Congratulations to ABS Musicians on Grammy-Winning Recording

CharpentierAt the 57th annual Grammy Awards on February 8, the Boston Early Music Festival’s recording of two chamber operas by Charpentier–La Descente d’Orphee aux enfers and La Courronne de Fleurswas awarded the Grammy for Best Opera Recording. This superb, period-instrument recording under the direction of artistic directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs features several artists who perform regularly with ABS. Please join us in congratulating all of the artists involved for their outstanding achievement and well-deserved recognition, especially the following ABS musicians:

Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Jesse Blumberg, baritone

Zachary Wilder, tenor

Robert Mealy, concertmaster/violin

Debra Nagy, Oboe

For more information about this award-winning recording, check the BEMF website, Arkivmusic, amazon, iTunes, or your favorite outlet where early music CDs are sold.

Tickets for Bach’s St. Matthew Passion going fast

Matthew2012-500Do you already have your tickets for ABS’s presentation of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion? It is always a significant occasion when this great masterwork is performed and ABS’s presentations are especially anticipated by Bach lovers. Tickets for the March 1 performance in San Francisco’s St. Mark’s Lutheran Church are already SOLD OUT and availability is beginning to run low for the other three performances. Get your St. Matthew Passion tickets here.

Currently the best availability is at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley on February 28 at 7:30 p.m. Excellent seats remain in the main orchestra seating area and in the balcony. Of course the First Congregational Church is also where ABS made their historic recording of St. Matthew Passion in 1996 as part of the Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. On that occasion, Jeffrey Thomas did double-duty as conductor and Evangelist and William Sharp sang the role of Christus. The recording is a classic and you can purchase the CD on our website or download it from iTunes. This month (February 27-March 2), Thomas will conduct, tenor Derek Chester will sing the role of the Evangelist, and Sharp will return as Christus. It is going to be sensational!

We expect all four of venues to sell out prior to the performance, so reserve your seats today! Visit our website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900 for more information.

Lift off for the “The Flying Gambas”!

Photo: Shelby Lewis

Photo: Shelby Lewis

Thanks to all supporters of “The Flying Gambas,” ABS’s kickstarter campaign. Through the generosity of a broad spectrum of ABS supporters, the campaign successfully reached its funding goal of $10,000. The support for this program will enable accepted ABS Academy players of violas da gamba, violoncellos, violones, and double basses to attend this summer’s Academy without the extra costs of transporting their instruments.

The ABS Academy is the country’s leading program for musicians of historically informed performance practice to study and perform Baroque music in a multi-disciplinary learning environment. The deadline to apply for the 2015 Academy is coming up on Monday, February 16. To apply or get more information about the program, please visit our Academy website or contact me at the ABS office: (415) 621-7900, ext. 204. Apply today! The experience can be a transformative one. On the ABS youtube channel, you can watch Academy co-directors Jeffrey Thomas and Corey Jamason discuss this outstanding program and how it touches the lives of so many musicians and, through their talents, audiences all around the world.

If you would like to contribute to the advancement of the next generation of early music leaders, please consider becoming an Academy Sponsor. For more information, visit our Academy Sponsorship page or call the ABS office.

We Need Your Help for “The Flying Gambas” to Take Flight


“The Flying Gambas” is more than halfway to its funding goal. With only a few days to go before the deadline, now is the time to pledge your support for this important program to fly the large stringed instruments of hopeful ABS Academy participants to San Francisco for the invaluable summer training program.

Remember, if we do not reach the goal of $10,000 by Monday, February 2 at 1:15 p.m. PST, then ABS does not collect any of the pledged funds and the program will go unfunded. So pledge today and help us reach the goal. Any contribution from $1 to $1,000 gets us closer. Thank you, in advance, for your support!

Visit the Flying Gambas kickstarter site for full details and a list of rewards that supporters earn if we reach our goal. These rewards range from your name in the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy program ($25), admission to a rehearsal for Bach’s Mass in B Minor in August ($250), or an invitation to the Festival opening night reception where you will meet the musicians of ABS and the 2015 Academy class ($1,000). Pledge today!

Digital Bach: Essential Online Resources

Johann Sebastian Bach by Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach by Haussmann

We are glad that so many ABS supporters were able to attend our January double-bill of Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Next up is one of the greatest masterpieces of music, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, February 27-March 2. Bach’s musical setting of the Passion narrative as told by Matthew is epic in its proportions, deeply moving in its depiction of human suffering, sacrifice, and redemption; and the music is glorious!

Beginning with Felix Mendelssohn’s rediscovery and performance of the work in 1829 to the historically informed, and romantic interpretations that share the stage today, a venerable performance tradition surrounds this masterwork due to nearly two centuries of experience performing it, analysis, contemplation, and engagement.

Like any great masterpiece, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion rewards periodic revisiting and focused inquiry; the more you learn about it and experience it, the deeper and more fulfilling the work becomes for you. Below are a few essential online resources for researching Bach and one of the enduring examples of his genius. Happy surfing!

The Bach Digital Archive is an amazing resource for viewing Bach’s music in historic manuscripts. Want to see the original parts Bach wrote out for his musicians for the Good Friday performance of the St. Matthew Passion in 1736? The Bach Digital Archive has them along with the manuscript for the Mass in B Minor and many other works.

The Bach Cantatas website is another essential site; bookmark it immediately! Not only do they have the texts & translations for each cantata, but you will also find historical information about the composition of each work (including the oratorios and Passions) and a recorded history for each work (complete or in excerpts). The recordings are also searchable by work or by artist. When you need to know what Bach arias were recorded by Marian Anderson, this is the place to go!

In 2008, National Public Radio created a curated tour of the work with an excellent cast of experts including tenor Ian Bostridge, Ton Koopman, Joshua Rifkin, and others. The 50 minute St. Matthew Passion primer was launched again in 2014. Listen here.

Of course, Wikipedia is always a handy go-to resource for Bach biography and information about individual works.

If you are looking for books and articles about Bach, try the Bach Bibliography. If you navigate to it through a search engine, use the words “bach tomita.”

The American Bach Society publishes an esteemed journal of Bach scholarship titled Bach Perspectives. Their site is a hub for all-things Bach on the web.

There are many more Bach sites that are valuable to lovers of his music and to curious minds. If you have a favorite, please share it with us on our ABS Facebook page.

Tickets for the February 27-March 2 presentations of St. Matthew Passion are available here.

ABS Academy Application Deadline: Monday, February 16

Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 11.28.15 AM

The deadline for applying to the 2015 ABS Academy is coming up—all applications are due Monday, February 16, 2015. The Academy is an outstanding opportunity for study, training, and performance of Baroque music and historically informed performance practice. This year’s Academy will be August 3-16, 2015.

Admission to the Academy is through competitive application. Candidates must submit materials including 2 letters of recommendation, audio recordings (audition repertory guidelines here), and pay a $35 application fee. All application materials are submitted online. For more information, visit our Academy page.

Begun in 2010, the Academy has been preparing 50-60 musicians each summer for professions in early music. Our graduates have gone on to lead extraordinary careers all over the world and many have performed with American Bach Soloists since completing the program.

In December 2014, 21 past Academy graduates performed as members of the orchestra and chorus for ABS’s performances of Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral, the Mondavi Center, and Green Music Center.

2014 Academy low res

Front row
Gabriela Estephanie Solis (alto), Lindsey Strand-Polyak (violin), Jason Pyszkowski (viola), Vijay Chalasani (viola), Jessica Powell Eig (contrabass), Clio Tilton (viola), Tatiana Chulochnikova (violin).

Back row
Andrew McIntosh (violin), Laura Gaynon (violoncello), Gretchen Claassen (violoncello), Andres Vera (violoncello), Ramón Negrón Pérez (viola), Jude Ziliak (violin, principal 2nd)

[Not pictured: Karin Cuellar (violin), Mishkar Núñez-Mejía (violin), Dan Cromeenes (countertenor), William Sauerland (countertenor), Mark Bonney (tenor), and vocal soloists Eric Jurenas (countertenor), Kyle Stegall (tenor), and Jon Lee Keenan (tenor).]


Giant Steps – Catching up with Mischa Bouvier

Baritone Mischa Bouvier is no stranger to fans of ABS. A participant in the 2010 inaugural class of the American Bach Soloists Academy, the charismatic soloist has performed with ABS on many memorable occasions since. He returns January 23-26 to sing the role of the murderous giant Polyphemus in Handel’s Acis and Galatea. His commentary on preparation, singing Handel, and throwing rocks at shepherds concludes our conversations (Nola Richardson, Kyle Stegall, and Zachary Wilder) with the Acis cast. Do not miss the chance to hear these spectacular artists perform in one of Handel’s most splendid works!

BOUVIERIn recent seasons, ABS fans have heard you perform in Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral and as Apollo in the composer’s secular cantata Apollo & Dafne. How does  the role of Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea differ from other Handel assignments? Does Polyphemus involve different preparations?

Well, it’s my first time playing a giant cyclops, so I’ve been singing with one eye closed to gain perspective. But basically my preparation for the role of Polyphemus is no different than it would be for probably any other Handel role. I pay special attention to the fast parts and the low parts … the fast parts so I can make sure I’m flexible in the event that my chosen tempo isn’t also the choice of the conductor, and the low parts because we’re performing at 415 [vibrations per second; a low Baroque tuning]. And, of course, I always, always focus on the text.

Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s most enduring and popular operatic works. What do you think attracts listeners to this work? As an artist, what do you find most rewarding about it?

Acis and Galatea has endured because it’s an accessible and entertaining story. Most of us can relate to its themes of love, passion, and jealousy (though I’d like to think most of us would not kill our rival with a big rock). And musically, the work offers something for every ear. There are moments of melancholy, elegance, simplicity, etc., and also a variety of the prevailing styles of the time. And, of course, there’s that amazing trio (“The flocks shall leave the mountains”) which sounds almost Mozartian.

Compared with other Baroque composers like Bach, Scarlatti, or Purcell, are there features of Handel’s works that make performing them especially thrilling or challenging? 

Some of Handel’s writing is challenging in terms of range. For instance, the character of Lucifer in La Resurrezione, which I sang for the first time as a participant in the inaugural class of the ACADEMY, requires a range of over two octaves (F#–g’). And in Acis, Handel writes a particularly excellent opening accompanied recitative for Polyphemus, “I rage, I melt, I burn!” He launches the movement with a bit of that wonderful Handelian coloratura on the word “rage.” It starts quite low, but quickly rises to the top of the singer’s range. It’s total text painting, and totally difficult to sing (like the opening bit for bass on the words “…and I will shake” in Messiah).

Are there any composers whose works you would like to delve into more? Dream projects?

Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. Or Rameau’s Thétis. Mozart’s Papageno. Or almost any American song premiere. Or the bits of Ravel I haven’t already sung. Or one of the Schubert cycles (!). Or Billy Budd. And there’s always room for some crossover rep (Emile, Fred, Marius …). Oh, and Grieg!


Meet Damon – An Interview with Zachary Wilder

As we continue getting to know the Acis and Galatea cast a little better (previous interviews with Nola Richardson and Kyle Stegall), we now introduce tenor Zachary Wilder. Mr. Wilder makes his ABS debut as Damon in Handel’s pastoral, January 23-26. His views on the work and making a career as an American opera singer based in Paris, France, are below.

Zachary Wilder

Zachary Wilder

Tell us about Damon’s role in Acis and Galatea? What musical challenges does Handel create for this role?

Damon really serves as the voice of reason in this work, cautioning both Acis and Polyphemus against making poor decisions in the heat of passion or anger. What makes Damon challenging, but also very interesting, is that Handel really asks of you to listen very carefully to what is going on around you all of the time. Each time Damon sings, he is offering a contrasting color in response to the aria that just came before; so you have to really pay attention to your colleagues. Also, two of Damon’s arias are in “call and response” with the instrumental lines (violin in “Would you gain the tender creature” and oboe in “Consider, fond shepherd”), so there is quite a lot to think about and listen for!

Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s most enduring and popular operatic works. What do you think attracts listeners to it? As an artist, what do you find most rewarding about it?

That’s true! I think Handel was particularly inspired when he first got to England. He really tapped into the beautiful, melancholic tunefulness of the English music tradition there, which makes the work very touching and appealing. But I think what makes the work so exciting is the mixing of French, English, and Italian styles that Handel brought to it, bringing together the best elements of each to make something quite different and incredibly compelling.

You are an accomplished performer in staged Baroque operas. Any favorite roles or productions that you have performed in?

That’s a tough choice! I’d have to say Grimoaldo in Handel’s Rodelinda, as well as singing the role of Mercury in this real gem of an opera by Gioseffo Zamponi: Ulisse all’Isola di Circé. The battle scene with Venus was a blast and I got to dance in that production!

This year, I’m very much looking forward to singing Septimius in Handel’s Theodora as well as partaking in Boston Early Music Festival’s productions of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria as Telemaco and L’Incoronazione di Poppea as Lucano.

As an American musician living in Paris, do you observe any significant differences among French and American audiences for Baroque music?

Oh gosh, you’re going to get me in trouble … It really depends on where in France, but in general the French have the benefit of a very rich education in their own cultural heritage. Lully, Charpentier, Rameau, and Cavalli all performed and premiered many of their works just a few miles west of Paris in Versailles. So while the French are very proud, they are also very possessive and are not afraid to tell you what they did or didn’t like about your interpretation. American Baroque audiences also hold performers to a very high standard, but they don’t come with the same cultural baggage, so are generally much more open to new sound experiences.

Will this be your first visit to Northern California? Besides singing with ABS, what do you look forward to doing while you are here?

I’m actually a native Californian (though a Los Angelino … shh, don’t tell anyone), so I’m really very excited to be singing in my home state as I miss it very much. I’ve been to San Francisco and the surrounding areas quite a few times and am always in awe of the richness of the surrounding geography, mid-century architecture, food culture, and arts scene. I’ll probably try to go to the MOMA, take many walks, and make sure to indulge in as much Cali-Mex food as possible before returning to the other side of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately the SFMOMA will still be closed for renovation while you are here. Anywhere else?

Oh no! That’s a shame to hear, but it encourages me to explore some new things in San Francisco. I’m a big fan of contemporary art, but also anything sort of Wunderkammer-like. The Museum of Craft and Design looks like it’s up my alley and will be opening up their new exhibits just before I get into town. The Sarah Winchester House in San Jose is something I’ve always wanted to see, but it may be too far. However, the Burlingame Museum of Pez Dispensers (and Banned Toys) looks “very” promising.


Acis Access – ABS talks with tenor Kyle Stegall

After catching up with our Galatea, Nola Richardson, we also had the opportunity to speak with tenor Kyle Stegall, who will perform the role of the shepherd Acis, the other half of Handel’s “Happy We” couple.

Kyle Stegall Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Kyle Stegall
Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Last month thousands of ABS fans heard you in Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral and the Green Music Center. What are the differences between Messiah and Acis and Galatea? Does your preparation differ for these Handelian assignments?

The more time I spend with Handel’s music, the more I appreciate it for its ability to dramatically reveal the various passions and involvements of the human spirit. Last month I had the great pleasure of performing Handel’s Messiah with ABS. Handel’s treatment of text for any aria in secular or sacred context focuses on making the story at hand relatable to anybody hearing it by highlighting the human nature within. My preparation vocally is much the same: careful consideration for how my melodic line is to fit into the greater musical context. In Acis, rather than focusing my energies on the birth and passion of Christ, and on the biblical words that relate the comfort, desperation, and victory we find in that narrative, I instead focus on expressing the universal human experience of unyielding love for another.

Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s most enduring and popular operatic works. What do you think attracts listeners to this work? As an artist, what do you find most rewarding about it?

This piece is great, with music full of contrast and elegance that raises this pastoral beyond a simple play about nymphs, giants, and innocent love. Handel’s masterful and imaginative writing makes this an experience for both the audience and myself, which frees us to unabashedly explore the joy, jealousy, and impulsiveness of love.

Compared with other Baroque composers like Bach, Scarlatti, or Purcell, are there apects of Handel’s works that make performing them especially thrilling or challenging?

I have been blessed to spend much of my career so far with these great masters. Each of them offers a slightly different approach to the vocal line and to its interaction with the text. In addition to being highly dramatic, Handel’s music is rather kinetic in nature, always inviting the singer to give over to the dance rhythms on which much of the music is built. I find this so stirring and inspiring as an artist.

Are there any composers whose works you would like to delve into more? Dream projects?

I have been studying the Passions of Bach, and wish very much to continue learning about his music and about the Passion story through performing the Evangelists. I made my debut at Lincoln Center as the Evangelist in the St. John Passion, and feel I have only scratched the surface of this striking repertoire. I look forward to devoting much of my energy and artistry to the development of these roles with mentors such as Maestro Thomas.


Galatea Speaks – An interview with soprano Nola Richardson

ABS’s 26th subscription season opens this month with a mixed bill of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and Handel’s Acis and Galatea performed January 23-26 in three Bay Area venues and in Davis. Taking on the title role of Galatea in Handel’s gorgeous pastoral is soprano Nola Richardson. We took a moment to speak with Ms Richardson about the role and the challenges of singing Handel.

Nola Richardson Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Nola Richardson
Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Many ABS fans heard you as an Academy participant at ABS’s 2013 San Francisco Summer Bach Festival where you were a soloist in Handel’s Esther, Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis, and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Where have your musical journeys taken you since?

Since 2013 I’ve sung a lot more Bach! I performed the Mass in B Minor again with the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, and the St. John Passion with Bach in Baltimore. I also sang Cantata 51 (Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen) with the Bach Sinfonia in DC and again along with Scarlatti’s “Su le Sponde del Tebro” in my debut with the Baltimore Symphony last summer. I am now attending Yale’s Institute for Sacred Music, a program focused on Early Music and concert repertoire. I’ve been kept very busy there with lots of stunning repertoire including Charpentier, Zelenka, and music of the English Restoration period.

Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s most enduring and popular operatic works. What do you think attracts listeners to this work? As an artist, what do you find most rewarding in performing it?

Well, certainly what attracts me to it is the fact that the arias are exquisitely beautiful! I also think that the smaller scope of the work, and the English text have allowed it to remain very approachable. I love the intimacy of the text and music and I feel it gives a lot of opportunities for a singer to be delicate and subtle which you don’t always get in larger operatic works!

Compared with other Baroque composers like Bach, Scarlatti, or Purcell, are there features of Handel’s music that make singing it especially thrilling or challenging?

Handel gives the singer a great deal of freedom, probably because of the caliber of singers he was working with. In order to sing Handel really well, singers have to be willing to make lots of decisions, as opposed to Bach which is generally much more elaborate and harmonically complex. The ornaments and phrasing in Handel’s music need to be unique and reflective of each individual’s abilities and natural sense of expression.

After studying with Jeffrey Thomas at the ABS Academy, what are you looking forward to in working with him again in Acis and Galatea?

I am thrilled to work with Jeffrey again! I learned so much from him about shaping phrases and the elements of Baroque articulation. I know Jeffrey will shape this piece beautifully and it will be lovely to sing with the orchestra under his guidance!

Are there any composers whose works you would like to delve into more? Dream projects?

I absolutely love French Baroque music, so I hope to get the chance to sing more Rameau, Lully, Charpentier, Couperin etc. I also want to sing a lot more Baroque opera. Dream roles include Poppea, Cleopatra, and Semele. In general any Baroque is just wonderful in my book! But I’m also a sucker for Mozart, Schubert, Barber, Argento–really, I’m just tickled about most of the pieces I get to sing!

ABS Free Master Class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, January 19

Steven Lehning

Steven Lehning

ABS continues its collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Monday, January 19 at 7:30 p.m. when violone player Steven Lehning leads a public master class on performing basso continuo. Mr. Lehning, who has performed with ABS since their first concerts and also serves as the company’s artistic administrator, librarian, and all around wellspring of knowledge and expertise, will coach the Conservatory’s finest in the art of Baroque group accompaniment.

The continuo instruments are the low strings and keyboard instruments that provide a coordinated support and harmonic foundation in much of the Baroque repertoire. Groups of Conservatory violoncellists, harpsichordists, and bassists will work with Mr. Lehning on techniques of listening, realizing accompaniments, and working together to form the ideal “Baroque sound.”

The master class is free and open to the public. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is located at 50 Oak Street, close to BART and MUNI stops. For more information about this and other upcoming free public master classes by the musicians of American Bach Soloists, please visit our website here.

ABS performs Handel’s Messiah

American Bach Soloists annual performances of Handel’s Messiah are an eagerly anticipated part of the musical year for many Bay Area music lovers. This year, ABS thrilled audiences in three of Northern California’s most picturesque and ideal venues, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the Mondavi Center in Davis, and the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University. With 5 performances of the masterpiece in 7 days, approximately 5,600 people heard ABS’s magnificent performances.

At the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts:

Jeffrey Thomas directs ABS at the Mondavi Center on December 14.

Jeffrey Thomas directs ABS at the Mondavi Center on December 14.

At Grace Cathedral in San Francisco:

Sold out performances in Grace Cathedral were filmed for future release.

Sold out performances in Grace Cathedral were filmed for future release.

At The Green Music Center at Sonoma State University:

Audience on their feet for the Hallelujah chorus at the Green Music Center.

Audience on their feet for the Hallelujah chorus at the Green Music Center.

Thank you to all who came out to hear ABS’s 2014 Messiah. It was a fabulous run with glorious music, outstanding artists, and one of the greatest Handel interpreters around, Maestro Jeffrey Thomas!

Next up: Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, January 23-26, 2015. For tickets and more information, visit our website.

ABS presentations of Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral underway

Following performances at the Mondavi Center in Davis on Sunday and last night’s performance at Grace Cathedral, ABS’s 2014 performances of Handel’s Messiah are officially underway! If the ovation after Tuesday’s performance is any indication, Jeffrey Thomas and his outstanding ABS forces have once again touched audiences to the core with their annual performances of this musical masterpiece.

ABS rehearsal in Grace Cathedral.

ABS rehearsal in Grace Cathedral.

Reserved seating is SOLD OUT for the remaining performances at Grace Cathedral on Thursday and Friday, but general admission tickets are available at $15 each. These tickets may be purchased through the website or in person at the Cathedral beginning one hour before each concert. For more information, please visit our website.

ABS rehearsal in Grace Cathedral.

A break during rehearsal.

It’s not too late to catch the magical combination of ABS, Messiah, and Grace Cathedral – join us for this unforgettable experience!

General Admission seats now on sale for Messiah at Grace Cathedral

ABS in Grace Cathedral by Ken HowardDue to the heavy demand for tickets to this year’s performances of Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral, general admission (GA) seating has been opened for the December 18 & 19 performances. The GA seating areas are on the left and right sides of the cathedral’s main nave area as well as the south transept (near the chapel on the California Street side). GA seats are $15 and available through the website, the ABS office, and—pending availability—at the performances. The seating area on each night will open at 7:00 p.m., so if you have a GA ticket come early for the best seats.

NOTE: Many GA seats have an obstructed view of the performers. The sound in these sections is terrific and the experience of music, performance, and locale rewarding. Being there is the key!

A limited number of reserved seats are available for Tuesday, December 16, and Thursday, December 18, but they are going fast. Visit or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900 to check availability or purchase tickets. Reserved seating for Friday, December 19 is SOLD OUT.

Don’t miss ABS performing Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral. This year’s performances will be recorded live in high definition video, so come and be a part of history!

The Foundling Hospital Version of Handel’s Messiah

This month ABS returns to Grace Cathedral to present its annual performances of Handel’s enduring masterpiece, Messiah. Over the sixteen year tradition of performing the work annually in the Cathedral, Jeffrey Thomas and ABS have presented several versions of the work that Handel prepared and conducted during his lifetime. Between the work’s premiere in 1742 and the composer’s death in 1759, Handel treated the overall form of his Messiah with a measured flexibility and some 10 versions are known to exist. The versions differ mostly in how music is allocated among the four soloists. It may be hard to imagine today, but when Messiah was a new work Handel reworked it to accommodate the capabilities of his musicians and, in the case of a few star singers, to exploit the extraordinary talents of his performers.

Gaetano Guadagni (1728-1792)

Gaetano Guadagni (1728-1792)

For this year’s performances, Thomas will lead the musicians of ABS in the Foundling Hospital Version of 1753. First presented eleven years after the work’s premiere in Dublin, this version was performed at the dedication of the new Chapel in London’s Foundling Hospital. The engagement of the famous Italian castrato Gaetano Guadagni as one of the soloists for the occasion influenced Handel’s preparation of the score. When listening to ABS’s performances, keep in mind that the alto part, which will be sung by countertenor Eric Jurenas, was adapted to showcase the technique of one of the great international singing stars of the mid-eighteenth century. Handel reassigned the bass aria “But who may abide” to Guadagni and composed a new, much more ornate B section in which the singer could astound with an exhibition of his technique. Befitting Guadagni’s reputation and the audience expectation that the biggest star would sing the last aria, Handel also assigned him “If God be for us.” Handel’s other soloists for the dedicatory performance–soprano Giulia Frasi, tenor John Beard, and bass Robert Wass–were all experienced singers who had performed with the composer on earlier occasions. In fact, Beard was Handel’s tenor soloist in Messiah at the work’s 1743 London premiere performance at Covent Garden.

Handel’s Foundling Hospital Anthem

Years before the 1753 performance of Messiah, Handel directed a program of celebratory works in the still unfinished chapel. Along with compositions that are today chestnuts of the Baroque repertory like Fireworks Music and excerpts from the oratorio Solomon, Handel included a new work, Foundling Hospital Anthem. This sacred work which employs a boychoir is well-suited to liturgical purposes, but is rarely performed today in concerts. Its message of charity and humanity, however resonate powerfully in other compositions by Handel, especially his Messiah. Listen to an excerpt from Handel’s Anthem here.

A Home for Abandoned Children

Foundling Hospital

Foundling Hospital

The Foundling Hospital was created by merchant and philanthropist Thomas Coram during the 18th-Century rise in cosmopolitanism in London. Built over the course of more than a decade, the institution was a force for social welfare during a period of rapid urban growth in London which coincided with a dramatic rise in destitute families and abandoned children. The Hospital also stimulated public philanthropy among the upper classes who saw their fortunes increasing while a growing population of have-nots threatened to fall through the cracks. The Foundling Hospital served in its original capacity until the early years of the 20th century when there were efforts to move the operation out of the city and into to the countryside. A proposed university purchase of the buildings fell through and the campus was purchased by a developer in 1920 and soon thereafter razed.

Though Foundling Hospital no longer exists, the spirit of charity surrounding its founding and initial purpose live on in Handel’s compositions of the 1740s and 1750s.  Tickets for ABS’s 2014 performances of Messiah at Grace Cathedral are available here or by calling (415) 621-7900.

Meet the Messiah Soloists

“Rejoice greatly!” On December 16, 18, & 19 Jeffrey Thomas will lead three performances of Handel’s Messiah at San Francisco’s magnificent Grace Cathedral—a beloved annual tradition now entering its 16th year! These performances will be recorded live in high definition for future release. Tickets are going fast, but it’s not too late to reserve seats at this year’s event.

Along with this year’s highly anticipated appearances at the Cathedral, Maestro Thomas and ABS will also perform Handel’s masterpiece at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis on December 14 and the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park on December 21.

Lets meet the soloists: Mary Wilson (soprano), Eric Jurenas (countertenor), Wesley Rogers (tenor), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone).

What is your favorite music to listen to in your free time?

Mary Wilson, soprano

Mary Wilson, soprano

Mary Wilson: I like a great variety of music. I listen to a lot of choral music, and a lot of old rock. I’m a huge fan of Led Zeppelin, the Stones, U2, and Prince!

Eric Jurenas: I actually listen to classical music way too much—there’s just so much interesting stuff to check out. I tend to be obsessed with an album for weeks at a time. This year I found myself attached to Bach’s Orchestral Suites, John Adams’ works, and the Brahms German Requiem. Most recently I have not been able to escape Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde while exploring its history—it’s so fascinating to see how influential that opera was on all music everywhere! Of more popular genres, Tower of Power is on the top of the list. Jazz is also a favorite: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Keith Jarrett. I skip over most pop, but I love atmospheric music from groups like Hammock or Jon Hopkins. My plan is to keep listening.

Wesley Rogers: My favorite music to listen to in my free time is varied.  Right now I listen to Jason Isbell a lot. He is sort of alt/country. I’ve also been listening to Ben Howard and James Vincent McMorrow.

Jesse Blumberg: Free time, what’s that?  In truth, though, I’m not nearly the audiophile I wish I were.  If I had a car it’d be easier to find time to listen, but sometimes in a rental car I’ll just put on a pop radio station to zone out a bit.  At least then I’ll know “what the kids are into these days.”

What are some of your favorite things to do in San Francisco?

Mary Wilson: SHOP!  Oy, I certainly help stimulate the local economy! I never take the time when I’m home and there just aren’t that many good places in Memphis so I shop when I’m on the road.

Eric Jurenas, countertenor

Eric Jurenas, countertenor

Eric Jurenas: Eating. There are so many fabulous restaurants in the city. I live in New York City and frequent many great restaurants, but San Francisco also has some incredible places. One area where San Francisco ultimately beats New York is the view of the city from afar; it is one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen.

Wesley Rogers: I really love Muir Woods. I always enjoy hanging out in Mill Valley and taking a trip to Stinson Beach.

Jesse Blumberg: It’s one of my favorite cities in the world, and I’m fortunate to get here a few times a year.  I’m sure I’ve missed some obvious touring spots, but lately I just try to explore and get down to the water somehow, whether it’s just coffee or a snack at the Ferry Building, or a ferry ride over to Marin. And when it’s Messiah time, I try to take the cable car up to Grace at least once—just seems like the most festive way to arrive!

What do you like most about performing Handel’s Messiah?

Mary Wilson: There is always something new. A harmony I’ve never heard before, the way another soloists will bring out a line of text, the joy and energy with which that AMAZING ABS choir sings—it’s always different. Each year I eagerly look forward to returning to my old friend—it’s just not December without it.

Eric Jurenas: I love the variety. As a singer, it allows me to show different aspects of my voice. There are dramatic moments as well as contained moments. Handel crafts it so well for each solo voice part.

Wesley Rogers, tenor

Wesley Rogers, tenor

Wesley Rogers: My favorite part about performing Messiah is being in the middle of those beautiful choruses. The Amen is almost overwhelmingly dramatic and beautiful and Jeffrey Thomas does an amazing job with his interpretation of it.

Jesse Blumberg: Singing bass arias in Messiah gives you lots of great challenges across a pretty wide range of vocal writing. It also gives you lots of time to sit back and listen to your colleagues making music, and those moments at ABS are some of my favorites every season. The singers and players Jeffrey assembles are truly some of the very best around. It’s always a pleasure to experience big chunks of Messiah as an audience member, only with the best seat in the house.

Besides Handel, what favorite composer or favorite piece of music do you like to sing?

Mary Wilson: I like to sing a lot of Mozart and Bach. I’m having a love affair with the Rossini Stabat Mater and Beethoven Missa Solemnis—they are such fun to sing!

Eric Jurenas: Let’s say besides Bach too, because that is the obvious first choice. Vivaldi and Purcell are also pretty high on the list, but I have a large attraction to German art song. I have fallen in love with Schubert Lieder as of late, which I used to find boring. Mendelssohn is largely ignored, which is a shame, and Brahms is irresistible. Brahms was such a terrible text setter and had no idea what he was doing with the voice, but his songs are still amazing. And of course, every now and again, I sing Beyoncé.

Wesley Rogers: I have always really enjoyed singing and working on Benjamin Britten. I would love to sing his War Requiem again.

Jesse Blumberg, baritone Photo: Arielle Doneson

Jesse Blumberg, baritone
Photo: Arielle Doneson

Jesse Blumberg: Tough question!  Other Handel favorites would have to include Apollo and Daphne, Dixit Dominus, and I loved the Birthday Ode for Queen Anne that we did at ABS a few years back.  I just toured a Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 for three weeks, and that’s a piece that could never get old even after 11 performances.  Life without Bach and Mozart is pretty unthinkable, of course, but as a self-identifying Lieder geek, I certainly couldn’t do without Schubert, Schumann, and Wolf. I’d better stop here!

Hear ABS perform Messiah this December live. Tickets are available online or by calling (415) 621-7900.

2015 ABS Academy Applications Now Accepting Applications

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An Advanced Training Program for
Emerging Professionals and Accomplished Students
of Historically Informed Performance Practice

August 3-16, 2015
Now accepting applications
Deadline: FEBRUARY 16, 2015

The AMERICAN BACH SOLOISTS ACADEMY is an advanced training program for emerging professionals and accomplished students of historically informed performance practice. The ACADEMY offers unique opportunities to study and perform Baroque music in a multi-disciplinary learning environment with the distinguished roster of the American Bach Soloists—named “the best American specialists in early music” by The Washington Post— gaining the perspectives of eminent and highly acclaimed professional artists from a variety of disciplines. In addition to in-depth coachings and technical studies with masters of their particular instruments, string players, wind and brass players, continuo and keyboard players, and singers work together with all faculty members.

Each day during the multi-week program, students will work in a master class environment with their teachers, rehearse ensemble works in collaboration with their new colleagues, and prepare for chamber performances and large-scale productions in which ACADEMY participants perform along with the faculty, working side-by-side. Most afternoons include presentations by faculty members on a variety of relevant topics including performance practice, Baroque studies, and historical contexts. Additionally, forums are offered on topics such as career development, recording and technology skills, and tuning and temperaments.

2014 Academy Faculty and participants.

2014 Academy Faculty and participants.

The ACADEMY is held in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s exquisite facilities in the heart of the city’s arts district, offering state-of-the-art performance halls, classrooms, practice rooms, and teaching studios. During the course of the program, students and faculty present public concerts including Chamber Series programs, “Academy-in-Action” concerts, concert-version Baroque opera or oratorio, and annual performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Additional ACADEMY events include colloquia, public lectures and master classes, and special performances including the Distinguished Artist Series.

Read the 2014 ABS Academy daily blog

Our new Academy Auditor Affiliates program is open to directors of early music ensembles, workshop organizers, and early music educators, academics, and administrators. Auditor Affiliates have full access to all Academy activities and performances, and also participate in roundtable sessions to compare notes with fellow auditors, ask questions of Academy Faculty, and Q&A with the Academy directors to address all queries about recruitment, scheduling, and implementation of a program of this scale. More information available here.

2015 Faculty

Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin & viola
Max van Egmond, voice
Corey Jamason, harpsichord
Steven Lehning, violone & contrabass
Judith Malafronte, voice
Robert Mealy, violin & viola
Sandra Miller, flute
Debra Nagy, oboe & recorder
William Sharp, voice
Kenneth Slowik, viola da gamba & violoncello
William Skeen, violoncello
Dominic Teresi, bassoon
John Thiessen, trumpet
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor


ABS presents “Sing with Haiti” benefit concert at Grace Cathedral

The Chapel candles were lit for the first time in 20 years for the concert

The Chapel candles were lit for the first time in 20 years for the concert

On the evening of October 29 within the beautiful candle-lit chapel of Grace Cathedral, Jeffrey Thomas led an ensemble of ABS musicians in a special concert for “Sing with Haiti.” Hosted by Bishop Marc Andrus and Owsley Brown, III, the concert and reception was an event to thank the donors and supporters of this outstanding charitable organization. Born in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that destroyed the Holy Trinity Music School along with most of Port-au-Prince in 2010, “Sing With Haiti” is an organization devoted to restoring music education and its positive effects to the people of Haiti.

Sing With Haiti

Sing With Haiti

ABS Executive Director Don Scott Carpenter said, “Last fall, I received a call from The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus asking American Bach Soloists to take part in the “Sing with Haiti” event that the Cathedral was hosting. It was a star-studded evening of musicians from the opera world including emcee Deborah Voigt and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and tenor Nicholas Phan, as well as local choral groups, and the Cathedral’s Choir of Men and Boys. Jeffrey and I were pleased to donate, on behalf of ABS, a private concert in the Chapel of Grace to the event’s live auction which was held in the Fairmont Hotel immediately following the concert. The October 29, 2014 concert is this donation, and we couldn’t be more pleased to thank so many of the donors who are supporting music education in Haiti.”

The musical program for the evening was an outstanding one:

Telemann: Ouverture a 7 in D Major
Vivaldi: Concerto in D Major for Flute and Strings (“The Goldfinch”)
Scarlatti: Salve Regina
J.S. Bach: Sonata in G Major for Flute, Viola da gamba, and Basso continuo, BWV 1027/1039
Handel: “O Lord whose mercies numberless” from Saul
J.S. Bach: “Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder” from Freue dich, erlöste Schar, BWV 30

Jeffrey Thomas and the members of ABS take a bow.

Jeffrey Thomas and the members of ABS take a bow.

The ABS ensemble was:

Jeffrey Thomas, conductor
Ian Howell, countertenor
Christopher Matthews, flute
Katherine Kyme, violin
Noah Strick, violin
Clio Tilton, viola
Gretchen Claassen, violoncello
William Skeen, viola da gamba
Steven Lehning, contrabass
Michael Peterson, organ & harpsichord

The music of Bach and his contemporaries was performed at the highest level for a wonderful cause at this memorable event.

To learn more about “Sing With Haiti” or to watch an inspiring video about the program and the young music students in Haiti, please visit the organization’s website.

ABS returns to Grace Cathedral on December 16, 18, & 19 to perform Handel’s Messiah. Tickets for the event are going fast, but great seats are still available.

Jeffrey Thomas to give lecture and master class at Eastman School of Music

Jeffrey Thomas Photo: Gene Kosoy

Jeffrey Thomas
Photo: Gene Kosoy

Next month, ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas will be heading to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Invited to give a lecture on Handel’s Messiah and to work with student conductors and singers on Bach interpretation, Maestro Thomas will be in residence at Eastman November 10 and 11.

Eastman’s Voice and Opera Department faculty member, Kathryn Cowdrick was instrumental in orchestrating the visit. She and Thomas have been friends and colleagues for many years, and their musical journeys have had many parallels. Cowdrick said of the upcoming visit:

The Voice and Opera department of the Eastman School of Music is thrilled to have Jeffrey Thomas visit us this November. This past year, our choral department has been presenting Bach cantatas and our young conductors, soloists and orchestras have enjoyed working together on these great, rarely performed works. It occurred to me that the perfect person to come visit might be a beloved friend of mine from the past.

Jeff and I both grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. We both stood at the same bus stop during elementary school and later reaped the benefits of a culturally rich music community in high school choral organizations. We both went to NYC to study–me as a speech pathologist and he, after Oberlin, to attend Juilliard.
 A few years later we were both in the opera department there and then followed similar paths to the San Francisco Opera where I too was fortunate enough to gain an Adler fellowship and begin my career. Jeff was always such a gifted young organist, soloist, and conductor–always creating new performance opportunities in a leadership role.

Eastman School of Music

Eastman School of Music

I am so excited about Jeff’s work with American Bach Soloists and that he will be coming to Eastman to meet our students. Our department is dedicated to not only opera performance but also to the joys students find in collaborative work, oratorio, and lieder. I would have to add that sometimes those collaborations arise with people we met almost 50 years ago in the neighborhood. We are looking forward to his presentation about Messiah and seeing him help our young singers in a master class on preparing Bach arias and ornamentation.”

In 2015, Maestro Thomas and other members of ABS will also be presenting master classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For more information about these exciting opportunities to hear ABS artists work with talented, young Bay Area musicians please visit our website.