It's the 20th anniversary of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. The week-long series of large and small musical performance events that will go on this year from June 10-17. The highlight of the milestone year will be the first-time performance of the cantata, Glory, written by four-time Grammy award winner, Eugene Friezen. Friezen has set his work to poetry written by his cousin, Jean Janzen, who taught at EMU for a number of years.
Everything seemed to come together naturally for Friezen, Janzen and the Bach Festival, according to Dr. Ken Nafziger, the festival's artistic director and conductor. Friezen had thinking about ways to to set his music to words, and Dr. Nafziger suggested a Janzen poem.
“I said, 'Have you ever set any of your cousin, Jean Janzen's poetry?'” Nafziger explains. “And he said, 'No, I haven't. This is a great idea!' And so, he found a poem in her work that he liked very much. And it also turns out it's one of her favorite poems that she's ever written.”
Things are not always that easy with the festival planning. Even after 20 years, Nafziger feels that the first one does not seem so long ago. While one would think each year should get easier, actually the opposite is true. Concert organizers must now live up to expectations that have solidified over the years. Everything takes longer, demands more attention. “That, after 20 years, you can sit back and just hit the 'on' switch, and it runs,” he says. “It doesn't go that way.”
The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is not like other regional music festivals that schedule events throughout the year. Everything happens in one week, and one week only. But during that week, a lot of things are happening.
There are, of course, the three major concerts. The first is held on the opening Sunday, then two on the concluding Friday and Saturday nights. A Sunday morning worship service is modeled on 18th century Lutheran Leipsig traditions where J.S. Bach exercized his preference for traditional chorales. Admission to the concerts is by paid ticket. The Sunday morning service is free and open to the public.
Rehearsals are all held on the EMU campus, virtually non-stop between the first Friday and evening performance and the June 17th service. Visitors are always free to browse in and out as they choose. These informal settings have allowed past festival-goers to meet, and in some cases become personal friends with soloists and orchestra and choir performers.
A series of noon chamber music concerts at Asbury Methodist Church in downtown Harrisonburg also involved smaller numbers of people in an intimate venue, one which is popular among the performers. Individuals stand out more in the smaller settings and there is a greater sense of making a personal difference at the festival. While these high-quality musical performances are always free and open to the public at noontime every day, Monday through Saturday, Nafziger encourages “pay-what-you-can” contributions to help offset festival expenses.
The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is visitor-friendly. All people essentially may need to do, says Nafisger, is to show up at any time and take advantage of what may be going on at any given moment. The festival schedule offers an enormous range of event options. Beyond that, the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley has also helped make the Bach Festival an enduring tradition for tourists.
“I mean, it's a very picturesque valley that we live in,” he says. “And everybody knows, to some degree, of the Shenandoah Valley. And it's every bit as beautiful as the name suggests it is. Sometimes, in early June, it's been beastly hot. Sometimes it's been chilly. But it's still early enough in the summer that things are luscious and green and flowered and all the good things.”
And in Harrisonburg, there also are so many other attractions at hand, including a renown downtown restaurant area that represents a global range of ethnic tastes.
The Friezen piece will be performed at the June 16 Festival Concert III in Lehman Auditorium, which begins at 7:30 p.m. “Glory” will actually be seen and heard twice that evening; once before the intermission and then again after it. The repeat performance will give the audience a chance to more deeply comprehend the meaning of the piece, according the Nafziger. The first performance helps develop a “context,” he says. “I've discovered that it's really a useful thing, very gracious to the audience, to give them a second chance to hear it. So when they've heard it once, they don't have to say, 'Well, that was a great piece, or that was a weak piece.' They have a context in which to talk intelligently about it.”
The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival website is here. Information about visiting Harrisonburg and Rockingham County is here.
Photos by Katie Baroody and are used by permission. Story copyright ©2012 by Shenandoah Valley Productions, LLC.