There Will Be Plenty of “New” Baroque Music at American Bach Soloists Festival

Don Kaplan on July 26, 2019
The American Bach Soloists | Credit: Don Scott Carpenter

Jeffrey Thomas, the artistic director of American Bach Soloists and Academy, has said: “To educate audiences, you want to provide a rich adventure of learning and enjoyment.” This year, from July 28 through Aug. 11 at the SF Conservatory of Music, the ABS and Academy are celebrating the tenth anniversary of San Francisco’s Summer Bach Festival by providing exactly that adventure.

It’s the place to discover an arrangement of music that hasn’t been performed since the 18th century, enjoy musical crickets and tree frogs, consider “perfect” music intended to solve a debate between the French and Italians, hear a Mass for three choirs that isn’t just for three choirs, listen to orchestral music, chamber music, and all that jazz (some of it, anyway) inspired by Bach’s music. Except for the jazz concerts, all of the artists perform on period instruments, including ones that date back to 1660.

The  Academy was established in 2010 and is ABS’s summer advanced-training program for emerging professionals. According to Thomas, participants at the Academy “have opportunities to expand their knowledge and understanding of the incredibly rich fabric of the Baroque through the same lectures, master classes, forums, and discussions led by brilliant educators and performer/scholars that are open to the public.”

Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas | Credit: Eddie Frank

When Thomas founded the ABS 30 years ago, its mission was “to introduce contemporary audiences to the cantatas of J.S. Bach through historically informed performance practice.” Baroque music is still at the core of the festival, but ABS has expanded into new territory as well. One of the most exciting works on this summer’s program is an edition of the popular Stabat Mater by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, which is being performed for the first time since the 1700s. The arrangement was found in the library of the Concert de Lyon, one of two trend-making concert organizations in France at that time. The Lyon arrangement replaces some solos with choral sections; additional choral parts were found in Paris, then connected to the score in Lyon. Also found in Lyon was Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate, triumphant music written to celebrate the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, eventually ending the War of the Spanish Succession.

The opening program, “’Tis Nature’s Voice,” focuses on musical depictions of nature. It’s a rare opportunity to hear frogs’ “ribbits” and chirping crickets in G.F. Telemann’s compositions, and Francesco Geminiani’s imaginative depiction of an enchanted forest. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons features four virtuoso violinists bringing a fresh approach to the performance of this famous piece.

During the 18th century, both Italy and France had their own unique styles of composing and performing music. It was a widely held opinion that unifying these two styles would result in “perfect” music. François Couperin’s two musical apotheoses — intended to glorify the leading exponents of each of these opposing styles — frame a concert that draws attention to this “perfection” through the music of composers on both sides of the conflict.

Other highlights include Lotti’s unusual polychoral Mass for Three Choirs, composed for more than 20 independent vocal and instrumental parts often organized in as many as five different and separated choirs; Terpsicore, the only opera prologue composed by Handel; and an unpredictable, open-mic inspired “coffee house concert” to close the Festival.

J.S. Bach

Bach’s Mass in B Minor, with Thomas conducting the Academy Orchestra and Soloists and American Bach Choir, has been performed every year, not only because it’s an audience favorite but because, Thomas says, it is “a testament to the art of musical composition as [Bach] believed it should be preserved ... presented not at all as a museum piece, but as a living and breathing expression of one of the best things our world has to offer us all.” Bach’s music returns in a different form during the Bach Explorations concerts: “Bach to Bluegrass and Beyond” explores Bach themes transformed into jazz and folk idioms, and “Bach Re-imagined” explores what happens when Bach is performed on instruments like the saxophone, banjo, and marimba.

Concerning the future of Baroque music, Thomas explains: “I don’t doubt for a second that Baroque music will thrive into eternity. It speaks to many of us so eloquently and so directly. Those listeners who love Baroque music — and especially the music of Bach — appreciate the comfort level of knowing how it will go, sensing when the harmony might make a turn, and predicting when a major element of a piece of music will return. That was the genius of the forms and formats of Baroque music and of the compelling harmonic language of the era. People will always be drawn to Bach and the Baroque. I’d bet my life on that.”

The ABS and Academy celebration promises to be a highlight of the summer and of the year as well.