#Giving Tuesday at ABS

A message from ABS Executive Director Don Scott Carpenter:


Did you know that #GivingTuesday started in 2012 to support giving in our community? Observed on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday kicks off the charitable season, when many focus on their holiday and end-of-year giving. It’s the perfect way to support your favorite non-profit as the calendar year draws to a close. We know that we are among many organizations who are asking you for financial support, and we are hoping that you will choose American Bach Soloists as one of the recipients of your charity.

There are myriad ways to support ABS. Whether you would like to sponsor an entire program, a single concert, the soprano section, a soloist, or would simply prefer to make a contribution, your generosity will make a difference.

Our year-end goal is $150,000 and every dollar raised will go directly to support the music and musicians of ABS. Help us make #GivingTuesday a success. To make your contribution, please donate HERE. Or if you prefer, please feel free to contact me and we can receive your donation in any method you choose.

Thank you in advance for your support!

Don Scott Carpenter
Executive Director
(415) 621-7900, ext. 203

ABS Film “Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral” to be released on Blu-ray™ and DVD

ABS Messiah Blu-ray™

ABS Messiah on Blu-ray™

American Bach Soloists are proud to announce the limited, pre-release availability at our December 2015 holiday concerts of our highly anticipated film “Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral.” Recorded in HD video with DTS High Definition™ 5.1 Surround Sound, the film will be available on Blu-ray Disc™. Standard Definition video with Dolby Stereo sound will also be available on DVD. Blu-ray™ and DVD copies will be available at the same price of $25. The national and international release date for this film is March 1, 2016, whereupon disc copies will be available through the ABS website and other vendors, or via streaming or download through iTunes, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Google Play.

Capturing a scintillating December 2014 performance of the 1753 Foundling Hospital Version of Handel’s masterpiece by American Bach Soloists under the direction of Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral also presents the beautiful artwork and majestic interior and exterior architecture of San Francisco’s singular landmark, Grace Cathedral. Vocal soloists Mary Wilson (soprano), Eric Jurenas (countertenor), Kyle Stegall (tenor), and Jesse Blumberg (baritone) sing Handel’s great arias and ensembles, and are joined by ABS musician John Thiessen on trumpet.

Voted “Best of the Bay” for Early Music Performance 2014-2015 by the readers of San Francisco Classical Voice, this memorable performance of Handel’s Messiah, which played to a sold out crowd last year, will now be available worldwide through this film

Available at these performances:

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in St. Ignatius Church, December 12 2015 7:30 p.m.

Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral, December 16-18 2015 7:30 p.m.

Agnes Vojtko, mezzo-soprano

Agnes Vojtko, mezzo-soprano

Agnes Vojtko, mezzo-soprano

Since attending the ABS Academy in 2014, mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko has been making memorable and lasting impressions on Bay Area audiences and critics with her “exceptionally even, modestly plush, and heart-touching sound” (Bay Area Reporter). After appearances as an Academy participant in Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and Bach’s Mass in B Minor (she sings the aria “Laudamus te” in the ABS Documentary Anatomy of A Masterwork; at the 7:02 second mark), she made her ABS debut last season in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and was the featured soloist in September at the annual gala where she sang arias by Bach and Handel. ABS is delighted to present this exceptional young artist in two full-scale oratorios by those two Baroque masters this month.

Born in Hungary, Agnes completed a bachelor degree in music at the prestigious Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Later, she moved to the United States as a Fulbright fellow to attend the Butler School of Music of The University of Texas at Austin, where she obtained the degree of Doctor in Musical Arts. Her vocal flexibility and magnetic dramatic presence are infused with the best from the Austro-Hungarian tradition and her American music training. To read more about Agnes, visit her website: www.agnesvojtko.com

Agnes Vojtko at ABS annual gala, September 2015

Agnes Vojtko at ABS annual gala, September 2015. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

To purchase tickets for Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church (December 12) or Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral (December 16-18), please visit the ABS website or call (415) 621-7900.

Hélène Brunet, soprano

Hélène Brunet, soprano

Hélène Brunet, soprano

A participant in the inaugural ABS Academy in 2010, soprano Hélène Brunet made her first impression on Bay Area audiences with her portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the ABS Festival performance of Handel’s La Resurrezione. The Montreal native has since earned acclaim for her “vocally alluring and musical in conception” (Calgary Herald) performances around Canada, Europe, and the United States. She has been praised for her interpretations of the works of Bach, Handel, and Mozart, and has also performed in a diverse array of stage work including Lully’s Persée and Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Last season, Hélène made her ABS debut in the sold-out performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. This December, ABS is pleased to present this outstanding soprano in two of the greatest oratorios ever written: Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” and Handel’s Messiah.

Hélène Brunet performs in Bach's St. Matthew Passion with ABS, February 2015.

Hélène Brunet (fourth from left) performs in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with ABS, February 2015. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

A graduate of the University of Montreal in 2010 and the Montreal Conservatory of Music in 2011, she has studied under the direction of soprano Suzie LeBlanc and the countertenor Daniel Taylor as well as participated in several master classes, most notably with Dame Emma Kirkby, Charles Daniels, and June Anderson. Hélène has also performed with several renowned ensembles and orchestras including the Orchestre Métropolitain conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal. Hélène is featured in several recordings, including: Adagio: A Consideration of a Serious Matter (Analekta, 2013), Ave Maria (Analekta 2012), Vivaldi, Le Retour des Anges (Analekta, 2011), Messiah by Sven-David Sanström (Carus Records, 2010), and War Requiem (Hänssler Classic, 2008). To read more about Hélène, visit her website: helenebrunet.com.

To purchase tickets for Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church (December 12) or Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral (December 16-18), please visit the ABS website or call (415) 621-7900.

Read about alto soloist Agnes Vojtko…

Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”: An Introduction, Part III

Our examination of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” concludes with a look at the work’s final two cantatas. To read the previous installments, click here: Parts I & II, Parts III & IV.

Part V: Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (“Glory to thee, God, be sung now”). First performed: January 2, 1735

Members of American Bach Soloists

Musicians of American Bach Soloists

The fifth cantata of the “Christmas Oratorio” was originally performed on the first Sunday after New Year’s Day, so in the timeline of the story the news about Jesus’ birth has had some time to spread. In this cantata we meet the Wise Men of the Christmas narrative and also have our first introduction to an antagonist in the story, King Herod. The Wise Men, sung by the choir, inquire about the whereabouts of the newborn baby in alternation with a recitative sung by the alto soloist who declares, “Seek him within my breast, he dwells here, mine and his the joy!” Their touching exchange communicates that the baby is, in fact, in a manger in Bethlehem, but that he has also already taken up residence in the hearts of the people. The Evangelist then describes how Herod hears of the news and trembles with fear. He commands the high priests and scribes to tell him what the prophecies say about the child and where he might find this threat to his power. Amid all this plot development, the cantata has some thrilling musical moments to listen for. Near the midpoint, the bass soloist sings the great aria “Erleucht’ auch meine finstre Sinnen” (“Illumine, too, my gloomy spirit”). A favorite of many basses and baritones, this aria (along with “Großer Herr, o starker König” from Part I) is one of the most frequently recorded of all of Bach’s arias for low voices. Also, near the end of the cantata is another superb highlight, “Ach, wann wird die Zeit erscheinen?” (“Ah, when will that time appear then?”). Scored for vocal trio (soprano, alto, and tenor soloists), solo violin, and continuo, this Terzetto weaves each of the vocal lines together with each other and with the violin to create a constantly shifting sonic tapestry of colors and textures. It is fascinating to hear how Bach requires these different voices and instruments to work together to form a cohesive unit that proceeds along with all of the elegant complexity of one of the composer’s organ fugues. Part V closes with the impressive chorus, “Zwar ist solche Herzensstube” (“Though in truth my heart’s poor lodging”). Musically, this chorus would be a fitting climax for almost any concert and send the audiences (like Bach’s congregation) out into the rest of their day, evening, and year with a tapping foot. Bach, however, has something more in store for us. Of course he must finish the story (we are still waiting to find out if Herod will find the child), but his conclusion for the oratorio has implications for all humanity. So, on to Part VI!

Part VI: Herr, wenn die stolzen Feinde Schnauben (“Lord, when our boastful foes blow fury”). First performed: January 6, 1735

Members of the American Bach Choir

Members of the American Bach Choir

The conclusion of the “Christmas Oratorio” celebrates Epiphany, the church festival that commemorates the coming of the Magi to the Christ child. The Evangelist describes how the Wise Men follow the star in the East to the baby in Bethlehem. King Herod asks them to report on the location of the child so that he too might pay his respects, but the Wise Men suspect his motives and defy the king. Through a recitative and aria that is accompanied by two oboes d’amore, the tenor soloist, again departing from the role of Evangelist, declares, “Now may ye boastful foes be frightened / what fear can ye in me awaken?” This defiant tone, along with the rousing and triumphant final chorale (“… Death, devil, hell, and error / to nothing are reduced”), amplify the work’s message: through the coming of this child, humanity will triumph over death. Bach’s music here is extraordinary; a thrilling conclusion to the work! Listen for the high-flying work of the trumpets and the exhilarating energy of the entire ensemble playing together with the choir singing on top of it all.

With the triumphant conclusion of the “Oratorio Cycle,” Bach’s musical accomplishment sent the Leipzig congregation of 1735 out into the new year with the invulnerable armor of belief. For the modern listener, there are a multitude of ways in which we experience this conclusion. Some might find solace in the original message of the text. Others may walk out into the night air with that feeling of fulfillment at having heard a work of musical and cultural significance. Still others might emerge with a sense of wonderment and astonishment, having just experienced something that will nourish their inner lives. How will Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” affect you? Come find out!


We hope that these brief guides about the six cantatas of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” will add to your experience of the work and give you some key moments to listen for in this vast masterpiece.

To purchase tickets for the December 12 performance at St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco, please visit our website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.

Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”: An Introduction, Part II

We continue our exploration of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” with a closer look at the third and fourth cantatas. To review the first two parts of the oratorio, please click here. The last installment of this series of posts about the “Christmas Oratorio” will be posted next week.

ABS musicians William Skeen (violoncello) and Corey Jamason (harpsichord)

ABS musicians William Skeen (violoncello) and Corey Jamason (harpsichord)

Part III: Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen (“Ruler of heaven, give ear to our stammer”). First performed: December 27, 1734

With the beginning of the third cantata, the pastoral repose of Part II is succeeded by the return of an extroverted, all-out celebratory feel. In fact, the chorus, trumpets, and timpani might give you a bit of a jolt when they get going! The text in this part of the oratorio describes the shepherds making their way to Bethlehem and finding Mary, Joseph, and the child in the manger. The music for the duet near the midpoint will likely sound familiar to anyone who attended ABS’s February 2014 performances of Bach’s Cantata 213, “Hercules at the Crossroads,” but there are significant differences between these works. In the secular cantata, the alto (Hercules) and tenor (virtue) are accompanied by two violas and continuo in what is essentially a love duet where they promise to remain faithful to one another. In the oratorio, the text describes the blessings of divine favor and it is sung by the soprano and bass soloists with the accompaniment by 2 oboes d’amore. This airy, bright texture allows the two vocalists, still enjoying the pastoral accompaniment of oboes, to sing one of Bach’s most easily remembered melodies amid a musical space that recalls a clear, blue sky.

Next, the Evangelist describes how the shepherds’ visit leaves Mary pondering how her private life has suddenly become the very public good news being spread by the shepherds. Bach seizes on this situation to amplify Mary’s contemplative mood with a beautiful aria, “Schließe, mein Herze, dies sledge Wunder” (“Keep thou, my heart now, this most blessed wonder”), for the alto soloist accompanied by only solo violin and continuo. The piece is in both the key of D Major and its relative minor key of B Minor, but its quiet melancholy betrays no turbulence or alternation between emotional extremes. Poignantly, Bach’s score then calls for a chorale, which in Bach’s day would have been sung by the congregation and, effectively, engages them in Mary’s meditation as if to provide her with support and encouragement. After a statement by the Evangelist about the testimony of the departing shepherds about what they have seen, Bach inserts another chorale for the congregation who are, presumably, all warmed up now. The cantata then closes in exactly the way it opened, with the joyous chorus, “Herrscher des Himmels, erhöre das Lallen.”

Part IV: Fallt mit Danken, fallt mit Loben (“Fall and thank him, fall and praise him”). First performed: January 1, 1735

ABS violone player Steven Lehning

ABS musician Steven Lehning playing viola da gamba

This section of the Oratorio, originally performed on New Year’s Day, commemorates the circumcision and naming of the baby. Interestingly, during the bass recitatives in the interior of the cantata, Bach inserts the Passiontide chorale, “Jesu, du mein liebstes Leben,” sung by the sopranos of the chorus. This melody, which would have been familiar to his congregation in 1735 as an Easter chorale, not only enhances the complexity of the vocal lines but creates a subtle connection between the shedding of Christ’s blood at his circumcision with the final, redemptive sacrifice of the passion narrative. The bass’s dramatic recitatives surround an aria for soprano and oboe with continuo, “Flößt, mein Heiland, flößt dein Namen” (“Doth, my Savior, doth thy name have”). Both the vocalist and oboe soloist enjoy an echo effect throughout the aria, with voice mirroring voice, oboe mirroring voice, and all other combinations thereof. This rhetorical device underscores a theme in the text that occurs in much of Bach’s church music, that of Christ’s interjection on behalf of all humankind to defeat death. The soprano, in effect, asks, “should I fear death?” and she is answered “No!” Then she asks, “Rather, ought I greet it gladly?” and receives the answer, “Yes!” These echoes, perhaps emanating from the Christ child, provide a comforting assurance. Bach brilliantly treats the whole aria with a modern approach that sheds textural complexity for the more gallant style that we associate with later composers like his sons, Haydn, or Mozart. Again, those who remember ABS’s performances of the  “Hercules at the Crossroads” cantata (BWV 213) in February 2014, might recognize this echo aria which also occurs in that work.

Following the second recitative section for bass soloist and choral sopranos, the tenor soloist sings his bravura aria, “Ich will nur dir zu Ehren leben” (“I would but for thine honor live now”). The aria opens with a spirited duet for two solo violins that has all of the flash and energy of the opening movement of Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor. The moderately rapid tempo and long stretches of individually articulated (staccato) sixteenth notes establish a formidable challenge for the violins, which the tenor then takes up with his entrance in an extraordinary, four-measure opening phrase that includes 42 notes on just the word “leben”! The text of this thrilling aria implores the Savior to give the singer strength so that his zeal might do honor to the divine. Indeed! This is another brilliant example of Bach’s ability to musically communicate the meaning of the text. It is also another highlight in a work with lots of them.

Continued with a third, and final, installment.

To purchase tickets for the December 12 performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church, please visit our website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.

Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”: An Introduction, Part I

Any opportunity to experience Bach’s magnificent “Christmas Oratorio” should be seized and savored. Containing some of the composer’s most joyous music, the “Christmas Oratorio” relates the nativity story with exuberant choruses, brilliant instrumental textures, and gorgeous arias. On Saturday December 12, Jeffrey Thomas will direct ABS and the American Bach Choir in a complete performance of this masterwork within the magnificent setting of St. Ignatius Church in San Francisco.


Bach composed his Weihnachts-Oratorium, BWV 248, for the Christmas season of 1734 in Leipzig, where its 6 parts were performed over several days between December 25 and January 6. Repurposing music from cantatas he had composed for secular occasions and a previously existing but now lost church cantata, the oratorio also required a significant amount of new music from the composer along with new Christmas texts and a plan to unify all of these elements into a compelling series of short works that make up a grand, larger one. Opera fans might see parallels to Bach’s ambitious plan in Richard Wagner’s towering achievement of 142 years later, Der Ring des Nibelungen, which tells one story over the course of 4 full-length operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung). Bach approached his multi-part sacred oratorio with the industriousness and brilliance that characterizes so much of his work and, in the face of a tight deadline, created a cohesive masterpiece.

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

St. Thomas Church, Leipzig

Rather than hear the work over the course of the six different days it took to complete the first Bach “Oratorio Cycle,” or even the more typical practice of dividing the oratorio into two separate performances, ABS will present the “Christmas Oratorio,” in its entirety, on one night. A little longer than the Mass in B Minor, but shorter than either of Bach’s great settings of the Passion, the “Christmas Oratorio,” like those other masterworks, carries the listener across a broad narrative arc and through an astonishing diversity of musical forms to a deeply satisfying conclusion. Like the Passions, Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” utilizes a tenor soloist Evangelist to narrate the story using only words from scripture.

Perhaps the best approach for gaining a grasp on the “Christmas Oratorio” is to examine its six parts individually before encountering the whole. Below is a brief outline of the work’s structure and some important points to know and listen for in each of the six parts.

Part I: Jauchzet, frohlocket! Auf, preiset die Tage (“Triumph, rejoicing, rise, praising these days now”). First performed: December 25, 1734

ABS_TrumpetsThe work opens with a rousing fanfare of timpani, trumpets, and full chorus. This opening will sound familiar to those who know Bach’s secular Cantata 214, Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet Trompetten! (“Sound the drums! Ring out ye trumpets”), which ABS last performed in January 2014. The two works have different texts, but they are musically identical. As Bach scholar and performer John Butt has pointed out, Bach’s repurposing of music from a secular celebration to a church cantata in no way implies laziness or anything sacrilegious. That assumption overlooks significant differences between Bach’s time and our own. In 18th century Germany, members of the ruling class, especially monarchs, were accorded God-given authority and Bach, like most everyone else, did not question this hierarchical system. Bach composed Cantata 214 for the 34th birthday celebrations of the Queen of Poland and Electress of Saxony, so he found the music to also be suitable for the opening of his “Christmas Oratorio”; they are both noble occasions. As this opening chorus is among the most jubilant and celebratory music Bach ever composed, it is fitting that his congregation would get to hear it, too! After this grand opening, the Evangelist presents some of the useful backstory about the Roman census being collected in Galilee and how Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary, unable to find accommodations, must rest in a manger. After the birth of the baby Jesus, Bach has the sopranos of the chorus and the bass soloist take turns describing the child in a tender fashion to the accompaniment of two oboes d’amore and continuo. This section is followed by the bass aria, “Großer Herr, o starker König” (“Mighty Lord, O strongest sovereign”), which changes the mood considerably as the soloist makes it clear who this child actually is. Note: “Goßer Herr” is one of Bach’s most glorious arias; be sure to arrive on time so you don’t miss this standout piece in Part I!

Part II: Und es waren Hirten in derselben Gegend (“And there were shepherds in that very region”). First performed: December 26, 1734

ABS oboist Debra Nagy playing an Oboe da Caccia

ABS oboist Debra Nagy playing an oboe da caccia

The second cantata opens with a gentle sinfonia that features the strings and flutes alternating with two oboes da caccia (curved instrument that is named for and resembles a hunting horn) and two oboes d’amore (larger oboe with a rich, warm sound). Bach uses the sonorities of this oboe quartet to establish a pastoral setting for this part of the story, which is filled with shepherds receiving the good news about the child’s birth from an angel. At different parts in the cantata, the angel’s words are sung by the soprano soloist or the entire chorus. The tenor soloist takes a momentary break from Evangelizing to sing the aria “Frohe Hirten, eilt, ach eilet” (“Joyful shepherds, haste, ah hasten”) which describes the shepherds leaving their fields to follow the angel to the manger. Here, the tenor is accompanied by flute and continuo, but the character of the aria is quite different from that other famous Bach aria for tenor and flute: “Benedictus” from the end of the Mass in B Minor. Next, the alto soloist sings an aria, “Schlafe, mein Liebster” (“Sleep now, my dearest”) which is a gorgeous lullaby to the sleeping child. This aria presents great opportunities for the soloist to sing with gentle tenderness, but it also makes great demands on his/her breath control; the words “Schlafe” and “Liebster” require four measures each, leaving only tiny chances to sneak in a breath. Hearing how performers manage to sing this aria expressively is one of the work’s many delights, and also an example of Bach’s ability to create thrilling effects within the calmest of settings. The absence of trumpets and tympani in this cantata distinguish it from the overall celebratory tone of the rest of the work. It is also the only part of the Oratorio to open with a sinfonia rather than a chorus. Note: If you love the adagio movements in classical symphonies, you will love the peaceful, pastoral mood of Part II.

Continued in a second installment.

To purchase tickets for the December 12 performance of Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church, please visit our website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.

ABS Annual Report for the 2014-15 Season

The Annual Report for ABS’s 2014-15 season is now available online. Thank you to everyone in the ABS community for making our 26th season such a successful one!


Have you reviewed the brochure for the upcoming 2015-16 season? An online version is available at the link below. If you would like a brochure mailed to you, please let us know at info@americanbach.org or call (415) 621-7900.




Are you ready for the ABS 2015-16 Season?

Jeffrey Thomas and American Bach Soloists

Jeffrey Thomas and American Bach Soloists. Photo: Brandon Labadie

A new ABS concert season is nearly upon us. Are you ready? With a focus on the music of Bach and Handel, ABS will present multiple opportunities in 2015-16 to explore the musical richness and beauty achieved by these masters. Few get to experience each of J.S. Bach’s three oratorios in live performance, but ABS will present this trio of exuberant works during the same season (“Christmas Oratorio” on December 12; “Easter Oratorio” and “Ascension Oratorio” in April 2016)! Another great oratorio, by Bach’s contemporary George Frideric Handel, will be performed in Grace Cathedral on three evenings in December (Messiah, December 16-18). There will also be cantatas and works for violin by Bach in January, a wonderful Handel program featuring his great choral ode, Alexander’s Feast, in February, an organ recital by Jonathan Dimmock to celebrate Bach’s Birthday in March, and Easter and Feast of the Ascension works by Buxtehude and Kuhnau to complement the Bach oratorios for those occasions in April.

With so much great music to come, we compiled a list of new, recent, and recommended resources for you to enjoy before the season gets rolling. If you have Bach or Handel books that you would like to recommend, please let us know on Facebook or on Twitter.


Bach_GardinerMusic in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner. This was on the list two years ago when it was first released, but this impressive book is now available in paperback for under $20. It is a fascinating look at the life and work of J.S. Bach with a decided emphasis on the sacred vocal works; his cantatas, passions, and masses. While Maestro Gardiner’s close connection with the music of Bach as a performer comes across, the scholarship and readability of this book are really what make it so rewarding. Highly recommended!


Handel_HarrisGeorge Frideric Handel: A Life with Friends by Ellen T. Harris. This 2014 book examines the composer through a trail of documents from his lifetime including his will, letters, diaries, and other sources left by his intimates. The author’s focus on Handel’s private life and her synthesis of the details found in the existing primary sources provide a bold approach to relating his biography. Also recommended (and much harder to find) is Handel: A Documentary Biography by Otto Erich Deutsch. From 1955, this book is an invaluable resource for any Handelian as it provides contemporary newspaper reviews and criticism, extracts from letters, a chronological arrangement, and a useful index. Long out of print, this book should be reissued, but until then it must be tracked down in used book stores or at online sites like Abebooks (I found mine at the San Francisco Public Library books sale at Fort Mason Center).

ModernCastratoThe Modern Castrato by Patricia Howard. A new study about the famous castrati singers with an emphasis on superstar opera singer Gaetano Guadagni. A favorite artist of Handel, the composer rewrote parts of Messiah to feature Guadagni’s singular abilities. The famous castrato went on to create roles in many important operatic works including Gluck’s revolutationary Orfeo ed Euridice.

John Dryden: The Major Works edited by Keith Walker. The poetry, plays, and essays of John Dryden are no longer part of the core English curriculum in schools, but they continue to be a rich and rewarding body of work. For several decades now, Dryden has been hiding in plain site; the time is ripe for a new biography of England’s highly accomplished man of letters. Before attending ABS’s February presentations of Handel’s setting of the Dryden ode Alexander’s Feast, it is worth reading the original poem. While you’re at it, why not dive a little further into the man’s writings? Like the works of Alexander Pope, Dryden’s razor-sharp wit and elegant style reward those who seeks him out.


Capturing Music: The Story of Notation by Thomas Forrest Kelly. For those who are curious about musical innovation, Mr. Kelly’s book is an erudite exploration of this most basic element of the musical art: the system for transferring an aural phenomena into a permanent and visual one so that it might be reproduced and “heard” by later generations.

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. This is a classic work by the author of The Man Who Mistook his Wife For a Hat and Awakenings who will long be remembered for his writings about the human mind. Sacks had a gift for examining a specific subject with strange, humorous, or eccentric examples that often lead to a deeper understanding of broad, underlying truth. Like biologist Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks is both enlightening and fun to read. In light of his recent passing (August 2015), there is no better time to revisit this work about music and the mind by the great Oliver Sacks.

Subscribe to the 2015-16 ABS season and hear all of this great music performed by ABS. Remember, subscribers enjoy access to the best seats at the best prices.


ABS Academy Alumni Impress in New York

St. Paul's Chapel (with the Freedom Tower in the background).

St. Paul’s Chapel (with One World Trade Center in the background).

ABS Academy alumni are fanning out and sharing their talents around the country and the rest of the world. It’s one thing to know this, but it is another altogether to experience it first-hand while taking in a concert in a different city that is 3,000 miles from home! I was recently in New York and attended the well known Bach@One series presented by Trinity Wall Street in the heart of downtown Manhattan and heard three Bach cantatas with a period instrument orchestra and fine group of singers. Amid the sound of squealing brakes, emergency sirens, and the hustle-bustle you would expect on the corner of Broadway and Fulton Street, the ensemble performed Es ist nichts Gesundes an meinem Leibe (BWV 25), Gottlob! nun geht das Jahr zu Ende (BWV 28), and Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (BWV 23) for a diverse, appreciative audience. Looking around, I saw business people on their lunch breaks, tourists with big backpacks, devoted locals who probably come every week, and many others who were there to experience Bach’s music in the best way: live!

Bach@One by the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, October 7, 2015

Bach@One: the Trinity Baroque Orchestra and Choir of Trinity Wall Street, October 7, 2015

The concert was superb and it was fun to spy a few familiar faces from past ABS Academy classes in the ensemble: violinist Maureen Murchie (Academy 2012), oboist Kristin Olson (Academy 2012) and soprano Molly Netter (Academy 2014). In fact, Ms. Netter was making her debut with the group at this particular performance (October 7, 2015), singing in both the choir and as a soloist in the beautiful duet that opens Cantata 23. Her partner in the duet was American Bach Choir countertenor Clifton Massey, who performed in Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Marin Marais’ Sémélé during the ABS Festival in August.

It was a delight to unexpectedly encounter these musicians in a different environment and to experience the value they are bringing to another vibrant musical community. Several other ABS Academy alumni now based in New York also participate in Bach@One throughout the year and appear with their own groups around the city. In fact, audiences in several regions around the country and world are enjoying the talents of the exceptional musicians who studied and trained right here in San Francisco at the ABS Academy. Bravi; keep up the great work!Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 11.28.15 AM

Applications for the 2016 ABS Academy are now open and the deadline to apply is February 15, 2016. Year after year, this amazing program continues to train the next generation of early music virtuosi. Do you know someone who might want to apply? Please spread the word! For more information about the ABS Academy, check our website or call the ABS office at (415) 621-7900 and ask for me (Jeff McMillan, ext. 204).

ABS Gala “Sparkle”: A Night to Remember

The 27th consecutive season of American Bach Soloists is off to a great start! “Sparkle,” the ensemble’s annual gala, kicked off the new season with a glamorous affair that more than lived up to its name.

"Sparkle" silent Auction. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

“Sparkle” silent Auction.
Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

We could not have asked for a better evening for this fabulous event. The clear blue skies yielded gorgeous views of the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and a lovely sunset. At the end of the evening, a luminous full moon lit up the night sky. The James Leary Flood Mansion proved an ideal setting for this festive gathering of music lovers, elegantly attired in their finery, to celebrate ABS and raise funds to support the ensemble’s programming and educational outreach initiatives. The generosity of the guests was nothing short of tremendous and it was an inspiration to see so many support the future of musical performances of the highest quality right here in the Bay Area.

Jeffrey Thomas leads a Bach & Handel program at the gala. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Jeffrey Thomas leads the Bach & Handel program.
Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

The silent auction was held in one of the Flood Mansion’s observatory rooms, so all had the chance to chat with fellow ABS supporters, bid on items, and take in the views while sipping their Bellinis, Kir Royales, and glasses of sparkling wine. Guests with the winning bids took home works of art, concert tickets, bottles of wine, and fun adventures. After the auction, Jeffrey Thomas led a program of arias by Bach and Handel in the Mansion’s chapel with mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko singing excerpts from Handel’s Hercules, Serse, and Ariodante, Bach’s “Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust” from Cantata 170, and “Et exultavit” from Magnificat in D Major. The ensemble of Elizabeth Blumenstock, Noah Strick (violins), Katherine Kyme (viola), William Skeen (violoncello), Steven Lehning (violone), Corey Jamason (harpsichord), and Jeffrey Thomas (conductor), also performed a Suite in D Major which was adapted in the manner of a French Overture from Bach’s Partita in D Major and dances taken from the Orchestral Suites.

The room is set for dinner Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

The room is set for dinner
Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

During dinner, the live auction found guests winning trips to Paris, New York, and Machu Picchu, as well as a private concert to be held in the chapel at Grace Cathedral. One lucky guest will even be conducting the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah during rehearsals for ABS’s performances of the entire work at Grace Cathedral in December. It was quite a night!

If you were not able to join us for “Sparkle,” but would like to make a contribution to ABS, you may do so at anytime through our website or by calling the ABS office at (415) 621-7900. Thank you for supporting American Bach Soloists!

Highlights from the 2015 ABS gala:

In Memoriam: Robert Commanday

Mary and Robert Commanday at the 2014 ABS Gala. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Mary and Robert Commanday at the 2014 ABS Gala. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

ABS mourns the loss of choral conductor, long-time Classical Music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, founding editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, and unofficial Dean of the Bay Area’s music press corps, Robert Commanday (1922-2015). A regular attendee at ABS concerts—from the very first ones at St. Stephen’s Church in 1990 (after the April concert he wrote, “A major Bach ensemble has started up in the Bay Area and soon will be a festival feature that people will travel distances to hear”) until last season’s St. Matthew Passion—Mr. Commanday was a great friend and a staunch advocate for the highest standards in musical performance. In 2012, Mr. Commanday made an indelible contribution to the ABS Festival & Academy when he presented an illuminating lecture, “A Millennium in 50 years … The Discovery of Early Music.” He will be greatly missed.

Obituaries for Robert Commanday are available at SFGate and SFCV (don’t miss the Comments section) and further testimonials can be found at the following: SFCV tribute page, Iron Tongue of MidnightKalimac LiveJournal, Musicology Now. Earlier this year Mr. Commanday finished an oral history for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he was interviewed by ABS harpsichordist Corey Jamason. Audio excerpts from the oral history interview are available here.

“Sparkle” with ABS at the Annual Gala


We sincerely hope you will join us on September 26 to celebrate and support ABS at our annual fundraising gala. This year’s event, “Sparkle,” will be held at the James Leary Flood Mansion in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Enjoy stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz while sipping delicious wines, bidding on items in our silent auction, and meeting with other arts lovers who admire the music of J.S. Bach and support its preservation through the performances of American Bach Soloists.

Dinner will be served and a special live auction will offer opportunities to bid on fabulous trips to Peru, Paris, the U.S. Open, and other wonderful packages [browse auction items here]. Hosting the auction will be Liam Mayclem, host of the Travel Channel’s “World Access” and KCBS’s “Foodie Chap.” All proceeds from the auction go directly to supporting the performances and educational initiatives of ABS.


Also, there will be a special musical program featuring mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko singing arias by Bach & Handel with Elizabeth Blumenstock, Katherine Kyme, Noah Strick (violins), William Skeen (violoncello), Steven Lehning (violone), and Corey Jamason (harpsichord) all conducted by Jeffrey Thomas. Ms. Vojtko, an alumna of the ABS Academy (2014), will be heard again in December as a soloist with ABS in Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” at St. Ignatius Church and Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral.

The Honorary chair of “Sparkle” is the Rt. Rev. Marc Handley Andrus, Bishop of California, whose seat is at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Black Tie is requested

Complimentary shuttles will be offered from Larkspur and Strawberry Village in Marin and the Rockridge BART station in the East Bay. Valet parking at the Flood Mansion is also available.

Tickets to Sparkle are $250, which include a $150 fully tax-deductible donation. Please mark September 26 on your calendar, reserve a spot online or by calling the office, and join us to celebrate American Bach Soloists and launch an exciting new season.

Make your reservation for “Sparkle” today

Save the Date: 2016 ABS Festival & Academy Announced

“An Italian Journey” is the theme for the 2016 ABS Festival & Academy, which will be held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 5-14, 2016, and will feature music from Baroque Italy. The flourishing cities of Florence, Venice, and Rome—the primary destinations of the Grand Tour excursions taken by British nobility and wealthy landed gentry, and the meeting places for the most celebrated composers and performers of the era—offered some of the most glorious art, architecture, and music to be found anywhere during the Baroque era.Piazza_San_Marco_with_the_Basilica,_by_Canaletto,_1730._Fogg_Art_Museum,_Cambridge

Festival concerts will present music from Handel’s early years in Rome, when he composed music for the “Carmelite Vespers” services, including the tour-de-force “Dixit Dominus” for chorus and orchestra. Works by Italian composers including Scarlatti, Tartini, Torelli, and Vivaldi will be performed by members of the ABS Academy Faculty, and the Academy Festival Orchestra will present Corelli’s 1714 Concerti Grossi using the enormous and rarely heard forces used in Corelli’s day.

ABS’s annual performances of Bach’s great Mass in B Minor, featuring the American Bach Choir and the Academy Orchestra, will be presented at the end of each Festival weekend.

The 2015 Festival, “Versailles & The Parisian Baroque,” was an extraordinary and memorable 10-day event. Save the dates now for the 2016 Festival when ABS will bring the brilliance of sunbaked Baroque Italy to San Francisco next August.

Tickets for “An Italian Journey” will go on sale early in 2016.

Organist Jonathan Dimmock to perform Bach Birthday Concert in 2016

Jonathan Dimmock, organ

Jonathan Dimmock, organ

On Friday, March 18, ABS will celebrate the birthday of our namesake, Johann Sebastian Bach, with a special concert featuring internationally acclaimed organ recitalist and ABS co-founder, Jonathan Dimmock. Currently the organist for the San Francisco Symphony and Principal Organist at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, Mr. Dimmock also holds the unique distinction of having been the only American Organ Scholar of Westminster Abbey and is one of the few organists in the world to tour on six continents. Mr. Dimmock has created an all-Bach program that celebrates the master’s genius as composer for “the king of instruments,” performing on one of the Bay Area’s most treasured tracker organs at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church (1111 O’Farrell Street, San Francisco). Favorite gems and a few lesser known yet brilliant works will add up to a sensational event.

Add this special concert to your 2015-16 ABS subscription today! Tickets for the event are $25 and seating at St. Mark’s will be general admission. Order online or call (415) 621-7900.

Subscribe to the 2015-16 Season

Tickets to Bach’s Birthday Concert

ABS Voted “Best of the Bay” – Thank You!

Best_of_the_BayThank you to all who voted for ABS in the San Francisco Classical Voice “Best of the Bay” reader’s poll! To be nominated in the “Best Early Music/Baroque Performance” and “Best Choral Performers” categories along with so many great musical organizations was exciting. To be awarded the “Best of the Bay” distinction in each of those categories by the readers of SFCV is an honor. Thank you!

We are grateful to the readers of SFCV and fans of ABS for all of your generous support and for the enthusiasm you have for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and his contemporaries performed at the highest level by the musicians ABS. We count on you and, in return, are devoted to bringing you unforgettable musical and educational experiences that thrill, elevate, and delight. With a fantastic season just completed and another one about to begin, we at ABS would like to thank you and renew our pledge to bring you the very best during the 2015-16 season and beyond.

Jeffrey Thomas conducting ABS performance of Handel's Messiah in Grace Cathedral. Voted "Best in the Bay" for Early Music/Baroque Performance, 2015

Jeffrey Thomas conducting ABS performance of Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral. Voted “Best in the Bay” for Early Music/Baroque Performance, 2015.

American Bach Choir. Voted "Best of the Bay" for Choral Performers, 2015.

American Bach Choir. Voted “Best of the Bay” for Choral Performers, 2015.


ABS Festival & Academy wrap-up

2015 Festival DatesThe 2015 ABS Festival & Academy concluded on the afternoon of August 16 with a sold-out performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. After ten days of lectures, master classes, and performances exploring the Festival theme, “Versailles & The Parisian Baroque,” closing with Bach’s all-encompassing masterpiece was the perfect way to conclude the full Baroque immersion. The theme for the 2016 Festival will be announced very soon (we know you will be excited about this one!), but if you would like to look back to eighteenth-century Paris, the court at Versailles, and the 2015 Academy, the daily Festival blog (along with the entries by our guest bloggers from the Academy) is below.

August 4, 2015

ABS faculty members Max van Egmond (voice), Robert Mealy (violin & viola), and Kenneth Slowik (viola da gamba & violoncello) at the Alliance Française for Mr. Mealy’s pre-Festival Lecture.

ABS faculty members Max van Egmond (voice), Robert Mealy (violin & viola), and Kenneth Slowik (viola da gamba & violoncello) at the Alliance Française for Mr. Mealy’s pre-Festival Lecture.

Welcome to the 2015 Festival – It’s finally here! ABS kicked things off a little early this year with a special pre-Festival lecture on July 31 at the Alliance Française by violinist & ABS Faculty member Robert Mealy. After a very warm welcome by Alliance Française Executive Director Pascal Ledermann and his staff, Mr. Mealy gave an engaging presentation about the music of Lully, Marais, Rebel, Rameau, and Couperin, sharing insights about the French vs. Italian Styles and generally getting everyone excited to hear the music that will be performed at the opening weekend concerts, Versailles & The Parisian Baroque – Parts I & II (August 7 & 8).

That was Friday; it is now Tuesday morning and we are fully into Festival & Academy mode. We have been excited to welcome this year’s Academy class for quite awhile and now they are all finally here! Each participant arrived at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music yesterday morning ready to study and perform with the faculty of ABS for the next two weeks. With 73 accomplished musicians in this summer’s Academy studios, the 2015 class is the largest in the six-year history of the program. This is my third Academy with ABS and I always look forward to Day 1 and meeting the participants in person for the first time (after months of email and phone correspondence). Now we are underway and each of them has embarked on this new adventure; they have met their Academy colleagues and all of the ABS faculty, had their first coachings, master classes, and many had their first Mass in B Minor rehearsal yesterday morning at 9:30 a.m. In fact, they are all hard at work on Day 2 and another packed schedule!

Welcome reception at the end of first day.

Welcome reception at the end of first day.

After an exciting first day of music making, an Academy welcome reception was held at the Conservatory on Monday evening. This event is always an excellent opportunity for the Academy participants to get together again as a large group, socialize, and talk about what is to come. So much to look forward to in the weeks ahead.

August 7, 2015

Tonight is the night! After a week of beehive-like activity at the Conservatory, the 6th annual ABS Festival & Academy kicks off tonight at 8:00 PM with Versailles & The Parisian Baroque – Part I. The musicians of ABS will take the stage to perform three fantastic works by French composers while a capacity crowd, including all of the musicians of our Academy, will fill the concert hall to take it in. At last count we had only 24 seats remaining for this opening night performance (which will be on sale at the box office beginning at 7:00 PM). A little advance information: those who arrive early tonight will enjoy a special treat beginning at 7:45 PM. Here’s a hint: it is a celebratory musical delicacy fit for a king… and was once enjoyed by Louis XIV!

Violinist Robert Mealy leads Academy musicians from Chamber Ensemble I in the dance suite from Marais’ Sémélé.

Violinist Robert Mealy leads Academy musicians from Chamber Ensemble I in rehearsal for the dance suite from Marais’ Sémélé.

Since the opening of the Academy on Monday the days have whirled by. It’s been great getting to know our Academy participants better and to watch them bond and develop partnerships in their various activities together. I have heard the entire group make some amazing sounds together in large ensemble rehearsals for two big works that will be performed next week at the Baroque Marathon: Schmierer’s Zodiaci musici and Marais’ dances from the opera Sémélé. Have you heard Schmierer’s suite? Few have! It’s an exciting piece and the ABS Academy ensemble are preparing a performance of this work you won’t soon forget. The Baroque Marathon begins on Monday, August 10 at 3:00 and continues on the evening of August 11 at 8:00.

ABS voice faculty William Sharp, Judith Malafronte, and Max van Egmond address Academy participants about the relationship of music and language.

ABS voice faculty William Sharp, Judith Malafronte, and Max van Egmond address Academy participants about the relationship of music and language.

Along with chamber ensemble rehearsals, studio master classes, and orchestra rehearsals for the opera Sémélé and Bach’s Mass in B Minor, another valuable element of the first week has been a series of Academy forums. On Tuesday, Steven Lehning gave an illuminating presentation on the history and practical considerations of tuning for the contemporary performer of early music. Wednesday’s forum featured a probing discussion of language and music by the faculty of the vocal studio—Max van Egmond, Judith Malafronte, and William Sharp—with added food for thought contributed by Jeffrey Thomas. On Thursday evening, the Academy forum titled “What next?” was a presentation covering strategies for building a successful career in early music. The Academy participants were particularly engaged with this topic and it was nice to see several ask questions and join in the discussion. These talented and enterprising musicians will surely be strong ambassadors for the music of Bach and his contemporaries in the future.

It has been an intense week already, but in a very real way things are only just getting started! I hope to see you all at the opening night concert tonight. More tomorrow…

August 8, 2015

What a night! Louis XIV and Louis XV would have both been right at home in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Friday night as Jeffrey Thomas led the American Bach Soloists in a fantastic orchestral program to open the ABS Festival & Academy. The sounds of Rebel, Aubert, & Rameau–composers who were affiliated with the Opéra in Paris and favorites of the court at Versailles–filled the air. Thomas oriented the audience to the key themes of Rebel’s Les élémens which were demonstrated by the orchestra. He then directed his forces in a musical depiction of the creation of the world out of chaos, which is Rebel’s narrative conveyed in this imaginative work. The program closed with a thrilling performance of the Ouverture and a suite of dances from Rameau’s opera Naïs. Published in 1749 with the subtitle Opéra Pour la Paix, the opera was composed to honor the long-awaited peace after the War of the Austrian Succession (just like Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks). It was a delight to hear Rameau’s celebratory music played with such precision and fiery spirit.

ABS ensemble conducted by John Thiessen performs a de Lalande fanfare in the lobby of the Conservatory before last night’s performance.

ABS ensemble conducted by John Thiessen performs a de Lalande fanfare in the lobby of the Conservatory before last night’s performance.

The evening began with an Academy ensemble performing de Lalande’s Concert de Trompettes in the lobby for all of the attendees to enjoy. The ensemble consisted of Louie Eckhardt, Dominic Favia, Steven Marquardt (trumpets), Cameron Kirkpatrick, Anke Nichol (oboes), Georgeanne Banker, Neil Chen, Joseph Jones, Leah Kohn (bassoons), Paul Holmes Morton, Tatiana Senderowitz (guitars), and Benjamin Rechel, Matthew Girolami, Daniel Turkos (basses), and ABS percussionist Kent Reed, all conducted by ABS brass faculty and baroque trumpeter John Thiessen. The de Lalande ensemble will return tonight for more fanfares before the evening concert, Versailles & The Parisian Baroque – Part II.

Sémélé rehearsal: Christopher Besch (bass), Steven Brennfleck (tenor), Rebecca Myers Hoke (Soprano), Frédéric Rosselet (violoncello), Gabriel Benton (harpsichord), Paul Holmes Morton (theorbo) with Jeffrey Thomas.

Sémélé rehearsal: Christopher Besch (bass), Steven Brennfleck (tenor), Rebecca Myers Hoke (Soprano), Frédéric Rosselet (violoncello), Gabriel Benton (harpsichord), Paul Holmes Morton (theorbo) with Jeffrey Thomas.

Lots of rehearsing filled the practice rooms and performance spaces of the Conservatory throughout the day yesterday. The Academy participants continue to prepare their chamber works for the Baroque Marathon on August 10 & 11, while also rehearsing in larger groups for the opera Sémélé and Bach’s Mass in B Minor. A staple of the Academy voice studio participants’ day is to begin with vocal coachings and then slipping away into their various rehearsals. The instrumentalists work on large ensemble works in the early morning before they combine with the singers in mid-morning chamber rehearsals. After a break for lunch, there are more rehearsals and also studio master classes. It’s a rigorous schedule for all of the Academy participants, but everyone I see is excited to be making so much music together!

I hope you are planning to attend tonight’s Versailles & The Parisian Baroque Part II. It’s going to be a great showcase of the wonderful musicians of ABS performing great music of the French Baroque. Last night, ABS showed the grandeur and elegance of the French style in three splendid orchestra pieces; tonight’s concert features smaller combinations of instrumentalists and vocalists in a wide range of chamber works by Marais, Philidor, Campra, van Blankenburg, Couperin, and others that show other aspects of the tradition, especially wit, charm, and intimacy. Also, don’t forget the Public Colloquium, “The Culture of Versailles,” begins shortly… at 2:30 p.m.! See you there.

August 9, 2015

For a change of pace, I thought it would be refreshing to turn the blog over to one of our Academy participants for a different perspective. Soprano Julianna Emanksi hails from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She will be participating in both tonight’s Mass in B Minor performance (singing the duet “Domine Deus, Rex coelestis”) and in the opera Sémélé on August 13 & 14 (as The Grand Priestess of Bacchus). Take it away, Julianna:

Julianna Emanski, soprano

Julianna Emanski, soprano

This past week the ABS Academy voice studio has been exploring the delicacy and nuance of the french language and ornamentation in preparation for the Thursday and Friday performances of Marais’ Sémélé. The ABS voice faculty have provided many musical and rhetorical tools to help each of us further develop our character in the opera. I am very much looking forward to putting it all together with the full orchestra next week! 

The soloists for B-minor mass rehearsed with the full orchestra this week. Each of us were able to run our pieces a few times. Let me just say, the orchestra really sounds amazing! Plus, this concert is really unique in the variety of soloists performing throughout the work. This weekend and next the audience will be able to enjoy so many beautiful voices in one evening. Both performances will surely be a baroque treat for all! 

What do you get when you are in San Francisco, have a short break from scheduled obligations, and have a SF local (fellow academy participant, Sara LeMesh) to show you around?? You guessed it!!! We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, took some awesome photos at Vista Point, drove through a forest of beautiful Redwoods (those were my favorite!), explored the little town of Point Reyes, and ate lunch at In & Out Burger. Sara made sure we made the most of the few hours of free time we had on Saturday morning. It was really wonderful to see the other parts north of San Francisco and to have such a great tour guide (Maybe next weekend we will have time to see the famous Lombard Street!!).

Julianna Emanski

August 10, 2015

Mass in B Minor rehearsal with Jeffrey Thomas conducting.

Jeffrey Thomas leads rehearsal of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

After two evenings of exquisite works by French composers performed by ABS, the first of two performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor concluded the opening weekend on Sunday night. It was a tremendous performance with Jeffrey Thomas leading the ABS Festival Orchestra and American Bach Choir. I was blown away by the sweep, the power, and the brilliance of the work as performed by this impressive aggregation of ABS artists and Academy participants. One of the many Academy participants who played a key role in the performance was trumpeter Louie Eckhardt from Hastings, Nebraska and who is now based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As Julianna Emanski offered her snapshot of life in the Academy yesterday, I would like to turn the blog over to Louie for his perspective on how things have been going during the first week of the Academy. The floor is yours, Louie:

Louie Eckhardt, trumpet

Louie Eckhardt, trumpet

The brass studio (trumpet and horn) has been diligently preparing for performances of Bach’s B Minor Mass over the past week, which came to fruition last night. ABS trumpeter John Thiessen had the three trumpets rotate on parts throughout the Mass, so we each had the experience of playing some 1st trumpet, while also getting experience playing the other parts. We also have spent time preparing a set of fanfares by Versailles composer Michel-Richard Delalande, which we opened the ABS concerts on Friday and Saturday night with, and will be playing at the Academy-in-Action performance on Tuesday night.

Members of the ABS Academy brass studio with Faculty member John Thiessen. Left to right: Dominic Favia, Thiessen, Steven Marquardt, Sadie Glass, Louie Eckhardt

Members of the ABS Academy brass studio with Faculty member John Thiessen. Left to right: Dominic Favia, Thiessen, Steven Marquardt, Sadie Glass, Louie Eckhardt

John has been a wonderful coach to us. We’ve spent a lot of time going through precise details in every movement of the Bach, and also have dined and spent some social time together as well. He has invested his time in us and we’ve all benefited greatly from his “war stories.”

We’ve also been busy participating in our chamber ensembles. I’m playing a lovely, short cantata, “Frohlocket mit Händen” by Dieterich Buxtehude, scored for 5 voices, 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 trumpets and continuo. Our amazing coach, Steven Lehning, spent time with us discussing phrasing and how it’s related to the text. We’ve also spent time exploring tempo relations between the sections of the piece.

The experience has been, and continues to be exciting. We are making music at a high level and building relationships not only between Academy participants and faculty, but among all of the participants. It seems like every day I hear people talking about collaborating in the future. Possibilities abound!

Louie Eckhardt
August 13, 2015

Greetings, ABS Festival-goers! I sincerely hope you are all enjoying the concerts, master classes, and lectures of this year’s Festival. It sure has been an immersion in the Parisian Baroque and the music of Bach since the Festival opened last Friday night. This week’s free master classes and lectures are off to a great start! Be sure to arrive a little early to get seats for these free daytime events today, Friday, and Saturday – they’re fun, informative, and have been drawing significant audiences all week!

Steven Lehning, Corey Jamason, Kenneth Slowik, and William Skeen performing Marin Marais’ Suite in D Major.

Steven Lehning, Corey Jamason, Kenneth Slowik, and William Skeen performing Marin Marais’ Suite in D Major.

I thoroughly enjoyed the harpsichord master class on Tuesday afternoon. ABS Academy faculty member Corey Jamason worked with four Academy participants on a broad range of pieces. Hee-Seung Lee performed two works from Couperin’s Pièces de Clavecin, Tatiana Senderowicz played a guitar prelude by Santiago de Murcia, John Yeh performed the Allemande from Rameau’s Suite for Harpsichord in A Minor, and Jacqueline Nappi performed the Chromatic Fantasy of J.S. Bach. All four works were performed beautifully and it was great to watch Jamason work with each musician on ways to take their performances to the next level, whether it be a specific rhythmic emphasis for an ornament or a more general interpretive idea to explore. Jamason also said something that I have heard other faculty members say since the Academy opened last week: the participants may be getting inspiration from them, but the faculty are also finding inspiration in the approaches and enthusiasm exhibited by the Academy musicians. The study and engagement is genuinely collaborative and faculty and participants have become, in many ways, colleagues at this point. That evening, Kenneth Slowik presented an informative lecture about the Grand Siècle, or “Grand Century” of French Art and musical institutions of the era with an emphasis on the Monarchs leading up to and including Louis XIV.

Yesterday, I spent most of the day speaking with Academy participants about their experiences and I must say that I, too, find these young musicians very inspiring! Many of them made great sacrifices to be here and they are all working hard to learn everything they possibly can during the two weeks of the program so they can take their experience back to their homes. Some already have their sights set on applying for next year!

More master classes and lectures to come today. Oh, and there is also the little detail that Jeffrey Thomas, the American Bach Choir, and the ABS Festival Orchestra are presenting the North American premiere of Marais’ gorgeous 1709 opera Sémélé tonight! This is going to be quite an event; hope to see you there! Tomorrow’s performance of Sémélé is sold out, so if you don’t have a ticket yet, tonight will be your only chance to hear this magnificent work live—the 30 remaining tickets will be on sale at the box office tonight beginning at 7:00 p.m.

August 15, 2015

Making history: the U.S. premiere of Marais' Sémélé.

Making history: the U.S. premiere of Marais’ Sémélé.

We are arriving at the home stretch of the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy and it has already been an exhilarating ride. Over the last two nights, we have heard the first performances outside of Europe of Marais’ Sémélé in all of its grand splendor. Jeffrey Thomas conducted masterful performances on Thursday and Friday nights and ABS Faculty members Robert Mealy, Elizabeth Blumenstock (violins), Kenneth Slowik (violoncello), and Steven Lehning (bass) along with two ABS percussionists anchored the massive ensemble. Around them were 47 more players of the ABS Academy Orchestra, 17 singers from the American Bach Choir, and 10 vocal soloists from the ABS Academy. It was an awesome ensemble and they performed the nearly three-hour opera with complete concentration and commitment. There was a huge standing ovation and roar of appreciation last night that just might have been louder than the impressive earthquake music of Act V!

One of the stars of the show was soprano Grace Srinivasan. Stepping in to sing for a colleague who was ill and unable to perform on Thursday night, Grace sang the part of the Grand Priestess of Bacchus and her originally scheduled role of the Shepherdess with great poise. I asked Grace (pictured below, on the right, with friends during a few free hours last week) to write a little for the blog about her week at the Academy. Take it away Grace:

Grace Srinivasan, soprano (and friends)

Grace Srinivasan, soprano (and friends)

After a week of being immersed in Bach, I took full advantage of my Sunday off with a trip across the bay to Sausalito with some college friends. We ferried across, taking way too many photos of the beautiful scenery and famous landmarks before landing in a sunny and tourist-filled Sausalito for lunch on the water and some window shopping. Filled with ice cream and gifts, and a little sunburned, we made our way back to the city where I settled in to watch my magnificent colleagues in Bach’s Mass in B minor. I’ve long adored many of the solo movements of the piece but never gotten the chance to hear the mass in its entirety, so it was an incredible experience from start to finish with many chill-inducing moments [Note: Grace Srinivasan will sing the duet “Et in unum Dominum” in the performance on August 16]

After a wonderful end to week one, we dove right back in with three marathon concerts showcasing the work we Academy participants have been working on. I took part in the Monday afternoon concert, performing two gorgeous Bach duets with my superb ensemble class before singing a series of Clérambault motets for continuo, two sopranos and alto. They are stunningly beautiful and rarely performed, so it was a pleasure to get to present them and attempt to do them justice. I became an audience member on Monday and Tuesday nights, hearing my colleagues sing and play a range of pieces, from an orchestral set of dances by Schmierer to more Bach cantata arias and ensembles. After a long but rewarding couple days of music we all dive into our final rehearsals for Sémélé and another performance of the B Minor Mass. I can’t wait!

Grace Srinivasan

As in year’s past, it was difficult to say goodbye (or bid adieu) to the 73 musicians of the 2015 Academy. For two weeks they shared their enthusiasm and talent with all of us and now they are off to new adventures. It was a joy to witness them diligently working at their craft and also enjoying the community that took hold on that very first day. When will we see and hear them again? Something tellls me it won’t be long: these stellar instrumentalists and singers have so much to offer and I, for one, can’t wait to hear them again.Academy2015

Interview with ABS soprano, Kathryn Mueller

Kathryn Mueller, soprano

Kathryn Mueller, soprano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baroque trumpeter John Thiessen

Baroque trumpeter John Thiessen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Thiessen with ABS. Photo: Gene Kosoy

John Thiessen with ABS. Photo: Gene Kosoy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Few subscriptions left for 2015 ABS Festival & Academy

ABS-logo-2012-2013-color-darkgold-72dpiRGB-WEB-ONLYThere are a limited number of Festival Passes remaining for the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy, but they must be reserved by calling the ABS office. If you would like to subscribe to the entire ABS Festival & Academy (August 7-16), please call (415) 621-7900 between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm, Monday – Friday, and we will be happy to arrange your Festival Pass by phone.

Prices of Festival Passes (5 concerts) are as follows:

Section AA – $296 Sold Out

Section A – $275

Section B – $210

Section C – $115 Sold Out

Single tickets to Festival concerts are available online, though availability is running low on some events. For a full 2015 ABS Festival & Academy schedule, including 14 free events, visit sfbachfestival.org.