May 3, 2013

American Bach Soloists: Take a Bow

American Bach Soloists
By Jonathan Rhodes Lee

Jeffrey ThomasThe American Bach Soloists frequently receive plaudits for their moving performances of well-known masterpieces. Yet Music Director Jeffrey Thomas also has some tricks up his sleeve when it comes to programming. On Friday, ABS featured works both by their namesake and by George Frideric Handel in a mixed-bag program of sacred and secular music. Thomas wisely chose sacred works with some secular leanings — dance-inspired pieces from Bach cantatas, plus one of the most operatic solo motets ever written. The whole was a delightful grab bag, delivered with ABS’ usual expertise and élan.

The centerpiece of the evening was Handel’s cantata Apollo e Dafne. Its anonymous libretto tells a familiar mythological story: Apollo’s braggadocio about his abilities with the bow raises the hackles of Cupid, who decides to teach the archer god a lesson. Shot with cupid’s arrow, Apollo falls madly in love with Daphne, nymph and daughter of the river god Peneus. But a lead dart from Cupid ensures that Apollo is repulsive to Daphne, who begs her father to transform her into a tree in order to preserve her purity and escape the aggressive advances of her admirer. (And who can blame her? At one point, he threatens rape if she won’t give in.)

Handel learned the art of cantata production during his youthful sojourn to Italy in the first decade of the 18th century. Most of those works are for small forces — one or two singers, sometimes continuo alone, sometimes with one or two treble instruments. But Apollo e Dafne is a grander affair, a cantata “con stromenti” — that is, one with a large complement of strings and woodwinds, and with two singers playing the principal parts. The whole was preceded by an instrumental introduction borrowed from Handel’s concerto Op. 3, No. 3. The program was silent on this insertion, but it was a very good idea; this concerto’s opening movement features the first violinist in a florid solo part, which gave Concertmaster Robert Mealy a chance to shine. Early in his career, Handel was quite as likely to be found with a fiddle in his hands as he was to be seated behind a keyboard, and this was precisely the sort of flashy stuff that we might expect the composer to have composed in those early years, and then to have recycled to open the otherwise introduction-less Apollo e Dafne.

The whole was a delightful grab bag, delivered with ABS’ usual expertise and élan.

A work like this one clearly demands drama above all else, and it was in this regard that ABS’ results were somewhat uneven. Soprano Mary Wilson’s Dafne was riveting, both musically and dramatically. She floated onto the concert stage to lilting winds, and she stormed off it in the middle of her male admirer’s most aggressive aria. She pouted and refused to sacrifice her virtue, and over all made a wonderfully prim and proper “stick in the mud.” Bass Mischa Bouvier’s portrayal of Apollo, however, was a bit on the cold side for so impulse-driven a character. He certainly possesses the vocal prowess necessary for this demanding role, with grace and agility in high passages, and a rich, sonorous lower range. Closing my eyes and listening was a satisfying experience; but the contrast between Wilson’s furrowed brows and dart-throwing glances and Bouvier’s somewhat statuesque presentation was a nice reminder of just how much acting singers have to do, even in concert settings.

Soprano Mary Wilson’s Dafne was riveting, both musically and dramatically. … The performances showed Bouvier’s greatest assets: remarkable technical facility and precision.

Bouvier fared much better in his solo set, which presented three bass arias drawn from Bach cantatas. Director Jeffrey Thomas cleverly chose the types of jolly, dancelike bass arias of which Bach was so fond, in a spirit keeping with the mood of the evening’s featured works by Handel. The soloist’s agility was on full display here, as he engaged in some athletic interchanges with traverso player Sandra Miller in “Laß, o Welt, mich aus Verachtung” (from BWV 123) and “Doch weichet, ihr tollen, vergeblichen Sorgen” (from BWV 8). Even faster and more furious was “Das Brausen von den rauhen Winden” (from BWV 92), with a romping bass line deftly handled by cellist William Skeen. In these pieces, all the musicians were clearly having a great time, and the performances showed Bouvier’s greatest assets: remarkable technical facility and precision. Had an instrumental movement been interspersed, or something contrasting and slow, both Bouvier and the audience might have had a chance to breathe. But I suppose that the feat of endurance the singer undertook was a statement in itself. Bouvier has chops.

The work is a tour de force, with divided bass lines, virtuoso oboe music, and jaw-dropping vocal writing.

The most interesting piece of the evening, for me, was a stunningly beautiful Latin motet by Handel, Silete venti (Silence, ye winds). This work’s origins are somewhat obscure. The motet appears to date from the first half of the 1720s; but what was Handel doing writing a Latin (hence Catholic) piece well after his immigration to London, during a period of Jacobite tensions and fomenting uprisings?

Whatever the answer to this question, the resultant work is a tour de force, with divided bass lines, virtuoso oboe music, and jaw-dropping vocal writing. It is also a piece marked by Handel’s characteristic formal inventiveness; the first movement begins as if it were a stereotypical French overture, but then is suddenly, unceremoniously interrupted by a commanding singer, demanding that the winds (literal and figurative) be silent. The real payoff, though, comes in the final movement. Horace Walpole complained in the 1730s that oratorios ended with “brave Hallelujah’s.” So did this motet, which closes with a dazzling Alleluja, which Wilson tossed off with characteristic facility. (The final movement was, perhaps, a tad on the frantic side, yet this was a forgivable offense, obviously born of an excitement shared by the conductor and soloist, transmitted to the warmly receptive audience.) Silete venti is a wonderful work, and the fact that it is a misfit for modern-day concert programs makes its absence from the repertoire a shame. Thank goodness for ABS!

Jonathan Rhodes Lee studied harpsichord in New York, San Francisco, and the Netherlands. He is currently enrolled in the graduate program in historical musicology at UC Berkeley.