Bach Festival founder Ken J. Nafziger honored with Circle of Excellence in the Arts Award, vows to ‘keep on musicking’

Professor Ken J. Nafziger, with soloist Veronica Chapman-Smith, conducts during a Bach Festival rehearsal on the Eastern Mennonite University campus. Founder of the Bach Festival, Nafziger was recently awarded the Circle of Excellence in Arts Award, which recognizes “individuals and organizations in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that enhance and strengthen the cultural community by promoting and advocating for artistic excellence.” The 23rd annual Bach Festival concludes with Friday and Saturday evening concerts, and the traditional Leipzig service on Sunday. All concerts are in Lehman Auditorium. (Photo by Jon Styer)

Ken J. Nafziger, professor of music at Eastern Mennonite University, recently became the third honoree to receive the Circle of Excellence in the Arts Award. He accepted the award at the Forbes Center Season Announcement event last week [June 11, 2015].

The honor, co-sponsored by the Forbes Center, the Arts Council of the Valley, and the College of Visual and Performing Arts at James Madison University, recognizes “individuals and organizations in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley that enhance and strengthen the cultural community by promoting and advocating for artistic excellence.”

Nafziger – hymnal editor, choral conductor, and Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival founder, conductor and artistic director – has done precisely that.

The timing of the awards presentation was fitting, as shortly after Nafziger began channeling his music-making prowess into the 23rd annual festival, a week-long summer event which gathers musicians and singers from around the country. Three concerts, all in Lehman Auditorium, remain on the schedule: Friday and Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m., and the Sunday morning Leipzig service at 10 a.m.

The award ‘belongs to us all’

During his acceptance speech, Nafziger celebrated the collaborative efforts of his many fellow musicians: “This award is a reminder that, in my primary means of music-making, which is conducting, there is nothing I can do alone. Therefore, this Circle of Excellence award belongs to us all who have often shared workspace – concert hall stage, or rehearsal room, or church – each in some way a playground of the inner life. I cherish the sounds, the beauty, the work, the risks, the joys and the moments that we have experienced together.”

He also saluted past recipients Stan Swartz, a theater teacher at Harrisonburg High School, and OASIS Fine Art & Craft, a Harrisonburg art cooperative.

A member of the faculty at EMU since 1977, he was nominated for the award by his colleague, Professor Joan Griffing. (Griffing, concertmaster of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival Orchestra, was unavailable to comment).

“Due to his many years of experience and stellar reputation as a conductor, the Bach Festival regularly attracts highly talented instrumental and choral musicians from around the U.S. and Canada each summer,” wrote President Loren E. Swartzendruber in his supporting letter to Griffing’s nomination.

To the region and beyond

In addition to the Bach Festival, Nafziger has a long legacy of bringing musical excellence to the region. This is his 20th year as the music director of Musica Viva, a chamber choir based in Winchester. With both Musica Viva and the EMU Chamber Singers, he’s toured widely in local venues, including participating in and planning worship services of various denominations.

Mennonite congregations in the Valley and indeed, all of North America, also worship using the songbook staples that bear his editing mark– Hymnal: A Worship Book, Sing the Journey and Sing the Story.

“Ken is known across the Mennonite Church, and in many other denominations, as a dynamic worship planner and leader,” wrote Swartzendruber.

Nafziger has also opened the world to area musicians, taking both choral groups on tours of Cuba, and traveling himself to the island as a guest conductor, master class professor and project collaborator.

As his acceptance speech suggests, Nafziger’s unflagging enthusiasm and dynamism will continue to shape the Shenandoah Valley’s music scene.

“This honor is encouragement to keep on musicking – no slowing down, no quitting, no easing up,” said Nafziger. “Rather, it tells me that I should take seriously this terse bit of American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser’s advice, ‘If your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt!’”

Published June 2015.