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Musical Bucks County

Dear Friends,

Good morning. A few weekends ago, I was listening to WRTI (90.1-FM) and heard one of my favorite Beethoven pieces, the “Choral Fantasy.” Mighty Betsy and I sang this piece 20 years ago with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Wolfgang Sawallisch was not conducting … he was playing the piano.

The orchestra was performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (the Chorale) and the “Choral Fantasy.” To conserve his strength, Sawallisch had given his baton to David Hayes, our Philadelphia Singers conductor.

If you don’t have the “Choral Fantasy” in your collection, you’re missing a fabulous piece. It begins with a solo piano. Is this one of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas? No. A few minutes later, an orchestra appears. Is this one of Beethoven’s five piano concerti? No. Moments later, a quartet sings …and finally a full chorus joins in.

As I listened to the “Choral Fantasy,” I thought of Steven Sametz, the composer-conductor and professor of music at Lehigh University. MB and I have often sung in the Lehigh Choral Union which he founded. He’s also conducted at the Berkshire Choral Festival and has written a beautiful piece for the institution (“I Have Had Singing”).

Sametz would make an excellent successor to Greg Funfgeld, who will retire as conductor of the Bach Choir in Bethlehem next spring.

Last Friday, I was having lunch with Rodney Henry, one of my oldest friends. We were about age 4 or 5 when we first met in Sunday School. Rodney and I have sung together for decades and joined Sametz’s Lehigh Choral Union years ago. We thought about the Bach Choir and Steve Sametz. A Yale graduate, his credentials are impressive.

“I Have Had Singing” tells the story of an 80-year-old English horseman at the close of World War II. “Life was bleak,” the writer began … but then he paused mid-sentence and added, “But we had singing. Every little town had a chorus … there was singing everywhere. So I misspoke. Life was not so bad … I had singing!” That piece has been recorded often. It’s text speaks about the joy of singing.

I ran an Internet search of the Bach Choir’s history. Since its founding in 1898, the Bach Choir has attracted thousands of national and international visitors every May. It’s the oldest American Bach Choir, and gave the first American performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Christmas Oratorio.

If you agree with Rodney and me, you could send an encouraging note to Hal Black, the President of the Bach Choir (440 Heckewelder Place, Bethlehem, Pa. 18018). Funfgeld has been Bach Choir’s director since 1983 so his age is similar to Sametz’s. But when you see Sametz, he appears to be in his 40s. He has incredible energy. I have no doubt that that Steve would make a great fit.

After I listened to the “Choral Fantasy,” I called Steve and suggested that the Lehigh Choral Union should perform Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the “Choral Fantasy” … with Steve at the piano. He could conduct the chorus from the piano bench with nods from his head. It would be a show-stopper.

And now for something different.

Larry Benner is the Conductor of the Cantata Choir at St. John’s UCC in Richlandtown. Last Sunday, 27 of its members sang music from the silver screen to a standing-room-only audience (SRO) in the old 1806 church. It was the Cantata Choir’s second performance in just two days … both SRO. Ushers passed out boxes of popcorn to the audience … a nice touch. The church was packed so I sat in the balcony.

The performance was titled “Cinemagic!” It was a musical revue encompassing the nostalgic sounds of yesterday with the music of today. The Cantata Choir has worked many tireless hours perfecting the harmonies and rhythms and it showed. A nice lady sitting next to me silently mouthed the words to the songs. Larry’s chorus was perfectly prepared and performed 40 famous movie songs. The audience was enthusistic.

Larry Benner has a lovely voice. At half time, he accompanied himself on the piano and sang, “Dreams Come True.” He told us listeners that he sang that song to a high school audience on the day he retired from his work after 45 years with the Pennridge, Vo-Tech and Quakertown schools.

Larry asked the audience to be generous with contributions. Each score for the chorus cost $30. The singers were smiling as they sang. Here are the words to “Dreams Come True:”

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference
who you are
Anything your heart
desires will come to you.

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do.

Larry has been the organist and choir director at St. John’s since 1966. He and his chorus deserve our congratulations.

Sincerely, Charles Meredith

PS. MB and I saw “Rocket-man” at the movies. It’s the story about singer Elton John. Be sure to take it in. I’d see it again.