Bach Festival Celebrates 25 Years

Jun 6, 2017

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, but that doesn’t make it a same-old, same-old event, as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

[Music: Bach’s Brandenberg Concerto 2, Movement 3]

The tagline for the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival in Harrisonburg is “Bach is just the beginning.” That, as founder and artistic director Ken Nafziger says, is because from Bach you can go just about anywhere.

KEN NAFZIGER: The music of Bach has been an inspiration for a whole lot of people in a whole lot of cultures, not only in classical music but in jazz and various folk musics, African music. There's Japanese Bach, there’s just all kinds of things where people have taken the music of Bach and done it with their instruments.

There’s a first at this year’s festival -- more on that in a moment -- but the program this summer will also highlight several pieces from over the festival’s 25-year history, including three significant pieces from the very first season.

That year, the festival had a quick start. Nafziger had worked with a similar festival in central Washington, and at a dinner party conversation back in Virginia, he told all about it. Afterward, Eastern Mennonite University president Joe Lapp approached him. He’d been taking notes, and wondered what it would take to have a festival at EMU.

NAFZIGER: That would have been in August right before school started, and in January Joe said, “Let's do one in June.”

So they did… And a few years later, Nafziger heard this from the manager of one of the festival’s soloists:

[Music: Bach’s Orchestral Suite 2, Movement 5]

NAFZIGER: She told me she's never been to a festival that was so young where the community attachment was so strong as it was with this one. This festival obviously met a need, a cultural need in the community, and also people were willing to go out on whatever limbs they had to go out on to support something like this in those early years.

Scott Hosfeld is a conductor and music director who now lives near L.A. He was a colleague of Nafziger’s at the festival’s founding and has returned to perform at the festival many times over the years. He sees the festival as an extension of Mennonite singing.

SCOTT HOSFELD: They've just widened that circle and been inclusive in bringing all kinds of artists. I think the particular focus on excellent choral and vocal music is unusual. It's a highlight and something that makes that festival unique. [MUSIC]  It's a pleasure for people who make their living in big cities or doing major orchestras or other things like that to get out, to be in a more rural, more tranquil setting, and it allows your music to have a different perspective.

[Music: Bach’s Cantata 180, “Jesus, True Bread of Life”]

Now, a quarter of a century in, Hosfeld is again returning to the festival -- and he’s bringing along a partner in music whose contribution draws from an even earlier time. Hosfeld is now married to Maria Newman and will be conducting her film score for the 1914 Mary Pickford silent movie Cinderella while the film plays.

Newman, daughter of the late, nine-time Academy Award-winning film composer Alfred Newman, says her score both can stand alone as concert music and will please film lovers. She describes the film as “very internal.”

NEWMAN: In a silent film, you are definitely married to at least your interpretation of what's going on in that film. And if the film isn't necessarily an action film, one has to take cues from sometimes even the blink of an eye. They obviously aren't filmed with a rhythm in mind, with a pulse in mind that is musical, that's in a common time, or a three-beats-to-the-measure-and-the-quarter-note-gets-the-beat kind of time, and yet I have found in my years now with silent film, that there is indeed a really great rhythm that somehow connects up music to picture, and really bridges something interesting there.

Newman’s film score will be the finale in this year’s third of three concerts.

[Music: Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe, Movement 1]

The festival will also include music talks by Newman, Nafziger, and Festival Executive Director David McCormick; a Leipzig service; and various noon concerts of chamber music. While festival concert package and single tickets are available for purchase, it’s free to attend the noon concerts, where the festival suggests a $5 donation. The public is also welcome to attend -- with no admission cost -- the festival’s morning and afternoon orchestra rehearsals.