Bach Choir Opens New Home
200-year-old Heckewelder House is a fitting place for music.
The Bach Choir has a new home, one that “resonates with music. This house is happiest when music is being played here,” said Greg Funfgeld, the choir’s artistic director and conductor, before playing Bach’s “Gavotte” from the French Suite in G on a grand piano.
A ribbon cutting and reception marked the opening Wednesday of 440 Heckewelder Place, the 1810 Bethlehem home of John Gottlieb Heckewelder, an American missionary and author with Moravian Church roots, who immigrated from England to America in 1754. Heckewelder built the lovely two-story residence and gardens after he retired from missionary work.
Located in the city’s historic district, the building is just steps from the choir’s former headquarters at 423 Heckewelder Place and from Central Moravian Church, where the choir performs.
Noting this is the first time the choir has “public space,” Dr. David G. Beckwith, president of the choir’s board of managers, said the facility enables the choir to display its archives and history, conduct meetings and lectures and host musical salons. In addition, the house will become part of the public Historic Bethlehem Walking Tour. He thanked supporters and donors who have given $215,000 to date in naming gifts for rooms in the house.
Dr. Beckwith, along with Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, cut the ribbon, with Mayor Callahan noting the importance of the milestone for the city and the choir’s significance to the Lehigh Valley.
Bridget George, executive director, said the house, leased from Bethlehem Area Moravians and renovated through a $500,000 fundraising effort, is 4,200 square feet, twice the space of the former headquarters. It houses offices and work space for two full-time and four part-time staff, a music library, archives, history research room, foyer with display area, conference room, and formal parlor. “It is so fitting for The Bach Choir,” George said, adding that “the place feels completely right,” as the Bach Choir and Moravian history meld under one roof.
Founded in 1898, the internationally acclaimed Bach Choir is the oldest American Bach choir performing the first American performances of The Mass in B Minor and The Christmas Oratorio. The annual Bach Festival and the popular Bach at Noon free concert series attract visitors from across the globe. In January, the 50th Bach at Noon free concert will be held.
“The first known expression of Bach’s music in America was in 1823, a set of Cantata 80, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” said Funfgeld, pointing out that to have a headquarters that predates that exemplifies the “rare association of the composer and his community.”
“This will forever be a musical house,” Funfgeld emphasized, noting that music has always been a foundation of the Moravian community.
The Bethlehem Garden Club is partnering with the choir in caring for the historic gardens, mentioned in the introduction to Heckewelder’s book “History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States.”
A Heckewelder House Endowment Fund will support annual facility expenses.
Recently, the Bach Choir was awarded its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. And the choir has been invited to perform in a series of New York City concerts on Sept. 9, in observance of the 10th anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.