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Delightful Effervescence

July 10, 2007

Music festivals, whether of the mini or maxi kind, invite audiences to think of music as part of an entire experience. For most of the year, we're content just to hear a concert. But the summer festival experience is also partly about location and lingering twilight. In this, American Bach Soloists holds a few cards that make its SummerFest programs irresistible, beyond the superior concerts that are the main reason for attending. The little St. Stephen's Church, nestled into a hillside near the bay in Belvedere, hosts ABS throughout its season. It is particularly pleasant during SummerFest when, instead of congregating in the plain, stone nave, audiences enjoy a catered dinner out on the terrace and then a short concert, prior to "the main event," in the light-filled parish hall, with its floor-to-ceiling windows.
The first two concerts of the series of three were generally delightful, offering a fat slice of chamber music masterpieces from the 18th century. On Friday, after a twilight serenade of movements from Haydn divertimentos, the program presented Mozart's A Major Flute Quartet, K. 298, and one of Haydn's London piano trios (No. 27 in C Major) sandwiched between two heavyweight works, Mozart's D-Major Quintet, K. 593, and Haydn's Symphony No. 104 in D Major.
Bringing Out the Inner Voices
In the pleasant, light flute quartet, the news — if you can call it that — was Sandra Miller's superb flute playing. Her full-bodied tone and crisp articulation matched her string colleagues beautifully. Likewise, Eric Zivian's fortepiano contributions in the Haydn trio were the last word in low-key virtuosity. The three players (including Carla Moore on violin and William Skeen on cello) were visibly and audibly relaxed, even in the madcap finale, taken at the presto tempo that Haydn requested.

The quintet, with Moore and Lisa Weiss playing violin, Elizabeth Blumenstock and David Daniel Bowes, viola, and William Skeen, cello, was more variable than you might expect from players with such a large amount of experience playing with each other. The opening was slightly tentative, except for Skeen's cello. He gave the opening motive a strong downbow, which evanesced into a whispering pianissimo. Moore's violin intonation was a little bit needlelike at the outset, but then she gave the music great variety of touch, as well. At the climax of the development, when the run figure that propels the movement is traded among the instruments, the performers were on their game. That energy was evident throughout the performance, which ended with a rock-solid and rhythmically precise finale.

Haydn's Symphony No. 104 was heard in J.P. Salomon's chamber arrangement for string quartet (Weiss, Moore, Blumenstock, Skeen) plus flute (Miller), contrabass (Steven Lehning), and fortepiano (Jeffrey Thomas). Salomon, the impresario who brought Haydn to London, proved a fine arranger, considering how the powerful, public, trumpet-and-drums tuttis of the orchestral version would seem to resist chamber reduction. In its chamber version, however, the reduced scoring focuses the listener's attention on the incredibly tight weave of the composition.

Instead of relentless drive and momentum, the players in this performance concentrated, in the best chamber-music fashion, on bringing out inner voices and perfecting phrasing. You may hear one or two things in this version that your ear easily glides over in the orchestral one. Listen, for example, to the duet between flute and bass at the beginning of the development that moves the music so smoothly into the far-flung key of C-sharp minor. Also, the interplay between flute and strings in the last variation of the second movement loses none of its magic without the additional wind and horn support. The players delivered a fully satisfying account of the piece from its compressed opening to its jocular but intense finale.
Singing the Sonata
On Saturday, the menu was full of sonatas, including a pair of Bach's for violin and harpsichord, played by Blumenstock and Adam Pearl at the early Artist's Spotlight. At the Twilight concert, the Whole Noyse, a Renaissance wind band, gave a selection of 16th-century German instrumental music. The first half of the main concert was taken up by sonatas from Vivaldi, Handel, and Bach. The second half featured a suite by Marin Marais, and a Telemann sonata for flute, violin, viola da gamba, and continuo.

Blumenstock was clearly excited to be playing the first of Vivaldi's "Manchester" violin sonatas. These are works that were only discovered, complete, in 1973 in a library in Manchester, England, and are still overshadowed by the concertos. She gave the piece a short, spoken introduction that pointed out its divergences from the run-of-the-mill Vivaldi. The first movement has lots of French-sounding ornamentation. Both the first movement and the dance movements (a Corrente and an Allemande) have a number of spiky rhythms that Blumenstock made the most of. The Largo third movement was perhaps the most striking part of the piece, given the probable 1720s date of composition. It is an extravagantly emotional Italian opera aria without words, and has, as Blumenstock noted, some extraordinary dissonances underlining the affect.

The Handel Sonata in G Major, Op. 5, No. 4, is a trio sonata compiled from existing music by the composer. It is the strange one in the set of seven that John Walsh published in 1739. ABS played it delightfully here. And later, Bach's inspired Sonata in B-minor for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1030, benefited from Miller's outstanding sense of line and superior breath control. The final two movements were extremely detailed, with Pearl offering lively support from the harpsichord.

Skeen and Lehning gave the Marais Suite in G Major, from the composer's first publication (1686), an expansive reading, especially in the final Chaconne. Skeen is always self-consciously aristocratic and super-refined in his playing, while Lehning is more forthright. His full tone and rhythmic drive provides more of Marais' showy brilliance.

The Telemann sonata, in D major from his 1738 French publication Nouveaux quatuors en six suites (New quartet sonatas in six movements), shows his later mastery. It's too bad this composer was so prolific — scores like this one are so plentiful in his catalog that we almost don't know where to begin. On the basis of melody alone, the piece deserves an elevated status.

As played by Miller, Blumenstock, Skeen, Tanya Tomkins (on cello), and Pearl, it was a treat that fully justified its anchor position on the program. With this concert, as on Friday evening, the American Bach Soloists again showed its willingness to take risks, investigate interesting corners of the repertory, and shed new light on well-known masterpieces.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.