The old guard must inevitably give way to the new in every artistic endeavor. And it’s always hard to quantify an artistic legacy, unless one is a great teacher and passes knowledge on to a younger group. Over the years, SF Classical Voice has concentrated on Jeffrey Thomas’s record of excellent performances, as a tenor singing unforgettable interpretations of the Evangelist in J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and as artistic director of American Bach over the past three decades.
But through all those years, Thomas has also been shepherding young musicians to a deep understanding of Bach and Baroque music, as well as to a truer engagement with their own artistic selves. The list of places at which he has taught or presented master classes is almost as long as his performing and conducting CV. He is now professor emeritus of music at UC Davis, where he held the Barbara K. Jackson chair in conducting and was also a UC Davis chancellor’s fellow from 2001 to 2006. Before the UC Davis appointment, he maintained a private studio.
Armed with that knowledge, you should understand that the secret pleasure of attending American Bach’s San Francisco Bach Festival is — not unlike attending Merola Opera Program or Adler Fellow events — discovering new talent as it takes wing. In prior years, the American Bach Soloists Academy has had concerts of its own nestled into the mainstage schedule, but this year, the two are separated. "I miss teaching," says Thomas. "It’s a privilege and an honor and a great responsibility: Students are absorbing everything you say."
The ABS Academy, founded in 2010 and still tuition-free, has seen almost 500 performers come through the program, taught by established American Bach members like violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock. The one performance this year’s group gives will be Bach’s Magnificat in D Major and two other cantatas, conducted by Thomas at the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Aug. 13 at 4 p.m. But the main festival itself, which runs July 27–30, is filled with younger and youngish performers.
Take, for example, the third concert on the schedule, Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (July 29 in The Green Room of the SF War Memorial and Performing Arts Center). Heard it before, right? Well, there are four different soloists in this performance, all with major credits.
First, there’s Jacob Ashworth, who joined American Bach Soloists after being an Academy member in 2019. He’s a fixture on the Baroque scene in New York, playing with TENET and Trinity Baroque, among others, and he’s also served as concertmaster of Opera Lafayette. Oh, but also, he’s the founder and music director of Cantata Profana, the award-winning new-music group, and in 2015 he performed a critically acclaimed, fully staged performance of György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments.
Then there’s Tatiana Chulochnikova, who was the 2016 winner of the Jeffrey Thomas Award, given by American Bach to an outstanding young musician in early music. In addition to soloing often with ABS, the Ukrainian violinist has two albums out and is the founder of BaRock Band, whose mission is “creating innovative music programs that combine live performances, poetry, and multimedia presentations.”
There’s also Toma Iliev, who is the winner of the Leipzig International Bach Competition’s 2014 Christa Bach-Marschall Foundation Prize and is a member of Portland Baroque Orchestra, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, San Francisco’s One Found Sound, and many others.
And finally, there’s YuEun Gemma Kim, the 2018 winner of the Jeffrey Thomas Award, who’s also a core member of L.A. ensemble Delirium Musicum and spent a pandemic year touring California with the group’s founder, Etienne Gara, in a Volkswagen bus in MusiKaravan, which has its own YouTube channel. She was 2022–2023 artist-in-residence with L.A.’s Musica Angelica, and her Chopin’s Nocturne video on YouTube has over 15 million views.
The July 29 performance, by American Bach’s specially created SFBaroque group, has the violinists “moving throughout the room, performing some of the wildest music of the Baroque from only an arm’s distance away.” The influx of new players, Thomas says, "feels like a victory for [Baroque] music." Restocking the Bay Area's early music community with new players has resulted in American Bach's core ensembles becoming more diverse, as well.
Thomas and American Bach are also turning the second concert of the festival, “Bach and Beyond” (July 28 in the Barbro Osher Recital Hall at the SF Conservatory of Music) over to 22-year-old pianist Oliver Moore, now Garrick Ohlsson’s student at SFCM. Moore, an omnivore who’s into everything from Bach to contemporary and jazz as well, plays a series of piano transcriptions of Bach’s music by composers like Camille Saint-Saëns, Ferruccio Busoni, and Franz Liszt.
So, if the question arises as to what’s happening with the SF Bach Festival, remember it’s not what but who.