The American Bach Soloists’ final concert of the 2018–2019 season was an evening of contrasts: soloist against ensemble; flute against recorder; violas da Braccio (played “on the arm”) against ancient violas da Gamba (“on the leg”).
For many of those in attendance the most striking disparity was internal: In our minds’ ear was the bold, projecting tone of modern instruments, but resonating in the sanctuary of Davis Community Church was the delicate shimmer of period instruments.
ABS attempts to recreate the sounds of the Baroque in both substance and style. Substance is provided by the instruments, either original examples or recent works painstakingly modelled after instruments from the appropriate time frame. A careful eye might note the convex bend in the bows, the gut frets on the violone and gambas, and the lack of keys on the wooden flute.
Style, a more tenuous target, emerges from the field known as historically informed performance (HIP), in which performers and musicologists sift through centuries of transition in performance practice and pedagogy.
Two of the evening’s selections highlighted moments of transition between early and modern instruments.
Georg Phillip Telemann’s Concerto in E Minor features both transverse flute (held perpendicular to the face, like the modern flute) and the older recorder. What a pleasant foil: Aldo Abreu’s recorder had a liquid, hooting tone, while Sandra Miller’s wooden transverse flute was breathier and more open. Both were worlds apart from the power and brilliance of the modern concert flute, instead abounding with sweetness and vulnerability.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s 6th Brandenburg Concerto contrasts the modern viola with the ancient gamba, a larger fretted instrument played between the legs like a cello. In the opening movement, violists Clio Tilton and Ramón Negrón Pérez treated us to throaty, graphite-etched canons above the delicate shimmer from gambists William Skeen and Hallie Pridham. Bach’s unusual scoring, lacking violins, gives this work a dark and woody character — a welcome contrast to the evening’s other selections.
A subtler kind of contrast appeared in the varying key-colors available in harpsichord’s unequal temperament.
“[It is tuned to] Aron Neidhardt’s temperament,” harpsichordist Corey Jamason was kind enough to explain to me during the intermission, “although a couple of the intervals are widened to accommodate the variety of key areas on this program. It goes all over the place!”
In modern “equal temperament,” any two adjacent keys on the keyboard will have exactly the same relationship to each other as any other adjacent keys — a “half step.” This consistency comes at the expense of pure or “just” intervals that hum in perfect accord. Earlier tuning systems endowed the more common keys with just intervals while stowing away the hideous intervals (the “wolf”) in the rarely-used modes.
Indeed, each piece seemed to inhabit its own resonant world, and transitions from key to key within a piece had a technicolor effect as the relative distances between intervals shifted.
Jamason put these colors to glorious use during the 5th Brandenburg Concerto. Believed to have originally been performed by Bach himself, the opening movement’s extravagant harpsichord cadenza traverses some seriously jagged harmonic territory. Jamason dazzled the audience with undulating sheets of broken chords and ornamental flourishes.
Closing the evening was the ebullient 4th Brandenburg Concerto, featuring violin and two recorders. Tatiana Chulochnikova tackled the searing fiddle part with ease, while Aldo Abreu and Andrew Levy traced delicate woven wind patterns. The closing fugue was especially elegant, the musicians nimbly ducking to make room for a sudden figure from elsewhere in the ensemble. Here was one final and overarching contrast: tangled density against perfect clarity.
Critiques or concerns? I think there was one piece too many. These aren’t lengthy Romantic concertos, but six pieces is a lot of Baroque to absorb in a single evening. That said, the repertoire was well-chosen, the Telemann and Vivaldi (Concerto in D Major for Four Violins, RV 549) providing stylistic contrast to the Brandenburgs.
All in all, a fine program. Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas and the ABS deserve the special place they hold in the Bay Area’s musical life.