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Bach For the Masses

July 17, 2011

American Bach Soloists

On Sunday afternoon, the American Bach Soloists capped the first weekend of its new Summer Bach Festival, a weeklong menagerie of concerts, public lectures, and master classes, all taking place at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The educational setting is reflective of a major facet of the Festival: the ABS Academy, a summer workshop for preprofessional musicians from around the world. It introduces these young musicians to the early-music specialists of the ABS, who perform alongside them in chamber music programs and gala performances, such as Sunday’s, which featured J.S. Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

While this may be a wonderful opportunity for Academy participants to be introduced to the ABS, it may not be the best way for Bay Area audiences to get to know these young performers. For instance, I would love to tell SFCV readers who was responsible for the fabulous oboe d’amore playing, which was musical, in tune, and accurate throughout the entire Mass, but the program failed to specify which Academy members were participating in this large-scale performance.

Even more negligent was the program’s ambiguity with regard to the soloists, all drawn from the Academy ranks, and all new to the Bay Area (or at least new to me). There are two casts of singers for the B Minor Mass, one for Sunday’s performance and a second for the reprise on July 23. The program did not clearly differentiate the casts, and it took a bit of digging — postconcert and with the help of the Internet — to determine who the principal soloists were on Sunday:

Jessica Petrus, soprano
Charlotte Cumberbirch, mezzo-soprano
Gerrod Pagenkopf, countertenor
Brennan Hall, countertenor
Jon Lee Keenan, tenor
Jonathon Adams, baritone
Thomas Thompson, baritone

More names were listed on the program, and I can only assume that these other singers will be heard next weekend.

These soloists’ unfamiliarity was coupled with a certain inexperience, which at times hindered the performance’s overall effect. These singers are clearly very talented students, but this music, some of it originally intended for the great singers of the Dresden Opera, pushed them to their limits.

Singers of Promise

Several newcomers stood out. Brennan Hall, a countertenor from the University of Indiana, possesses a remarkably rich voice throughout his range. He handled the difficult alto aria in the Agnus dei movement of the Mass with great control, employing messa di voce with an effectiveness that sent shivers down my spine. Moreover, throughout his performances, he showed admirable musical intelligence. John Lee Keenan, a tenor from Southern California, also proved himself ready for prime time, with a clear, sweet, high voice; he is ready to emerge as an in-demand oratorio singer.

If the lack of experience of some of the soloists showed around the seams, the opposite was true for conductor and ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas and his ensemble. Thomas’ rendition was carefully handled from start to finish. He clearly relished the crisp acoustics of the Conservatory’s main concert hall, which allowed him to coax a crystalline sound from his choristers. Bach’s head-spinning contrapuntal structures were satisfyingly followable in this performance, and, though the stage itself was a bit small for the eight-part double chorus that Bach demands for the Osanna movements, Thomas intelligently moved his singers into various configurations during the course of the performance to make the most of the available space.

To perform the Mass in B Minor is a major undertaking for any organization. ABS managed it with the relish and finesse that Bay Area audiences have come to anticipate from this organization. The young soloists on Sunday’s program were fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a period ensemble and director of such expertise and musical acumen, and it will be interesting to see which of them return in the future to rejoin the group during its principal season.

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.


I read with interest your comments on the recent ABS Bach concert. I have been amazed throughout my career at the reticence which some promoters and performing organizations show in regard to giving audiences (and potential audiences on publicity posters) details of performers in their programs. The fact that you had to dig around after the concert to find out who sang, and could not determine who played what, is a disgrace, as it is a simple matter to indicate, but I vociferously applaud your decision to comment on the omission. Those responsible, please note!

Your complaint about naming of the soloists is a valid one. However, I would suggest that the logistical realities of an educational program like this can make the printing of programs challenging, as programs must usually be prepared far in advance to be sent to the printer. Often this is before a festival begins and perhaps even before final assignments are made. The concern holds more merit when applied to traditional formal concerts, rather than to the obviously less formal performances that accompany any festival like this. To the commenter that called this a disgrace: Your judgement is unnecessarily harsh. Are you aware that people involved in this concert probably read these reviews and comments? Would you say such things to them in conversation? If not, please think twice before sharing your thoughts in a public forum. Mr. Lee, I am honestly rather disappointed that you spend so much of your review complaining that you had to "dig for information." (Did you consider simply asking someone associated with the organization? Any of the performers would have likely been able to tell you their colleagues' names.) Focusing on non-musical aspects is a trend that is sadly far too common in modern musical critique. I'm also disappointed that you refer to the orchestra in passing without noting that it, too, was comprised of incredibly talented young participants from around the world. They performed with a clarity many professional ensembles can only hope to achieve. Without this group, it would have been a very dull performance indeed. The soloists were worthy of great praise, but so too was everyone else on stage. Bravo to the ABS Academy participants and organizers, and we locals look forward to hearing much more from you in the future!

Logistical realities? Come on! The reality is that computers with word-processing programs, printers, and copying machines are everywhere and this problem can be solved within hours of a performance if need be. A fancy program printed far in advance isn't required to address this issue. I have great respect for ABS and would like to think that some last-minute glitch caused the problem, but that would seem to be the only excuse for not identifying the performers. I am attending the repeat performance of the Bach as well as Ariodante this weekend and I certainly hope we are given more information.

Anonymous, I wonder if, in the absence of a "fancy program," you might lament their low production values. Some people are rarely if ever satisfied. I'm very glad to hear you'll be supporting them on the weekend. I urge you to enjoy the music in performance on its own merits and accept that what you are going to hear is NOT the work of a professional group that plays together all the time, but rather the ambitious and exuberant result of what is probably a very difficult and grueling process for all involved. I believe the students are only here for two weeks, and they seem to be performing a large amount of music. I, for one, am more than willing to overlook something as minor as program printing for that kind of dedication.

Now, now gentlemen: I'm sure we all can agree that this petty discourse cheapens the achievement of both ABS and its summer artists. Now, please, take a deep breath and find ways of spreading mirth in a sometimes dark world. Adieu.

Your point is taken. However, I fail to see how my desire to elevate the discussion beyond logistical concerns to focus on an incredible musical achievement is petty, or cheapening of that same achievement.

A computer printout of the afternoon's soloists, inserted into the handsome complete program, would have sufficed. I'd like to know who I heard, so I can look for them in the future--eg the mezzo and the last countertenor at the first performance. I thought all the soloists were pretty impressive as "preprofessionals"--including the preprofessional instrumentalists and the Academy chorus. And of course Thomas and the orchestra regulars were their usual superlative selves.