January 26, 2014

Much to Rejoice: American Bach Soloists

American Bach Soloists
By Steven Winn

American Bach SoloistsSunday afternoon’s American Bach Soloists concert at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco had the festive air of an awards ceremony. Music Director Jeffrey Thomas popped the first champagne cork before a note was played or sung, by asking the seven orchestra members who have been with the organization for its entire 25 years to stand. Applause drowned out most of the names, which seemed somehow fitting: These are performers devoted to making Baroque music with others, not standing out on their own. One of the consistent and abiding pleasures of an ABS concert is the unity of purpose — the overall responsiveness, fluidity, and grace of the ensemble.

Oboist John Abberger returned Thomas’ plaudits’ later on, with a short, crisp speech about the conductor’s vision, devotion, and hard work on his own silver anniversary with the organization. Thomas handed the praise on to the source, calling Bach “the greatest composer who ever lived.” It was a Lifetime Achievement Award moment, warmly greeted with more applause.

The ample program itself was full of musical rejoicing, right from the first trumpet-and-timpani fanfare of the exclamatory Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet, Trompeten! Bach composed the 1733 cantata as a birthday tribute to the Queen of Poland, then cheerfully repurposed some of the music for his “Christmas Oratorio.” Part of being great is knowing what works and getting the most out of it.

After an exciting if slightly ragged start, this secular cantata took flight in the vigorous opening chorus and then, gloriously, in Clara Rottsolk’s arresting soprano aria. Her bell-like tone and faultless technique, set aloft over a rippling braid of flutes, brought clarity and character to every phrase, ascendant interval, and ornament. Countertenor Eric Jurenas made the reach for his highest notes a kind of musical aspiration, a summons to “rejoice again three-fold!”

One of the consistent and abiding pleasures of an ABS concert is the unity of purpose — the overall responsiveness, fluidity, and grace of the ensemble.

Only baritone William Sharp, who lacked thrust and vocal presence throughout, failed to leave a strong impression. Some trumpet blunders undercut his efforts.

The high point came in the final chorus, which opened with a lustrous trio for Rottsolk, Jurenas, and tenor Guy Cutting, the latter making a sturdy ABS debut as the inaugural winner of the Jeffrey Thomas Award. Their voices blended in musical accord and textual contrast, the tenor praising linden trees, the soprano speaking up for “weapons and wagons and wheels,” and the countertenor invoking the muses. The chorus joined in joyfully at the end.

The program’s voice-free selection came next, with a refined and sensual performance of the Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B Minor. Flutist Sandra Miller, with her softly spun tone, nimble precision, and velvety phrasing, was the solid, shining center of it all. The dotted rhythms of the Ouverture came off with a jaunty elegance. The Rondeau had a soft-slipped delicacy, offset by the aural equivalent of seductive feints and hesitations.

Miller piped up saucily in the Bourées and lingered over the alluring Polonaise, made more poignant by light touches of rubato. The orchestral suites can come off as somewhat wearisome, note-heavy dance cards in a single key, but that shadow never fell here. This one sparkled with variety as it charmed and beguiled from beginning to end.

The chorus flashed full command of the complicated phrasing, cutoffs, and canonic structures of the triumphant climax.

The second half of the program featured the Bach of raw-boned assertiveness, in the cantata Herr Gott, dich loben alle wir (1724) and the jubilant mastery of his Magnificat (1733). Expert keyboardist Corey Jamason made a welcome switch from an occasionally too-prominent harpsichord to organ for the continuo.

The soloists brought a sense of urgency, even to the recitatives. Cutting’s tenor sounded warmer and more expansive than it did before intermission. He was especially fine in his solo aria, and paired up handsomely with Rottsolk in their recitative. The chorus had a solid tone, at once muscular and bright. They graciously shared the finale chorale with the audience members, who were invited to join in on a two-verse reprise.

The justly famous Magnificat, which got top billing for this 2½-hour concert, came last. Once Thomas and the chorus got past some uncertain phrasing, the pleasures flowed. Mezzo Danielle Reuter-Harrah carried off her aria with finesse, followed by Rottsolk’s keen, almost stricken, preamble for the chorus’ dramatic call for “all generations” to exalt the Lord. Both sopranos joined Jurenas in a transporting, chromatically rich trio over a plangent oboe line. Jurenas and Cutting both sang sweetly and insistently, while the chorus flashed full command of the complicated phrasing, cutoffs, and canonic structures of the triumphant climax.

There were no more speeches to come. The audience had the last word, speaking in long and sustained waves of well-earned cheering and applause.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.