Up Next: Bach’s Hercules, February 21-24

Hercules at the Crossroads by Pompeo Batoni, 1748.

Hercules at the Crossroads
by Pompeo Batoni, 1748.

The 25th season celebration continues February 21-24 with “Bach’s Hercules,” an all-Bach program of favorite works chosen by ABS Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas. The program showcases the composer’s genius for creating masterpieces within different musical formats and settings—liturgical, intimate instrumental suite, and dramatic secular cantata.

“Bach’s Hercules” features three exquisite works by Bach: the Missa Brevis in G Major, the Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C Major, and his cantata about the mythic Hercules, Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen, which includes an opening chorus, arias, and duets that were later utilized in the “Christmas Oratorio.”

Elegantly streamlined, the Missa Brevis in G Major is one of Bach’s four “Little Masses” or settings of the Gloria and Kyrie portions of the Mass. Thomas will direct the esteemed American Bach Choir and four superb soloists: soprano Kathryn Mueller, countertenor Ian Howell, tenor Derek Chester, and baritone Jesse Blumberg. The Orchestral Suite (or Ouverture) in C Major is a tour de force for the ensemble’s two oboes and bassoon, which will be played by oboists Debra Nagy and Stephen Bard and bassoonist Dominic Teresi.

The vocal and instrumental forces take on altogether different roles in Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen, Bach’s 1733 Dramma per musica subtitled “Hercules at the Crossroads.” This morality tale depicts the famous Greek hero deciding between a virtuous path and one of indulgence. Composed to celebrate the 11th birthday of Friedrich Christian, the young heir to the Polish throne. Friedrich, who went on to rule Saxony with grace, diplomacy, and civility in a brief reign that lasted only 74 days (he died of smallpox in 1763), is praised for his wisdom and, by example, his musical gifts in Bach’s dramatic, near-operatic, cantata. Choosing to characterize the young prince, who as a boy suffered from poor physical health including paralysis in one foot, as a figure known for strength, valor, and cunning was a vote of confidence for the prince’s bright future.

Countertenor Ian Howell will portray the role of the conflicted Hercules. Well known to ABS audiences for his moving performances in Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral and his 2009 recording, 1685 and the Art of Ian Howell, Howell was also the Distinguished Artist of the 2012 ABS Festival.

As Vice and Virtue respectively, Kathryn Mueller and Derek Chester will do their best to sway Hercules like a devil or angel on either shoulder. As the god Mercury, baritone Jesse Blumberg will close the work with a final aria sung directly to Prince Friedrich and the audience.

Remember, all “Bach’s Hercules” concerts will be preceded by Pre-Concert Insights, a lecture about the program beginning one hour before the concert. The lecturer for these concerts will be violinist Robert Mealy. Also, don’t miss Ian Howell’s master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music one week before the concerts on Monday, February 17 at 7:30 pm.

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