When Cori Somers, executive director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival, attends a Bach Festival Chorus concert, she witnesses a connectedness between the singers and the audience that she describes as a “shared experience of joy.”
“Especially at the Christmas concert,” Somers says, “there’s this crossover of energy in the audience and the choir.”
Audiences will get a chance to be a part of that connection when the Bach Festival Chorus performs Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D minor at 8 p.m. April 9 at Chenery Auditorium, 714 S. Westnedge Ave. The performance kicks off Bach Festival Week, which runs until April 16.
The Bach Festival Chorus is a volunteer chorus that typically performs three concerts during the annual Bach Festival, which runs from September through May and celebrates the works of Bach, his contemporaries, and other 19th and 20th century composers. In December, tickets to the “BachFest Christmas!” concert at Kalamazoo College’s Stetson Chapel sold out two months before the performance.
Like Somers, James Turner, conductor of the Bach Festival Chorus and music director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival, has witnessed the connection between the chorus and audience. Various elements create this bridge, he says, but one particular component that he points out might surprise people — yoga.
Who would guess that a choral group would engage in downward dog and child’s pose before rehearsal? But that’s exactly how the Bach Festival Chorus warms up. These exercises get singers in the right frame of mind, says Turner, who also notes that he’s not the only one to employ this method. He watched a TV segment about the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony Orchestra using this relaxing discipline.
“They don’t tune,” Turner says. “They don’t saw away independently on things they’re worried about. They all stop in front of the audience and they do yoga for 10 minutes. I think that one of the most significant things about my choral teaching that’s changed in the last 10 to 15 years is coming to an understanding that to get people to sing and get ready to sing, we have to stop and just be quiet with each other for awhile. We tend to find each other, and it’s a way of unifying the choir, too.”
If the yoga unifies the minds of the Bach Festival Chorus members, it appears that the joy of singing unites their hearts. The work they produce, Turner says, literally leaves him astounded. He attributes this ability to the choir members’ spirits and to their “working their fannies off.”
The 60 to 70 members of the Bach Festival Chorus come from all walks of life, dedicating an evening each week to practice. Their ranks include both highly trained vocalists and untrained singers.
“We have lawyers, doctors, professors and stay-at-home moms and (everyone) in between,” says Linda Van Dis, assistant director of the Kalamazoo Bach Festival.
Its members share a common denominator — the love of singing. Simply because some aren’t professional singers doesn’t mean they don’t have great sets of vocal cords. Chorus member Dr. Richard Van Enk, director of infection prevention and epidemiology at Bronson Methodist Hospital, is a fabulous choral singer who goes to Interlochen every year because he loves choral camp, Turner says. That’s the kind of passion that Turner looks for in chorus members.
“Ultimately it is the spirit of someone that I am most attracted to,” he says.
Spirited singing will be evident in the choir’s performance of Mozart’s Requiem Mass, Turner says. Not the typical 18th century oratorio, this piece — Mozart’s last work — is “quite volatile and operatic,” he says.
“It’s the emotional intensity around this work that is so powerful,” Turner says. “It makes the work one of the most beloved choral works in the world.”
The audience will also hear the Arcato Chamber Ensemble, led by its founder and director, Andrew Koehler.
Since its establishment 70 years ago, the Bach Festival Society has had a mission of presenting excellent vocal, choral and instrumental music, not only through performances of the Bach Festival Chorus and Bach Festival Orchestra, but through guest artists and outreach activities.
Somers says festival events, which attracted 4,000 attendees last year, continue to expand. Organizers work at keeping the festival fresh and transcending generations by bringing in performers such as Voces8, a British vocal ensemble that appeared in Kalamazoo in February, and engaging in outreach activities such as its annual High School Choral Festival.
But the most important role of the organization, Turner says, has remained the same from day one — emphasizing choral singing. As an organization, the Bach Festival Chorus must remain committed to presenting excellent choral music to the community and exposing the greater Kalamazoo audience to the joys of choral singing, Turner says.
“I do know that choral singing is significant to us,” he says, “and that’s what makes us different.”