Jeffrey Thomas Happily Recounts ABS’s 28th Season

Dear ABS Friends –

I look back on every season with great appreciation for your patronage and support, and for the thrilling and fully committed musical contributions made by our roster of instrumentalists and vocalists, and I’m always deeply appreciative of the wonderful work that our ABS staff does to support audiences and musicians alike. But this past year was especially wonderful.

At our 2016 Festival & Academy we presented yet another American premiere, one in an ever-growing list of many, when our Academy singers, orchestra, and the American Bach Choir collaborated in Handel’s gorgeous work, Parnasso in Festa. For that Festival, we welcomed guest speaker William Berger—author, lecturer, and writer/producer for the Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts, and commentator on the Met’s Sirius/XM broadcasts—recognizing our widespread fame both across the country and around the world. Our largest Academy class to date was superb.

Our 2016 Gala, “Sparkle!” was a sensational evening, featuring ABS trumpeter Kathryn Adduci and baritone Mischa Bouvier. From start to finish, it was one of the spectacular nights “out in San Francisco” that those who attended enjoyed thoroughly.

Then, in December, we began our 16-17 season of concerts with Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral, an annual tradition for close to two decades.

Two vivid memories of those performances stand out in my mind. Canadian soprano (and alumna from the very first ABS Academy in 2000) Hélène Brunet, was amazing. She moved our hearts especially in “I know that my Redeemer liveth” and her flawless mastery of the difficult coloratura in “Rejoice greatly” was absolutely impeccable. Coincidentally, during that inaugural ABS Academy, Hélène sang the role of Mary Magdalene in Handel’s La Resurrezione which we reprised in May of this year.

The other standout in my mind of those performances was the extraordinary praise for ABS and our work that Bishop Marc Andrus offered before one of the performances. It had been a tragic week in Aleppo, and Bishop Marc engaged the entire audience and musicians in a prayer for peace, reminding us that it is music like Handel’s Messiah that can help to heal our souls.

I’m frequently asked to describe the rationale behind revisiting works on a frequent basis, and my answer is always the same: There is more to polish, more to reveal, and more genius embedded within the composer’s notes to make audible and palpable to our wonderful audiences. But last year’s performances were, in my mind, more extraordinary than ever. Let me explain…

Over the last seven years, you’ve probably noticed many new members of our orchestra. Almost all of them have come from our Academy, which is now recognized in print reviews as having had a very important effect on the national Early Music scene. At ABS, those new musicians have brought determined willingness to polish and hone both their skills and the music we play with a kind of integrity that has inspired me more than I can express. I hope they know that! And, by extension, our audiences have felt that at every performance. The near perfection of last December’s performances is unforgettable to me, and—as I always have been over these past 25+ years—I am tremendously grateful for the meticulous care that our players and singers put into their performances with us. I believe it is unique to the ABS experience, and I am so thankful.

Our annual event titled “Into the Woods” featured a performance of Academy alumni (joined by ABS principal contrabassist, Steven Lehning) that was a preview of this coming summer’s Festival titled “English Majesty.” Along with violinists Cynthia Black and Holly Piccoli, ‘cellist Gretchen Claassen, and harpsichordist Michael Peterson, mezzo-soprano Mindy Ella Chu offered songs by William Lawes and Henry Purcell, including the favorite “Fairest Isle” from King Arthur, to be performed in August of this year.

As usual, at “Into the Woods” which is hosted by Tom Driscoll & Nancy Quinn, guests were treated to samples from Tom’s renowned wine cellar. Each year, he matches wine flight tastings (usually five) to the music that is performed. English music, surprisingly, presented no problem for Tom’s legendary skills as a sommelier extraordinaire: Noting that a favorite activity of the English during the Baroque era was “The Grand Tour”—which always included France—guests were the happy imbibers of wines from Bordeaux. “Into the Woods” is an auction item that is offered every year at the ABS Gala, coming up next in September.

Politics, especially at the beginning of 2017, kept great numbers of people indoors. Restaurants, concert halls, museums, movie theaters, all experienced unexpected and ultimately debilitating drops in patronage. That reaction is still being felt, not so much in attendance any more, but now in restrained philanthropic support. All arts organizations are grappling with this issue, ironic as it may be following many months of increased portfolio values. I sent a message to our patrons at that time asking all of us to forge ahead, putting one foot in front of the other, and going out to support the elements of their lives that give them joy, and to support them more than ever, given negatively adjusted expectations of federal grant support. So, although our audiences for “A Weekend in Paris” were not sold-out as we had expected, those who attended raved about it being one of the most exciting and “happy” concerts they’ve ever heard. The orchestra played brilliantly, and our soprano soloist, ABS Academy alumna Nola Richardson, all but stole the show.

Next was our program of Bach’s Motets for Double Chorus. The SFCV review was a rave:

“American Bach Soloists Illuminate Divinity in the Details … Grounding it all was the sheer sonic pleasure of voices operating in consort, with antiphonal call-and-response and layered structures of elaborate counterpoint … the audience came to be enfolded in the sometimes seraphic, sometimes hypnotically dense textures of this extraordinary music … the architectural expanses and expressive powers of Bach were mapped out in glorious fashion.” – Steven Wynn, San Francisco Classical Voice

Over the days that immediately followed, we went into recording sessions of that exciting repertoire. The recording space was the chapel at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, at the very top of Marin Avenue in Berkeley. It is a magnificent property on the western crest and border of Tilden Regional Park. The site’s extremely tall trees are incredible to behold, but during what was the worst wind storm in recent memory on Thursday, April 6th, the thunderous roar of 50+ miles per hour winds gusting through those trees was almost deafening and ultimately resulted in massive power outages, including at our recording location. So we lost an hour that night, but reconvened the following evening, with an emergency generator ready to get us through the final session. All ended splendidly, and you’ll be able to hear that recording when it is released commercially and on iTunes sometime next month, in June of this year.

A special event in Napa on the gorgeous Sunday afternoon of April 30th was offered to our major donors. Delicious wine, scrumptious delectables, and a splendid recital by ABS Academy alumnus Kyle Stegall, accompanied by Steven Bailey, were the high points. Kyle and Steve chose a program of works by Charles Ives, Robert Schumann, and Reynaldo Hahn. I must say (as a tenor in a previous life) that Kyle’s interpretations brought new discoveries to me. He is a most thoughtful and sincere artist with a beautiful voice, and Steve is simply one of the finest vocal accompanists (and solo pianists) that I know.

Our season drew to its close just a couple of weeks ago with Handel’s beautiful and imaginative La Resurrezione. Again, supported by our wonderful instrumentalists (with nearly 50% of them having come through the ABS Academy to become full members of ABS), a quintet of superb vocalists—Meg Bragle, Jesse Blumberg, Mary Wilson, Nola Richardson, and Kyle Stegall—rendered the oratorio to more rave reviews:

“Together with a quintet of fine singers, the orchestra was hitting on all cylinders, jumping on their cues with authority, and digging down to create a warm, full sound without sacrificing rhythmic vitality … if this orchestra is the shape of things to come, ABS fans must be overjoyed.” – Michael Zwiebach, San Francisco Classical Voice

“Exquisitely beautiful performance … beautifully captured both the sumptuousness and intimacy of Handel’s writing” – Joshua Kosman, SF Gate

The dramatic action of the work shifts back and forth from the tensions of the slowly passing hours of the day following the Crucifixion to a lively and quite humorous interaction of an Angel (sung by soprano Mary Wilson) and Lucifer (sung by baritone Jesse Blumberg). Those two characters battle out their differences, ultimately resulting in the triumph of the Angel and the sending down of Lucifer, for whom (in Handel’s hands) we feel a kind of empathy. This was part of Handel’s genius: He understood human nature so well that we often feel sorry for the most unsavory characters in his operas. This candid photo of Jesse and Mary comically expresses their characters’ relationship.

Jesse Blumberg (Lucifer) and Mary Wilson (Angel) “duke it out” back stage, rehearsing for their often comical interactions in Handel’s “La Resurrezione”

Altogether, it was, to me, a most glorious season. All of our artists bring such great joy to me and, I hope, to you, too.

Thank you for being with us for our 28th Season. Technically speaking, it’s not over yet! Our upcoming Summer Festival & Academy will bring, as always, a plentiful array of concerts, free master classes and lectures, and the excitement of meeting the newest and most promising young musicians who are dedicating their careers to the inclusion of thoughtful and expert performances of music from the Baroque.

Next year brings a season of absolute masterpieces by Bach, Handel, and Monteverdi. And that leads to our 30th season (2018-2019) which will feature “All-Bach” Subscription Concerts. How else could we celebrate such a milestone?

With sincere gratitude,
Jeffrey

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: kylestegall.com