The second in the 2017 series of American Bach Soloists Free Master Classes will take place next Monday on March 13th at 7:30 p.m. in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street at Van Ness.
We asked Steven Lehning about his experiences in master classes with talented young artists. Here’s what he told us:
What type of master class is this, and what music will you focus on?
- Students at the conservatory will be presenting arias from their March 11th performance of Handel’s Opera, Atalanta. I will be suggesting ideas about how to approach continuo playing for this music, with particular attention to the non-keyboard players: the cellos and double basses. There is a tremendous amount of historic material available to those who realize the figured basses (keyboards and lutes for example), but surprisingly little directed specifically to the string players who also make up the continuo ensemble.
What is your approach to this music?
- Baroque music is all about rhetoric. The classical rhetorical figures are easily discernible in the shapes of the composers’ melodies. Continuo playing clearly needs to support this, but how? I like to suggest that the bass players need to think about these things. For example: They must know and understand the texts and how they are set against the harmony and rhythm of the bass lines. If the music is based on a dance form, how (as bass line players) should we help define those specific characteristics? I ask them to consider music as a language and, as such, I would suggest to players that the continuo lines supply the grammatical structure without which the musical meaning is at its best vague and at its worst incomprehensible.
How has your approach changed over the years?
- Like just about everything in life, the more you live or work with something, the more there is to learn. When I first started thinking about my role as a bass player in Baroque music, it seemed to be enough to understand that my job was to support the music as if I were a solid foundation, a frame over which the “more interesting” parts could show their stuff. But the bass parts themselves were so interesting! . . . that alone couldn’t be all there was. I have been very lucky to have worked from the beginning with very talented singers. Instinctively, I learned the importance of understanding the text and that my playing could support or confuse it. I also was lucky early on to perform many Bach cantatas. Those bass lines so express the harmonic rhythm, and I realized that making that understandable, too, was extremely important. Over the years, I have tried more and more in my playing to synthesize all aspects of Baroque rhetoric as it is manifested in the music. It is something that continually is teaching me—if I ever feel I’m no longer learning something, that will be the time to quit.
What do you hope the participants will take away?
- It is always my goal in teaching and coaching to help students look to broader horizons in their performance practices. For bass players, that means understanding the tremendous impact on what and how they play has on those they accompany. It isn’t enough to play your part as it stands. There is a constant need look to the rhetoric of the entire work and to learn where and how their individual parts fit in to the whole. The impact of their playing greatly enriches the performance experience not only for themselves and their musical colleagues, but for the audiences they play for as well. I am convinced that in Baroque music, everything the composer wants to express is on the page, and hopefully I will be able to generate enough contagious enthusiasm in these young players that they leave the master class excited and with a new drive to look for those things in this great music and to integrate them in their performances. Someone once said of Historically Informed Performance Practice that a goal couldn’t be to play music from earlier periods the way that they did, but rather to play in such a way that if they were to hear it, they would at least recognize it!
What do you hope the audience will take away?
- Those who come to master classes as audience members do so for many reasons. Some of them are musicians themselves (students, professionals, and amateurs), some are friends and supporters of the participants, and some are there to support the educational institutions that present these classes. All, however, are curious and want to take away something that they didn’t know, or they are interested in learning new ways to think about this music. Just as I hope my enthusiasm for this music is contagious for the participants, so also do I hope this will be true for the audiences. I wrote above about music being a language. Hearing about some details players might think about when they work through the pieces they perform hopefully will inspire audience members to listen in a novel way and, with luck, deepen their own experience as listeners and supporters of the arts.
MONDAY MARCH 13th 2017 at 7:30 p.m.
at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music
50 Oak Street at Van Ness
READ MORE ABOUT STEVEN LEHNING
Steven Lehning (violone & contrabass) was attending Pacific Lutheran University as an undergraduate when he stumbled upon a used book store that had a nearly complete collection of the Bach-Gesellschaft edition of Bach Cantatas in mini-score; each for only a nickel! Finding these while taking a class in Lutheran theology set him on a trajectory that prepared him to eventually become one of the founding members of the American Bach Soloists.
A remarkable and versatile musician who is equally at home with violas da gamba, violones, contrabass, and historical keyboards, he has worked with many of the luminaries of the early music world including Jeffrey Thomas, John Butt, Andrew Parrott, and Ton Koopman. He has performed at the acclaimed Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, as well as the Early Music Festivals in Boston and Berkeley.
After finishing his undergraduate degree and while waiting to see what performances might come his way, he worked as an apprentice learning the art of French bread and pastry. Always curious about the entirety of the world in which the music he plays came from, he dove into many aspects of early music. In addition to performing with ABS, he is the Artistic Administrator, serves as librarian, and tunes harpsichords and organs for rehearsals and performances. On the scholarship side, he has pursued graduate studies in musicology at the University of California (Davis). Steve has recorded on the American Bach Soloists, Delos, EMI, Harmonia Mundi, and Koch Labels.