For over 45 years, Martha Popichak, Mary Paini and Philip Turton have been singers in the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.
“After all these years, this choir and Johann Sebastian Bach become part of your soul,” Turton said. “It defines your life because you really want to be a part of the organization and to be singing this wonderful music.”
Founded in 1898, the Bach Choir of Bethlehem is the oldest Bach Choir in America. This year, they celebrate their 125th anniversary.
When Popichak, Paini and Turton joined the choir in 1973, 1976 and 1976, respectively, the choir only sang at their annual Bach Festival, which occurs during the second and third weekends of May.
Since then, the choir’s commitments — including Christmas and Spring concerts, the Greg Fungeld Family Concert and programs like Bach at Noon and Bach to School — expanded significantly under the supervision of Greg Fungeld, former artistic director and conductor, who retired last year after 39 years of service.
The Bach Festival remains the choir’s biggest event. The 2023 festival will include 17 events at venues across Bethlehem, including Lehigh University’s Packer Memorial Church and Zoellner Arts Center.
Christopher Jackson, artistic director and conductor, said the festival is an important part of many people’s lives and family histories.
“People make pilgrimages to come to this festival,” Jackson said. “We have records of four generations of family members coming to the festival in one family.”
Lehigh University community members have traditionally attended the festival. Turton said if they were unable to get tickets, they would host picnics on the lawn and listen through the church windows.
In order to prepare for these performances, Popichak said the choir rehearses for two hours every Monday night.
“It’s time-consuming at times, but I never look at it as a drudgery,” Popichak said. “It’s something that I enjoy doing.”
Turton was one of the choir members who started the Bach to School program in 1993. According to the choir’s website, the program is presented annually to every third- and fifth-grade student in the Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton school districts. Through lesson plans and assembly programs, the choir has introduced more than 120,000 children to Bach’s music and the instruments of Baroque music.
While impacting the future of the Lehigh Valley, the Bach Choir is also rooted in the history of Bethlehem. Jackson said the choir was started by the Moravian population who immigrated to the area and brought the music of Bach with them. The choir also had close ties with Bethlehem Steel, which is how it was able to secure funding early in its founding and build the groundwork to last 125 years.
Over its long existence, the choir has performed internationally in locations including Easton’s Centre Square, New York’s Carnegie Hall, England’s King’s Chapel and St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach once worked and is now buried.
The choir last visited Leipzig in 1976, in the midst of the Cold War. Popichak said, in order to cross into East Germany and give the concert in Leipzig, their buses were checked in Berlin. They arrived late to St. Thomas Church because of the checkpoint.
Regardless, Popichak, Paini and Turton all recall this trip fondly.
“Going to Germany was the best memory — the top of my list,” Paini said. “It was very emotional. I get choked up just thinking about it — visiting the altar where (Bach) was buried.”
The choir has begun their preparations to return to Germany in 2024. They were one of a few choirs invited by Bachfest Leipzig to take part in their annual music festival.
This is one of several initiatives the choir is pursuing to celebrate its 125th anniversary, in addition to recording a new CD.
Composer Felix Mendelssohn, who was born in 1809, 124 years after Bach, is widely regarded as having helped rediscover Bach’s music.
Jackson said Mendelssohn made significant edits to Bach’s original scores to update them in the 1800s. Among these was a reconstruction of Bach’s masterwork, “The Saint Matthew Passion.” The Bach Choir will be making a new scholarly recording of this piece, which has never been done before.
Their anniversary coincides with Jackson’s first year leading the choir.
Jackson said he first heard of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem from a master’s student at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Jackson, also trained as a professional singer, had been hired by Fungeld to occasionally sing as a soloist with the Bethlehem Choir.
“The community of people that I met there, how involved the audience was, how friendly and talented all of the musicians are, it just has this really special feel when you show up and make music with them,” Jackson said. “Well before this job even became open, I knew it was a really special place.”
Popichak said it’s exciting to be learning music in a new way, and she is looking forward to the various 125th celebrations.
Jackson said he hopes people see the value in classical music.
“It’s had such a profound personal impact on my life and on the lives of many other people, just like any great art can,” Jackson said. “I want to create a foundation to do that for the next 125 years.”
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