May have some surprises, including the Rioult Dance troupe for Saturday morning performances to the music of Bach, and even two non-Bach works: Ludwig van Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" and Morten Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna" ("Eternal Light") for the Friday concerts.
The Bach Festival is May 3 and 4, 10 and 11 on the Lehigh University campus, Bethlehem.
This year's festival is a culmination of a season celebrating Funfgeld, including a commemorative coffee table book that chronicles the breadth, depth and expansion of the choir's concertizing and recording during his tenure.
And, of course, on both Saturday afternoons, there's Johann Sebastian Bach's monumental "Mass in B Minor," given its first United States performance by the choir in 1900.
"It's an amazing milestone," agrees Funfgeld of his three decades helming the Bach Choir. "And it happens in this year that we had our 60th 'Bach at Noon' concert. Our 'Bach to School' had its 1,000th student attend the program.
"We had young composers at the 'Family Concert,' young singers from a cappella groups at the gala with the Swingle Singers and Millersville University young singers for 'Elijah.'"
"It's been an unprecedented year in which we've reached out to young people. We want to share this music with as many who will listen. The Bible says, 'If you have ears, you will hear.'
"I'm so proud of our organization because our outreach is amazing. I'm so grateful to our collaborators. It couldn't be a more beautiful situation for me," Funfgeld says in anticipation of this year's festival, which annually draws Bach devotees from around the nation to Bethlehem.
Reflecting on his stewardship of the Bach Choir, Funfgeld allows, "It's quite something to think about, actually.
"When you invest a long time in a place and in people and in an undertaking, there are riches and blessings that come to you that you don't get in a shorter span.
"The idea of approaching things in a new way, or based on greater experience or new knowledge, that's a very special thing.
"A lot of people are in circumstances where they perform a piece once and never get back to it. We are in the position where we can perform Bach and other composers with greater regularity and that's a real privilege.
"When you live with people over a longer period or time, you develop an economy and efficiency, a relationship that's more steeped in trust and an awareness, so the work you do is richer."
'The Fifth Evangelist'
Each year, the Friday program features what might be called "deep catalogue Bach," often a major Bach work or a selection of cantatas.
Of this year's cantatas, Funfgeld says, "We've done them. We've lived with them," and deems them "gorgeous."
Two were created by Bach (1865 – 1750) for the inauguration of town councils: Cantata 71 for that in Mulhausen, Germany, and Cantata 119 for Leipzig, Germany.
Such services were held, it was believed, so that "God would direct their deliberations, that they would be good leaders for the community and care for the people who lived there," Funfgeld explains.
Cantata 71 was the only one published in Bach's lifetime. "It is a very festive work. It's much more sectional in some of the movements, where he goes from fast to slow and back again.
"But he's always making the point that God is the king and that these people were elected to serve God and lead the people.
"Bach is always preaching. They called him "the Fifth Evangelist.' He's always trying to give what he thinks is the theological, Biblical, underpinnings of what he's doing There's a message with Bach," Funfgeld says.
The other two cantatas are described as chorale cantatas. Both are based on famous German hymn tunes, Funfgeld says.
"These hymn tunes were the source of endless inspiration for Bach. Both the tunes and the text of the tunes inspired his creative genius and fired his imagination in amazing ways. These are astonishing."
The setting for Cantata 180 is the Christian Communion hymn, "Soul adorn thyself with gladness."
Friday evening's concert includes one of Bach's most enduring and beautiful sacred cantatas, Cantata 1, "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" ("How Brightly Shines the Morning Star").
Bach Festival soloists returning are audience and Funfgeld favorites: Kendra Colton and Rosa Lamoreaux, sopranos, Daniel Taylor countertenor, Benjamin Butterfield, tenor, William Sharp, baritone, and Christòpheren Nomura, bass-baritone.
'Fantasy' and 'Light'
Friday evening closes with Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" for orchestra, solo quartet, chorus and piano solo. Thomas Goeman, Bach Choir assistant conductor and Funfgeld's colleague for more than 25 years, is piano soloist.
"It's like he wrote a piano concerto, but Beethoven adds six soloists and choral. It's so festive and upbeat. He uses some of the same ideas he would use later in the Ninth Symphony. It's kind of been on my bucket list.
"I also wanted to recognize Tom [Goeman]. He's been the accompanist of the choir for 25 years. As we're celebrating my 30th, I wanted to recognized his contribution in all that we've done.
The theme of light in Cantata 1 is paired with Lauridsen's "Lux Aeterna" ("Eternal Light"), composed in 1997 and first performed by the Bach Choir in March 2008.
Funfgeld describes the piece, written for chorus and orchestra (strings, one flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, two horns one trombone) as "a non liturgical requiem.
"It's a deeply-spiritual work. It's a metaphor not only for the light of day, but the light of insight, of knowledge and understanding.
"When he [Lauridsen] was working on this piece, he learned his mother was dying of cancer. It became very cathartic for him writing about wanting people to be ushered into this light.
"He [Lauridsen] has heard from people all over the world that this music sustained them. One person wrote to him that 'this piece was my rock in my ocean of grief.'"
Mention of the composer's mourning brings to mind the Boston Marathon "Patriots' Day" tragedy. "How do the events in Boston affect you as you prepare for the festival?" Funfgeld is asked. He doesn't hesitate to respond.
"In a world where things can be turned upside down and we don't know what's going on, and insanity and violence becomes the preeminent thing, I think what we have to look for are things that we can hold on to of spiritual value. The works of Bach are things that we can hold onto when the world has lost its mind."
Funfgeld refers to a Leonard Bernstein quote and reads: "'This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.'
"That's how I feel," Funfgeld continues. "In a world gone mad, you have to hold onto things of the spirit, of eternal value, of beauty and of power and hope. And that's what this music is all about. People who devote themselves to this are a source of comfort and peace in the world. We have to have it."
Funfgeld said that, as of this interview, he plans to make no direct reference to Boston. "The music speaks most eloquently for itself. I think that's the most important thing."
This year's Bach Festival Saturday morning program in Baker Hall, Zoellner Arts Center, is especially not to be missed.
Rioult Dance opens the program with "Views of the Fleeting World," choreographed by Pascal Rioult to an arrangement for strings of seven movements from Bach's "Art of Fugue."
Also on the Saturday program is "City," choreographed to Bach's "Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord No. 6 in G Major," and "Celestial Tides," choreographed to Bach"s "Brandenburg Concerto No. 6."
It's a first-time collaboration for the Bach Choir and Rioult Dance, based in New York City. The choir previously worked with the Paul Taylor and Tricia Brown dance troupes.
Says Funfgeld, "It's incredibly stimulating to work with professional dancers and to see how the choreographer has envisioned Bach's music and set it to dance.
"So much of Bach's music is influenced by dance," Funfgeld points out. "He knew all the dance forms. He knew how to dance himself. It was very much a part of his social life." These might include minuets, gigues and gavottes.
"Those dance forms are in his choral music and organ music. They just inspired all he did. It was so much a part of his influence."
The pieces were previously created by Rioult Dance, but it's the first time they will be performed to a live orchestra.
"The stimulation of the live music and for the musicians to see the dancers and the stimulation of the Olympic [caliber] athletes to be dancing and seeing. Instead of just hearing the music, you see the music.
"It's something that's very exciting for our audience and the dancers and musicians themselves. People really get charged by this."