Ah, Bach!

Item by Jim Bishop

Among the gifts offered to those attending the 16th annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival were visible enthusiasm among participating musicians as they re-created and interpreted selections by some of the world’s most beloved composers.

Guest guitar artist Michael Partington stated: “I’m able to play what I want to play, and I enjoy what I do. The best response I can get [in making music] is that persons hearing it would want to come back for more.”

And that’s what many people did during the June 8-15 musical smörgåsbord at Eastern Mennonite University that served up sumptuous works by German composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and others on the theme, “Bach and String Things.”

The week-long program, under the artistic direction of Kenneth J. Nafziger, professor of music at EMU, sought to showcase the incredible range of music possible to perform with stringed instruments, with particular focus on the harpsichord, violin, harp, cello and guitar.

The festival opened June 8 with Bach’s “Italian Concerto in F Major” with Bradley Lehman of Dayton, Va., on harpsichord; Vivaldi’s “Concerto in D Major for 2 Violins, 2 Cellos, Strings and Continuo, and Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B-Flat Major” and featured soloist Michael Partington on Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s “Concerto No. 1 in D Major for Guitar and Orchestra, Op. 99,” composed in 1939.

Partington, a native of Great Britain who grew up in Wales, started playing guitar at age 6 “by choice.” He noted that “music is something I’ve always done, but I didn’t envision a career in this area.”

He started giving guitar lessons while still in high school, then studied English literature at the University of Washington at Seattle but ended up with a music degree. He now heads the guitar program there in addition to performing as a soloist and with orchestral groups.

“It’s a thrill to play with a great orchestra in this setting and environment,” he said. “I’m encouraged by the wonderful audience turnout.”

“There’s a lot of music written for guitar that is not well known,” Partington said. “This week, I hope that people hear something new and unpredictable.”

That is part of the genius of the week, according to long-time participant Joan Griffing, concertmaster of the festival orchestra and a featured violin soloist. “Anyone who has attended a previous Bach Festival will return to hear many new and unexpected sounds,” Dr. Griffing said. “You never hear this music in this combination anywhere else.”

Another guest artist, Eugene Friesen of Boston, Mass., freely conveyed his passion for music as he played his original works or selections by other composers during the Bach Festival. The Berklee College of Music faculty member and a Grammy-award winning member of the Paul Winter Consort was featured soloist on his “Under the Sun,” which premiered in 2006, and “Good Providence” (2003), a tribute to his mother, Anne Warkentin Friesen, for her 85th birthday.

“I enjoy improvisation on cello and have found this creative impulse unlocks some rhythmic elements not usually associated with this instrument,” Friesen said.

“The cello most clearly resembles the human voice and has the capacity to unlock certain emotions in people,” he added. “I treasure my earliest experiences with music in the church, which has helped shape my belief that music is spiritual and can make a sacred connection with hearers.”

Friesen, on a crusade to help young people to appreciate music early on, gave his “Cello Man” program to a packed sanctuary June 14 at Asbury United Methodist Church, downtown Harrisonburg.

Seven young musicians ranging in age from 17 to 22 were part of the festival orchestra. Sophie Baum, a rising senior from Charlottesville, Va., said she was “really nervous” at first, but “everyone is really nice. The cello section is amazing, and I love the variety of music we’re playing.”

Added violinist Polly Howell, 20, of South Boston, Va.: “I am thrilled to have a week of immersion in gorgeous music.”

At age 8, Anastasia Jellison told her mother she wanted to learn to play the harp “so I was ready for heaven.” At the June 13 festival concert, she performed Alberto Ginastera’s “Harp Concerto, Op. 25,” composed in 1956 but not premiered until 1965.

“It’s my favorite harp concerto,” she said of the Latin-flavored work. “It uses the fullest capacity of the instrument. It requires a lot of energy; it is contagious.”

“It’s a great community of people,” Jellison said of her orchestral colleagues. “Everyone is friendly, professional and incredibly supportive.”

Festival-goers filled the sanctuary of Asbury United Methodist Church for one-hour chamber music programs by Bach Festival participants at noon Monday through Friday. “The noon concerts and the Leipzig service are the festival’s gift to the community,” said Mary Kay Adams, festival coordinator and flutist in the festival orchestra.

“Attendance at all the concerts was higher than ever before,” she added. “We appreciate the support and excitement the festival has generated throughout the community.”

Amy Glick of Orrville, Ohio, has played violin in the festival orchestra for 15 of the 16 years of the Bach Festival’s existence. A freelance violinist and member of the Akron Symphony Orchestra, Glick keeps coming back “because my family is here, I get to play with some of the same talented people year after year and have opportunity to make some great music, especially Bach.”

The morning of June 15, EMU’s Lehman Auditorium was transformed into St. Thomas Lutheran Church in 18th century Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was cantor and composed a cantata for each Sunday’s service.

Nafziger noted that the city of Leipzig’s town fathers “reluctantly accepted Bach as their third choice because no one of better qualifications was available” and for nearly 27 years “had at their service the greatest church musician and quite possibly the greatest musician the world has ever known.”

During the service, the festival choir and orchestra and soloists – with guest artists David Newman, baritone; Joel Burkholder Ross, tenor and countertenor; Kris Martin-Baker, soprano; and Marvin Mills, organist; presented Bach’s “Cantata 137.” Eugene Friesen was featured cellist on his “Sabbaths: Settings of Four Poems by Wendell Berry.”

In a homily, EMU President Loren Swartzendruber said, “I don’t need a scientific study to support the idea that music nurtures the soul. Martin Luther said it well, ‘My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.’

“The 19th century German-Jewish poet, Berthold Auerbach, put it in a slightly more earthy way – ‘Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,'” the president said.

Next year’s festival, the 17th, will spotlight “Bach and Handel,” June 14-21, 2009, observing the 250th anniversary of the death of George Frederick Handel.

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