Bach’s Birthday Celebration begins a little early

ABS kicked off the celebrations for Bach’s March 21 birthday a little early this year with a sold-out, all-Bach organ concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Friday night. At the organ bench, San Francisco Symphony organist and ABS co-founder Jonathan Dimmock delighted the capacity crowd with his expert playing and insightful remarks between works. He opened with the Prelude & “Wedge” Fugue in E Minor and held everyone spellbound for the next hour with Bach’s compositions for the “king of instruments”. Below are a few photos from the event.


Full house!

The magnificent tracker organ at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church.


Jonathan Dimmock takes a bow after performing the all-Bach organ recital.

Mr. Dimmock greets patrons in the lobby after the concert.

As a special treat, Mr. Dimmock gave an “organ crawl” demonstration of St. Mark’s instrument to a group of ABS supporters after the event.

ABS keeps the celebrations going with more Bach this spring and summer! From April 22-25, ABS presents Easter & Ascension Oratorios around the Bay Area and in Davis. Also, from August 5-14 The ABS Festival & Academy will include works by Bach, including the Mass in B Minor on August 7 at St. Mark’s and August 14 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. For More information about the Festival, visit

ABS performing Bach… buy your tickets today!

Joyous Bach! Easter & Ascension Oratorios, April 22-25


From April 22-25, ABS presents Easter & Ascension Oratorios, a program of glorious works that were composed for two important celebrations within the Lutheran calendar by J.S. Bach, Kuhnau, and Buxtehude. ABS will perform Kuhnau’s Ascension cantata Ihr Himmel jubiliert von oben (“Therefore rejoice, you heavens”), and also our namesake’s Lobet Gott in seine Reichen (“Praise God in his riches”), otherwise known as the “Ascension Oratorio.” Jeffrey Thomas will also conduct a magnificent assemblage of ABS artists–trumpets, timpani, oboes, recorders, flute, strings, voices, and continuo–in celebratory music for Easter, beginning with Buxtehude’s Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn (“Today God’s Son Triumphs”) and J.S. Bach’s Oster-Oratorium, or “Easter Oratorio.” Join us April 22-25 and let these radiant works uplift you!


A quartet of vocal soloists—recognized and applauded for their interpretive powers in Early Music, especially in the music of J.S. Bach—will join ABS for this celebratory program. Acclaimed for her “considerable coloristic resources” by the Philadelphia Inquirer, soprano Clara Rotttsolk is a frequent soloist with many of the nation’s leading Baroque ensembles. Last season, she appeared with ABS in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Countertenor Eric Jurenas has emerged as one of the leading young countertenors of his generation. Praised for his “beautiful, well-supported tone and compelling expression” by the New York Times, Jurenas is a former ABS Academy participant and featured soloist on the new ABS film, Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral. Paris-based tenor Zachary Wilder made a memorable ABS debut last season as Damon in Handel’s Acis and Galatea. Already represented on numerous acclaimed recordings of Baroque repertory, this young tenor was singled out by the Boston Globe for his “unearthly calm and authority.” Bass Joshua Copeland has appeared with ABS as a soloist and as Christus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Of Copeland, San Francisco Classical Voice admired “the restrained dignity of his consistently lyrical voice, which could serve as a role model for singing authentically.”

Tickets for Easter & Ascension Oratorios are available online at or by calling the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.


Jeffrey Thomas leads Free Public Master Class, April 4

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

Each season, ABS presents free public master classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where students work with an ABS musician on matters of technique, interpretation, and applying a historically informed approach to Baroque repertory. Mark your calendars now: On April 4, ABS music director Jeffrey Thomas will coach Conservatory students through selected works from the Baroque Era.

The co-founder of American Bach Soloists–leading the ensemble for more than 27 years–Thomas’s commitment to the next generation of musicians is exemplary. During the academic year, Thomas is the Barbara K. Jackson Chair in Choral Conducting at UC Davis where he conducts the University Chorus. As conductor of the ABS Festival & Academy, he also works with numerous ABS Academy participants each summer, mentoring these emerging professionals along their paths to major careers. Thomas also hosts two radio shows on Classical KDFC (“Sacred Concert” and “Baroque By the Bay”), which are heard weekly throughout the Bay Area and worldwide by listeners tuning in on the web.

Don’t miss this opportunity to witness Maestro Thomas work with some of the Conservatory’s finest musicians. All ABS master classes are open to the public, and will take place in the Conservatory’s Recital Hall at 7:30 pm. Admission is free and no tickets are required. For more information about ABS master classes and other educational outreach programs, please visit our website.

Bach Favorites, Countdown continues Part II

The “Bach Favorites” Countdown continues…

30) Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 1, Prelude and Fugue in Eb minor, BWV 853

Garrett Shatzer, ABS Development Director

Garrett Shatzer

“For a period of about three years starting in 2011, I sat at my piano nearly every day for an hour or so to play through selections from the Well Tempered Clavier. I am by no means a great pianist, but it still brought me great joy. And that’s all that matters, right? During that time, the one I returned to the most—and still return to the most—is Eb/D# minor from Book 1, BWV 853. And the most emotionally piercing recording of the piece I’ve heard is by Sviatoslav Richter, recorded in the 1970s. The fugue, in particular, with his bold use of the una corda pedal, still gets me every time.” – Garrett Shatzer, ABS Development Director

[Listen Here]

29) Sonatas and Partitas for Violin, BWV 1001-1006

“The J.S. Bach Sonatas and Partitas for violin are fun to play” – Joyce and Craig Copeland

28) Wir danken dir, Gott, BWV 29

27) Komm, Jesu, Komm, BWV 229

“The motets are gorgeous and this one seems designed to be sung in a venue with an echo. I’d love to hear the motets with a sound system that duplicates the Thomaskirche echo” – Douglas Shaker

26) Partita No. 3 for Violin in E Major, BWV 1006

“I feel as if the violinist is bowing across my body” – Julie Motz

“One can imagine Bach playing the chaconne to comfort himself after the death of his wife” – Douglas Shaker

25) Ich habe genug, BWV 82

“I love the integration of the oboe with the sentiment of the cantata” – Michael Greene

24)  Laß, Fürstin, laß noch einen Strahl (“Trauerode“), BWV 198

Derek Chester

Derek Chester

“Fantastic orchestration, fantastic choruses, and a fantastic tenor aria” – Derek Chester, ABS musician (tenor)

23)  Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32

22)  Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225

“Incredibly rich and varied choral masterpiece. The final movement makes me rise above the ground” – David Hanchette

21)  Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 1, Prelude in B Minor, BWV 869

“The tranquil grace of the Prelude. Grandeur and ingenuity of the long fugue, building on a simple and compelling theme. And all in Bach’s deepest key” – Dan Slobin

20)  Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 2, Prelude C# Major

Celeste Winant

Celeste Winant

“The treble line is wistful, the bass and tenor oddly heroic. I first heard it in the rain, alone, and It captured the mood perfectly” – Celeste Winant, ABS musician (alto)

19)  Das wohltemperierte Klavier (“Well Tempered Clavier”), Book 2, Prelude in F Major

“Of all the Preludes and Fugues for undefined keyboard, the F Major in Well Tempered Clavier II has the greatest combination of dreamy affect and seemingly effortless counterpoint. Followed by a sunny bright gigue like fugue. Most fun to play on any keyboard, including piano!” – Margaret Hasselman

18) St. John Passion, BWV 245

“So profound; the melodies make me cry” – Geerat Vermeij

17)  Concerto for Violin in E Major, BWV 1042

“The melodies are memorable but it’s the harmonies weaving through that transport me” – Lisa Jackson

16) St. Matthew Passion: Mache dich mein herze rein, BWV 244

Jeff McMillan

Jeff McMillan

“My favorite work by Bach is a bit of a moving target and the choice might fluctuate depending on when I am asked. One work that always touches me deeply is the aria “Mache dich mein herze rein” from St. Matthew Passion. The aria is so comforting and beautiful and, coming near the end of the intense Matthew Passion, provides a great feeling of satisfaction and resolution; like a reward for making the emotional journey. So, “Mache dich” is my favorite … especially when William Sharp sings it with ABS!” – Jeff McMillan, ABS Marketing & Communications Director

[Listen Here]

15) Suite No. 1 in G Major for Unaccompanied Cello, BWV 1007

“Does anybody need a reason?” – Peter Reid

14) Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140

“First played it on horn in the Ormandy transcription of the chorus. Recently, I began my survey of all of the cantatas with this work” – Kerry Ko

[Listen Here]

13) Wachet! Betet! Betet! Wachet!, BWV 70

12) Concerto for 2 Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1062 (arranged for harpsichord and violin)

“Because of the call and response” – Heather Findlay

11) The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

“The imaginative revisiting of the musical theme” – Steve Hopkins

“Especially Glenn Gould playing them. No matter how many times I hear these recordings, each is a new experience” – Mya Shone

[Listen Here]

Stay tuned for the conclusion of our countdown. [To read Part I, click here]

2016 Festival Tickets now on Sale



Tickets for the 7th annual American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy are now on sale. The 2016 Festival will include performances at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 5-14, 2016. Titled “An Italian Journey,” many of the concerts and lectures during the two-week event will explore the music and culture of Baroque Italy, a primary destination for eighteenth-century Europeans on The Grand Tour. Along with surveys of sacred and secular works from many of the finest composers who worked in Florence, Venice, and Rome during the era, the ABS Festival & Academy will present the North American premiere performances of Handel’s 1734 Serenata, Parnasso in festa, and also Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor.

Jeffrey Thomas conducting ABS. Photo: Brandon Labadie

Jeffrey Thomas conducting ABS. Photo: Brandon Labadie

The Festival opens on Friday, August 5, with Carmelite Vespers & Vivaldi’s Gloria. ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas conducts the period-instrument experts of ABS and the American Bach Choir in large-scale sacred works from Baroque Italy, featuring music by George Frideric Handel for the “Carmelite Vespers” services in Rome and Antonio Vivaldi’s works for the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. Handel’s tour-de-force Dixit Dominus and Vivaldi’s Gloria are but two highlights of an exciting program which will also feature soprano Mary Wilson singing Handel’s bravura setting of the motet, Saeviat tellus inter rigores.

The second night of the Festival, Postcards from The Grand Tour, will feature a collection of captivating works by Italian composers including Albinoni, Caldera, Frescobaldi, Vivaldi, and others, performed by the ABS Academy Faculty, an outstanding group of artists who are all world-wide leaders of the Early Music movement: Max van Egmond & William Sharp (baritones), Elizabeth Blumenstock & Robert Mealy (violins), William Skeen & Kenneth Slowik (violoncellos), Steven Lehning (contrabass), Debra Nagy (oboe & recorder), Sandra Miller (flute), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), and Corey Jamason (harpsichord)..

As with past summers, Thomas will lead the ABS Festival Orchestra and American Bach Choir in performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on each Festival Sunday. A beloved tradition, the annual performances of this pinnacle work of the repertory are always a festival highlight and sell out early. This year, you can take advantage of the opportunity to hear the work performed at both St. Mark’s Lutheran Church and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music!

Mount Parnassus by Edward Dodwell. Bibliothèque de nationale de France

Mount Parnassus by Edward Dodwell, 1821. Bibliothèque de nationale de France

On August 11 & 12, Thomas leads the ABS Festival Orchestra and American Bach Choir in the North American premiere performances of Handel’s Parnasso in festa. The composer’s rarely performed 1734 Serenata is set on the slopes of Mount Parnassus where Apollo and the nine muses oversee the marriage of the mortal Peleus and the divine Thetis, parents of the legendary hero, Achilles. Visiting familiar themes from Greek mythology—Apollo’s pursuit of the nymph Daphne, Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld, and Peleus’ taming of the shape shifting goddess—Handel realizes the characters and their dramatic situations with vivid specificity. Admired in Handel’s day for its musical variety, the work fell from the repertory after the composer’s death. Since 1971, Parnasso in festa has been presented occasionally in England and Germany, but the ABS Festival & Academy performances under the baton of Jeffrey Thomas will be the first outside of Europe, joining the list of significant ABS Festival premieres, such as Biber’s Missa Salisburgensis in 2013 and Marais’ opera Sémélé in 2015. The work will be performed in Italian and will feature instrumental and vocal soloists from the ABS Academy

Robert Mealy, Elizabeth Blumenstock (violins), Corey Jamason (harpsichord), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Debra Nagy (oboe). Photo: Brandon Labadie

Robert Mealy, Elizabeth Blumenstock (violins), Corey Jamason (harpsichord), Dominic Teresi (bassoon), Debra Nagy (oboe). Photo: Brandon Labadie

On August 13, Virtuosi of Venice & Rome will have the period-instrument specialists of ABS taking center stage for a thrilling exploration of Italian concertos that were composed for especially virtuoso players and orchestras. Some of America’s greatest virtuosi of the Baroque repertory will perform works for a variety of instrumental combinations by Vivaldi, Corelli, and Geminiani. As an added attraction, the string players of the ABS Academy will join the ABS orchestra on stage to perform Concerti Grossi by Corelli and Geminiani with the enormous—and rarely heard—forces used by those composers in their day.

The participants of the 2016 ABS Academy will also be featured in a free, three-part Academy-in-Action “Baroque Marathon” featuring favorite works and lesser known gems from the Baroque. Engaging with the theme of the Festival, the sessions of the “Baroque Marathon” will feature works by Italian composers along with compositions by J.S. Bach and others.

A host of free lectures, master classes, and a public colloquium complement the evening concerts during the two-week long Festival, allowing for the immersive experience of music, learning, and inspiration that have made the ABS Festival & Academy a highlight of the Bay Area’s summer musical calendar. Single tickets for each concert are available, order five events and receive 15% off each ticket.


For more information, visit our festival website or call the ABS office at {415) 621-7900.

The “Bach Favorites” votes are in! Countdown to #1

Johann Sebastian Bach by Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach

The election results for the “Bach Favorites” list are in! ABS audience members, along with ABS musicians and staff, cast their votes in January and February for their favorite works by J.S. Bach. To celebrate “Early Music Month”, we begin our countdown of these favorites below, providing along the way some of the comments of what people love about the music. Many could not narrow down their choice to just one Favorite. We received several responses stating “all of them!” One such respondent was ABS contrabass player and Music Administrator, Steven Lehning:

Steven Lehning

Steven Lehning

“I have the great fortune to have played a tremendous number of works by J.S. Bach. I am also lucky enough to play both a bowed string instrument and keyboards, so I have been able to explore many more works than if I only played one. That being said, I have yet to play well over half of Bach’s music (and we know that much has been lost throughout the centuries).  Each time I play something I haven’t before (even if it is a work I have heard numerous times) I learn something new and have a renewed appreciation for his genius. Of course I am repeatedly drawn to some works more often that others (the ‘Cello Suites, the Mass in B Minor, etc), but until I have been able to play everything, I think it would be unfair to pick my own particular favorite at this time.” – Steven Lehning, ABS musician (violone/contrabass)

With the composer’s vast and inspiring catalog of works to choose from, some top vote-getters emerged in the counting of the “Bach Favorites.” So, without further ado … Let the countdown begin!

46) Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben: Jesus bleibet meine Freude (“Jesus Joy of Man’s desiring”), BWV 147

45) Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd: Schafe können sicher weiden (“Sheep May Safely Graze”), BWV 208

“A deep and meaningful expression by an inspired genius” – Jan Stevens

44) Concerto in G Minor for Oboe, Strings, and Continuo, BWV 1056r

43) Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 4

42) Toccata & Fugue arranged for solo violin by Tatiana Chulochnikova

41) Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, BWV 1047

“The greatest challenge for a trumpeter” – John Thiessen, ABS musician (trumpet)

40) Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, BWV 1043

39) Ermuntre dich, mein schwacher Geist, BWV 454

“I love the chorale and the different ways it is set. The tenor aria dances. The soprano soars” – George Wright

38) French Suites, BWV 812-817

“Especially as played by Angela Hewitt. I want to dance all the forms, chaconne, gavotte, minuet, etc.” – Dan Chow

[Listen Here]

37) Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106

“One of the first Bach cantatas I sang” – William Langley

36) An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653b


Don Scott Carpenter

“As an organist myself, it’s almost impossible to pick my favorite piece, but if I had to, it would be “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” BWV 653b in five voices for two manuals and double pedal. It is probably the hardest piece that he wrote for the organ, but it’s simple elegance makes it so beautiful. My favorite recording is by my teacher’s teacher, the blind German organist Helmut Walcha from his complete recording of the Bach organ works released on Archiv Recordings.” – Don Scott Carpenter, ABS Executive Director

[Listen Here]

35) Musikalisches Opfer (“Musical Offering”): Ricercar à 6

34) Italian Concert, BWV 971

33) Partita No. 2 for Violin in D Minor, BWV 1004

“The chaconne!” – Bill Stewart

32) Christen, ätzet diesen Tag, BWV 63

31) Motets for Double Choir, BWV 225-230

“The choral delicacy and fervent feeling; the way Bach builds on motifs to something grand” – Julie Monson

The list continues with Part II.

A Millennium in 50 Years: The Discovery of Early Music – A lecture by Robert Commanday

CommandayDuring the 2012 ABS Festival & Academy, celebrated music critic, conductor, and founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, Robert Commanday (1922-2015) presented a memorable lecture about the history of the early music movement. His illuminating chronicle, which is both essential reading and a great example of Commanday’s superb scholarships and gift for storytelling, is below. Special thanks to Bruce Lamott of Philharmonia Baroque who prepared the transcript.


Robert Commanday

A lecture presented at the American Bach Soloists Festival & Academy, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, July 21, 2012

An obvious advantage of longevity is getting to see how things come out. Which is not always great, I’ll admit. But for me it’s been something of a wonder in the course of my century, less one decade, to wonder at the passage from a crystal radio—not even tubes—to the electronic and internet revolution, from horse-drawn milk and ice-vending wagons to supersonic flight. My godson at Lockheed serves on a team that has developed a vehicle that travels 400 times the speed of sound, and can reach anywhere in the world in one hour. Who can imagine what that will lead to?

This week I read in the New York Times that enough Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA had been accumulated that if anyone were sick, rich, and crazy enough—and there are plenty of those in the one percent—such an ancient being, theoretically, might be cloned. Well then, what about cloning an 18th century musician or patron? Then we would have a really authentic response to a “authentic” performance today and know what we are talking about.

It is fascinating to ponder the “why and how” of the Early Music Revival. It’s a question of viewing consequences, both anticipated and unexpected. Who would have thought that a 1958 performance of a Medieval mystery play at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park in Manhattan’s Washington Heights would launch what we regard as the Early Music Revival in America? Or that a French violinist attending the Paris Conservatoire in 1897 to study with Vieuxtemps would become the Thomas Edison of the Early Music Revival here and abroad? Or that a Polish pianist-turned-harpsichordist would become both trigger, the linchpin, and first American celebrity of a movement that was far-off when Wanda Landowska made her initial impact in Paris in the early 1930s and still distant when she landed in New York, a refugee, on the day that shattered America: December 7, 1941?

Or that a technological—really an industrial—advance, Columbia Records’ perfection and introduction of the Long Play vinyl record, would fundamentally change the listening habits of a nation and begin a revolutionary shift in music repertoire until it embraced all styles and ages, all countries and cultures?

But there were other than salubrious consequences of the growth and flowering of this revival of Early Music in America. There was the antipathy of traditional musicians defending their turf against period instrument performers. Besides that, even within this small, big-city-confined new Early Music world, came the tension between the Puritans and the Romanticists, between the strict constructionists and those guided partly by instinct and more directly received musical experience. Eventually it was the Authenticists against the Historically Informed.

But has this renewal of Early Music all happened in the last fifty years? Not really. Was contact with pre-classical music lost for a century and a half and suddenly rediscovered in a mid-20th century renaissance? Not at all, as we know.

The True Believers’ Revival

Europe and not even the New World had lost complete contact with the heritage of music before the Classical era. There was some continuity in the 19th century before the crescendo of interest in the early decades of the 20th and the beginning of the Revival (or the True Believers’ Revival) that began developing a decade or two after World War II. The how and why of that is fascinating and will concern us today, before we get into the tensions that fired up the Early Musickers and how they grew, and then to the arrival at the mature flowering where we sit today.

In the slightly more than a century between the discovery to Mozart of Bach and Handel by his fellow Freemason Baron van Swieten, there were significant performances and commitments to Early Music. Whether we start with the publishing of Forkel’s Bach biography in 1802, or the founding in 1815 of the Handel and Haydn Society in Boston, or Mendelssohn’s 1829 St. Matthew Passion performed by 158 singers—in a version that was less than one-third of the complete work and that employed a contemporary, that is modern orchestra and piano, with tempos and dynamics very much revised—there was action in France, Germany, and especially England all along.

The Role of Musicology

Besides the occasional performances of the B Minor Mass and performances of sacred polyphony of the 16th century in some major churches, there was the publication of the Bach Gesellschaft edition between 1850 and 1900. By the time that undertaking was finished, the complete works of Handel, Rameau, Palestrina, Buxtehude, Corelli, Schütz, Purcell, and Sweelinck had been issued. This was the emergence of historical musicology with such leaders as Philipp Spitta, Otto Jahn, and Friedrich Chrysander, whose term Musikwissenschaft (in English, musicology) gave the field its name. It would be tempting to think that those giants of Musikwissenschaft (sounds like the Ring cycle, doesn’t it?) followed by the flood of musicologists escaping Nazi Europe (Nibelungen?) to take up professorships here were importantly if not chiefly responsible for the resurgence.

Not true. It was not the scholars—the musicologists, who led the way. Quite to the contrary, it was the performers, drawing to be sure, on the learning and discoveries of the musicologists, but not inspired by them. This is surprising, given the presence and strength in the music departments of American universities of the leading musicologists of the age, who fled here. A partial list is imposing: Willi Apel, Manfred Bukofzer, Hans T. David, Alfred Einstein, Otto Gombosi, Paul Henry Lang, Gustave Reese, Curt Sachs, Leo Schrade, Edward Lowinsky, Karl Geiringer, and Hans Tischler. Their publications were seminal and in universal use: Gustav Reese’s Music in the Middle Ages, Manfred Bukofzer’s Music in the Baroque Era, and the Harvard Anthology of Music by Apel and Davidson, Alfred Einstein’s Mozart, and so on. BUT, those musicologists were scholars, not performance activists.

The musicologists’ shortfall of not going beyond gathering the facts has been explained by a slightly younger and British-born American descendant of that group. The late Joseph Kerman described this attitude or point of view as “Positivism.”

Historians (in the 19th century) set to work to ascertain all the facts they could. The result was a vast increase of detailed historical knowledge based to an unprecedented degree on accurate and critical examination of evidence. This was the age which enriched history by the compilation of vast masses of carefully sifted material … But all through this period there was a certain uneasiness about the ultimate purpose of this detailed research. It had been undertaken in obedience to the spirit of positivism according to which the ascertaining of facts was only the first stage of a process whose second stage was the discovery of laws.

Early Music Performance in Academia

Thus the landmarks of musicology produced by the older generation were monuments of information but very light on interpretation or discussion of what this music sounded like and if any of it was artistically better than any of the rest. This carried over into the teaching by musicologists. Universities with academic departments of music taught courses about performance practice not in performance practice. By and large, Early Music ensembles weren’t organized and coached significantly, not the way the ethnomusicologists in today’s academic departments are creating and coaching gamelan and other performance ensembles for various ethnic cultures. Typically, musicologists taught courses about performance practice, about the ornamentation, notation and the like, do with it what you may.

Indeed courses in early music style did equip and stimulate some who became performers with a scholarship that informed their performance. Stanford, for example, had Putnam Aldrich, the eminent harpsichordist teaching there, and George Houle, oboist and recorder player, trained and led early music ensembles. UC Berkeley had courses about performance practice and one professor who became a major player, Alan Curtis, harpsichordist. Significantly, he retired very early from the University to become a distinguished Baroque opera conductor, mostly in Europe. To be fair, there were collaborations between a musicologist and a performer or performing group, the scholar assuming the role something like that of the Dramaturg in theatre and opera companies.

I never heard of an assignment in a performance practice course that would ask students to take a movement or complete work by say, Telemann or Vivaldi, from a microfilm of a manuscript or an edition from the composer’s time and make a studied modern edition, complete with suggested markings for nuances, articulation and tempos, defended in footnotes. That would have made real sense and stimulated the students to get on with it and realize their editions in live performances.

Fortunately, there were some genuine scholar-performers who were stimulated by the early music activity early in the twentieth century, mostly in England. They were the ones who laid a constructive basis and guide not only for those “Performance Practice” courses in the universities, but led the way in their time, for the movement to follow there in England and later in America.

The English Revival

The leading early music activity in the first decades of the twentieth century was in England. Charles Kennedy Scott and Thomas Beecham formed the Oriana Medieval Society in 1904. Edmund Fellowes produced his English Madrigal Series, known to every madrigal singer that ever uttered a fa-la-la since then. During the first two decades of the twentieth century, the music of Elizabethan composers was widely sung in Britain.

Those who must be mentioned are: Thurston Dart, at Cambridge, eminent player of harpsichord, clavichord and organ, conductor, and music educator, who wrote The Interpretation of Music, 1954; Robert Donington, author of the seminal Interpretation of Early Music in 1963; Denis Stevens, producer for the BBC Third Programme of the early 1950s, a major influence. Later in 1965 there was David Munrow who blew into the British world with his Early Music Consort, not, as Nicholas Kenyon wrote as “authentic performance,” “but because they made music with such conviction and enthusiasm, because their concerts were skillfully programmed, well-prepared, professionally organized, and animated by Munrow’s unique personal skills.”

Arnold Dolmetsch, Father of the Movement

What we see here is a movement initiated and fired by performers with information and scholarship provided by the musicologists to be sure, but with performers to the fore. To go back, the one person who has to be named Father of the Movement is Arnold Dolmetsch. In 1879, this French violinist, after attending a concert of Renaissance and Baroque instruments at the Paris Conservatoire, went out and bought a viola d’amore, restored it, and began acquiring other historical instruments. That one event was the launching point of the revival, the Big Bang. In 1896, he built a harpsichord and then went on to build clavichords, spinets, lutes, viols, fortepianos, harps, rebecs, baroque violins and vihuelas. And of course, he was famous for his recorders that he began producing in the 1920s.

Whereas most interested in early instruments at the time were antiquarians, collectors, and scholars, Dolmetsch was a performer, and that made the difference. He was taken up by—of all people—William Morris, heart and soul of the Arts and Crafts movement. Morris persuaded Dolmetsch to build his first harpsichord for the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society show in 1896. George Bernard Shaw wrote that Dolmetsch’s first clavichord might have as much effect in domestic music-making as William Morris’ work was having on furniture and décor. Other admiring purchasers of his instruments included the great actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell, poet William Butler Yeats, and James Joyce.

While most of Dolmetsch’s career was in England, in 1903 he came to America, and made his debut with the American Symphony Orchestra, his current wife playing harpsichord and his future wife on gamba. We’re really talking about a man ahead of his time. Remaining in the United States, he signed a contract with Chickering, the piano company, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, made 75 harpsichords, virginals, spinets, clavichords, viols, and lutes. Lastingly, and perhaps even more important than his personal achievements which included the first modern book to provide a comprehensive of Baroque performance practice, he was a teacher. As Howard Mayer Brown wrote in 1998, “Even today almost everyone involved in Early Music in England has been touched in some way by Dolmetsch, by his students [who included Robert Donington, by the way], or by his students’ students.” He was a force majeure.

Wanda Landowska, Force of Nature

Wanda Landowska on the other hand, was a force of nature. She was a “showman,” making an entrance like a diva, but withal brought attention to the harpsichord as none before her in modern times. Laurette Goldberg’s description is choice: “Landowska used to pad out on the stage with these flat, black shoes, and this black dress, and her kind of gaunt, very strong-featured face and her hair back in a bun, she looked as if she were praying. She used to say, ‘You play Bach your way, and I’ll play it his way.’”

One heavy-handed account of Landowska’s playing was that it was like a bucket of bolts. A more measured description is that “Landowska’s approach is what pianists do when they play harpsichord, touch heavy, ornaments played without spontaneity, as if printed in bold print in the score, not organic to the piece. It had the didactic exaggeration of someone educating her listeners.”

She had the Pleyel firm build a harpsichord for her that could serve a modern concert hall, a big one with an iron frame. In 1933 in her villa in France, she gave the first harpsichord performance of the Goldberg Variations in modern times. Playing the range of Baroque keyboard repertoire, Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti to Couperin and Rameau, her presence and success launched the debate of the relative merits of performance of that repertoire on piano or on harpsichord. Her instruments were far from historical in design and that mattered to her not at all. She played with major orchestra, toured, recorded, and at the school she established, taught the students who came to her from all over the world. Her students included Alice Ehlers, Ralph Kirkpatrick, and Clifford Curzon. And as a performer, she was a star. She has been called the first Early Music superstar.

Landowska first arrived in the United States in 1923 with four harpsichords. She made her Carnegie Hall debut with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, playing a Handel concerto and, unaccompanied, Bach’s Italian Concerto in one concert. A dozen years later, a generation of American harpsichordists had appeared, the best known of whom were Putnam Aldrich, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Sylvia Marlowe, Alice Ehlers, and Yella Pessl. When she returned to America in 1941 because of the war, she was a huge success.

Early Music in the New World

Meanwhile, in the New World—and Early Music-wise it certainly was the new world—there had been a thread of Baroque performances through the 19th century, employing large choral forces and conventional symphonic orchestras. There were the Bach Festivals, from the Bethlehem, founded in 1888, the Baldwin-Wallace in Ohio, founded in 1932, and the Carmel Bach Festival in 1935. There was a whole succession of choral societies, the majority in New York, popular and well-supported. Most of their Bach and Handel performances were Romantically interpreted, using piano for recits and with simplified orchestral parts.

Things changed in the years following World War II, there were two sharply divided approaches in the making of music from before the Classical period. One was the continuance of the traditional 19th century aesthetic, performing according to the spirit or feeling of the music, using instruments of the modern symphony orchestra and the piano and applying interpretive criteria directly inherited from the 19th century. This ranged from leading solo artists like Pablo Casals performing Bach’s solo suites for the cello, and Andres Segovia performing lute repertoire on the guitar, to the major symphonic conductors such as Serge Koussevitzky and Wilhelm Furtwängler conducting Bach’s B Minor Mass, or Thomas Beecham conducting Messiah. On the most extreme end stood Stokowski with his Technicolor transcriptions of Bach, and close on his heels, Eugene Ormandy playing Bach with all the richness of tone and depth of expressive nuances the Philadelphia Orchestra could produce.

Anti-Romanticism and the Middle Ground

On the other side was the anti-Romantic reaction which was linked in new music to the Modern style and Neo-Classicism. It was led most importantly by Stravinsky but included Hindemith, Milhaud, and on the performing end, by Toscanini, who famously believed in hewing to the letter of the score, come è scritto, and by others who insisted on objectivity, an impersonal style, utter neutrality. Modern style applied to Early Music performances then has been described as “polite bloodlessness,” trying to use scholarship and to adapt modern instruments and contemporary vocal practice to demands of earlier music. It was a reaction against 19th century sentimentality, against post-romanticism.

Footnote: We use the term “modern” instruments too loosely, for in fact, most of the instruments in common use today have been in use since 1820 or 30, give or take changes in the fingering systems and other alterations that improved tone quality. The Tourte bow used in modern orchestras, came into use from around 1790. While some older orchestras in Mozart’s and Haydn’s day may still have been using Baroque instruments, modern performances of their music with the Tourte bow would not be historically incorrect.

Happily, there was a middle ground between the traditional or Romantic interpreters and the puritan. It was inhabited by conductors like Ernest Ansermet, and especially those who led symphonic instrument chamber orchestras, like Paul Sacher in Basel, Boyd Neel in England, Adolf Busch in America, Raymond Leppard in England, and Sandor Salgo with the Carmel Bach Festival. They inspirited their performances of Early Music with contained and personal expression that was both convincing and respectful of the style and balances.

Impediments and Inertia

Even so, none of that was what we call “historically informed.” It all continued the Romantic tradition. You can’t imagine how narrow the Early Music world was from the end of World War II, 1945 to 1955. Aside from a rare harpsichord recital, there was no performing on period instruments. I was a serious flutist but stymied by the paucity of chamber and solo music available for the flute. Precious little of it was published in performing editions or was even played on the programs of the New York Flute Club. You’ve heard of Sleepless in Seattle? I was clueless in Yonkers.

It was a big problem in 1946 to find the music to perform from. Not much was published, and of that, only the narrowest selection. So the problem boiled down to the simple mechanical one of duplicating the music. It could be found in scholarly editions but was not available in modern, printed performing editions. Photocopying didn’t come in until 1959. The only copying processes available were the mimeograph machine for which cutting a music stencil was one big, laborious painstaking pain or the spirit duplicator (or Ditto Machine) which was not satisfactory. In short, the process of making your own performance parts or scores by copying music out of the monuments was a major deterrent.

Several factors combined to overcome such impediments and inertia. There was the emergence of a large body of musicians representing the two generations who had been bottled up for four years by the war. We were looking for outlets and careers. That released a lot of energy. Another factor was the competition in a music publishing industry needing new products. The music public, wanting a wider and more varied repertory, was particularly attracted to earlier music because of its resistance to modern music, the widespread disaffection with or slow acceptance of new-composed music in modern styles. Talk about conservatism in 1946; as late as that, when I was in Juilliard, I heard complaints about the modernism of Debussy!

Advances in Sound Recording

The fourth and clinching factor to bring on pre-classical music in the 1950s was the appearance of the LP record. The entire record industry adopted it soon after Columbia Records in 1948 introduced the LP or Long Play record now popularly called vinyl records. Compared with five minutes per side for the 78 rpm shellac records, one side of a 12-inch vinyl playing at 331/3 revolutions per minute played for 20 minutes, and after 1952, on Columbia’s extended-play LPs, played for 26 minutes.

That transformed listening, record collecting and repertoire. Columbia Records, directed by Goddard Lieberson (father of the composer Peter Lieberson) was joined by Vanguard and other companies in re-recording their catalogs and venturing into the new Early Music – primarily Baroque. That led to the hi-fi era driven by advances in technology and the manufacturing and marketing of turntables, radio tuners, preamplifiers, power amplifiers and loudspeakers – systems. The word stereo” replaced the term “hi-fi” when the Westrex single-groove stereophonic record cutterhead took over the field in the late 1950s and early 60s.

Reel-to-reel magnetic tapes were introduced in 1948 and went into wide use. Compact cassettes were introduced by Philips in 1963. Pre-recorded reel-to-reel recordings were important from 1960 to 1984. Towards the end of the 1980s, digital audio tape recording techniques led to the current-day use of Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes and CDs, but by then Early Music was pretty well revived.

All during this period, from the 1950s on, FM took over and its radio stations—many of which specialized in playing classical music—were dominant. FM acquired the capacity to be stereo in 1961. In a word, the Hi-Fi Era and the revival of Early Music did not just co-exist. One fed on the other. It was a symbiotic relationship.

New York Pro Musica and the Period Instrument Parade

One other major factor led to the rapid growth of the Early Music movement. Let me ask a question. How many oboists do you imagine graduated from America’s ten leading conservatories and schools of music in any one year in the 1950s or 1960s? Pick a year. And in that year, how many playing jobs would be waiting for those newly minted musicians? Or bassoonists, or hornists, or whatever? From the ranks of these eager, gifted, trained, unemployed, young musicians came leaders who formed performing ensembles including a number of Early Music groups. Many of these musicians turned to period instruments and acquired the requisite specialized skills and art.

At a critical point came the period instrument parade, and that changed a lot. It had been going on for quite a while in England, and there was some individual period instrument activity in America. An event at the Cloisters uptown in Fort Tryon Park, Washington Heights, in Manhattan made a deep and lasting impact. Noah Greenberg, a choral conductor had founded the New York Pro Musica Antiqua in 1952. Among its six singers was one Russell Oberlin, then 29, and a rare bird—almost a curiosity—an American countertenor. Of course, American music lovers who had been paying attention, knew the pioneering countertenor singing of Alfred Deller, from England. But Oberlin was still almost unique. Of Greenberg’s five instrumentalists, one of them was Bernard Krainis whom Greenberg had persuaded to take up the recorder, which he did and pursued masterfully ever after. Greenberg gave a viola da gamba to Seymour Barab, a cellist, and that was another conversion.

On January 2, 1958, the NYPMA performed The Play of Daniel, a musical dramatization of the tale of Daniel and Belshazzar, last performed 700 years earlier in the twelfth century, in Beauvais, France. It wasn’t even close to what later Early Musickers were presumptuous enough to call “authentic.” It was a 1958 historical staging, a reenactment in costume. If the period instruments were appropriate and if the music itself was a reasonably reliable rendering of the manuscript, it was still a modern pageant. The poet W.H. Auden had written the text and narrated it himself. But if only historically-flavored, it was a landmark and made an impact on the musical scene.

Early Music in the Bay Area: the Amsterdam Mafia

Gradually but steadily, over the next fifty years, we have seen or rather heard the full range of Early Music—Baroque, Renaissance, Medieval—take its place in our concert halls, the varied subtleties of style in the repertoire, recognized and observed. The turning point came in the 1960s. And somehow it came here to the Bay Area, specifically Berkeley, and began flowering at least as richly as anywhere in the country. The masters came. Laurette Goldberg’s oral history at the Bancroft Library is still the best record of the movement here.

In 1964, Ralph Kirkpatrick came and taught for six weeks. He was ill-tempered. We called him “the ill-tempered cavalier.” He was a very nasty man, a misanthrope, really. He hated women. He would also get into these incredible fights.

But she described his editions, of the Goldberg Variations in 1934, and later, the Scarlatti sonatas, as the best.

Alan Curtis brought the whole Amsterdam Mafia to this country. He brought Sigiswald, Barthold, and Weiland Kuijken, he brought Gustav Leonhardt to this country, he brought Frans Brueggen and Anner Bylsma to this country, and the Concentus Musicus, which means he brought them to Cal. Alan was the single most important factor in helping me to shape this community.

Alan was from the first generation of the Amsterdam Mafia. People came from all over the world to study with Leonhardt. Everybody worked with Leonhardt, Frans, Anner, and the Kuijkens. Leonhardt was teaching people on their various instruments how to approach the music.

Leonhardt, who died in January of this year [16 January 2012] at the age of 83, was the most influential performer and teacher in Early Music of the past 40 years. There is hardly a major person in the field who was not touched and informed fundamentally by Leonhardt.

San Francisco Early Music Society

The late seventies saw the growth of Early Music in the Bay Area. In 1974, with Laurette at the harpsichord, the Elizabethan Trio began its recitals, where the late great Early Music soprano Judith Nelson’s career started, with Rella Lossy doing dramatic narrative. Participating with them was the late Bruce Haynes of Berkeley, who would become a foremost recorder and early oboe or hautboy player and musicologist. Then came, in 1975, the founding of the San Francisco Early Music Society, which has performed its services of inestimable importance ever since.

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

In 1977, Laurette corralled a faculty of period instrument players for the Cazadero Baroque Music Camp, which grew in one year from 70 to 150 participants. It was there, from that faculty, that the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra was born. It didn’t actually happen until three years later, stimulated by a comment to Laurette by Frans Brueggen, here to conduct the San Francisco Symphony. He said, “It’s time for us to take our music out of the salons and put it in concert halls, and the only way it’s going to get there, because the repertoire requires a larger space [is to create a Baroque orchestra].” A board was assembled and orchestra of the performers resident and active right here was assembled. The debut was in 1981, and it performed here and on tour for four years variously with no conductor or under guests, until Nicholas McGegan was appointed music director. The rest, as they say, is history: the Philharmonia Baroque.

Berkeley Festival and Exhibition

Several individuals played leading roles in the growth and flourishing of the Early Music movement in the Bay Area. One was John Phillips, who is still an active leader as president of the San Francisco Early Music Society. A graduate student at Cal, he started building harpsichords under the aegis of Mark Kroll, and became famous as a master builder himself. Another was the late Joseph Spencer, founder of The Musical Offering record shop/café in Berkeley and a pillar of the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition. As you all are aware, we’ve been blessed with the biennial Berkeley Festival and Exhibition, eleven of them since 1990, thanks to UC’s Cal Performances and its director until last year, Bob Cole, and the San Francisco Early Music Society. The festival given in the even-numbered years, alternates with the one in Boston in the odd-numbered years, offering dozens of concerts, lectures, symposia, master classes, period instrument demonstrations and now, a battery of fringe events. But you know all that. It’s additional testimony to the Bay Area’s leadership in the music current known as Early Music.

Ensembles have emerged of every type and combination suited to, tailored for the studied differences between periods in those past eras, and between the composers. Musicians have become not merely proficient but virtuosic in their specialties performing on particular period instruments. To try to trace the Early Music ensembles—instrumental and vocal—that emerged in the next 54 years, or to follow the release of recordings and the torrent of CDs would take us well into next month, and I’ll spare you that. Besides you already are well aware of it or you wouldn’t be here.

The Question of Authenticity

More interesting are the issues and tensions that developed among the performers, their attitudes, or if you will, performing philosophies. A major dust-up turns on the term “authentic” or the claim of “authenticity.” Several, including Richard Taruskin and Joseph Kerman dismiss it as a marketing term comparable to the label “organic” slapped on produce. Taruskin goes all out in his Text and Act: Essays on Music Performance, quoting Lionel Trilling from his book, Sincerity and Authenticity, “Authenticity is a word of ominous import … part of the moral slang of our day [which] points to the peculiar nature of our fallen condition, our anxiety over the credibility of existence and of individual existences.”

For me, first and foremost it boils down to context. Obviously, both the performers and listeners in whatever period is under consideration, were very different creatures from us, not immersed from childhood in music from at least five centuries, not having it in their ears for much of their waking lives. Their minds worked differently, unprocessed and untrained by electronic media. Their very sense of time, not to say what they perceived as expressive, was worlds different. The musicians, say of the Baroque era, reached a level of virtuosity both of technique and creative improvisational capacity that might well have challenged the best we can offer. We have no reason to doubt that. So it is impossible to time-travel back in a performance authentically.

In a book of six essays, a 1988 symposium edited by Nicholas Kenyon entitled Authenticity and Early Music, the matter is brilliantly discussed. One strong conclusion was that whatever scholarly authority and historical study informed the Nikolaus Harnoncourt recording of the B Minor Mass in 1968 with his Concentus Musicus of Vienna, boys’ voices, period instruments, etc., which had a huge controversial impact, and whatever the unmatched influence of Gustav Leonhardt’s harpsichord playing or Frans Brueggen’s recorder playing, it was their being “convincing on their own terms,” as Kenyon puts it. “It was the strong sense of personal conviction that carries the listener, not the historical import, whatever that might be.” And Leonhardt is quoted, “If one strives only to be authentic, it will never be convincing. If one is convincing, what is offered will leave an authentic impression.” Authority is probably a more authentic description of the desired quality of performance.

There is no question that the use of period instruments creates a great measure of the historically appropriate (perhaps a better term than “authentic”) sound of an Early Music performance. The last word in the Symposium chosen by Nicholas Kenyon is Philip Brett’s, “When a strong intuitive feeling for the music can again be reflected without self-consciousness, then the Early Music movement will have achieved maturity, and authenticity will no longer be an issue.”

In his stimulating book filled with brilliant insights and copious audio samples, The End of Early Music, the eminent recorder and hautboy player, the late Bruce Haynes discusses the different versions of period style that developed during the twentieth century. He describes the effect of anti-Romanticism and the “austere, explicitly anti-sentimental style pursued by Toscanini, Szell, Scherchen, Reiner, Schnabel, Serkin, Gould, Szigeti, and Heifetz,” the Modern Style that became the mode of the 1930s in reaction to Romanticism. Described as the prudish equivalent of “political correctness,” “it incorporated unyielding tempo, literalness in dotting and with other rhythmic detail, dissonances left unstressed, the opposite of the Romantic in being light, impersonal, mechanical, literal, correct, deliberate, consistent, metronomic, and regular.” Whew! Quite a negative catalogue.

Taruskin, in his writings, takes on this “straight style” or “authentistic performance” and its emotional detachment, the predictability resulting from performers’ compliance to rules on tempos and phrasings taken “off the rack.” He attacks “text fetishism,” writing that “obsession with correct texts seems directly connected to the Romantic cult of genius personality,” and of course is linked to the musicologists’ positivism.

Changes in Interpretive Attitude

Major changes have evolved in interpretive attitude over the course of the past half-century. Initially, Haynes and others argue, the Modern style dominant in the performance of symphonic and traditional or post-classical music, dominated Early Music interpretation. In 2001, Dorottya Fabian, writing on “The Meaning of Authenticity and the Early Music Movement,” described the effect of recordings of the Brandenburg Concertos made in the 1950s and 1960s as:

to strive for a sustained line with hardly any caesuras, breathing, or lifting of the bow. Intense tone production, dynamically shaped long phrases, strict metre and rhythm, lack of pulse (meaning the beat hierarchy). Playing all notes with equal importance and slurring them together in a continuous legato characterize most of the versions [of the Brandenburg Concerto recordings]. (Haynes, 51)

The continuous legato mentioned would seem not to be something of the Modern Style but a carry-over from Romantic performing. Haynes comments that the “Difference between Period and Romantic is the amount of legato. The standard Baroque instruments, using much less pressure in embouchure, breath, touch or bow can be sopped and started more easily.” This of course affects phrasing. The issue of vibrato is raised, which, in both the Romantic and Period styles is used selectively while in Modern Style, it is constant. Attributes of Period style are summarized: phrasing by gesture, dynamic nuance, inflection (individual note shaping), tempo rubato, agogic accents and note placing, pauses and beat hierarchy.

In sum, at this point of maturity in the Early Music movement (it can no longer be called a revival), interpretation has returned to the performer the license of his musical instinct, freedom from the strictures of the text and literal reading and from the bloodless mechanism of the Modern. We can embrace the statement of our old friend Johann Joachim Quantz who in 1752 wrote,

The Vortrag [delivery] is poor when everything is sung without warmth or played at the same level without alternation of Piano and Forte … one contradicts the Passions that should be expressed, or executes everything in general without sensitivity, without Passion, without being moved one’s self, so the impression is given that the musician is singing or playing as an agent for someone else. (Haynes, 62).

This is in 1752. In the words of Carl Dahlhaus, “Music of the past belongs to the present as music, not as documentary evidence.”

I believe we have arrived at a point where, without self-consciousness, a large proportion of our Early Music performances is given today with a natural expressiveness that realizes the aesthetic and intent of the music. Recently I heard that made manifest by our host, the American Bach Soloists, performing Bach’s great Singet dem Herrn and Fürchte dich nicht in the Berkeley Festival over a month ago. Please believe me that I am not speaking to flatter our hosts but to recognize a single performance as representative of the mature or high point we have reached.

American Bach Soloists

The creation or formation of the American Bach Soloists, somewhat like that of Philharmonia Baroque, happened in a process like spontaneous combustion, or like a chemical reaction that occurs when the required ingredients reach a certain point in amount and in the right proportion to each other. Basically, the necessary number of performers was ready, able, and willing. One or two led the way, the leaders, the catalysts, and it happened.

With the American Bach Soloists, Jeffrey Thomas and the organist Jonathan Dimmock, finding themselves in working association regularly with the same group of performers, thought, in Jeffrey’s words, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we did this ourselves?” From the beginning, the focus was on the Bach cantatas, beginning with a couple of concerts in 1989. It was almost completely based in Belvedere at St. Stephen’s Church, where Dimmock served as organist. Jonathan built the founding board from that church’s membership, save for one. Jeffrey pulled the musicians together, some of whom are still with ABS. Two years later, ABS performed the B Minor Mass. Concerts were added in Berkeley, then San Francisco, and after 2000, in Davis. It never looked back.

The Maturity of the Early Music Revival

The moral of the Philharmonia Baroque and American Bach Soloists’ story is that their formation and continuing success demonstrates the maturity of the Early Music Revival. A critical mass of musicians trained and skilled in the particular specialties had been reached in the Bay Area. They had arrived at common language about the repertory, the different styles specific to the repertory, and a single desire to pursue what from the vantage point of ten or twenty years earlier, would have been considered a new profession. Today, those Early Musickers, vocalists, instrumentalists, together with the instrument makers, specialized teachers and assorted specialists, are making their livings at it full-time.

Of course this has been happening in musical centers all over the country and world wide. Period instrument orchestras, period-focused vocal ensembles and special support activities and structures have formed to an extent that a small encyclopedia would be required to list them.

This phenomenon is the proof positive that we’ve seen a major step in the history of music. The Early Music Revival is completed. Early Music is now an independent and major current with its own institutions, alongside Symphony, Chamber Music, Opera, and all we consider as part of Classical Music. The Revival is over.

Edited by Bruce Lamott

Then and Now: Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast”

The world premiere of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast took place at London’s Covent Garden on February 19, 1736, just a few days before the composer’s 51st birthday. This weekend, ABS will perform this magnificent work, now enjoying its 280th year on the boards, around the Bay Area and in Davis. It is incredible to think that this musical setting of a poem by John Dryden for orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists is still thrilling audiences after literally hundreds of years! There is a good reason for that: it is glorious! The longevity of Alexander’s Feast is a testament to the power of Handel’s music and also to the vision, execution, and persuasiveness of its modern champions like Jeffrey Thomas and the forces of ABS. Time is running out to secure seats for ABS’s performances of this masterpiece. Reserve your seats TODAY!


Since this week marks an anniversary of Alexander’s Feast (and also the birthday of its composer), lets take a look at Handel’s first soloists for the work and the ABS interpreters you will hear this weekend.


Anna Maria Strada by Dutch painter Johannes Verelst

Anna Maria Strada by Dutch painter Johannes Verelst, c. 1732

Anna Maria Strada was a frequent Handel collaborator, appearing in the composer’s Partenope, Sosarme, Arminio, Giustino, and Atalanta. Two years after singing in the premiere of Alexander’s Feast, Strada returned to her native Italy and retired from singing after nearly a decade on the London stage.


Anna Gorbachyova

Anna Gorbachyova, soprano

Anna Gorbachyova will make her ABS debut as the soprano soloist in the performances this weekend. A participant in the 2014 ABS Academy, many likely remember Ms. Gorbachyova’s lively performance in the sold-out Festival concert presentation of Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato that year. A distinguished operatic performer, her recent accomplishments include performing the role of Madeline in the Welsh National Opera’s 2014 double-bill of Debussy’s The Fall of the House of Usher and the world premiere of Gordon Getty’s Usher House, one year before those productions came to San Francisco Opera last December.


John Beard

John Beard, tenor

Tenor John Beard was a veteran of many Handelian productions in London, creating roles in ten of the composer’s operas and participating in all of his English oratorios. In an age when Italian castrati were the vocal superstars, the success of this English tenor was a remarkable achievement. After Beard’s many triumphant opera seasons at Covent Garden, he retired from singing and became the opera house’s proprietor.


Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Aaron Sheehan is an accomplished and versatile artist whose achievements in early music place him at the forefront of the field. He made his ABS debut in 2007 in a program of Early Bach Cantatas and has since performed with ABS on many memorable occasions, including in Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and in both of Bach’s Passion settings. He made a tremendous impact on audiences as the Evangelist in St. John Passion in 2013. [Read an interview with Aaron Sheehan about Alexander’s Feast]


Handel’s bass soloist at the premiere of Alexander’s Feast was a certain Mr. Erard. We know very little about this artist–even his first name remains a mystery–and his participation as a soloist in Handel’s musical activities appears to have been limited. In later London revivals of Alexander’s Feast, Thomas Reinhold, a favorite of the composer, was Handel’s soloist of choice.


William Sharp, baritone. Photo: Brandon Labadie

William Sharp, baritone

Acclaimed baritone William Sharp is no stranger to ABS audiences. Beginning with a program of Bach Cantatas at the inaugural concert, Sharp has appeared with ABS throughout its twenty-seven seasons. Along with many memorable performances, including an incredibly expressive account of Christus in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last season, Sharp is a member of the ABS Academy Faculty where he performs during the annual ABS Festival and mentors the future generation of early music virtuosi.

Along with sensational vocal soloists, the ABS performances will feature the period-instrument specialists of ABS, the American Bach Choir, Baroque harpist Maria Christina Cleary in her ABS debut, and Maestro Jeffrey Thomas. This is one feast you don’t want to miss!


Tickets may be ordered online, by calling the ABS office (415-621-7900), or purchased tickets at the door one hour before the concert at each venue.

TICKET ADVISORY: The performance in Belvedere (Feb. 26) has limited availability and the performance in Davis (Feb. 29) is SOLD OUT.

Bay Area blogger discusses Handel, Dryden, and “Alexander’s Feast”

Patrick Vaz

Patrick Vaz

Patrick Vaz is a Bay Area blogger who attends ABS concerts in Berkeley and writes about poetry and performances at The Reverberate Hills. With ABS’s performances of Handel’s Alexander’s Feast coming up February 26-29, I asked for Patrick’s perspective on the poem and the poet that inspired Handel to such great heights. Our conversation follows:

Have you heard Handel’s setting of the Dryden poem, Alexander’s Feast; or the Power of Music?

Yes! In my 20s I was sort of obsessed with Handel’s oratorios. When CDs were introduced I started collecting them and I still have my early John Eliot Gardiner recording of Alexander’s Feast. I lived in Boston then, which, like the Bay Area, is a center for early and baroque music. Performers were starting to use original instruments and historically informed performance practices at that time and that was sort of controversial but fascinating. There was a lot of ferment and excitement in a field (baroque oratorio) that had seemed stuffy and distant to many audiences. I used to go regularly to hear the Handel & Haydn Society and Banchetto Musicale (now Boston Baroque) and other groups and Alexander’s Feast would show up fairly often, probably because it’s a terrific piece but also because it gives such great opportunities not only to soloists and chorus but for the orchestra as well, particularly given the practice started by Handel himself of inserting a purely instrumental work in order to make a full evening’s entertainment [ABS will perform the Concerto Grosso in C Major and the Harp Concerto in B Flat Major]. The piece is about the power of music, so it figures that all the performers get several generous chances to shine. I think Handel’s oratorios gain immediacy for American audiences because they’re in English and we can understand them directly, while so many other great musical works of the period are in Italian or German.

Is Dryden read much nowadays? It seems he and his generation, which might be expanded to include Alexander Pope, are only read by English majors as course requirements.

That’s an interesting question – I remember reading Pope when I was an English major, and I still love him – I think The Rape of the Lock is one of the funniest things ever written, and it’s one of the poems, like Eliot’s Waste Land, that I sometimes just pick up and read at random. That may seem like an odd duo, but in a way both works deal to some extent with how older forms of art shape our experience (in Pope’s case, the classical epic, and in Eliot’s, the whole range of literary works that the moderns felt pressing down on them) and with how we try to negotiate our troublesome, often trivial lives despite the awareness, brought to us by art, of a greater and grander potential world. I think these are concerns that are very relevant to Dryden, as well as to audiences who listen to older music.

John Dryden by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

John Dryden by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

But back to Dryden – when you asked me this question, my first thought was that I hadn’t read much of him; then I realized that I had read a little brick of a Modern Library edition of his poetry and prose as well as his translation of Virgil’s Aeneid and his play All for Love; or, The World Well Lost, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. So I’ve actually read quite a lot of him, as well as hearing performances of Alexander’s Feast and Purcell’s King Arthur, which also has a text by Dryden. But I’m not sure how many people read him for pleasure, or even how much he’s still studied in undergraduate literature courses. He is often joined with Pope, but in fact Pope was not yet a teenager when Dryden died, and though there are similarities Pope feels like a later generation to me – his vocabulary and phrasing, though clearly of the eighteenth century, have a kind of modern sense about them, there’s a certain clarity for contemporary readers, whereas while reading Dryden I tend to feel his roots in the more elaborate style and vocabulary of earlier poets of the Metaphysical school (like John Donne) or the Jacobean and Elizabethan eras. He was, in his own time, considered the major living English writer. His time was the seventeenth century, though, not the eighteenth. He was already an adult and a writer during Cromwell’s Protectorate, and though when we think of Restoration literature we tend to think of bawdy works featuring dainty fops and witty ladies, Dryden was actually a massive presence on the Restoration’s cultural scene.

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl

Alexander Pope by Michael Dahl

Both Pope and Dryden suffer to some extent because we look at them from a post-Romantic perspective; the Victorian Matthew Arnold famously said that Pope and Dryden “are not classics of our poetry, they are classics of our prose.” We post-Romantics tend to think of poetry as inherently personal and subjective, a bit isolated (necessarily so) from the social and political world around it. In the world of Dryden and Pope, poetry also expressed the poet’s personal views, but often on public matters: poetry was moral and political (and so, inevitably, satirical) and connected to the world around it in a way that it isn’t for us. Poetry is always moral and political – if a contemporary of ours writes a poem about looking at a flower, we might think it’s just pretty, but in fact it’s also making a point about the importance of patient observation, and of the natural world, and of our relation to it, in ways that are an implicit rebuke to our consumer-driven, technology-obsessed, high-speed capitalist society. But it’s an implicit rebuke, not the principal subject of the poem. If you’re reading Wordsworth and he’s filled with joy at stumbling on a field of daffodils, it gives an added depth if you know he’s writing while the Industrial Revolution with its new factories and trains is ripping up the English countryside, but basically to understand the poem you don’t really need to know that, you just need to have seen a daffodil.

But Dryden, in works like Annus Mirabilis, MacFlecknoe, Absalom and Achitophel, and The Hind and the Panther, is dealing directly with the religious controversies, literary battles, and political maneuverings of his time. Their immediacy in his own day means they need copious footnotes in ours, and even then we may feel that the place in the royal succession of the Duke of Monmouth or the quality of Thomas Shadwell’s verse are subjects in which we don’t really have a stake. It’s the quality of his writing, its vividness and concision and color, that keep us interested in these works; as W. H. Auden wrote in his elegy for Yeats, “Time that is intolerant / Of the brave and the innocent, / And indifferent in a week / To a beautiful physique, // Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives. . . “. But that’s also the poem in which he says that “poetry makes nothing happen” – for Dryden and his contemporaries, poetry did make things happen, and that’s the divide we have to cross.

This post-Romantic view can require adjustments for music lovers, too: if you grew up listening to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, it can take some adjustment to hear the passion and emotion in works of the Baroque, with their very different scale and vocabulary – I know people who have had this problem even with some of Mozart’s operas. And of course modern instruments are more powerful, and the orchestras are larger, and those things affect how we hear earlier works as well.

Where/how does Alexander’s Feast fit in John Dryden’s canon of published works?

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

It was a fairly late work. It feels like a culmination of several strands of Dryden’s lifework: his years in the theater (once they were re-opened after the restoration of the monarchy), his interest in the classical world (in addition to his famous translation of the Aeneid, he also translated Plutarch’s Lives as well as works by Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, and other classical authors), and his involvement in the political world of his time. It involves a feast for the great conqueror and king Alexander the Great, but the musician and poet Timotheus (who actually existed) pretty much leads him by the nose, changing the king’s mood by changing the song. When Dryden’s text mentions the master, he is referring to Timotheus, who starts off by calling Alexander illegitimate (though in the most flattering way possible: Zeus is said to have fathered him on his mother Olympia), then sings in praise of wine, then makes Alexander weep for the Persian king he just defeated, then he sings in praise of love, then of war and revenge: with each change, Alexander’s mood changes too. At the end St Cecilia, patron of music, makes a fairly arbitrary appearance – you can see her presence as part of the long tradition of trying to reconcile classical with Christian achievements. But she does not displace Timotheus; they “divide the crown” because both control the power of music. Ultimately Alexander’s Feast is about that power, and the power of art, so it feels like sort of a valedictory statement by Dryden.

Alexanders feast banner

When reading Alexander’s Feast, are you particularly struck by its wit, drama, or evocative quality?

Yes – Dryden’s years in the theater really come through here. His plays are not often revived these days – I’ve been attending theater for decades and have never seen one, outside of musical works like King Arthur – and for us something like All for Love seems like a tame version of Shakespeare’s wilder, richer Antony and Cleopatra. But he knew how to structure a work and how to hold an audience’s attention. There’s sly wit in the way Timotheus observes Alexander’s reactions and manipulates him emotionally – this powerful conqueror is so easily led by sounds and airs. So there’s also a bit of sadness there, a sense of the fragility and folly of the world; the lines “Fighting still, and still destroying; / If the world be worth thy winning, / Think, O think it worth enjoying. . . “ offer some really good advice.


The poem has some great lines (I particularly like “And the King seized a flambeau with zeal to destroy: / Thais led the way, / to light him to his prey / and like another Helen fir’d another Troy”) and lots of musical allusions in both its structure and prose. Do you “hear the music” in Dryden’s poem?

Flambeau is a pretty irresistible word! Those are great lines. Since I first knew the lyrics through Handel’s work, many of the memorable passages are made so in part by Handel’s wonderful music. The rollicking chorus to Bacchus, god of wine, have words that are suited to a simple soldier’s drinking song, but what makes them really indelible is the music. Alexander’s Feast is part of a tradition of works praising St Cecilia and the power of music (Dryden wrote another, more conventional one, A Song for St Cecilia’s Day, which Handel also set to music) and it’s designed to provide a wide-ranging variety of opportunities to the composer and the musicians. Alexander’s Feast uses the ingenious dramatic device of a victory feast as a way of showing who the real victor is: music.


From February 26-29, ABS will perform Handel’s Alexander’s Feast in the Bay Area and in Davis. For more information, check the ABS website or call (415) 621-7900. You can follow Patrick Vaz’s writings on The Reverberate Hills; or Apotheosis of the Narwhal.

Interview with tenor Aaron Sheehan

Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Aaron Sheehan, tenor

Tenor Aaron Sheehan returns to the ABS stage February 26-29 as a vocal soloist in Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast.” Whether singing the music of Bach (he was sensational as the Evangelist in the 2013 ABS performances of St. John Passion), Handel, or one of their Baroque contemporaries, Sheehan’s expressive singing and memorable performances are well-known to ABS audiences. Last year, Sheehan won a Grammy Award for “Best Opera Recording” for his portrayal of Orpheus in the Boston Early Music Festival recording of Charpentier’s La Descente d’Orfée aux Enfer. I asked him about winning this important award, the challenges of “Alexander’s Feast,” and where he plans to eat while in the Bay Area.

Last year, you and your colleagues at the Boston Early Music Festival were awarded the Grammy for Best Opera Recording for a lovely pair of chamber operas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Bravo! What has this success meant to you? Has the positive reception of the recording had an impact on your career?

It was a great honor to receive the Grammy Award for our Charpentier opera. I have been lucky enough to spend most of my professional career singing and maturing with the Boston Early Music Festival. I owe a lot of my success to the time spent with them, learning, and cutting my teeth, so to speak. It is also nice to be acknowledged for doing something you love and believe in. My career hasn’t had a noticeable upturn, but it is remaining consistent and healthy. However, I have started receiving more inquiries for French Baroque roles!

Upon receiving the award, you offered some inspiring words: “Anyone that wants to sing: sing. Do it. Do it forever.” When did you discover that you wanted to sing?

I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember hearing my older sister sing the solo in Mendelssohn’s “Hear my prayer” with her college choir. I had never heard a good choir and the second they began to sing, I was mesmerized. By the end of that concert, I knew that I wanted to be a singer.

What do you like most about working with Jeffrey Thomas and American Bach Soloists?

Working with American Bach Soloists is always a highlight of my concert season. I get to sing great music at a world-class level with wonderful people in a beautiful part of the world. I appreciate how Jeffrey is able to coach his soloists and offer new ideas, but in the end has total trust in you as a singer and lets you do what you do best. As a tenor, I admire his career as a soloist and always look forward to his knowledge of the particular roles that I am singing.

ABS audiences are looking forward to hearing you perform as part of a wonderful assemblage of artists for Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast.” Are there specific challenges or rewards to singing a work in English like “Alexander’s Feast”?

I think one of the best rewards of singing in English is the immediacy of understanding what is being sung. The audience doesn’t have to be looking at the text and translating; they just have to listen. This also brings us to the main challenge: the soloists must deliver the text with spotless diction so that the audience can understand every word we sing.


Handel’s ode is not an opera with dramatic roles, yet the soloists and choir have some pretty dramatic music to sing. How would you define your part in the piece?

I mainly see myself as a narrator, building the scene and setting the mood. I feel that some of the music could be seen as a character, but for my role I mainly see myself as a storyteller.

Are there any favorite restaurants or Bay Area activities you are looking forward to enjoying in between rehearsals and performances with ABS?

The Bay Area is one of my favorite places to visit in the U.S. I always try to head up to the Marin Headlands – Golden Gate Recreation area. It’s a stunning view, one that never gets old. I typically try to spend my Sunday walking around and grabbing brunch in the Castro before our San Francisco concert. One necessary stop is NOPA restaurant north of the Panhandle … great food and interesting cocktails. I think that every out-of-town musician also enjoys stops at Top Dog in Berkeley and at least one visit to In-N-Out Burger.

What songs or artists are you listening to most?

This may sound odd, but I almost never choose to listen to music. I feel like I spend my life practicing, rehearsing, and learning music, so when given the choice, I do something else. When I’m driving, I choose to listen to talk radio. When I have free time I choose to work out, read a book, or explore a new part of town.

Hear Aaron Sheehan, baritone William Sharp, soprano Anna Gorbachyova, harpist Maria Christina Cleary, the American Bach Choir, the period-instrument specialists of ABS, and conductor Jeffrey Thomas perform Handel’s choral masterpiece “Alexander’s Feast,” along with two instrumental concertos by the composer, in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, or Davis, February 26-29. For tickets, check the ABS website or call (415) 621-7900.

ABS Academy News: Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen selected to Merola Program

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor

ABS is pleased to report that ABS Academy alum, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen (Academy 2015) will be returning to the Bay Area this summer as a “Merolini” young artist in the Merola Opera Program. Being selected for this elite, opera training program is a great honor and we are delighted that so deserving an artist will enjoy this opportunity. Congratulations, Aryeh! [Read more about the 2016 Merola Program class here.]

Attendees of last summer’s ABS Festival & Academy may remember Aryeh’s superb performances in Bach’s Mass in B Minor, where he performed the arias “Agnus Dei” (August 9) and “Qui sedes ad dextram Patris” (August 16), and in the “Baroque Marathon” where he sang music by Moulinié and J.S. Bach, including the aria “Wenn kömmt der Tag” from Cantata 70.

The ABS Academy is accepting applications for the 2016 program, which will be held from August 1-14 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The deadline to apply is February 15, 2016. Click here for more information.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sings "Agnus Dei" in Bach's Mass in B Minor with Jeffrey Thomas and the ABS Festival Orchestra

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen singing “Agnus Dei” in Bach’s Mass in B Minor with Jeffrey Thomas and the ABS Festival Orchestra, August 2015.

Free Master Class with oboist Debra Nagy, Feb. 22

Debra Nagy, oboe. Photo: Brandon Labadie

Debra Nagy, oboe. Photo: Brandon Labadie

Each season, ABS collaborates with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to present free public master classes. At each master class, students from the Conservatory’s Historical Performance program work with a musician from ABS on matters of technique, interpretation, and applying a historically informed approach to Baroque repertory. Master classes allow audiences to witness the artistic transformations that occur as talented young musicians discover new paths toward deeper engagement and expression in their music. On Monday, February 22 at 7:30 p.m., ABS oboist Debra Nagy will coach a group of baroque oboe students through selected works from the Baroque Era.

Debra Nagy has been hailed for her “dazzling technique and soulful expressiveness” (Rocky Mountain News), and recognized as “a Baroque oboist of consummate taste and expressivity” (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Since winning an ABS young artist competition in 2002, Nagy has emerged as one of the country’s leading exponents on her instrument. She appears regularly with ABS and many other period-instrument ensembles and is the director of the acclaimed Cleveland-based ensemble, Les Délices. Nagy is also the oboe & flute faculty member each summer at the ABS Academy.

The February 22 master class is free, open to the public, and begins at 7:30 pm. The San Francisco Conservatory of Music is located at 50 Oak Street, close to BART and MUNI stops. For more information about this and other upcoming free public master classes by the musicians of American Bach Soloists, please visit our website here.

ABS celebrates “Early Music Month” in March


Looking ahead, next month is officially “Early Music Month,” a new, grassroots initiative sponsored by Early Music America to raise awareness for this vital musical tradition and the artists, scholars, and artisans who devote themselves to it. To honor the occasion and the March birthday of our namesake, American Bach Soloists is proud to present a concert showcasing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, the greatest of all early music composers. On Friday, March 18, San Francisco Symphony organist and ABS co-founder Jonathan Dimmock will perform an all-Bach organ concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco on one of the Bay Area’s most treasured tracker organs.

Jonathan Dimmock, organ

Jonathan Dimmock, organ

Opportunities to experience J.S. Bach’s works for “the king of instruments” in a live setting are rare; don’t miss this one-night-only event! For social media-minded attendees, be sure to use the hashtag: #EarlyMusicMonth2016.

Bach the Vote

BachVoteAs another observance of “Early Music Month,” ABS will publish the results of our “Bach Favorites” poll throughout the month of March. Did you vote for your favorite work by J.S. Bach during the intermission of the January concert? If not, you have another chance to exercise your right to vote for your favorite aria, chorus, cantata, concerto, partita, passion, mass, or other, at our February 26-29 performances of “Alexander’s Feast.” Look for the “Bach Favorites” poster in the lobby at the concerts later this month. Early leaders after the “January Caucus” are St. Matthew Passion, the Mass in B Minor, and the Concerto for two Harpsichords in C Minor. Remember, you can also vote for arias and choruses within the large-scale works!

Early Music America (EMA)

EMA_logoAlong with sponsoring “Early Music Month,” EMA is a year-round supporter of the fine work of American musicians, ensembles, educators, scholars, and instrument makers who specialize in the music of the eighteenth century and earlier. EMA members receive the organization’s excellent quarterly magazine EMAg, access to exclusive online resources, and numerous other benefits. If you would like to consider becoming a member of EMA, please visit their website:

Tickets for the ABS Bach Birthday Concert on March 18 are only $25. To order, please visit or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.


Application Deadline for 2016 Academy is February 15

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The deadline for applying to the 2016 ABS Academy is fast approaching—all applications are due Monday, February 15, 2016 by 11:59 p.m. PST. The Academy is a unique opportunity for study, training, and performance of Baroque music and historically informed performance practice at the highest level. This year’s Academy will be held August 1-14, 2016, at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.


Admission to the Academy is through competitive application. Candidates must submit materials including 2 letters of recommendation, audio recordings (audition repertory guidelines here), and pay a $35 application fee. All application materials are submitted online. For more information, visit our Academy page or contact Academy Administrator Jeff McMillan ( or 415-621-7900, ext. 204).

Begun in 2010, the ABS Academy has prepared between 50 and 75 musicians each summer for professions in Early Music. Our graduates have gone on to lead extraordinary careers all over the world and many have performed with elite Early Music ensembles, including American Bach Soloists, since completing the program.

In December 2015, 13 Academy graduates performed as members of the orchestra, choir, and as vocal soloists in ABS’s performances of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and 24 performed in ABS’s annual performances of Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral.


Former Academy participants at Grace Cathedral after performing Handel's Messiah: Lindsay Strand-Polyak (violin, 2013, 2014), Tatiana Chulochnikova (violin, 2010), Vijay Chalasani (viola, 2014)

Former Academy participants at Grace Cathedral after performing Handel’s Messiah in December 2015: Lindsay Strand-Polyak (violin, 2013, 2014), Tatiana Chulochnikova (violin, 2010), Vijay Chalasani (viola, 2013)

Justin Bland (trumpet, 2013, 2014) and Ramón Negrón (viola, 2014, 2015)

Justin Bland (trumpet, 2012, 2013) and Ramón Negrón (viola, 2014, 2015)


Shawn Alger (bass, 2014, 2015), soprano Cheryl Sumsion (American Bach Choir), and Daniel Turkos (bass, 2014, 2015)

Shawn Alger (bass, 2014, 2015), soprano Cheryl Sumsion (American Bach Choir), and Daniel Turkos (bass, 2014, 2015)


What’s Your Favorite Bach?

BachVoteDo you have a favorite composition by J.S. Bach? Is there a particular aria, chorus, cantata, or concerto that you hold dear? Before each performance of “Bach Favorites” from January 22-25 and during the intermissions, we would love to hear about your favorites! Look for the sign in the lobby that says “My Favorite Bach” and fill out a card with the name of the work you admire most, your name, and a way to contact you. There will be space on the cards to express why you enjoy the piece or what you like most about it, if you would like to share. On March 1, ABS will draw one entry from the box and that lucky Bach fan will win a pair of tickets to one of this summer’s performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor during the ABS Festival & Academy, August 5-14.

The top 31 favorites will be published on the ABS blog, Facebook, and Twitter during March as part of our celebrations for Bach’s Birthday and “Early Music Month.” Make it personal or just cast your vote, but let us know your favorite (four entries per person). Bach the Vote!

A few great seats for the ABS presentations of “Bach Favorites” remain. Purchase online, call (415) 621-7900, or purchase at the door of each venue one hour before the performance.

ABS presents “Bach Favorites,” January 22-25

Happy New Year! For many, the beginning of a new year presents the opportunity for a fresh start and perhaps a new set of goals. One common resolution is, of course, to focus on fitness. Joining a gym or exercise class is certainly worthwhile, but how about giving Bach a spin? Adding more J.S. Bach to your life during 2016 just might be the recipe for a “new you” in the year ahead. ABS is here to help! We have a wonderful season of works by J.S. Bach ahead, beginning January 22-25 with “Bach Favorites,” a balanced program of two extraordinary cantatas from the composer’s first year in Leipzig and two virtuosic works for violin featuring the 2016 Jeffrey Thomas Award recipient, Tatiana Chulochnikova.

Jeffrey Thomas and American Bach Soloists. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Jeffrey Thomas and American Bach Soloists. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

The program will open with Cantata 70, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! The text of the cantata is about the Day of Judgment, and the opening words, “Watch, pray, pray, watch!”, communicate with urgency that the listener must remain vigilant and prepared because the Second Coming will happen swiftly. Cantata 70 was a featured work at the very first ABS concert and now, 27 years later, Jeffrey Thomas and ABS return to this masterpiece, one of Bach’s most dramatic and moving sacred works from his first Cantata Cycle in Leipzig.

Mary Wilson, soprano

Mary Wilson, soprano

Four brilliant vocal soloists will join ABS for “Bach Favorites.” Soprano Mary Wilson needs little introduction as she has been a featured artist with ABS on many memorable occasions. Following each performance of “Bach Favorites,” Wilson will appear in the lobby of each venue to sign Blu-ray and DVD copies of the new ABS film, “Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral,” and the CD “Mary Wilson Sings Handel.” Countertenor Jay Carter, who appeared with great distinction in last season’s performances of St. Matthew Passion, will perform Bach’s alto solos on the program. Tenor Derek Chester, the outstanding Evangelist in last season’s St. Matthew Passion performances, and baritone Mischa Bouvier, a standout as the giant Polyphemus in Handel’s Acis and Galatea last year, round out the quartet. Along with the American Bach Choir and instrumentalists of ABS, all under the baton of Jeffrey Thomas, this program brings together a grand assemblage of leading Bach interpreters and is THE place to start your year off with more Bach!

Next, violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova will hold the spotlight in a performance of the famous Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, in her transcription for solo violin. A thrilling performer with outstanding technique and extroverted style, Chulochnikova’s performance will surely exhibit some fireworks. Do not miss this opportunity to hear why this young artist was awarded the Jeffrey Thomas Award this year and why she is one of the most exciting young violinists to emerge in the Early Music community in recent years.

Tatiana Chulochnikova. Photo: Alexander Kagan

Tatiana Chulochnikova. Photo: Alexander Kagan

Chulochnikova will open the second half of “Bach Favorites” with a performance of the composer’s beloved Violin Concerto in E Major. From its familiar opening measures to its moving and expressive second movement and exhilarating finale, there are many reasons why this concerto is a favorite of music lovers everywhere. Read our interview with Chulochnikova where she discusses her personal connection with the work and how the performances with ABS will be the realization of a long-held dream.

The closing work on the program is Bach’s Cantata 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben. As with Cantata 70, this work has its moments of drama and intensity, but Cantata 147 is notable for the sheer beauty of its music. The work opens with a solo trumpet, which is soon joined by the orchestra to form a richly textured ensemble sound that moves along with typical Bachian complexity and buoyancy. Then, as if that were not enough to grab the listener’s attention, the voices begin to enter, first sopranos, then altos, tenors, and finally basses, in a brilliant vocal fugue. Each group of singers executes elaborate runs on the word “Leben” (or “Life”) within this framework, as if to communicate that the faithful must pledge themselves to God with their hearts, mouths, and deeds, but most of all with their lives. The work has many stunning arias and musical highlights, but it is the chorus “Jesu bleibet meine Freude” (frequently translated as “Jesus, joy of man’s desiring”) that is perhaps most cherished by Bach’s admirers. The gentle, floating character of the melody, along with its forward-leaning momentum, can be heard in our video announcement (below) for “Bach Favorites.”

Tickets are available to the four performances of “Bach Favorites” around the Bay Area and in Davis. Reserve your seats today and begin 2016 with Bach and ABS!


The ABS Academy: A Unique Opportunity

Paul Vanderwal

Paul Vanderwal outside the San Francisco Conservatory of Music before a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor, August 2015

You might remember Paul Vanderwal, a violoncellist from New Jersey who participated in last summer’s ABS Academy. At this time last year, Paul was pursuing one very important goal: attending the ABS Academy. Some years earlier, he had put aside his modern instrument for a time before his passion for playing music was rekindled when he discovered the joy of playing works from the Baroque Era. His drive and talent made his Academy application highly competitive and Paul was accepted into the program. Being accepted was only part of realizing his goal; he still had to get to San Francisco! Through a wonderful video testimonial, Paul raised the funds that enabled his participation and he spent two music-filled weeks in San Francisco in the ABS Academy. Here is his video appeal for support:

Several generous sponsors came to his aid and Paul participated in the 2015 Festival & Academy, “Versailles & The Parisian Baroque,” where he enjoyed two weeks of intense study and performed in several Festival performances. He played violoncello in the U.S. premiere of Marin Marais’ opera Sémélé, Bach’s Mass in B Minor, and several arias by J.S. Bach during the “Baroque Marathon” sessions. Along with the 73 other Academy participants, Paul studied and worked his way through fourteen days of lessons, master classes, rehearsals, and evening performances. I caught up with him four months after his Academy experience and asked him how things have been going.

How did you first learn about the ABS Academy?

“At Montclair State University, where I am currently studying, we have a small Baroque ensemble led by violinist Theresa Solomon and harpsichordist Gwendolyn Toth. As my dedication to the group grew stronger, Theresa mentioned the possibility of studying at the ABS Academy. A former student of Theresa’s, Karin Cuéllar, who was one of the first people I met at MSU and had introduced me to the Baroque ensemble, had attended the previous year and encouraged me to pursue it.”

Were you already familiar with the work of the ABS Academy’s violoncello faculty members William Skeen and Kenneth Slowik?

“I was familiar with them, but I didn’t know it yet. I had been listening to recordings and watching performances of theirs for quite some time. It was only after doing some research into the Academy that I made the connection. My first introduction to Bill was from searching for videos of performances with 5-string cellos. I continued thereafter to watch just about every Voices of Music video on YouTube. With Ken, it was The Castle Trio recordings of the Beethoven Piano Trios. They are my favorite.”

Your video about attending the Academy is terrific. Did it help raise funds for your participation?

“Thanks. The plan was to make a video that was fun, entertaining, and represented a little bit of myself. The amount of love, support, and encouragement I received from both inside and out of my community was far beyond what I expected. Although I was quite determined to attend, without raising the funds, I’m not quite sure if I would have made it to the Academy, and I would like to extend my appreciation to everyone who helped me in reaching that goal.”

Describe your Academy experience. Did attending the program help you achieve any of your personal or musical goals?

“Attending the Academy was a profoundly positive experience. Being surrounded by amazing mentors, who are so knowledgeable and supportive, and having the opportunity to see how they work and to work with them is invaluable and has had a long-lasting effect. Additionally, becoming friends with the other participants, who are learning and working towards the same goals as yourself, is something I will cherish for many years. Performing Marais’ Sémélé and Bach’s Mass in B minor were certainly highlights of my experience, with the last performance of the Bach a truly emotional one. Both the faculty and students have opened my eyes to the fact that there is so much more music to discover and explore, and that is something I’m looking forward to with eager eyes.”

How have things been going since the ABS Academy?

“Things have been going quite well since attending the Academy. I’m about halfway through my performance degree and it has been my busiest semester yet. I’ve taken on a few more students, played a few recitals, and have tried to take every opportunity to play that is presented to me. We are trying to expand our Baroque ensemble at MSU, and this year we’ve had our largest participation.”

Have you stayed in contact with friends that you made in San Francisco during the program?

“A few of us have definitely kept in touch. It is great to see how many opportunities they’ve been presented with, how busy they are, and how they’re all excelling at what they do.”

What are your plans for 2016?

“Overall, my hope is that our ensemble at school continues to grow. I plan to continue with my studies towards my degree, to grow my student base, to continue to play as much as possible, and I hope to raise enough funds to attend the Academy again in 2016.”

The ABS Academy is a unique opportunity for emerging Baroque specialists to study and perform with a stellar faculty of ABS musicians who are all leaders within the early music community. The 2016 Academy will be held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 1-14, and applications for the program are now being accepted. The deadline to apply is February 15. If you would like to dedicate your life to performing this music at the highest level, apply today! If you know someone who might want to apply, please forward this message or contact Academy Administrator Jeff McMillan at (415) 621-7900, ext. 204.

If you would like to support a talented young musician like Paul who is pursuing a career performing the works of Bach at the highest level, please consider becoming a Sponsor of the ABS Academy. For more information, please contact Development Director Garrett Shatzer at (415) 621-7900, ext. 207.

Interview with violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova, the 2016 Jeffrey Thomas Award recipient

Jeffrey Thomas and Tatiana Chulochnikova

Jeffrey Thomas and Tatiana Chulochnikova. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

American Bach Soloists created the Jeffrey Thomas Award in 2013 to honor, recognize, and encourage exceptionally gifted emerging professionals in the field of early music. In tandem with a cash prize, recipients are invited to perform with American Bach Soloists and ABS audiences have enjoyed the opportunity to hear previous recipients tenor Guy Cutting in Bach’s Magnificat and violoncellist Gretchen Claassen in a concerto by Leonardo Leo. This month the 2016 recipient of the award, violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova, will hold the spotlight in two thrilling showcases for her dazzling technique and bravura style: Bach’s beloved Violin Concerto in E Major and her own violin transcription of the famous “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor.” We asked Chulochnikova about her violin, her love of playing the music of Bach, and the upcoming program, “Bach Favorites.”

You were a participant in the inaugural ABS Academy in 2010. What impact did that experience have on your career?

“It was, without exaggeration, a life-changing experience for me. Not only did I learn a lot during that inspiring workshop, but I also met Maestro Jeffrey Thomas and other ABS musicians for the first time; it also turned out to be the beginning of my collaboration with this renowned ensemble which I consider one of my top career achievements so far.”

What was your reaction upon learning that you would be the recipient of the 2016 Jeffrey Thomas Award

“I felt privileged but also surprised and flattered, especially knowing how many exceptional young musicians attend the ABS Academy every year. It is a real honor to be acknowledged among them, and moreover, to be remembered after 5 years!”

Tell us a little about the works you will be performing with ABS at the “Bach Favorites” concerts, January 22-25.

“I will be performing two works by J.S. Bach: the Violin Concerto in E major and my transcription of the famous “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor” for organ. The violin concerto is a delightful piece with a very special 2nd movement. I remember hearing this particular movement performed at a lesson by one of my classmates back in Moscow many years ago. The music was so unbearably beautiful I could not stop the tears. Since then it has been my dream to play it one day. Well, dreams come true.”

Tatiana Chulochnikova

Tatiana Chulochnikova. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

As a composer and performer, you are engaged with music representing many different styles and eras. What attracts you to the works of the Baroque?

“I think music history of the 20th century shows us that modern and contemporary composers are very much interested in the Baroque style and its aesthetics. There are hundreds of pieces by Modernist and Postmodernist composers that are inspired by the Baroque genres and forms, such as passacaglias, chaconnes, and fugues. It is, of course, a different musical language and treatment of harmony but in my opinion, the expression is similar in many ways. In fact, that was exactly the concept which gave me the idea for a solo recital program I am putting together where works from Baroque and contemporary eras will be juxtaposed to demonstrate the arc between the styles, which seem so far apart and yet have so much in common.”

What about the works of J.S. Bach? Is there anything different about your preparation or enthusiasm for performing his music?

“I believe J.S. Bach is one of the most difficult composers to play for a violinist. In sonatas and partitas his writing for violin is extremely complex and polyphonic. That’s why I think it’s impossible to understand everything in these pieces at the first exposure to them. But that is the fun part; every time one revisits this repertoire there is always something new and exciting to hear and to learn!”

Are there any areas of Bach’s music that you feel deserve greater attention? Any specific works you would like to perform more?

“It may seem that Bach’s music is regularly performed and recorded, but there is still room for discovery. Recently, I led the Washington Bach Consort in a performance of Bach’s Latin church music from his Leipzig period. We performed two of his “Short Masses” (in G and A major). Both are stunning works which are not performed often enough. Also, I must confess that I simply cannot resist programming the Chaconne [from Partita No. 2, BWV 1004] whenever possible. I think it’s impossible to get tired of this piece, …ever.

What Bay Area activities do you enjoy when you have free time between rehearsals and performances?

“I love exploring the city and its vibe, often with my camera—taking pictures is my hobby. San Francisco is a lovely place to be. I particularly enjoy running by the Bay while listening to Philip Glass who by the way, recently composed a Partita for Solo Violin which is clearly modeled after Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas, and even has a Chaconne. Pure Neo-Baroque!”

After your January performances with ABS, what is next for Tatiana Chulochnikova in 2016 and beyond?

“I am looking forward to a very busy spring. I am excited to be back for two more projects with ABS [Alexander’s Feast,” February 26-29; Easter & Ascension Oratorios,” April 22-25]. Also the Four Nations Ensemble, of which I am a member, will be presenting three concerts at the NYC’s Merkin Hall. This group is famous for its innovative programing, and this season will not be an exception! I will also be leading the Washington Bach Consort on several occasions for our “Bach Cantatas” and “Chamber Series” in downtown D.C., as well as other projects. Also, I am beyond excited to share the news that I have just finished recording my debut solo album. It will be the first recording of violin works by a very special, late 19th-century composer who happens to be from my hometown in Ukraine. Happy to share more details soon!”

The ABS audience loves The Musicians page in our programs because they also list the musicians’ instruments. Would you say a little bit about your violin?

“Interestingly, all my instruments and bows come to me when I’m not looking very actively, …and it’s always love at first sight. My Baroque violin was made in the 18th century by the German builder Joseph Hollmayr. It was converted back to its Baroque set-up by the previous owner. The violin I use for modern repertoire is a Stradivari model made by an anonymous builder from the early 20th-century.”

Hear Tatiana Chulochnikova perform at Bach Favorites, from January 22-25 in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis. After each performance you will have the opportunity to meet the violinist in the lobby of each venue. To purchase tickets for “Bach Favorites,” please visit or call (415) 621-7900.

A Bach & Handel December with ABS

Thank you to all who attended the ABS performances of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco and the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts in Davis as well as Handel’s Messiah in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. Five performances in seven days of two major works made for an intense, yet musically rewarding week. We hope you enjoyed the performances! Below are a few images by Gas Lamp Productions to accompany your memories of the extraordinary music of Bach & Handel as it was performed by Jeffrey Thomas and American Bach Soloists.

Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco



Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco

Handel_Messiah1 Handel_Messiah2


For information about the 2016 subscription series of concerts, please check our website. To order the new ABS film, Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral, please visit

See you in 2016!

Garrett Shatzer named ABS Development Director

Garrett Shatzer, ABS Development Director

Garrett Shatzer, ABS Development Director

ABS is pleased to announce the appointment of Garrett Shatzer as the organization’s Development Director effective January 1, 2016. Mr. Shatzer joins the San Francisco­–based staff after engagements as the Annual Fund & Institutional Giving Manager at the Oakland Symphony and the Annual Fund Manager at Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. “I am deeply honored to be joining the staff of the American Bach Soloists. I’ve greatly admired the group since I first heard of them when I moved to Davis in 2008. Their musicianship is extraordinary, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending many of their concerts over the years. ABS has made great strides recently, and I very much look forward to contributing my efforts to ensure its continued success” stated Shatzer. Executive Director Don Scott Carpenter added, “I am very pleased that Garrett is joining us and I look forward to working with him as we enhance a development plan that continues to support the artistic excellence created by artistic director Jeffrey Thomas; this is an important step for the future of ABS.”

Mr. Shatzer will work closely with Mr. Carpenter, as well as the development committee and the board in cultivating and soliciting individual donations, as well as corporate, foundation, and government gifts.