The Sacramento Choral Calendar
American Bach Soloists
Easter and Ascension Oratorios - April 25, 2016
by Griffin Toffler
The church was long and narrow with a wooden ceiling that was steeply sloped and high overhead, bisected with a gigantic beam through the middle. Center stage, poised above the singers was a simple stained glass window depicting Jesus standing alone. The sizable choir, tucked under a simple but ample arch, gave forth a clear and resonant sound that felt at once large and intimate. A small group of instrumentalists sat front and forward slightly elevated above the wooden pews where the audience sat. The simplicity of the architecture did not lead me to expect a remarkable display of sound, yet the music filled the sanctuary of the Davis Community Church with sweet perfection. Although grandiose cathedrals are most often associated with music of Bach's time, this simple church bore the sounds most fittingly and delivered an acoustical experience that felt immediate, direct and accessible, immersing the listener in an environment of musical expression filled with tone and color. This describes the setting for the final concert of the season by the American Bach Soloists.
Founded in 1989, The American Bach Soloists have become a leading player in the San Francisco Bay Area of early music. Under their umbrella are included the orchestra and choir, an academy, an annual festival and a young artists competition for early music performers. They have also generated 19 CDs.
(Click here to open sections of the concert program in a new window.)
The first piece we heard was "Heut triumphieret Gottes Sohn" ("Today Triumphs God's Son") by Dieterich Buxtehude. Buxtehude, who lived prior to and during the time of J.S. Bach, was an innovative composer who was very influential in his time. I always look forward to an opportunity to hear his music in a live setting.
The piece began quietly and simply, starting with the string section, which invoked a mood of meditative contemplation. The strings fell silent to make way for the brass whose smooth, rich tones summoned a golden softness rarely heard from brass sections, setting the tone for a richness of things to come. Each new turn added another layer of complexity. Then came the choral entry which introduced the first vocal motif, an "alleluia." The first vocal solo, presented by the competent Ms. Rottsolk, soprano, was followed by another chorale introducing its second motif, a definitive deviation from the rest of the music, identified by a fresh rhythmic pattern that set its single word apart from the rest of the piece, the word, "victoria" (victory). Each time "victoria" was interjected, its brazen dismissal of the dominant rhythmic pattern excited elevated emotion. Both motifs at last came together in the final chorus, creating a musical statement celebrating freedom and jubilation.
The conductor, Jeffrey Thomas, artfully developed the piece from start to finish, setting clear intentions for its many rhythmic and tonal nuances. The interpretation was loyal to tradition while at the same time incorporating bold ideas.
In Bach's "Oster Oratorium: Kommt, eilet und laufet" ("Easter Oratorio: Come, Rush and Run"), the listener is treated to a rousing opening orchestral run, first spiraling upward until reaching its summit, then followed by the inevitable descent back to earth and out into the street to spread the good news. The running tones give way to an instrumental adagio of beatific mystery, a play between strings and flute. The flute's smooth woody plaintive tones contrasted with the strings, skipping upward and pausing, suspended in midair, giving a sense of mystery and anticipation. This section was moving and exhilarating, both jarring and calming, an amazing mixture of emotion that can only be expressed through music, perfectly presented by composer, conductor and performers.
The singers were all superb, especially the well-chosen winner of The Jeffrey Thomas Award, countertenor Eric Jurenas. I particularly enjoyed how well he utilized Bach's dissonant suspensions before the notes leaned back into their resolutions. He is an amazing singer with obvious intelligence about the music and outstanding sensibility about its emotional content. All of the vocal soloists had remarkable mastery of tone and interpretation.
After intermission, we were treated to Johann Kuhnau's "Ihr Himmel jubiliert von oben" ("Your Heaven Rejoices from on High"). This work was interesting, yet while placed in a program of such brilliant genius, it paled beside the others. It seemed to me to have too many clichés, but after reading the program notes, it occurred to me that it was more likely that Kuhnau was the innovator of the concepts that were overused by later composers. The ending of the piece was unsatisfactory to me, as if there was more to the work but the composer never quite finished it.
The final number opened with unusual energy and clarity. I have never heard Bach like this before, freshly interpreted with eye-opening textures and purposeful volume. "Himmelfahrts-Oratorium: Lobet Gott in seinen Reichen" ("Ascension Oratorio: Praise God in his Riches") was indeed richly delivered through the resounding hall. The rousing opening was presented by chorus and orchestra. Then came arias, chorales and recitatives, articulated carefully and clearly in a way that lent to the interpretation rather than borrowing from it, which could happen with an overemphasis on technique. The rousing final chorale ended the concert in a most satisfying expressive display of hope, verbalized by the final words; "When will the dear time come, that I shall see Him in his glory?" Although the concert ended with a question, its interpretation left us with no room for questioning that the desired event is sure to happen.
As a whole, the concert was a fantastic showing of shining talent. Every note presented by the American Bach Soloists sounded so deliberate and clear that I couldn't help but think that this is the way the composer himself intended his music to sound. The moments in which the instrumental parts and the vocal parts mirrored the text were numerous and pleasing. For example, text about the shroud where Jesus slumbered was backed by subdued texture of the strings, creating an aural effect of soft cloth where one would comfortably sleep. I could hear the doors opening and a raucous crowd entering heaven through its gates throughout the chorus whose theme was "Open, oh Heavens." Moments like these were many and not simply because the music was written this way. It was because the music was performed in a way that created an effect that was powerfully visceral and real.
On a more mundane note, the program bears mentioning because of its original layout that made it easy and clear for the audience to navigate and understand the musical experience as it progressed. I love the way the columns for the texts and translations were placed. The program was obviously treated with the same care and respect as the music, exposing the educational side of the organization and giving complete information about the music, composer and musicians. This is clearly an organization that does nothing unless they do it with great thought and consideration.
The American Bach Soloists are definitely a local treasure that I feel lucky to be able to hear in concert on a regular basis. I will surely attend as much as I can next year. The 2016-2017 season, their 28th, starts in August with their 10-day Festival Academy in San Francisco. They will be back in Davis for a performance of Handel’s Messiah at the Mondavi Center on December 10, and their annual subscription series at the Davis Community Church will resume in February.
Griffin Toffler attended Longy School of Music and Morehead University as a music major for 3 years. Although she went on to be successful in her field after obtaining an MA in Clinical Psychology at John F. Kennedy University, she has often thought of returning to college to complete her degree in music education. She is currently taking conducting classes at CSU Stanislaus. Her first voice teacher, Olga Averino, was a major influence in Griffin's life. Griffin hopes to, in some small way, pass on to others some of the wisdom she learned from Madame Averino. Her website is www.griffintoffler.com.