The Bethlehem Bach Choir is the oldest American choir dedicated to the vocal music of J.S. Bach. The ensemble consists of about 100 singers, all volunteers, and a chamber orchestra of professional musicians. While they have performed music by other composers like Vivaldi, the majority of their concerts are dedicated to works by Bach. Indeed, and the ensemble boasts a repertory that includes all the Bach motets, 133 cantatas, and many other large compositions. The ensemble performs locally at the Central Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Lehigh University's Baker Hall, and has appeared on tour in the U.S. at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Academy of Music, and toured Europe while recording for the Dorian and Analekta labels.
The Bethlehem Bach Choir (or Bach Choir of Bethlehem) was founded in Bethlehem, PA, on December 5, 1898, by Ruth Porter Doster. The Bach Choir's first conductor was J. Fred Wolle, a well-known local organist and choral leader. The inaugural concert was presented on March 27, 1900, with the first American performance of the B minor Mass. Wolle served as the choir's director until his death in 1933, whereupon he was succeeded by Bruce Carey.
Carey was succeeded by Ifor Jones in 1939. Among his more memorable concerts was a 1947 performance of the Bach B minor Mass at St. John Divine Cathedral in New York, with the choir accompanied by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra, before an audience of 9,000. Jones served for 30 years, Alfred Mann becoming his successor in 1969. In November 1975 Eugene Ormandy guest-conducted the choir before sold-out audiences at the Academy of Music and Carnegie Hall.
William Reese succeeded Jones in 1980 but served only three years. His successor was Greg Funfgeld, who would guide the choir as it branched out into several new directions. Funfgeld led the ensemble on its first CDs, Christmas in Leipzig (1988) and Wachet Auf! (1989), both on Dorian. In 1993 the choir's Bach to School Program was launched. This educational outreach effort involves eight programs of choral and instrumental instruction by Bach Choir members that are presented to more than 5,000 students yearly in the Lehigh Valley area. In 2004 PBS presented a documentary program, Make a Joyful Noise, about the group. Among the Bach Choir's later recordings is their 2009 Analekta CD of Bach's Magnificat, BWV 243, and Vivaldi's Gloria, RV 589.