Bach Festival opens this weekend

The 17th annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival at Eastern Mennonite University will spotlight the music of the two giants of the early 17th century – Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Bach is the namesake for the festival; 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death.

The festival opens Sunday, June 14, with a journey into Handel’s “Messiah.” The audience will be invited to sing choruses from the work and to hear of the work’s genesis and history in an event titled “Messiah De-constructed.” Audience members are invited to bring their “Messiah” copies.

The festival will conclude the following Sunday, at 10 a.m. June 21, with the annual Leipzig service in Lehman Auditorium, often cited by many attendees as the highlight of the week. The program recreates an 18th century worship service at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach was cantor and organist, and composed and conducted a cantata for each week’s service. A free-will offering will be accepted.

Dr. Kenneth Nafziger, professor of music at EMU, is artistic director and conductor of the festival. “The festival in its 17 years of existence has become a musical treasure of the Shenandoah Valley, attracting performers and audience members from many parts of the state and from the eastern U.S.,” said Dr. Kenneth Nafziger, professor of music at EMU and artistic director and conductor of the festival. “Performers and audiences alike return for the quality of music and for the quality of performance that they experience here.”

Four vocal soloists are featured in three of the performances. Soprano Jennifer Ellis Kampani, from Washington, D.C., is making her first festival appearance. The others have sung in earlier festivals: Heidi Kurtz, mezzo-soprano, from Philadelphia, Pa.’ tenor Kenneth Gayle, from Houston, Tex.; and bass David Newman, from Luray, Va.

Instrumental soloists include violinist Joan Griffing, Harrisonburg, and flutists Mary Kay Adams and Carol Warner, both of Bridgewater, clarinetists Les Nicholas, Harrisonburg, and Lynda Dembowski, Annapolis, Md., oboists Sandra Gerster, Baltimore, Md., and Kevin Piccini, Hampton, Va., and organist Marvin Mills, Baltimore, Md. All have been soloists with the Bach Festival Orchestra in previous seasons.

There are three ticketed events: 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon, June 14 (“Messiah”), 7:30 p.m. Friday evening, June 19 (an all-orchestral concert of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi), and 7:30 p.m. Saturday evening, June 20 (a rare and unusual performance of Handel’s oratorio, “Samson.”) These concerts will be in Lehman Auditorium on the EMU campus.

Chamber music programs showcasing the extraordinary musical gifts of the festival’s instrumentalists and singers will be presented noon-1 p.m. Monday through Saturday, June 15-20, at Asbury United Methodist Church, South Main Street, Harrisonburg. Admission is free; donations are welcomed.

According to Mary Kay Adams, executive director of the festival, an Elderhostel program and the new Virginia Baroque Performance Academy are newly-added festival events this season. “Our Baroque performance workshop, taught by internationally acclaimed faculty artists, promises to offer interested participants an outstanding educational experience,” Ms. Adams said. “We’ve received requests for this type of program, as well as an Elderhostel, and we are thrilled to be able to add both.”

The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is sponsored in part by the Virginia Commission for the Arts and the Arts Council of the Valley.

Bach Festival tickets are available on-line at or by calling the EMU box office at 540.432.4582.

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