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Bach where it belongs

Bill Murphey '54 has been a fan of the oldest, best-known, most beloved Bach choir in America for half a century.

Bill Murphey ’54 had no idea on that lovely Friday afternoon in May 1953 that his class would become a concert. He had no way of knowing that his English professor would be seduced by the sound of singing breezing through the open windows of Christmas-Saucon Hall. He couldn’t believe his ears when Carl Strauch suddenly stopped lecturing and declared: “Gentlemen, I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to compete with Bach. You may follow me or do what you wish.”

Strauch closed his book, officially ending the class. Then he led Murphey and half his students on a stroll from Christmas-Saucon to the lawn by Packer Memorial Church. There they sat listening to their competition, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, performing a portion of its annual Bach Festival inside the great Gothic church, singing cantatas that turned indoors and outdoors into the music of the spheres.

That day Murphey became a fan of the oldest, best-known, most beloved Bach choir in America. A half-century later, the Episcopal priest is one of the choir’s many financial angels and spiritual pilgrims. In May he’ll return to the Bach Festival at Lehigh to mark the 100th anniversary of the choir’s partnership with his alma mater. This year’s festival will be held the weekends of May 4-6 and 11-12. Murphey will celebrate an uncommon community of listeners, singers, instrumentalists, soloists, conductors, scholars, dancers, actors, visual artists, and celebrities ranging from a reincarnated Johann Sebastian Bach to the Phillie Phanatic.

Over a century the choir has helped the university become a Bach center. The university, in turn, has helped the choir become an educational institution. “It’s been a great symbiotic, synergistic connection, a 100-year love affair,” says Greg Funfgeld '07H, the choir’s artistic director and conductor. “People from both communities care about Bach’s music because it’s extraordinary. Beyond that, there’s this deep love for the deepest kind of spirituality, the one that really endures. This relationship has really been a blessing, an affirmation that Bach’s music is life-giving.”

The story of Bach at Lehigh can be told through the stories of people tied to the university and the choir. Like Bill Murphey and countless others, Bill Hittinger ’44 attended his first Bach Festival as a Lehigh student, listening on the lawn by Packer. He has attended nearly 30 festivals with his wife, Betty, as well as scores of performances of “Bach at Noon,” the choir’s free monthly cantata series at Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, where the festival began in 1900. The ensemble has done “a remarkable job of spreading Bach beyond the festival,” says Hittinger, a former chair of Lehigh’s board of trustees who served as university president in 1997-1998, “of expanding the name of Bach and Bach history.”

Leon C. Holt ’48 has heard the festival at two satellite sites. In the 1940s he listened to his favorite Bach piece, the Mass in B Minor, on the Packer lawn. In the 1960s the retired vice chairman of Air Products and Chemicals, Inc., listened to the same work over a sound system in Packard Lab Auditorium, where he and his wife, June, joined other fans shut out from sold-out Packer. Since then the Holts have supported the choir through friendships with four presidents and June’s membership on the board of managers. The couple’s family foundation has funded all 12 of the choir’s Family Concerts, an annual winter extravaganza in Lehigh’s Zoellner Arts Center for youngsters and adults, established and emerging performers, Bach and non-Bach.

John L. Daniel ’60, ’61G, who befriended Bill Murphey on a Lehigh alumni trip to Egypt, is almost as entwined with Bach at Lehigh as the ivy that once covered Packer. He attended his first festival in 1939 as a 9-month-old reclining in a carriage on the lawn outside the church. He was chaperoned by his Bach-singing parents, the Rev. John ’47 M.A. and Elizabeth, a teacher who studied education at Lehigh. In the early ’40s the family appeared in a festival photo used by Voice of America to show American culture thriving despite a world war.

Daniel has had memorable moments inside Packer, too. In 1952 he attended a dedicatory recital by festival favorite E. Power Biggs on the church’s new organ, which was designed by Daniel’s organ teacher. In 1957 he became a festival usher, a job he’s held on and off ever since. In 1998 he heard the dedication of the chapel’s newly customized, digitalized organ, an expansion he supervised as a division manager for Allen Organ Company.

Daniel has forged Bachian friendships through tailgate parties and his five-decade role as chair of the festival’s floor staff. In 1993 he received an extra added bonus when he escorted Carol Holben, a family friend and widow of Michael Holben ’60, Daniel’s classmate and fraternity brother. Romance blossomed during the second weekend of that year’s festival; 10 days later Holben and Daniel decided to marry. One of the couple’s creeds is: “A day without Bach and a day without wine is a day without sunshine.”

Another Lehigh alumnus with experience escorting concertgoers to their seats is David Beckwith ’68, ’70G, ’74G, president of the choir’s board of managers. He attended his first festival in 1967, when he was a baritone in the Lehigh Glee Club. He sat in the last row of Packer, taking a break from ushering, the only way he could afford admission.

Beckwith began singing in the choir in 1974, the year he received a doctorate in comparative virology and became a clinical microbiologist at St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem. He evolved from chorus member to vocal leader, representing singers on the choir’s board and soloing as Pilate in Bach’s The Passion According to St. Matthew. During eight years as board president, he’s guided a host of dynamic projects. He helped raise $3.5 million for an endowment/operations fund that helped underwrite “Bach at Noon,” the free monthly cantata series in Central Moravian Church.

“We have to be committed to our history,” says Beckwith, the recently retired clinical director of Health Network Laboratories in Allentown. “On the other hand, we have to be innovative if we’re going to be successful in today’s economy and world. We have to build an audience while creating something of value.”

Nelson Markley is the choir’s treasurer and a former Lehigh provost. As a university administrator, he helped establish Zoellner Arts Center as a satellite site for the choir’s winter Family Concert. He also started the university’s Bach Festival reception for choir guarantors. According to Markley, the reception became an informal recruiting session, with donors inquiring about Lehigh as a possible school for their grandchildren.

Bradley Askins is a choir board member, an adjunct lecturer in Lehigh’s department of computer science and engineering, and the husband of university President Alice P. Gast. He helped Markley find the choir’s computerized system for tracking donors and ticket buyers. He’s especially fond of the “Bach at Noon” series. “The venue is wonderfully intimate, and the level of music making is fantastic,” he says. “There are moments of tranquility and beauty that are very special.”

Linda Lipkis ’84, ’90 M.A. has played four Lehigh-Bach roles. She’s a veteran alto in the choir. She’s a music librarian with the university, where as an undergraduate she sang under the late Robert “Boss” Cutler, the popular director of the Lehigh Glee Club for 25 years. Her husband, Moravian College composer-in-residence Larry Lipkis, delivers the festival’s annual dinner lecture. Their son, Rory, was a winner of the choir’s 2010 Young Composers Competition; his mother helped debut his work during a Family Concert.

Like so many other Bach-Lehigh people, Bill Murphey has a panoramic perspective. He’s certainly come a long way since his 1953 introduction to the choir on the lawn by Packer Church. Four years later, the classical languages graduate became an assistant pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem, then the choir’s rehearsal site. One of his duties was making sure that the singers in the upstairs parish hall weren’t disturbed by rowdy basketballers in the basement.

Murphey has been a choir guarantor for more than 25 years, inspired by Bach-charged friendships and “the greatest music ever composed.” He’s attended at least 25 festivals and 35-odd performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, the choir’s calling card. He and his companion, choir board member Anne Yellott, sponsored the choir’s B Minor Mass in the historic King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, England.

Perhaps Murphey’s greatest thrill was hearing the choir sing the B Minor Mass in the Thomaskirche, Bach’s home church in Leipzig, Germany. “Here I was, in the same place as Bach’s tomb and the pulpit where Martin Luther proclaimed the Reformation,” he says. “And I thought to myself, as the beer commercial said: It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Actually, this year’s festival has something special for each of the Lehigh-Bach partners. Murphey is looking forward to two Reformation cantatas suggested by the choir’s guarantors. Askins, a classical guitar student, expects to be wowed by classical guitar star Eliot Fisk, who will perform Mauro Giuliani’s rarely heard Concerto in A Major.

Markley can’t wait for the return of countertenor Daniel Taylor, who created a sensation when he first sang the B Minor Mass in Bethlehem. Lipkis can’t wait to dig deeper into the “bones” of the B Minor Mass, the spine of every festival. Even after singing it some 50 times, she still feels like a sherpa scaling a musical mountain.

Bach to the Future

During Greg Funfgeld’s nearly 30 years of leadership, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem has grown from basically a two-weekend performer of Bach’s music to a year-round explorer of Bach’s universe.

Under his direction the Bach Festival at Lehigh has become a Bachanalia of lectures by distinguished scholars, dances by prominent companies, competitions featuring rising singers, local premieres of works by Bach, and world premieres of Bach-inspired works. Outside the festival the choir has sung compositions by Bach’s musical descendants (Brahms, Mendelssohn), hosted Bach ensembles from Japan and Cuba, and launched an extensive, intensive program serving tens of thousands of public school students.

In 2007 Lehigh formally recognized Funfgeld’s accomplishments with an honorary doctorate of humane letters. The special degree saluted him for exponentially expanding the Bach evangelism of J. Frederick Wolle, the choir’s first conductor and Lehigh’s first professor of music.

Funfgeld’s ambitious mission has been executed and embellished by Bridget George, the choir’s executive director and a longtime member of the Lehigh family. A native of England, where her parents sang in the Oxford Bach Choir, she attended her first Bethlehem Bach Festival in 1976 while visiting her brother John Hare, then a Lehigh professor of philosophy and a choir singer. She later turned a Lehigh improvisational street troupe into Touchstone Theatre, the experimental, communal company in Bethlehem. Her co-founder and artistic partner was her husband Bill George ’73, who continues to act in Touchstone’s resident ensemble.

For 15 years George has been making the choir more theatrical and more universal. She’s coordinated concerts by fabled cellist Yo-Yo Ma and fabled pianist Dave Brubeck as well as choir performances at the immensely popular BBC Proms in London and on the immensely popular live radio show “A Prairie Home Companion.” It was George who suggested the text for Stephen Paulus’ choir-commissioned work A Dream of Time: Carl Sandburg’s 1936 poem “Hope Is a Tattered Flag,” which lists a broadcast of the Bethlehem Bach Festival with a kiss, a horseshoe, and other simple treasures.

George and Funfgeld supervise the choir’s Family Concert, a winter ritual since 2000 in Lehigh’s Zoellner Arts Center. It’s a lively laboratory for examining Bach through dance and jazz, theater and sports. It’s the sort of playground where a young, bored pianist is inspired by a reincarnated J.S. Bach, where the Phillie Phanatic polishes a trumpeter’s bald head.

Funfgeld and George have shepherded the choir through new territories. Paul Larson, the choir’s archivist-curator and a retired professor of music at Moravian College, has clarified and amplified the ensemble’s century-old legacy.

Lehigh University Press has published two of Larson’s books about Bach musical dynasties: a 2002 biography of the Wolle family and a 2012 social history of the choir. He also co-curated an intimate, encyclopedic 2007 Lehigh exhibit marking the choir’s centennial. The show included a lock of J. Fred Wolle’s hair, plans for an unbuilt Bethlehem Bach “temple,” and the names of more than 5,000 choir participants. The rarest relic was Bach’s personal Bible, once owned by German immigrants in Michigan. Lent by Concordia Seminary Library in St. Louis, it was once the custodial responsibility of the Rev. David Daniel ’65 M.A, an expert on 16th-century Eastern European history (and brother of John L. Daniel ’60, ’61G).

For Larson, George, and Funfgeld, this year’s festival will be uniquely festive. Larson is keenly interested in Cantata No. 80, “Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress Is Our God),” largely because the Moravian Archives in Bethlehem owns a local transcription dating from 1823, making it one of America’s oldest Bach manuscripts. George is looking forward to a lecture on 21st-century Bach by Sir Nicholas Kenyon, who directed the BBC Proms when she booked the choir for the Royal Albert Hall series.

Funfgeld expects to have an emotional cyclorama during the soaring, stirring finale of the Mass in B Minor, the epicenter of every festival. The conductor may find himself thinking about his devoted singers. Or recently deceased choir loyalists. Or suffering people around the world who could use the B Minor’s blessing. Or the glorious gift of a century of Bach at Lehigh, a mighty fortress indeed.

Photos by Theo Anderson

From the Spring 2012 issue of the Lehigh Alumni Bulletin

Story by Geoff Gehman '89 M.A.

Posted on Friday, May 11, 2012

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