HARRISONBURG — During the week of June 9 to 16, around 80 musicians, both local and those visiting from around the region, will perform 11 classical orchestra concerts at Eastern Mennonite University and Asbury United Methodist Church in celebration of renowned composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is entering its 27th year, drawing guest musicians from as far as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland and New York. The festival was co-founded by artistic director Ken Nafziger in 1993 as an homage to Bach, who lived from 1685 to 1750, and his influence throughout the centuries.
The theme of this year’s Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is creation, which manifests in orchestral numbers directed by Nafziger that present two particular views of creation from different traditions.
On June 15, the symphony orchestra will play its centerpiece — Austrian classical composer Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation.”
“Haydn’s piece is based on the Book of Genesis, the biblical take on creation, and one of the monumental oratorios of the classical era with traditional tonalities and instrumentation,” said David McCormick, the executive director of the festival.
The concert, starting at 7:30 p.m. in EMU’s Lehman Auditorium, features soprano Sharla Nafziger, baritone David Newman and tenor Kenneth Gayle.
The evening prior, on June 14, at the same time and place, festival musicians will perform a contrasting piece by French composer Darius Milhaud, called “La Création du monde.”
“This is a completely different take on creation based on African mythology featuring the sound of Harlem jazz,” McCormick said. “[This] piece is more modern. It comes from the 20th century and uses an unusual instrumentation with the saxophone.”
Nafziger said the theme’s concept “evolved” over time.
“I knew I wanted to do Haydn’s ‘Creation’ and it seems like the idea of creation is a [big] topic right now with global warming,” Nafziger said. “I’m just hoping that it opens ears, eyes and minds to hearing something they hadn’t noticed before."
The concert will feature the work of other French composers, including Hector Berlioz’s “Les nuits d’été” and the Love Scene from “Roméo et Juliette,” as well as Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Night in the Tropics.”
Nafziger said he chose these pieces because this year is the 150th anniversary of Gottschalk’s death and March marked the 123th anniversary of Berlioz’s passing.
Both composers lived after Bach's time. Every year, the festival orchestra performs works by composers who were inspired by Bach. The tagline for the festival is “Bach is just the beginning.”
“That’s taken literally,” said Nafziger, an EMU music professor emeritus. “Almost everything since his death has some connection to what he did.”
The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival will kick off on June 9 at 3 p.m. with an opening concert on the EMU campus led by Nafziger. The festival orchestra will perform works by Bach and Haydn with soloists David Berry, a pianist, trumpeter Phillip Chase Hawkins and recorder player Sian Ricketts. The concert will feature Bach’s second and sixth Brandenburg Concertos and Haydn’s “Nottumo No. 8 in G Major” and “Trio No. 39 for Piano, Violin and Cello.”
While those three weekend concerts come with an admission price, the Bach Festival offers free hourlong chamber music concerts at noon during the week, from June 10 to 15, at Asbury United Methodist Church.
“They feature the orchestra in a more intimate setting,” McCormick said. “These are great concerts for both classical music listeners and those who are trying it out to see if they like that type of music.”
The Virginia Baroque Academy Faculty Concert, under the direction of Lynne Mackey, is slated for June 13, starting at 7:30 p.m. at Asbury United. It will showcase the work of Bach, in addition to music by Baroque-era French and German composers who influenced Bach during his lifetime, such as François Couperin, Dieterich Buxtehude, Georg Philipp Telemann and Jean-Philippe Rameau.
“This is a new offering as of last season, and it’s an opportunity to hear world-class musicians that specialize in historical performance,” McCormick said.
The musicians in the Virginia Baroque Academy come from all over to participate in a summer workshop that takes place during the festival, he said.
The Bach Festival closes with its annual traditional Leipzig Service at Lehman Auditorium on June 16 starting at 10 a.m. The orchestra and choir will perform Bach’s cantata “Der Herr ist mein getreuer Hirt, BWV 112” with organist Marvin Mills and homily by Moriah Hurst of Park View Mennonite Church.
“This is basically putting a sacred work of Bach in a church service context the way it would have been heard in Bach’s day,” McCormick said.
The Leipzig Service is free to attend.
The Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival is unique in that it’s the only classical music festival in Harrisonburg, as well as the only festival in the area that features a full symphony orchestra and choir, according to McCormick. Many of the musicians have performed in the festival for as long as 10, 20 or even 27 years.
“There is a family atmosphere among the musicians that has a positive impact on the music-making,” he said.
Nafziger said the festival has become a local tradition because "the quality of the music that’s done every summer is pretty astonishing."
A three-concert package is available in advance at $65 for adults, or $85 including the Baroque Academy Faculty Concert. Single concert tickets can be purchased for $27 each. Ticket prices are discounted for seniors and youth age 22 and younger. Admission increases by $2 at the door. For more information, visit www.svbachfestival.org or call the EMU box office at 540-432-4582.