augusta free press news

Festival combines the serious and casual, sobering and hopeful

Fanfares and flip-flops. Handel’s massive story of Samson and two short works written within the past year. A call to hope arising from the ashes of New York’s World Trade Center.
The 17th annual Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival at Eastern Mennonite University combined serious music with casual dress, Baroque masterworks with contemporary compositions and painful reflections with hard-won inspiration. 

Based on the theme “Bach and Handel,” the June 14-21 festival included a rare performance of Samson and an unusual approach to Handel’s Messiah. The festival also featured Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, many of his shorter works and a performance of his Cantata BWV 146 (“We Must Go through Much Tribulation”) as part of the Leipzig Worship Service on Sunday morning.

The Leipzig service also included a homily by the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt of New York, who reflected on her experiences as a chaplain after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

As featured artists for the week, soloists Kenneth Gayle, Jennifer Ellis Kampani, Heidi Kurtz and David Newman sang in the opening Messiah concert, the three-hour Samson oratorio and the Sunday morning cantata.

Gayle, a tenor who has been performing at the festival for the past decade, said that artistic director and conductor Kenneth Nafziger “always does a lot of interesting programming.” The Houston-based singer particularly appreciated the chance to perform Samson – “It’s so rarely done” – and to hear Messiah performed with some of the orchestrations that Mozart composed for it.

The Messiah concert, he said, was “a fun hop, skip, and a jump” through the piece. “What I enjoyed [most] was when we would [perform] the Handel orchestration and segue into the Mozart orchestration. You could hear the whole history.”

Gayle’s fellow soloists praised the quality of the festival. Newman, a bass from Luray, Va., described Nafziger as “fabulous” to work with.

“We have complete artistic freedom,” said Kampani, a soprano from Washington, D.C.

Yet when asked about the defining characteristics of the festival, Newman didn’t talk about music. Instead, he commented on footwear.

The event has “a high flip-flop quotient,” he said.

“Casual shoes,” Kampani explained, as Newman pointed to his feet.

The event is “very summery” and “very relaxing,” Kampani observed. “It’s a great group of people – very friendly.”

“It’s a nice way to work,” said Kurtz, a mezzo-soprano from Philadelphia who is a 1989 EMU graduate. “For me, it always feels like coming home.”

Though not listed as a featured performer, Marvin Mills was probably the busiest musician during the week. The Baltimore keyboardist played harpsichord for the orchestral performances, served as assistant choral director, was an accompanist at several of the noon concerts and played organ and piano during the Leipzig service. He also composed preludes or versets for several of the Sunday hymns.

“Marvin probably comes as close to being the Bach of this congregation as anyone,” Nafziger observed at the beginning of the service.

Along with three ticketed concerts, this year’s festival included six free noon concerts held at Asbury United Methodist Church in downtown Harrisonburg.

The Monday noon concert featured a performance of “Air and Simple Gifts” by John Williams, composed for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The concert also included “Night Songs for Violin and Piano,” a 2009 composition by Janet Peachey. The piece was written for violinist Mark Hartman, a Harrisonburg native who is now an assistant professor at Shippensburg (Pa.) University.

In a week filled with music, perhaps the most moving moments came via the spoken word, in McNatt’s homily on hope in the midst of death.

Amid the horror of Ground Zero, there was life, she said. People loaded food and supplies in their cars and drove into the city. Others cheered the recovery workers.

In today’s world “of terror and wonder,” McNatt said, “God is our constant companion.” God welcomes our questions, doubts and fears and “still upholds [us].”

Also at the festival, 16 people took part in a new five-day workshop on performing Baroque music. Lynne Mackey was director of the first-ever Virginia Baroque Performance Academy, which featured classes taught by acclaimed harpsichordist Arthur Haas and viola da gambist/cellist Martha McGaughey.

Thirty-six people participated in an Elderhostel held in conjunction with the festival. The participants, aged 55 and older, attended rehearsals and concerts, heard lectures and met festival musicians.

According to Mary Kay Adams, executive director of the Bach festival, attendance at the Elderhostel greatly exceeded expectations. “We’re very pleased,” she said.

Next year’s festival will be held June 13-20, 2010.


– Story by Dave Graybill