The Bach and Handel Chorale was founded in 1984 in honor of the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel.
Its first concert, performed at the Mauch Chunk Opera House, was accompanied by founder and conductor Randall Perry. It was meant to be a one-time gathering of sacred music lovers celebrating Bach and Handel. But when the year came to an end, the performers realized that they had something special to offer the area. They continued the chorale, and continued making their unique form of music available in Carbon County.
Through the years the choir has grown in both size and strength. It began attempting more difficult musical pieces, and soon were accompanied by the Bach and Handel Festival Orchestra for several concerts each year. To celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2009, the chorale performed the monumental Mass in B Minor.
Now facing financial difficulty, all thoughts of a string orchestra and professional soloists are gone. The group has had to drastically cut spending. Once again, they find themselves accompanied by Perry on piano.
"In the 25 years that we've been doing this, we've come completely full circle. Who would have thought?" said Perry. "We thought we were on our way to bigger and better things."
While the chorale may be taking a break from its orchestra concerts, longtime members of the choir are determined to weather this financial storm and continue to perform. They cite the group's 25 years of growth as a sign of its strength and resilience.
"The fact that an amateur group has the audacity to perform the Mass in B Minor, that says something," said Gwen Thomas, a charter member who has been with the group since its inception. She recently gathered to discuss the chorale's future with its remaining charter members, including Susan Hand of Jim Thorpe and Eleanor Perry of Lehighton.
The group has always been proud of its amateur status, noting its success comes from pure determination and lots of practice.
"This is who we are," she added. "There are some concerts that are packed, with standing room only."
While the group may be back to piano accompaniment, a lot has changed since 1984. Many of the members from the first few years are still a part of the chorale, and they have formed bonds of music and friendship that are visible to audience members.
"There has been a huge improvement in our group," said Hand, who has recordings from the chorale's first performances. "Mass in B Minor is a great example. There's no way we could have tackled that piece just 10 years ago."
"It's really jelled into a good group," she added. "I loved it, and I still do." Hand enjoyed performing with the chorale so much she convinced her husband and daughter to join.
"It's been a learning experience," added Eleanor Perry. "I've learned so much. You struggle through a piece and then you realize, 'I can do this.' When we started out, it was tough."
Over the past 25 years, the focus of the group has been improvement and growth. Members have studied German and Latin diction, because many of their songs are performed in these languages. They meet each week to practice as a group under Randall Perry's direction. Performers have also broken into small groups to further perfect their parts.
None of this will change while the chorale undergoes financial difficulty, they stressed. They will continue to offer quality sacred music for all who will listen, for as long as they are financial able to continue.
"If we were to disappear, people would miss us," said Hand.
"It would hurt my heart if we disappeared. These are hard times for everybody. Hopefully we will get through this, and come out stronger."
These original members urged those who have not attended a concert to attend one of their concerts on April 10 or May 1, both at 3 p.m. at St. Mark's Church in Jim Thorpe, and see what the chorale has to offer.
"If they haven't been out to hear us, they should come see what we are all about," said Thomas. "What we do is really special. You don't have to love Baroque music to enjoy Bach."
For Maestro Perry, the dedication that he sees in the group gives him hope. For a group that was meant to disband 25 years ago, it's held together well. He only hopes that they can weather this storm and come out stronger as a result.
"I don't want to see this end," he said. "We've survived this long in this area that's a miracle in itself."
Music a staple of Jim Thorpe economy
There are many arguments for why the Bach and Handel Chorale is an important contributor to its Jim Thorpe home.
It is the only existing choir in Carbon County performing with a full Festival Orchestra. It offers a unique music experience for local residents and tourists alike, and exposes listeners of all ages to a type of music you won't likely find on the radio.
From a financial point of view, the chorale also gives local business owners an economic boost.
For the past few years, the Bach and Handel Chorale has forged partnerships with area restaurants, retailers and B&Bs in the area. Concertgoers are given a book of coupons valid the day of the concert, offering them a chance for a discounted meal or shopping.
"If we bring in just 100 people to a concert, we give out 100 coupons and discounts," said Jennifer Sterner, president of the chorale board of directors.
Sterner knows that people are visiting shops and restaurants after each concert, because owners have told her that patrons are turning in their coupons and ticket stubs. She notes that this is a positive thing for the local economy, because it encourages both local residents and tourists to spend time and money in small shops and restaurants throughout Jim Thorpe. Many of these businesses are also suffering, in varying degrees, because of the down economy.
The majority of the chorale's concert patrons are from outside of Jim Thorpe, traveling to the area just to hear the group's Christmas or seasonal concerts. The group also attracts local residents to Jim Thorpe residents who might otherwise stay in their hometown and avoid the hustle and bustle of this busy tourist area.
"There have been so many positive things that come out of us being in this town," said Sterner.