Handel’s Water Music Celebrates Its 300th Anniversary

For a great water party that was to take place on a July evening in 1717, King George I wanted a barge full of some 50 musicians to travel alongside his royal barge as it sailed on the River Thames from Whitehall to Chelsea. Upon arrival at Chelsea, the royal party was entertained at Ranelagh House (built in 1688-89 by the then late Richard Jones, 1st Earl of Ranelagh), where they had supper until early in the morning of the next day.

George I had been monarch for nearly three years, but Handel had yet to compose works specifically for him. Here was the opportunity to flatter the King with music that has since found its place among Handel’s most well-known and beloved compositions, the Water Music suites. Indeed, the King was exceedingly pleased.

The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, circa 1746, by Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1765)

The River Thames with St. Paul’s Cathedral on Lord Mayor’s Day, circa 1746, by Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (1697-1765)

Two contemporary chronicles give us a good sense of the experience of the water party on July 17, 1717 [yes, that’s the palindromic 7-17-1717 by our modern American style date convention]:

“On Wednesday evening, at about 8, the King took Water at Whitehall in an open Barge, wherein were also the Duchess of Bolton, the Duchess of Newcastle, the Countess of Godolphin, Madam Kilmanseck, and the Earl of Orkney. And went up the river to Chelsea. Many other Barges with Persons of Quality attended, and so great a Number of Boats, that the whole River in a manner was cover’d.”

“The music had been composed specially by the famous Handel, a native of Halle, and His Majesty’s principal Court Composer. His Majesty approved of it so greatly that he caused it to be repeated three times in all. The weather that evening was all that could be desired for the festivity, the number of barges and of boats filled with people desirous of hearing was beyond counting. In order to make this entertainment the more exquisite, a choice supper had been arranged in the late Lord Ranalagh’s villa at Chelsea on the river, where the King went at one in the morning. He left at three o’clock and returned to St. James’ Palace at about half past four.”

The Water Music suites, as we know them today, are collections of mostly dance movements—preceded by typical “overture” introductions—and draw on English, French, German, and Italian compositional styles. Handel cleverly included a number of nautically related dance movements for the King’s waterborne entertainment, in particular the hornpipe and rigaudon. The hornpipe was a dance that appeared in a variety of meters ( 3/2, 4/4, 9/4, or 9/8 ) and was characterized by stereotypical gestures that depicted raucous sailor antics or basic sailing activities such as looking out to sea (with alternating hands to the forehead), etc. The rigaudon was similar to a bourrée with its quarter-note upbeat, but was played at a much quicker pace with rhythmically simple phrases of even bar lengths; overall, quite straightforward.

While there is substantial documentation of the barge excursion, no complete autograph score of the music survives. It is only through reconstruction and a process of unediting the various contemporary (meaning, from Handel’s time) arrangements of the music that we can cull accurate and logical materials from which to assemble the three distinct suites in the keys of F major (for horns, oboes, bassoon, and strings), D major (for trumpets, horns, oboes, bassoon, and strings), and G major (for recorder, flute, and strings). Friedrich Chrysander (1826-1901), the editor of the first complete edition of Handel’s works, preferred to organize them in just two suites, combining the music in D major and G major into one set.

In consideration of these points, there may well be no absolutely correct order in which the various movements of Water Music must be played; rather, almost any combination of movements will suffice. But a deeper look at the sources supports the order of movements that is usually presented in concerts. The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge houses a full score of the Water Music that, although it has no inscribed date, clearly had been made in Handel’s lifetime, but probably without his authority. In 1743 John Walsh published an edition of that music, arranged for harpsichord solo, that contains all but two movements from the full score in Cambridge. The movements follow the same order as the full score. Therefore, it seems logical that something resembling today’s version of Water Music must have existed by no later than the 1740s.

But most music historians agree that the entirety of the Water Music was probably not originally conceived as three (or even two) independent suites. Rather, the almost identical order of movements found in the few manuscript (not autograph) sources presents a completely agreeable progression of keys and tonal centers in a way that supports the notion that all of the suites were assembled by Handel with a deliberate contiguousness in mind. The music in F major (including horns) ends with a substantial concerto grosso style movement—featuring the oboes and bassoon as soloists—in D minor (the “relative minor” key to F major), which would have progressed easily and logically to the grand music in D major, featuring trumpets. And the D Major portion, while employing trumpets all the way through the final movement (a bourrée), nevertheless does calm down, so to speak, and again easily transitions to the key of G major. Some hypothesize that the delicate texture of the music in G major (and G minor) would have been appropriate only for an indoor setting—its gentle orchestration for strings with flauto traverso and recorder (two rather quiet instruments) would hardly have been audible at the distance between the King’s barge and the musicians’ barge—and accordingly may have been performed either before or during the dinner at Ranelagh.

There is no evidence that the Water Music as presented by Handel in 1717 ever had a reprise performance during his lifetime. However, Handel did arrange the first two movements of the D major portion—an Allegro and a Hornpipe—as a two-movement concerto that had its first performance nearly six years later on March 20, 1723, in London’s Drury Lane Theatre. That transcribed version is in F major, and replaces the trumpets of the Water Music version with horns. The existence of that music has tempted performers—including us!—to include those two movements as a kind of “encore” added finale to the music in F major, altogether more satisfying than ending the F major/D minor organization without them.

Several movements from the Water Music have become as popular and recognizable as any among the top hits from the Baroque era. The endearingly loping stride of the Air, the perkiness of the Bourrée, and uncontainable vivacity of the Hornpipe have brought smiles to the faces of listeners for ages.

© Jeffrey Thomas, 2017


Academy Sponsor Spotlight: Judith Flynn

Judith Flynn is a long-time ABS supporter and former member of our Board of Directors. Her background in education in particular has led her to be one of the most passionate proponents of the ABS Festival & Academy. We asked Judith to share her thoughts about this annual celebration of the future of Early Music, which takes places August 4-13, 2017, in San Francisco.

Judith Flynn, Academy SponsorResidents of the San Francisco Bay Area should be grateful for the abundance of high-quality music groups to be found here. Where to go, what to choose…so many choices. However, one group, the American Bach Soloists, stands out for its commitment to authentic period instruments, an informed selection of Baroque repertoire, and the outstanding musicians who bring the music to life.

Seven years ago, the founder and Maestro of ABS, Jeffrey Thomas, was able to fulfill a wish of his: to start an Academy for emerging young professional musicians. And since its founding, the Academy has flourished and grown.

As an individual involved in education and as a lover of Early Music, I was very excited to hear about the Academy and its features. Throughout these seven years, I have never been disappointed. In fact, it’s been just the opposite—I am endlessly enthusiastic and passionate about the program. The carefully selected students are equally enthusiastic and passionate, and many return for a second or third year. In speaking with the students about why, the answers are uniformly the same. The Academy is extremely demanding, with long hours and short breaks, but these are outweighed by the excellence offered: the opportunity to work with world-class faculty privately and in groups; the camaraderie with fellow students and the development of long-term relationships; the thrill of working under Maestro Thomas, whose demanding requirements are relished for the education of the intricacies of Early Music; and the improvement of one’s talent. Students come to San Francisco from all over the globe, and many of our graduates have gone on to well-recognized careers in the field.

Education is essential if society wishes to maintain a comprehensive knowledge of the fine arts, including Early Music. The fear of our children not being familiar with J. S. Bach and his colleagues is real, as highly specialized music programs give way to tech and STEM instruction. Thankfully, at the ABS Festival & Academy, instruction of adults is happening simultaneously with that of the students via free master classes, colloquia, and student performances. The colloquia and lectures are filled with fascinating information, either about the composers, the period, or the music, and learning from live presenters is much more enjoyable than from a book!

On every level, I have found the Festival & Academy to be most enjoyable and educational, and I look forward to it annually. To me, it is an in-depth knowledge experience equal to an intense summer class, with the added bonus of eight nights of extraordinary music.

I choose to financially support the Festival & Academy for the primary purpose of maintaining continuation, not only of the music, but of the informed, sensitive musicians who play and sing that music for the children of today and tomorrow. Enjoy, and see you at the Festival!

National Endowment for the Arts Awards Grant to American Bach Soloists for the 2017 Festival & Academy

San Francisco, CA – National Endowment for the Arts Chairman, Jane Chu, has approved more than $82 million to fund local arts projects across the country in the NEA’s second major funding announcement for fiscal year 2017. The NEA received 1,728 Art Works applications and will make 1,029 grants, including an Art Works award of $15,000 to American Bach Soloists to support the 2017 ABS Festival & Academy.

“The arts reflect the vision, energy, and talent of America’s artists and arts organizations,” said NEA Chairman Jane Chu. “The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support organizations such as American Bach Soloists, in serving their communities by providing excellent and accessible arts experiences.”

“There is no higher honor when our federal government acknowledges the work that we are doing at the local level.” said ABS Executive Director Don Scott Carpenter. “This support goes a long way in ensuring the preservation of Early Music for future generations. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”

ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas acknowledged his personal gratitude: “We have worked hard to create an open, accessible, and culturally engaging experience for our annual Festival & Academy patrons, and we’re both honored and proud to receive this important recognition by the National Endowment for the Arts. It is prestigious endorsement, and we are most grateful.”

The ABS Academy offers advanced conservatory-level students and emerging professional musicians the opportunity to study and perform Baroque music side by side with a distinguished faculty of internationally recognized experts. The coinciding Festival features free and ticketed concerts, master classes, lectures, and other events. 2017 concerts include two performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor and other large-scale works including a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Handel’s Water Music and performances of Purcell’s King Arthur. Also planned is the annual Baroque Marathon, a series of free chamber music concerts by Academy participants.

The public events of the 2017 American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy will be held August 4 through August 13 in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and St Mark’s Lutheran Church (S.F.). For more information visit sfbachfestival.org or americanbach.org.


Academy Alumni Spotlight: Ramón Negrón Pérez

The ABS Academy is a worldwide phenomenon. Since its inception in 2010, participants have represented more than 20 countries around the globe. One of these musicians is violist Ramón Negrón Pérez, a current member of ABS’s professional orchestra and a two-time Academy participant. Ramón grew up in Puerto Rico and studied music there before coming to the United States, and he shares his story below.

You’re from Puerto Rico, and much of your musical training took place there, including an undergraduate degree at the Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music. What kind of classical music opportunities did you have growing up, and were they any different from what your own children have now that you live in San Diego, CA?

  • As a 9-year-old child, I auditioned and was accepted to the children’s string program of the Conservatory of Music commencing with only music theory for two years before being given a viola to play. Like most children I wanted to play violin or piano, but those spots were full. I was offered the cello or the viola. When I asked what a cello was, I was shown the large instrument and all I could think about was how hard it would be to transport on a daily basis, as I had to take public transportation. So the viola it was. That was the only formal musical program available at the time. I had to attend school all day and then travel an hour from my hometown in Canovanas to the capital city of San Juan to attend classes in the late afternoon and evenings 2-3 times a week. I am very grateful to my parents who took me to and from rehearsals and performances for the next decade until I started my professional career. The classical music opportunities in San Diego are quite different. Living in San Diego as the father of a 7-year-old and a 3-year-old, I see that there is such a large variety of musical programs and methods of teaching here for them, not to mention the diversity of private instructors. I am excited to be able to share with them the appreciation for historically informed performance. They don’t have to wait like I did to stumble upon it later in life.

You then went on to work as a professional musician there. Was freelancing in Puerto Rico similar to freelancing in the United States? Was it very competitive?

  • Working as a professional member of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra since the age of 18 opened many opportunities for me as a freelance musician in Puerto Rico, a very competitive environment. Freelancing in the United States is different because there is much more variety and more opportunities to select from. I can decide what musical performances I want to be a part of. This has allowed me to take time to reflect on the direction of my musical career and to try historically informed performance.​

What inspired your move to California? Professional? Personal? Both?

  • Moving to California was for mostly personal reasons, as my wife had been given the opportunity to complete her Juris Doctorate in San Diego and had a job opportunity waiting for her after graduation. Having family ties to San Diego made the decision easier now that we had our own family, who we wanted to grow up with as many opportunities as possible. The choice was clear; California it was. The more I contemplated relocating from the island I knew so well, the more ambitious I was to take a different direction. After 16 years as a member of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra I was up for a challenge and for a breath of fresh air professionally. My wife was more concerned than I was. I was being taken from my professional network and ties and relocating to a place where I was unknown to start from scratch, auditioning and volunteering until I demonstrated my capabilities. If it hadn’t been for this move, I would have never discovered historically informed performance on a professional level. It would have remained something distant in a textbook.

At what point in your career did you discover historically informed performance practice? Were you instantly taken with it, or did your love for it slowly develop?

  • As a student of the Conservatory of Music in my undergraduate program I took a course in music development, which included the different periods of music. I had heard and performed many Baroque pieces, but these were interpreted in the modern fashion. However, it was not until I relocated to California that I discovered historically informed performance practice. I had been researching local music groups and programs when I stumbled upon the genre with great curiosity. I was instantly taken with it. I was frustrated at first because I felt like I had missed out on a wonderful world of interpretation. All of the Baroque pieces I knew…I had misplayed them, not being true to their historic performance practice. Thus, the next phase in my professional development commenced—to re-learn and improve my skills, this time in historically informed performance. It is more than learning to tune and play on gut strings, or to use a different type of bow. It is a way of understanding and interpreting the music. It is a way of life.

You came to the ABS Academy in 2014. What was your experience? Did it open up doors for you in the Early Music community?

  • My experience at the ABS Academy was life-changing. I was able to meet local and international musicians who were interested in challenging their knowledge. It is a completely different world to play in a modern orchestra and then perform with a historically informed orchestra. There is a greater appreciation of being true to the interpretation of the pieces. It is a spiritual retreat for me to have such a caring role within the pieces as a musician in the ABS Academy and to be guided to greater learning.

You then returned to the Academy for a second time in 2015. Why’d you decide to come back?

  • I decided to return the following year, as I was performing in southern California and found myself desiring further knowledge and growth. The more I learned, the better I played. I couldn’t give up the opportunity to return to continue to refine my skills and perform with such extraordinary musicians. Not to mention it is such a joy to perform with ABS. I truly consider the experience a spiritual retreat.

During that time you also became a professional member of the ABS Orchestra. How has that shaped your career?

  • I feel like I am at the beginning of my career again, when some of my peers are bored to frustration. Believe it or not, being a professional musician for some can become monotonous if you don’t challenge yourself, just as it can in any other profession. Relocating, and taking a risk professionally, has opened up an entire new world to me. Being a member of the ABS Orchestra is a privilege of a lifetime and I am very proud to be a part of it.

When you think about performing with Jeffrey Thomas and your ABS colleagues, what stands out?

  • The final product is outstanding. Every concert is unique. The preparation of each concert is carefully crafted. Jeffrey Thomas is a highly skilled and meticulous conductor. In my career I have performed under world-renowned directors, and Jeffrey Thomas falls right into the high caliber of director that is ingenious, who is able to express what he needs from the ABS Orchestra. The work environment is one-of-a-kind. The chemistry of the group with the director is spot on. Each musician gives more than 100% of themselves to each performance. Overall, the level of dedication, professionalism, and love for music is why it is such a great experience.

You also recently founded your own Baroque group in San Diego. Can you tell us a bit about that?

  • It is a community Baroque group called Kensington Baroque Orchestra (KBO), because it was founded in a community in San Diego called Kensington. It is open to amateurs and professional musicians who want to broaden their knowledge and skills based on the techniques of historically informed performance. Even in a city like San Diego, where I have found great diversity and opportunity, there is still a great need to broaden the understanding of historically informed performance. I am very proud that two members of KBO are here attending the ABS Academy. This is what music is—sharing it with others—not just the audience, but with my colleagues, regardless of their level of experience. It is rewarding to give back to the community I now call my home. I look forward to continuing to develop the Baroque scene in San Diego for everyone to enjoy.

Finally, what does your ideal career in Early Music look like?

  • Continuing to develop my knowledge and skills to improve my level of performance by performing with ABS. Being able to perform, teach, and enjoy as I continue to grow professionally. Each performance I feel like I continue to develop my appreciation for the practice. Continuing to give back to my community by inspiring the next generation of musicians, audience members, and patrons to play an active role, to be informed in historically informed practice. But most of all, enjoying the musical experience.
Read more about Ramón by visiting his web site:

Jeffrey Thomas Happily Recounts ABS’s 28th Season

Dear ABS Friends –

I look back on every season with great appreciation for your patronage and support, and for the thrilling and fully committed musical contributions made by our roster of instrumentalists and vocalists, and I’m always deeply appreciative of the wonderful work that our ABS staff does to support audiences and musicians alike. But this past year was especially wonderful.

At our 2016 Festival & Academy we presented yet another American premiere, one in an ever-growing list of many, when our Academy singers, orchestra, and the American Bach Choir collaborated in Handel’s gorgeous work, Parnasso in Festa. For that Festival, we welcomed guest speaker William Berger—author, lecturer, and writer/producer for the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts, and commentator on the Met’s Sirius/XM broadcasts—recognizing our widespread fame both across the country and around the world. Our largest Academy class to date was superb.

Our 2016 Gala, “Sparkle!” was a sensational evening, featuring ABS trumpeter Kathryn Adduci and baritone Mischa Bouvier. From start to finish, it was one of the spectacular nights “out in San Francisco” that those who attended enjoyed thoroughly.

Then, in December, we began our 16-17 season of concerts with Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral, an annual tradition for close to two decades.

Two vivid memories of those performances stand out in my mind. Canadian soprano (and alumna from the very first ABS Academy in 2000) Hélène Brunet, was amazing. She moved our hearts especially in “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and her flawless mastery of the difficult coloratura in “Rejoice greatly” was absolutely impeccable. Coincidentally, during that inaugural ABS Academy, Hélène sang the role of Mary Magdalene in Handel’s La Resurrezione which we reprised in May of this year.

The other standout in my mind of those performances was the extraordinary praise for ABS and our work that Bishop Marc Andrus offered before one of the performances. It had been a tragic week in Aleppo, and Bishop Marc engaged the entire audience and musicians in a prayer for peace, reminding us that it is music like Handel’s Messiah that can help to heal our souls.

I’m frequently asked to describe the rationale behind revisiting works on a frequent basis, and my answer is always the same: There is more to polish, more to reveal, and more genius embedded within the composer’s notes to make audible and palpable to our wonderful audiences. But last year’s performances were, in my mind, more extraordinary than ever. Let me explain…

Over the last seven years, you’ve probably noticed many new members of our orchestra. Almost all of them have come from our Academy, which is now recognized in print reviews as having had a very important effect on the national Early Music scene. At ABS, those new musicians have brought determined willingness to polish and hone both their skills and the music we play with a kind of integrity that has inspired me more than I can express. I hope they know that! And, by extension, our audiences have felt that at every performance. The near perfection of last December’s performances is unforgettable to me, and—as I always have been over these past 25+ years—I am tremendously grateful for the meticulous care that our players and singers put into their performances with us. I believe it is unique to the ABS experience, and I am so thankful.

Our annual event titled “Into the Woods” featured a performance of Academy alumni (joined by ABS principal contrabassist, Steven Lehning) that was a preview of this coming summer’s Festival titled “English Majesty.” Along with violinists Cynthia Black and Holly Piccoli, ‘cellist Gretchen Claassen, and harpsichordist Michael Peterson, mezzo-soprano Mindy Ella Chu offered songs by William Lawes and Henry Purcell, including the favorite “Fairest Isle” from King Arthur, to be performed in August of this year.

As usual, at “Into the Woods” which is hosted by Tom Driscoll & Nancy Quinn, guests were treated to samples from Tom’s renowned wine cellar. Each year, he matches wine flight tastings (usually five) to the music that is performed. English music, surprisingly, presented no problem for Tom’s legendary skills as a sommelier extraordinaire: Noting that a favorite activity of the English during the Baroque era was “The Grand Tour”—which always included France—guests were the happy imbibers of wines from Bordeaux. “Into the Woods” is an auction item that is offered every year at the ABS Gala, coming up next in September.

Politics, especially at the beginning of 2017, kept great numbers of people indoors. Restaurants, concert halls, museums, movie theaters, all experienced unexpected and ultimately debilitating drops in patronage. That reaction is still being felt, not so much in attendance any more, but now in restrained philanthropic support. All arts organizations are grappling with this issue, ironic as it may be following many months of increased portfolio values. I sent a message to our patrons at that time asking all of us to forge ahead, putting one foot in front of the other, and going out to support the elements of their lives that give them joy, and to support them more than ever, given negatively adjusted expectations of federal grant support. So, although our audiences for “A Weekend in Paris” were not sold-out as we had expected, those who attended raved about it being one of the most exciting and “happy” concerts they’ve ever heard. The orchestra played brilliantly, and our soprano soloist, ABS Academy alumna Nola Richardson, all but stole the show.

Next was our program of Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus. The SFCV review was a rave:

“American Bach Soloists Illuminate Divinity in the Details … Grounding it all was the sheer sonic pleasure of voices operating in consort, with antiphonal call-and-response and layered structures of elaborate counterpoint … the audience came to be enfolded in the sometimes seraphic, sometimes hypnotically dense textures of this extraordinary music … the architectural expanses and expressive powers of Bach were mapped out in glorious fashion.” – Steven Wynn, San Francisco Classical Voice

Over the days that immediately followed, we went into recording sessions of that exciting repertoire. The recording space was the chapel at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, at the very top of Marin Avenue in Berkeley. It is a magnificent property on the western crest and border of Tilden Regional Park. The site’s extremely tall trees are incredible to behold, but during what was the worst wind storm in recent memory on Thursday, April 6th, the thunderous roar of 50+ miles per hour winds gusting through those trees was almost deafening and ultimately resulted in massive power outages, including at our recording location. So we lost an hour that night, but reconvened the following evening, with an emergency generator ready to get us through the final session. All ended splendidly, and you’ll be able to hear that recording when it is released commercially and on iTunes sometime next month, in June of this year.

A special event in Napa on the gorgeous Sunday afternoon of April 30th was offered to our major donors. Delicious wine, scrumptious delectables, and a splendid recital by ABS Academy alumnus Kyle Stegall, accompanied by Steven Bailey, were the high points. Kyle and Steve chose a program of works by Charles Ives, Robert Schumann, and Reynaldo Hahn. I must say (as a tenor in a previous life) that Kyle’s interpretations brought new discoveries to me. He is a most thoughtful and sincere artist with a beautiful voice, and Steve is simply one of the finest vocal accompanists (and solo pianists) that I know.

Our season drew to its close just a couple of weeks ago with Handel’s beautiful and imaginative La Resurrezione. Again, supported by our wonderful instrumentalists (with nearly 50% of them having come through the ABS Academy to become full members of ABS), a quintet of superb vocalists—Meg Bragle, Jesse Blumberg, Mary Wilson, Nola Richardson, and Kyle Stegall—rendered the oratorio to more rave reviews:

“Together with a quintet of fine singers, the orchestra was hitting on all cylinders, jumping on their cues with authority, and digging down to create a warm, full sound without sacrificing rhythmic vitality … if this orchestra is the shape of things to come, ABS fans must be overjoyed.” – Michael Zwiebach, San Francisco Classical Voice

“Exquisitely beautiful performance … beautifully captured both the sumptuousness and intimacy of Handel’s writing” – Joshua Kosman, SF Gate

The dramatic action of the work shifts back and forth from the tensions of the slowly passing hours of the day following the Crucifixion to a lively and quite humorous interaction of an Angel (sung by soprano Mary Wilson) and Lucifer (sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg). Those two characters battle out their differences, ultimately resulting in the triumph of the Angel and the sending down of Lucifer, for whom (in Handel’s hands) we feel a kind of empathy. This was part of Handel’s genius: He understood human nature so well that we often feel sorry for the most unsavory characters in his operas. This candid photo of Jesse and Mary comically expresses their characters’ relationship.

Jesse Blumberg (Lucifer) and Mary Wilson (Angel) “duke it out” back stage, rehearsing for their often comical interactions in Handel’s “La Resurrezione”

Altogether, it was, to me, a most glorious season. All of our artists bring such great joy to me and, I hope, to you, too.

Thank you for being with us for our 28th Season. Technically speaking, it’s not over yet! Our upcoming Summer Festival & Academy will bring, as always, a plentiful array of concerts, free master classes and lectures, and the excitement of meeting the newest and most promising young musicians who are dedicating their careers to the inclusion of thoughtful and expert performances of music from the Baroque.

Next year brings a season of absolute masterpieces by Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. And that leads to our 30th season (2018-2019) which will feature “All-Bach” Subscription Concerts. How else could we celebrate such a milestone?

With sincere gratitude,

Tenor Kyle Stegall on his ABS Recital and Handel’s La Resurrezione

On Sunday, April 30, ABS hosted a special event at a stunning home in Napa Valley. Guests were served food and champagne before being treated to a recital by tenor Kyle Stegall and pianist Steven Bailey. The following weekend, Kyle performed the role of John the Evangelist in ABS’s performances of Handel’s La Resurrezione. In between, we caught up with Kyle to discuss his busy week with ABS.

1) While ABS is known as a premier Baroque ensemble, we enjoy occasionally showcasing our soloists in other repertoire during special events. How did you come to choose works by Schumann, Hahn, and Ives for your recital?

The event was graciously hosted in a beautiful gathering room in the country, and as it took place on the last day of April, I thought it appropriate to showcase various languages, both musical and poetic, which approached the subject of Spring. In order to do this, it was necessary to select composers and poets of different backgrounds. By combining the personal and colloquial language of Ives, the emotional language of Schumann, and the atmospheric and subtly nostalgic language of Hahn, I was able to create a program which (hopefully) gave a three-dimensional picture of Spring.

2) House concerts by their very nature provide a more intimate experience for the audience. Does that intimacy create tangible differences for you, the performer, during the performance? Does it change your approach to the music?

It is difficult to say that my approach to the music is tangibly different in recital, but I am confident that the experience is different for the audience. Whether I am performing on the opera, concert, or recital stage, my goal as a singer is the same: to communicate. These three venues offer different benefits to the listener, but all have that common goal for me. The song recital deserves as much attention as any other genre, for its vast and distinctly intimate repertoire, and for its vulnerable atmosphere. I am grateful to Maestro Thomas and to ABS for presenting me in this setting.

3) Your recital was a one-on-one collaboration with pianist Steven Bailey, and in many ways it was a dialogue between your two musical minds. When you perform with the full forces of ABS, do you think of the orchestra and choir as a singular entity, or do you feel in the moment as though you’re simultaneously collaborating with Jeffrey Thomas and the numerous musicians? Does this change how you respond to the music?

The more musicians, the more streams of stimuli to which you respond! It is a wonderful experience performing with the sterling artists of the American Bach Soloists, every time. Each aspect of their core repertoire is critically important; from the obbligato soloists, to the chorus, to the Baroque orchestra as a whole. Under the clear and brilliant musical direction of Jeffrey Thomas, we are all able to effectively add our voices to the whole, making the combined impact thrillingly potent.

4) Looking back on your recent performances of Handel’s La Resurrezione, what would you like audiences to know about your role as John the Evangelist in that monumental oratorio?

Those were my first performances of La Resurrezione. I was overwhelmed by the work’s brilliance. Each character in the story has his or her own point of access to the drama, and to the absent character of Jesus. The libretto is beautifully written, set perfectly by a composer who truly stands apart for his ability to convey the layered dramas extant in human passions. The character of John the Evangelist is painted as a man of self-discipline and great compassion. His music speaks in an ever hopeful and calming voice to the characters of the story, as well as to each person in the audience. What an honor it was to have been a part of the season finale with some of the best storytellers in music.

Kyle Stegall

For more information about Kyle Stegall, visit his web site: kylestegall.com

Welcome to Meg Bragle!

Our performances of Handel’s La Resurrezione will feature the long-awaited ABS debut of Meg Bragle, an American mezzo-soprano who has worked with some of the most highly regarded Baroque ensembles in the world, including the English Baroque Soloists with Sir John Eliot Gardner, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. ABS caught up with Meg to hear some of her thoughts about her career, her desire to work with Jeffrey Thomas, and her role in La Resurrezione.

Meg Bragle

You’ve found a lot of success performing Baroque music. How did you come to realize you had a certain affinity for this repertoire? Was it a specific performance or opportunity?

I feel incredibly lucky to have found my way to Baroque music. It’s hard to say that there was one defining moment—rather that many threads of my musical life drew me to the repertoire and approach to music-making. Certainly one of the most important and compelling elements for me is the collaborative spirit that pervades the genre. I love that feeling you get when everyone is on the same wave length and music happens.   

What excites you about working with Jeffrey Thomas and ABS for the first time?

Jeffrey is one of the foremost conductors in the American Baroque scene, and I’ve been looking forward to working with him for a long time. I love that he is both a singer and conductor, and I think that this gives him a unique approach to music-making.

Does your preparation change when you are about to work with an ensemble for the first time rather than a group with which you’re already familiar?

I don’t think so. It’s always exciting to work with a new group, and the process of getting to know an ensemble when working together for the first time is always something I look forward to. But really my preparation is focused on the music and text. Once you arrive and start working with the other musicians, that’s when the piece takes on a different life of its own—each group has its own musical identity and approach.  The trick is finding your way with them toward the common goal of an expressive and compelling performance.

Given your considerable opera experience, how do you incorporate your acting abilities, if at all, for oratorio performances such as La Resurrezione? In other words, do you still “act” your role while stationary?

I think oratorio requires more of a singer in some ways because you aren’t dependent on costumes, sets, or choreography to bolster the action. The text is paramount, and it is so important to remember that Handel’s original audiences expected to be moved when attending the first performances, since they were deprived of opera at the time (a papal ban prohibited operatic performances in Rome when La Resurrezione was premiered). I think my primary job is to communicate with the audience: to take the words and music Handel wrote and draw people into the drama.

What would you like the audience to know about your role as Mary Cleophas? Is there something interesting that they should listen for?

Mary Cleophas is a mysterious figure in the Bible, and not much is known of her except that she was one of the women present at the Crucifixion of Jesus. Despite that, Handel has written some wonderful and expressive music for this rather unknown woman. La Resurezzione is full of musical delights and the writing is so expressive. I hope the audience enjoys every minute!

HANDEL: La Resurrezione

Nola Richardson, soprano (Mary Magdalene)
Mary Wilson, soprano (Angel)
Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano (Mary Cleophas)
Kyle Stegall, tenor (John the Evangelist)
Jesse Blumberg, baritone (Lucifer)
American Bach Soloists
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

Friday May 5 2017 8:00 pm
St. Stephen’s Church, 3 Bayview Avenue, BELVEDERE

Saturday May 6 2017 8:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church, 2407 Dana Street, BERKELEY

Sunday May 7 2017 4:00 pm
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell Street, SAN FRANCISCO

Monday May 8 2017 7:00 pm
​Davis Community Church, 412 C Street, DAVIS

Meet the Vocal Soloists for Handel’s “La Resurrezione”

Composed and first performed during his youthful sojourn in Rome, Handel’s 1708 work is a marvel of creative power and imagination. La Resurrezione, a truly operatic oratorio, scandalized the Vatican (opera was prohibited in Rome by Papal edict at the time) yet assured Handel’s place as the new master of Italian operatic style. Heaven and Hell—embodied in an Angel and Lucifer—battle for supremacy on earth through this dramatic telling of the emotions and convictions of Mary Magdalene, Mary Cleophas, and John the Evangelist. The score demands bravura performances from singers and instrumentalists alike. ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas conducts an outstanding cast of leading Handelians in this early example of the composer’s brilliance.

Mary WilsonMary Wilson (soprano) is acknowledged as one of today’s most exciting artists, with Opera News heralding her first solo recording, Mary Wilson Sings Handel, as one of their “Best of the Year.” Cultivating a wide-ranging career singing chamber music, oratorio, and operatic repertoire, her “bright soprano seems to know no terrors, wrapping itself seductively around every phrase” (Dallas Morning News). Receiving consistent critical acclaim from coast to coast, “she proves why many in the opera world are heralding her as an emerging star. She is simply amazing, with a voice that induces goose bumps and a stage presence that is mesmerizing. She literally stole the spotlight …” (Arizona Daily Star). An exciting interpreter of Baroque repertoire, “with a crystal clear and agile soprano voice perfectly suited to Handel’s music” (Early Music America), she has appeared with American Bach Soloists, Philharmonia Baroque, Musica Angelica, Boston Baroque, Portland Baroque Orchestra, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Casals Festival, and the Carmel Bach Festival. In high demand on the concert stage, she has recently appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Singapore Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, National Symphony of Costa Rica, at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, to list but a few. She has frequently worked with conductors Jeffrey Thomas, Martin Haselböck, Bernard Labadie, Nicholas McGegan, Martin Pearlman, and Leonard Slatkin. With the IRIS Chamber Orchestra, she sang the World Premiere of the song cycle Songs Old and New written especially for her by Ned Rorem. She was named an Emerging Artist by Symphony Magazine in the publication’s first ever presentation of promising classical soloists on the rise. On the opera stage, she is especially noted for her portrayals of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Susannah in Le Nozze di Figaro, and Gilda in Rigoletto. She has created roles in world premiere performances of Dove’s Flight, Glass’ Galileo Galilei, and Petitgirard’s Joseph Merrick dit L’Elephant Man. A national finalist of the 1999 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she has appeared with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, Opera Memphis, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and many others. Ms Wilson holds vocal performance degrees from St. Olaf College and Washington University in St. Louis. She is an Assistant Professor of Voice at the University of Memphis where she resides with her husband, son, and two dogs.

Nola RichardsonNola Richardson (soprano), a participant in the ABS Academy in 2012 and 2013, has received attention for the “precision and clarity” of her voice and the sensitivity of her interpretations, particularly in the Baroque repertoire. Her operatic roles include Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro and Madame Silberklang in Der Schauspieldirektor with Bel Cantanti Opera, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte with Maryland Concert Opera, Gianetta in L’elisir D’amore with Emerald City Opera, Calisto in La Calisto with Peabody Opera Theater, the Child in Lux et Tenebrae with The Figaro Project (a world premiere), and the Dew Fairy and Gretel (cover) in Hansel and Gretel with Chesapeake Chamber Opera and Maryland Concert Opera. In addition to her operatic work, Ms. Richardson frequently appears in concerts throughout the United States. She presents recitals of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music which have included performances for the opening of the exhibit Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe at the Walters Art Gallery and a featured performance in the Boston Early Music Fringe Festival. She has performed Bach›s Mass in B Minor with the American Bach Soloists Academy and the Bach Concert Series, Schubert›s Mass in G Major and Handel›s Messiah with Hood College and the US Naval Academy, Bach›s Jauchzett Gott in allen Landen with the Bach Sinfonia, and Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ at the Cathedral of the Incarnation. Ms. Richardson also has appeared as a soloist with Tempesta di Mare and recently performed in concert as part of the Early Music Series at the Walters with trumpeter Andrew Balio of the BSO featuring virtuosic Baroque repertoire for trumpet and soprano. Ms. Richardson also performs as a member of the medieval ensemble, Eya, and her voice can be heard on the recording Concerto delle Donne with Heaven’s Noyse present the Music of Chiara Margarita Cozzolani. She is the official cantor of the Cathedral of the Incarnation and the Episcopalian Diocese of Maryland and she frequently performs as a professional chorister and soloist with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, Chantry, and Cathedra, at the Washington National Cathedral. Ms. Richardson will be releasing her first album of lute songs with John Armato in June. This summer she will appear as a young artist and cover the title role in the Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Handel’s Almira and return for a second season with the American Bach Soloists. She has taught voice for over six years, combining pedagogy studies with performance experience, and considers teaching to be a valuable part of her career as a musician. She has presented workshops to singers from all over Maryland on choral diction and vocal technique. She holds two Master of Music degrees in Vocal Performance/Pedagogy and Early Music from the Peabody Conservatory, and has studied under sopranos Phyllis Bryn-Julson and Ah Hong. She was the first soprano to ever be accepted into both the Yale Voxtet and DMA programs.

Meg BragleMeg Bragle (mezzo-soprano), widely praised for her musical intelligence and “expressive virtuosity” (San Francisco Chronicle), is quickly earning an international reputation as one of today’s most gifted and versatile artists. As a featured soloist with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists, she has made four recordings with the group, including Bach’s Easter and Ascension Oratorios—the vehicle for her BBC Proms debut—and the Fall 2015 release of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Ms. Bragle has sung in North America and Europe with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Les Violons du Roy, Apollo’s Fire, and the Dunedin Consort. Highlights of her 2016-17 season include appearances with Milwaukee Symphony (Mozart’s Requiem), Cincinnati Symphony (Bach’s Mass in B Minor), St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater), Dunedin Consort (Handel’s Messiah), Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (Bach Lutheran Masses), and Early Music Vancouver (Bach’s Magnificat). Bragle also performs this season at the Winter Park, Carmel Bach, and London Baroque Festivals, with Voices of Music, and Catacoustic Consort. Other recent highlights include Bruno Moretti’s Vespro with New York City Ballet, tours of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and “Christmas Oratorio” with the Netherlands Bach Society, and Bach’s Lutheran Masses with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Her recent opera roles include Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo, Dido and the Sorceress in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Dardano in Handel’s Amadigi, Amastre in Handel’s Serse, Speranza in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, Ippolita in Cavalli’s Elena, and Elpina in Vivaldi’s La Fida Ninfa. Ms. Bragle is an accomplished recording artist.  In addition to those with the English Baroque Soloists, she has made several recordings with Apollo’s Fire: Mozart’s Requiem (Koch), Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (Avie), and Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (Avie), and L’Orfeo (Eclectra). Other recordings include Cozzolani’s Vespro della Beata Vergine and Messa Paschale with Magnificat (Musica Omnia), “Music of Medieval Love” with New York’s Ensemble for Early Music (Ex Cathedra), Toby Twining’s Chrysalid Requiem (Cantaloupe), Anthony Newman’s Requiem (Khaeon World Music), and Copland’s In the Beginning with the late John Scott and the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys (New York City) and the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte on their own labels.

Kyle StegallKyle Stegall (tenor), also an alumnus of the ABS Academy (2013), has been praised for his “lovely tone and ardent expression” (New York Times), as well as his “lively and empathetic delivery” (San Francisco Classical Voice). His career has taken him around the world as a specialist in music of the Baroque.  An artist who communicates equally well on concert, opera, and recital stages, his performances are characterized by an unfailing attention to style and detail. Mr. Stegall’s successful solo debuts in Japan, Australia, Vienna, Italy, Singapore, and Canada as well as on major stages across America have been in collaboration with many of the world’s most celebrated conductors including Jeffrey Thomas, William Christie, Joseph Flummerfelt, and Manfred Honeck among others.  Heard frequently as Evangelist and tenor soloist in the passions and cantatas of J.S. Bach, Mr. Stegall made his Lincoln Center debut as the Evangelist in the St. John Passion under the direction of Masaaki Suzuki. Other concert work also figures prominently in Mr. Stegall’s seasons including the oratorios of Handel and Haydn, the great masses of Mozart and Beethoven, and choral-orchestral works from the bel canto and 20th-century canon.  Mr. Stegall’s “ability to absorb viewers into the action, something which is rarely achieved in opera” (San Francisco Classical Voice), has made him a popular choice for leading lyric tenor roles in stage repertoire spanning the entire Western Music tradition. Upcoming performances include the Evangelist in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” with The Bach Society of St. Louis, recital appearances in Melbourne, Sonoma, and the role of Endimione in West Edge Opera’s summer festival production of Martin y Soler’s L’abore di Diana.  Mr. Stegall holds degrees from the universities of Missouri, Michigan, and Yale, and maintains a schedule of private teaching and guest masterclasses throughout each season.

Jesse BlumbergJesse Blumberg (baritone) is equally at home on opera, concert, and recital stages, performing repertoire from the Renaissance and Baroque to the 21st century. His performances have included the world premiere of The Grapes of Wrath at Minnesota Opera, Niobe, Regina di Tebe with Boston Early Music Festival, Bernstein’s MASS at London’s Royal Festival Hall, and appearances with Atlanta Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, and Boston Lyric Opera. Recital highlights include appearances with the Marilyn Horne Foundation and New York Festival of Song, and performances of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise with pianist Martin Katz. He has performed major works with American Bach Soloists, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Boston Baroque, Oratorio Society of New York, Apollo’s Fire, Charlotte Symphony, TENET/Green Mountain Project, and on Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series. Mr. Blumberg has given the world premieres of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Green Sneakers, Lisa Bielawa’s The Lay of the Love and Death, Conrad Cummings’ Positions 1956, and Tom Cipullo’s Excelsior. He also works closely with several other renowned composers as a member of the Mirror Visions Ensemble. He has been featured on a dozen commercial recordings, including the 2014 Grammy-winning Charpentier Chamber Operas with Boston Early Music Festival. He has been recognized in several competitions, and was awarded Third Prize at the 2008 International Robert Schumann Competition in Zwickau, becoming its first American prizewinner in over thirty years.  He received a Master of Music degree from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and received undergraduate degrees in History and Music from the University of Michigan. He is also the founder and artistic director of Five Boroughs Music Festival, which brings chamber music of many genres to every corner of New York City.

Friday, May 5, 2017, 8:00 pm – St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere
Saturday, May 6, 2017, 8:00 pm – First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley
Sunday, May 7, 2017, 4:00 pm – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco
Monday, May 8, 2017, 7:00 pm – Davis Community Church, Davis

Gala Auction Winners of “Maestro Chef” Enjoy Gourmet Feasts

We all know what Jeffrey Thomas can do in a concert hall, but did you know that he’s equally skilled in the kitchen? One of the Live Auction items at last September’s “Sparkle” Gala was “Maestro Chef: Dinner for Four.” The item was so popular that the offer was extended to two top bidders. Customized menus were developed by our ABS Artistic Director especially for the guests, and the dinners were hosted by Elizabeth Wilson & Dennis Bonney in their exquisite home on the border of San Francisco’s Presidio. Both evenings featured delicious food, paired wines, and endlessly fascinating conversations.​

But if Jeffrey Thomas is the “Maestro” chef, ABS’s Artistic Administrator and principal contrabass player Steven Lehning is truly the “Master” chef. Just as his Herculean musical efforts in the ABS office are the backbone to every ABS musical program, so were his formidable culinary skills the core of the meal preparations.

Dennis Bonney - Elizabeth Wilson - Liz McCrum - Kaneez Munjee - Chris McCrum - Hugh Davies (not pictured: Steven Lehning, photographer)

Dennis Bonney – Elizabeth Wilson – Liz McCrum – Kaneez Munjee – Chris McCrum – Hugh Davies (not pictured: Steven Lehning, photographer)

For the first evening—which took place on the weekend of the Bay Area’s tremendous January downpours—the auction winners Hugh Davies & Kaneez Munjee of San Rafael invited ABS friends Chris McCrum & Liz Velarde to join them for a menu that began with champagne, delicate asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and dusted with lemon zest, and baby tomatoes filled with a shrimp cream with just a dash of horseradish. A chestnut soup with Madeira and truffle oil followed, paired with Amontillado sherry. The salad course was a doubleheader: shaved fennel, grapefruit, and mint, splashed with a light citrus dressing was served alongside a frisée salad with slivered kumquats tossed with vinaigrette. The wine pairing was a Rosé from Château de L’Aumerade in Côtes de Provence. For the main course, Boeuf Bourguignon took the center stage, served with baby potatoes roasted with rosemary & parmesan, and haricots verts with toasted almonds. The wine, a 2012 Reserve Cabernet, was from Stonetree Cellars, the private vineyards of Paul & Sandy Ogden. Finally, a spectacular Pavlova, prepared by our hostess, Elizabeth Wilson, capped off the unforgettable evening.

Irene & Bob Belknap - Ben & Meagan Becker - Steven Lehning - Elizabeth Wilson (not pictured: Jeffrey Thomas, photographer)

Irene & Bob Belknap – Ben & Meagan Becker – Steven Lehning – Elizabeth Wilson (not pictured: Jeffrey Thomas, photographer)

For the second offering of the Gala Auction item—on the weekend just before ABS’s “Bach Cantatas” performances—the winners were Ben & Meagan Becker of Mill Valley, who invited Robert & Irene Belknap as their guests. Following champagne and hors d’oeuvres, an appetizer of baked mushrooms filled with a blend of chèvre, olives, and herbs was followed by a “duet” of chilled soups: the first was a creamy avocado blend with hints of lemon and garlic, and the second was a fennel-based vichyssoise, both served with a Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand’s Marlborough region. The main course was a beautifully presented salmon en croûte, served with multi-colored baby carrots and spring green beans sautéed with caramelized shallots, and baby potatoes roasted with garlic and rosemary. Oak Knoll’s Napa Valley Chardonnay completed the course. And, luckily for all at the table, Elizabeth again prepared her now legendary Pavlova for dessert.​

ABS thanks Hugh, Kaneez, Ben, and Meagan for their support at our Gala. And we are very grateful to Elizabeth and Dennis for opening up their beautiful home for two evenings of ABS fun. Additional “Maestro Chef” dinners might be offered at our next—and fifteenth!—Annual Gala Auction, Concert, & Dinner on September 23, 2017, at the James Leary Flood Mansion in San Francisco, benefiting the American Bach Soloists Academy. For more information, visit the Sparkle Gala web site at americanbach.org/gala.

Sparkle 2017

ABS’s Steve Lehning asks Chorus Members ​about singing Bach Motets

Next week, ABS will present a program of Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus. I thought it would be interesting to ask ABS Chorus members to reflect on their experiences with these works, so I sent out a number of questions and here are some of the responses I received.

Nearly everyone had their first experience with these works while they were in college.

For me that was the case—although my experience was as a continuo instrumentalist, not a singer. Several singers remember that they were required to perform them from memory, and because of that these works have remained with them in a way others have not. Cheryl Cain (soprano) even goes so far as to say that, because of the impact they had on her when she was younger, they have become part of her musical psyche!

While many remember singing these works as students, when asked how often they have the opportunity to perform them as professionals a very different picture emerges. Most admit to having sung one or two only once every four or five years. Allison Zelles Lloyd (soprano) replied:

  • “How often? Not often enough.”

Elizabeth Eliassen (alto) wrote:

  • “It is seldom that one hears more than one on the program offered by a choir of volunteers; in such cases, only the most muscular among the motets are programmed, mostly as if to say, “See, we can do it!”

Perhaps this is because they are considered so technically demanding. Elizabeth goes on:

  • “But, lay these works end on end, and one is hard pressed to hear anything but the sheer variety and depth of ways in which Bach was able to convey hope, assurance, faith, release and joy, setting scripture, paraphrases of scripture and hymn texts. We will experience emotions from poignant to ecstatic, range from lipid meditation to playful musical filigree to loud and echoing testimony.”​

When asked about Bach’s vocal writing compared to other choral repertoire, the opinion is nearly unanimous. As much as it is rewarding to sing, the music is very demanding. Tom Hart (bass) feels that:

  • “As a performer, your mind, voice and body have to be aligned to enable you to sing Bach well. As far as the motets are concerned, I look at each one as a perfectly constructed masterpiece.”

Daniel Cromeenes (countertenor) agrees, saying:

  • “The craftsmanship of Bach leaves little room for error, so you have to be on top of your game in both vocal technique and mental alertness. Also, while some [other] repertoire practically sings itself, Bach’s works usually require some digging in and studying in order to discern all the facets and intricacies of his music.”

Allison Zelles Lloyd is more philosophical with her opinion:

  • “There is a precision and an elegant pacing in performing the motets. Bach composes the phrasing, the imitation, the counterpoint, harmonic progressions, rhythmic proportions, the dissonances and resolutions in such a mathematically balanced way, that I am left feeling after singing it in performance, that all is right in the world.  It is a deeply satisfying experience. Bach further performs a balancing act with the overall structure of the motets by contrasting the florid passages with the syllabic chorales.  … I sometimes imagine the choir as a congregation—as human—while singing the chorales, and during the florid passages, as the angelic host.”

So, what is it about these pieces that makes them so demanding? As Ed Betts (tenor) so concisely puts it:

  • “The motets are exceptionally transparent and exposed, both musically and emotionally. There’s no hiding when you perform them!”

When Tom Hart was asked if there are challenges, he replied:

  • “Absolutely—especially the florid passages which usually move from section to section. They are soloistic in difficulty and yet demand an additional level of precision since other sections are singing much the same thing at the same time. Additionally, an overlying arc of lyrical movement is necessary to prevent the melismas from sounding mechanical. That is the challenge for me—to be able to create crystal clear movement that possesses human feeling.”

Elisabeth Eliassen agrees with Tom’s assessment that the singing must not sound perfunctory, but takes it beyond simply sounding human.

  • “Many of these motets contain challenging leaps and lines, requiring the utmost control, even restraint; you can’t over do, but you also can’t be stiff and stifled. Singing this music involves a great deal of mental energy, but it is also very physical. The shifts in mood conveyed by the music and text require a complementary shift in spiritual attitude, as well as a willingness to be vocally and spiritually exposed—a willingness to be used as an earthly instrument to a heavenly purpose.”​​

But, ABS is all about Bach, so how does our specific mission color these performances? Again, the opinion of our musicians is undivided.

  • “It is such a gratifying part of my life to perform with the musicians of ABS and under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas. The level of professionalism, commitment to the music, the performance, to each other, is like no other. The supporting staff are also incredibly nice and dedicated to the organization. It’s been amazing to watch ABS grow and flourish in the Bay Area over the last 20+ years. The depth of interpretation that Jeffrey takes us to is a remarkable feature of ABS. Each note knows its role in the work by the time we are done rehearsing: structural, passing tone, harmony, rhythmic, ornament, emotional, etc. When the orchestra plays, it is clear that they are actually phrasing based on the text delivery which unifies the delivery of Bach’s musical intentions.” (Allison Zelles Lloyd).
  • “We spend more time pulling out the musicality and rhetoric of a piece rather than just being content with getting all the notes in at the right times with some generic dynamics.” (Daniel Cromeenes).
  • “Jeffrey’s sensibilities as a musician and vocalist as well as his attention to detail let him know what is possible. It’s so rewarding to work with someone who doesn’t settle for ‘good enough’.” (Mark Mueller, tenor).
  • His “… approach to each work is as unique as each piece. We singers know that years and years of thought, performance experience, and the hearing of many interpretations informs the way in which he chooses to nuance phrases. Attention to ensemble is so vital; we endeavor to prepare our ensemble to breathe as a single organism, if possible, so we can allow the music to escape from the boundaries of the page and flow from us with as much control, grace and artistry as we can muster.” (Elisabeth Eliassen).
With tremendous succinctness Ed Betts states:
  • “There’s nothing to compare with performing the Bach motets with Jeffrey and the singers of ABS! It’s in a class all by itself.”

So, to sum up; as we (the ABS musicians) look forward to performing the Bach motets, Amelia Triest (alto) says:

  • “I would never pass up a chance to do the motets— there are very few other pieces that demand such intricacy and collaboration among the singers.  The challenges are great, but so are the rewards.”
And I think Mark Mueller speaks for all of us when he says:
  • “They’re as dense as diamonds and just as precious. Can’t wait!”
​— Steven Lehning

Friday March 31 2017 8:00 pm St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere
Saturday April 1 2017 8:00 pm First Presbyterian Church, Berkeley
Sunday April 2 2017 4:00 pm St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco
Monday April 3 2017 7:00 pm ​Davis Community Church, Davis

Congratulations to ABS Academy Alumnus ARYEH NUSSBAUM-COHEN on winning Metropolitan Opera National Council Finals 2017

Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen

We are thrilled to let you know that countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen, a participant in the 2015 ABS Academy, has been named a Winner in the 2017 Metropolitan Opera National Council Finals held today in New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House. The Grand Finals Concert was hosted by Renée Fleming, a 1988 National Council Winner, and featured Nicola Luisotti conducting the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra as each finalist performed two arias. 

Praised by the San Francisco Chronicle as a “vocal powerhouse” and for the “expressive depth” of his singing, and acclaimed for his “soaring, otherworldly voice” by the Houston Chronicle, Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen is quickly making his mark in the worlds of opera and early music. In his breakout 2016-2017 season, in addition to being named a Grand Finals Winner (as well as being named the Audience Choice Award Winner in the Eastern Region) in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, he is the First Prize Winner in the Houston Grand Opera Eleanor McCollum Competition, and winner of the Irvin Scherzer Award as a Finalist in the George London Foundation Competition. His season also includes concerts with the Newberry Consort in Chicago and Operamission in New York City. In the summer of 2016, Aryeh participated in the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera, and in the summer of 2017, Aryeh will join Wolf Trap Opera as a Studio Artist.

In the 2017-2018 season, he joins the Houston Grand Opera Studio, as the first countertenor in the Studio’s history, where he will sing Nireno in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Maid in Strauss’ Elektra. He will also join American Bach Soloists for our 20th annual performances of Handel’s Messiah in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Upon hearing the news of Aryeh’s Met Grand Finals win, ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas happily recounted working with Aryeh in August, 2015:

“His singing of the Agnus Dei in Bach’s Mass in B Minor was unforgettable, so heartfelt, beautiful, and moving. It was tremendously exciting to work with such a young artist with immeasurable talent. Our Academy voice faculty were equally thrilled, and I am overjoyed that our audiences will hear this phenomenal vocalist during our December 2017 performances of Handel’s Messiah in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral and at the Robert & Margrit Mondavi Center for the Arts at UC Davis.”  

Aryeh Nussbaum-Cohen

Aryeh made his European debut at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Austria, singing the primo uomo role of Timante in Gluck’s Demofonte with baroque ensemble Il Complesso Barocco, under the baton of maestro Alan Curtis.

His opera roles also include Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, Raphael (The Angel) in Jonathan Dove’s Tobias and the Angel, and Cefalo in Cavalli’s Gli Amori di Apollo e Dafne. Further, Aryeh has significant experience in the world of sacred music – highlights include serving as the alto soloist in a performance of the Bach Magnificat with the Leipzig Barockorchester in the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany. During his senior year at Princeton University, Aryeh became the first singer to win the Princeton University Concerto Competition in a decade.

Currently residing in New York City, he received his BA in 2015 from Princeton University, where he majored in History (with a concentration in Intellectual and Cultural History) and received certificates in Vocal Performance and Judaic Studies. Upon graduating, he was awarded Princeton’s Isidore and Helen Sacks Memorial Prize for extraordinary achievement in the arts, granted each year to the student of greatest promise in the performance of classical music. He has spent extended time studying with ABS Academy faculty member Max van Egmond in Amsterdam, and he currently studies with Dr. Robert C. White, Jr. in New York. 

For more information, please visit Aryeh’s website: aryehnussbaumcohen.com

2017-2018 – American Bach Soloists Announce Their 29th Season

ABS’s 2017-2018 Season offers Musical Masterworks of the Baroque that have taken their places in the hearts of music lovers for all time.




Suzanne Karpov soprano (debut)
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen countertenor (debut)
Zachary Wilder tenor
Hadleigh Adams baritone (debut)
American Bach Choir
Jeffrey Thomas conductor

American Bach Soloists, led by Artistic & Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, present their annual performances of Handel’s masterpiece, Messiah, in one of San Francisco’s most awe-inspiring, sacred spaces. ABS, Handel, and Grace Cathedral are perennially a winning combination and a highlight of the holiday season. Since 1998, ABS has presented Messiah in San Francisco’s historic Grace Cathedral to more than 40,000 attendees. A Bay Area holiday tradition now in its 20th consecutive year, ABS’s performances of Handel’s timeless work attract music lovers from around the world.

  • “What safeguards the tradition are performers as engaged and provocative as Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Soloists.” Joshua Kosman, San Francisco Chronicle

ABS’s performances of Messiah have become an essential part of the musical year for many music lovers. Voted “Best of the Bay” by the readers of San Francisco Classical Voice, the Bay Area Reporter observed, “For those who treasure Messiah, Thomas’ version is revelatory.” Maestro Thomas will conduct the period-instrument specialists of ABS, the renowned American Bach Choir, and an internationally acclaimed quartet of brilliant vocal soloists.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017, 7:30 p.m. – Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Thursday, December 14, 2017, 7:30 p.m. – Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
Friday, December 15, 2017, 7:30 p.m. – Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

Additional Performance:
Sunday, December 17, 2017, 4:00 p.m. – Mondavi Center, Davis

Suzanne Karpov - Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen

Suzanne Karpov & Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen

Zachary Wilder & Hadleigh AdamsZachary Wilder & Hadleigh Adams


St. John Passion

Aaron Sheehan, Evangelista tenor
William Sharp, Christus baritone
Hélène Brunet soprano
Robin Bier alto (debut)
Jesse Blumberg baritone
American Bach Choir
Jeffrey Thomas conductor

The great Passions of J. S. Bach remain unparalleled in their dramatic impact and universally experienced emotional effects. Bach took the genre to new worlds of expression, incorporating the Lutheran tradition of chorales with newer, Italianate operatic elements. The result is a powerful force of rhetoric that tells the Passion story reinforced by personalized illuminations of onlookers. This is music that transcends cultural, religious, and theatrical boundaries between performers and audience members, drawing in listeners as historical participants. Maestro Thomas, one of the Baroque music world’s most celebrated Bach specialists, brings his unique and insightful perspectives to the podium in definitive performances that are profoundly beautiful and moving.

  • “When I heard the American Bach Soloists perform the St. John Passion in Belvedere Friday, the unashamed earnestness of their presentation was a powerful example of how persuasive and even seductive this music can be when under the care of great performers.”      San Francisco Classical Voice

Friday, February 23, 2018, 8:00 pm – St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere
Saturday, February 24, 2018, 8:00 pm – First Congregational Church, Berkeley
Sunday, February 25, 2018, 4:00 pm – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco
Monday, February 26, 2018, 7:00 pm – Davis Community Church, Davis

Aaron Sheehan & William SharpAaron Sheehan & William Sharp

Helene Brunet & Robin BierHélène Brunet & Robin Bier

Jesse Blumberg & Jeffrey ThomasJesse Blumberg & Jeffrey Thomas

APRIL 2018

Vespro della Beata Vergine (“Vespers of 1610”)
Magnificat a 6 voci

Nils Brown tenor
American Bach Choir
Jeffrey Thomas conductor

Like the most treasured works of art and spectacular architectural wonders, a handful of musical masterworks of the Baroque have taken their places in the hearts of music lovers for all time.  Our 29th subscription season continues with Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine (also known as the “Vespers of 1610”), a monumental work that displays its composer’s brilliant assimilation of styles—old and new, sacred and secular—and his masterful command of a wide palette of musical structures including psalm settings, sacred concertos, hymns, motets, and sonatas, all bound together by Gregorian chant. Last performed by ABS in 2010, audiences can expect the American Bach Soloists and the American Bach Choir to deliver an extraordinary performance of this splendid music from the Venetian school.

  • “It was a stunning performance … Mr. Thomas’ deep knowledge of the work gave him the ability to draw both subtleties and the rich sonorities to bring out the sheer majesty of Monteverdi … The large audience was transfixed.”      Classical Sonoma

Friday, April 6, 2018, 8:00 pm – St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere
Saturday, April 7, 2018, 8:00 pm – First Congregational Church, Berkeley
Sunday, April 8, 2018, 4:00 pm – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco
Monday, April 9, 2018, 7:00 pm – Davis Community Church, Davis

Nils Brown & American Bach ChoirNils Brown & American Bach Choir

MAY 2018

Orchestral Overtures & Suites

Sandra Miller flute
Debra Nagy & Stephen Bard oboes
Dominic Teresi bassoon
John Thiessen trumpet
Jeffrey Thomas conductor

The musical forms of dance were the most essential and permeating components of music from the Baroque era. Those clearly defined elements determined tempos, moods or affects, and the structural architectures of the vast majority of Baroque musical works, both with texts and purely instrumental. Historians have noted that Bach’s music is intensely infused with the spirit of dance, whether expressing joy, felicity, sorrow, or devotion, Bach’s suites not only celebrate the dance, but also the phenomenal technical abilities of his musicians. All four Orchestral Suites will be presented in these concerts, full of exuberant sonority, captivating melody, and displays of virtuosity from ABS’s famous roster of “the best American specialists in early music” (The Washington Post).

  • “The dotted rhythms of the Ouverture came off with a jaunty elegance … sparkled with variety as it charmed and beguiled from beginning to end.”     San Francisco Classical Voice

Friday, May 11, 2018, 8:00 pm – St. Stephen’s Church, Belvedere
Saturday, May 12, 2018, 8:00 pm – First Congregational Church, Berkeley
Sunday, May 13, 2018, 4:00 pm – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, San Francisco
Monday, May 14, 2018, 7:00 pm – Davis Community Church, Davis

Sandra Miller & Debra NagySandra Miller & Debra Nagy

Dominic Teresi & John ThiessenDominic Teresi & John Thiessen

American Bach Soloists 2017-2018 Season



Single tickets $20–$125
Subscribers receive a 15% discount.

For more information, visit americanbach.org or call 415-621-7900.

2017 American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy Tickets Now on Sale

Theme for 8th Annual Festival is

August 4-13 in Two Superb San Francisco Venues 

Tickets for the 8th annual American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy—San Francisco’s Summer Bach Festival—are now on sale. Titled “ENGLISH MAJESTY,” the 2017 Festival will feature concerts, lectures, and colloquia that extol the masterful achievements of London’s most celebrated Baroque composers. Along with a commemoration of the famous performance of Handel’s Water Music on the Thames 300 years ago in 1717, Artistic & Music Director Jeffrey Thomas will lead the ABS Festival Orchestra in two delightful performances of Purcell’s King Arthur and two performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Additionally, the “period style all-stars” (San Francisco Examiner) of ABS will offer “Bach & Sons,” a program that honors J.S. Bach and his most illustrious composer offspring, and the Academy Faculty, a distinguished roster of performers, will offer “Orpheus in Britannia” featuring works by some of the greatest composers of the English Baroque.

FRIDAY AUGUST 4 8:00 p.m.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the legendary performance of George Frideric Handel’s world famous Water Music that was performed for King George I during an evening on the River Thames. Wanting to impress his close aristocratic friends and all of London at the same time, the King and his party boarded a royal barge at Whitehall Palace destined for Chelsea, where dinner would be served. According to the first British newspaper (The Daily Courant), “the whole River in a manner was covered” with boats and barges of onlookers and those seeking an extraordinary (and free!) outdoor concert. The music was an instant hit and is now among the most recognizable music of the Baroque era. Paired with Handel’s music for a river is Telemann’s music about a river, in this case the Elbe as it flows through the city of Hamburg. “Hamburger Ebb’ und Fluth” (“Hamburg’s Ebb and Flood”) paints nautical scenes of mythological deities—Thetis, Neptune, Naiads, Triton, Aeolus, and Zephir—culminating with a joyful movement about sailors (“Die lustigen Boots Leute” or “The merry Boat People”).

George Frideric Handel: Water Music Suites in F Major & G Major
Georg Philipp Telemann: Hamburger Ebb’ und Fluth (also known as “Water Music”)
American Bach Soloists • Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church • 1111 O’Farrell Street • San Francisco


The ABS Summer Festival runs concurrently with the ABS Academy, a prestigious training program that features one of the most distinguished faculty of Early Music performers to be found anywhere. Each musician, highly celebrated worldwide, is a renowned artist, expert in the performance traditions of Baroque Music. This program, designed specifically to spotlight their gifts as powerful and dramatic performers, takes its name from the legendary ancient Greek hero who was endowed with superhuman musical skills that could move all living things, charm wild beasts, and even coax rocks and trees into movement. Selections by the greatest composers of the English Baroque—including Purcell, Jenkins, and Handel, among others—will present the unique artistry of the Academy Faculty in an enthralling showcase.

Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin & viola • Max van Egmond, baritone
Corey Jamason, harpsichord
Steven Lehning, violone & contrabass • Judith Malafronte, contralto
Robert Mealy, violin & viola • Sandra Miller, flute
Debra Nagy, oboe & recorder • William Sharp, baritone
William Skeen, violoncello & viola da gamba
Kenneth Slowik, violoncello & viola da gamba • Dominic Teresi, bassoon
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church • 1111 O’Farrell Street • San Francisco

SUNDAY AUGUST 6 7:00 p.m.
SUNDAY AUGUST 13 2:00 p.m.

Jeffrey Thomas leads the ABS Festival Orchestra and American Bach Choir in performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on each Festival Sunday. A beloved tradition, the annual performances of this pinnacle work of the repertory feature instrumental and vocal soloists from the ABS Academy.

ABS Academy Festival Orchestra • American Bach Choir
with soloists from the ABS Academy
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church • 1111 O’Farrell Street • San Francisco (August 6)
San Francisco Conservatory of Music • 50 Oak Street • San Francisco (August 13)

THURSDAY AUGUST 10 8:00 p.m.
FRIDAY AUGUST 11 8:00 p.m.

Henry Purcell’s King Arthur, considered a “semi-opera”—a work that includes arias and choruses, spoken dialogue, and dance music—is a setting of a libretto by the great English poet, literary critic, translator, and playright John Dryden (1631-1700), named England’s first Poet Laureate in 1668. The plot revolves around episodes in the battles between King Arthur’s Britons and the Saxons, centering primarily on Arthur’s efforts to recover Princess Emmeline, his fiancée who had been captured by his arch-enemy, the Saxon King Oswald. The music is a colorful anthology of songs, dances, and choruses, certainly ranking at the top of all theatrical music from the period of Restoration England, and features some of Purcell’s most beautiful, lyrical, and recognizable works including the serenely beautiful aria, “Fairest Isle.”

ABS Academy Festival Orchestra with soloists from the ABS Academy
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
San Francisco Conservatory of Music • 50 Oak Street • San Francisco

SATURDAY AUGUST 12 8:00 p.m.

The fame of Johann Sebastian Bach—the keystone of a multi-generational musical dynasty—gave permanence to the careers and legacies of his forebears and sons. This program features some of Bach’s most profound music including orchestral transcriptions of selections from his most important musical creations including The Musical Offering, Clavier Übung III, and the monumental Passacaglia in C Minor. Then, following performances of Sinfonias from some of Bach’s best cantatas, the virtuosi of American Bach Soloists will then turn their attentions to Bach’s most successful progeny. Carl Philipp Emanuel will be represented by a tour-de-force concerto for flauto traverso; Wilhelm Friedemann’s Sinfonia in F features the strings of the ABS orchestra; and a rarely performed Trio for Strings by Johann Christian (known as “the English Bach”) will illuminate the importance of Bach’s offspring.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Transcriptions
    Ricercar a 6 (from “The Musical Offering”)
    Passacaglia in C Minor
    “Wir gläuben all an einen Gott” (from Clavier Übung III)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonias from Cantatas
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach:  Sinfonia in F Major for Strings
Johann Christian Bach: Trio for Strings in D Major
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach: Concerto in A Major for Flute

Sandra Miller, flauto traverso
American Bach Soloists • Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
San Francisco Conservatory of Music • 50 Oak Street • San Francisco

The participants of the 2017 ABS Academy will also be featured on August 7 & 8 in a free, three-part Academy-in-Action “Baroque Marathon” featuring favorite works and lesser known gems from the Baroque. Engaging with the theme of the Festival, the sessions of the “Baroque Marathon” will feature works by English composers along with compositions by J.S. Bach and others.

A host of free lectures, master classes, and a public colloquium complement the evening concerts, allowing for an immersive experience of music, learning, and inspiration that have made the ABS Festival & Academy a highlight of the Bay Area’s summer musical calendar in recent years.


Single tickets $30–$95
Purchasers of all 5 Festival productions receive a 15% subscribers discount.
For more information, visit sfbachfestival.org or americanbach.org call 415-621-7900.


August 4–13, 2017
Concerts will be held at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (1111 O’Farrell Street) and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (50 Oak Street) in San Francisco

All free events will be held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (50 Oak Street)

Friday August 4 2017 – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, SF
5:00 p.m. Opening Night Gala Dinner at Dobbs Ferry of San Francisco
8:00 p.m. All Aboard! Water Music by Handel & Telemann

Saturday August 5 2017 – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, SF
2:00 p.m. Public Colloquium (free)
  • Music’s “Fairest Isle” – Voices, Viols, & Visitors
8:00 p.m Orpheus in Britannia

Sunday August 6 2017 – St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, SF
7:00 p.m. Bach: Mass in B Minor

Monday August 7 2017 – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
3:00 p.m. Baroque Marathon – Academy-in-Action Concert I
8:00 p.m. Baroque Marathon – Academy-in-Action Concert II

Tuesday August 8 2017 – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
3:00 p.m. Master Class – Harpsichord (free)
5:00 p.m. Lecture Series (free)
 • Winds on the Water: Grand Music for the Great Outdoors – Debra Nagy
8:00 p.m. Baroque Marathon – Academy-in-Action Concert III

Wednesday August 9 2017 – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
3:00 p.m. Master Class – Violin & Viola (free)
5:00 p.m. Lecture Series (free)
  • Bach’s Mass in B Minor: A Look from the Inside – Jeffrey Thomas

Thursday August 10 2017 – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
3:00 p.m. Master Class – Violoncello, Viola da gamba, Violone, & Contrabass (free)
5:00 p.m. Lecture Series (free)
  • “O come let us howl”: English Theater Music in the 17th Century – Judith Malafronte
8:00 p.m. Henry Purcell: King Arthur

Friday August 11 2017 – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
3:00 p.m. Master Class – Winds & Brass (free)
5:00 p.m. Lecture Series (free)
  • King Arthur and Purcell’s French and Italian Influences – Robert Mealy
8:00 p.m. Henry Purcell: King Arthur

Saturday August 12 2017 – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
3:00 p.m. Master Class – Voice (free)
5:00 p.m. Lecture Series (free)
 • Bach & Sons: A Musical Dynasty – Kenneth Slowik
8:00 p.m. Bach & Sons: Sinfonias, Concertos, and Transcriptions

Sunday August 13 2017 – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
2:00 p.m. Bach: Mass in B Minor

Steven Lehning Will Give Free ABS Master Class On Monday March 13th

The second in the 2017 series of American Bach Soloists Free Master Classes will take place next Monday on March 13th at 7:30 p.m. in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street at Van Ness.

We asked Steven Lehning about his experiences in master classes with talented young artists. Here’s what he told us:

What type of master class is this, and what music will you focus on?

  • Students at the conservatory will be presenting arias from their March 11th performance of Handel’s Opera, Atalanta. I will be suggesting ideas about how to approach continuo playing for this music, with particular attention to the non-keyboard players: the cellos and double basses. There is a tremendous amount of historic material available to those who realize the figured basses (keyboards and lutes for example), but surprisingly little directed specifically to the string players who also make up the continuo ensemble.

What is your approach to this music?

  • Baroque music is all about rhetoric. The classical rhetorical figures are easily discernible in the shapes of the composers’ melodies. Continuo playing clearly needs to support this, but how? I like to suggest that the bass players need to think about these things. For example: They must know and understand the texts and how they are set against the harmony and rhythm of the bass lines. If the music is based on a dance form, how (as bass line players) should we help define those specific characteristics? I ask them to consider music as a language and, as such, I would suggest to players that the continuo lines supply the grammatical structure without which the musical meaning is at its best vague and at its worst incomprehensible.

How has your approach changed over the years?

  • Like just about everything in life, the more you live or work with something, the more there is to learn. When I first started thinking about my role as a bass player in Baroque music, it seemed to be enough to understand that my job was to support the music as if I were a solid foundation, a frame over which the “more interesting” parts could show their stuff. But the bass parts themselves were so interesting! . . . that alone couldn’t be all there was. I have been very lucky to have worked from the beginning with very talented singers. Instinctively, I learned the importance of understanding the text and that my playing could support or confuse it. I also was lucky early on to perform many Bach cantatas. Those bass lines so express the harmonic rhythm, and I realized that making that understandable, too, was extremely important. Over the years, I have tried more and more in my playing to synthesize all aspects of Baroque rhetoric as it is manifested in the music. It is something that continually is teaching me—if I ever feel I’m no longer learning something, that will be the time to quit.

What do you hope the participants will take away?

  • It is always my goal in teaching and coaching to help students look to broader horizons in their performance practices. For bass players, that means understanding the tremendous impact on what and how they play has on those they accompany. It isn’t enough to play your part as it stands. There is a constant need look to the rhetoric of the entire work and to learn where and how their individual parts fit in to the whole. The impact of their playing greatly enriches the performance experience not only for themselves and their musical colleagues, but for the audiences they play for as well. I am convinced that in Baroque music, everything the composer wants to express is on the page, and hopefully I will be able to generate enough contagious enthusiasm in these young players that they leave the master class excited and with a new drive to look for those things in this great music and to integrate them in their performances. Someone once said of Historically Informed Performance Practice that a goal couldn’t be to play music from earlier periods the way that they did, but rather to play in such a way that if they were to hear it, they would at least recognize it!

What do you hope the audience will take away?

  • Those who come to master classes as audience members do so for many reasons. Some of them are musicians themselves (students, professionals, and amateurs), some are friends and supporters of the participants, and some are there to support the educational institutions that present these classes. All, however, are curious and want to take away something that they didn’t know, or they are interested in learning new ways to think about this music. Just as I hope my enthusiasm for this music is contagious for the participants, so also do I hope this will be true for the audiences. I wrote above about music being a language. Hearing about some details players might think about when they work through the pieces they perform hopefully will inspire audience members to listen in a novel way and, with luck, deepen their own experience as listeners and supporters of the arts.

Free Admission
MONDAY MARCH 13th 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music
50 Oak Street at Van Ness

Works from
Handel’s Atalanta


Steven Lehning (violone & contrabass) was attending Pacific Lutheran University as an undergraduate when he stumbled upon a used book store that had a nearly complete collection of the Bach-Gesellschaft edition of Bach Cantatas in mini-score; each for only a nickel! Finding these while taking a class in Lutheran theology set him on a trajectory that prepared him to eventually become one of the founding members of the American Bach Soloists.

A remarkable and versatile musician who is equally at home with violas da gamba, violones, contrabass, and historical keyboards, he has worked with many of the luminaries of the early music world including Jeffrey Thomas, John Butt, Andrew Parrott, and Ton Koopman. He has performed at the acclaimed Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as well as the Early Music Festivals in Boston and Berkeley.

After finishing his undergraduate degree and while waiting to see what performances might come his way, he worked as an apprentice learning the art of French bread and pastry. Always curious about the entirety of the world in which the music he plays came from, he dove into many aspects of early music. In addition to performing with ABS, he is the Artistic Administrator, serves as librarian, and tunes harpsichords and organs for rehearsals and performances. On the scholarship side, he has pursued graduate studies in musicology at the University of California (Davis). Steve has recorded on the American Bach Soloists, Delos, EMI, Harmonia Mundi, and Koch Labels.


ABS Presents Bach’s Motets for Double-Chorus

The American Bach Soloists’ 2017 season continues with Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus, a program highlighting the superb artistry of the American Bach Choir. ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas conducts performances in the Bay Area and Davis from March 31 through April 3, 2017.

Bach’s surviving motets are mesmerizing in their complexity and virtuosity, and they rival the splendor of his greatest cantatas and liturgical works. The motets for double chorus, with their increased number of parts, allow Bach to showcase his unparalleled genius in counterpoint and beguiling polyphonic textures. Many of these works were written for special, non-liturgical occasions. Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt, which draws its text from Psalm 100, is noteworthy in that it was a collaboration between Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann. The Psalms are the source for Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied as well, a virtuosic work which juxtaposes an endless array of dazzling melismas with passages of serene beauty.  Several other works round out the program, including the brief yet powerful Komm, Jesu, komm, and the joyous and celebratory Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf and Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir.

The American Bach Choir has been lauded for their exquisite singing and musicality for more than two decades, and Maestro Jeffrey Thomas is proud to spotlight their abilities for Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus. The members of the American Bach Choir are some of the most highly regarded choral singers in the Bay Area, and they will undoubtedly shine in this challenging and provocative repertoire.

Classical Sonoma praised their “stunning choral singing … the Chorus’s articulation and intonation were unequalled.”

San Francisco Classical Voice wrote that a performance was “beautifully phrased and superbly sung, with the ABS Choir at its usual best.”

In the days following the concert set, this program will be professionally recorded for CD and digital download. This recording, which will be the 21st in ABS’s formidable discography, is expected to be released in June 2017.

ABS is one of the cornerstones of the Bay Area’s vibrant and renowned Early Music community. Hailed by The Washington Post as “the best American specialists in early music … a flawless ensemble … a level of musical finesse one rarely encounters,” ABS welcomes all audiences for a magical evening of Baroque music from the composer who inspired its founding.

American Bach Soloists present Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus

BACH: Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied
BACH: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf
BACH: Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir
BACH: Jauchzet dem Herrn, alle Welt
BACH: Komm, Jesu, komm
and others

American Bach Soloists
American Bach Choir
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

Friday March 31 2017 8:00 pm
St. Stephen’s Church, 3 Bayview Avenue, BELVEDERE

Saturday April 1 2017 8:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church, 2407 Dana Street, BERKELEY

Sunday April 2 2017 4:00 pm
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell Street, SAN FRANCISCO

Monday April 3 2017 7:00 pm
​Davis Community Church, 412 C Street, DAVIS

Single Tickets: $33-$85
Tickets for ABS Subscribers: $28-$72

Discounted tickets available for students (21 and under with Valid ID). Please call the ABS Office, (415) 621-7900.

“Into the Woods” for a Celebration of Music, Wine, and Food

On Sunday, January 29, a group of ABS enthusiasts gathered at the St. Francis Wood home of Nancy Quinn & Tom Driscoll for “Into the Woods,” our annual celebration of music, wine, and food.

Mindy Ella Chu sang works by Purcell and Lawes

The afternoon began with a special concert previewing the 2017 Festival & Academy, “English Majesty.” Mezzo-soprano Mindy Ella Chu, known to ABS audiences for her dazzling performance in last summer’s North American premiere of Handel’s Parnasso in festa, joined a chamber group of ABS musicians in selections from Handel’s Water Music, several English songs, and Johann Christian Bach’s Sonata in D. This intimate concert took place in the grand, richly decorated living room of Tom & Nancy’s San Francisco home, offering sweeping views of the city and a truly memorable concert experience.

An extraordinary flight of wines from Bordeaux

The celebration then migrated to Tom & Nancy’s sensational wine cellar. Tom, a notable connoisseur, selected a flight of six French wines from his private collection for the group to enjoy, including a velvety 1998 Bordeaux and, the star of the show, a beautifully golden 1986 Sauternes. All six wines were paired with small bites from Delicious! Catering, the company of long-time ABS supporter Jan Goldberg. The food and wine served as a splendid backdrop to lively conversation among our supporters, musicians, and staff, once again making “Into the Woods” a resounding highlight of our year.

Master wine connoisseur, Tom Driscoll, readies a bottle of an exquisite 1986 Sauternes

Tickets to “Into the Woods” are available every year at our annual fundraising gala in the fall. This year’s gala, “Sparkle 2017,” will be held at San Francisco’s James Leary Flood Mansion on Saturday, September 23, 2017. For tickets and more information, please visit americanbach.org/gala.

Baroque Violinist Tekla Cunningham Will Give Free ABS Master Class On Monday February 6th

The first in the 2017 series of American Bach Soloists Free Master Classes will take place next Monday on February 6th at 7:30 p.m. in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street at Van Ness.

We asked Tekla Cunningham about her experiences in master classes with talented young artists. Here’s what she told us: 

Tekla CunninghamWhat is it about the Master Class environment that you find particularly enjoyable and satisfying? 

  • It is incredibly interesting and enjoyable to meet young students who share my passion for Early Music and the baroque violin. While a long term mentor/student relationship is a very important, it can be a special moment to work with a student for a brief time on just a few specific items. Sometimes it is possible in this kind of “snapshot” situation to see very different things than one would see when working with a student over the course of months or years. I have many happy—and nerve wracking—memories of participating in master classes, and so I have a lot of empathy for students who are asked to absorb some new musical or technical idea in a very short time. It is a rewarding challenge for students and teachers alike! 

The Mentor/Student relationship can be extremely rewarding and productive. What do you try to bring to the experience of the student in a Master Class?

  • One of the most rewarding aspects of the mentor/student relationship is the privilege of watching students develop their own artistic voice over time. In a master class setting, both student and teacher have just a short amount of time to get to know each other. I hope to leave each student with just a few key points to chew on over time. 

What about the “third” person in the equation: the audience? How do you include them in your Master Class teaching?

  • A master class is very different from a one-on-one private lesson. In a master claBaroque Violinist Tekla Cunningham Will Give Free ABS Master Class On Monday February 6th

    ss with a more general audience, it is most engaging to focus on musical ideas. Helping the student to understand how to deliver their musical ideas through their performance successfully to an audience is best practiced in front of an audience! Performing in front of an audience gives a certain focus and energy to a musical performance, and can also expose any musical ideas or technical challenges that aren’t quite working yet.  So the audience plays in important role in this way, in forcing a kind of clarity on performance.

Free Admission

MONDAY FEBRUARY 6th 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music
50 Oak Street at Van Ness

Works by Bach performed by
Sarah Bleile violin
Elizabeth Boardman viola
Emily Nardo violin
Eugenio Solinas cello


Tekla Cunningham, baroque violin, viola, and viola d’amore, enjoys a varied and active musical life. At home in Seattle, she is concertmaster of Stephen Stubbs’ Pacific MusicWorks, principal second violin with Seattle Baroque Orchestra & Soloists, and plays regularly as concertmaster and principal player with the American Bach Soloists in California. She directs the Whidbey Island Music Festival, a summer concert series presenting vibrant period-instrument performances of repertoire ranging from Monteverdi to Beethoven.

She has appeared as concertmaster/leader or soloist with the American Bach Soloists, Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and Musica Angelica (Los Angeles). She has also played with Apollo’s Fire, Los Angeles Opera, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and at the Carmel Bach Festival, San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, Indianapolis Early Music Festival, Savannah Music Festival, and the Bloomington Early Music Festival. She has worked with many leading directors including Rinaldo Alessandrini, Giovanni Antonini, Harry Bicket, Paul Goodwin, Martin Haselböck, Monica Huggett, Nic McGegan, Rachel Podger, Jordi Savall, Stephen Stubbs, Jeffrey Thomas, Elizabeth Wallfisch, and Bruno Weil.

An avid chamber musician, Tekla enjoys exploring the string quartet repertoire of the 18th and early 19th century with the period-instrument Novello Quartet, whose abiding interest is the music of Haydn. She is also a member of La Monica, an ensemble dedicated to music of the 17th century, whose concerts have been reviewed as “sizzling”, and praised for their “irrepressible energy and pitch-perfect timing”. With Jillon Dupree, harpsichord, and Vicki Boeckman, recorders, she plays in Ensemble Electra, known for its inventive programs and energetic performances.

She can be heard on recordings with the American Bach Soloists, Apollo’s Fire, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Tafelmusik, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, San Francisco Bach Choir, various movie soundtracks including Disney’s Casanova, La Monica’s recent release The Amorous Lyre, a recording of repertoire of Merula and his contemporaries and the Novello Quartet’s recording of Haydn’s Op. 50 string quartets. This summer she recorded Mozart’s Flute Quartets with Janet See, Laurie Wells, and Tanya Tomkins.

Tekla received her musical training at Johns Hopkins University and Peabody Conservatory (where she studied History and German Literature in addition to violin), Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna, and at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she completed a Master’s degree with Ian Swenson. She teaches Suzuki violin in both German and English and is on the Early Music faculty of Cornish College for the Arts.


Academy Alumnus STEVEN BRENNFLECK Makes His ABS Debut in “A WEEKEND IN PARIS” February 10-13

Our next concert set features the ABS debut of Steven Brennfleck, a much sought after tenor and haute-contre. An alumnus of the 2015 ABS Academy, Steven has performed at many of the country’s premier venues, including Carnegie Hall and Tanglewood. ABS caught up with Steven to hear some of his thoughts about his time at the Academy and tonight’s program.

How did your participation in the ABS Academy help to shape your career?

My experience as a member of the ABS Academy was motivating and richly rewarding. As musicians, the most important parts of our instrument we train are our ears! The Academy, through its intensive, immersive approach, helped me learn more of what to listen and strive for when approaching Baroque repertoire. Another great advantage, particularly for singers, is that we were in a situation where we were learning alongside our instrumental colleagues, which helped us understand the all-important skill of collaboration.

What are you most looking forward to about making your debut with ABS as a featured soloist?

Aside from being back in beautiful San Francisco, I look forward to working with Jeffrey and the magnificent orchestra he puts together. There can often be a gulf of experience between singers and instrumentalists, but Jeffrey, a singer himself, always creates such a sense of collaboration and community to the extent that one feels a sense of ensemble in the truest sense.

Do you have an affinity for Baroque music, or the French Baroque in particular? 

I do and I always have. I started off as a pianist and organist and I had very wise teachers who emphasized the importance of playing Bach—lots of it! The articulation, attention to detail, and clarity that is necessary to perform Bach well instilled a great deal of musical discipline into my development. My first real venture into the world of French Baroque was at the ABS Academy in 2015 in Marais’ Sémélé, and I am happy to have the opportunity to dive in again with these two stellar pieces. 

Steven Brennfleck has been hailed by The New York Times as “superb, dramatically astute … standout”

In these upcoming concerts, you have been cast in haute-contre roles, characterized by their demandingly high tessitura and range.  Does your vocal preparation for an haute-contre part differ at all from that of a more traditional tenor part? 

Not too significantly. The music is beautiful and transportive, but it’s not exactly difficult to learn. The challenge of course is the high range of the haute-contre repertoire which generally centers at or above the staff. The amount of vocal weight with which I approach the music has to be just right to not sound colorless or detached, but still sound easy and not tax the voice too much.

Are there any specific challenges in your pieces that the audience might be interested to hear about? Or perhaps anything they should keep an ear out for?

Always the text painting! Listen for how the composers set specific words, particularly with melismas, to emphasize or bring out certain characteristics of their meaning. The interplay between the voice and solo instruments is always fascinating as well.


Friday February 10 2017 8:00 pm
St. Stephen’s Church, 3 Bayview Avenue, BELVEDERE

Saturday February 11 2017 8:00 pm
First Presbyterian Church, 2407 Dana Street, BERKELEY
​(note new venue for the 2017 Season)

Sunday February 12 2017 4:00 pm
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell Street, SAN FRANCISCO

Monday February 13 2017 7:00 pm
​Davis Community Church, 412 C Street, DAVIS


ABS Berkeley Concerts Moved Across the Street to First Presbyterian Church for 2017

As you may know, our Berkeley home, First Congregational Church, suffered extensive fire damage last fall and the groups who use the facility to perform concerts have been looking for temporary homes for the 2017 season. Many people, including the staff of First Congregational, had hoped to be back in the facilities by now, but that is not the case. So, for the 2017 winter and spring season, American Bach Soloists have moved their performances across the street to First Presbyterian Church (2407 Dana Street, Berkeley, CA). We have every hope that we will return to First Congregational in 2018!

We are grateful to First Presbyterian Church for opening their doors to us; we are especially supportive of the congregation and staff of First Congregational Church during this difficult period, and we are grateful to you for your understanding in this endeavor.

First Presbyterian Church Berkeley, across the street from First Congregational Church

Map of First Presbyterian Church relative to First Congregational Church


We are beginning the process of moving your seats into the new location and you will receive replacement tickets in the mail very soon. Upon receipt of these tickets, please destroy your current set as they will no longer be valid. If you have questions about this, please feel free to contact the ABS office (415-621-7900).


If you don’t yet have seats for our Berkeley concerts, you may visit americanbach.org/tickets and reserve your seats in First Presbyterian Church now. Seats are available for our performances in Belvedere, Davis, and San Francisco, as well.


Subscriptions for our Winter and Spring 2017 concerts in the new venue are on sale now, and will be available online or by phone until February 9th, 2017. Visit americanbach.org/subscribe for more information and to obtain subscription savings and benefits.


Work was begun on repairing the damage to the sanctuary in October, 2016. Although there are many steps to safely and carefully restore the building, latest estimates by the staff at First Congregational (published on fccb.org) point to June 2017 as the target date for their congregation to return.

First Congregational Church Berkeley on Friday September 30 2016

Scaffolding to secure the sanctuary ceiling


Please contact the ABS office with any questions you may have.

We look forward to welcoming you to our new venue for 2017!


The Florence Gould Foundation Awards $20,000 Grant To ABS

Florence Gould on board SS Normandie circa 1935

American Bach Soloists has been awarded a grant of $20,000 from The Florence Gould Foundation in support of our February 2017 concert set, “A Weekend in Paris.” The Florence Gould Foundation, which was founded in 1957 by Florence Gould, daughter-in-law of the railway magnate Jay Gould, aims to support French-American relations, especially via the arts.

In response to the generous gift, ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas said, “We are so humbled to receive the support of such a prestigious foundation. It’s an honor to have the Foundation’s confidence in ABS, especially in what will be an unforgettable night of French Baroque music.”

In February, “A Weekend in Paris” will offer a tour to the Opéra, the Ballet, and the Chapelle through the elegant music of masters of the French Baroque. When Jean-Baptiste Lully’s monopoly on music in France ended at the end of the 17th century, an explosion of musical creativity erupted in Paris from a new generation of composers including Marais, Rebel, Corrette, Mondonville, and the great master of the age, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Featuring a selection of enchanting works for the Opéra, Ballet, and Chapelle, Thomas and ABS explore the vibrant Parisian spirit of invention, including its incorporation of new, cosmopolitan influences from abroad. The Italian style, especially, is evident in these works, as evidenced by Corrette’s Laudate Dominum, which includes an interpolation of Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons arranged for choir, vocal soloists, and orchestra.

Read more about the concerts.