ABS Festival Spotlight: Handel in Rome


At barely 18 years of age, George Frideric Handel moved from Halle to the more significant musical center of Hamburg where he flourished as a professional musician. Two years later, his opera Almira (1705) received its premiere and was a smash success. The young composer so impressed a Medici prince in attendance that he was subsequently invited to come to Italy, opera’s birthplace.

George Frideric Handel

George Frideric Handel

Handel wasted no time in gathering up his things and heading south on a modified Grand Tour, not only taking in the sites but also searching for patrons and steady work as a musician. He paid his first visit to the prince in Florence, but before long he found his way to the Eternal City, Rome. On January 14, 1707, the Roman diarist Francesco Valesio recorded the arrival of the 22-year-old German musician:

“There has arrived in this city a Saxon who is an excellent harpsichord player and composer of music who today exhibited his prowess by playing the organ at St. John Lateran to the astonishment of everybody.”

The Rome that Handel arrived in was one of stark social stratification between the haves and have-nots. The seat of secular power in the city rested with the nobility, a small enclave of influential families and wealthy citizens. Perhaps even more powerful were the papal orders–cardinals, bishops, and priests–which constituted another influential social strata. Compared with the comfort and privilege afforded the nobility and clergy, the majority of Rome’s 150,000 citizens in 1707 lived in destitution and squalor. Unsafe habitations were squeezed into tight alcoves, huddled along the outlines of the ruins of antiquity, or scattered between the city’s many magnificent churches and monasteries. Devastating fires and disease were a constant threat among the poorest communities.

The church of S. Maria di Monte Santo is on the left.

The church of S. Maria di Monte Santo is on the left.

Aided by his impressive, public display of musicianship at St. John’s, Handel quickly became the darling of Roman society upon arriving in town. A coterie of wealthy supporters fought for the composer’s favor and showered him with patronage and commissions. Secular music, especially opera, was explicitly forbidden by Papal decree, so Handel was enlisted by his admirers to invigorate the local musical culture by composing works for church services. Handel’s compositions not only breathed new life into Roman church services, but also inspired the best local musicians and many visiting players. As a favor to Cardinal Colonna, Handel composed music for the Vespers, or evening services, of the Carmelite Order at the Santa Maria di Monte Santo. His motet, Saeviat tellus inter rigores (“Though the earth is full of savagery and harshness”), celebrates the Order with bravura melodies in the Italian style for the soprano soloist – the Carmelite nuns must have had some extraordinary singers in 1707! Handel composed several other works for the Vespers, including settings for Salve Regina, Nisi Dominus, and Laudate Pueri. His magnificent tour-de-force choral work, Dixit Dominus, also dates from this same period, though probably was not a commission for the Carmelites’ Vespers.

Handel’s Roman works open ABS Festival on August 5

Handel’s extraordinary sacred music from his youthful Roman sojourn will open this summer’s ABS Festival & Academy, “An Italian Journey,” on August 5. For the opening night concert, Jeffrey Thomas leads the period-instrumentalist specialists of ABS, the American Bach Choir, and five vocal soloists in a program that includes Saviat tellus inter rigores, with soprano Mary Wilson as the vocal soloist (you can also hear ABS and Wilson perform his Laudate Pueri from the Roman period on the ABS CD “Mary Wilson Sings Handel“), Nisi Dominus, and Dixit Dominus. Do not miss this opportunity to experience the first flowering of Handel’s genius performed by the outstanding artists of ABS. Along with Handel’s music of for the Roman Vespers, the program will also include Antonio Vivaldi’s Salve Regina and the famous Gloria as examples of the Italian style from around the same time, but 326 miles away in Venice. Take “An Italian Journey” with ABS this summer, beginning August 5th!



Note: During his Roman sojourn, Handel also composed two oratorios–La Resurrezione and Il trionfo del tempo e del disanganno–that received elaborate performances at the private residences of his patrons. You can hear Jeffrey Thomas and ABS perform Handel’s La Resurrezione, a marvel of creative power and imagination, in May 2017. Mark your calendars now, purchase tickets, and continue your tour of Handel’s brilliant Roman period with ABS next season!

A FAB-ulous new way to support ABS

Lucy Connolly is a choral singer and longtime fan of American Bach Soloists. She is also the leader of FABS, or Friends of American Bach Soloists, a new initiative to brings passionate fans of Baroque music together to volunteer their time and talents in support of ABS. Whether they read about FABS in the April program for Bach Oratorios, received an email about the program, or heard about it via word of mouth, the group’s membership is already growing steadily. I asked Lucy about FABS and her vision for this new way of getting involved with ABS.

Please tell us more about FABS. What is this group with the fabulous name?
Friends of American Bach Soloists was created for the purpose of involving our devoted concertgoers in the process of planning events, providing support at rehearsals and performances, and all-around just supporting the activities of this great ensemble.

Who can join the FABS team?
FABS welcomes all who share our enthusiasm for ABS and who would like to be involved in a way that is both helpful and fun.

What skills and interests are most important for a potential new member to join FABS?

Mary Wilson with audienceThe opportunities for volunteers are many and varied. Members of FABS will help the ABS staff in the office and at events and rehearsals. There is also a need for some members to help with artist hospitality, which includes housing, transportation, and providing refreshments at rehearsals.

If you are interested in joining FABS and discovering new ways in which you can help ABS, please visit the FABS site and fill out the questionnaire.


Next up for ABS are the annual ABS Festival & Academy from August 5-14 and Sparkle 2016, the ABS fundraising gala, on September 24.

Getting ready for the 2016 ABS Festival & Academy: “An Italian Journey”

2016-Festival-and-AcademyDo you have your 2016 ABS Festival & Academy tickets yet? This summer’s Festival, which will be held at both St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 5-14, promises thrilling musical performances, an assortment of free public events, and the chance to engage with the Italian Baroque. Titled An Italian Journey,” many of the concerts and lectures of the ABS Festival will explore the music and culture of Italy along with works by J.S. Bach, who was profoundly influenced by musical innovations that originated on the Italian peninsula. This 10-day immersion in the Italian style–a modern day Grand Tour right here in San Francisco–will include glorious sacred music by Handel and Vivaldi; elegant and witty chamber works by Frescobaldi, Caldara, and others; virtuosic concerti by Vivaldi & Corelli; the North American premiere of Handel’s sumptuous and festive serenata Parnasso in festa; and two performances of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor. With a few months to get into the spirit, we compiled a short list of resources for those who are inclined to read, listen, and watch a little before embarking on “An Italian Journey” with ABS in August.


Beginning in the sixteenth century and lasting on into modern times, The Grand Tour was a rite of passage. To complete their education and attain a certain continental refinement, British noblemen and wealthy landed gentry ventured to Italy and the roots of civilization to observe humanity’s greatest artistic achievements in art, sculpture, architecture, and music. The idea of “taking The Tour” caught on and cultural pilgrims from all over Europe, and eventually America, made the trip over the centuries with Italy being either an important stop or the ultimate destination. Below are a few great sources about The Grand Tour:

Goethe: Italian Journey, 1786-1788 (Penguin Classics)

Goethe_Italian_JourneyThough already famous at the age of 26 for his The Sorrows of Young Werther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe balanced his artistic sensibilities and vocation as a lawyer well for many years. At the age of 36, he sent his employers at the firm a letter requesting leave so he could take The Grand Tour. Before permission was granted, Goethe was already on a stagecoach bound for Italy and chronicled his adventures in diary form. “I am not here to enjoy myself,” he wrote upon reaching Rome, “I want to develop myself fully before I am forty.” Poet, novelist, statesman, and philosopher, Goethe also proved to be a great travel writer and his Italian diary is full of insightful observations, adventure, and encounters with local eccentrics. Though late for the Baroque period, Goethe’s “Italian Journey” is a fascinating read. Many versions are available, but I recommend poet W.H. Auden’s translation.

E.M. Forster: A Room With A View (1908, filmed version 1986)

Screenshot 2016-05-24 13.52.42This classic twentieth century Grand Tour novel follows a young Englishwoman as she finds love and meaning in the exotic locale of Florence, Italy. The transformation she undergoes leads to a complicated transition back into English society. The Merchant-Ivory cinematic adaption of Forster’s novel introduced filmgoers to actress Helena Bonham Carter and also enchanted them with Puccini’s aria “O mio bambino caro,” unforgettably sung by Kiri Te Kanawa. Though not from or about the Baroque period, Forster’s tale is essential reading and/or viewing for learning about the age-old custom of The Grand Tour.


Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi spent many years working in Venice for the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage and convent for young girls, which also trained many of its wards to be musicians. With Antonio Vivaldi as their music master, the all-female orchestra and chorus became known for their virtuosity and thrilling performances. The fact that this accomplished ensemble of young virgins were rarely permitted to leave the Pietà and gave their heavenly performances from behind a metal grate separating them from the Venetian public, contributed to their legend and mystique. Vivaldi’s “Angels of the Pietà” have inspired storytellers for centuries. While not all of these narratives are likely to be worth exploring, some recent ones utilize current research to imagine the lives of the orphaned girls in effective ways while still others shed light on the social, political, and economic forces at work in eighteenth-century Venice. Below are a few intriguing attempts to understand this fascinating institution for which Vivaldi composed a great deal of incredible music. On August 5, ABS will open the 2016 ABS Festival with sacred works by Handel and Vivaldi, including the latter’s famous Gloria, composed for the female virtuosi of the Pietà. Then, on August 13, the virtuosi soloists of ABS will perform instrumental concerti by Vivaldi, many of which were also written for these fantastic Venetian orphans. Before attending the concerts, you may want to explore the legend further:

The Four Season by Laurel Corona (Hyperion Books, 2008)Four Seasons

A novel about two sisters who grow up as wards of the Pietà. High spirited Chiaretta sings with the Coro until marrying into a powerful Venetian family. Her sister Maddalena rises through the ranks at the Pietà as a virtuoso violinist and muse to Maestro Vivaldi.


Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick (Harper Perennial, 2008)Vivaldi's Vigins

Taking as its inspiration the life of Anna Maria dal Violin, a historical alumna of the Ospedale della Pietà, Quick’s novel is a fictional account of growing up within the Ospedale system. Outwardly committed to the strict regimen of daily prayers and musical instruction, Anna is driven to learn more about where she came from and launches into a journey of self-discovery that leads her, and readers, into the heart of eighteenth-century Venetian music culture.

Vivaldi’s Gloria

This filmed performance (below, from the BBC Four documentary Vivaldi’s Women) of the famous Gloria in D Major channels the legendary ensemble of the Ospedale della Pietà during Vivaldi’s time. It shows the all-female orchestra and chorus in an eighteenth century church performing behind screens, using candles to read their music, and wearing simple uniforms like those worn by the young ladies in the composer’s day. The only thing missing in this fanciful recreation is a roomful of ecstatic Venetians and out-of-towners, enthralled by the music and drawn to the mysterious, otherworldly performers who are physically separated from them, barely visible, and unobtainable.

If you have some favorite books, films, or videos related to The Grand Tour or the Italian Baroque, please share them with us on the ABS Facebook page. To learn more about the 2016 ABS Festival & Academy (August 5-14, 2016), see the full schedule, request a brochure, or purchase tickets, please visit our website.


Also, mark your calendars now for two outstanding free educational events during the Festival: On Friday, July 29 at 6:30 pm, ABS violinist Robert Mealy will present a pre-Festival, multimedia lecture about the Festival theme–”An Italian Journey”–at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura. On Saturday, August 6 at 2:30 pm, an ABS Festival Public Colloquium titled “The Grand Tour of Italy” will explore the Grand Tour, Italian Baroque instrumental style, and the craze for Italian opera. Join William Berger–author, lecturer, and writer/producer for the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts–and the ABS Academy Faculty for a lively and informative discussion.

Subscribe to the 2016-17 ABS season

The details of ABS’s exciting new 2016-17 season have been announced and subscriptions to the new season are now available! With works by Bach, Handel, and a handful of masters of the French Baroque, the new season offers a showcase of peerless musical inspiration from the Baroque era. Don’t miss ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas and his ABS forces of leading period-instrumentalists and historically informed singers, including three vocal soloists making their ABS debuts, in these unforgettable programs. Purchase a subscription today! Remember subscribers get the best seats at the best prices.



Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral

For the eighteenth consecutive season, ABS returns to San Francisco’s magnificent Grace Cathedral to present its annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, December 14-16, 2016. Maestro Thomas will direct the renowned American Bach Choir, ABS orchestra, and vocal soloists soprano Hélène Brunet, alto Emily Marvosh in her ABS debut, tenor Derek Chester, and baritone Mischa Bouvier in three performances of Handel’s beloved work in one of San Francisco’s most awe-inspiring sacred spaces. Always a highlight of the holiday season in the Bay Area, ABS’s annual performances attract music lovers from around the world.


A Weekend in Paris

ABS’s 28th subscription season opens February 10-13, 2017, with “A Weekend in Paris,” a program of works by five masters of the French Baroque. When Jean-Baptiste Lully’s monopoly on music in France ended in the late seventeenth century, an explosion of musical creativity erupted in Paris from a new generation of composers. Marin Marais and Jean-Féry Rebel were both students of Lully, played under his direction in the King’s royal orchestra, and were among the first to emerge as faces of the “new music.” Thomas conducts the period-instrument specialists of ABS in a suite of dances from Marais’ 1709 opera Sémélé, including the lively Act II chaconne, and Rebel’s benchmark of French style, Les caractères de la danse. Jean-Joseph de Mondonville and Michel Corrette were significant participants in the next wave of French invention and elevated the Grand Motet to brilliant new heights by incorporating new cosmopolitan influences from abroad. The Italian style is especially evident in Corrette’s Laudate Dominum, which includes an interpolation of Vivaldi’s “Spring” from the Four Seasons arranged for choir, vocal soloists, and orchestra. Finally, Thomas conducts ABS in a suite of dances from the opera Dardanus by the great genius of the French Baroque, Jean-Philippe Rameau. Haute-contre Steven Brennfleck, an ABS Academy alumnus, makes his ABS debut singing the mellifluous lines for high tenor that are so central to French music of the period. Soprano Nola Richardson, who the Washington Post applauded for her “astonishing balance and accuracy,” and baritone William Sharp, “a superbly communicative vocal artist” (Baltimore Sun), round out the assemblage of artists for this tour of works for the Opéra, Ballet, and Chapelle.

Motet-ensemble-2017 2

Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus

Among the most compelling and mysterious of Bach’s sacred works are his motets for double choir. From March 31-April 3, Thomas will lead the American Bach Choir and instrumentalists in Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus. Composed for special occasions, these mesmerizing and ethereal works rely on the human voice, in its multifaceted splendor, to provide the color palette, melodic movement, harmonic textures, and, of course, the message of the text. Thomas and the American Bach Choir left the audience breathless when they last performed Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225) and Fürchte dich nicht (BWV 228) at the 2012 Berkeley Festival & Exhibition. This presentation of Bach’s motets, including some frequently overlooked works only recently attributed to Bach, promises to be a banquet of sublime vocalism.


Handel’s La Resurrezione

The ABS subscription season closes May 5-8 with performances of Handel’s La Resurrezione. Composed and first performed during the composer’s youthful sojourn in Rome, the 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 Lucifer and an Angel—battle for supremacy on earth through this dramatic telling of the emotions and convictions of Mary Magdalene and St. John the Evangelist. Thomas conducts an outstanding cast of Handelians in this brilliant work, which demands bravura performances from singers and instrumentalists alike. As the opposing divine forces, soprano Mary Wilson and baritone Jesse Blumberg assume the roles of the Angel and Lucifer. ABS Academy alumna Nola Richardson sings the role of Mary Magdalene, contralto Meg Bragle makes her ABS debut as Mary Cleophas, and tenor Guy Cutting, the 2014 recipient of The Jeffrey Thomas Award, sings the role of St. John.

Subscriptions are available online or by calling the ABS office at (415) 621-7900. Subscribers enjoy the following benefits:

  • best seats at the best prices
  • additional seats at 15% off
  • ticket exchanges
  • invitations to special events


ABS performs at Sustainable Food Trust conference

Front left - Lisa Grodin, Brandon Labadie, Andres Vera, Daria D’Andrea, Kati Kyme. Front right - Ramón Negrón Pérez, Maxine Nemerovski, Jeffrey Thomas, Steven Lehning. Not in photo - Gretchen Claasson, Jason Pyszkowski, Noah Strick.

Front left – Lisa Grodin, Brandon Labadie, Andres Vera, Daria D’Andrea, Kati Kyme.
Front right – Ramón Negrón Pérez, Maxine Nemerovski, Jeffrey Thomas, Steven Lehning.
Not in photo – Gretchen Claasson, Jason Pyszkowski, Noah Strick.

Jeffrey Thomas led an ensemble of ABS musicians in a special performance at The True Cost of American Food Conference at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco last Friday night. At the invitation of Bishop Marc Andrus from the Episcopal Diocese of California, Thomas and ABS performed on the opening night of the three-day conference, which was hosted by Patrick Holden, the Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust and advisor to Prince Charles of Wales on issues of sustainability. The conference brought together luminaries of the environmentally responsible agriculture movement to present and share their expertise about the economics of food production and the hidden costs of seemingly inexpensive foods. Exploring how methods of food production can take a heavy toll on the environment and health care costs, the conference spurred the dialogue about sustainable food production and consumption.

One significant inspiration for conference attendees was Johann Sebastian Bach. Sitting on a panel with Holden, Andrus, and Sustainable Food Alliance director Owsley Brown III, Thomas pointed to Bach as an eighteenth-century model of civic responsibility. Following the panel, Thomas conducted eleven ABS musicians in an all-Bach program:

Concerto in D Minor for 2 Violins, BWV 1043
Noah Strick & Katherine Kyme, violin soloists

Sinfonia, BWV 156
Brandon Labadie, oboe soloist

Dances from Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, BWV 1066

“The event was quite eye-opening simply from hearing all the planet conscious people speaking,” said violoncellist Andrés Vera, “We as musicians need to be more involved with solving climate change and seeing the connection between food, climate, and music.” Violinist Daria D’Andrea commented, “I was struck by a statement made by one of the panelists from Sustainable Food Action that it has been a struggle to raise awareness about the plight of food workers, even among foodies and those who are very concerned with the ecological impacts of how their food is sourced and produced.  I’ve found myself talking to friends and family about this ever since.” D’Andrea also observed the impact of the music on conference goers,”Our performance was truly welcomed by the audience. Several people remarked to me on the beauty of the music and how it had lifted and refreshed them at the end of what had been a long conference day packed with information. I think it gave the audience a much-needed moment to reflect and let the miracle of Bach waft over their exhausted minds.”

After the ABS performance, the musicians joined the conference organizers for a meal at Greens, a restaurant in the Fort Mason Center that has been a model of sustainability and the “slow food” movement for 38 years. It was an honor for the musicians of ABS to participate in this important event and share the inspiring music of J.S. Bach. It was also a pleasure for them to enjoy a meal with this group of visionaries who are thinking about tomorrow today.

Jeffrey Thomas’s remarks about J.S. Bach during the panel discussion:

Bach seems to have powerfully understood concepts of order and functionality in his world. As an extremely devout Lutheran – and one who certainly considered himself as much, if not more, a theologian as a composer – his spiritual sensibilities always became focused, and worked themselves out, in his music. 

So he would pour himself into that powerfully expressive rhetoric that he developed and cultivated, whereby he really stood by the undeniability of cause and effect, in particular the cause-and-effect nature of his music. He expressed this belief that he had in his ability to reach people, to connect with his congregants, through a certain way of teaching his listeners to learn both how his music proceeded through a movement or section—by way of repeating elements of melody or harmony so that they would come to expect their return—and by gently teaching them how particular musical gestures, or affects, were meant to move them and instill in their minds very particular points of dogma and principles of living.

Another of Bach’s sensibilities was his awareness of the “order” of his and others’ lives back then. This was evidenced by his appreciation for service and even subservience at the various courts that employed him, representing another kind of responsibility of behavior that he did not find oppressive, but rather holistic and quite natural. He manifested his understanding of that by constantly organizing his compositions, from measure to measure, from section to section, in ways that were very highly structured, methodical, and hierarchical. And quite often he used the technique of musical canon—when one melody is begun in different parts successively—to represent both the need to “follow” the teachings of a theology, and the truthfulness of those teachings. The word canon in German, just as in English, means both this musical device, and of course rules, principles, and law.

Additionally, he sought with great conviction to preserve various heritages, whether of the compositional styles of his forebears or the heritage of religious devotion, not wanting to give way to various aspects of the Age of Enlightenment that were breaking through the doors of his world: for example, the simplification of high art, and industrialization and its repercussion of the loss of individual responsibility.

So, in these ways, he was a preservationist. He understood and even chose to represent concepts of societal and cultural ecology and balance.

Times were difficult in his era. There was great poverty, hunger, and disease. But his faith, his undying and relentless faith, was the very thing that prevented him from succumbing to discouragement. He shows this to us in his compositions by his constant inclusion of dance music, dance forms and structures, even in some of the most emotionally gripping moments of sadness that are found in some of his church cantatas and, of course, in his great settings of the St. Matthew and St. John Passions. Arias sung at some of the darkest moments are actually, and not-so-subtly, slow dances: perhaps a Siciliana or a Sarabande. It’s worth noting that dances and dance forms are the most formally defined kinds of music; they must adhere to rules of tempo, meter, weight, and feeling. Again, Bach shows us his great valuation of order, appropriateness, and adherence to right principles. To Bach’s listeners, it is the worldliness of the dance, as Bach utilized it in his music, that tethers spiritual enlightenment to our dance-capable human forms. 

For more information about the True Cost of American Food conference, please visit their website.

Easter & Ascension Oratorios: ABS completes a Bach Trifecta, April 22-25

Unlike the agony and ecstasy in his famous Passion settings, Bach composed joyous music for Easter and the Feast of the Ascension. Boasting full compliments of wind instruments, percussion, vocal soloists, and choruses, all uniting in exaltation, his oratorios for these celebrations have their fair share of excitement and jubilation. Along with the “Christmas Oratorio,” these three compositions are the only ones from his career that Bach called oratorios. Many of you heard ABS perform the “Christmas Oratorio” in December. We hope you will join us again from April 22-25 as ABS completes the trifecta of Bach Oratorios with performances of his magnificent works for Easter and the Feast of the Ascension.



St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

While Bach’s “Easter Oratorio” is easy to appreciate without advanced preparation, there are several aspects of the work where close listening and study will open up new riches to the hearer. First of all, in this oratorio Bach assigns dramatic roles to the vocal soloists–Mary Jacobi (soprano), Mary Magdalene (alto), Simon Peter (tenor), and John the Apostle (bass). The characters first appear as mournful believers approaching the cave where Jesus is buried. Their discovery of the empty tomb and evidence of his rising lead to a glorious series of recitatives, arias, and a grand chorus at the end. The BWV number for the “Easter Oratorio” is 249, placing it in the sequence with the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244, St. John Passion BWV 245, and “Christmas Oratorio” BWV 248 (the “in-between” numbers – BWV 246 & 247 – were reserved for Bach’s other Passions which have not survived, though many have tried to reconstruct a Mark Passion). Unlike the Passions or the “Christmas Oratorio,” BWV 249 does not employ an Evangelist, but rather allows the four soloists to interact within a dramatic scenario without a narrator. The work was first performed in Leipzig on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1725.


A westward look of the Thomaskirche interior featuring the choir loft and the organ by Wilhelm Sauer, built from 1885–89.

A westward look view of the Thomaskirche interior featuring the choir loft and Sauer organ, built from 1885–89. Photo: Derek Chester

The “Easter Oratorio” opens with an exuberant Sinfonia that begins allegro, or at a fairly rapid tempo. Scored for trumpets, timpani, oboes, flute, strings, and basso continuo, this orchestral opening is like a concerto grosso with several instruments enjoying exposed, solo lines within the overall ensemble. The opening movement is followed by an adagio (slow) instrumental section where the flute is the primary soloist. This section is succeeded by another rapid, triple meter movement wherein the chorus joins the orchestra. This three-part opening of the “Easter Oratorio” is essentially an instrumental concerto (Allegro, Adagio, Allegro) with the choir added to provide a little something different (not to mention providing some serious “lift”!) in the final movement.

Recitatives and Arias

As there is no Evangelist in this oratorio, the recitative sections are shared by the soloists in the four roles. Interestingly, many of the recits involve the whole quartet rather than a single singer. Mary Magdalene opens the first recitative with “O kalter Männer Sinn! Wo ist die Liebe hin, die ihr hem Heiland schuldig seid?” (“O cold mind of men! Where is the love you owe our Redeemer?”). She is quickly joined by “the other” Mary, Peter, and John who comment and mourn along with her. The vocal soloists then engage in a fascinating device called double-recitative, where two soloists sing the same text to different melodic lines. Each of these melodic lines is in harmony with the basso continuo, and heard together they create a complex and active texture.

Three soloists gets their own aria in the “Easter Oratorio” and each of them is a gem. The first is for the soprano singing the part of Mary Jacobi (mother of James), that third woman in depictions of the crucifixion, along with Jesus’s mother and Mary Magdalene. Her aria has a very open, almost delicate texture of only the solo voice with flute and basso continuo. Though the rhythm resembles a minuet, the mood is melancholy as the group has yet to discover the empty tomb.


The tenor aria, “Sanfte soll mein Todeskummer” (“Gentle shall my sorrow be just a slumber”) comes next, communicating Peter’s relief and comfort at the miraculous resurrection. For this aria, the two oboe players put down their instruments and take up recorders and, along with support from the strings and basso continuo, accompany the tenor in this beautifully tender aria.

Restless and excited, Mary Magdalene’s aria opens with the words: “Saget, saget mir geschwinde, Saget, wo ich Jesum finde” (‘Tell me, tell me quickly, tell me where I can find Jesus”). Accompanied by oboe obbligato, strings, and basso continuo, this aria marks a dramatic shift in the overall tone of the oratorio–from mourning, to relief, to excitement–and it is played to the dance rhythm of a gavotte.

The bass soloist does not sing an aria, but provides a conclusion to the narrative by declaring that we all shall overcome sorrow and sing songs of joy. The chorus and full orchestra then launch into an exuberant chorus giving thanks and praise in an energetic gigue.


First of all, you might ask, what is Ascension? The Feast of the Ascension is one of the three most significant celebrations in the liturgical year (along with Christmas and Easter), which memorializes the moment when Christ ascends to the heavens. Traditionally held 40 days after Easter, the equally joyous celebration inspired four great works by Bach:

Wer da gläubet und getauft wird, BWV 37 (1724)

Auf Christi Himmelfahrt allein, BWV 128 (1725)

Gott fähret auf mit Jauchzen, BWV 43 (1726)

Himmelfahrts-Oratorium: Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen, BWV 11 (1735)

Of these works for Feast of the Ascension Sunday, the last is the most sumptuous, glorious, and recent. Completed in 1735, only a few months after the premiere of his six-part “Christmas Oratorio,” Bach crowned the work with a special title: Himmelfahrts-Oratorium, or “Ascension Oratorio.”

Recitatives and Arias

As with the “Christmas Oratorio” and Passion settings, Bach utilizes a tenor soloist as Evangelist in the “Ascension Oratorio.” Along with the Evangelist’s solo narrations, there is also a fascinating contrapuntal recitative between the Evangelist and bass soloist, and also accompanied recitatives for the alto and bass soloists, each singing the text along with the accompaniment of a pair of flutes.


If you are familiar with Bach’s Mass in B Minor, then the first aria in the “Ascension Oratorio” will likely sound very familiar: Bach reset it years later as the “Agnus Dei” for his epic Mass in B Minor compilation. After the joyous opening chorus, this alto aria might seem like a radical change of pace, but the text, “Ach ja! So komme bald zurück” (“Ah, yes! Then come back soon”) captures the melancholy mood of the disciples who are left behind after the divine ascent. The soprano aria, “Jesu, deine gnadenblicke” (“Jesus, your merciful gaze”), develops this sentiment into a more proactive stance: even if we are left behind, we can use our remaining time on the earth to refresh ourselves spiritually. Accompanied by two flutes, oboe, and strings, this aria is full of diverse colors and has a constantly shifting texture. Just as the oratorio opens with a jubilant chorus, it also closes with considerable energy in a chorus for the entire ensemble of singers and instrumentalists.

Along with these extraordinary works by J.S. Bach, ABS will also perform works for Easter & Ascension by Bach’s Leipzig predecessor Johann Kuhnau and important stylistic influence Dieterich Buxtehude. Don’t miss Easter & Ascension Oratorios! Jeffrey Thomas leads four performances around the Bay Area and in Davis between April 22-25 with a fantastic quartet of soloists: soprano Clara Rottsolk, countertenor Eric Jurenas, tenor Zachary Wilder, and bass Joshua Copeland. Do you have your tickets yet?



Countertenor Eric Jurenas is 2017 Jeffrey Thomas Award recipient

Eric Jurenas, countertenor

Eric Jurenas, countertenor

ABS is pleased to announce that countertenor Eric Jurenas is the 2017 recipient of The Jeffrey Thomas Award. Within only a few short years, Jurenas has emerged from auspicious talent at the 2011 ABS Academy to one of the leading young countertenors of his generation. Making a vivid impression in opera and on the concert stage, The New York Times praised Jurenas for his “beautiful, well-supported tone and compelling expression.” Following a recent performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, his “exceptionally clear tone” and “vocal flexibility” were applauded by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Having received considerable acclaim in the United States and abroad, Jurenas’s enterprising success and impact on the music scene make him an ideal recipient for The Jeffrey Thomas Award, which was created to inspire artists of unusual promise and precocious achievement.

Jurenas grew up outside Washington, D.C. where his youthful ambition was to be a jazz drummer and perform with big bands. His musical focus shifted once he began playing piano and joined his high school chorus as a bass. At the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, he made the switch to countertenor. At the ABS Academy, he distinguished himself in his portrayal of Polinesso in Handel’s Ariodante.

While pursuing a Master’s degree at the Juilliard School, Jurenas’s professional career took off. He has worked with several groups as a featured artist, including the Santa Fe Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, Opera Philadelphia, Wolf Trap Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Dayton Philharmonic, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Burlington Choral Society, Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival, and the Bel Canto Chorus of Milwaukee, among others. He completed his graduate degree in 2015 and is currently enjoying a sensational 2015-16 season with performances in Opera Lafayette’s production of Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica and his debut at the Wiener Staatsoper in Eötvös’s Three Sisters. As a concert singer, Jurenas has performed contemporary works and Baroque repertory with many of the finest ensembles. With American Bach Soloists, he has performed works by Bach (Magnificat; Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden) and Handel (Dixit Dominus; Messiah), including an appearance as a featured soloist in the 2016 film, Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral. He has also performed as a soloist with Juilliard 415, Colorado Bach Ensemble, and Concerto Brabant in The Netherlands, among many others.

Founded in 2013 to recognize and encourage young leaders within the Early Music community, The Jeffrey Thomas Award is given annually by ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. Recipients are awarded a cash prize and invited to perform with American Bach Soloists. Past recipients of the Award include tenor Guy Cutting (2014), violoncellist Gretchen Claassen (2015), and violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova (2016).

Hear Eric Jurenas with ABS from April 22-25

Don’t miss your chance to hear Jurenas in Easter & Ascension Oratorios. The all-star assemblage of ABS artists for this uplifting program of music by Bach, Kuhnau, and Buxtehude will also include soprano Clara Rottsolk, tenor Zachary Wilder, bass Joshua Copeland, the American Bach Choir, and the instrumentalists of ABS, all under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas. Good seats remain, but they are going fast. Get your tickets today! (americanbach.org or 415-621-7900).


Free Public Master Class with flutist Sandra Miller, April 18

Sandra Miller, Baroque flute

Sandra Miller, Baroque flute

Each season, ABS presents free public master classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where students work with an ABS musician on matters of technique, interpretation, and applying a historically informed approach to Baroque repertory. On Monday April 18 at 7:30 pm, ABS flutist Sandra Miller will coach Conservatory students on Baroque repertory. Admission to the master class is free and open to the public; no tickets or registration is required.

Sandra Miller had an early fascination with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach that ultimately led her to the baroque flauto traverso, upon which she is widely regarded to be one of the finest performers of her generation. She leads an active musical life, appearing in a variety of chamber music performances, solo recitals and orchestral concerts. She is frequently invited to perform and record with many well-known period instrument ensembles. For many years Professor (now Emerita) of Music at the Purchase College Conservatory of Music (SUNY), Ms. Miller is currently on the faculty of the Historical Performance Program at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. Her solo recordings include the complete Bach flute sonatas and, on six- and eight-keyed classical flutes, the three Mozart concertos.

Hear Sandra Miller with ABS

After witnessing this master musician work with young performers at the Conservatory, you can hear Ms. Miller perform live with ABS around the Bay Area and in Davis in Easter & Ascension Oratorios, April 22-25. Be sure to listen especially for the lovely aria for soprano and flute, “Seele, deine Spezereien,” in Bach’s “Easter Oratorio,” which she will perform with soprano Clara Rottsolk. This deeply expressive aria is a moment of calm and introspection within an otherwise jubilant atmosphere. Tickets are available online or by calling the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.

Easter & Ascension Oratorios, April 22-25

Countdown to #1 Conclusion: The Top 10 “Bach Favorites”

Johann Sebastian Bach by Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach

According to ABS concert goers, musicians, and staff, Bach’s Top Ten are listed below. Thanks to voters on Twitter, The Well Tempered Clavier jumped up the list two spots! [To revisit the first 36 “Bach Favorites” on the list, click here]

10) Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, BWV 1050

“First Bach I heard live and well performed. I play keyboard and the parts for that and the flute and violin interact in such a happy manner” – Edith Vermeij

9) Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147

8) Brandenburg Concertos, BWV 1046-1051

“They’re all just gorgeous” – Dena Elfert

7) Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, BWV 565

“I find it deeply moving. It never fails to make me tear up!” – Karen Combs

“I love organ!” – Thomas Farver

6) Magnificat, BWV 243

John Thiessen

John Thiessen

“To my mind, the most perfect choral work: each note is a gem” – John Thiessen, ABS musician (trumpet)

5) Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), BWV 846-893

4) Weihnachts-Oratorium (“Christmas Oratorio”), BWV 248

“Where to start? Not enough room” – James Bert

“Cheerful and celebratory” – Susan Garbini

3) Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1007-1012

“What can match the beauty, the longing and the soul of the cello suites? Pablo Casals recorded his version as the Spanish Republic was falling and one can hear his soul in those recordings” – Douglas Shaker

“Expressive, lyric, meditative, ordered, mathematical, pensive, reflective” – Wit Ashbrook

2) St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244

“If there’s such a thing as the greatest piece of music ever written (Which I doubt) then, the St. Matthew would be it” – Dan Hersh

“It epitomizes everything I love about Bach – the grandeur, pathos, and genius” – Greg Madsen, ABS Board of Directors

1) Mass in B Minor, BWV 232

“Fabulous trumpet writing, but also a summation of Bach’s lifework” – John Thiessen, ABS Musician (trumpet)

“It’s gotta be Bach’s Mass in B Minor, but maybe it’s because I love the way Jeffrey Thomas interprets it. He brings out something new every time he conducts it” – Barbara Malloy

“Everytime I listen, I weep at its beauty” – Dan Chow

Jude Ziliak

Jude Ziliak

“The B Minor Mass is maybe the most universal music there is, and yet also singularly, distinctly the product of one clear, individual mind. It is music for many lifetimes” – Jude Ziliak, ABS musician (violin)




Thank you for voting! I hope you will all join me in using this list of “Bach Favorites” as a guide for future listening! [To see Part I, click here] [To see Part II, click here].


Bach’s Birthday Celebration begins a little early

ABS kicked off the celebrations for Bach’s March 21 birthday a little early this year with a sold-out, all-Bach organ concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Friday night. At the organ bench, San Francisco Symphony organist and ABS co-founder Jonathan Dimmock delighted the capacity crowd with his expert playing and insightful remarks between works. He opened with the Prelude & “Wedge” Fugue in E Minor and held everyone spellbound for the next hour with Bach’s compositions for the “king of instruments”. Below are a few photos from the event.


Full house!

The magnificent tracker organ at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.


Jonathan Dimmock takes a bow after performing the all-Bach organ recital.

Mr. Dimmock greets patrons in the lobby after the concert.

As a special treat, Mr. Dimmock gave an “organ crawl” demonstration of St. Mark’s instrument to a group of ABS supporters after the event.

ABS keeps the celebrations going with more Bach this spring and summer! From April 22-25, ABS presents Easter & Ascension Oratorios around the Bay Area and in Davis. Also, from August 5-14 The ABS Festival & Academy will include works by Bach, including the Mass in B Minor on August 7 at St. Mark’s and August 14 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For More information about the Festival, visit sfbachfestival.org.

ABS performing Bach… buy your tickets today!

Joyous Bach! Easter & Ascension Oratorios, April 22-25


From April 22-25, ABS presents Easter & Ascension Oratorios, a program of glorious works that were composed for two important celebrations within the Lutheran calendar by J.S. Bach, Kuhnau, and Buxtehude. ABS will perform Kuhnau’s Ascension cantata Ihr Himmel jubiliert von oben (“Therefore rejoice, you heavens”), and also our namesake’s Lobet Gott in seine Reichen (“Praise God in his riches”), otherwise known as the “Ascension Oratorio.” Jeffrey Thomas will also conduct a magnificent assemblage of ABS artists–trumpets, timpani, oboes, recorders, flute, strings, voices, and continuo–in celebratory music for Easter, beginning with Buxtehude’s Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn (“Today God’s Son Triumphs”) and J.S. Bach’s Oster-Oratorium, or “Easter Oratorio.” Join us April 22-25 and let these radiant works uplift you!


A quartet of vocal soloists—recognized and applauded for their interpretive powers in Early Music, especially in the music of J.S. Bach—will join ABS for this celebratory program. Acclaimed for her “considerable coloristic resources” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, soprano Clara Rotttsolk is a frequent soloist with many of the nation’s leading Baroque ensembles. Last season, she appeared with ABS in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Countertenor Eric Jurenas has emerged as one of the leading young countertenors of his generation. Praised for his “beautiful, well-supported tone and compelling expression” by the New York Times, Jurenas is a former ABS Academy participant and featured soloist on the new ABS film, Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral. Paris-based tenor Zachary Wilder made a memorable ABS debut last season as Damon in Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Already represented on numerous acclaimed recordings of Baroque repertory, this young tenor was singled out by the Boston Globe for his “unearthly calm and authority.” Bass Joshua Copeland has appeared with ABS as a soloist and as Christus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Of Copeland, San Francisco Classical Voice admired “the restrained dignity of his consistently lyrical voice, which could serve as a role model for singing authentically.”

Tickets for Easter & Ascension Oratorios are available online at americanbach.org or by calling the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.


Jeffrey Thomas leads Free Public Master Class, April 4

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

Each season, ABS presents free public master classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where students work with an ABS musician on matters of technique, interpretation, and applying a historically informed approach to Baroque repertory. Mark your calendars now: On April 4, ABS music director Jeffrey Thomas will coach Conservatory students through selected works from the Baroque Era.

The co-founder of American Bach Soloists–leading the ensemble for more than 27 years–Thomas’s commitment to the next generation of musicians is exemplary. During the academic year, Thomas is the Barbara K. Jackson Chair in Choral Conducting at UC Davis where he conducts the University Chorus. As conductor of the ABS Festival & Academy, he also works with numerous ABS Academy participants each summer, mentoring these emerging professionals along their paths to major careers. Thomas also hosts two radio shows on Classical KDFC (“Sacred Concert” and “Baroque By the Bay”), which are heard weekly throughout the Bay Area and worldwide by listeners tuning in on the web.

Don’t miss this opportunity to witness Maestro Thomas work with some of the Conservatory’s finest musicians. All ABS master classes are open to the public, and will take place in the Conservatory’s Recital Hall at 7:30 pm. Admission is free and no tickets are required. For more information about ABS master classes and other educational outreach programs, please visit our website.

Bach Favorites, Countdown continues Part II

The “Bach Favorites” Countdown continues…

30) Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 1, Prelude and Fugue in Eb minor, BWV 853

Garrett Shatzer, ABS Development Director

Garrett Shatzer

“For a period of about three years starting in 2011, I sat at my piano nearly every day for an hour or so to play through selections from the Well Tempered Clavier. I am by no means a great pianist, but it still brought me great joy. And that’s all that matters, right? During that time, the one I returned to the most—and still return to the most—is Eb/D# minor from Book 1, BWV 853. And the most emotionally piercing recording of the piece I’ve heard is by Sviatoslav Richter, recorded in the 1970s. The fugue, in particular, with his bold use of the una corda pedal, still gets me every time.” – Garrett Shatzer, ABS Development Director

[Listen Here]

29) Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, BWV 1001-1006

“The J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for violin are fun to play” – Joyce and Craig Copeland

28) Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29

27) Komm, Jesu, Komm, BWV 229

“The motets are gorgeous and this one seems designed to be sung in a venue with an echo. I’d love to hear the motets with a sound system that duplicates the Thomaskirche echo” – Douglas Shaker

26) Partita No. 3 for Violin in E Major, BWV 1006

“I feel as if the violinist is bowing across my body” – Julie Motz

“One can imagine Bach playing the chaconne to comfort himself after the death of his wife” – Douglas Shaker

25) Ich habe genug, BWV 82

“I love the integration of the oboe with the sentiment of the cantata” – Michael Greene

24)  Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (“Trauerode“), BWV 198

Derek Chester

Derek Chester

“Fantastic orchestration, fantastic choruses, and a fantastic tenor aria” – Derek Chester, ABS musician (tenor)

23)  Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32

22)  Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225

“Incredibly rich and varied choral masterpiece. The final movement makes me rise above the ground” – David Hanchette

21)  Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 1, Prelude in B Minor, BWV 869

“The tranquil grace of the Prelude. Grandeur and ingenuity of the long fugue, building on a simple and compelling theme. And all in Bach’s deepest key” – Dan Slobin

20)  Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 2, Prelude C# Major

Celeste Winant

Celeste Winant

“The treble line is wistful, the bass and tenor oddly heroic. I first heard it in the rain, alone, and It captured the mood perfectly” – Celeste Winant, ABS musician (alto)

19)  Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 2, Prelude in F Major

“Of all the Preludes and Fugues for undefined keyboard, the F Major in Well Tempered Clavier II has the greatest combination of dreamy affect and seemingly effortless counterpoint. Followed by a sunny bright gigue like fugue. Most fun to play on any keyboard, including piano!” – Margaret Hasselman

18) St. John Passion, BWV 245

“So profound; the melodies make me cry” – Geerat Vermeij

17)  Concerto for Violin in E Major, BWV 1042

“The melodies are memorable but it’s the harmonies weaving through that transport me” – Lisa Jackson

16) St. Matthew Passion: Mache dich mein herze rein, BWV 244

Jeff McMillan

Jeff McMillan

“My favorite work by Bach is a bit of a moving target and the choice might fluctuate depending on when I am asked. One work that always touches me deeply is the aria “Mache dich mein herze rein” from St. Matthew Passion. The aria is so comforting and beautiful and, coming near the end of the intense Matthew Passion, provides a great feeling of satisfaction and resolution; like a reward for making the emotional journey. So, “Mache dich” is my favorite … especially when William Sharp sings it with ABS!” – Jeff McMillan, ABS Marketing & Communications Director

[Listen Here]

15) Suite No. 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1007

“Does anybody need a reason?” – Peter Reid

14) Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140

“First played it on horn in the Ormandy transcription of the chorus. Recently, I began my survey of all of the cantatas with this work” – Kerry Ko

[Listen Here]

13) Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!, BWV 70

12) Concerto for 2 Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1062 (arranged for harpsichord and violin)

“Because of the call and response” – Heather Findlay

11) The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

“The imaginative revisiting of the musical theme” – Steve Hopkins

“Especially Glenn Gould playing them. No matter how many times I hear these recordings, each is a new experience” – Mya Shone

[Listen Here]

Stay tuned for the conclusion of our countdown. [To read Part I, click here]

2016 Festival Tickets now on Sale



Tickets for the 7th annual American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy are now on sale. The 2016 Festival will include performances at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 5-14, 2016. Titled “An Italian Journey,” many of the concerts and lectures during the two-week event will explore the music and culture of Baroque Italy, a primary destination for eighteenth-century Europeans on The Grand Tour. Along with surveys of sacred and secular works from many of the finest composers who worked in Florence, Venice, and Rome during the era, the ABS Festival & Academy will present the North American premiere performances of Handel’s 1734 Serenata, Parnasso in festa, and also Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor.

Jeffrey Thomas conducting ABS. Photo: Brandon Labadie

Jeffrey Thomas conducting ABS. Photo: Brandon Labadie

The Festival opens on Friday, August 5, with Carmelite Vespers & Vivaldi’s Gloria. ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas conducts the period-instrument experts of ABS and the American Bach Choir in large-scale sacred works from Baroque Italy, featuring music by George Frideric Handel for the “Carmelite Vespers” services in Rome and Antonio Vivaldi’s works for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. Handel’s tour-de-force Dixit Dominus and Vivaldi’s Gloria are but two highlights of an exciting program which will also feature soprano Mary Wilson singing Handel’s bravura setting of the motet, Saeviat tellus inter rigores.

The second night of the Festival, Postcards from The Grand Tour, will feature a collection of captivating works by Italian composers including Albinoni, Caldera, Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, and others, performed by the ABS Academy Faculty, an outstanding group of artists who are all world-wide leaders of the Early Music movement: Max van Egmond & William Sharp (baritones), Elizabeth Blumenstock & Robert Mealy (violins), William Skeen & Kenneth Slowik (violoncellos), Steven Lehning (contrabass), Debra Nagy (oboe & recorder), Sandra Miller (flute), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), and Corey Jamason (harpsichord)..

As with past summers, Thomas will lead 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 are always a festival highlight and sell out early. This year, you can take advantage of the opportunity to hear the work performed at both St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music!

Mount Parnassus by Edward Dodwell. Bibliothèque de nationale de France

Mount Parnassus by Edward Dodwell, 1821. Bibliothèque de nationale de France

On August 11 & 12, Thomas leads the ABS Festival Orchestra and American Bach Choir in the North American premiere performances of Handel’s Parnasso in festa. The composer’s rarely performed 1734 Serenata is set on the slopes of Mount Parnassus where Apollo and the nine muses oversee the marriage of the mortal Peleus and the divine Thetis, parents of the legendary hero, Achilles. Visiting familiar themes from Greek mythology—Apollo’s pursuit of the nymph Daphne, Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld, and Peleus’ taming of the shape shifting goddess—Handel realizes the characters and their dramatic situations with vivid specificity. Admired in Handel’s day for its musical variety, the work fell from the repertory after the composer’s death. Since 1971, Parnasso in festa has been presented occasionally in England and Germany, but the ABS Festival & Academy performances under the baton of Jeffrey Thomas will be the first outside of Europe, joining the list of significant ABS Festival premieres, such as Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis in 2013 and Marais’ opera Sémélé in 2015. The work will be performed in Italian and will feature instrumental and vocal soloists from the ABS Academy

Robert Mealy, Elizabeth Blumenstock (violins), Corey Jamason (harpsichord), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Debra Nagy (oboe). Photo: Brandon Labadie

Robert Mealy, Elizabeth Blumenstock (violins), Corey Jamason (harpsichord), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Debra Nagy (oboe). Photo: Brandon Labadie

On August 13, Virtuosi of Venice & Rome will have the period-instrument specialists of ABS taking center stage for a thrilling exploration of Italian concertos that were composed for especially virtuoso players and orchestras. Some of America’s greatest virtuosi of the Baroque repertory will perform works for a variety of instrumental combinations by Vivaldi, Corelli, and Geminiani. As an added attraction, the string players of the ABS Academy will join the ABS orchestra on stage to perform Concerti Grossi by Corelli and Geminiani with the enormous—and rarely heard—forces used by those composers in their day.

The participants of the 2016 ABS Academy will also be featured 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 Italian 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 during the two-week long Festival, allowing for the immersive experience of music, learning, and inspiration that have made the ABS Festival & Academy a highlight of the Bay Area’s summer musical calendar. Single tickets for each concert are available, order five events and receive 15% off each ticket.


For more information, visit our festival website or call the ABS office at {415) 621-7900.

The “Bach Favorites” votes are in! Countdown to #1

Johann Sebastian Bach by Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach

The election results for the “Bach Favorites” list are in! ABS audience members, along with ABS musicians and staff, cast their votes in January and February for their favorite works by J.S. Bach. To celebrate “Early Music Month”, we begin our countdown of these favorites below, providing along the way some of the comments of what people love about the music. Many could not narrow down their choice to just one Favorite. We received several responses stating “all of them!” One such respondent was ABS contrabass player and Music Administrator, Steven Lehning:

Steven Lehning

Steven Lehning

“I have the great fortune to have played a tremendous number of works by J.S. Bach. I am also lucky enough to play both a bowed string instrument and keyboards, so I have been able to explore many more works than if I only played one. That being said, I have yet to play well over half of Bach’s music (and we know that much has been lost throughout the centuries).  Each time I play something I haven’t before (even if it is a work I have heard numerous times) I learn something new and have a renewed appreciation for his genius. Of course I am repeatedly drawn to some works more often that others (the ‘Cello Suites, the Mass in B Minor, etc), but until I have been able to play everything, I think it would be unfair to pick my own particular favorite at this time.” – Steven Lehning, ABS musician (violone/contrabass)

With the composer’s vast and inspiring catalog of works to choose from, some top vote-getters emerged in the counting of the “Bach Favorites.” So, without further ado … Let the countdown begin!

46) Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben: Jesus bleibet meine Freude (“Jesus Joy of Man’s desiring”), BWV 147

45) Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd: Schafe können sicher weiden (“Sheep May Safely Graze”), BWV 208

“A deep and meaningful expression by an inspired genius” – Jan Stevens

44) Concerto in G Minor for Oboe, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1056r

43) Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

42) Toccata & Fugue arranged for solo violin by Tatiana Chulochnikova

41) Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047

“The greatest challenge for a trumpeter” – John Thiessen, ABS musician (trumpet)

40) Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043

39) Ermuntre dich, mein schwacher Geist, BWV 454

“I love the chorale and the different ways it is set. The tenor aria dances. The soprano soars” – George Wright

38) French Suites, BWV 812-817

“Especially as played by Angela Hewitt. I want to dance all the forms, chaconne, gavotte, minuet, etc.” – Dan Chow

[Listen Here]

37) Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106

“One of the first Bach cantatas I sang” – William Langley

36) An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653b


Don Scott Carpenter

“As an organist myself, it’s almost impossible to pick my favorite piece, but if I had to, it would be “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” BWV 653b in five voices for two manuals and double pedal. It is probably the hardest piece that he wrote for the organ, but it’s simple elegance makes it so beautiful. My favorite recording is by my teacher’s teacher, the blind German organist Helmut Walcha from his complete recording of the Bach organ works released on Archiv Recordings.” – Don Scott Carpenter, ABS Executive Director

[Listen Here]

35) Musikalisches Opfer (“Musical Offering”): Ricercar à 6

34) Italian Concert, BWV 971

33) Partita No. 2 for Violin in D Minor, BWV 1004

“The chaconne!” – Bill Stewart

32) Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63

31) Motets for Double Choir, BWV 225-230

“The choral delicacy and fervent feeling; the way Bach builds on motifs to something grand” – Julie Monson

The list continues with Part II.

A Millennium in 50 Years: The Discovery of Early Music – A lecture by Robert Commanday

CommandayDuring the 2012 ABS Festival & Academy, celebrated music critic, conductor, and founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, Robert Commanday (1922-2015) presented a memorable lecture about the history of the early music movement. His illuminating chronicle, which is both essential reading and a great example of Commanday’s superb scholarships and gift for storytelling, is below. Special thanks to Bruce Lamott of Philharmonia Baroque who prepared the transcript.


Robert Commanday

A lecture presented at the American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, July 21, 2012

An obvious advantage of longevity is getting to see how things come out. Which is not always great, I’ll admit. But for me it’s been something of a wonder in the course of my century, less one decade, to wonder at the passage from a crystal radio—not even tubes—to the electronic and internet revolution, from horse-drawn milk and ice-vending wagons to supersonic flight. My godson at Lockheed serves on a team that has developed a vehicle that travels 400 times the speed of sound, and can reach anywhere in the world in one hour. Who can imagine what that will lead to?

This week I read in the New York Times that enough Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA had been accumulated that if anyone were sick, rich, and crazy enough—and there are plenty of those in the one percent—such an ancient being, theoretically, might be cloned. Well then, what about cloning an 18th century musician or patron? Then we would have a really authentic response to a “authentic” performance today and know what we are talking about.

It is fascinating to ponder the “why and how” of the Early Music Revival. It’s a question of viewing consequences, both anticipated and unexpected. Who would have thought that a 1958 performance of a Medieval mystery play at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan’s Washington Heights would launch what we regard as the Early Music Revival in America? Or that a French violinist attending the Paris Conservatoire in 1897 to study with Vieuxtemps would become the Thomas Edison of the Early Music Revival here and abroad? Or that a Polish pianist-turned-harpsichordist would become both trigger, the linchpin, and first American celebrity of a movement that was far-off when Wanda Landowska made her initial impact in Paris in the early 1930s and still distant when she landed in New York, a refugee, on the day that shattered America: December 7, 1941?

Or that a technological—really an industrial—advance, Columbia Records’ perfection and introduction of the Long Play vinyl record, would fundamentally change the listening habits of a nation and begin a revolutionary shift in music repertoire until it embraced all styles and ages, all countries and cultures?

But there were other than salubrious consequences of the growth and flowering of this revival of Early Music in America. There was the antipathy of traditional musicians defending their turf against period instrument performers. Besides that, even within this small, big-city-confined new Early Music world, came the tension between the Puritans and the Romanticists, between the strict constructionists and those guided partly by instinct and more directly received musical experience. Eventually it was the Authenticists against the Historically Informed.

But has this renewal of Early Music all happened in the last fifty years? Not really. Was contact with pre-classical music lost for a century and a half and suddenly rediscovered in a mid-20th century renaissance? Not at all, as we know.

The True Believers’ Revival

Europe and not even the New World had lost complete contact with the heritage of music before the Classical era. There was some continuity in the 19th century before the crescendo of interest in the early decades of the 20th and the beginning of the Revival (or the True Believers’ Revival) that began developing a decade or two after World War II. The how and why of that is fascinating and will concern us today, before we get into the tensions that fired up the Early Musickers and how they grew, and then to the arrival at the mature flowering where we sit today.

In the slightly more than a century between the discovery to Mozart of Bach and Handel by his fellow Freemason Baron van Swieten, there were significant performances and commitments to Early Music. Whether we start with the publishing of Forkel’s Bach biography in 1802, or the founding in 1815 of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, or Mendelssohn’s 1829 St. Matthew Passion performed by 158 singers—in a version that was less than one-third of the complete work and that employed a contemporary, that is modern orchestra and piano, with tempos and dynamics very much revised—there was action in France, Germany, and especially England all along.

The Role of Musicology

Besides the occasional performances of the B Minor Mass and performances of sacred polyphony of the 16th century in some major churches, there was the publication of the Bach Gesellschaft edition between 1850 and 1900. By the time that undertaking was finished, the complete works of Handel, Rameau, Palestrina, Buxtehude, Corelli, Schütz, Purcell, and Sweelinck had been issued. This was the emergence of historical musicology with such leaders as Philipp Spitta, Otto Jahn, and Friedrich Chrysander, whose term Musikwissenschaft (in English, musicology) gave the field its name. It would be tempting to think that those giants of Musikwissenschaft (sounds like the Ring cycle, doesn’t it?) followed by the flood of musicologists escaping Nazi Europe (Nibelungen?) to take up professorships here were importantly if not chiefly responsible for the resurgence.

Not true. It was not the scholars—the musicologists, who led the way. Quite to the contrary, it was the performers, drawing to be sure, on the learning and discoveries of the musicologists, but not inspired by them. This is surprising, given the presence and strength in the music departments of American universities of the leading musicologists of the age, who fled here. A partial list is imposing: Willi Apel, Manfred Bukofzer, Hans T. David, Alfred Einstein, Otto Gombosi, Paul Henry Lang, Gustave Reese, Curt Sachs, Leo Schrade, Edward Lowinsky, Karl Geiringer, and Hans Tischler. Their publications were seminal and in universal use: Gustav Reese’s Music in the Middle Ages, Manfred Bukofzer’s Music in the Baroque Era, and the Harvard Anthology of Music by Apel and Davidson, Alfred Einstein’s Mozart, and so on. BUT, those musicologists were scholars, not performance activists.

The musicologists’ shortfall of not going beyond gathering the facts has been explained by a slightly younger and British-born American descendant of that group. The late Joseph Kerman described this attitude or point of view as “Positivism.”

Historians (in the 19th century) set to work to ascertain all the facts they could. The result was a vast increase of detailed historical knowledge based to an unprecedented degree on accurate and critical examination of evidence. This was the age which enriched history by the compilation of vast masses of carefully sifted material … But all through this period there was a certain uneasiness about the ultimate purpose of this detailed research. It had been undertaken in obedience to the spirit of positivism according to which the ascertaining of facts was only the first stage of a process whose second stage was the discovery of laws.

Early Music Performance in Academia

Thus the landmarks of musicology produced by the older generation were monuments of information but very light on interpretation or discussion of what this music sounded like and if any of it was artistically better than any of the rest. This carried over into the teaching by musicologists. Universities with academic departments of music taught courses about performance practice not in performance practice. By and large, Early Music ensembles weren’t organized and coached significantly, not the way the ethnomusicologists in today’s academic departments are creating and coaching gamelan and other performance ensembles for various ethnic cultures. Typically, musicologists taught courses about performance practice, about the ornamentation, notation and the like, do with it what you may.

Indeed courses in early music style did equip and stimulate some who became performers with a scholarship that informed their performance. Stanford, for example, had Putnam Aldrich, the eminent harpsichordist teaching there, and George Houle, oboist and recorder player, trained and led early music ensembles. UC Berkeley had courses about performance practice and one professor who became a major player, Alan Curtis, harpsichordist. Significantly, he retired very early from the University to become a distinguished Baroque opera conductor, mostly in Europe. To be fair, there were collaborations between a musicologist and a performer or performing group, the scholar assuming the role something like that of the Dramaturg in theatre and opera companies.

I never heard of an assignment in a performance practice course that would ask students to take a movement or complete work by say, Telemann or Vivaldi, from a microfilm of a manuscript or an edition from the composer’s time and make a studied modern edition, complete with suggested markings for nuances, articulation and tempos, defended in footnotes. That would have made real sense and stimulated the students to get on with it and realize their editions in live performances.

Fortunately, there were some genuine scholar-performers who were stimulated by the early music activity early in the twentieth century, mostly in England. They were the ones who laid a constructive basis and guide not only for those “Performance Practice” courses in the universities, but led the way in their time, for the movement to follow there in England and later in America.

The English Revival

The leading early music activity in the first decades of the twentieth century was in England. Charles Kennedy Scott and Thomas Beecham formed the Oriana Medieval Society in 1904. Edmund Fellowes produced his English Madrigal Series, known to every madrigal singer that ever uttered a fa-la-la since then. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the music of Elizabethan composers was widely sung in Britain.

Those who must be mentioned are: Thurston Dart, at Cambridge, eminent player of harpsichord, clavichord and organ, conductor, and music educator, who wrote The Interpretation of Music, 1954; Robert Donington, author of the seminal Interpretation of Early Music in 1963; Denis Stevens, producer for the BBC Third Programme of the early 1950s, a major influence. Later in 1965 there was David Munrow who blew into the British world with his Early Music Consort, not, as Nicholas Kenyon wrote as “authentic performance,” “but because they made music with such conviction and enthusiasm, because their concerts were skillfully programmed, well-prepared, professionally organized, and animated by Munrow’s unique personal skills.”

Arnold Dolmetsch, Father of the Movement

What we see here is a movement initiated and fired by performers with information and scholarship provided by the musicologists to be sure, but with performers to the fore. To go back, the one person who has to be named Father of the Movement is Arnold Dolmetsch. In 1879, this French violinist, after attending a concert of Renaissance and Baroque instruments at the Paris Conservatoire, went out and bought a viola d’amore, restored it, and began acquiring other historical instruments. That one event was the launching point of the revival, the Big Bang. In 1896, he built a harpsichord and then went on to build clavichords, spinets, lutes, viols, fortepianos, harps, rebecs, baroque violins and vihuelas. And of course, he was famous for his recorders that he began producing in the 1920s.

Whereas most interested in early instruments at the time were antiquarians, collectors, and scholars, Dolmetsch was a performer, and that made the difference. He was taken up by—of all people—William Morris, heart and soul of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris persuaded Dolmetsch to build his first harpsichord for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society show in 1896. George Bernard Shaw wrote that Dolmetsch’s first clavichord might have as much effect in domestic music-making as William Morris’ work was having on furniture and décor. Other admiring purchasers of his instruments included the great actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, poet William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce.

While most of Dolmetsch’s career was in England, in 1903 he came to America, and made his debut with the American Symphony Orchestra, his current wife playing harpsichord and his future wife on gamba. We’re really talking about a man ahead of his time. Remaining in the United States, he signed a contract with Chickering, the piano company, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made 75 harpsichords, virginals, spinets, clavichords, viols, and lutes. Lastingly, and perhaps even more important than his personal achievements which included the first modern book to provide a comprehensive of Baroque performance practice, he was a teacher. As Howard Mayer Brown wrote in 1998, “Even today almost everyone involved in Early Music in England has been touched in some way by Dolmetsch, by his students [who included Robert Donington, by the way], or by his students’ students.” He was a force majeure.

Wanda Landowska, Force of Nature

Wanda Landowska on the other hand, was a force of nature. She was a “showman,” making an entrance like a diva, but withal brought attention to the harpsichord as none before her in modern times. Laurette Goldberg’s description is choice: “Landowska used to pad out on the stage with these flat, black shoes, and this black dress, and her kind of gaunt, very strong-featured face and her hair back in a bun, she looked as if she were praying. She used to say, ‘You play Bach your way, and I’ll play it his way.’”

One heavy-handed account of Landowska’s playing was that it was like a bucket of bolts. A more measured description is that “Landowska’s approach is what pianists do when they play harpsichord, touch heavy, ornaments played without spontaneity, as if printed in bold print in the score, not organic to the piece. It had the didactic exaggeration of someone educating her listeners.”

She had the Pleyel firm build a harpsichord for her that could serve a modern concert hall, a big one with an iron frame. In 1933 in her villa in France, she gave the first harpsichord performance of the Goldberg Variations in modern times. Playing the range of Baroque keyboard repertoire, Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti to Couperin and Rameau, her presence and success launched the debate of the relative merits of performance of that repertoire on piano or on harpsichord. Her instruments were far from historical in design and that mattered to her not at all. She played with major orchestra, toured, recorded, and at the school she established, taught the students who came to her from all over the world. Her students included Alice Ehlers, Ralph Kirkpatrick, and Clifford Curzon. And as a performer, she was a star. She has been called the first Early Music superstar.

Landowska first arrived in the United States in 1923 with four harpsichords. She made her Carnegie Hall debut with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing a Handel concerto and, unaccompanied, Bach’s Italian Concerto in one concert. A dozen years later, a generation of American harpsichordists had appeared, the best known of whom were Putnam Aldrich, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Sylvia Marlowe, Alice Ehlers, and Yella Pessl. When she returned to America in 1941 because of the war, she was a huge success.

Early Music in the New World

Meanwhile, in the New World—and Early Music-wise it certainly was the new world—there had been a thread of Baroque performances through the 19th century, employing large choral forces and conventional symphonic orchestras. There were the Bach Festivals, from the Bethlehem, founded in 1888, the Baldwin-Wallace in Ohio, founded in 1932, and the Carmel Bach Festival in 1935. There was a whole succession of choral societies, the majority in New York, popular and well-supported. Most of their Bach and Handel performances were Romantically interpreted, using piano for recits and with simplified orchestral parts.

Things changed in the years following World War II, there were two sharply divided approaches in the making of music from before the Classical period. One was the continuance of the traditional 19th century aesthetic, performing according to the spirit or feeling of the music, using instruments of the modern symphony orchestra and the piano and applying interpretive criteria directly inherited from the 19th century. This ranged from leading solo artists like Pablo Casals performing Bach’s solo suites for the cello, and Andres Segovia performing lute repertoire on the guitar, to the major symphonic conductors such as Serge Koussevitzky and Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Bach’s B Minor Mass, or Thomas Beecham conducting Messiah. On the most extreme end stood Stokowski with his Technicolor transcriptions of Bach, and close on his heels, Eugene Ormandy playing Bach with all the richness of tone and depth of expressive nuances the Philadelphia Orchestra could produce.

Anti-Romanticism and the Middle Ground

On the other side was the anti-Romantic reaction which was linked in new music to the Modern style and Neo-Classicism. It was led most importantly by Stravinsky but included Hindemith, Milhaud, and on the performing end, by Toscanini, who famously believed in hewing to the letter of the score, come è scritto, and by others who insisted on objectivity, an impersonal style, utter neutrality. Modern style applied to Early Music performances then has been described as “polite bloodlessness,” trying to use scholarship and to adapt modern instruments and contemporary vocal practice to demands of earlier music. It was a reaction against 19th century sentimentality, against post-romanticism.

Footnote: We use the term “modern” instruments too loosely, for in fact, most of the instruments in common use today have been in use since 1820 or 30, give or take changes in the fingering systems and other alterations that improved tone quality. The Tourte bow used in modern orchestras, came into use from around 1790. While some older orchestras in Mozart’s and Haydn’s day may still have been using Baroque instruments, modern performances of their music with the Tourte bow would not be historically incorrect.

Happily, there was a middle ground between the traditional or Romantic interpreters and the puritan. It was inhabited by conductors like Ernest Ansermet, and especially those who led symphonic instrument chamber orchestras, like Paul Sacher in Basel, Boyd Neel in England, Adolf Busch in America, Raymond Leppard in England, and Sandor Salgo with the Carmel Bach Festival. They inspirited their performances of Early Music with contained and personal expression that was both convincing and respectful of the style and balances.

Impediments and Inertia

Even so, none of that was what we call “historically informed.” It all continued the Romantic tradition. You can’t imagine how narrow the Early Music world was from the end of World War II, 1945 to 1955. Aside from a rare harpsichord recital, there was no performing on period instruments. I was a serious flutist but stymied by the paucity of chamber and solo music available for the flute. Precious little of it was published in performing editions or was even played on the programs of the New York Flute Club. You’ve heard of Sleepless in Seattle? I was clueless in Yonkers.

It was a big problem in 1946 to find the music to perform from. Not much was published, and of that, only the narrowest selection. So the problem boiled down to the simple mechanical one of duplicating the music. It could be found in scholarly editions but was not available in modern, printed performing editions. Photocopying didn’t come in until 1959. The only copying processes available were the mimeograph machine for which cutting a music stencil was one big, laborious painstaking pain or the spirit duplicator (or Ditto Machine) which was not satisfactory. In short, the process of making your own performance parts or scores by copying music out of the monuments was a major deterrent.

Several factors combined to overcome such impediments and inertia. There was the emergence of a large body of musicians representing the two generations who had been bottled up for four years by the war. We were looking for outlets and careers. That released a lot of energy. Another factor was the competition in a music publishing industry needing new products. The music public, wanting a wider and more varied repertory, was particularly attracted to earlier music because of its resistance to modern music, the widespread disaffection with or slow acceptance of new-composed music in modern styles. Talk about conservatism in 1946; as late as that, when I was in Juilliard, I heard complaints about the modernism of Debussy!

Advances in Sound Recording

The fourth and clinching factor to bring on pre-classical music in the 1950s was the appearance of the LP record. The entire record industry adopted it soon after Columbia Records in 1948 introduced the LP or Long Play record now popularly called vinyl records. Compared with five minutes per side for the 78 rpm shellac records, one side of a 12-inch vinyl playing at 331/3 revolutions per minute played for 20 minutes, and after 1952, on Columbia’s extended-play LPs, played for 26 minutes.

That transformed listening, record collecting and repertoire. Columbia Records, directed by Goddard Lieberson (father of the composer Peter Lieberson) was joined by Vanguard and other companies in re-recording their catalogs and venturing into the new Early Music – primarily Baroque. That led to the hi-fi era driven by advances in technology and the manufacturing and marketing of turntables, radio tuners, preamplifiers, power amplifiers and loudspeakers – systems. The word stereo” replaced the term “hi-fi” when the Westrex single-groove stereophonic record cutterhead took over the field in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Reel-to-reel magnetic tapes were introduced in 1948 and went into wide use. Compact cassettes were introduced by Philips in 1963. Pre-recorded reel-to-reel recordings were important from 1960 to 1984. Towards the end of the 1980s, digital audio tape recording techniques led to the current-day use of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes and CDs, but by then Early Music was pretty well revived.

All during this period, from the 1950s on, FM took over and its radio stations—many of which specialized in playing classical music—were dominant. FM acquired the capacity to be stereo in 1961. In a word, the Hi-Fi Era and the revival of Early Music did not just co-exist. One fed on the other. It was a symbiotic relationship.

New York Pro Musica and the Period Instrument Parade

One other major factor led to the rapid growth of the Early Music movement. Let me ask a question. How many oboists do you imagine graduated from America’s ten leading conservatories and schools of music in any one year in the 1950s or 1960s? Pick a year. And in that year, how many playing jobs would be waiting for those newly minted musicians? Or bassoonists, or hornists, or whatever? From the ranks of these eager, gifted, trained, unemployed, young musicians came leaders who formed performing ensembles including a number of Early Music groups. Many of these musicians turned to period instruments and acquired the requisite specialized skills and art.

At a critical point came the period instrument parade, and that changed a lot. It had been going on for quite a while in England, and there was some individual period instrument activity in America. An event at the Cloisters uptown in Fort Tryon Park, Washington Heights, in Manhattan made a deep and lasting impact. Noah Greenberg, a choral conductor had founded the New York Pro Musica Antiqua in 1952. Among its six singers was one Russell Oberlin, then 29, and a rare bird—almost a curiosity—an American countertenor. Of course, American music lovers who had been paying attention, knew the pioneering countertenor singing of Alfred Deller, from England. But Oberlin was still almost unique. Of Greenberg’s five instrumentalists, one of them was Bernard Krainis whom Greenberg had persuaded to take up the recorder, which he did and pursued masterfully ever after. Greenberg gave a viola da gamba to Seymour Barab, a cellist, and that was another conversion.

On January 2, 1958, the NYPMA performed The Play of Daniel, a musical dramatization of the tale of Daniel and Belshazzar, last performed 700 years earlier in the twelfth century, in Beauvais, France. It wasn’t even close to what later Early Musickers were presumptuous enough to call “authentic.” It was a 1958 historical staging, a reenactment in costume. If the period instruments were appropriate and if the music itself was a reasonably reliable rendering of the manuscript, it was still a modern pageant. The poet W.H. Auden had written the text and narrated it himself. But if only historically-flavored, it was a landmark and made an impact on the musical scene.

Early Music in the Bay Area: the Amsterdam Mafia

Gradually but steadily, over the next fifty years, we have seen or rather heard the full range of Early Music—Baroque, Renaissance, Medieval—take its place in our concert halls, the varied subtleties of style in the repertoire, recognized and observed. The turning point came in the 1960s. And somehow it came here to the Bay Area, specifically Berkeley, and began flowering at least as richly as anywhere in the country. The masters came. Laurette Goldberg’s oral history at the Bancroft Library is still the best record of the movement here.

In 1964, Ralph Kirkpatrick came and taught for six weeks. He was ill-tempered. We called him “the ill-tempered cavalier.” He was a very nasty man, a misanthrope, really. He hated women. He would also get into these incredible fights.

But she described his editions, of the Goldberg Variations in 1934, and later, the Scarlatti sonatas, as the best.

Alan Curtis brought the whole Amsterdam Mafia to this country. He brought Sigiswald, Barthold, and Weiland Kuijken, he brought Gustav Leonhardt to this country, he brought Frans Brueggen and Anner Bylsma to this country, and the Concentus Musicus, which means he brought them to Cal. Alan was the single most important factor in helping me to shape this community.

Alan was from the first generation of the Amsterdam Mafia. People came from all over the world to study with Leonhardt. Everybody worked with Leonhardt, Frans, Anner, and the Kuijkens. Leonhardt was teaching people on their various instruments how to approach the music.

Leonhardt, who died in January of this year [16 January 2012] at the age of 83, was the most influential performer and teacher in Early Music of the past 40 years. There is hardly a major person in the field who was not touched and informed fundamentally by Leonhardt.

San Francisco Early Music Society

The late seventies saw the growth of Early Music in the Bay Area. In 1974, with Laurette at the harpsichord, the Elizabethan Trio began its recitals, where the late great Early Music soprano Judith Nelson’s career started, with Rella Lossy doing dramatic narrative. Participating with them was the late Bruce Haynes of Berkeley, who would become a foremost recorder and early oboe or hautboy player and musicologist. Then came, in 1975, the founding of the San Francisco Early Music Society, which has performed its services of inestimable importance ever since.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

In 1977, Laurette corralled a faculty of period instrument players for the Cazadero Baroque Music Camp, which grew in one year from 70 to 150 participants. It was there, from that faculty, that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra was born. It didn’t actually happen until three years later, stimulated by a comment to Laurette by Frans Brueggen, here to conduct the San Francisco Symphony. He said, “It’s time for us to take our music out of the salons and put it in concert halls, and the only way it’s going to get there, because the repertoire requires a larger space [is to create a Baroque orchestra].” A board was assembled and orchestra of the performers resident and active right here was assembled. The debut was in 1981, and it performed here and on tour for four years variously with no conductor or under guests, until Nicholas McGegan was appointed music director. The rest, as they say, is history: the Philharmonia Baroque.

Berkeley Festival and Exhibition

Several individuals played leading roles in the growth and flourishing of the Early Music movement in the Bay Area. One was John Phillips, who is still an active leader as president of the San Francisco Early Music Society. A graduate student at Cal, he started building harpsichords under the aegis of Mark Kroll, and became famous as a master builder himself. Another was the late Joseph Spencer, founder of The Musical Offering record shop/café in Berkeley and a pillar of the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. As you all are aware, we’ve been blessed with the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, eleven of them since 1990, thanks to UC’s Cal Performances and its director until last year, Bob Cole, and the San Francisco Early Music Society. The festival given in the even-numbered years, alternates with the one in Boston in the odd-numbered years, offering dozens of concerts, lectures, symposia, master classes, period instrument demonstrations and now, a battery of fringe events. But you know all that. It’s additional testimony to the Bay Area’s leadership in the music current known as Early Music.

Ensembles have emerged of every type and combination suited to, tailored for the studied differences between periods in those past eras, and between the composers. Musicians have become not merely proficient but virtuosic in their specialties performing on particular period instruments. To try to trace the Early Music ensembles—instrumental and vocal—that emerged in the next 54 years, or to follow the release of recordings and the torrent of CDs would take us well into next month, and I’ll spare you that. Besides you already are well aware of it or you wouldn’t be here.

The Question of Authenticity

More interesting are the issues and tensions that developed among the performers, their attitudes, or if you will, performing philosophies. A major dust-up turns on the term “authentic” or the claim of “authenticity.” Several, including Richard Taruskin and Joseph Kerman dismiss it as a marketing term comparable to the label “organic” slapped on produce. Taruskin goes all out in his Text and Act: Essays on Music Performance, quoting Lionel Trilling from his book, Sincerity and Authenticity, “Authenticity is a word of ominous import … part of the moral slang of our day [which] points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences.”

For me, first and foremost it boils down to context. Obviously, both the performers and listeners in whatever period is under consideration, were very different creatures from us, not immersed from childhood in music from at least five centuries, not having it in their ears for much of their waking lives. Their minds worked differently, unprocessed and untrained by electronic media. Their very sense of time, not to say what they perceived as expressive, was worlds different. The musicians, say of the Baroque era, reached a level of virtuosity both of technique and creative improvisational capacity that might well have challenged the best we can offer. We have no reason to doubt that. So it is impossible to time-travel back in a performance authentically.

In a book of six essays, a 1988 symposium edited by Nicholas Kenyon entitled Authenticity and Early Music, the matter is brilliantly discussed. One strong conclusion was that whatever scholarly authority and historical study informed the Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording of the B Minor Mass in 1968 with his Concentus Musicus of Vienna, boys’ voices, period instruments, etc., which had a huge controversial impact, and whatever the unmatched influence of Gustav Leonhardt’s harpsichord playing or Frans Brueggen’s recorder playing, it was their being “convincing on their own terms,” as Kenyon puts it. “It was the strong sense of personal conviction that carries the listener, not the historical import, whatever that might be.” And Leonhardt is quoted, “If one strives only to be authentic, it will never be convincing. If one is convincing, what is offered will leave an authentic impression.” Authority is probably a more authentic description of the desired quality of performance.

There is no question that the use of period instruments creates a great measure of the historically appropriate (perhaps a better term than “authentic”) sound of an Early Music performance. The last word in the Symposium chosen by Nicholas Kenyon is Philip Brett’s, “When a strong intuitive feeling for the music can again be reflected without self-consciousness, then the Early Music movement will have achieved maturity, and authenticity will no longer be an issue.”

In his stimulating book filled with brilliant insights and copious audio samples, The End of Early Music, the eminent recorder and hautboy player, the late Bruce Haynes discusses the different versions of period style that developed during the twentieth century. He describes the effect of anti-Romanticism and the “austere, explicitly anti-sentimental style pursued by Toscanini, Szell, Scherchen, Reiner, Schnabel, Serkin, Gould, Szigeti, and Heifetz,” the Modern Style that became the mode of the 1930s in reaction to Romanticism. Described as the prudish equivalent of “political correctness,” “it incorporated unyielding tempo, literalness in dotting and with other rhythmic detail, dissonances left unstressed, the opposite of the Romantic in being light, impersonal, mechanical, literal, correct, deliberate, consistent, metronomic, and regular.” Whew! Quite a negative catalogue.

Taruskin, in his writings, takes on this “straight style” or “authentistic performance” and its emotional detachment, the predictability resulting from performers’ compliance to rules on tempos and phrasings taken “off the rack.” He attacks “text fetishism,” writing that “obsession with correct texts seems directly connected to the Romantic cult of genius personality,” and of course is linked to the musicologists’ positivism.

Changes in Interpretive Attitude

Major changes have evolved in interpretive attitude over the course of the past half-century. Initially, Haynes and others argue, the Modern style dominant in the performance of symphonic and traditional or post-classical music, dominated Early Music interpretation. In 2001, Dorottya Fabian, writing on “The Meaning of Authenticity and the Early Music Movement,” described the effect of recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos made in the 1950s and 1960s as:

to strive for a sustained line with hardly any caesuras, breathing, or lifting of the bow. Intense tone production, dynamically shaped long phrases, strict metre and rhythm, lack of pulse (meaning the beat hierarchy). Playing all notes with equal importance and slurring them together in a continuous legato characterize most of the versions [of the Brandenburg Concerto recordings]. (Haynes, 51)

The continuous legato mentioned would seem not to be something of the Modern Style but a carry-over from Romantic performing. Haynes comments that the “Difference between Period and Romantic is the amount of legato. The standard Baroque instruments, using much less pressure in embouchure, breath, touch or bow can be sopped and started more easily.” This of course affects phrasing. The issue of vibrato is raised, which, in both the Romantic and Period styles is used selectively while in Modern Style, it is constant. Attributes of Period style are summarized: phrasing by gesture, dynamic nuance, inflection (individual note shaping), tempo rubato, agogic accents and note placing, pauses and beat hierarchy.

In sum, at this point of maturity in the Early Music movement (it can no longer be called a revival), interpretation has returned to the performer the license of his musical instinct, freedom from the strictures of the text and literal reading and from the bloodless mechanism of the Modern. We can embrace the statement of our old friend Johann Joachim Quantz who in 1752 wrote,

The Vortrag [delivery] is poor when everything is sung without warmth or played at the same level without alternation of Piano and Forte … one contradicts the Passions that should be expressed, or executes everything in general without sensitivity, without Passion, without being moved one’s self, so the impression is given that the musician is singing or playing as an agent for someone else. (Haynes, 62).

This is in 1752. In the words of Carl Dahlhaus, “Music of the past belongs to the present as music, not as documentary evidence.”

I believe we have arrived at a point where, without self-consciousness, a large proportion of our Early Music performances is given today with a natural expressiveness that realizes the aesthetic and intent of the music. Recently I heard that made manifest by our host, the American Bach Soloists, performing Bach’s great Singet dem Herrn and Fürchte dich nicht in the Berkeley Festival over a month ago. Please believe me that I am not speaking to flatter our hosts but to recognize a single performance as representative of the mature or high point we have reached.

American Bach Soloists

The creation or formation of the American Bach Soloists, somewhat like that of Philharmonia Baroque, happened in a process like spontaneous combustion, or like a chemical reaction that occurs when the required ingredients reach a certain point in amount and in the right proportion to each other. Basically, the necessary number of performers was ready, able, and willing. One or two led the way, the leaders, the catalysts, and it happened.

With the American Bach Soloists, Jeffrey Thomas and the organist Jonathan Dimmock, finding themselves in working association regularly with the same group of performers, thought, in Jeffrey’s words, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we did this ourselves?” From the beginning, the focus was on the Bach cantatas, beginning with a couple of concerts in 1989. It was almost completely based in Belvedere at St. Stephen’s Church, where Dimmock served as organist. Jonathan built the founding board from that church’s membership, save for one. Jeffrey pulled the musicians together, some of whom are still with ABS. Two years later, ABS performed the B Minor Mass. Concerts were added in Berkeley, then San Francisco, and after 2000, in Davis. It never looked back.

The Maturity of the Early Music Revival

The moral of the Philharmonia Baroque and American Bach Soloists’ story is that their formation and continuing success demonstrates the maturity of the Early Music Revival. A critical mass of musicians trained and skilled in the particular specialties had been reached in the Bay Area. They had arrived at common language about the repertory, the different styles specific to the repertory, and a single desire to pursue what from the vantage point of ten or twenty years earlier, would have been considered a new profession. Today, those Early Musickers, vocalists, instrumentalists, together with the instrument makers, specialized teachers and assorted specialists, are making their livings at it full-time.

Of course this has been happening in musical centers all over the country and world wide. Period instrument orchestras, period-focused vocal ensembles and special support activities and structures have formed to an extent that a small encyclopedia would be required to list them.

This phenomenon is the proof positive that we’ve seen a major step in the history of music. The Early Music Revival is completed. Early Music is now an independent and major current with its own institutions, alongside Symphony, Chamber Music, Opera, and all we consider as part of Classical Music. The Revival is over.

Edited by Bruce Lamott

Then and Now: Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast”

The world premiere of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast took place at London’s Covent Garden on February 19, 1736, just a few days before the composer’s 51st birthday. This weekend, ABS will perform this magnificent work, now enjoying its 280th year on the boards, around the Bay Area and in Davis. It is incredible to think that this musical setting of a poem by John Dryden for orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists is still thrilling audiences after literally hundreds of years! There is a good reason for that: it is glorious! The longevity of Alexander’s Feast is a testament to the power of Handel’s music and also to the vision, execution, and persuasiveness of its modern champions like Jeffrey Thomas and the forces of ABS. Time is running out to secure seats for ABS’s performances of this masterpiece. Reserve your seats TODAY!


Since this week marks an anniversary of Alexander’s Feast (and also the birthday of its composer), lets take a look at Handel’s first soloists for the work and the ABS interpreters you will hear this weekend.


Anna Maria Strada by Dutch painter Johannes Verelst

Anna Maria Strada by Dutch painter Johannes Verelst, c. 1732

Anna Maria Strada was a frequent Handel collaborator, appearing in the composer’s Partenope, Sosarme, Arminio, Giustino, and Atalanta. Two years after singing in the premiere of Alexander’s Feast, Strada returned to her native Italy and retired from singing after nearly a decade on the London stage.


Anna Gorbachyova

Anna Gorbachyova, soprano

Anna Gorbachyova will make her ABS debut as the soprano soloist in the performances this weekend. A participant in the 2014 ABS Academy, many likely remember Ms. Gorbachyova’s lively performance in the sold-out Festival concert presentation of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato that year. A distinguished operatic performer, her recent accomplishments include performing the role of Madeline in the Welsh National Opera’s 2014 double-bill of Debussy’s The Fall of the House of Usher and the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Usher House, one year before those productions came to San Francisco Opera last December.


John Beard

John Beard, tenor

Tenor John Beard was a veteran of many Handelian productions in London, creating roles in ten of the composer’s operas and participating in all of his English oratorios. In an age when Italian castrati were the vocal superstars, the success of this English tenor was a remarkable achievement. After Beard’s many triumphant opera seasons at Covent Garden, he retired from singing and became the opera house’s proprietor.


Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Aaron Sheehan is an accomplished and versatile artist whose achievements in early music place him at the forefront of the field. He made his ABS debut in 2007 in a program of Early Bach Cantatas and has since performed with ABS on many memorable occasions, including in Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and in both of Bach’s Passion settings. He made a tremendous impact on audiences as the Evangelist in St. John Passion in 2013. [Read an interview with Aaron Sheehan about Alexander’s Feast]


Handel’s bass soloist at the premiere of Alexander’s Feast was a certain Mr. Erard. We know very little about this artist–even his first name remains a mystery–and his participation as a soloist in Handel’s musical activities appears to have been limited. In later London revivals of Alexander’s Feast, Thomas Reinhold, a favorite of the composer, was Handel’s soloist of choice.


William Sharp, baritone. Photo: Brandon Labadie

William Sharp, baritone

Acclaimed baritone William Sharp is no stranger to ABS audiences. Beginning with a program of Bach Cantatas at the inaugural concert, Sharp has appeared with ABS throughout its twenty-seven seasons. Along with many memorable performances, including an incredibly expressive account of Christus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last season, Sharp is a member of the ABS Academy Faculty where he performs during the annual ABS Festival and mentors the future generation of early music virtuosi.

Along with sensational vocal soloists, the ABS performances will feature the period-instrument specialists of ABS, the American Bach Choir, Baroque harpist Maria Christina Cleary in her ABS debut, and Maestro Jeffrey Thomas. This is one feast you don’t want to miss!


Tickets may be ordered online, by calling the ABS office (415-621-7900), or purchased tickets at the door one hour before the concert at each venue.

TICKET ADVISORY: The performance in Belvedere (Feb. 26) has limited availability and the performance in Davis (Feb. 29) is SOLD OUT.

Bay Area blogger discusses Handel, Dryden, and “Alexander’s Feast”

Patrick Vaz

Patrick Vaz

Patrick Vaz is a Bay Area blogger who attends ABS concerts in Berkeley and writes about poetry and performances at The Reverberate Hills. With ABS’s performances of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast coming up February 26-29, I asked for Patrick’s perspective on the poem and the poet that inspired Handel to such great heights. Our conversation follows:

Have you heard Handel’s setting of the Dryden poem, Alexander’s Feast; or the Power of Music?

Yes! In my 20s I was sort of obsessed with Handel’s oratorios. When CDs were introduced I started collecting them and I still have my early John Eliot Gardiner recording of Alexander’s Feast. I lived in Boston then, which, like the Bay Area, is a center for early and baroque music. Performers were starting to use original instruments and historically informed performance practices at that time and that was sort of controversial but fascinating. There was a lot of ferment and excitement in a field (baroque oratorio) that had seemed stuffy and distant to many audiences. I used to go regularly to hear the Handel & Haydn Society and Banchetto Musicale (now Boston Baroque) and other groups and Alexander’s Feast would show up fairly often, probably because it’s a terrific piece but also because it gives such great opportunities not only to soloists and chorus but for the orchestra as well, particularly given the practice started by Handel himself of inserting a purely instrumental work in order to make a full evening’s entertainment [ABS will perform the Concerto Grosso in C Major and the Harp Concerto in B Flat Major]. The piece is about the power of music, so it figures that all the performers get several generous chances to shine. I think Handel’s oratorios gain immediacy for American audiences because they’re in English and we can understand them directly, while so many other great musical works of the period are in Italian or German.

Is Dryden read much nowadays? It seems he and his generation, which might be expanded to include Alexander Pope, are only read by English majors as course requirements.

That’s an interesting question – I remember reading Pope when I was an English major, and I still love him – I think The Rape of the Lock is one of the funniest things ever written, and it’s one of the poems, like Eliot’s Waste Land, that I sometimes just pick up and read at random. That may seem like an odd duo, but in a way both works deal to some extent with how older forms of art shape our experience (in Pope’s case, the classical epic, and in Eliot’s, the whole range of literary works that the moderns felt pressing down on them) and with how we try to negotiate our troublesome, often trivial lives despite the awareness, brought to us by art, of a greater and grander potential world. I think these are concerns that are very relevant to Dryden, as well as to audiences who listen to older music.

John Dryden by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

John Dryden by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

But back to Dryden – when you asked me this question, my first thought was that I hadn’t read much of him; then I realized that I had read a little brick of a Modern Library edition of his poetry and prose as well as his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and his play All for Love; or, The World Well Lost, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. So I’ve actually read quite a lot of him, as well as hearing performances of Alexander’s Feast and Purcell’s King Arthur, which also has a text by Dryden. But I’m not sure how many people read him for pleasure, or even how much he’s still studied in undergraduate literature courses. He is often joined with Pope, but in fact Pope was not yet a teenager when Dryden died, and though there are similarities Pope feels like a later generation to me – his vocabulary and phrasing, though clearly of the eighteenth century, have a kind of modern sense about them, there’s a certain clarity for contemporary readers, whereas while reading Dryden I tend to feel his roots in the more elaborate style and vocabulary of earlier poets of the Metaphysical school (like John Donne) or the Jacobean and Elizabethan eras. He was, in his own time, considered the major living English writer. His time was the seventeenth century, though, not the eighteenth. He was already an adult and a writer during Cromwell’s Protectorate, and though when we think of Restoration literature we tend to think of bawdy works featuring dainty fops and witty ladies, Dryden was actually a massive presence on the Restoration’s cultural scene.

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl

Both Pope and Dryden suffer to some extent because we look at them from a post-Romantic perspective; the Victorian Matthew Arnold famously said that Pope and Dryden “are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.” We post-Romantics tend to think of poetry as inherently personal and subjective, a bit isolated (necessarily so) from the social and political world around it. In the world of Dryden and Pope, poetry also expressed the poet’s personal views, but often on public matters: poetry was moral and political (and so, inevitably, satirical) and connected to the world around it in a way that it isn’t for us. Poetry is always moral and political – if a contemporary of ours writes a poem about looking at a flower, we might think it’s just pretty, but in fact it’s also making a point about the importance of patient observation, and of the natural world, and of our relation to it, in ways that are an implicit rebuke to our consumer-driven, technology-obsessed, high-speed capitalist society. But it’s an implicit rebuke, not the principal subject of the poem. If you’re reading Wordsworth and he’s filled with joy at stumbling on a field of daffodils, it gives an added depth if you know he’s writing while the Industrial Revolution with its new factories and trains is ripping up the English countryside, but basically to understand the poem you don’t really need to know that, you just need to have seen a daffodil.

But Dryden, in works like Annus Mirabilis, MacFlecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel, and The Hind and the Panther, is dealing directly with the religious controversies, literary battles, and political maneuverings of his time. Their immediacy in his own day means they need copious footnotes in ours, and even then we may feel that the place in the royal succession of the Duke of Monmouth or the quality of Thomas Shadwell’s verse are subjects in which we don’t really have a stake. It’s the quality of his writing, its vividness and concision and color, that keep us interested in these works; as W. H. Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats, “Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and the innocent, / And indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique, // Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives. . . “. But that’s also the poem in which he says that “poetry makes nothing happen” – for Dryden and his contemporaries, poetry did make things happen, and that’s the divide we have to cross.

This post-Romantic view can require adjustments for music lovers, too: if you grew up listening to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, it can take some adjustment to hear the passion and emotion in works of the Baroque, with their very different scale and vocabulary – I know people who have had this problem even with some of Mozart’s operas. And of course modern instruments are more powerful, and the orchestras are larger, and those things affect how we hear earlier works as well.

Where/how does Alexander’s Feast fit in John Dryden’s canon of published works?

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

It was a fairly late work. It feels like a culmination of several strands of Dryden’s lifework: his years in the theater (once they were re-opened after the restoration of the monarchy), his interest in the classical world (in addition to his famous translation of the Aeneid, he also translated Plutarch’s Lives as well as works by Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, and other classical authors), and his involvement in the political world of his time. It involves a feast for the great conqueror and king Alexander the Great, but the musician and poet Timotheus (who actually existed) pretty much leads him by the nose, changing the king’s mood by changing the song. When Dryden’s text mentions the master, he is referring to Timotheus, who starts off by calling Alexander illegitimate (though in the most flattering way possible: Zeus is said to have fathered him on his mother Olympia), then sings in praise of wine, then makes Alexander weep for the Persian king he just defeated, then he sings in praise of love, then of war and revenge: with each change, Alexander’s mood changes too. At the end St Cecilia, patron of music, makes a fairly arbitrary appearance – you can see her presence as part of the long tradition of trying to reconcile classical with Christian achievements. But she does not displace Timotheus; they “divide the crown” because both control the power of music. Ultimately Alexander’s Feast is about that power, and the power of art, so it feels like sort of a valedictory statement by Dryden.

Alexanders feast banner

When reading Alexander’s Feast, are you particularly struck by its wit, drama, or evocative quality?

Yes – Dryden’s years in the theater really come through here. His plays are not often revived these days – I’ve been attending theater for decades and have never seen one, outside of musical works like King Arthur – and for us something like All for Love seems like a tame version of Shakespeare’s wilder, richer Antony and Cleopatra. But he knew how to structure a work and how to hold an audience’s attention. There’s sly wit in the way Timotheus observes Alexander’s reactions and manipulates him emotionally – this powerful conqueror is so easily led by sounds and airs. So there’s also a bit of sadness there, a sense of the fragility and folly of the world; the lines “Fighting still, and still destroying; / If the world be worth thy winning, / Think, O think it worth enjoying. . . “ offer some really good advice.


The poem has some great lines (I particularly like “And the King seized a flambeau with zeal to destroy: / Thais led the way, / to light him to his prey / and like another Helen fir’d another Troy”) and lots of musical allusions in both its structure and prose. Do you “hear the music” in Dryden’s poem?

Flambeau is a pretty irresistible word! Those are great lines. Since I first knew the lyrics through Handel’s work, many of the memorable passages are made so in part by Handel’s wonderful music. The rollicking chorus to Bacchus, god of wine, have words that are suited to a simple soldier’s drinking song, but what makes them really indelible is the music. Alexander’s Feast is part of a tradition of works praising St Cecilia and the power of music (Dryden wrote another, more conventional one, A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, which Handel also set to music) and it’s designed to provide a wide-ranging variety of opportunities to the composer and the musicians. Alexander’s Feast uses the ingenious dramatic device of a victory feast as a way of showing who the real victor is: music.


From February 26-29, ABS will perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast in the Bay Area and in Davis. For more information, check the ABS website or call (415) 621-7900. You can follow Patrick Vaz’s writings on The Reverberate Hills; or Apotheosis of the Narwhal.

Interview with tenor Aaron Sheehan

Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Tenor Aaron Sheehan returns to the ABS stage February 26-29 as a vocal soloist in Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast.” Whether singing the music of Bach (he was sensational as the Evangelist in the 2013 ABS performances of St. John Passion), Handel, or one of their Baroque contemporaries, Sheehan’s expressive singing and memorable performances are well-known to ABS audiences. Last year, Sheehan won a Grammy Award for “Best Opera Recording” for his portrayal of Orpheus in the Boston Early Music Festival recording of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orfée aux Enfer. I asked him about winning this important award, the challenges of “Alexander’s Feast,” and where he plans to eat while in the Bay Area.

Last year, you and your colleagues at the Boston Early Music Festival were awarded the Grammy for Best Opera Recording for a lovely pair of chamber operas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Bravo! What has this success meant to you? Has the positive reception of the recording had an impact on your career?

It was a great honor to receive the Grammy Award for our Charpentier opera. I have been lucky enough to spend most of my professional career singing and maturing with the Boston Early Music Festival. I owe a lot of my success to the time spent with them, learning, and cutting my teeth, so to speak. It is also nice to be acknowledged for doing something you love and believe in. My career hasn’t had a noticeable upturn, but it is remaining consistent and healthy. However, I have started receiving more inquiries for French Baroque roles!

Upon receiving the award, you offered some inspiring words: “Anyone that wants to sing: sing. Do it. Do it forever.” When did you discover that you wanted to sing?

I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember hearing my older sister sing the solo in Mendelssohn’s “Hear my prayer” with her college choir. I had never heard a good choir and the second they began to sing, I was mesmerized. By the end of that concert, I knew that I wanted to be a singer.

What do you like most about working with Jeffrey Thomas and American Bach Soloists?

Working with American Bach Soloists is always a highlight of my concert season. I get to sing great music at a world-class level with wonderful people in a beautiful part of the world. I appreciate how Jeffrey is able to coach his soloists and offer new ideas, but in the end has total trust in you as a singer and lets you do what you do best. As a tenor, I admire his career as a soloist and always look forward to his knowledge of the particular roles that I am singing.

ABS audiences are looking forward to hearing you perform as part of a wonderful assemblage of artists for Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast.” Are there specific challenges or rewards to singing a work in English like “Alexander’s Feast”?

I think one of the best rewards of singing in English is the immediacy of understanding what is being sung. The audience doesn’t have to be looking at the text and translating; they just have to listen. This also brings us to the main challenge: the soloists must deliver the text with spotless diction so that the audience can understand every word we sing.


Handel’s ode is not an opera with dramatic roles, yet the soloists and choir have some pretty dramatic music to sing. How would you define your part in the piece?

I mainly see myself as a narrator, building the scene and setting the mood. I feel that some of the music could be seen as a character, but for my role I mainly see myself as a storyteller.

Are there any favorite restaurants or Bay Area activities you are looking forward to enjoying in between rehearsals and performances with ABS?

The Bay Area is one of my favorite places to visit in the U.S. I always try to head up to the Marin Headlands – Golden Gate Recreation area. It’s a stunning view, one that never gets old. I typically try to spend my Sunday walking around and grabbing brunch in the Castro before our San Francisco concert. One necessary stop is NOPA restaurant north of the Panhandle … great food and interesting cocktails. I think that every out-of-town musician also enjoys stops at Top Dog in Berkeley and at least one visit to In-N-Out Burger.

What songs or artists are you listening to most?

This may sound odd, but I almost never choose to listen to music. I feel like I spend my life practicing, rehearsing, and learning music, so when given the choice, I do something else. When I’m driving, I choose to listen to talk radio. When I have free time I choose to work out, read a book, or explore a new part of town.

Hear Aaron Sheehan, baritone William Sharp, soprano Anna Gorbachyova, harpist Maria Christina Cleary, the American Bach Choir, the period-instrument specialists of ABS, and conductor Jeffrey Thomas perform Handel’s choral masterpiece “Alexander’s Feast,” along with two instrumental concertos by the composer, in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, or Davis, February 26-29. For tickets, check the ABS website or call (415) 621-7900.

ABS Academy News: Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen selected to Merola Program

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor

ABS is pleased to report that ABS Academy alum, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Academy 2015) will be returning to the Bay Area this summer as a “Merolini” young artist in the Merola Opera Program. Being selected for this elite, opera training program is a great honor and we are delighted that so deserving an artist will enjoy this opportunity. Congratulations, Aryeh! [Read more about the 2016 Merola Program class here.]

Attendees of last summer’s ABS Festival & Academy may remember Aryeh’s superb performances in Bach’s Mass in B Minor, where he performed the arias “Agnus Dei” (August 9) and “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris” (August 16), and in the “Baroque Marathon” where he sang music by Moulinié and J.S. Bach, including the aria “Wenn kömmt der Tag” from Cantata 70.

The ABS Academy is accepting applications for the 2016 program, which will be held from August 1-14 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The deadline to apply is February 15, 2016. Click here for more information.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sings "Agnus Dei" in Bach's Mass in B Minor with Jeffrey Thomas and the ABS Festival Orchestra

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen singing “Agnus Dei” in Bach’s Mass in B Minor with Jeffrey Thomas and the ABS Festival Orchestra, August 2015.