ABS performed at Benefit Concert for fire-damaged First Congregational Church, Berkeley

On Friday, September 30, 2016, a fire broke out at First Congregational Church in Berkeley—also known as “First Church Berkeley”—in a wing that housed office and meeting space (Pilgrim Hall). Significant damage occurred; virtually all was lost from the edifice itself to the music program’s choral library. Fortunately, the sanctuary space, a cherished venue for dozens of Bay Area music ensembles including American Bach Soloists, suffered less damage. And there is good news, according to a post on fccb.org/fire-news:

“Although significant work will need to be done in the Sanctuary, it is estimated that that work will only take a few months.”

Nevertheless, losses were sustained that could not have been foreseen. To help the staff and congregation of that beloved venue, a Benefit Concert was held on Tuesday, October 18th, 2016, at 7:30 p.m., in neighboring church, St. Mark’s Episcopal.

American Bach Soloists were honored and proud to have been invited to participate, and presented two highly regarded members of the ensemble—William Skeen (violoncello & viola da gamba) and Corey Jamason (organ & harpsichord)—in a performance of a beautiful and virtuoso sonata by Bach.

William Skeen (shown here) and harpsichordist Corey Jamason will perform one of Bach's exquisite sonatas for Viola da gamba and Harpsichord

William Skeen (shown here) and harpsichordist Corey Jamason performed one of Bach’s exquisite sonatas for Viola da gamba and Harpsichord

All proceeds from the benefit concert—an evening of wonderful music including performances by American Bach Soloists, Ars Minerva, Musa, Music for a Viol, Philharmonia Baroque, Valley of the Moon Festival, and Voices of Music—helped to offset unexpected expenses incurred due to the fire.

 

We hope that many of our ABS patrons were able to attend to show how much all of us have enjoyed decades of fine performances in one of the Bay Area’s best concert venues.

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ABS presents Handel’s Messiah in San Francisco’s Historic Grace Cathedral

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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. A beloved Bay Area tradition now in its 18th consecutive year, ABS’s performances of Handel’s timeless work attract music lovers from around the world.

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“The truly splendid ABS choir, with its round and transparent tone,
tied both the evening and Handel’s message together”
San Francisco Classical Voice

Since 1998, ABS has presented Messiah in San Francisco’s historic Grace Cathedral to more than 38,000 attendees. This holiday tradition has become an essential part of the musical year for many music lovers and was voted “Best of the Bay” by the readers of San Francisco Classical Voice in 2015. 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 a quartet of brilliant vocal soloists.

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Soprano Hélène Brunet returns to perform Messiah with ABS for a second year after thunderous acclaim in 2015. Praised for her interpretations of the works of Bach, Handel, and Mozart, the Montréal native has also performed in a diverse array of works including Lully’s Persée and Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. In recent seasons, Ms Brunet has collaborated with American Bach Soloists, the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal, Seattle Baroque Orchestra, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, I Musici de Montréal, Arion Baroque Orchestra, as well as Ensemble Caprice, Ensemble Thirteen Strings, Ensemble Les Boréades, and l’Harmonie des Saisons. She has sung under such renowned conductors as Jeffrey Thomas, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Jean-Marie Zeitouni, Eric Milnes, Kevin Mallon, Raffi Armenian, David Fallis, Ivars Taurins, and Alexander Weimann.

“Brunet sang with some of her finest intonation, expression,
mature interpretation, clearest Affekt … in essence, Ms Brunet was perfect.”
Calgary Herald

Contralto Emily Marvosh (debut) has been gaining recognition for her “sterling voice,” and “graceful allure,” on the stages of Carnegie Hall, Jordan Hall, Disney Hall, Lincoln Center, Prague’s Smetana Hall, and in Vienna’s Stefansdom. Following her solo debut at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 2011, she has been a frequent soloist with the Handel and Haydn Society under the direction of Harry Christophers. Other recent solo appearances include the Charlotte Symphony, Tucson Symphony Orchestra, Chorus Pro Musica, Music Worcester, L’Académie, Back Bay Chorale, the Brookline Symphony, and the Chorus of Westerly. She is often featured on the Music at Marsh Bach Cantata Series. Awards include the prestigious Adams Fellowship at the Carmel Bach Festival (2013), the American Prize in the Oratorio and Art Song divisions (2013), and second place in the New England Regional NATSAA competition (2014).

“[Marvosh] combined elegance and earthiness with engaging composure.”
The Boston Globe

Tenor Derek Chester was last heard with American Bach Soloists as the Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. A frequent soloist with ABS, his recent concert appearances include the Fort Worth Symphony, Chicago’s Beethoven Festival, the Berkshire Choral Festival, the Korean Broadcasting System Symphony Orchestra, Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, Dallas Bach Society, Highland Park Chorale, St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, Bach Collegium San Diego, Houston’s Ars Lyrica, Handel Society of Dartmouth, and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra.

“Chester’s easeful and wondrously pliant tenor was deployed
to maximum expressive effect.”

Dallas Morning News

Baritone Mischa Bouvier was a member of ABS’s inaugural 2010 Academy and is in constant demand as a soloist and collaborator. Recent debuts include performances in Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium with Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Musica Sacra, in Alice Tully Hall with Musica Sacra, with his hometown Alabama Symphony Orchestra, at Puerto Rico’s Casals Festival under the baton of Helmuth Rilling, and with the esteemed ensemble TENET. He also sings regularly with the American Bach Soloists, Bach Collegium San Diego, Princeton Glee Club, Columbus Symphony, Pittsburgh’s Chatham Baroque, and the Colorado Symphony in Denver and Beaver Creek.

“a baritone with a rich timbre and a fine line”
The New York Times

Best seats are available now, but remember that these annual performances always sell out! Discounted tickets are available for students (21 and under with valid ID), and ABS subscribers receive special discounts. Please call the ABS Office at (415) 621-7900 for details.

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Wednesday December 14 2016 7:30 pm
Thursday December 15 2016 7:30 pm
Friday December 16 2016 7:30 pm
Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street at Taylor, San Francisco CA

Additional performances:

Saturday December 10 2016 7:00 pm
Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts (Davis)

Sunday December 18 2016 3:00 pm
Green Music Center (Rohnert Park)

A Sparkling Evening at the ABS Gala

The spectacular Flood Mansion on Broadway in San Francisco's Pacific Heights

The spectacular Flood Mansion on Broadway in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights

ABS’s fourteenth annual Gala Auction, Dinner, and Concert was held on Saturday, September 24, at the James Leary Flood Mansion in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. This annual fundraising event supports the ABS Academy, as well as our other education and outreach programs. The annual theme is “Sparkle,” and that is truly what we experienced.

The dining room set beautifully in anticipation of the arrival of our guests

The dining room set beautifully in anticipation of the arrival of our guests

As we entered the Flood Mansion, we were greeted with this year’s signature cocktail, “Blue Sapphire,” and began to peruse the silent auction items. Shortly after our arrival, Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas led members of ABS in a rousing program of music composed by Bach and Purcell that featured baritone Mischa Bouvier and Baroque trumpeter Kathryn Adduci.

Baritone Mischa Bouvier performing for the Gala guests

Baritone Mischa Bouvier performing for the Gala guests

Following the concert, our patrons were offered passed hors d’oeuvre and stationary charcutterie table while they enjoyed the spectacular view from the belvedere inside the mansion and bid on exciting silent auction items including collections of wine, tickets to Bay Area arts organizations, a weekend in Inverness, and wonderful collections of art and jewelry. After a delicious dinner prepared by Melons Catering, the main event of the evening took place. Liam Mayclem—KCBS “Foodie Chap”—was again this year’s Gala entertaining auctioneer.

Auctioneer Liam Mayclem with Cyndee and Gary Stone

Auctioneer Liam Mayclem with Cyndee and Gary Stone

We had opportunities to bid on live auction lots which included private house concerts, a trip to Bordeaux, France, a trip to the 2017 Shakespeare Festival, a weekend on Catalina Island, access to a Porsche for a weekend, and the highlight of the evening, dinner for four prepared by our own Maestro Jeffrey Thomas. Of course, no fundraising event is complete without a focus on raising dollars for a direct cause.

Watch the Academy film that was shown at the Gala

These Fund-a-Need revenues will specifically support ABS’s annual Academy! This year’s Gala raised over $100,000 and we could not have done it without the support of our Gala attendees.

Thank you for continuing to believe in and support the mission of American Bach Soloists.

For more images of the Sparkle Gala, please visit our Facebook page at facebook.com/americanbach

Jeffrey Thomas Guest Conducts Middlebury Bach Festival

Mahaney Center for the Arts Concert Hall at Middlebury College, Vermont

Mahaney Center for the Arts Concert Hall at Middlebury College, Vermont

ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas is enjoying the beautiful setting of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, as he rehearses and directs the centerpiece concert at the 2015 Middlebury Bach Festival. Between rehearsals, his residency includes teaching classes on composing for the voice, form and structure in Bach’s works, and ornamentation. He will also present an “Interest Session” on “Rhetoric in the Early Cantatas of J.S. Bach.” Maestro Thomas joins students, affiliate artists, faculty, and professional musicians from Vermont and greater New England for this popular festival celebrating the music and influence of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Middlebury Bach Festival is organized by Jeffrey Buettner (Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Middlebury College) and Jessica Allen (singer, voice teacher, Music Together teacher, and Director of Music at The Congregational Church of Middlebury). “We are especially pleased to be celebrating the fifth year of the Middlebury Bach Festival,” says Allen. “It is rewarding to see how many people are supporting our endeavor, and that they appreciate the timeless magnificence of Bach’s music, whether they are attending or performing in the Festival.” Three days of musical events, April 24-26, will bring the College and town of Middlebury together. Festival Music Director Jeffrey Buettner stated: “It’s our fifth anniversary and it was designed to further the appreciation of the arts and classical music through the model of J.S. Bach.”

Saturday evening, April 25th, features the grand Festival Concert led by Jeffrey Thomas at 8:00 P.M. in the Mahaney Center for the Arts Concert Hall. The concert opens with Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 followed by a trio of his Cantatas: “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” BWV 106 (God’s time is the best of all times), “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen” BWV 12 (Weeping, lamentation, worry, despair), and Bach’s joyful cantata for Palm Sunday, “Himmelskönig, sei willkommen” BWV 182 (King of Heaven, welcome).

Jeffrey Thomas remarked: “I’m so happy to be here, in this beautiful place, working with a very talented assembly of musicians, all excited to be part of the continuation of a really wonderful Bach festival. It is the talk of the town, and I already know of friends of ABS from the Bay Area who plan to attend, including a participant in our Choral Workshops over the years. The producers, Jeff and Jessica, have created a wonderful resource for the college and for the community. I hope it will thrive for a very long time to come.” Thomas joins a distinguished list of previous guest conductors including Martin Pearlman (Music Director of Boston Baroque) and Christoph Wolff (Adams University Professor of Music, Harvard University).

Interview with Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson at Belvedere's Old St. Hilary's ChurchSoprano Mary Wilson is no stranger to American Bach Soloists audiences. Since her 2003 debut with ABS in Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral, she has thrilled concertgoers with her dazzling performances of some of the most challenging and exciting vocal works of the Baroque era. Ms Wilson will return this summer as the Distinguished Artist for the 2014 ABS Festival & Academy and will appear, along with countertenor Eric Jurenas, as a soloist in Bach’s transcription of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at the opening night concert, “Bach’s Inspiration – Part I” on July 11. As the 2014 Distinguished Artist, she will also be featured in an extraordinary program dedicated to exhibiting her unique talents and artistry on July 19. Following the concert, Ms Wilson will sign copies of her critically acclaimed debut CD with American Bach Soloists, “Mary Wilson Sings Handel.”

How did you get started in music?

My parents are both music teachers, so I knew my musical notes basically before my ABCs. I studied flute and piano leading into college and decided to get a vocal performance degree; I wanted to be a back up and commercial singer. I went to St. Olaf College in order to sing with their world famous choir. It was fabulous!  The more I studied vocal music, the more I was hooked and wanted to keep learning and discovering.

How did St. Olaf prepare you for your career?

Soprano Mary Wilson

St. Olaf taught me to love performing. I’ve always loved being on a stage, but I learned to serve the music and try to communicate something to an audience. People come to concerts to be moved and to experience something. Our job is to say something, not just make a pretty noise. We have to make things personal and unique.

How did you learn about ABS and Jeffrey Thomas?

In discovering this repertoire, I acquired a bunch of ABS CDs and was always a huge fan of ABS! I watched who was getting the solo work and saw that I knew some of them and had sung with them. It just became this obsessive pursuit to try and work with ABS. I am pretty sure Jeffrey Thomas gave me my first job just to shut me up!  I relentlessly pursued him to get an audition and give me a chance. I remember turning around after hearing the choir for the first time and telling Jeffrey I’m going to get fired because everyone was so amazing!

What do you like most about performing with ABS?

I love that everyone is so involved in the music. There are no egos to get in the way—everyone is there to serve the music and the talent is amazing. I am always so uplifted and inspired after spending time with ABS.

Are Bay Area early music fans different from those elsewhere?

The audience members are appreciative, but also knowledgeable. I always get a little nervous. I know they’ll be supportive, but they also know good quality and they expect it since that’s what they always get from ABS! It’s a grand challenge to try and keep that music-making level high and meet or even exceed expectations! On a personal note, since I’ve been lucky enough to be around for a while, I’ve gotten to know many audience members really well and consider them friends; some of them I consider family.

Who are your favorite composers and what are your favorite works?

Mary Wilson, soprano

I adore Handel and Bach … and Mozart, too! I love lots of different kinds of music … U2, Led Zeppelin, Prince, Barry Manilow.

I am in a very unique and strange position in the vocal world. In Mozart’s time I would have been a Donna Anna [in Don Giovanni] and a Fiordiligi [in Cosí fan tutte], but nowadays my voice would be considered to be too small. So strange. I am lucky in my career that I get to sing a broad range of rep. I work with a lot of period instrument orchestras and I’m always told my voice is so big and operatic and then when I work with a modern instrument orchestra I am told my voice is so sweet and little. It’s an interesting life straddling those two worlds!

Is there anything about Handel’s work that you find particularly satisfying to sing?

Handel has the greatest gift for illuminating and illustrating a text and, even more importantly, an emotion. I find Handel difficult and yet his music makes sense when you sit down and look at it!

I am so excited and thrilled that people like and are buying our Handel CD [American Bach Soloists: Mary Wilson Sings Handel]!  I was afraid only my mom would buy it! So THANK YOU to all the ABS supporters who have always been so amazingly kind and supportive. I am deeply grateful and overwhelmed.

Do you have a favorite movie?

WilsonMary-by-JacqueBrund2I haven’t seen a movie in a movie theater in a long time. I only get to see kids movies these days, but I can recite the entire Lego Movie. I am currently binge watching Game of Thrones and loving it!

What books have you recently enjoyed?

I just finished Natchez Burning by Greg Iles. Love his books! I just finished the Divergent Trilogy and am now reading some of the David Baldacci’s King and Maxwell books. I like escapism!

Do you utilize Social Media to stay in touch with audiences?

That makes me laugh! I am a Facebook addict and stay in touch with people and friends from all overthe world. I’m that annoying mom posting about my 6 year old son and 2dogs!

1900: The First American Performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor

One of the musical highlights of a summer in San Francisco is the opportunity to hear Jeffrey Thomas conduct the ABS Festival Orchestra and the American Bach Choir in Bach’s magnificent Mass in B Minor. In fact, as part of its annual San Francisco Summer Bach Festival, ABS offers two chances to hear the timeless work each summer and both performances sell out year after year. The Mass’s richness, expressivity, complexity, and the awe-inspiring genius of its composer are all attributes that pay dividends of insight and satisfaction when revisited regularly. At present, tickets are still available for the two performances on July 13 at 7:00 pm and July 20 at 2:00 pm.

The idea of performing Bach’s Mass in B Minor annually has been a mainstay in European musical communities since the mid-nineteenth century. In the United States, the tradition of yearly performances began with the very first American performance of the entire work on March 27, 1900, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Before the tradition could take root, however, the difficulty of mounting the work and introducing it to domestic audiences proved a significant challenge.

An Ambitious Bach Conductor

Fred Wolle

Fred Wolle

During the last months of 1898, the organist of the Moravian Church in Bethlehem, Dr. J. Fred Wolle, began recruiting singers for what would eventually become known as the Bethlehem Bach Choir, a musical entity that continues performing, among other works, the Mass in B Minor in Eastern Pennsylvania to this day. Ten years before the genesis of the Bach Choir, Dr. Wolle had led Bethlehem’s Choral Union, an ensemble that performed the great oratorios of Handel, Mendelssohn, and others, and also introduced Pennsylvanians to the large-scale works of Bach. In the latter area, the Union, supplemented by instrumentalists from nearby Philadelphia, distinguished itself with the U.S. premiere of the St. John Passion (1888) and an acclaimed performance of the St. Matthew Passion (1892). Following their successes, Wolle aspired to present the Mass in B Minor, but his singers did not share his zeal. In fact, the work terrified them! When shown the score, the group’s enthusiasm wilted at the challenging music and the Union quietly disbanded in 1892.

Dr. Wolle did not give up on his ambition to present the Mass in B Minor, but he had to wait eight years for a better opportunity and better musicians. Starting with his congregational choir at the Moravian Church as the core, he began recruiting singers in late 1898 for his project. On December 5, he had amassed 80 singers and the Bethlehem Bach Choir was born. Nearly a year later, Wolle and his ensemble were still preparing the Mass for performance and the leader released a statement to the local paper:

Bethlehem Bach Choir 1917

Bethlehem Bach Choir 1917

The ‘Mass,’ owing to its huge proportions, its well nigh insuperable difficulties, and the almost inaccessible height of artistic plan, makes unusual demands and will yield to nothing short of complete surrender of the singers’ time, industry and patience. The question whether in any sense of the word it pays to devote one’s self so thoroughly to the performance of a work beset with obstacles can best be answered by those members of the chorus who, since last December, have braved the difficulties, and who, with keen artistic insight, doubtless ere this have had revealed to them unsuspected beauties in unlooked for places in this veritable masterpiece of unspeakable power and imperishable glory.

After fourteen months of preparation, Dr. Wolle and the Bethlehem Bach Choir gave the premiere of Bach’s towering masterpiece on March 27, 1900. Though the event failed to draw many of the leading critics, the performance was a great success and took on an almost mythical status throughout the year, overshadowing the New York Oratorio Society’s performance of the work at Carnegie Hall in early April. With a reputation that extended far beyond Pennsylvania, Wolle and his Bach Choir returned in 1901 for Bethlehem’s Second Bach Festival from May 23-25. This time the Festival featured three works by Bach: “Christmas Oratorio,” St. Matthew Passion, and the Mass in B Minor, all in just three days!

The Bach Festival tradition, which began in this country 114 years ago in Pennsylvania, has proliferated in musical communities around Europe, the United States, and the entire world. Here in San Francisco, we have one of the younger Bach Festivals–2014 will be ABS’s 5th annual event–but it is a great one that, like that 1900 festival in Bethlehem, has been making waves and drawing music lovers from all around. Tickets are available for the Festival performances from July 11-20, but they won’t last long. Get your tickets to the Mass in B Minor now, while they are still available.

ABS 2014 Festival opens July 11th & 12th with “Bach’s Inspiration”

Do you have your tickets for the 5th annual ABS Festival & Academy yet? This summer’s event, which will take place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from July 11-20, promises to be the best Festival ABS has offered to date. Titled “Bach’s Inspiration,” the 9 performances, 5 lectures, 5 master classes, and a public colloquium titled “Baroque Instruments and Performers, Then and Now: Creating a New Fusion of Styles and Tastes” comprise a 10-day immersion in the music and culture of the Baroque, specifically the works that inspired ABS’s namesake, J.S. Bach. Musical delights and discoveries await Baroque music connoisseurs and newcomers alike.

Mary Wilson, soprano

Mary Wilson, soprano

As in year’s past, Festival concerts will attract music lovers from far and wide. The opera / oratorio program this year will be Handel’s pastoral ode L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato, there will be two performances of Bach’s great Mass in B Minor, and 2014 Distinguished Artist soprano Mary Wilson will be featured in a program highlighting the “Italian side” of Bach. There will also be three evenings of “Academy-in-Action” concerts to showcase the talents of the emerging artists participating in the ABS Academy who are poised to become the next generation of Early Music stars.

2014 Festival Opening Night: Bach’s Inspiration, Part I

To inaugurate this year’s Festival, a special 2-part program curated by ABS Artistic & Music Director Jeffrey Thomas will present a host of selections over two evenings featuring the work of composers who directly influenced and inspired the young Bach. In “Bach’s Inspiration Parts I & II” on Friday July 11 and Saturday July 12, compositions by Dieterich Buxtehude, Alessandro Marcello, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Georg Melchior Hoffmann, and many others, including Bach’s uncle Johann Christoph, will be performed alongside works by J.S. Bach.

Oboe Concerto by Marcello became Bach Harpsichord Concerto

Marcello

Alessandro Marcello

Among the highlights of the first night will be Alessandro Marcello’s Concerto for Oboe in D Minor, a piece that Bach would later rearrange for harpsichord solo (BWV 974). While Bach’s piece has become famous in our time (the second movement especially is often heard as an encore by concert pianists, and Glenn Gould made a famous recording of the complete work), the original oboe concerto is a rare delight that is infrequently performed. On opening night ABS oboist Debra Nagy will be the soloist as Jeffrey Thomas and ABS perform this Italian work which clearly fired Bach’s imagination and which is still an extraordinarily beautiful composition to experience hundreds of years later.

Bach Adapts Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater

Pergolesi

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

Also on opening night, two fantastic vocal soloists, soprano Mary Wilson and countertenor Eric Jurenas, will join Thomas and ABS for a performance of Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden, Bach’s transcription and arrangement of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Pergolesi managed to compose several important works during his brief life (he died of tuberculosis at the age of 26), but his Stabat Mater for soprano, alto, and string orchestra with basso continuo is arguable his most enduring work. Bach took the young Italian’s soaring operatic lines and added his own inimitable penchant for counterpoint and texture to create a new work that yields an entirely different kind of impact and effect. With soloists like Wilson and Jurenas singing before the outstanding forces of ABS, this will surely be one of the hottest tickets of the summer!

Saturday Night – Bach’s Inspiration continues with Part II

Derek Chester, tenor

Derek Chester, tenor

Saturday night continues the exploration of works by composers who inspired Bach with another outstanding program. Among many other exquisite works will be Meine Seele rühmt und preist, an emotionally charged cantata by Georg Melchior Hoffmann. Hoffmann was an active musical figure in Leipzig in the years before Bach arrived, playing in the city’s collegium musicum and eventually succeeding its founder, Georg Philipp Telemann, as director. He also succeeded Telemann as the music director of the Neukirche, while also conducting performances of his own operas at the Leipzig civic opera in the first decades of the eighteenth century. Like Pergolesi, Hoffmann also died young (in 1715 at the age of 37) and his death left a tremendous void in Leipzig’s musical life, a space that would soon be filled when Bach became Thomaskirche Cantor in 1723. Despite a prodigious output, very little of Hoffmann’s music survives and the authorship of some of his sacred works has been confused with Bach’s works. The performance of Hoffmann’s cantata, a piece long thought to be one of Bach’s, will feature tenor Derek Chester as soloist with Thomas leading the ABS orchestra.

Also on the program will be two works—Mit Fried un Freud ich far dahin and Klaglied—by one of Bach’s idols, Dieterich Buxtehude. Nicolaus Bruhns, a pupil of Buxtehude, and Johann Adam Reincken, one of the Lübeck organist’s associates, will be represented by a sacred aria and partita, respectively. All three of these prominent North German musicians exerted powerful influences upon J.S. Bach.

And finally: Bach!

William Sharp, baritone

William Sharp, baritone

After intermission of the July 12 concert, ABS will perform mature works by Bach composed after he had absorbed all he could from his forebears, peers, and colleagues. Baroque trumpet virtuoso John Thiessen will be one of the soloists on Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto, the heart-rending secular cantata Amore traditore will feature baritone William Sharp and harpsichord Corey Jamason as dual-soloists, and the fiendishly difficult trio sonata from the “Musical Offering” all will serve as examples of Bach’s mastery of all he had learned as well as his ability to thrill musicians and audiences all these years later in 2014.

The full programs of “Bach’s Inspiration Parts I & II” and tickets may be found on our website, sfbachfestival.org or by calling the ABS Office at (415) 621-7900.

ABS Festival Attraction: Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

John Milton

John Milton

Opera / Oratorio night at the ABS Festival & Academy is always a musical highlight. This summer’s program on Friday July 18 will be no different as ABS and the Festival Orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas will present Handel’s 1740 pastoral ode, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.

The work is neither opera nor oratorio, but rather a meditation on the quixotic nature of humanity. It has no roles; each vocal soloist embodies a different element of the ode’s text and sings arias that more closely resemble poetic recitation. The work synthesizes John Milton’s poems L’Allegro (“the joyous one”) and Il Penseroso (“the pensive one”) into a single work along with a third voice, Il Moderato (“the moderate one”), contributed by Charles Jennens. A few years after creating L’Allegro together, Jennens and Handel would collaborate again on Messiah.

One of Handel’s most popular works during his lifetime

Charles Jennens

Charles Jennens

L’Allegro was an immensely popular work during Handel’s lifetime. Like Messiah, the composer did not labor long over its creation, composing and orchestrating L’Allegro between January 19th and February 9th, 1740. The work premiered a few weeks later on February 27 at London’s Royal Theatre, receiving a total of five performances that season. Handel’s concerti grossi were played between the different parts and the last part was introduced by his Organ Concerto in B flat. L’Allegro was a hit and revived in London in 1741 and 1743 and, along with his classic pastorale Acis and Galatea, featured heavily in Handel’s 1741-42 sojourn in Ireland. Following its premiere, L’Allegro proved to be a malleable work and its essence was not diminished or hindered by the integration of different instrumental works between the scenes or when given without the Il Moderato section.

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

While Milton’s poetry was held in high esteem throughout eighteenth-century in London, Handel’s reputation was undergoing a dramatic reappraisal in 1740. Having withdrawn from the field of Italian opera, Handel virtually created his career anew at this time as an oratorio composer. Musical London was not wholly behind Handel’s efforts at the beginning. One Handel advocate wrote an anonymous letter to the London Daily Post on April 4, 1741, defending the composer against a cabal that was brewing in the city. Among his entreaties to civility among the pro- and contra- partisans, the observer included a brief review of a performance of L’Allegro:

The Performance itself (the Musick as well as the Poetry) is noble and elevated, well devised, and of great Propriety. The Musician and the Poet walk Hand in Hand, and seem to vie which shall better express that beautiful Contrast of Mirth and Melancholy, which you have quite thro’ the “Allegro” and “Il Penseroso,” and the happy Success which Mr. Handel has had in the Composition of this particular Piece, will appear, to any one, who listens with Attention to it, the strongest Argument for the Truth of what I have said, That Musick is really a Language understood by the Soul, tho’ only a pleasing Sound to the Ear.

L’Allegro continues to be one of Handel’s most beloved works centuries later. Of all his large-scale works, musicians and audiences alike are drawn to the work for its gentle mirth and wit, and its gorgeous melodies are among the composer’s best. Indeed, L’Allegro conveys its humanist message with both power and subtlety and yields a stirring effect. ABS’s single July 18 performance of Handel’s ode to humanity and its many moods will undoubtedly draw a tremendous crowd. Be sure to get your tickets for L’Allegro and other Festival attractions now, before it’s too late.

Inspiration… How far will you go to get it?

Dieterich Buxtehude

Dieterich Buxtehude

At the age of 18, Bach was offered the job of organist at St. Boniface’s Church in Arnstadt. In spite of a rather generous salary for so young a musician, he bristled at the poor quality of singers in his choir and the appointment only lasted a few years. In October 1705 Bach requested leave to travel to the northern city of Lübeck to hear the great organist and composer, Dieterich Buxtehude, and “take in all I can of his art.” Granted four weeks off, he set out for Lübeck to meet his idol, traversing the 260 miles in early winter and reportedly on foot! Instead of a month, Bach ended up staying three months before returning to Arnstadt a changed man; he had found his inspiration.

While Bach undoubtedly longed to meet the famous organist, Buxtehude’s Abendmusik concerts at St. Mary’s church were likely what precipitated the teenaged Bach’s road trip. Under Buxtehude’s watch, the Abendmusik concerts—privately funded musical programs featuring a highly skilled group of municipal players performing stunning, new instrumental and vocal works by the town’s famous music master—had developed into significant annual attractions. In 1697, several years before Bach’s visit, a travel writer noted the organist and his concerts as one of Lübeck’s principal draws:

“On the west side, between the two pillars under the towers, one can see the large and magnificent organ, which, like the small organ, is now presided over by the world-famous organist and composer Dietrich Buxtehude. Of particular note is the great Abend-Music, consisting of pleasant vocal and instrumental music, presented yearly on five Sundays between St. Martin’s and Christmas, following the Sunday vesper sermon, from 4 to 5 o’clock, by the aforementioned organist as director, in an artistic and praiseworthy manner. This happens nowhere else.”

Though not bound by liturgical concerns, the Abendmusiken occurred each year on the final two Sundays of Trinity and first three Sundays of Advent, so roughly once a week from throughout November and December, excluding the week of Christmas. The events had begun under the stewardship of Buxtehude’s predecessor, Franz Tunder, but developed considerably in the late seventeenth century and continued long after Buxtehude’s death. In 1752, one writer recounted the history of the concerts, especially their development over the years from humble beginnings:

“In former times the citizenry, before going to the stock market, had the praiseworthy custom of assembling in St. Mary’s Church, and the organist [Tunder] sometimes played something on the organ for their pleasure, to pass the time and to make himself popular with the citizenry. This was well received, and several rich people, who were also lovers of music, gave him gifts. The organist was thus encouraged, first to add a few violins and then singers as well, until finally it had become a large performance, which was moved to the aforementioned Sundays of Trinity and Advent. The famous organist Diederich Buxtehude decorated the Abendmuisken magnificently already in his day. His successor, Mr. Schiefferdecker, did not fail to maintain the reputation of these concerts and even augment it. But our admirable Mr. Kuntze has brought them to the highest level. He has gotten the most famous singers [both male and female] from the Hamburg opera; he has even employed Italian women.”

The Bachkirche (Bach Church) in Arntadt

The Bachkirche (Bach Church) in Arnstadt

Like most musically inclined Germans in the early 1700s, Bach knew about the Abendmusik concerts and undoubtedly timed his visit to Lübeck accordingly. He also must have known that a four-week leave would not be adequate to fully take in the concerts, but he failed to mention this detail before leaving. Bach was not entirely happy with his post in Arnstadt, so missing more than a month of work bothered him less than it upset his employers. Interestingly, however, when Bach returned and was reprimanded, his most serious offense was not his AWOL status; it was for introducing strange notes and musical gestures into his services in January and February 1706! The experience of hearing and playing Buxtehude’s music in the Abendmusiken (some have suggested that he performed in some of the concerts) had inspired Bach and directly influenced his musical voice and ambition.

This July, ABS will celebrate this and other similar occurrences in the career of J.S. Bach during the ABS Festival & Academy, subtitled “Bach’s Inspiration.” The Festival opens with a fantastic two-part survey of the influences upon Bach along with examples of the master’s works. These two concerts, “Bach’s Inspiration – I & II”

Exciting Performances and Events Coming Up for ABS

The thrilling performances of ABS continue through the year and on into 2015. With the 25th subscription season performances ending on an especially glorious high point with “Bach’s Legacy” last month, it is great to look at what is coming up next for ABS.

2014 ABS Festival & Academy “Bach’s Inspiration”

A performance at the ABS Summer Bach Festival

A performance at the ABS Summer Bach Festival

In July ABS returns to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from July 11-20 for the ABS Festival & Academy. This annual Baroque extravaganza—6 main stage concerts, 3 Academy-in-Action programs, and several free public lectures, master classes, and colloquia—has grown every year since its founding in 2010 and attracts music lovers from around the country and abroad to hear Jeffrey Thomas and ABS perform the masterpieces and little-known gems of the Baroque. Every concert of the 2013 Festival sold out, so it is never too early to get your tickets for this year’s event, which promises to be the best yet! Titled “Bach’s Inspiration,” the 2014 Festival features works by Bach and composers who influenced his music. Tickets and a full schedule are available on our website: sfbachfestival.org.

2014-15 season subscriptions are now available

Baritone Jesse Blumberg returns to Grace Cathedral for Handel's Messiah

Baritone Jesse Blumberg returns to Grace Cathedral for Handel’s Messiah

Subscriptions for ABS’s 26th season are now available online. The subscription season begin in January 2015 with “Bach & Handel,” followed by Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in February, and “Bach & Vivaldi” in May. Subscribers also receive priority seating for our December performances of Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral. Single tickets for subscription concerts and Messiah performances go on sale to the general public on July 1, so act now for the best seats at the lowest prices. Remember, subscribers never pay handling fees and may exchange tickets at any time. Full details about the season are available at americanbach.org.

Save the Date! Saturday September 20, 2014
Tickets to ABS’s annual gala, “A Red Carpet Evening,” are now on sale

Corey Jamason, Kyle Stegall, and Nola Richardson performing at the 2013 Gala

Corey Jamason, Kyle Stegall, and Nola Richardson performing at the 2013 Gala

The annual gala auction, concert, and dinner will occur on September 20, 2014, at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere. “A Red Carpet Evening” awaits you at this year’s annual American Bach Soloists auction, concert, and dinner! Our red carpet will lead you to exclusive auction items, with food and drink from Delicious! Catering and a special ABS performance to enjoy along the way. Don’t miss this intimate opportunity to mingle with your favorite ABS artists and fellow supporters, all while supporting the artistic and educational initiatives of ABS. Reserve your tickets today for ABS’s unparalleled Red Carpet Evening! Invitation will be mailed in July, but you can make reservations at any time by visiting our gala homepage or call the ABS office at 415-621-7900.

2014 is off to a great start and there are still many more opportunities to catch up with ABS. We look forward to seeing you all at the Festival this summer, the gala in September.

“ABS – The First 25 Years” Photo Exhibition

ABS in Singapore 1996

ABS in Singapore 1996

As ABS commences its next 25 years, it also celebrates the illustrious first quarter-century of performances, recordings, community engagement, and success in training the next generation of early music virtuosi. A retrospective photo and ephemera exhibition entitled “ABS – The First 25 Years” will be on view May 11 – June 29 exclusively at The Musical Offering Classical Record Shop & Café, 2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, California 94704.

ABS Fireworks Concert in Grace Cathedral

ABS Fireworks Concert in Grace Cathedral

Whether you have been attending ABS events since the inaugural concert in 1990, or were introduced to the ensemble at last week’s “Bach’s Legacy,” this exhibition will provide a visually engaging history of the ensemble with something for everyone. Photos of the ABS musicians in the early days and from recent seasons will be installed on the walls along with mementos celebrating impressive benchmarks such as the tours to Singapore and Regensburg, Germany. The images document ABS in their annual performances of Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral, great moments in St. Stephen’s Church and First Congregational Church, highlights from the ABS Festival & Academy, and many other ABS events.

The Musical Offering is one of Northern California’s great gathering places for Classical music fans, especially those who love Baroque music. The space operates as both a Classical CD shop and a Café-Bistro. The CD store has a great selection of both new and used recordings for sale and its knowledgeable staff is always on hand to help you find a specific CD or provide recommendations.

ABS outside St. Stephen's Church

ABS outside St. Stephen’s Church

During the day, the Café portion of The Musical Offering is a favorite study spot for UC Berkeley students, but in the evenings it becomes an charming bistro for concertgoers. Be sure to call ahead and make a reservation if you plan to have dinner at The Musical Offering as this cozy room is often the top choice on concert nights for audience members attending events at First Congregational Church, Zellerbach Hall, Hertz Hall, or any other venue in the vicinity.

Bay Area Choir Members Attend “Bach’s Legacy”

2014.04.30_Legacy by Eddie Frank-Gas Lamp ProductionsPerforming to excited audiences in four Northern California venues from April 25-28, ABS and the “standard setting” American Bach Choir, under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas, shone brightly in “Bach’s Legacy,” a program of motets and choral works by Bach and his followers. The concerts attracted music lovers of all kinds, but it was the attendance of so many choristers from the Bay Area and beyond that provided an unexpected pleasure. Scores of singers came out to hear the acclaimed American Bach Choir, an assemblage whose “finesse is a local legend by now” (San Francisco Classical Voice) perform Thomas’s beautiful and challenging program.

2014.04.30_JT with St. John the Baptist kids DSCThe presence of choral singers in the audience was perhaps most obvious at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Twenty five young singers of the St. John the Baptist Catholic School Choir (grades 3-8) and twenty seven from the Advanced Choir of Justin-Siena High School formed a sizable delegation from the Napa region at the Sunday performance. The students, attired in their choir uniforms, came by bus, and sat in rapt attention throughout the concert. Afterwards, the young choristers and their director Carmen Flórez-Mansi took photos in the sanctuary. Jeffrey Thomas met with the St. John’s singers and several of them took the opportunity to ask questions and talk with him about music. After the performance, the Justin-Siena group went to a San Francisco restaurant before heading home. The commentary of these young concertgoers on the performance showed their excitement:

“Awesome!” – Beverly Bolen, Grade 3

“Like a recording” – Ezmerelda Tellez, Grade 8

“Unbelievable” – Jocelyn Stojack, Grade 6

The American Bach Choir will appear next during the 5th annual ABS Festival & Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, July 11-20. They will perform in Bach’s Mass in B Minor (July 13 & July 20) and Handel’s oratorio, L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (July 18). The full Festival schedule, passes, and tickets to single events are all available at sfbachfestival.org.

Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach – The Eternal Legacy

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

The story of Bach’s posthumous reception is often told as a narrative of fame emerging from obscurity. While it is true that J.S. Bach’s music enjoyed a dramatic reappraisal and rediscovery with Felix Mendelssohn’s legendary performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829 with the Berlin Singakademie, his music had not vanished completely. Whereas the musical careers of Bach’s illustrious sons, especially C.P.E., Johann Christian, and Willhelm Friedemann, eclipsed that of their father in the late 1700s, the elder was never forgotten.

2014.04.22_Mozart around 33 years

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

By 1800, Johann Sebastian and his works had become a specialist’s pursuit, known primarily to music students and composers. In 1789, Mozart made a point of reviewing Bach’s manuscripts when his travels brought him to Leipzig. Before being shown the collection of organ works he sought, the youthful genius heard the choir singing a Bach motet. An observer and Bach devotee, Friedrich Rochlitz, recorded what happened next:

The choir surprised Mozart with the performance of the double-chorus motet “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied,” by Sebastian Bach. Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out “What is this?” And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy “Now, there is something one can learn from!”

Samuel Wesley

Samuel Wesley

Bach’s keyboard music was the currency of virtuosity and a necessity for artistic development, but the brilliance of his works was not fully appreciated until later. Some young devotees like Samuel Wesley (1766-1837) and Carl Friedrich Horn (1762-1830) went beyond practicing the keyboard works and chorales; their enthusiasm encouraged a worshipful attitude toward the man as well as the music. Wesley wrote to a friend that he “rejoined to find that you are likely to regard his [J.S. Bach’s] Works with me as a musical Bible unrivaled and inimitable.” Wesley was also friends with Horn, a man he described as “longing to find some spirited enthusiasts like himself to co-operate in bringing the Musical World to Reason and Common Sense, and to extort a Confession of the true State of the Case against the Prepossession, Prejudice, Envy, and Ignorance of all Anti-Bachists.”

After the 20-year-old Mendelssohn’s performance of St. Matthew Passion, the groundswell enthusiasm for Bach’s music became a wave of popular and critical interest. A prolific writer and musician, Robert Schumann inquired, “would it not be a timely and useful undertaking, if the German Nation decided to publish a complete collection and edition of all of the works of Bach?” No less than Beethoven essayed a similar sentiment: “That you want to publish Sebastian Bach’s works delights my heart, which beats wholly for the great and lofty art of this father of harmony, and I wish to see the enterprise in full swing.” A group of prominent musicians, professors, and museum directors formed the Bach-Gesellschaft, a society whose mission was the publication of a complete edition of Bach’s works come scrito, without editorial additions or corrections. The volumes began issuing forth for popular consumption in 1851 and concluded 49 years later with the 46th and final volume.

With increasing access to this imposing body of work, it should come as no surprise that many 19th century musicians were captivated by J.S. Bach’s music:

  • Johann Sebastian Bach

    Johann Sebastian Bach

    “Study Bach. There you will find everything.” – Johannes Brahms

  • “O you happy sons of the North who have been reared at the bosom of Bach, how I envy you.” – Giuseppe Verdi
  • “…the most stupendous miracle in all music!” – Richard Wagner
  • “Bach is a Colossus of Rhodes, beneath whom all musicians pass and will continue to pass. Mozart is the most beautiful, Rossini the most brilliant, but Bach is the most comprehensive: he has said all there is to say. If all the music written since Bach’s time should be lost, it could be reconstructed on the foundation which Bach laid.” – Charles Gounod
  • “Any musician, even the most gifted, takes a place second to Bach’s at the very start.” – Paul Hindemith
  • “In Bach, the vital cells of music are united as the world is in God.” – Gustav Mahler
  • “And if we look a the works of JS Bach—a benevolent god to which all musicians should offer a prayer to defend themselves against mediocrity—on each page we discover things which we thought were born only yesterday, from delightful arabesques to an overflowing of religious feeling greater than anything we have since discovered. And in his works we will search in vain for anything the least lacking in good taste.” – Claude Debussy

Bach’s music has been a source of inspiration for composers, music students, audiences, and creative individuals of all persuasions throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Don’t miss the opportunity to hear Jeffrey Thomas direct the American Bach Soloists and American Bach Choir in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-26), a program that traces the Bach tradition from moving works by the master and compositions by artists who were directly influenced by those works and Bach’s genius. Then, on the subject of inspiration, don’t forget about the ABS Festival & Academy (July 11-20), when ABS will explore the artists who influenced Bach and initiated the grand tradition. See you at the concerts this weekend and at the Festival!

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

25th Season Celebration Afterglow

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Loretta O’Connell, Millicent Tomkins, Dee Norris, and Dorli Hanchette


March 21 is an important day every year for music enthusiasts as it is the birthday of the greatest composer in recorded history: Johann Sebastian Bach. March 21, 2014 proved doubly significant for American Bach Soloists as it was a day to celebrate our namesake while also honoring a significant milestone in the ensemble’s own history: twenty-five years of performances! A gala affair was held at Haas-Lilienthal House—a crown jewel of San Francisco historic sites.

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Wendy Buchen and Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas, the musicians, board, and staff of ABS were on hand to toast a glorious history and usher in the next quarter-century of musical excellence with many of ABS’s generous supporters and ardent fans. Since emerging on the scene with that first concert of Bach cantatas at St. Stephen’s Church on February 2, 1990, ABS has been a strong musical force within the Bay Area community and further abroad. To honor its reaching this landmark season, civic leaders feted ABS for its contributions on Bach’s birthday.

Mayor of San Francisco proclaims “American Bach Soloists Day”

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Mark Leno and Hugh Davies

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee proclaimed March 21 “American Bach Soloists Day” and State Senator Mark Leno presented a Resolution by the State Senate to ABS Board President Hugh Davies. Senator Leno opened the festivities with a moving speech about the impact ABS has had on cultural life in Northern California, the State’s goal to improve conditions for arts groups within California, its efforts to make music education a priority for young people, and then encouraged the attendees of the soirée to enjoy the music, keep up its support for this valuable treasure, and to bid extravagantly on the auction items!

Baritone Mischa Bouvier and members of ABS perform works by Bach and Telemann

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Noah Strick, Gretchen Claassen, Mischa Bouvier, Corey Jamason, Clio Tilton

Next up was a program of works by Bach and Telemann featuring baritone Mischa Bouvier, harpsichordist Corey Jamason, violinist Noah Strick, violist Clio Tilton, and violoncellist Gretchen Claassen. The program opened with one of only two Bach settings with an Italian text, Amore traditore. ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas introduced the work, explaining how the three-movement cantata for baritone soloists and harpsichord might also be viewed as a sort of concerto for harpsichord due to virtuosic demands in the second part. Bouvier and Jamason proved a delightful musical duo in this number with the baritone movingly portraying the narrator’s emotional turmoil toward a traitorous love and Jamason astonishing the audience with his breathtaking facility at the keyboard. The strings joined in for performances of Telemann’s “Ode on the Death of a Pet Canary” and an aria from Bach’s Ich habe genug. Thomas explained how the latter was included in an album of music the Bach family kept for private music making and intimate soirées. On this occasion, ABS and its loyal supporters all gathered to enjoy the same music with a similar environment of appreciation and intimacy.

The concert portion of the night was followed by a live auction for four fabulous get-away packages to New York, Napa Valley, Santa Fe, and a “stay-cation” here in San Francisco. Four lucky bidders now have some exciting adventures ahead of them.

Fine wine, tasty food

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Carmen Florez-Mansi and Tom Flesher

When friends gather to celebrate and enjoy one another’s company, the addition of fine wine, tasty food, and champagne often contribute to the occasion being a memorable one for all. Following the superb musical presentation and auction in the ballroom, the attendees of the event returned to the first floor of the Haas-Lilienthal for a reception among the elegant social spaces of the Victorian home. Delicious! Catering provided a beautiful spread of refreshments and hors d’ouevre and, aided by stimulating conversation and a familial kind of camaraderie, the party to celebrate ABS’s 25th season became a night to remember.

“The evening … represented a cross-section of ABS’s tremendous achievements”

Don Scott Carpenter

Don Scott Carpenter

“It was the perfect way to celebrate our first twenty-five years,” said ABS Executive Director Don Scott Carpenter, “The evening brought together founders, including Sandy Ogden, generous supporters, and Academy alumni who together represented a cross-section of ABS’s tremendous achievements over a quarter century. I would like to send a special thank you to Carmen Florez-Mansi our Development and Donor Services Associate for overseeing such a historic event.” Thank you to all who made the evening so special: Mayor Lee, Senator Leno, Jeffrey Thomas, Steven Lehning, and the Development Committee, co-chaired by Jan Goldberg and Rick Boyer. And, of course, thank you to all of our supporters who have helped get ABS this far and are committed to making the next 25 years a period of unparalleled musical excellence.

Jeffrey Thomas Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on April 21

415-conArtistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas will lead the third of this season’s public master classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Monday, April 21 at 7:30. Don’t miss this opportunity to witness Thomas work with promising young artists from the Conservatory on vocal interpretation, phrasing, expression, and Baroque style. All ABS master classes at the Conservatory are free and open to the public.

In addition to being the co-founder of American Bach Soloists and leading the many memorable performances over the ensemble’s first 25 years, Thomas’s commitment to the next generation of musicians is exemplary. During the academic year, Thomas is a faculty member at UC Davis where he leads the University Chorus. Each summer he works with more than 60 ABS Academy participants, coaching those emerging professionals along the path to major careers. Don’t miss this opportunity to see Maestro Thomas provide leadership and guidance to some of the Conservatory’s finest.

At the end of the week, Thomas will lead ABS and the American Bach Choir in “Bach’s Legacy,” the final subscription series concert of the 2013-14 season. In July, he, along with his orchestra, will return to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music for the ABS Festival & Academy—San Francisco’s Summer Bach Festival—from July 11-20.

Monday April 21 2014 7:30 p.m.
Osher Salon – San Francisco Conservatory of Music
50 Oak Street (between Van Ness & Franklin)
San Francisco CA 94102

Sponsored by ABS & Judith Flynn

Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach in the 19th Century – Mendelssohn & Brahms

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

At their next concert, Jeffrey Thomas, ABS, and the American Bach Choir will celebrate the profound impact of the music of J.S. Bach on later generations in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-28). In previous posts, we explored the program in terms of the cantatas and motets that will be heard as well as the resonances of those works in the compositions by living composers Sven-David Sandström and Knut Nystedt. Between Bach’s time and our own, however, a bridge had to be built, a tradition established, so that those manuscripts in the safe keeping of Bach’s descendants and friends might see the light of day and exert their influence. Perhaps the most influential architects of that bridge are two of the greatest musicians to come after Bach: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).

Mendelssohn_BartholdyLike other musical talents of the era, Felix Mendelssohn was a devotee of J.S. Bach’s music, learning his keyboard works and singing the known chorales. But Mendelssohn was an outlier of the most extraordinary sort. Along with Mozart, who preceded him, and Paganini and Chopin who came later, he was one of the greatest musical prodigies to ever live; his talent and celebrity as a boy-genius knew no bounds. Friends of the Mendelssohn family and his teacher Carl Friederich Zelter believed Bach was a formidable example, perhaps the example, by which to temper and inspire the prodigy’s singular talent and he was permitted access to Bach manuscripts. The exposure yielded a profound impact both in Mendelssohn’s career as a professional musician and in his enduring legacy as a composer.

For “Bach’s Legacy,” Jeffrey Thomas will conduct the American Bach Choir in Mendelssohn’s motet cycle Sechs Sprüche zum Kirchenjahr and his setting of the chorale “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” which Bach set in the cantata Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort (BWV 126). Sechs Sprüche (literally “Six Sentences”) is a fascinating work with six different liturgically defined episodes—Christmas, New Year’s Day, Passion Week, Good Friday, Advent, and Ascension—presented in Biblical paraphrases sung by an eight-part choir. Bach is surely a model for this posthumously published composition that occupied Mendelssohn in his final years, as it is a cycle of formidable complexity and gorgeous musical expression. Mendelssohn’s setting of Luther’s chorale “Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich” is another fine example of Bach’s music reconceived by a Romantic mind for a different age. Thomas and the American Bach Choir will perform both Bach’s setting and Mendelssohn’s version.

BrahmsMendelssohn died young and the duty of carrying the Bach tradition fell to the able shoulders of one of classical music’s “Big B Three”: Johannes Brahms (the others being Bach and Beethoven, naturally). In his voluminous output of chamber, symphonic, sacred and secular vocal works, it is Brahms’s motets that provide the clearest example of esteem and veneration he had for Bach’s music. At “Bach’s Legacy,” his Fest- und Gedenksprüche (Festival and Commemoration Sentences), Op. 109, will open the second half of the program and set the tone for cross-generational inquiry that informed Thomas’s curatorial choices for the concert. The polyphony of the three-movement work presents complex textures, but the composer of such timeless examples of Romanticism as the “German Requiem” and Symphony No. 2 imbues the vocal lines with strong feeling and warmth. One might say the work is in the spirit of Bach, with the sensibility of the 1880s.

“Brahms, as much as any other composer, idolized Bach and his compositional techniques, and in many if not all of Brahms’ choral works he placed specific references to Bach’s style. As a contrapuntalist, Brahms was unrivaled among all the late-nineteenth century composers, and his choral works— specifically his motets—exhibit extraordinary technical and structural mastery and maturity.”

– Jeffrey Thomas

Brahms-YouTube

Johannes Brahms: Fest- und Gedenksprüche, Op. 109:1

Over 260 years have elapsed since the death of J.S. Bach, yet his music endures both in performances of his surviving works and in those he inspired. Join us for “Bach’s Legacy.” You might find that kernel of truth within this illustrious continuum to fire your own spirit and creativity. Tickets and more information are available here.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: Bach and His Motets

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

2014.04.08 Der Geist manuscript

Bach’s manuscript of “Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf” – Click to enlarge.

Bach’s motets form an important part of his artistic legacy. These extraordinarily beautiful and powerful works hold a beloved place in the Baroque repertory and—in spite of their difficulty and the demands they place upon performers—are regularly performed. The motets have exerted a strong influence on composers of vocal music through the ages and for some, Mozart for example, they provided the point of entry for discovering Johann Sebastian Bach. Two of Bach’s motets—Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf (BWV 226)—and the motet-like movement Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV-Anhang 231) will be performed by ABS and the American Bach Choir under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas at ABS’s “Bach’s Legacy” concerts (April 25-28). Vocal works by Mendelssohn, Brahms, Sandström, and Nystedt will round out this program, specially curated by Maestro Thomas, which connects the world of Bach to our own by way of a shining and vibrant musical thread.

For all of their brilliance and centrality to the repertory, Bach’s motets present a host of authentication, identification, and performance practice challenges. For example, we can only be relatively sure about the occasion and date of the composition of one of the traditional six attributed to him, Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. Outside the six, there are motet-like works—O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht (BWV 118) and Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren (BWV 231)—whose status as motets is debatable, and there are works like the motet Ich lasse dich nicht of which Bach’s authorship has only recently been established.

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“ABS’s performances of Bach’s motets have been featured events both on our own Subscription Series and, in two separate years, at the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition. They seem to be such a perfect fit for our wonderful artists, both vocalists and instrumentalists. In all of my travels, I have never worked elsewhere with musicians whose careful and thorough attention to the details of texts even remotely approaches the meticulousness and thoughtfulness of performances by our artists. I am always grateful for their mastery, but I am especially so in the compositions by Bach (the cantatas, motets, and passions) that are tremendously dependent on subtleties of text and rhetoric”

– Jeffrey Thomas

Provenance is admittedly sketchy and incomplete for this rewarding body of work, and the more basic matter of definition provides little in the way of sure grounding for inquiry. The simple question of “What is a motet?” does not have a simple answer as this particular realm of musical terminology has a history of imprecision and liquidity. “Motet” has been used variously to describe liturgical music in Latin, sacred music in the vernacular, secular polyphonic music during the late Middle Ages, a cappella works, or vocal polyphony with instruments. For Bach, his motets are fairly consistent with regard to a few important features. They are polyphonic vocal works for one or two choirs, sometimes with instrumental accompaniment, often (though not always) based on biblical texts. They were presumably performed as prayers for recently deceased dignitaries.

Perhaps the least contentious in terms of date of composition, instrumentation, and occasion for which it was written is Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. The common assumption about Bach’s motets is that they were composed as funeral music, though Der Geist hilft is the only one bearing an autograph dedication; it was performed in October of 1727 at the memorial service of Johann Heinrich Ernesti, rector of the Thomasschule in Leipzig. Debates about instrumental accompaniment of motets can be laid to rest for this one, as instrumental parts—strings paired with Choir I and winds paired with Choir II—exist in Bach’s hand. The only mystery is whether Bach intended the concluding chorale, “Du heilige Brunst,” to be played by the instrumentalists since Bach wrote music for the chorale into the vocal parts, but not for the instrumentalists. Should we surmise that this last portion was sung a cappella at the gravesite where the orchestra, especially the organ, would not have accompanied? The text of the chorale is a poetic benediction for the departed:

Heavenly fire, sweet consolation, help us now, so that joyfully and confidently we may faithfully serve thee and not be deflected by sadness. Oh Lord, prepare us through thy power and strengthen the reluctant flesh, so that we shall fight valiantly and pass through death and life to thee. Hallelujah!

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Bach: Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226
La Chapelle Royale ~ Collegium Vocale ~ Philippe Herreweghe ~ 1985

For “Bach’s Legacy,” Jeffrey Thomas has selected a sampling of Bach’s vocal music that will showcase the singular excellence of the American Bach Choir and instrumentalists of ABS. The works by Bach include the motets Komm, Jesu, komm and Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, the chorale Verleih uns Frieden gnädiglich, the motet-like movement Sei Lob und Preis mit Ehren, the early cantata Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir, and the sacred song Komm, süßer Tod. These compositions profoundly affected later composers such as Mendelssohn, Brahms, Sandström, and Nystedt. Works by this great quartet of composers will also be also performed to demonstrate the depth of Bach’s influence. See you there!

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: Sven-David Sandström’s Komm, Jesu, komm

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

SandstromSwedish composer Sven-David Sandström enjoyed an international breakthrough in 1972 when his orchestral work Through and Through was performed by the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam two years after its premiere in the composer’s homeland. From that point, leading musical assemblages worldwide have performed his compositions making him one of Sweden’s leading composers. Within contemporary choral music, Sandström’s music occupies a unique position that is both firmly rooted in the traditions established by predecessors like Bach, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, yet also rigorously twenty-first century modern.

American Bach Soloists first performed one of Sandström’s works in May 2005 for “Sonic Tapestries,” an all-choral program that presented different approaches to consonance and dissonance in works by William Byrd, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and others. On that occasion, Jeffrey Thomas and the American Bach Choir performed Sandström’s Agnus Dei and it made a terrific impression on audiences and critics. San Francisco Classical Voice commented, “The final piece, Sven-David Sandström’s Agnus Dei, was the clearest example on the program of a contemporary composer’s upsetting the traditional hierarchy of consonance and dissonance. Because the choir performed the piece with such virtuosity and ease, however, the difference in dissonance treatment in this piece seemed like just another change of color. The slow collapsing of the dissonant final chord into triadic consonance was exquisite.” ABS performed Agnus Dei again in 2008 as part of the “Vocal Visionaries” program along with Sandström’s setting of Henry Purcell’s “Hear my prayer, O Lord.”

“I think that everyone who heard our performances of Sandström’s Agnus Dei, and certainly every singer who participated in those concerts, has never forgotten the experience. Sandström’s deep admiration, even love, for Bach’s music is undeniable. Like Bach, he knows how to elicit an exact and specific emotional response from his listeners. He understands how we hear music and how we equate unrestrained willingness on the part of performers to reveal the music to their audiences with a safe and promising invitation to let ourselves go as we experience the sweeps of passionate authenticity that are such a great part of all of Sandström’s works.”

– Jeffrey Thomas

Central to Sandström’s output of vocal music is a series of six motets composed after Bach’s originals. For “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-28), Jeffrey Thomas will direct the American Bach Choir in Bach’s Komm, Jesu, komm (BWV 229) and Sandström’s 2005 setting. Utilizing the text and spirit of Bach’s motet, Sandström’s is a meditative work for the twenty-first century. It reinterprets the original with a different melodic and textural approach, yet retains the expressiveness and moving quality associated with the original.

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Sven-David Sandström: Komm, Jesu, komm

“Bach’s Legacy” will feature juxtapositions of extraordinary compositions by Bach with those of later composers. Along with dual versions of Komm, Jesu, komm, Bach’s setting of the chorale Verleih uns Frieden ganädiglich will be performed alongside Felix Mendelssohn’s version, and Bach’s Komm, süßer Tod will be paired with a setting by Knut Nystedt. We hope you will join us as we explore these fascinating connections and celebrate the Legacy of one of music’s greatest inspirations.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: Knut Nystedt’s “Immortal Bach”

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

In celebrating the music and lasting impact of Johann Sebastian Bach in “Bach’s Legacy” (April 25-28), the outstanding American Bach Choir under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas will perform a selection of extraordinary and challenging choral works. The program will include motets from the pen of Bach and choral compositions by later composers that show his unmistakable influence. This artistic legacy became well-known and pervasive during the early nineteenth century following Felix Mendelssohn’s famous “rediscovery” of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, but Bach’s music continues to inspire with undiminished potency. One composer to find inspiration in Bach’s creations in our era is the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt.

Knut Nystedt (b. 1915)

Born in Kristiania (now Oslo) in 1915, Nystedt is one of Norway’s leading composers of orchestral and choral music. His compositions have been performed around the world and recorded by groups including Accentus, the Holst Singers, and Ensemble 96, whose 2006 GRAMMY-nominated album Immortal Nystedt featured solely works by the composer. His works are known for their beauty and challenging arrangements.

“Our Legacy program features not only works by composers who idolized Bach and incorporated what they learned from the Baroque master’s rhetoric into their own original compositions, but also two compositions (by Nystedt and Sandström) that are based on  actual works by Bach. Nystedt’s setting of the famous and beautiful sacred song, “Komm, süßer Tod,” utilizes multiple choirs of singers to create a spatially separated impression of music through time. The effect of overlaying harmonies and music moving slowly through space is awe-inspiring.”

– Jeffrey Thomas

The American Bach Choir are no strangers to innovative contemporary music. As recently as “An ABS Christmas” in December 2013 when they performed Eric Whitacre’s Alleluia (2011) and a David Conte’s arrangement of Silent Night (1989), Thomas and the Choir have earned rapturous acclaim in a broad range of styles and works. When they perform Nystedt’s Immortal Bach during “Bach’s Legacy” it will be an ABS premiere and the ensemble’s first performance of any of the Norwegian composer’s works.

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Click image to hear a performance of Knut Nystedt: Immortal Bach
(Komm, süßer Tod, komm selger Ruh) by the Monteverdi Choir

As the title suggests, Nystedt’s Immortal Bach honors the resonance of Bach’s creations through the ages. Utilizing both the melody and text of Bach’s “Komm, süßer Tod, komm, selge Ruh” (Come, sweet death, come, blessed rest) and employing multiple choirs that begin and end the text at different points and at different tempi, Nystedt reconceives the balance and simplicity of Bach’s original in a complex and extremely moving new setting.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014

Bach’s Legacy Series: An Early Bach Cantata

The following is part of a 6-part series of articles about ABS’s
“Bach’s Legacy” concerts coming up on April 25-28, 2014.

The surviving 200 plus cantatas composed by J.S. Bach constitute one of the richest legacies of any composer in music history. Often written for specific liturgical purposes and times of year, we can be relatively confident that the provenance of these masterpieces is accurate, yet some of them remain a bit mysterious. Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (“From the depths I call to you, Lord”), BWV 131, which will be featured in “Bach’s Legacy,” April 25-28, is a thrilling cantata, but one with its share of mysteries.

St. Mary's Church, Mühlhausen

St. Mary’s Church, Mühlhausen

Probably first performed in 1707 while Bach was the organist at St. Blasius’s in Mühlhausen, Cantata 131 is one of his earliest surviving works. It is unlikely, however, that he composed it for performance at St. Blasius, but rather for another church in town, St. Mary’s. From an inscription in the autograph score, we know that the work was composed at the request of the minister at St. Mary’s, Georg Christian Eilmar. Some have speculated that Eilmar also fashioned the text of the cantata and recruited Bach to write music to commemorate the anniversary of a devastating fire that had struck the community. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the date and occasion for its creation, the cantata is a stirring work of profound impact utilizing oboe, bassoon, strings, and basso continuo along with chorus and soloists.

The text of Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir is based largely on Psalm 130 (also known by its Latin title, De Profundis), yet also includes elements of the chorale “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” to underscore the message of supplication. (The full text of Cantata 131 is available here). Bach’s treatment of the text does not follow the operatic conventions evident in his later cantatas, avoiding recitatives or da capo repeats in its arias. Instead he favors an expressive presentation that appeals directly to the hearer without musical rhetorical devices. After the opening chorale comes an arioso for bass, “So du wilt, Herr, Sünde zurechnen” (“If you will, Lord, mark all our sins”). Another brief chorus precedes the work’s central aria for tenor soloist, “Meine Seele wartet auf den Herrn von einer Morgen wache bis zu der andern” (“My soul waits for the Lord from one morning watch to the next”). Continuo accompaniment and the pitches of the cantus firmus (the chorale sung in long tones) provide a supportive fabric for each soloist in these inner parts of the work. In the aria, the chorale supplies harmonic guideposts “from above” for the tenor soloist, as it occurs in a higher register.

“This superb cantata comes from the early period in Bach’s career when he was experimenting with various musical forms and rhetorical devices. Like the other early cantatas which are all quite dramatically different from each other, the immediacy of Bach’s intentions — how he wanted the listener to react to the music — is undeniable. The musical portrayal or rendering of the text couldn’t be more direct, and so much of the music is utterly hypnotic. It is a long-time favorite of all ABS musicians who have performed this cantata in the past, both in concerts and on recording.”

– Jeffrey Thomas

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ABS Cantatas Vol. IV

ABS recorded Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir in 1994 and that performance is available on Bach Cantata Series: Vol. IV – Early Cantatas for Holy Week. From April 25-28, audiences in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis will have the opportunity to hear this moving work from Bach’s earliest period performed by the expert forces of ABS under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas at “Bach’s Legacy.” We hope to see you there! For tickets and more information, please visit our website.

“Bach’s Legacy” ~ April 25-28, 2014