March 2, 2013

American Bach Soloists Shine Bright

American Bach Soloists
By Niels Swinkels

American Bach SoloistsWith concerts in Belvedere, Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis, the American Bach Soloists and Choir presented another pleasant, well-balanced program last weekend, this time by the “top three” Baroque composers: Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. Centered on solo concertos for two unusual instruments, the oboe d’amore and the viola d’amore, on Saturday the ABS performed two lush psalm settings, Beatus Vir, RV 597, by Antonio Vivaldi and Dixit Dominus, HWV 232, by George Frideric Handel.

The two solo concertos at the heart of these performances were Vivaldi’s Concerto for Viola d’Amore in D Major, RV 392, featuring Elizabeth Blumenstock on a period instrument, and Bach’s Concerto for Oboe d’Amore in A Major, BWV 1055a, with Debra Nagy playing her modern copy of an 18th-century instrument.

Bach’s Concerto for Oboe d’Amore does not exist in an original version for this solo instrument, but it is a later “reverse reconstruction” from a harpsichord concerto in the same key. Bach is well known for recycling his earlier compositions, and most of his harpsichord concertos are thought to be arrangements of earlier solo concertos.

Nagy’s outstanding performance demonstrated how different the sound of a Baroque oboe d’amore is from its modern descendant. That older instrument is essentially a mezzo version of the regular (soprano) oboe, though the modern version sounds much more uniformly oboe-ish than its Baroque predecessor, having a mellow, somewhat husky tone, which was especially noticeable in the slow middle movement, the Larghetto.

Nagy’s outstanding performance demonstrated how different the sound of a Baroque oboe d’amore is from its modern descendant.

More spectacular was Blumenstock’s rendering of Vivaldi’s Concerto for Viola d’Amore in D Major, RV 392. Unlike the “regular” four-string members of the violin family, the viola d’amore is an instrument with six played strings, as well as six “sympathetic” strings located below the bowed strings and the fingerboard. These extra strings resonate when the instrument is played, thus giving the viola d’amore a more full-bodied, warm sound. Blumenstock’s rendering of Vivaldi’s piece was precise and detailed, with a beautifully plaintive Largo and some real virtuoso fireworks in the final Allegro.

Psalm of Praise

The concert opened cheerfully with Vivaldi’s majestic setting of Psalm 112, Beatus Vir RV 597. Vivaldi wrote the work for two full orchestras and two full choruses, the spatial effect of which was somewhat lost in the close left-right setting of the concert I visited at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley.

Blumenstock’s rendering of Vivaldi’s piece was precise and detailed, with … some real virtuoso fireworks in the final Allegro.

Performances by the American Bach Soloists always seem highly informal and very relaxed, as if Music Director Jeffrey Thomas just decided to have a couple of friends over and play some music. The reality is probably a little more complicated, but whatever Thomas’ approach is, it makes pieces like the Beatus Vir and Handel’s Dixit Dominus (which concluded the concert) shine brilliantly — not in the least, of course, because of ABS’s fine choral and instrumental ensembles and its magnificent vocal soloists.

Soprano Kathryn Mueller and mezzo-soprano Danielle Reuter-Harrah sounded particularly lovely and refined in the coloraturas of their almost-operatic duet, “Gloria et divitiae.” Countertenor Eric Jurenas and bass-baritone Robert Stafford proved equally sophisticated in the preceding “Potens in terra” duet, though their balance with the orchestra was not always optimal due to their position behind the musicians.

Where Vivaldi’s religious composition shows only occasional shades of opera, Handel’s setting of Psalm 110, Dixit Dominus, HWV 232, is almost entirely operatic in style, with broad gestures and musical effects, as well as dramatic climaxes to underscore the meaning of the text, such as the vocal “hammer blows” of “conquassabit” (which means something like “He will crush” or “shatter”). In the capable hands of the members of the American Bach Soloists, this glorious mini-oratorio became the dazzling finale to a performance that deserved every bit of the standing ovation it received.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.