ABS Festival & Academy Highlight: Bach’s Mass in B Minor, August 9 & 16

Johann Sebastian Bach by Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach by Haussmann

One of the highlights of the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy (August 7-16) is a highlight every year: Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor. The ABS Festival Orchestra, American Bach Choir, and soloists from the Academy, all under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas, perform this pinnacle work to capacity audiences year after year in what has become a beloved annual tradition. This summer the Mass in B Minor will be performed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on both Festival Sundays, August 9 & 16.

The composition that many consider the greatest musical work of all time was never, in fact, performed during Bach’s lifetime. Comprised of movements hand-picked from over 35 years of composing, Bach compiled the Mass toward the end of his life to document the diverse techniques and compositional styles that he utilized and perfected throughout his career. As a testament to the artistic and humanistic ideals of the time, there is nothing like it. As a musical experience to be enjoyed 265 years after Bach’s death, it continues to reward deep engagement and multiple hearings.

Whether you are new to the work or revisiting it for the 50th time, the 30-minute ABS documentary, “Bach’s Mass in B Minor: Anatomy of a Masterwork” is a wonderful, free resource to visit. In the film, the musicians of ABS (Jeffrey Thomas, Debra Nagy, Elizabeth Blumenstock, John Thiessen, Steven Lehning, Sandra Miller, and others) describe the work and their experiences of performing it each year.

With an outstanding new group of Academy participants arriving to study and perform the Mass alongside their ABS Faculty mentors, we hope you do not miss this year’s performances: August 9 at 7:00 p.m. and August 16 at 2:00 p.m.  Tickets are still available for both dates (best availability on August 9). You can read more about Bach’s masterwork, including the 1900 United States Premiere of the Mass in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1900, on the ABS blog here.


ABS collaboration with Alliance Française begins July 21

afsf-adABS will collaborate with Alliance Française de San Francisco in three exciting, French-themed programs this month leading up to the ABS Festival & Academy “Versailles & The Parisian Baroque” (August 7-16). We hope to see you at the Alliance Française (1345 Bush Street, San Francisco) for this pre-Festival celebration of French culture, cinema, and music. Save the dates and arrive early to get a good seat!

July 21, 7:00 pm: Movie Night: Molière (Laurent Tirard, 2007). In the tradition of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, this delightful French portrait of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, a.k.a. Molière, shows the man as both artist and lovable rascal.

July 28, 7:00 pm: Movie Night: Ridicule (Patrice Leconte, 1996). A way with words and a quick wit are necessary to navigate the court of Louis XVI in this critically acclaimed tale.

Mealy2July 31, 7:00 pm: Pre-Festival Lecture: Robert Mealy. Using illustrations and music examples, violinist and ABS Academy Faculty member Robert Mealy will explore the theme of the ABS Festival, Versailles & The Parisian Baroque. A renowned authority on the music of the period, Mealy is well-known to ABS concertgoers for his stellar performances and engaging pre-concert lectures. You won’t want to miss this: Mr. Mealy’s lecture which will surely be an ideal preparation for the ABS Festival & Academy, opening a week later on August 7 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

All events will take place in the theater of the Alliance Française. Both films and the lecture are free and open to the public; donations to the Alliance Française are appreciated. Read more about the collaboration with AFdSF here.

“Baroque Marathon” opens second week of ABS Festival & Academy

Academy Chamber Ensemble perform a work by Telemann in 2014 Academy in Action concert.

Academy Chamber Ensemble performing a work by Telemann in 2014 Academy in Action concert.

Are you excited about this summer’s ABS Festival & Academy, August 7-16? We are, too! This year, the Academy-In-Action Series, which traditionally opens the second week of Festival activities, will undergo an exciting metamorphosis into a “Baroque Marathon.” Featuring instrumental and vocal soloists from the ABS Academy, this two-day event will be held on August 10 & 11. Altogether, the Marathon will include three sessions: two on Monday (3:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.) and a concluding one on Tuesday (8:00 p.m.). The August 11 session will include a complete performance of Bach’s Cantata 131 (Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir) conducted by ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas.

2014 Academy participants Michael Kaufman, Kyle Collins, Ben Kazez, and Mara Winter perform an aria by Bach at Academy in Action concert.

2014 Academy participants Michael Kaufman, Kyle Collins, Ben Kazez, and Mara Winter perform an aria by Bach at Academy in Action concert.

Whether you want to hear a few different works or experience the entire Marathon, we encourage all to drop in and stay as long as you like. All three sessions are free, and seating in the concert hall for each is open. Note: there will be a dinner break between sessions I & II on Monday, so there will be time to rest and refresh. Food and drink will be available at Café Crème within the Conservatory or at any of the fine eateries in nearby Hayes Valley.

Session I begins Monday, August 10 at 3:00 p.m. and includes about three hours of music. Following the dinner break, Session II will begin at 8:00 p.m. Some of the music which will be performed over the course of the Marathon will include:

— Intimate French motets by Mouliné

— Music composed by Clérambault for the nuns at the Royal Convent School at Saint-Cyr

— A cantata for 5 voices, trumpets, and strings by Buxtehude

— High Baroque chamber works with uncommon instrumentation from the Court of Dresden by Zelenka, Fasch, and Graun

— Quartets and trios by Telemann

— Arias from cantatas by J.S. Bach

— Music from Johann Abraham Schmierer’s Zodiaci musici

— Bach’s Cantata 131 Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir conducted by ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas (August 11)

— A Suite of buoyant and kinetic dances from Marais’ Sémélé

Immerse yourself in these sessions of musical exploration and discovery. Admission to the Baroque Marathon is free (Suggested donation for each night is $10). Remember, Tuesday August 11 also marks the first of the free master classes and lectures during the Festival; come by at 3:00 p.m. for the harpsichord master class and at 5:00 p.m. for Kenneth Slowik’s lecture on “Musical Institutions of the Grand Siècle.” For more information and a full Festival schedule, please visit sfbachfestival.org, email info@americanbach.org, or call (415) 621-7900.

Jeffrey Thomas addresses Pacific Boychoir Academy graduates

Jeffrey Thomas speaking to graduating class of Pacific Boychoir Academy.

Jeffrey Thomas speaking to graduating class of Pacific Boychoir Academy.

ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas recently addressed the Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland at their annual commencement ceremony. The PBA and Maestro Thomas have shared the stage in musical collaboration on several occasions over the years. ABS audiences will surely remember the powerful impact the PBA choristers made in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion this past season. They also joined ABS for performances of an early version of the St. Matthew Passion in 2012 and a program of Bach cantatas back in 2007. At UC Davis, Thomas has directed large ensembles incorporating choristers from the Pacific Boychoir in a stunning array of works including Britten’s Saint Nicolas, Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi, Vaughan Williams’ Song of Thanksgiving, Orff’s Carmina Burana and Berlioz’s Te Deum.

Under the direction of founder and Music Director Kevin Fox, the PBA has created an impressive musical legacy that includes multiple Grammy Awards, international tours, and important appearances such as the memorial services of Nelson Mandela in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

Addressing the graduating class, Thomas emphasized the importance of applying the habits and standards they developed while at PBA. He also encouraged them to keep singing. “That invaluable knowledge and experience of mutual support that you have learned here at PBA is something that you can carry along with you wherever you go,” he said, “If your generation is going to change the world, and repair the planet and our communities, through whatever work and career you take on, you’re going to have to do it together, as a team, as an ensemble.”

ABS, with choristers from the Pacific Boychoir, performing Bach's St. Matthew Passion in Berkeley, 2015.

Choristers from the Pacific Boychoir with ABS performing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last season. Photo: Gas Lamp Productions

Thomas also praised the singers for their work with ABS in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion last February and March: “That was certainly not the most difficult music that’s been handed to you, but you sang it with a depth of expression and sincerity and involvement that was overwhelming to the audiences and to your fellow musicians in ABS. I have so greatly enjoyed not only your beautiful and heartfelt singing but also the remarkable professionalism that you have brought to each of those rehearsal and concert experiences.”

Congratulations to all of the graduates of the PBA!

Festival Primer: Versailles, The Parisian Baroque, and Bach!

The upcoming ABS Festival & Academy, Versailles & The Parisian Baroque, will take place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 7-16. While the concerts, lectures, and public colloquium will emphasize the French composers who established a style and tradition all their own during the 17th and 18th Centuries, the great J.S. Bach will also get his due during the two-week festival, namely during the Academy-In-Action concerts (August 10 & 11) and the beloved annual performances of the Mass in B Minor (August 9 & 16).

With only a few weeks left until the Festival begins, it is a great time to begin looking forward. Below are some listening, viewing, and reading recommendations to get you in the spirit before the two-week immersion in the Parisian Baroque begins!


French OperaFrench Opera: A Short History by Vincent Giroud (Yale University Press, 2010). This overview of a fascinating musical tradition explores the characteristics that make French operas so, well … French. Giroud’s summary of the Baroque period composers, namely Lully, Marais, Charpentier, Campra, and Rameau, is excellent and concise. Explanations of the French treatment of recitative and arias, emphasis on dance, and the working lives of musicians in Paris and Versailles reveal key differences with Italian and German opera and the history behind those differences.

GardenerVersaillesThe Gardener of Versailles: My Life in the World’s Grandest Garden by Alain Baraton (Rizzoli, 2014). An eccentric and charming memoir by the gardener-in-chief of Versailles who has dedicated his life to the care of the park’s plants, fountains, and history for over 40 years. Whether your interest is in the history of the Chateau and its grounds or the fascinating daily grind of its modern day caretaker, this book is great preparation for the public colloquium at the Festival on August 8, The Culture of Versailles.

Saint SimonMemoirs of Duc de Saint-Simon 1691-1709. These writings of day-to-day life in the court of Louis XIV are available in several editions and can often be found in used books stores or free downloads online. The rules and protocols of courtiers are covered in great detail, as are the scandals and intrigues of ambitious individuals seeking to raise their station and gain more influence with the king.



TousLesMatinsTous les matins du monde (Alain Corneau, 1991). Highly influential and memorable film about the life of Marin Marais and his viola da gamba studies with the legendary Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe. The soundtrack, organized by master gambist Jordi Savall, gave tremendous boosts to the rediscovery of Marais, the viola da gamba, and to historically informed performance practice in early music.

Le Roi Danse (Gérard Corbiau, 2000). Rich in period detail, this gorgeous film takes the viewer into the world of Versailles and the court of Louis XIV through its main protagonist, Jean-Baptiste Lully, the most important composer in early French music history (who was actually, by birth, Italian). There are many excellent scenes of musical life and performance, including a ballet du cour featuring Louis XIV as the principal dancer. Read more about the film here and look for it on YouTube.

Moliére (Laruent Tirard, 2007). Fun biopic about the great French playwright and occasional librettist for Lully. The film will be shown at the Alliance Française (1345 Bush Street) on July 21 at 7:00 p.m. as part of ABS’s summer collaboration with the Alliance Française de San Francisco. Read more about the film on the ABS blog.

Ridicule (Patrice Leconte, 1996). Set in France before the Revolution, Ridicule explores the decadent court culture at Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI. The film will be shown on July 28 at 7:00 p.m. as the second film screening of the ABS collaboration with the Alliance Française. Check the ABS blog for more about this film.

Anatomy of a MasterpieceBach’s Mass in B Minor: Anatomy of a Masterwork (ABS, 2015). No ABS Festival & Academy would be complete without the annual performances of Bach’s Mass in B Minor by the ABS Festival Orchestra conducted by Jeffrey Thomas. No matter if this August will be your first hearing of the work or your 100th, this 30-minute documentary provides insights into Bach’s Mass and offers extended musical selections recorded live at the 2014 Festival. Let Jeffrey Thomas, Elizabeth Blumenstock, John Thiessen, and the other interviewed ABS musicians be your guides through this pinnacle work of artistry, creativity, and expressive achievement. View the film free on our YouTube channel.


Where to start? Since the mid-1990s, lots of great French Baroque music has been recorded by fantastic period-instrument ensembles. Here are just a few:

LesDelices Myths & Allegories (Les Délices, 2012). ABS oboist Debra Nagy’s Cleveland-based chamber group performs music from Jean-Féry Rebel’s 1703 opera Ulysses and music by Thomas-Louis Bourgeois, Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, and Michel Pignolet de Montéclair. ABS soprano Clara Rottsolk is the featured vocal soloist.

Charpentier: La descent d’Orfée aus Enfers (Boston Early Music Festival, 2014). Outstanding performance that won the GRAMMY for Best Opera Recording earlier this year and features several ABS musicians [read more here].

Cadmus et HermioneLully: Cadmus et Hermione. For those who appreciate attention to period detail, this meticulous presentation from 2009 of one of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s early stage works is a revelation. Using only the stage technology of Lully’s day, including candles for lighting instead of electricity, the performance transports the viewer back to the 1670s. Also, since Cadmus is the mythological father of Semele, this opera by Marais’ esteemed predecessor is ideal preparation for the Festival performances of Sémélé on August 13 & 14. Highly recommended!

Tickets for the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy, full schedule, and other information are available at sfbachfestival.org.

ABS in Boston for Early Music Exhibition

ABS Flutist Sandra Miller spent time at the ABS exhibition table.

ABS Flutist Sandra Miller spent time at the ABS exhibition table.

From June 9-13, ABS took part in the world famous exhibition at the 2015 Boston Early Music Festival (known as BEMF). Emma Gavenda and I spent our days chatting with Festival-goers, instrument makers, and dozens of musicians. In addition to speaking with music lovers about the upcoming ABS Festival & Academy, it was a pleasure to see so many ABS Academy alumni come by the ABS exhibition table between concerts. What an inspiration to see these outstanding musicians performing at such a high level and for appreciative audiences at this event. As an added bonus, ABS flutist and Academy faculty member Sandra Miller spent some time at the table talking with visitors about ABS and the Academy. Thanks, Sandy!

McGill University performance during BEMF.

McGill University performance during BEMF.

Outside of the exhibition hall, there were dozens of early music concerts happening all around downtown Boston. As it was impossible to see and hear everything, difficult choices had to be made. I was delighted to catch a few excellent “fringe” concerts, especially soprano Molly Netter (Academy 2014) singing with Les Canards Chantant (“The Singing Ducks” – look for them on Facebook!) in a program of Italian Madrigals and an ensemble from McGill University (part of Early Music America’s Young Performers Festival) performing a balanced program of French, Italian, and German music, including Telemann’s Trietto no. 3 in D Minor with stunning playing by oboist Joel Verkaik (Academy 2014). Joel also wrote the program notes.

Tenors Zachary Wilder and Aaron Sheehan during curtain call of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea.

Tenors Zachary Wilder (third from right) and Aaron Sheehan (second from right) taking a bow after Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

The centerpiece of this year’s BEMF was a series of major works by Monteverdi, with fully staged performances of Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea, along with a concert performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. The opportunity to hear these early operas in such close proximity to one another attracted an international audience who filled the Boston University Theatre night after night. Several musicians from recent ABS concerts distinguished themselves in the superb Monteverdi cycle. Tenors Zachary Wilder (who made his ABS debut last January as Damon in Handel’s Acis and Galatea), Aaron Sheehan (Grammy Award winner who recently sang in ABS performances of Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s St. John Passion), and Charles Blandy (who was a soloists in last season’s St. Matthew Passion) all played key roles in the operas and ABS violinist and Academy faculty member Robert Mealy was concertmaster for every performance.

Within just a few days, we had spoken with hundreds of people about the exciting events that are coming up for ABS. Several of our new friends decided to make the trip to San Francisco for this year’s ABS Festival & Academy, Versailles & The Parisian Baroque (August 7-16 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music) or apply to next year’s Academy. We look forward to seeing you all soon!

ABS Academy Awards: Scholarships, Contests, and Other Good News

Academy alumni who performed in last year's Messiah.

Academy alumni who performed in last year’s Messiah.

Not only does the ABS Academy attract some of the best and brightest musicians to San Francisco every summer, but we all get to watch and listen to them both during the Festival and in the years to come as their activities take them all around the world and, occasionally, back to the Bay Area. With recent awards and honors announced for some of the Academy’s incoming participants and our distinguished alumni, ABS is extremely proud to play an important role in the musical journeys of these talented artists. Every year Early Music America awards Summer Workshop Scholarships to gifted musicians in the early music field, and ABS Academy participants have benefited from this financial assistance in the past. This year, an amazing 5 out of 9 scholarships were awarded to incoming Academy musicians! Congratulations are due to the following recipients of EMA’s 2015 Summer Workshop Scholarship:

Daniel Mireles, viola
Jonathan Slade, flute
Alice Culin-Ellison, violin
David Dickey, oboe
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, countertenor

There is more good news! Early Music America has awarded flutist and 2014 Academy alumna Mara Winter the prestigious Barbara Thornton Memorial Scholarship. This award, offered every other year to an outstanding and highly motivated young performer in medieval music, will allow Mara the opportunity to widen her experience through more advanced study. Congratulations, Mara!

Also, the semifinalists for the Baroque Flute Artist Competition held by the National Flute Association in Washington, D.C. have just been announced. Of the six semifinalists, two are Academy alums–Christopher Matthews and Joshua Romatowski–and one will be attending the Academy for the first time this summer–Mili Chang–before heading to the Nation’s capital to compete. Good luck to all and congratulations!

ABS is excited to welcome its largest Academy class to date in August 2015: 74 musicians from the United States, Germany, Canada, and England. We sincerely hope you will join us at the Festival, Versailles & The Parisian Baroque (August 7-16), to hear this exceptional group of musicians perform. Tickets to the Academy-In-Action concerts, Bach’s Mass in B Minor and Marais’ Sémélé (all events that will feature soloists from the Academy) are available on the Festival website: sfbachfestival.org.

Festival Performance Added: Marais’ Sémélé on August 13

Jupiter and Semele (1894-95), by Gustave Moreau

Jupiter and Semele (1894-95), by Gustave Moreau

Due to the early and exceptionally high demand for tickets to the Friday, August 14 performance of Marin Marais’ opera Sémélé, a second performance of the work has been added to the ABS Festival & Academy schedule on Thursday, August 13. Among the most highly anticipated events of the 2015 festival, these performances of Sémélé will be the first complete performances of the opera outside of Europe. Do you have your tickets to Sémélé?

TICKETS: Marais’ Sémélé

The ABS Festival & Academy will take place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from August 7-16, 2015. The theme for the Festival is Versailles & The Parisian Baroque. To request a brochure or view the full schedule of concerts, free lectures & master classes, and public colloquia, please visit sfbachfestival.org.

ABS Festival & Academy Highlight: Marin Marais’ Sémélé

Marin Marais

Marin Marais

The operas of Marin Marais are rarely performed today in contemporary opera houses, though not for lack of musical and dramatic value. His final opera, Sémélé, had not been heard in nearly 300 years when the French ensemble Le Concert Spiritual, under the baton of Hervé Niquet, presented the work at the Festival International d’Opéra Baroque in Beaune, France in 2006—the 350th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. The following year, the same ensemble presented Sémélé (minus Marais’ 30-minute prologue, which was cut) in a fully staged production directed by Olivier Simonnet in Montpellier. Despite its rediscovery nine years ago, Marais’s final work for the lyric stage has only been performed in Europe—until now! Jeffrey Thomas and the ABS Festival Orchestra will present the U.S. Premiere of Sémélé at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music during the ABS Festival & Academy on Thursday & Friday, August 13 & 14.

Semele scoreMarais’ Sémélé is a work of beauty and verve (it has an exciting earthquake scene in Act V), but few actually heard the opera when it premiered on April 9, 1709 at the Palais Royal in Paris. Due to an extraordinarily cold European winter (often referred to as “The Great Frost”), the 1708-09 season was a terrible one for opera in France as the country was hit particularly hard: food shortages crippled its urban centers and revolts broke out in the streets. Amid this turmoil, turnouts for revivals of old operas by Lully or the new one by Marais were modest, to say the least. By the time conditions had improved in Paris, Marais had retired from his stressful position at the Opéra and returned to composing smaller-scale works for viola da gamba.

With the exception of occasional 18th-century revivals of his first successful stage work, Alcyone (1706), Marais’ tragedies en musique went mostly unperformed for hundreds of years. Thanks to the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde (“All the World’s Mornings”), an evocative treatment of the composer’s life with a stirring, viola da gamba-focused soundtrack, a renewed interest in Marais took off during the 1990s and 2000s. With the simultaneous reappraisal of French Baroque operas by Charpentier, Lully, Rameau, and others, a new appreciation of this grand tradition blossomed and yielded many thrilling musical (re) discoveries. Sémélé IS one of these great discoveries!

San Francisco, in all likelihood, will not be struck by a “great frost” this August, so the ABS Festival & Academy presents a perfect, not to mention rare, opportunity to experience this remarkable work live. As one of the highly anticipated early music events of the summer, tickets for Sémélé are already going fast. Reserve your seats for Sémélé today.

TICKETS: Marais’ Sémélé, August 13 & 14, 2015, 8:00 pm

All Festival & Academy performances take place San Francisco Conservatory of Music, (50 Oak Street) from August 7-16. To request a Festival brochure, please visit americanbach.org or call (415) 621-7900.

In Memorium: James Weaver, bass baritone

James Weaver

James Weaver

ABS is saddened to learn of the death of bass baritone James Weaver on May 3, 2015. Weaver was a soloist on many ABS recordings and a featured artist with the ensemble between 1990 and 2006. Often appearing with the group on programs comprised entirely of Bach cantatas, including the inaugural concert at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere on February 2, 1990, Weaver also appeared with the ensemble in Bach’s St. John Passion, Magnificat, Mass in B Minor, St. Matthew Passion, and in Handel’s Messiah.

A native of Detroit, Weaver studied at Amsterdam’s Sweelinck Conservatory with Max van Egmond (who is a member of the ABS Academy Faculty). He enjoyed a distinguished international career, appearing with many of the finest orchestras and chamber ensembles in North America and Europe. He made numerous recordings with ABS and can also be heard on recordings for the Dorian, Smithsonian, Channel Classics, Ricercar, and Newport Classics labels.

ABS Recordings featuring bass baritone James Weaver:

Bach Cantata Series II: Trauerode
Bach Cantata Series IV: Cantatas for Easter
Bach Cantata Series V: Weimar Cantatas
Bach: Mass in B Minor
Bach: St. Matthew Passion
Schütz: Choral & Vocal Works

Listen: James Weaver on ABS recordings

An Obituary for Mr. Weaver appeared in the Williamsburg Daily Press.

ABS Partnership with Alliance Française

ABS is pleased to announce an upcoming partnership with the Alliance Française de San Francisco during the weeks leading up the ABS Festival & Academy, August 7-16. To celebrate and further explore the Festival theme of “Versailles & The Parisian Baroque,” the partnership will feature a film series and a pre-Festival lecture by ABS violinist Robert Mealy.

AF_Logo_TextThe Alliance Française de San Francisco is an educational institution that is dedicated to the promotion of French culture and language. They offer language courses, exhibitions, library services, and education resources to the French speaking community and students of the language within San Francisco. One of their most popular programs is French cinema night, held every Tuesday evening in their theater at 1345 Bush Street. As part of the collaboration with ABS, the films schedule in mid-late July will explore the theme of the French Baroque with two films set during the period when France was the seat of European glamor, splendor, invention, and political might. Through the creations of Jean-Baptiste Lully, Marin Marais, and Jean-Philippe Rameau it was clearly an extraordinary center of music, opera, and theater, as well.

Free Film Series

MoliereOn July 21 at 7:00 p.m., the Alliance Française will screen Laurent Tirard’s 2007 film, Molière. Profiling Lully’s favored librettist for the comédie-ballet performed for (and occasionally featuring the dancing of) King Louis XIV, the film is a visual feast of period detail and French wit. Set during the 1660s before Molière became the country’s leading (and most controversial) comedian and playwright, the film follows Molière, played by Romain Duris, through a series of amusing and romantic adventures to his inspiration. In the tradition of the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, this French film is a delightful portrait of a man as a artist, lover, and lovable rascal.

RidiculeOn July 28 at 7:00 p.m., Patrice Leconte’s Ridicule will be shown. The wit and naughtiness of the French court of Louis XVI are the focus in this film. The stunning cinematography and, again, exquisite period detail of Ridicule provide a gorgeous backdrop for the lively banter and clever take-downs of a group of privileged aristocrats. The extravagance that took root a century earlier during the reign of the Louis XIV reaches its decadent extreme in the Versailles of the 1780s. Fatally removed from the lives of average French men and women of Paris and the surrounding country, the cruel games of the privileged classes end abruptly when a new social order topples the French aristocracy in revolution.

Providing excellent bookends for the music, lectures, and colloquia that will be featured during the ABS Festival & Academy, Molière and Ridicule span the emergence of France as the dominant power in Europe until its inevitable fall; together they provide a perfect double-feature for getting into the spirit of the era!

Free Pre-Festival Lecture on the Parisian Baroque

MealyAs a special treat for Alliance Française members and fans of ABS, violinist Robert Mealy will present a pre-Festival lecture at the Alliance Française on Friday, July 31 at 7:00 p.m. A renowned authority on the music of the period, Mealy is well-known to ABS concertgoers from his engaging pre-concert lectures and stellar performances with the ensemble. Mealy is the Director of Juilliard’s Historical Performance Program, a member of the ABS Academy Faculty, and an accomplished musician who appears on more than 80 recordings. Save the date for Mr. Mealy’s lecture which will surely be an ideal preparation for the ABS Festival & Academy, opening a week later on August 7 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Both films and the lecture are free and open to the public, though donations to the Alliance Française are appreciated.

Single tickets and Festival passes for the 2015 ABS Festival & Academy, along with a full schedule, are available at sfbachfestival.org. If you would like to receive a free Festival brochure, you may request one from our website or call the ABS Office at (415) 621-7900.

Subscriptions to ABS’s 2015-16 Season Now Available

ABS-logo-2012-2013-color-darkgold-72dpiRGB-WEB-ONLYSubscriptions to ABS’s 27th season are now on sale. The 2015-16 season includes three outstanding subscription programs in four Northern California venues featuring cantatas, works for violin, and oratorios by J.S. Bach, Handel’s Alexander’s Feast, and luminous works by Kuhnau and Buxtehude. Subscribers also enjoy first priority for tickets to special events during the season such as Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio” in St. Ignacious Church (December 12) and Handel’s Messiah in Grace Cathedral (December 16-18) before they go on sale to the general public on July 1.

To order a subscription to our series in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, or Davis, please visit our website or contact the ABS Office at (415) 621-7900.


Getting to know Leonardo Leo

Leonardo Leo

Leonardo Leo

Of the three composers on ABS’s next concert program, Leonardo Leo may be the least familiar to concertgoers. Leo (1694-1744) was a Neapolitan composer who enjoyed great success during his lifetime as a composer of comic operas and, later in his life, church music. Though his operas are rarely performed today, Leo’s instrumental and sacred works are periodically performed by early music ensembles and chamber groups. ABS, with Gretchen Claassen as soloist, will perform Leo’s Concerto for Violoncello in A Major at Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo (May 1-4).

This concerto is one of six Leo composed for the Duke of Maddonlini between 1734 and 1737. It is a sparkling example of Leo’s status as a transitional figure, wholly at home with Baroque forms and conventions while also showing a talent for the newer, Classical style that was gaining popularity. It is perhaps to the Duke’s credit that we have any cello concertos from Leo at all; the Duke was an amateur cellist of excellent ability and Leo composed the concertos to showcase his patron’s talents. Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, another famous Italian musician in the Duke’s employment during the 1730s, wrote his Cello Sonata in G Major and Sinfonia in F Major for him.



Leo’s sacred works were held in high esteem during his lifetime and some of them enjoyed longevity after the composer’s death. In 1739 Leo composed his Miserere for two choruses with basso continuo, an impressive example of counterpoint and craftsmanship that persisted in the liturgy well into the late nineteenth-century, especially in the churches of his hometown of Naples. In 1880, the work made an impression on none other than Richard Wagner who was in Naples to finish orchestrating his final opera, Parsifal. After some tedious dealings with an Italian singer, Wagner and his wife Cosima sought to “clear the air” and took a walk to the chapel at the Naples Conservatory to hear Leo’s famous Miserere. In her exhaustive diaries, Cosima Wagner quoted her husband’s reaction: “What an awesomely noble impression the music makes! … This is rare music, which makes everything else look like child’s play.” Cosima went on to document her own reaction to the work, too: “The work (by Leo) rears up like a mighty cathedral, severe in outline, noble and essential, every modulation of tremendous effect, since dictated by the logic of the part writing. The performance suffers because of the pauses the conductor feels impelled to make in the interests of security. But the boys’ voices sound touchingly naïve … we think of Parsifal!”

It is provocative to imagine how Leonardo Leo’s music might have influenced Wagner while he was applying the finishing touches to Parsifal, an opera that features a celestial chorus of children’s voices. So, not only was Leo a progressive Baroque composer whose works anticipate the Classical Era, but his music may also have informed the musical ideals of the high Romantic Era.

If you would like to get to know this fascinating Italian composer a little better, join ABS for Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo, May 1-4. Opportunities to hear the music of this fascinating composer do not come around often; we hope to see you there! Best availability for seating is in Berkeley on May 2, 8:00 p.m.

Gretchen Claassen performs at Soloists Circle Donor Event

ABS Soloists Circle donors gathered on Sunday April 26th at the Napa home of Development Committee member Tom Flesher for a delightful afternoon of wine, camaraderie, and music. Providing the music for this especially congenial gathering were the 2015 recipient of The Jeffrey Thomas Award, Gretchen Claassen, and accompanist Derrick Tam.


Gretchen Claassen (violoncello) and Derek Tam (piano) performed a program of works by Schumann, Beethoven, and Pergolesi.

On the eve of her performances of Leonardo Leo’s Concerto for Violoncello in A Major with ABS at Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo (May 1-4), Claassen offered an engaging program of musical works that spanned three musical styles and eras.Claassen3_DonorEvent The program included Schumann’s Drei Fantasiestücke, Op. 73, Beethoven’s Violoncello Sonata Op. 102, No. 2, and Pergolesi’s Sinfonia in F Major. At the conclusion of the Beethoven sonata, Ms Claassen provided an introduction to the final work on the program, explaining how Pergolesi and Leo both wrote works for the instrument during the 1730s for the same cello-playing patron, Domenico Marzio Caraffa, Duke of Maddaloni. As we are all looking forward to hearing Claassen’s performance of the Leo concerto, it was a special treat to hear her perform a composition that was written for the same musician by another significant Italian composer. For the Pergolesi Sinfonia, Claassen switched to a Baroque bow and gave a splendid performance with lovely, responsive accompaniment by Mr. Tam.

ABS Supporters (left to right) Ruth & Phil Hicks, Thomas & Phyllis Farver

ABS Supporters (left to right) Ruth & Philip Hicks, Thomas & Phyllis Farver

After the recital, guests enjoyed appetizers and wine provided by Delicious! Catering, strolled the grounds, chatted with friends, and took the opportunity to get acquainted with the artists.

For information about becoming a member of the Soloists Circle or making a donation of any kind to ABS, please visit our website or call (415) 621-7900. Thank you for your support!

Tickets for Bach, Vivaldi, & Handel are still available. The program includes Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 4, Concerto for Two Violins, and Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (Cantata 168), Vivaldi’s Psalm setting Nisi Dominus for alto solo and strings as well as Leo’s Concerto for Violoncello in A Major featuring Gretchen Claassen. We look forward to seeing you there and at our summer festival in August.

Free Master Class with Jeffrey Thomas, May 6 at 1:00 p.m.

Jeffrey Thomas

Jeffrey Thomas

ABS continues its collaboration with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Wednesday, May 6 at 1:00 p.m. when ABS Music Director leads a public master class on Baroque performance. The class will take place in the Conservatory’s Recital Hall. Admission is free and no tickets are required.

Jeffrey Thomas is a Bay Area treasure. In addition to the exquisite ABS performances he has directed since co-founding the ensemble in 1989, Maestro Thomas can also be heard as the host of “Sacred Concert” and “Baroque by the Bay” every Sunday morning on KDFC. This master class will be an excellent opportunity to witness a musical master coach some of the Conservatory’s best young musicians.

The free master class is open to the public and begins at 1:00 p.m. 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.

Jeffrey Thomas Guest Conducts Middlebury Bach Festival

Mahaney Center for the Arts Concert Hall at Middlebury College, Vermont

Mahaney Center for the Arts Concert Hall at Middlebury College, Vermont

ABS Music Director Jeffrey Thomas is enjoying the beautiful setting of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, as he rehearses and directs the centerpiece concert at the 2015 Middlebury Bach Festival. Between rehearsals, his residency includes teaching classes on composing for the voice, form and structure in Bach’s works, and ornamentation. He will also present an “Interest Session” on “Rhetoric in the Early Cantatas of J.S. Bach.” Maestro Thomas joins students, affiliate artists, faculty, and professional musicians from Vermont and greater New England for this popular festival celebrating the music and influence of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The Middlebury Bach Festival is organized by Jeffrey Buettner (Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Middlebury College) and Jessica Allen (singer, voice teacher, Music Together teacher, and Director of Music at The Congregational Church of Middlebury). “We are especially pleased to be celebrating the fifth year of the Middlebury Bach Festival,” says Allen. “It is rewarding to see how many people are supporting our endeavor, and that they appreciate the timeless magnificence of Bach’s music, whether they are attending or performing in the Festival.” Three days of musical events, April 24-26, will bring the College and town of Middlebury together. Festival Music Director Jeffrey Buettner stated: “It’s our fifth anniversary and it was designed to further the appreciation of the arts and classical music through the model of J.S. Bach.”

Saturday evening, April 25th, features the grand Festival Concert led by Jeffrey Thomas at 8:00 P.M. in the Mahaney Center for the Arts Concert Hall. The concert opens with Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 followed by a trio of his Cantatas: “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” BWV 106 (God’s time is the best of all times), “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen” BWV 12 (Weeping, lamentation, worry, despair), and Bach’s joyful cantata for Palm Sunday, “Himmelskönig, sei willkommen” BWV 182 (King of Heaven, welcome).

Jeffrey Thomas remarked: “I’m so happy to be here, in this beautiful place, working with a very talented assembly of musicians, all excited to be part of the continuation of a really wonderful Bach festival. It is the talk of the town, and I already know of friends of ABS from the Bay Area who plan to attend, including a participant in our Choral Workshops over the years. The producers, Jeff and Jessica, have created a wonderful resource for the college and for the community. I hope it will thrive for a very long time to come.” Thomas joins a distinguished list of previous guest conductors including Martin Pearlman (Music Director of Boston Baroque) and Christoph Wolff (Adams University Professor of Music, Harvard University).

Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo coming up May 1-4

Do you have your tickets for Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo yet? You do not want to miss this program which features vocal and instrumental works by Johann Sebastian Bach and two Italian masters. The concert will showcase the brilliant musicians of ABS as they perform well-known masterpieces along with a few gorgeous works that are worthy of greater fame.

A Trio of Bach Masterpieces

BVLSOLI1Music Director Jeffrey Thomas and the period-instrument specialists of ABS will perform a trio of works by Johann Sebastian Bach, beginning with his beloved Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, with Elizabeth Blumenstock and rising Baroque violinist Cynthia Black performing the solo parts. Black, a recent ABS Academy graduate and featured soloist with leading groups such as Apollo’s Fire, makes her ABS debut with these performances.

Countertenor Ian Howell will be the vocal soloist for Bach’s cantata, Gott soll allein, mein Herze haben, BWV 169 (“God alone shall have my heart”). Bach composed the cantata in Leipzig for the 18th Sunday after Trinity, 1726. The work is for alto soloist and a band of instrumentalists with a prominent role for the organist.

German Baroque composers wrote dozens of works based on the model of the French Ouverture, however there are only four such pieces by Bach that have survived. In recent seasons, ABS has performed the first three of these Suites (C Major, B Minor, and D Major), and now will perform the fourth (D Major, BWV 1069). The layered textures and bold harmonic richness of these works established a lofty standard of sophistication in the genre; you don’t want to miss ABS’s performance of the Orchestral Suite No. 4!

Unforgettable Sacred Work by Vivaldi

BVLSOLI2Bach was heavily influenced by Vivaldi and transcribed the Italian master’s violin works in order to absorb their beautiful and soaring melodies. ABS, with Howell as vocal soloist, will perform Nisi Dominus, a sacred work that Vivaldi originally composed for an extraordinary vocal soloist in his Venetian ensemble at the Ospedale della Pieta. Set to the text of Psalm 127, the extensive nine-movement work traverses a wide range of moods and makes a powerful impact.

An ABS Premiere: Leo’s Violoncello Concerto in A Major

Known for his comic operas and sacred music, Naples-born composer Leonardo Leo also wrote a series of cello concertos during the 1730s while under the patronage of the Duke of Maddaloni, an accomplished cellist. In the ABS premiere of Leo’s Concerto for Violoncello in A Major, Gretchen Claassen, the 2015 recipient of The Jeffrey Thomas Award, will be the violoncello soloist. Read our interview with Gretchen Claassen here.

Excellent seats remain for the performances of Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo in Berkeley (May 2, 8:00) and San Francisco (May 3, 4:00 pm) and may be purchased online or by calling the ABS office at (415) 621-7900.


Interview with Countertenor Ian Howell

ABS’s next concerts, Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo (May 1-4), will feature countertenor Ian Howell as the vocal soloist in Bach’s cantata, Gott soll allein, mein Herze haben, BWV 169 (“God alone shall have my heart”) and Vivaldi’s psalm setting, Nisi Dominus. Howell is well-known to ABS audiences from triumphs in Handel’s Messiah, his Distinguished Artist recital during the 2012 ABS Festival & Academy, and the ABS recording 1685 & The Art of Ian Howell. We asked Mr. Howell about the upcoming performances and the works he will be singing.

Ian Howell, countertenor

Ian Howell, countertenor

At the May concert, Bach, Vivaldi, & Handel, you will perform two extraordinary works: Bach’s solo cantata Gott soll allein and Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus. Starting with Bach, what draws you to his music?

Bach’s voice is unique, even among his contemporaries. He had the ability to craft complex musical structures that shine with beauty and pathos. I think that his music for alto especially offers a view into the emotional depth we are all capable of (and have always been capable of) experiencing. Bach’s alto arias, liturgically, seem to function as a vehicle for each congregant’s personal experience of the greater theological message. This music isn’t about describing a scene, so much as telling a personal story. “Es its Vollbracht” from the St. John Passion leaps into the present moment, bringing not just the listener to the moment of Christ’s death on the cross, but the scene at the cross into the listener’s modern heart. Similarly, Gott soll allein mein Herze haben (God alone shall have my heart) views the idea of grace through a personal lens. Rather than ask for the sins of the world to end, the gorgeous aria Stirb in mir (Die in me) asks that all desire for the sinful world die in the heart of the listener. This is very personal music, almost offering the congregants a ready-made, first person prayer to give to God.

What are the particular artistic challenges and rewards of Gott soll allein?

I think first of all, Bach’s music is challenging for technical reasons. He didn’t write idiomatically for the voice. One gets the sense that he composed at the keyboard where long lines, large leaps, and awkward text underlay were non-issues. However, once that is mastered, the real challenge is to get in a proper theological frame of mind. Far from the emotionally reserved quality of modern Protestantism, Bach’s theology actively engaged people on an emotional and ecstatic level. Bach’s cantatas were the soundtrack to this liturgy, which gives us permission to sing his music quite passionately. Breaking through the façade of propriety is then the second challenge when singing Bach. Gott soll allein presents more opportunities than challenges. For example, the aria, Stirb in mir features an organ obbligato that weaves around the vocal line; or perhaps it is an alto obbligato that weaves around an organ melody. Bach brilliantly uses the organ and voice as a single instrument. At times the organ heightens the affect of the voice with ornaments. At other times the organ executes a large leap, or a fast scale to a pitch out of the alto’s range. This is truly Bach composing his theology: The organ (God’s grace) does what the flawed human cannot, yet remains ever near. Finding the way to perfectly execute this idea is challenging, but makes this one of the most rewarding works to sing in the repertory.

Tell us about Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus. What is it like to sing this “concerto for voice”?

Nisi Dominus could not be more different from Gott soll allein. Vivaldi writes for the voice in a very idiomatic, Italianate style. In a sense, Bach’s cantata features music to draw attention to the experience of the listener. Here, Vivaldi means to draw attention to the singer. Florid passages of coloratura and long lines that require expert breath management are alternately found in each movement. Here the challenge is that all coloratura is not the same. Vivaldi composed this work for a specific singer who’s voice moved in a specific manner. Learning this piece has felt like ironing out wrinkles in a shirt. The result, however, is dazzling.

What do you like to listen to most when you are not studying a role or learning a new work?

I think that I probably listen to Bach’s Trauerode (BWV198) about once a week regardless of what else I’m doing. In all sincerity, I think it is the best piece of music ever composed. I’m on the voice faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music where I teach vocal pedagogy and direct a voice analysis lab. We’ve been doing a lot of research lately that has me listening to Leontyne Price’s recording of Strauss’ Vier letzte Lieder, Nellie Melba’s Porgi amor from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, and Cecelia Bartoli’s recording of Hai luli by Pauline Viardot. I just love a well-registered female voice; a countertenor can learn a lot about how to sing by listening to top-notch female singers. My wife and I also have a 10 month old at home now, so I’m listening to a lot more Elmo than before.

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

I used to live in San Francisco in the early 2000s when I sang with Chanticleer. Our rehearsal space was across from the Mission Dolores Basilica, so my memories of that time taste and smell like a taqueria. If I can make it to Poncho Villa or Taqueria El Toro in the mission for an al pastor burrito with a cup of horchata while in town, I’m a happy guy.

What is it like to work with Jeffrey Thomas?

Jeffrey is one of the best musicians (let alone conductors) I have ever had the chance to work with. I always say that he is a “singer’s conductor,” but I suspect that a violin soloist would think of him as a “violinist’s conductor” and an oboist similarly so. You get the sense that he is always aware of the multi-level quality of this music, and would never let you sing outside the larger goal—be it the pace of harmonic progression, the mood of a scene, the manner in which the chromaticism of a recitative must develop, etc… Yet, he always manages to draw out the best contribution I can make to the whole. His rehearsal process is detailed and deliberate, and I think that the result is an incredibly refined performance. My colleagues and I just love singing and playing with ABS.

Come hear Ian Howell perform at Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo in three Bay Area venues and in Davis, May 1-4. Tickets are available at americanbach.org or by calling the ABS Office at 415-621-7900.

Interview with the 2015 Jeffrey Thomas Award recipient, Gretchen Claassen

If you attend live music events around the Bay Area, chances are you have heard Gretchen Claassen perform on either modern or baroque cello. Her musical interests and outstanding musicianship have landed her in ensembles across a broad musical spectrum from Renaissance music to contemporary idioms: classical, avant-garde, and popular. Her enterprising versatility is one of the many attributes that gained her the 2015 Jeffrey Thomas Award. Another is that she is a fine performer of remarkable promise within the field of early music performance. Ms. Claassen will be featured during ABS’s next concerts, Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo (May 1-4) as the soloist in Leonardo Leo’s Violoncello Concerto in A Major. We asked her about the Leo concerto and her many musical pursuits.

Gretchen Claassen

Gretchen Claassen

Leonardo Leo is perhaps not as familiar a composer for some ABS concertgoers. What drew you to Leo and the A Major violoncello concerto?

When I first heard this concerto I was immediately struck by the warmth and graciousness of it’s opening and thought I can’t wait to play this! It has a beautiful and dramatic slow movement and the fast movements are quite spirited, offering some delightful interplay between the solo cello and violin. It’s really a very charming piece.

You are a very active musician in the Bay Area and perform in a variety of styles. Would you recount some of the groups you have played with over the past year and what music you have most enjoyed performing?

The past year has been so much fun and filled with new experiences. Some of the highlights include concerts at the Presidio Sessions and Mission Blue with MUSA, a group I co-founded with fellow ABS Academy Alumni, and a month-long American Music Abroad tour to Russia, Hungary, and Serbia with the Cello Street Quartet and singer Matt Alber. Just last month I was involved in the revival of the 1662 Venetian opera La Cleopatra by Castrovillari with Ars Minerva. I also became involved with the conductor-less chamber orchestra One Found Sound and had a chance to play some Ravel and Shostakovich again. And of course one of the highlights of every year for me is playing Messiah with ABS, which was made even more memorable this year with the addition of the recording and video project.

Are there challenges involved with alternating between modern cello and a baroque violoncello?

Yes, and they seem to change all the time! For the first couple of years I was learning baroque cello, I felt I had no idea what might come out of the instrument when I started to play. Everything was up for grabs – intonation, articulation, even how to hold the instrument itself was a mystery. As I practiced, performed and became comfortable with it, I noticed that it was harder and harder to go back to modern cello and feel the old sense of ease. But all that uncertainty proved to be an amazing opportunity to learn and explore on both instruments and I think I’ve grown a lot as a musician because of it.

Gretchen Claassen

Gretchen Claassen

What compositions or composers are you working on now or looking forward to performing next?

I’m playing a little recital of late Beethoven and Schumann soon, so I’m spending some quality time with them right now. In mid-May, I’m really looking forward to a MUSA concert of Telemann “Paris Quartets” paired with a piece we commissioned from talented composer and violinist Andrew McIntosh (an Academy alum) for the same instrumentation. I’m also excited to further delve into the new music world and work on pieces by 7 local composers, commissioned by One Found Sound for their gala in May.

As the 2015 recipient of The Jeffrey Thomas Award, please tell us about your work with Jeffrey Thomas.

I had the good fortune to see Handel’s La resurrezione and Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the first ABS Academy and was so inspired by those performances, I had to apply for the following summer. Working with Jeffrey every morning during recit rehearsals for Handel’s Ariodante gave me a chance to see up close his deep respect and reverence for both music and text, as well as the intelligence he brings to the work. I’ve jumped at every opportunity to play for him, and with all the amazing musicians at ABS, since then.

You can hear Gretchen Claassen, Jeffrey Thomas, and all of the musicians of ABS at Bach, Vivaldi, & Leo from May 1-4 in three Bay Area venues and also in Davis. Tickets are available online or by calling the ABS Office at (415) 621-7900.

Support ABS and Win a Trip to Maui

Beginning with our next concert, Bach, Vivaldi & Leo (May 1-4), you will have the chance to win a trip to Maui through ABS’s annual raffle. Raffle tickets will be sold at each of the concerts for $20 each or 6 tickets for $100. Tickets will continue to be available throughout the summer and during the ABS Festival & Academy (August 7-16) with the grand prize drawing scheduled for Sunday, August 16, after the closing performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor.