A madrigal feast fit for Elizabethan king Singing in tunic: The Bach Society wassails for supper at its annual fund-raiser.


The sacrifices some people make for art.

Wearing a plumed hat, tunic and tights, Herb Ridder sings madrigals and meanders among the diners gathered in a vaulted church hall for the Bach Society of Baltimore's fifth annual Renaissance-style feast.

"These tights are cold," Mr. Ridder complains to a visitor. "And I'm not so sure they wore Spandex tights" in 15th-century England.

Each year, Mr. Ridder, his wife, and 16 other members of the Bach Society of Baltimore spend hundreds of dollars on costumes and dues, give up dozens of evenings to practice singing, and sometimes even sacrifice a little dignity to put on the madrigal feasts that have become something of a Christmas tradition in Baltimore.

While the Bach Society's singers say they enjoy wassailing as much as the next person, the nonprofit chorus puts on the feasts for only one reason: to raise enough cash to put on a one-night concert of serious music each June.

That's a bittersweet development for the 36-year-old group, one of the city's oldest amateur singing ensembles. As the group's Christmas feasts become increasingly popular -- this Saturday night's dinner is already sold out -- they threaten to become the fund-raisers that ate the chorus.

The feasts already take up half the group's annual rehearsal time and attract four times the audience of its spring concert, which rarely attracts more than 200 listeners.

"It is ironic," says conductor Bob Zuber, who thought up the madrigal feast idea when he was hired by the society in 1990.

While the Renaissance songs are beautiful and challenging, and the singers are glad to reach out to new fans, "the whole reason we do this," Mr. Zuber says, "is that we lose money on our spring concert."

For the volunteer singers, who spend half a year fund raising, then another half practicing to for their annual concert, its all part of the price they pay for a June night in which they join with violinists, flutists and brass players to perform some of the world's most beautiful music.

"It is a thrill," says Ruth Ridder.

It may serve as little comfort, but other performing artists say the chorus' dilemma is as old as music itself, and appears to be worsening for all arts groups.

For centuries, musicians and other artists have been torn between the pressure to perform works that attract lots of paying customers, and those that the artists, but few others, prefer.

And as government grants dry up, corporate giving gets downsized, and individuals find more demands on their time, all kinds of artists are having to work harder to raise the money needed to keep performing.

Even large, well-endowed organizations such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra find that concert ticket sales cover only about half of the operating costs, and that competition for donations is getting tighter.

"The environment for the arts seems to get tougher year by year," says John Gidwitz, the orchestra's executive director.

Tom Hall, director of Baltimore's Choral Arts Society, a mostly volunteer singing group that raises money from more standard events like auctions, says the Bach Society is lucky to have developed such an appropriate fund-raising event.

"I applaud the idea," because at least the Bach Society gets to sing for its supper, he says.

Sing, dance and have a merry old time, actually.

The singers say they have fun belting out Elizabethan songs, listening to the brass quintet hidden in the rafters, and gavotting with the diners on the hall's polished wood floors.

Mr. Ridder, a 60-year-old retired engineer, said he especially likes it when the female diners compliment his shapely legs.

The revelers, who pay $40 a person to dine with the singers and actors playing Queen Elizabeth and her court in the gothic-looking Zion Church in downtown Baltimore, appear to have fun as well.

On last week's opening night, for example, the diners got so enthralled by the Elizabethan atmosphere that no one seemed to be bothered by the bowls of Ye Olde Sweete and Low on each table, or the candles that looked suspiciously like scrubbed tuna cans filled with wax.

When some diners started gabbing among themselves during one of Queen Elizabeth's speeches, a man in a business suit stood up and roared in a manner that would have made Sir Francis Drake proud: "Hey, the queen's speaking, huh?"

And Ron Zuskin of Westminster, who was attending the feast for the third year, got inspired during the limerick contest.

He won first place with a ditty about the Virgin Queen's alleged lust for writers:

"With Marlowe and Shakespeare the plot thickens/But for the Queen it looks like slim pickin's./She's sad and forlorn/For too soon she was born/In a century she'd have the Dickens."

The feast, Mr. Zuskin said, "is a lot of fun. For me it kicks off the holiday season."

"With the brass quintet playing up in the air, it is just majestic," he said.

And the singing, he said, "is very good."

So good, in fact, that his daughter, who attended the feast this year, now wants to join the group.

But she won't try out just yet, since she's too busy studying at Towson State. And as much as he enjoyed the group's singing, Mr. Zuskin concedes he's never attended one of its concerts.

The Zuskins' story seems to be at the root of the Bach Society's continuing struggles.

For despite the fund-raiser's popularity, the group still has trouble attracting donations, fans and even members.

Started in 1959 by a visiting German doctor who wanted to save the delicate works of the Baroque master Johannes Sebastian Bach from the gaudy excesses of romanticism, the Bach Society has seen its membership fall in half and its reputation dim.

Its concerts, which had strayed from its Bach roots in recent years, are no longer reviewed by major area publications. And the group never built up an endowment or bank account to weather hard times.

Mr. Zuber says he's trying to change much of that.

This year's feasts are expected to raise nearly $6,000, twice last year's profit. And he's picking more Bach pieces for the spring concerts.

"We're trying to turn around," but, with a small singing and fund-raising group, "it is very difficult."

Madrigal feast

What Bach Society of Baltimore's Christmas madrigal feast

Where Zion Church of the City of Baltimore, 400 E. Lexington St.

When 7:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Saturday is already sold out)

Admission $40 per person

Call (410) 521-0209

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