Gigless in the Valley: The sounds of silence for classical musicians

CONTRIBUTED PHOTORobin Kani, principal flutist, Bach Festival Orchestra, Allentown Symphony Orchestra, Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra.

Gigless in the Valley: The sounds of silence for classical musicians
Saturday, May 30, 2020 by KATHY LAUER-WILLIAMS Special to The Press in Focus

Third of six parts

On what would have been the second weekend of the 113th Bethlehem Bach Festival, Robin Kani went outside and turned on her Bluetooth to hear a prior year’s recording of Bach’s “Mass in B Minor” performed by the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.

The performance of the “Mass,” which takes place on the Saturday in Packer Church of each of the festival’s two weekends, which would have been May 8 and 9 and May 25 and 16, is one of the most anticipated events of the Lehigh Valley arts and cultural scene and a highlight of the renowned Bach Festival, which has continued largely uninterrupted in Bethlehem since 1898.

The Bach Festival was canceled this year because of coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic stay-at-home orders, social distancing guidelines and limits of gatherings to 10 or fewer.

Any other year, Kani, a professional classical musician, would have been playing the flute for the “Mass” as principal flutist of the Bach Festival Orchestra.

Not performing the iconic piece was a disappointment, but Kani says she got a different perspective tuning into the recording which the Bach Choir streamed at the exact time it would have been performed during the Festival.

“I really enjoyed sitting down and just listening to the ‘Mass,’” says Kani.

Across the Lehigh Valley, classical musicians have had performances, from concerts to tours to venues, shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

Kani is typically a very busy musician playing for multiple ensembles. She is married to another equally busy musician, Lawrence Wright, who plays trumpet for the Allentown Symphony Orchestra.

“All of sudden, there was absolutely nothing,” Kani says.

In addition to the Bach Festival Orchestra, Kani is principal flutist for Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra and Allentown Symphony Orchestra.

Concerts by all three nonprofit arts organizations, including in the PSO’s popular “Valley Vivaldi” series, were canceled.

Kani’s biggest disappointment was the postponement of the Bach Choir’s tour to “Bach Fest” in Germany, at which the choir and festival orchestra were to perform in June in Leipzig and Dresden in Germany and Prague in Czech Republic. The tour is rescheduled for June 2021.

The lack of concerts completely changed the once-hectic lives of Kani and Wright.

“At first, I thought I had all this free time to practice, but that’s gotten old,” says Kani.

Unlike rock, folk, blues and jazz musicians and singer-songwriters, who have turned to the internet to perform, classical music doesn’t lend itself as easily to online performances because of the size of the ensembles.

The technical challenge of synchronizing a live performance in real time of a multi-instrumental classical piece or multi-voice choral work is daunting. For classical works that have been streamed online, performers usually record each part separately, the parts are edited and assembled and a recorded version is posted.

After the coronavirus quarantine and shutdown began in mid-March, the Allentown Symphony Orchestra posted video clips of previous performances on its website, as has the Bach Choir.

Kani has been fortunate to be able to do some virtual performing as a soloist.

She was featured in a segment of Bach Choir’s “Moment of Comfort” series which the choir posts at:

Kani played flute on Bach’s “Sonata in E-Flat Major.” Bach Choir Artistic Director and Conductor Greg Funfgeld offered his thoughts about canceling the Bethlehem Bach Festival in the clip intended to provide listeners some comfort during these challenging times.

The Bach Choir is taking its popular “Bach at Noon” series online for the summer. Kani is also a part of that effort.

The concerts, which have been performed for five years at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Allentown, will be streamed on the Choir’s YouTube channel and website at the regularly-scheduled noon second Tuesday in June, July and August. The concerts will be broadcast later, at to-be-announced times and dates on WWFM, the Classical Network.

Kani will perform in “Bach at Noon” June 9, along with soprano Sherezade Panthaki and Funfgeld on piano and harpsichord. The musicians will record the concert with social distancing, and without the typical capacity audience of approximately 600, at St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Allentown.

The concert will include the arias with flute obbligato from Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” and “Saint John Passion,” the aria from Bach’s “Cantata 61 Öffne dich,” Felix Mendelssohn’s “O for the wings of a dove” and Bach’s “ Flute Sonata in G Minor, BWV 1020.”

Kani is glad to have opportunities to perform online, but it’s not the same as having her usual full schedule of live performances.

“I’m still practicing, but it’s easier for me when I have a lot of things dangling in front of me,” she says.

In the meantime, Kani has reconnected with nature, through gardening and long walks.

“I’ve been doing hikes I didn’t know about before,” says Kani. “But sometimes anxiety hits me for no reason.”

Kani worries that having so much unstructured time will make it harder when classical music concerts resume.

“Part of me really wants to go back, but I worry it will be hard to get back into things,” Kani says.

Next week: “Gigless in the Valley,” Part 4, Classical musicians Lawrence Wright and Steve Reisteter.