Whitehall-Coplay Press

Friday, February 28, 2020

‘Messiah’ meets ‘Magnificat’ is a first for Bach Choir of Bethlehem concert

Friday, December 6, 2019 by KATHY LAUER-WILLIAMS Special to The Press in Focus

It’s a performance not to be missed.

And you will have two opportunties to experience it.

For the first time in the Bach Choir of Bethlehem’s 122-year history, the renowned singers are performing Handel’s “Messiah.”

The first part of the monumental choral masterpiece will be performed along with Bach’s “Magnificat” at the Bach Choir’s Christmas concerts Dec. 7 and 8 in Allentown and Bethlehem.

The three-part oratorio about the life of Christ is a beloved holiday favorite with familiar movements, including “Comfort Ye, My People” and “For Unto Us a Child Is Born.”

“’Messiah’ is so well-known but the Bach Choir had never done it,” says Greg Funfgeld, Bach Choir artistic director and conductor.

Funfgeld says he has frequently been asked why the choir didn’t sing “Messiah.”

He says he wasn’t interested in doing the entire three-hour piece all in one evening.

“Then I had the idea to do it in three parts paired with Bach pieces,” Funfgeld says.

When he mentioned his idea, it was met with enthusiasm.

“Messiah” begins in Part I with prophecies by Isaiah and others, and moves to the annunciation to the shepherds. In Part II, Handel concentrates on the Passion and ends with the “Hallelujah” chorus. In Part III, he covers the resurrection of the dead and Christ’s glorification in heaven.

Funfgeld felt that Part I would pair well with Bach’s “Magnificat.”

“Bach and Handel are two giants and putting them side by side creates a wonderful juxtaposition,” says Funfgeld.

He says both composers were very excited about the Christmas story and the pieces celebrate the joyful anticipation of Christ’s birth.

Funfgeld notes that both offer “musical journeys that focus on the meaning of Christmas, as Mary learns she is blessed to bear the child she will bring into the world in ‘Magnificat,’ and the world anticipates the arrival of the Savior in ‘Messiah.’”

In 1741, George Frideric Handel composed what would become one of the most famous oratorios in history, using text from the King James Bible and from the Coverdale Psalter, the latter the version of the Psalms in the Book of Common Prayer.

Funfgeld says that Handel’s years of experience writing for the theater are well-used in “Messiah,” a masterpiece of text painting.

“Part I celebrates Biblical prophecies of Christ, including texts from Isaiah that mirror the rhapsody of Mary’s Magnificat,” Funfgeld says.

“From a rigorous and lyrical curtain-raising overture to the beauty of the tenor’s first words of comfort, Part I also includes some of ‘Messiah’s’ most rousing and challenging choruses, all of which will be given the Bach Choir’s consummate treatment.”

Funfgeld says some members of the choir have sung “Messiah” before but others haven’t.

“Everybody is really excited about it,” Funfgeld says. “The choir has been working so hard. We are approaching it like a brand-new piece with a wonderful sense of discovery.”

He says the choir has been “deconstructing” the music to its melodic skeleton and then putting it back together and adding all the filigree notes.

“The choir is challenged and stimulated,” he says. “’Messiah’ is so well-known and so beloved, but the music is not easy.”

Funfgeld says the choir has a “wonderful quartet of soloists” in soprano Agnes Zsigovics, countertenor Daniel Taylor, tenor Isaiah Bell and bass-baritone David Newman.

He says highlights are the tenor air, “Comfort ye and Ev’ry Valley,” and “Rejoice Greatly O Daughter of Zion,” which he terms “a real showcase for a soprano.”

Funfgeld says J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat” is on “many people’s short list of favorite Bach pieces.”

“Magnificat” was first heard in Leipzig in 1723.

“Bach sets Mary’s radical, rhapsodic song of praise with an extraordinary sense of text-painting,” Funfgeld says.

“From the ecstatic joy of an overflowing first movement, a contrapuntal evocation of the generations of history, to tender devotion in remembering God’s promises, the ‘Magnificat’ is Bach at his most theatrical, which makes it an excellent partner to Handel’s masterpiece.”

He says the work was first heard in Bethlehem in 1903 and has been a part of the musical life of Bethlehem for 115 years.

The Bach Choir’s Christmas concerts traditionally end with the choir inviting the audience to join in singing carols, including Handel’s “While Shepherds Watch their Flocks by Night,” as well as “Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night,” the latter in both English and German.

“It’s a really special moment of community,” Funfgeld says.

The Bach Choir will perform Part II of “Messiah” at its spring concert March 29, 2020, and Part III at its spring concert in 2021.

Bach Choir of Bethlehem Christmas Concerts, 8 p.m. Dec. 7, First Presbyterian Church, 3231 W. Tilghman St., Allentown; 4 p.m. Dec. 8, First Presbyterian Church, 2344 Center St., Bethlehem. Tickets: bach.org; 610-866-4382, ext 115