Bach Festival Turns 80

The nation’s third-oldest Bach Festival readies for a grand season thanks to the moxie of its longtime supporters and performers. Not to mention some fast-paced, tough-love rehearsals.

Artistic Director and Conductor John Sinclair (center) with the choir and orchestra. (Photo courtesy of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park) Artistic Director and Conductor John Sinclair (center) with the choir and orchestra. (Photo courtesy of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park)

“It’s like braiding something made of gold.” 
– Athalia Cope ’64 ’67MAT and a 53-year veteran of the festival choir, describing what it feels like to sing the complex music of J.S. Bach.


Walking into Keene Hall on the Rollins campus, Athalia Cope ’64 ’67MAT is preparing for another grueling practice with the Bach Festival Choir. Staying in top vocal form to sing one of the masterworks of Western music takes artistry and grit. And Cope has both.

She’ll need them, too. This is her 53rd season with the internationally celebrated group of 160 volunteer singers. Artistic Director and Conductor John Sinclair, now in his 25th year, runs a tight rehearsal. At times, it seems a little like a basketball practice with drills; whistles blowing the action to a halt; the maestro explaining and getting frustrated: “I’m not getting my point across! If you don’t have the melody, get out of the way!”

Message received. The group starts working together as a team; the conductor sees progress. “Good. Good…That’s so much better… Not louder, sharper.” Then, an error.

Sinclair conducts the orchestra. (Photo by Scott Cook) Sinclair conducts the orchestra. (Photo by Scott Cook) Sinclair whistles through his teeth, stops the singers in mid-phrase, and explains that J.S. Bach expects them to be alert to each other and bring more than musical notes to the session. “He expects you to bring your brain. …Tenors match in and blend in! Altos! Altos!”

Those rigorous two hours of practice happen one to two times a week for six to seven months of the year.  For Cope, it tallies to big numbers. She has performed about 200 Bach pieces, been to 1,800 rehearsals, and spent the equivalent of 450 unpaid workdays in choir practice for the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park. She even has performed this year’s finale—the difficult, dazzling, and 3-hour-long Mass in B minor—on about 15 separate previous occasions. Her husband, Bob, is only eight years behind in experience—this is his 45th season.

Yet Cope, a retired high school guidance counselor, seems startled by the suggestion that repetition might wear into a musical rut. If so, why would she bother to keep coming back for more? “With Bach,” she says, “there’s always something you didn’t hear before.”

As the voices of various groups of singers, young and old, male and female, start to intermingle and blend so that the burgeoning sound seems greater than the sum of its parts, Cope smiles to herself. There it is. Once again. Something deeper, something more profound. A new nugget to be mined from the 300-year-old genius of John Sebastian Bach. “The way he combines and weaves the lines together,” she says. “It’s like braiding something made of gold.”

What excites her in recent practices is discovering how Sinclair has slowed down certain parts of the Mass in B minor related to the crucifixion. That lets the musical phrases resonate longer, adding gravity to their tone. Although it can be hard to sustain those notes, Cope is delighted.

“You get absorbed in the music. And it absorbs you,” she says. “It’s almost a religious experience. Well, it is one. It’s almost like being drawn into God. You don’t want to get out of it.”

Sinclair, who serves as chair of the music department at Rollins, loves the way the choir can soar with power and subtlety—when they’re on top of their game. After 25 years at the helm, however, even he can’t explain the effect the choir has on an audience. It’s something that can’t be conveyed even in the best of recordings.

“The power of the human voice, especially when combined with 160 others, creates a formidable experience,” Sinclair says. “It’s almost like the essence of a fresh fragrance that is hard to capture.”

Nevertheless, he keeps the choir chasing that fleeting perfection. As they warm to the task, he becomes as fervent in praise as in critique. Sinclair shouts through the singing. “Good! Good!” Then he whistles. Everything stops. A mispronunciation has occurred. Not good.

There’s a lot to get through tonight and the public performances are looming. What does he have to do, threaten to make this the crux of next year’s auditions? “If I sound perturbed, I am. We are wasting time on a vowel sound that we have said about six zillion times. … Still not good enough. … I’m tired of fixing it. C’mon. Measure 40. I’m not teasing.”

After warning against excess vibrato and crescendo, Sinclair starts to hear what he expects from the highly skilled choristers. “Good! Welcome back. You’re starting to sing again.”


The Woman that Launched a Thousand Performances

This year’s Bach Festival will offer a variety of artists and events, culminating with the powerful Mass in B minor on Sunday, March 1 in Knowles Memorial Chapel—the place where it all began 80 years ago.

The Bach Festival Society choir in Knowles Memorial Chapel in 1937, two years after its founding. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections) The Bach Festival Society choir in Knowles Memorial Chapel in 1937, two years after its founding. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections)

What is now billed as the nation’s third-oldest, continuously operating Bach Festival started simply in 1935. It was just a Vespers Service at Rollins to honor the 250th birthday of Bach. The event, however, struck a chord with listeners, who wanted more.

Suddenly, there was a growing chorus of support for expanding the event. And it seems likely that one of listeners at the first celebration in 1935 was Isabelle Sprague-Smith ’39H, a retired and widowed educator from the northeast, who arrived that year for “her first season in Winter Park,” as a newspaper of the day put it. Turns out, she was the right person at the right time—an artist by training, bold in temperament, and already a fan of a well-known Bach Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Her interest led then-Rollins President Hamilton Holt to ask her to help lead a fund drive for a second event. Sprague-Smith took to the challenge, raising money and awareness to keep the festival going. As it built momentum, she brought in noted performers and, before long, she was petitioning NBC radio to broadcast part of the festival. When the network did so in 1949, it omitted the New York audience from its coverage. Offended, Sprague-Smith demanded a rebroadcast for listeners in the Big Apple. NBC complied.

Isabelle Sprague-Smith (left) with President Hamilton Holt (center) in 1939. (Photo courtesy of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park) Isabelle Sprague-Smith (left) with President Hamilton Holt (center) in 1939. (Photo courtesy of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park) She also had hoped to coax Albert Schweitzer to perform at the festival. Schweitzer, a widely respected medical missionary based in Africa, was also a highly regarded Bach scholar and organist. Her doggedness prompted a handwritten reply from Schweitzer. At one point, the famous doctor expressed interest in the layout of the organ in the chapel, but he never did make it to Winter Park, said Robert White, a retired attorney, volunteer board member, and the group’s unofficial historian and archivist.

Sprague-Smith died in 1950, but her tenacity outlived her. In her will, she left funds to defray costs for Schweitzer, should the Nobel Peace Prize winner ever decide to visit. “One suspects,” White says, “that had she lived longer, Schweitzer would never have gotten to America again without an appearance at the Bach Festival.”

Without Sprague-Smith and no obvious successor, many feared the festival would fade away.

Three Generations of Tiedtkes Help Keep the Festival Alive

Enter John Tiedtke, successful businessman, treasurer of Rollins College, childhood friend of then-Rollins President Hugh McKean ’30 ’72H, and, eventually, a mentor to Sinclair in matters of leadership.

Although not a professional musician, he loved Bach. When he stepped into his new role as president of the Bach Festival Society, Tiedtke also found himself reaching into his own pockets to keep the operation afloat. As a businessman, he hesitated to ask others to donate. Even 30 years after taking over the unpaid position, he seemed to feel responsible for the budget.

John Tiedtke in 1962 as the acting second vice president and treasurer for Rollins. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections) John Tiedtke in 1962 as the acting second vice president and treasurer for Rollins. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections) In the 1980s, Elizabeth Brothers ’89, who was associate vice president for Rollins’ development office, and loved Bach, had tried to help Tiedtke feel more at ease when approaching well-to-do acquaintances in person or by mail. “He wrote this [fundraising] letter once,” Brothers says. “It was so pitiful. It was apologetic. I told him, ‘You’re not asking for yourself; you’re asking for something you believe in. It enriches the community.’”

A pilot, music lover, self-taught photographer who taught photography at Rollins, and a no-nonsense, bottom-line administrator who, as college treasurer, kept Rollins out financial stress in troubled times, Tiedtke, remained shy about asking others to give.

Despite Brothers’ advice to thank donors before asking for another gift, Tiedtke often just blurted out the organization’s needs over a lunch meeting. Somehow it worked.

“He was supremely generous himself,” Brothers says. “If there was a shortfall [in the Bach Festival], he would write a check, but he hated asking anyone for money. He was so modest. That was one of the things that people loved about him.”

When Tiedtke died in 2004, after more than 50 years at the head of the festival, son Philip stepped in for a couple of years to keep things steady. Philip had learned to appreciate classical music while growing up, but he worked professionally as a drummer in a rock band. As an executive leader, however, he realized the need for sound finances and a stronger structure.

Recently, a third generation of the family came aboard when Philip’s son, Alex, joined the choir. A trained singer, Alex has loved the chance to perform Bach.

“There’s storytelling; there is emotion in Bach,” Alex Tiedtke says. “There’s the contrast of the power and the soft delicious moments… I’m getting goose bumps talking about it. My grandfather would like that.”

And so does Sinclair, who learned some of the finer points of administration from the same man. Over the years, Sinclair developed some of those ideas into an analogy he reiterates to the choir.

Yes, they are separate parts. But together, they are a house of music. The basses are the foundation. “A slab that’s rock solid.” Sopranos are the roof. “When your sound is not covered, we all get wet.” Altos: “You are the carpet, the colors, the fabric, the warmth.” And to the tenors—the stars of many classical works—he declares: “You are the walls and the studs. And most of you all think you are. And that works really well.”

The choir has a long laugh. A melodious one. Then back to work.


Voices Echo Across the Centuries

“Excellent! Excellent. Bravo! Nicely done. Lovely. Keep it beautiful, ladies!”

The music is flowing. The conductor is pleased and encouraging. Soon enough, though, the pronunciation of an “l” displeases him. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. No! ... Make it subtle … Massage those phrases. Here we go, men. Beautiful! Beautiful!”

The whole group seems to be swelling. “Make it as lovely and as head voice as you can.”

Then another halt. “I’m hearing wun. I want wahn. I’m getting a flat sound, a spread sound, instead of a tall sound.” Time to re-emphasize a point. Two quick claps. “Everyone stand up! You don’t need your music. I want you to march in place….I want you to puff your chest out.”

Despite today’s competing entertainments—in arenas, on movie screens, laptops, and smartphones—Sinclair believes the future remains strong for the Bach Festival.

He loves how Bach, born in 1685, continues to unite people across the centuries in their love of music. He encourages everyone to sample the classical compositions and be open to noticing how they affect you over the decades. “Great works of art continue to feed one at different times of your life,” he says.

Eric Ravndal agrees. He is head of the volunteer board of directors and is watching the rehearsal—his wife is in the choir. A retired Episcopal priest, Ravndal savors the musical discoveries he makes, but struggles to articulate what he finds. “The music speaks beyond the notes. It’s mystical. It speaks to the soul and a deeper need… Scholars may be able to express it. But I just listen to it and say, ‘That’s gorgeous.’ ”

The president of the board of trustees for the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, Eric Ravndal III (left), with Executive Director Betsy Gwinn (center), and former president of the board of trustees Philip Tiedtke (right). The president of the board of trustees for the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, Eric Ravndal III (left), with Executive Director Betsy Gwinn (center), and former president of the board of trustees Philip Tiedtke (right).

As the demanding session nears its end, Sinclair asks the choir to close with the Osanna (or hosanna) section of the mass. They all know it’s a demanding drill after a tiring session. Even Sinclair takes their good-natured groans in stride. “Good luck,” he says. Nevertheless, he seems satisfied with the rendition.

“It was a cruel but intended trick tonight to put this tune in your head as you leave. Because this is the one that frightens me.” With that, practice is dismissed. But much remains to be done. “Extra practice on Thursday,” he calls out while the 160 singers gather their belongings. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you in advance. I think we’re rallying. I think we’ll get there!”

It’s past 9:30 p.m. as the choir members stream out of the room, back to their private lives. Cope and her husband walk by their conductor.

“We get beat up all the time,” Bob Cope says with a kind of satisfaction. No complaints from Athalia, either. “To do things that are very hard,” she says, “and do them well is fun.”