A compilation of Bach's great concertos for solo violin, a stunning violin concerto by Vivaldi along with his joyful concerto for three violins, and a transcription for viola, 'cello, and harpsichord of one of our favorite arias from the Bach cantatas brings together some of ABS's brightest new stars.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 11, No. 2, RV 277 “Il favorito”
Antonio Vivaldi was a native of Venice, the son of one of the leading violinists of San Marco, from whom he received his earliest musical training. Subsequently, Vivaldi trained for the priesthood, taking his Holy Orders in 1703, the same year that he became director of music at the Ospedale della Pieta, a convent, orphanage, and music school in Venice. It was for the orchestra there of talented and musically accomplished young girls that Vivaldi wrote many of his almost 500 concertos. Almost all of the concertos—about 350 of which were composed for one solo instrument and strings, and 230 of those for violin—are comprised of three movements, and make extensive use, in the outer fast movements, of ritornello form, in which varied statements of a refrain (the ritornello) played by the entire ensemble alternate with episodes of freely thematic material for the soloist (or soloists in the cases of double, triple, and multiple concertos). “Il Favorito” comes from Vivaldi’s opus 11: a set of six concertos that he presented to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, and that were published in Amsterdam by Le Cene in 1729. All of the concertos in Op. 11 reveal a mature composer who had gained mastery of, and even defined, eighteenth-century musical forms, structures, harmonic devices, and orchestration. Vivaldi's legendary preeminence in these compositional achievements led the young Johann Sebastian Bach to voraciously collect and study scores of Vivaldi's concertos and to learn their technical details by transcribing them for performance on the organ. This concerto's nickname, "Il favorito" ("The Favorite"), was not given by Vivaldi, but appeared on the score in later years, certainly attesting to its early-gained status as an exceptional work. While all three movements are of nearly identical length, the first exhibits a kind of dramatic grandeur that is enhanced by the imaginative variety of the passages for solo violin. The warm stillness of the middle Andante and the dotted rhythms of the final movement remind us of movements from "Autumn" from "The Four Seasons." All in all, the concerto's nickname resonates with the enjoyment that this stunning work has brought to performers and listeners alike.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Violin Concerto in E Major, BWV 1042
Violin Concerto in A Minor, BWV 1041
Between the years of 1717 and 1723, Bach composed orchestral and chamber music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. The young prince was an accomplished amateur musician who played keyboard instruments, the violin, and the viola da gamba, and he sang with a good baritone voice. Since Cöthen was a Calvinist principality with no tolerance for elaborate church music, Bach’s desire to write sacred cantatas had to be put on hold until he would take up his post in Leipzig. For the time being, however, the excellent court orchestra of about eighteen players was probably an inspiration to Bach. The prince went to considerable expense to assemble not only the best players in the land, but also to acquire the best instruments. These years were among the happiest of Bach’s life.
During those years at Cöthen, Bach composed (or at least put into final form) two of the Orchestral Suites, the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin concertos, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin, and the solo ‘cello suites. All of these are considered to be supreme eighteenth-century masterpieces of their genres. The concertos, especially, mark Bach’s fascination with, and his supreme mastery of the Italian concerto grosso style, which is marked by the interactions of soloist(s) and ripienists (the non-soloist members of the orchestra), who play alternatively or together (called tutti).
This process is most easily recognized in the opening movement of the E Major violin concerto, BWV 1042, a work that Bach most probably composed during his years as court Kapellmeister at Cöthen (1717-23). Here the opening triad is particularly memorable and, indeed, when the solo violin plays independent material, fragments of this ritornello continually interrupt, as if to reaffirm its dominance. It is tempting to see Bach’s approach to ritornello writing as an allegory of his position in court life: the individual’s expression must be articulated entirely within the hierarchy of the princedom, and only once this relationship has been fully established can the soloist be accorded more freedom as the piece unfolds. Not only is the ritornello repeated at the end, but, in fact, the entire first section: thus, the thematic independence of the violin is checked by a return to the initial order, or, rather, it is framed and supported by the two outer pillars of courtly society. In the central movement the violin commands the stage with its long, lyrical lines expressing anything but an outer, objective, courtly order. Nevertheless, the whole is supported by an ostinato bass pattern, which preserves the same motivic content throughout virtually every measure of the piece. Thus, the most heartfelt expression is heard only against an unobtrusive, but entirely necessary bass line, again representing the individual within the context of an indispensable background order. Exactly the same sort of relationships are evident in the final movement, a joyous dance (rondo) in which the opening theme returns, with almost mechanical regularity, in the tonic of E Major.
Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar, one of Bach’s patrons, was a Vivaldi enthusiast, collecting his publications and even going so far as to write his own concertos in that style. For him, Bach transcribed several of Vivaldi’s compositions, work that bore fruit in Cöthen when the influence had been fully absorbed. For Cöthen’s star violinist Johann Spiess, Bach wrote several concertos including the Concerto in A Minor. The soloist’s virtuosic turns, the quick movement from ritornello to solo episodes, the strong melodic profiles, as well as long melodic inventions over an ostinato bass are indebted to Vivaldi’s example. But we also find more complex phrasing and melodic elaborations in counterpoint as well as a different, more mobile harmonic sense that is clearly Bach’s response to the music of Vivaldi, known as the “red priest” due to his famously bright red hair. A lively gigue-like final movement uses as its theme a subject derived from the opening measures of the first movement, a device that Bach also used in his Violin Concerto in E Major.
Johann Sebastian Bach
“Aria” for Viola, Violoncello, and Harpsichord, from BWV 156
Many texts from Bach's cantatas can seem overly drenched in lugubrious rhetoric, especially when we forget that verses about a soul's readiness to pass to a happier existence in heaven served to give much-needed hope to a populace that often struggled to survive amidst extremely difficult and common situations of poverty, illness, and hunger. The barbarous Thirty Years War (ended in 1648) had left in its wake destitute repercussions that would continue to affect generations of German culture for nearly a century. Certainly, the dour tone of religious texts that were written during that period would be utilized by composers and worked well to magnify some of the most important precepts and dogma of German Lutheranism at the time. This aria's text and title — "Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe" ("I am standing with one foot in the grave") — belies its intended message of comfort and positive outlook. In the cantata score, unison violins and violas play figurations of notes that, although descending, contribute a lightness to the melody. Beneath is a bass line that begins hesitantly, again with descending notes representing stepping down into a final resting place, with each note change sounding "off the beat" and depicting an initial reluctance. But soon the tenor voice enters and, as an eighteenth-century congregation would have recognized, the message is one of hope, a longing for better days that is confirmed by sopranos intermittently singing a chorale that is best summed up by its final line: "Everything is good, when the end is good." In our arrangement for the musicians in this concert, the unison strings part is given to solo viola, the tenor part is given to solo 'cello, and the chorale melody is intoned by violins.
Concerto for 3 Violins in F Major, RV 551
Vivaldi's first musical instruction was on the violin, and the existence of some 230 concertos composed by him is sure evidence of his love for the instrument. Accordingly, it is easy to sense the joy that he must have felt while composing the Concerto for 3 violins, strings, and continuo in F major. It brought opportunities for creating unusual and colorful interaction of the three solo instruments that seem to have inspired Vivaldi greatly. At the outset of the first movement, each soloist takes a turn in the spotlight, but the interplay is always collaborative with all three parts frequently playing very similar passagework. The occasional differences usually amount to distinct but complimentary figurations assigned to the third violinist. Those moments tend to meld together the first and second violinist in high-energy accompaniments to the third player's forays. The middle movement treats the listener to a wonderful effect: one violinist plays a singing cantabile melody, another plays pizzicato notes across the entire range of the violin, and the other plays bowed arpeggios with the composer's instruction "con piomba" which can be translated as dance-like swooping. Overall, it creates a very engaging and lustrous sound. The final movement, in a triple meter, distributes the workload quite equally among the soloists who toss the ball around but combine near the end for a barrage of figurations and descending scales in the minor mode until a final and condensed restatement of thematic material from the movement's opening brings this ingenious concerto to its close.
© 2021, American Bach Soloists
Tatiana Chulochnikova (violin) was born in Kharkiv, Ukraine, and began playing violin at the age of seven. She made her professional debut at fourteen performing Bruch’s violin concerto with the Kharkiv Philharmonic. She received her professional training at the Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow as well as Oberlin Conservatory and the Juilliard School where Tatiana was a Kovner Fellowship recipient. In 2016, having been a participant in the American Bach Soloists Academy, she was named recipient of The Jeffrey Thomas Award, which is granted annually at the Artistic Director’s discretion to honor, recognize, and encourage exceptionally gifted emerging professionals in the field of early music who show extraordinary promise and accomplishment. Tatiana has been praised by the press for her “fiercely pointed” (San Francisco Chronicle) and “fine performances” (The Washington Post), “dark plush romantic violin sound" (New York Concert Review) and 'thrilling technique and bravura style" (San Francisco Classical Voice).
Toma Iliev (violin) is a musician who is focused on historically informed performance. He is the winner of the Leipzig International Bach Competition’s 2014 Christa Bach-Marschall Foundation Prize, and is the winner of the 2013 Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra Concerto Competition. Holder of the Portland Baroque Orchestra’s Charles and Ruth Poindexter Chair, Toma regularly performs with ensembles across the United States including American Bach Soloists, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Valley of the Moon, Trinity Baroque Orchestra, and Clarion Music Society. An avid chamber musician, Toma is a core member of Sonnambula, the first and only period instrument ensemble to hold the position of Ensemble in Residence at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Toma first joined ABS as a part of the 2016 Academy and has since appeared with the ensemble in numerous performances. He can be heard with ABS on recent recordings including J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suites and “Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sings Gluck, Handel & Vivaldi”. Toma was a part of the 2020 virtual gala, the “Fridays with Friends” series, and appeared as a soloist with ABS with a memorable performance of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Violin Concerto in A major, “The Frogs,” during the 2019 ABS Festival. A native of Sofia, Bulgaria, Toma discovered his passion for music at an early age. Beginning his studies at the National Music School in Sofia, he is a graduate of Indiana University and of the Juilliard School’s Historical Performance program. In addition to Baroque and Classical violin, Toma can be seen performing on Baroque and Classical viola, viola d’amore, bass and tenor viols, and harpsichord.
Rachell Ellen Wong (violin) was enjoined by her parents to start playing the violin when she was six years old. Now that she is older and wiser, she is grateful to them for not letting her quit. Recipient of a prestigious 2020 Avery Fisher Career Grant - the first baroque artist in the respected program’s history - and Grand Prize winner of the inaugural Lillian and Maurice Barbash J.S. Bach Competition, Rachell is a rising star on both the historical performance and modern violin stages. Her growing reputation has resulted in solo appearances performing Bach concertos all the way to Shostakovich. Rachell made her first public appearance at age 11 and has since performed as a soloist with such orchestras as the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Panamá, Seattle Symphony, American Bach Soloists and has toured with The Academy of Ancient Music, Bach Collegium Japan, Les Arts Florissants, among others. Last fall, Rachell made her conductorial debut with the Seattle Symphony when she directed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from the violin. Along with keyboardist David Belkovski, she founded Dioscuri, a new versatile ensemble named after the mythic twins Castor and Pollux. A recent graduate, among her awards and honors are a 2019 Benzaquen Career Advancement Grant and a 2017 Kovner Fellowship from The Juilliard School and grand prizes in multiple international competitions. She performs on a baroque violin from the school of Joachim Tielke, and on a modern violin by Carlo de March. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Rachell enjoys hiking all over Washington state, improving her snowboarding technique, and playing a multitude of sports with her friends. She also lives with her two bunnies, Shoozie and Bobe, who love eating veggies, listening to Bach on gut strings, and trying to shred Rachell’s sheet music.
Yvonne Smith (viola) chose to learn to play the viola at age nine, when her family was living in upstate New York, because of its rich, dark sound, its supporting role in ensembles ... and her acute distaste for high notes, which would have been inevitable had she chosen to play the violin. Her love for the viola grew throughout her childhood years and several cross-country moves, and she eventually grew to tolerate and even embrace high notes. Yvonne was first introduced to early music as a teenager when she heard and fell in love with a recording of Corelli’s violin concertos. She began seriously pursuing historical performance shortly after completing her modern viola performance degrees from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University. Currently based in Houston, Texas, Yvonne enjoys traveling regularly to the Bay Area to perform and record with American Bach Soloists. She also performs with several local early music groups, such as Ars Lyrica Houston, Bach Society Houston, and her own ensemble, La Speranza. In 2016, Yvonne founded La Speranza to explore and illuminate the connection between music and wellness through their historically informed performances of wind and string chamber music in Houston communities. During the pandemic, the group has presented monthly streamed concerts that have delighted audiences all over the country. Additionally, Yvonne regularly performs as a substitute violist in the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera, and Houston Ballet. When she isn’t playing the viola, Yvonne enjoys spending time with her guinea pigs Trick and Treat, writing short stories, and walking around her neighborhood.
Gretchen Claassen (violoncello) spent her early childhood singing and listening to American roots music and bewitched by the dusty gravel roads, cornfields and tornadoes of Iowa. Weekends were filled watching her family’s band rehearsals and performances at churches, meeting halls and occasionally bluegrass festivals or the state fair. Finding herself exiled to the suburban Arizona desert at 8 years old, and in search of a new musical community, she soon discovered the cello and all the richness and history of western classical music. After many years of musical education, and completing an undergraduate degree at Juilliard, Gretchen’s love of chamber music and opera found their ultimate expression when she joined the baroque ensemble at San Francisco Conservatory of Music in a production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Several summers at the ABS Academy followed and eventually led to joining ABS and the opportunity to play with many other professional ensembles on the West Coast. Gretchen was awarded The Jeffrey Thomas Award in 2015, and she is a founding member of several ensembles including the collective MUSA, which seeks to give opportunities for young Bay Area early music specialists to perform a wide range of baroque and pre-classical repertoire. She is the cellist of The Sylvestris Quartet, a group committed to unique programming that presents the shifting styles, influences and sounds across three centuries of quartet repertoire. With the cello pop cover band Cello Street Quartet, whose motto was “bringing classical music to audiences who don’t know they like classical music”, she recorded and toured with Matt Alber. Some of her most cherished musical memories include her first performances of Handel’s Messiah and Saint Matthew Passion with ABS, performing and rehearsing chamber music with Menachem Pressler, Robert Mann and Bonnie Hampton, and concerts for school children in Kosovo, Hungary and Russia. In her spare time, Gretchen enjoys reading and ranting to friends about politics and pop culture, and is always hoping to travel more.
Gabriel Benton (harpsichord) enjoys a multifaceted career as a harpsichordist, organist, accompanist, and teacher. He lives in Wilmington, DE where he is organist at a historic center-city church as well as Collaborative Keyboardist for the Choir School of Delaware. Gabe began his life in music with a toy piano as a toddler - his parents took notice, got a real piano, and signed him up for lessons. It wasn’t until he was a teenager that he first encountered historically informed performances - and he was immediately obsessed. His love for early music (and especially for the creativity it requires of the performer) led him to study harpsichord performance at Oberlin Conservatory and the Juilliard School, and then organ performance at Yale. As a continuo player and soloist, he plays with various ensembles across the country. Gabe began his relationship with ABS as a participant in the 2015 Academy, where he played in the American premiere of Marais’ opera Sémélé. Since then, he has joined ABS on several occasions, including performances of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, two recording projects, and as a soloist in Bach’s Triple Concerto in A Minor.
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