The Sacramento Choral Calendar
American Bach Soloists
Bach Favorites - January 25, 2016
by Dick Frantzreb
The concerts of the American Bach Soloists are a unique experience for one who appreciates classical music. Their performances in Davis are at the Davis Community Church, which provides an intimate setting with remarkable acoustics. The program is planned and directed by Dr. Jeffrey Thomas, "one of the [world's] foremost interpreters of Bach and the Baroque." The orchestra numbers some of the finest musicians in the Bay Area. Then there are the instruments. Where else would you see in the concert program the origin of the instruments, the greater part of them dating to the 17th and 18th centuries? The singers? They are simply excellent, chorus and soloists, about all of whom I'll have more to say presently. Even the concert program is memorable, with its extensive program notes co-written by Thomas and featuring ads of the major early music events in Northern California.
I was interested to note the extraordinary degree of instrument tuning that took place before the concert began. I would attribute it to the delicacy of the period instruments, as well as to the refined sensibilities of the instrumentalists. Then when the American Bach Choir entered, 16 in number with 4 on each voice part, it was worthy of note that there were only 6 women: 2 of the altos were men.
The most remarkable part of these preliminaries, though, took place after the entry of Director Jeffrey Thomas and the soloists when he addressed the audience. He explained that this concert series was the beginning of the 27th season of the American Bach Soloists, and that this concert would begin and end with the same two cantatas with which their first performance began and ended in 1990. Then he proceeded to the remarkable part: we would join the singers and players in a "singalong" at the end of the first chorale, "Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!" A glance at the program showed 13 measures (single voice, one-octave range) that we would be singing at the end of the chorale. He told us that he had tried to stir up a little friendly competition among the previous audiences, that the Belvedere and Berkeley audiences had done well, but were surpassed by the San Francisco audience. The gauntlet had been thrown down. He led us in one practice run-through, allowing us to choose the German or English text. It seemed to me that we sang fervently, but no more was said of the competition. I later learned from Dr. Thomas that we had done well, perhaps even outdoing the San Francisco audience. It was an unexpected bit of fun in a serious concert.
Full of energy, Thomas then turned to his American Bach Choir and orchestra and began the performance of "Wachet! betet! betet! wachet!" From the first notes sung by the chorus, I could not keep from smiling. It was so grand! Their crisp articulation was simply exhilarating. I could imagine the vibration in those diaphragms. The energy involved could have lit a light bulb (an incandescent one) for each of them. The sad part was that it was over too soon.
The consolation was in the performances of the soloists in the subsequent recitatives and arias. All of these people are solid professionals, with extensive experience appearing with music organizations around the country. Baritone Mischa Bouvier was first, and I was struck with the lyric quality of his singing and the musicality of his lowest notes. Later, his performance in the recitative, "Ach, soll nicht dieser groẞe tag" just blew me away. The beginning was intimidating, even fearsome. Then farther along he sang so sweetly, I could imagine him singing a child to sleep. It was an extraordinary display of vocal technique. In my notes I wrote, "He could perform on any concert stage in the world — or any opera house, for that matter."
Countertenor Jay Carter took the alto solos, which he presented with a very pleasing tone and nimble technique. I was especially impressed with the fluidity of his melismata (my new word of the day) or runs. Later in the concert he performed one long phrase so beautifully that I wrote in my notes that I would love to hear it again and again. As for tenor Derek Chester, not only was he pleasant to listen to, but he had a great sense of drama that made watching him as entertaining as listening to him. During his aria in the second half of the concert, I wrote in my notes that I could hardly imagine anyone putting more personality into this music than he was doing.
I began to gather that Mary Wilson was the go-to soprano for the American Bach Soloists — as well as many other organizations, considering the number of appearances noted in her biography. And I could see why she is so popular. She picks up the drama in the music, and has extraordinary vocal control — seemingly effortless, from the loveliest pianissimos, to controlled crescendos, to flourishing fortissimos. Later in the concert, I noted that it seemed that she had as much control over her “instrument” as did violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova.
For the two chorales in this first cantata, the soloists joined the chorus. It was, of course, delightful music, but minus the vocal gymnastics. And as noted, Thomas turned to us in the audience to sing those final measures in the last chorale. With that, the stage cleared while we in the audience waited.
We didn't wait long for the entrance of violinist Tatiana Chulochnikova. But the program looked like it had made a mistake. It read "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor." I have known and loved this piece since my high school years when I listened to E. Power Biggs' recording in his "Bach Organ Favorites." So how could a solo violinist perform it? We were about to see. Ms. Chulochnikova launched into an authentic rendition of this music at the traditional tempo. It was stunning — a virtuoso performance in every sense of the word. Her fingers moved over the strings with speed and precision as if they were computer-controlled. The nature of a fugue is that it involves multiple overlapping voices. That's a doable challenge for an organ with its multiple manuals and pedalboard. So how can you translate a fugue to a violin? That's Ms. Chulochnikova’s secret because, as I learned later, this was her own transcription. For a moment, I thought, "This is quite a novelty." Then I corrected myself: "It's not a novelty; it's a miracle." Ms. Chulochnikova had performed this piece (and the subsequent "Concerto for Violin in E Major") four times now in 4 days. That, too, bordered on a miracle. We in the audience were conscious we had witnessed something remarkable, so at the conclusion of this performance, nearly all of us rose to our feet with applause, even many who came with walkers and canes.
There is something more that I observed in the orchestra this evening. An ABS concert is a learning experience, and part of what I learned really took place after the concert. For years I've been conscious of the players of instruments in the violin family using the technique called "finger vibrato" where their hands would vibrate on the strings during held notes to achieve a richer tone. In this concert I became aware that the players were not using this technique. (At least those I could see clearly were not.) I did some research and found that early string players did not use finger vibrato, and that it has been generally abandoned by present players of early music, especially, I presume, when they are playing on period instruments. Check out this link for much more on this topic: http://www.thestrad.com/cpt-latests/early-sting-players-use-continuous-vibrato/.
During the intermission my wife told me that she prefers Bach’s instrumental music. And she especially loves violin music, such as we’d heard before the intermission. Well, she was in heaven with the “Concerto for Violin in E Major” that began the second half of the concert. Of course, it featured Tatiana Chulochnikova as the violin soloist, and along with spirited playing from the ensemble, we were treated to another virtuoso performance by Ms. Chulochnikova. I remember thinking, especially during the second adagio movement that, in the context of this concert of mostly choral and vocal music, she made the violin sing.
The final cantata, “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben,” began with a chorus about which I had just one comment: “sublime.” Again there were excellent performances by the soloists, but the special delight for most of us in the audience was the chorale which we knew as “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” This was performed twice during the cantata. To my ear, the music was the same both times, though the words were different, and I assure you that no one minded hearing the music twice.
Wonderful as this concert was, I couldn’t help being disappointed at hearing so little from the fine 16-voice American Bach Choir. There were the lovely chorales, of course, but only three choruses to really display their talent. Still, I dare say that everyone present, rising to their feet again at the end of the concert, felt the same gratitude I felt: that this fine Bay Area-based organization regularly shares its gifts with us in the Central Valley.