Academy Sponsor Spotlight: Judith Flynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Academy Alumni Spotlight: Ramón Negrón Pérez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Stegall

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

Interview with Jeffrey Thomas about performing Messiah

We posed a few questions to ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas about the joys and challenges of his annual preparations and performances of Handel’s Messiah. Here are a few of his very interesting illuminations:

1. Given the opportunity to perform this annually, what do you look forward to each year?

In most cases, a conductor and musicians have only occasional opportunities to prepare and perform some of the greatest works of musical art. But in the case of an annual tradition—whether that be yearly presentations of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor at our Summer Festivals, or annual holiday concerts of Handel’s Messiah—my colleagues and I know that the work we have done previously becomes the foundation for the next year’s new efforts to polish to an even brighter shine that handful of masterpieces that so many thousands, and millions worldwide, want to hear at least once a year. The fact that listeners, our audience members, wait in such eager anticipation of hearing this timeless music once again is an inspiration to us as performers to exceed their expectations year after year. And I have heard many say that this year especially their need to experience the transformative music of Messiah is at an all-time high.

2. What’s it like to perform this work in Grace Cathedral as opposed to a concert hall?

We are very fortunate to perform in some fantastic concert halls. Last night, for example, we performed Messiah in one of the greatest in the country, Jackson Hall in the Robert & Margrit Mondavi Center for the Arts at UC Davis. And next weekend we’ll be performing in another jewel among California concert halls, the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Although Grace Cathedral was certainly not built to be a concert hall, it offers a very special dimension to ABS’s Messiah presentations. It is, simply put, a sacred and spiritual space, one that offers palpable serenity and awe-inspiring magnificence. Handel composed Messiah to be performed as a benefit for prisoners, a hospital, and an infirmary. And in later years, still under his direction, it was offered to benefit London’s largest orphanage. A space like Grace Cathedral reminds us of our interaction with community, and perhaps in that way we can connect to the original purpose of Handel’s work.

3. Why has Messiah stood the test of time?

It’s not easy to come up with the explanation, although we know that there are a handful of masterpieces that have survived splendidly over the centuries. In fact, some have truly thrived as much due to their transformations to other styles as to their original forms. Think about how often we hear the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or the opening of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus in TV commercials. Those snippets are quoted because the music has gained a status of timelessness. So, back to the question: What has created that timelessness? Surely it has to do with the fact that those works have been performed without a hiatus since their premieres. What caused that? I believe it can be traced to the context of the work within its moment of creation. London needed a work such as Messiah to work out its societal difficulties, as a means to focus attention on benevolence and charity. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony came at a time when the structure and formats of music itself needed a new and perhaps brave trajectory. Beethoven propelled the philosophy of music in a new direction by composing three absolutely perfect movements—pristine and flawless in conception and realization—that honored the traditions of what had come before, then thrust the entirety of that toward a new cause represented by the fourth movement “Ode to Joy” finale. It is the synergy of a work perfectly fitting into the needs of its own time that ensures its immediate success and eventual recognition as a timeless historical achievement. And that is exactly the genesis of Messiah.

4. How has your performance of Messiah as a tenor soloist guided your conducting of the work and how has it changed over the years?

Any of the best singers understand that when a composer is guided by text the resulting music is a direct expression of that composer’s perception of the meaning of that text. This is how rhetoric fits in. The composer decides what words will be repeated, when a repetition takes place, why a word deserves a long note, or a run of fast notes (a melisma), and even why one pitch should be higher or lower according to the words at that point within the piece. With 99% certainty, we can decode the notes to understand what the composer was putting forth for us to understand, for us to feel during every single moment of his or her music. So, I think it is the perspective that I gained as a singer that has enabled me to consider these aspects of a composition so seriously and thoroughly. In the hands of a great composer such as Handel we can be guided to a poetic or philosophical or even spiritual experience. Perhaps that is one reason why we seek out great art in all of its forms: We want to have unmistakeable representations of our world presented to us in ways that transform our existence to something perhaps better or at least more fully illuminated.

© 2016, Jeffrey Thomas

Soloist Cherishes Her Messiah Debut with American Bach Soloists

emily-marvosh-2American contralto Emily Marvosh—recognized for her “sterling voice” and “graceful allure”—will make her debut appearance with American Bach Soloists in Handel’s Messiah this December in Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

The Boston-based contralto is no stranger to Handel’s magnum opus:

Messiah is one of my favorite pieces of all time,” says Marvosh. “It is always a delight to perform such a familiar and well-loved masterpiece with a completely new team.”

Emily’s vibrant and engaging voice is effortlessly synchronized with her poised and charismatic stage presence. As a radiant soloist and a virtuoso chamber musician, her elegant fusion of a warm, smooth tone with colorful and penetrating characterization promises to leave a distinct and lasting impression.

“I often say I could perform this piece every other week for the rest of my life and be completely happy,” affirms Marvosh. “There’s always something new to hear – in the orchestra, choir, or the soloists’ parts—and each conductor, soloist, and audience can change the energy and effect of this protean piece, even from night to night! I’m excited to mold my interpretation with Maestro Thomas and the orchestra.”

emily-marvosh-1Deeply personal, Emily’s performances reveal a connection to her own life journey, amplifying the intensity, transparency, and meaning of the piece.

“Every performance of a masterwork like Messiah (or the Passions, for example) carries with it the layered memories from previous performances. My first Messiah, my first professional Messiah, my first period performance Messiah, my first solo Messiah, the Messiah when my partner was on stage with me, the Messiah when I was going through a breakup, Messiah with colleagues who have passed away … ALL of those have influenced my performance experience.”

Intricate and heartfelt, Marvosh believes that both the music and the narrative of Messiah are capable of unearthing and transporting us through the full range of raw human feelings.

“We, the musicians and the audience, traverse many emotions in the course of the evening: expectation, joy, horror, tragedy, consolation, assurance, etc.” Marvosh further explains: “Every year, a different emotion—or one piece of text—resonates a little more with me than the others, and I’m sure everyone in the audience can relate to that experience.”

“As a chamber musician who enjoys ensemble singing, I LOVE having a front row seat for the choral music, which is really the best stuff in the whole piece! That Amen fugue! I die. If you look closely, you will probably see me singing along in more than one place. I’m also very excited to perform in these beautiful venues! Wow!”

Emily Marvosh will join three other soloists Hélène Brunet (soprano), Derek Chester (tenor), and Mischa Bouvier (baritone) for Messiah performances by American Bach Soloists and the renowned American Bach Choir under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas.

To learn more about American Bach Soloists please visit
To learn more about Emily Marvosh please visit

Tickets are on sale now:

American Bach Soloists Messiah Performances:


To reserve your seat please call 415-621-7900 or purchase online.

Additional Performances:

Photo credit Tatiana Daubek

Fanfare Magazine Interviews Jeffrey Thomas and Praises Messiah Film

Fanfare Magazine, a publication for serious record collectors and music enthusiasts, recently interviewed our own Jeffrey Thomas and reviewed our Blu-ray™ and DVD video recording of “Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral.” To read the article in its entirety, followed by a review of the film, click on the link below.  In the meantime, here are a few of Jeffrey Thomas’s responses to the interviewer’s questions:


“Bringing together Handel’s understanding of how our emotions are moved through music … and the spiritually charged space of Grace Cathedral is an experience that has been shared by countless thousands over the years. We wanted to bring that opportunity to many more individuals around the world.”

“… One of our primary goals was carefully to weave the beauty of Grace Cathedral into the performance footage, showing relevant depictions of scenes at the most appropriate moments. All in all, we hoped to create a film that was a feast for the eyes, the ears, the mind, and the soul.”

“A great composer chose every aspect, every pitch, every note value, etc., deliberately. We must figure out why he or she made a particular decision at a particular place, and then determine how best, how most efficiently we can indicate that rhetoric to the listener.”

“… There is always something to polish to a brighter sheen. That is why, when approaching great works of art, we never grow tired of them. There is always something more to observe, to understand, and to admire.”

ABS Messiah Blu-ray™

From the Review:

“I would have missed something valuable and important had I not seen and heard this release.  [I] found this an extremely gratifying and rewarding experience.”

Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral” is currently available on Blu-ray™ (5.1 DTS-HD™ Surround Sound and 2.0 DTS-HD™ Stereo) or DVD, and streaming on Amazon Prime Video (Google Play and iTunes releases coming soon).

For more information, visit


Interview with ABS soprano, Kathryn Mueller

Kathryn Mueller, soprano

Kathryn Mueller, soprano

On Saturday, August 15, soprano Kathryn Mueller will sing soprano–trumpet duets with 2015 ABS Festival & Academy Distinguished Artist, trumpeter John Thiessen. We asked Ms. Mueller about her activities since ABS audiences last heard her in February 2015 and her preparations for the Distinguished Artist concert on August 15.

Many ABS fans last heard you as a soloist in the 2014 program “Bach’s Hercules.”   Where have your musical journeys taken you since?

Since that great program with ABS, I’ve been busy. I’ve sung with Santa Fe Pro Musica, the Grand Rapids Symphony and Mobile Symphony, in Boston with Musicians of the Old Post Road, Miami with Seraphic Fire, and in Ann Arbor on tour with Wayward Sisters. Locally here in North Carolina I’ve performed at the Eastern Music Festival with Gerard Schwarz, and at East Carolina University where I teach. I also just had my Carnegie Hall debut in April, singing the Mozart Vespers; that was a thrill.

What are the particular challenges and rewards of Scarlatti’s Su le sponde del Tebro?

I’ve always wanted to sing Scarlatti’s soprano–trumpet duets, and I’m excited to have my first performance of Su le sponde del Tebro with John [Thiessen] and ABS. It’s a multi-movement cantata, so part of the challenge is creating a dramatic arc through the work to portray the changing emotions of the poor lonely shepherd of the story. Having several contrasting arias (from bombastic to poignant) and recitative sections in one work makes it very interesting for me as the performer. My most intense preparation goes into making sure the text flows off my tongue smoothly and articulately. The first and final arias have quite trumpet-y vocal lines, yet I still have to get in a lot of Italian, sometimes with multiple syllables on a quick sixteenth note!

Handel’s “Let the bright seraphim” is also on the program. How does it differ from the Scarlatti cantata? Do they require different preparation?

The main difference with “Let the bright seraphim” is that it’s an oratorio aria, excerpted from the end of Handel’s Samson. It’s a famous showpiece, and it makes audiences and performers smile. Also, it’s in English and there’s always something more direct about singing to an audience in our native language. There is fun interplay between the soprano and the trumpet, and like Scarlatti’s cantata, it’s a true duet between soprano and trumpet.

Are there any composers or pieces you would like to explore further?  Any favorite pieces you would love to perform?

I adore singing Purcell, Handel and Bach. Recently I’ve had the great fortune to perform some of the pieces long on my wish list – the Handel Gloria, Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – and now it’s time to add some new things to the list. I’ve sung Bach’s Cantata 51 “Jauchzet Gott” a couple times with modern trumpet, and I’d love a chance to sing it with baroque trumpet. I think it is a completely different experience with the instruments that Bach had in his ear and mind.

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

I was born in San Francisco but moved away when I was 18 months old. It’s always fun to return and make memories since I don’t have any from back then! I love to walk through the different neighborhoods and to see the water. The main way I tourist around any city is by eating, and oh does San Francisco have some great food! I’m an ice cream fanatic; when ABS is in Berkeley, I cross my fingers that the line isn’t too long for custom-made ice cream sandwiches at Cream.

A few tickets remain for the August 15 Distinguished Artist concert with John Thiessen, Kathryn Mueller, and musicians of ABS. Please visit the Festival website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.

Interview with ABS Festival & Academy Distinguished Artist: John Thiessen, Baroque Trumpet

Baroque trumpeter John Thiessen

Baroque trumpeter John Thiessen

On Saturday, August 15, the Distinguished Artist for the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy, baroque trumpeter John Thiessen, will present a special recital. Described by The New York Times as “the gold standard of Baroque trumpet playing in this country,” Thiessen’s performances combine beauty of sound with brilliance and virtuosity. Performing a diverse program of Italian chamber music and cantatas, English music for the theater and oratorio, he will demonstrate his instrumental mastery in an astonishing variety of styles and settings in music by Corelli, Jeremiah Clarke, Handel, and Alessandro Scarlatti. He will be joined by members of ABS and guest soloists, including soprano Kathryn Mueller. ABS intern Erin Nishimori, a trumpet player herself, asked Mr. Thiessen about the August 15 program and his preparations.

While you’re no stranger to the ABS stage, this year you are performing as our Distinguished Artist. Will this repertoire show our audience a different side to the baroque trumpet?

I hope the audience will enjoy this overview of interesting 17th – 18th century music for the instrument. Some of the pieces I’ll present will be very familiar, especially “Let the bright seraphim” from Handel’s Samson, while the Sonata detta del Nero by Girolamo Fantini and Scarlatti’s cantata Su le sponde del Tebro will be less so.

Your program will open with Fantini’s Sonata detta del Nero. Can you offer some insight into this composer and his work?

Girolamo Fantini was a 17th century court trumpeter active in Italy as well as Germany, who published the first complete method book for the instrument in 1638, a good place to start when learning to master the baroque trumpet. Fantini is said to have performed as a soloist in Rome with Frescobaldi sometime around 1634. As an homage to the possible occasion, I’ll open with his music.

There are two pieces featuring soprano Kathryn Mueller on the program. What drew you to those pieces?

The pairing of soprano and trumpet throughout the baroque, especially in Italian or—in the case of Handel—Italian-style compositions was very successful, and I like how it gives the trumpeter opportunities to be true to the fanfare origins of the instrument, while also exploring a more lyrical side, reflecting and accompanying the high treble voice.

John Thiessen with ABS. Photo: Gene Kosoy

John Thiessen with ABS. Photo: Gene Kosoy

How do Italian compositions compare to English compositions for the baroque trumpet?

The Italian baroque trumpet sonata as developed principally in Bologna most often features short rhythmic motifs treated fugally. The English repertoire is modeled for the most part on this style, though with an idiosyncratic British sound. Purcell was a master at this, and I think Handel furthered his London predecessor’s approach beautifully. The most famous English trumpet tunes by Jeremiah Clarke, however, are fully French: brief binary pieces with catchy melodies and very fun to play.

How do you approach preparing for a solo recital versus an orchestral setting?

My physical preparation can be very similar, but musically of course, a recital poses higher individual artistic challenges and responsibilities. The two important questions that come to my mind are: How does one hold the listener’s interest throughout the course of an evening when they are hearing the same solo instrument? What is special and different about each work, and how do you express this?

Can you explain the difference between a modern trumpet and a baroque trumpet, both in appearance and performance?

The modern trumpet has valves—invented around 1825—while the baroque trumpet is essentially a long coiled piece of tubing with a mouthpiece at one end and a bell at the other. Because the baroque trumpet has no moveable parts, its range is restricted to notes in the natural overtone series, while the modern valved instrument is fully chromatic. As a result, 17th and 18th century composers primarily wrote for the trumpet in the tonic and dominant keys, although Heinrich Biber and later J.S. Bach and Handel occasionally used the 7th (Bb) and 11th (F#) harmonics to compose extraordinary pieces in the minor mode. In general, I find the baroque trumpet more demanding to play, somewhat like walking a tightrope without a pole.

As an accomplished baroque trumpet player, what are your favorite pieces to perform?

I never tire of playing Bach, Handel and Purcell, ever. With Bach, however, you never quite “get there,” the music is too challenging. With Handel and Purcell, sometimes, if I’m lucky, there can be moments where I feel I’ve played something really well.

Tickets are available for the August 15 Distinguished Artist concert with John Thiessen, but with fewer than 40 seats left they won’t last long! Visit our website or call (415) 621-7900 and reserve your tickets today.

Interview With Tenor Guy Cutting Following His ABS Debut

CuttingGuy600x450The winner of the inaugural 2014 Jeffrey Thomas Award was tenor Guy Cutting who very recently impressed audiences and critics in his performances with ABS in “Bach’s Magnificat” in January 2014. Welcoming Mr. Cutting to the Bay Area for his appearances with ABS was especially gratifying. In addition to being a superb artist and exciting newcomer to the early music community, he greatly enjoyed the ABS environment and the San Francisco Bay Area. ABS Executive Director Don Scott Carpenter spoke with Guy about being the first recipient of the Jeffrey Thomas Award and working with ABS:

What are your impressions of ABS and the new colleagues that you met?

I thoroughly enjoyed working with the ABS team in January; it was a pleasure to work with so many fine Baroque musicians. Music aside, I was hugely grateful for the warm welcome that I received from the very start of my visit, which enabled me to relax and enjoy the concerts as much as possible.

What is it like to work with Jeffrey Thomas?

Jeffrey is a fantastic musician and lovely to work for. His musical ideas and suggestions are well grounded and enhance the music. He demands the necessary high standards of his performers but always in a calm and pleasant atmosphere for both rehearsal and concert.

As a performer, what draws you to Bach’s music?

I was introduced to Bach as a chorister at New College, Oxford. We used to perform the St. John Passion at least once a year. I would also hear Bach at home—my parents, both professional musicians themselves, are huge Bach fans. As a result, I quickly developed an admiration for his music.

As a high tenor, it doesn’t get much better than singing Bach. Although challenging, it is always thrilling. The evangelist roles in both the St. John and the St. Matthew Passions are personal favorites of mine—there is always a huge sense of accomplishment (and relief!) when finishing the final recitative!

What’s coming up next for you on your performance schedule?

I’ll be spending April in The Netherlands evangelising Bach’s St Matthew Passion with Nieuwe Philharmonie Utrecht, then performing five concerts with the Nederlands Kamerkoor. In February and March, I’ll be recording two early music CDs in London; the first with Alamire, the second with Contrapunctus. I’ll be touring both the UK and Europe with The Orlando Consort, The Marian Consort, and The Tenebrae Choir. I’ll be involved in a reconstruction of the first performance of Handel’s Messiah—in period costume—with the Gabrieli Consort, which will be released as a short film on BBC television later this year.

Highlights of the rest of the year include tours to Russia, Holland, Germany and the USA with The Tallis Scholars, a three-week trip to Australia with the Fieri Consort, and concerts in England, Ireland, and Germany with The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Read more about the Jeffrey Thomas Award

Q&A from Early Music Today (UK)

Early Music TodayAdrian Horsewood ( from the UK publication Early Music Today recently sent a few questions my way for an article that was published on September 3 2013 in that superb online and print magazine. Here are my unedited (i.e. pre-edited) responses to his great questions:

Obviously Bach is close to your heart and key to your programming; what first gave you the kick to devoting such a major part of your career to his music?

I was drawn to the music of Bach during my childhood. After studying violin and piano for a number of years, I had the good fortune of living in a city in Pennsylvania that had recently welcomed a performer/scholar to one of its college campuses. He was a Bach specialist, and I had my first significant experiences with listening to and practicing on harpsichords and pipe organs at that time. Of course, that immediately threw me into the wonderful world of Bach, and I have been devoted ever since.

You had an extremely successful international career as a tenor; when did you start directing, and do you miss your life as a singer?

When ABS was founded in 1989, the idea was to bring together the best ensembles of Bach specialists to perform (primarily, at the time) the composer’s rich cantata repertoire. I had been performing and recording that music for some time already, so I carried on as the principal tenor at ABS. Soon, however, the scale of some of our performances grew such that a conductor was necessary. I had been conducting since my teenage years, and had studied quite a bit in conservatory and privately with a mentor, John Miner. So, I was happy to take on the additional responsibilities. What I discovered all too soon, however, is that one must wear many hats when managing an ensemble such as ours. In the first years, especially, when we were focusing so heavily on the production of CD recordings, my days were full and varied, and I never felt that I had quite the advantage of a day’s rest before a performance that my colleagues could enjoy. Bit by bit, I decided – at first, reluctantly – that I would have to focus on one aspect or another, and the musical direction won out. I did miss singing for a while, but when I realized that I never had to clear my throat on the way to the stage, or worry so meticulously about all the details of sleep, hydration, rest, etc. that are always on the minds of singers, I must admit that it was a relief! All singers know that everything must be perfectly aligned for the voice to respond as best as it can, and when anything gets in the way of that, it becomes just a little bit less enjoyable. Ultimately, I felt that I could do more for ABS and for this music that we all love so dearly by focusing on the artistic and musical direction of the ensemble.

Very few musicians could find the time or energy to cover the wide range of activities that you do – directing the ABS in its performance and educational work, teaching at the University of California, and hosting your own weekly radio show! You’re clearly a passionate evangelist for the music you love – how much do these various roles complement each other?

I think that the connection or link between those activities is, in a word, “education.” I have loved my work with ABS since its beginnings, but it was really not until we had established our Academy that our mission and goals really found their fruition. A performing arts organization such as ours provides a dearly cherished part of the musical repertory that can be so important to those who already know quite a bit about it. But Bach’s music – and the music of the Baroque in general (or any other period, for that matter) – can certainly attract new listeners. Before long, they want to know more about what they’re hearing. Arts patrons really do want to be significantly involved in their experiences, and they often measure that sense of ownership by comparing their intuitive reactions to their gained knowledge. So, education in all of its forms about works of art – whether through program notes, informal talks before or after concerts, or at special events – is critical to our enjoyment of that art. By focusing recently on our Academy, we have extended that core mission to the most fantastic generation of emerging artists whose passion and determination to master the early music repertoire is astonishing. They embrace it and its challenges both with the forthrightness of their technical approaches and with a ravenous hunger to understand its underpinnings, rhetoric, and cultural relevance. I can’t express how privileged I feel – as do my Academy faculty colleagues – to work in such an inspiring environment. At the University of California, I direct ensembles and teach a Bach class that I enjoy very much. The class is a great joy, of course, and relates very directly to my work in expressing how much we can learn from the greatest artists, who need not be isolated from our own lives by any elevated sense of distance or elusive relevance. And hosting my radio shows on KDFC, which can be heard streaming there in the UK, also gives me an opportunity to share the same kinds of information, but through yet a different approach: one that is certainly more casual and relaxed, but just as effective if not more so, considering how many listeners really do stop what they’re doing and concentrate on the music

The ABS obviously has a very loyal audience and subscriber base – how have your audiences changed over the last 25 years?

In the beginning, we used to muse about what seemed like the existence of a finite number of patrons who would be there, at every concert, rain or shine, because they were so devoted to Bach’s music. While some audience members would change, the total number seemed to be very consistent. In time, though, despite reasonable concerns, the audience began to grow at a steady and now impressive rate. Over the last year, nearly all of our concerts were sold out, gaining us our highest attendance numbers ever. I think that two aspects of our programming are to be credited with the growth. A decade or so ago, we began our series of performances of Handel’s Messiah in the magnificent setting of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Those performances are one of the highlights of the year for me: The Cathedral is packed full of people; the excitement about the performance in that beautiful space during the December holidays is palpable; Grace Cathedral couldn’t be more welcoming of our performances there, and the acoustic effects of the Cathedral are spectacular. Then, as part of our 21st season (2009-10), we inaugurated the Festival & Academy in another wonderful space, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The audiences, again filling the concert hall to its capacity, seem to be passionately dedicated to the Festival and to the emerging artists that are each year’s Academy Participants. We open our Academy sessions (master classes, lectures, colloquia) to the public for an entire week, and they are filled with people who greatly value the immersion experience of it all.

The breadth and scope of the ABS’s educational work is very impressive, particularly the summer ACADEMY – there are very few similar events in Europe, where one ensemble spends such a long time with students in such small groups. What do you encourage students to work on during the ACADEMY, and what career paths have they gone on to take after working with you?

One of the most important principles of approach to us is that of multi-disciplinary understandings. We make special efforts to assure that singers and players of all instruments understand the challenges and expressive devices available to each other. Our faculty coach the participants in rotations, so that an ensemble that might consist of a singer, a couple of violins, and basso continuo will be coached not only by members of our singing, violin, and continuo faculty, but also perhaps by faculty members from other disciplines. This is so very important. Music-making in all of its forms is by definition collaborative, and we want our Academy Participants to take with them a much heightened awareness about how all the pieces fit together. I also believe that we, as performers, are granted the incomprehensible honor of rendering what we see on the page into an audible analog that can be understood by listeners who might have little or no experience at all with the details, tools, and devices of composition. A composer such as Bach, along with hundreds more, never put a note on a manuscript page without thinking about it. Those notes, and all the elements of composed music, have specific purposes founded in the meaning and rhetoric that the composer has chosen to put forward. Why did a composer choose a particular note value or length, or pitch, or melodic contour? Why is one phrase or portion of text repeated at a specific time and place in the movement? We must decipher that, and almost innumerable other aspects, tirelessly, as best as we can, and bring those realizations to our performances rather than take the approach of “What can we do with (or, “to”) this piece of music?” Instead, the question to ask is: “How can we best reveal what is already here on the score?” Those are two radically different approaches, and the decision to follow one course or the other defines a performance career. Our participants also establish important and budding professional relationships with each other during their time with us. Many have formed new ensembles on their own, and a good number have become new members of American Bach Soloists.

The ABS’s discography is refreshingly varied – what recording plans do you have in the pipeline?

On the immediate forefront, a new release of works by Handel will be available before the end of 2013. The recording will feature the sensational soprano, Mary Wilson, whose mastery of the Handel repertoire is phenomenal. I think that this new recording will make a great impression on anyone who hears it. We recorded the (relatively) recently discovered Gloria in D Major, the Laudate, Pueri, Dominum from the “Carmelite Vespers,” and Silete venti, which is, to me, one of Handel’s finest works.