The Pinnacle.

Together, the Academy Participants, joined by the American Bach Choir and some well-known artists from ABS, presented the composition that Bach himself put forward as the most important chronicle of his life’s work. Knowing that, we feel lucky to participate in any way at all in bringing renderings of his score to audible form. It’s perfect music, and that sounds now like ineffectual understatement. It is also humbling music, not so much because of its difficulty — which is formidable, of course — but because we know that not a single note, not one sixteenth, or one dot, or one rest was placed on the page without tremendous thoughtfulness by Bach as to how those musical and/or rhetorical elements would be interpreted by those whose good fortune would bring them to a performance or even to a library to simply look at the magnificent way in which Bach, through music, impresses on our souls and minds his own particular reading of the liturgical texts that shaped his world and made it a better place for him.

And it is such an honor for me to work with some of the most superb musicians imaginable. Our Academy Participants, many of whom had never performed the work before, united in the most synchronous and collegial way to share one goal. The American Bach Choir were absolutely amazing. I count my blessings, especially every time I can stand in front of such fine musicians to help them shape their intentions to let our listeners hear what we see on the page. Thanks to everyone in yesterday evening’s performance!

Today, we begin three evenings of truly exciting performances when our Academy Participants take the stage for three presentations of the Academy-In-Action Series. If you have the evening free, hop on over to the Conservatory. You won’t believe how much gorgeous music you’ll hear!

Rupertum celebra.

Last night we shared a wonderful experience in performing Biber’s great Missa Salisburgensis. One of the lines from the final movement — which celebrates Rupert, the patron saint of Salzburg — is, “This blessed day is thrice delightful, a day full of pleasures.” That certainly describes yesterday!

• We heard a sensational work, so rarely performed, and previously unexperienced by nearly all of us as performers,

• We heard so many of our Academy Participants singing and playing their hearts out in the performance, and

• We celebrated this grand community we have here in the San Francisco Bay Area of early music aficionados and performers.

It was quite a sight to behold the SF Conservatory’s Concert Hall packed to the rafters. And the enthusiasm of the audience was gratefully received by all the singers and players. From the front row, the shout of “encore” produced one more round of the final chorus, and enabled the performers to enjoy a few more minutes of a work that we have come to love.

The concert began with a gorgeous performance of the Passacaglia for Solo Violin from Biber’s “Mystery Sonatas” by Robert Mealy, and that was followed by baroque trumpeter John Thiessen and violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock taking the solo roles in a beautiful sonata in five parts…all serving as a gradual warm-up to the big sonorities of the Salzburg Mass.

If you haven’t been able to join us for the concerts so far, do check out upcoming editions of the wonderful online resource, San Francisco Classical Voice (SFCV.org). Their senior editor and content manager, Michael Zwiebach, has been following the progress of our rehearsals for the Biber and will post a mini-documentry about it soon.

Another highlight of yesterday was the fascinating Colloquium on pitch, tuning, and temperaments, led by our resident genius and violone player, Steven Lehning. His faculty colleagues joined in, offering some brilliant explanations of the puzzles that have to be worked out when considering proper tuning methods for early music performance. We finished the three-hour public session with a Q&A during which we shared stories about our own experiences with the often-times complicated ways to resolve the tuning challenges we face as performers. Next week will bring more presentations by faculty, including a series of five lectures, Tuesday through Saturday.

Now, off for some final rehearsals with our Academy members for Bach’s Mass in B Minor!

Life is good.

The morning began (for me) with another rehearsal for the Mass in B Minor, this time with the vocal soloists who, joined by their instrumentalist colleagues, made Bach’s heavenly music even more heavenly than I had expected. Our violin soloist in the Laudamus te aria exuded exactly the kind of rococo gracefulness that Bach had in mind, and flute, oboe d’amore, and continuo soloists brought their own careful and demonstrative phrasings to arias for all voice types. Everyone of them is a participant in this year’s Academy. How fortunate we are that they are here.

Then, with all 10 Biber trumpeters now having arrived in San Francisco, we had the fullest rehearsal so far of the Salzburg Mass. More than 70 musicians playing 53 completely independent parts filled the grand rehearsal room of the SF Girls Chorus building (the Kanbar Center on Page Street) and together we had a blast, preparing for this morning’s absolutely full dress rehearsal in the Conservatory’s concert hall. We’re placing two “choirs” of trumpets in the gallery above the performance platform, and the rest of the throng in rings at various elevations around the stage. A few visitors stopped by to hear some of the sonic splendor and their comments amounted to great big WOWs! Then it was off to the Opening Night Dinner at Dobbs Ferry restaurant in the heart of Hayes Valley. If you’re not a foodie, skip to the second paragraph below. But if you are a foodie, read on!

Dobbs Ferry is my new favorite restaurant. At the corner of Gough and Hayes, just across the street from Absinthe, owner and chef Mike Yakura put together a menu for our opening night patrons that was delicious, plentiful, and served by an extremely efficient and gracious staff. Savory warm olives, homemade russet chips toasted to a mahogany brown and served with a bacon and white bean dip, and their pate (light, fluffy, and horribly sinful) got things started. Then came plates of their house smoked rainbow trout. If you love smoked trout, you’ll find theirs to have the fantastically light consistency of a fine sushi-grade fish that is perfectly perfumed with the scent of apple wood. It’s great! Then came the main courses: a Chicken Scarpariello served up like the best you’d find in Italy, with sweet peppers, pepperoncini, little sausage morsels, and crispy fried potatoes that soaked up the wonderfully salty and tart broth. Sirloin steak slices with scallion butter medalions that melted slowly over the perfectly seared beef… Heaven. Then came plates full of heaping servings of all of their desserts. It was a knock-out finale to serve as a prelude for what would be a knock-out opening night concert.

Once or maybe twice a year we have a concert that I can actually listen to from the house. My work will start tonight with the Biber, but last night it was my esteemed colleagues who rocked the house. Each one of them is touched by magic. I don’t know how they do it, but they had the audience in the palms of their hands. The hall was absolutely silent as we all listened to some of the most delicate and detailed playing I have ever heard. I’m so lucky to know such experts. It was an evening of polish and shine.

Then I came home to find that the Giants had won 10-1. A fantastic day!

Biber’s ready!

Aside

We just finished our final rehearsal for the glorious Biber Missa Salisburgensis. Over the course of the last week we’ve all come to love this beautiful music, and it will be very hard to let it go after the final note tonight. That’s one of the bittersweet aspects of performance: very often we have to say “farewell” to a work that we have come to know and relish, not knowing when – if ever – we’ll be able to greet it again down the road. But at least we will have Bach’s Mass in B Minor tomorrow. I’d say that’s a comfort!

A Fantastic Academy … Excitement About Opening Night

It’s incredible to think about how much music we’ve been playing, rehearsing, coaching, discussing, and sharing with each other in just four days of the ABS Academy. We’ve already had four rehearsals for the Bach Mass in B Minor. The enthusiasm of those 60+ wonderful young and fresh musicians is overwhelming. One of them said, “What’s happening here at the American Bach Soloists Academy is something pretty special. We had our first rehearsal tonight with the American Bach Choir of the Bach Mass in B Minor, and that had to have been one of the most amazing and fun rehearsals I have ever taken part in! The choir is incredible, and the baroque band sounds pretty darn good too if I do say so myself. This experience has been wildly fun so far and only looks to be getting better!”

The experience for our faculty and staff has been just as amazing. For me, as I move among all the classrooms from which the most beautiful sounds eek their way through the walls and under the doors, I’m overcome not only by how quickly these players and singers are making first-rate performances out of the music that they’re studying, but also by how gorgeous all this Baroque music really is. I know… that should be no surprise to me, of course. But, for example, earlier today I heard two tenors, two violinists, and two continuo players make absolutely beautiful sounds on two very challenging works by Buxtehude and Bruhns. I used to sing those pieces myself (decades ago, alas) and to hear them performed with such freshness and joy and, if truth be told, skill that far exceeded what I could bring to the same music when I was their age… well, it was the most wonderful feeling about that music that I could ever imagine. In our Academy participants we really have not the next generation, but rather the current new generation of musicians who love Baroque music and bring to it their desire to master the repertoire that we all love so very much. For all of my faculty colleagues, it is a thrill, an exquisite thrill to pass along our experience and knowledge to others.

Also during these past four days we’ve had three rehearsals for the spectacular Biber Salzburg Mass. At our first reading of it, the sounds were superb, and ask anyone who is participating in that glorious music and they’ll tell you how much of a thrill it is. And this morning we had our first orchestral reading of arias from Esther, joined by five of the principal characters. I think that — despite already knowing how remarkable all of Handel’s music is — it is still always the most gratifying surprise to hear his genius, his uncanny understanding of human characters, and his unparalleled facility for writing string parts revealed in yet another (mostly unfamiliar) masterpiece.

I could go on and on about how jam-packed our days and evenings are, about how rewarding it all is, and about the precious feeling of community that we all feel — “student” participants, faculty, and staff alike — during these two weeks when we’re lucky enough to be together for such an intense experience. But now it’s time to share all of that in the concert hall with you. Friday night’s concert of chamber works by Bach, Biber, Schmelzer, Schütz, Telemann, and Vivaldi presents just about all the faculty in some very unusual compositions, only one that might be easily recognizable. They are definitely intriguing works. The ABS artist faculty will soon put the final polishing touches on their music before we welcome you into the beautiful Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It’s a very special place, and we’re grateful to the Conservatory staff for sharing it with us.

More tomorrow…

An Exciting First Day at the Academy

The ABS Academy is the educational component of the ABS Festival. Early this morning, for the fourth year since the Academy’s inauguration, more than 60 wonderfully talented young artists arrived at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to begin their 2-week journey of exploration and sharing with their colleagues and with our superb faculty mentors.

For the past eight months, we had been preparing for that exciting moment – and I really can’t adequately describe how tremendously exciting it is – when the lobby at the Conservatory shifts from the quiet calm of a mid-summer morning to a space filled with such energizing excitement. Academy students from all across the country and abroad met each other for the first time, began to exchange ideas about the music that they will work on, made plans for a little sight-seeing during their one or two free hours over the next fourteen days, and shared their eagerness to get to work.

For many students and a number of our faculty, getting to San Francisco was a difficult task. After air delays, cancelations, and reroutings, our last faculty member arrived at 3:30 in the morning, not quite five hours before her first event of the day. And two students had to miss the first day entirely, all due to travel complications. But right on schedule, after a brief Orientation Meeting, we dove in straight away to rehearsals for the Mass in B Minor. The Viol Consort met and played through beautiful works by Purcell, Dowland, Byrd, and Jenkins. Our 22 vocal students met with their coaches, Max van Egmond, William Sharp, and Judith Malafronte. Later, the afternoon brought Chamber Music rehearsals – there are 25 different ensembles – in preparation for the Acadamy-In-Action series of concerts next Monday through Wednesday. Master Classes were held, followed by a very joyful reception in honor of our new participants, their faculty, the staff, and – most importantly – the Academy Sponsors that help to make this possible.

But that was not the end of the day! In the evening, the American Bach Choir met to rehearse Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and the faculty began their rehearsals for Friday night’s program of Chamber Works by Bach, Biber, Schmelzer, Schütz, Telemann, and Vivaldi. We loved seeing each other and all agreed that they are so happy to be back with ABS for the Festival & Academy.

What a great day it was! Now, late on Monday night, we’re all fairly exhausted – already – but it’s a wonderful and very satisfying feeling that comes after a full day of gorgeous music rehearsed and played by the young emerging artists who inspire us all so much. As usual, our turbo engines will kick in and we’ll be pouring ourselves into this massive and rewarding collaboration until the last note of the Mass in B Minor is sounded twelve days from now.

Tomorrow brings more ensemble rehearsals, master classes, and our first reading of the great 53-part Biber Mass that you’ve heard about. I’m looking forward to seeing many of you there.

I’ll send the next update on Friday morning…