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Choral and Vocal
by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, January 22, 2016
Playing to a full house Jan. 22 at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, the American Bach Soloists launched its twenty-seventh season with a program of four Bach Favorites - two delectable instrumental compositions sandwiched between a pair of cantatas that ABS had performed in its very first concert....
Choral and Vocal
by Mark Kratz
Sunday, January 17, 2016
Schroeder Hall's vocal recital Jan. 17 centered on the life of the artist, and tenor Nicholas Phan described the recital as “meditations on the artist” that highlighted the concepts of hypersensitivity and a sense of child-like wonder that many artists experience. The entire first half of the rec...
Choral and Vocal
by Joanna Bramel Young
Saturday, December 12, 2015
The American Bach Soloists presented Dec. 12 a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in San Francisco’s magnificent St. Ignatius Church. The church, built in 1912 and one of San Francisco’s largest, was nearly filled with legions of appreciative Bach and ABS fans. First heard in 1734 and standi...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 20, 2015
Mounting a production of the Mozart D Minor Requiem (K. 626) poses difficulties absent from the usual 50-plus minute performance time. Historical questions abound concerning authorship, placement of musical sections and even the murky commissioning process. Director Bob Worth moved to solve these ...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Friday, May 01, 2015
In a May 1 program that balanced vocal and instrumental virtuosity the American Bach Soloists closed their 26th season in grand style in Belvedere’s austere St. Stephen’s Church. Led by the indomitable conductor Jeffrey Thomas the first half of the program featured a rarely heard cello concerto, a ...
Choral and Vocal
by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, February 27, 2015
The American Bach Soloists performed Bach’s timeless St. Matthew Passion Feb. 27 to a sold-out audience at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere. In the account of Christ’s last hours as set forth by evangelist Matthew, the Passion stands supreme, beside the Mass in B Minor, as Bach’s finest creation. ...
Choral and Vocal
by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, January 23, 2015
American Bach Soloists’ opening concert of their 26th season, with performances of Bach’s beloved Fourth Brandenburg Concerto and Handel’s touchingly pastoral Acis and Galatea. The Fourth Brandenburg is one of six that Bach sent as a gift to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg in 17...
Choral and Vocal
by Joanna Bramel Young
Sunday, December 21, 2014
The American Bach Soloists (ABS) made their Sonoma County debut at Weill Hall December 19, performing the three-hour-long oratorio “Messiah” to a full house. In the 25 years since its founding in Marin the ABS has achieved world renown, and has long performed regularly in Belvedere, San Francisco, ...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, August 23, 2014
A choral concert by the Sonoma Bach Choir was a fitting opening for the new Schroeder Hall at Sonoma State University on Aug. 23. After all, the idea for the Green Music Center came many years ago from Don Green, who at the time was singing in the Bach Choir, conducted then and now by Bob Worth. Th...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Choral singing, especially unaccompanied by piano or orchestra, seldom gets exposure at a summer music festival. So it was a surprise July 16 to find the Mendocino Music Festival featuring a full program of a capella singing in downtown Mendocino’s Preston Hall. Perhaps due to the local performers...
American Bach Soloists / Friday, February 21, 2014
Jeffrey Thomas, director. American Bach Choir. Kathryn Mueller, soprano; Ian Howell, countertenor; Derek Chester, tenor; Jesse Blumberg, baritone

Soprano Kathryn Mueller


by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, February 21, 2014

One might wonder why the highly esteemed American Bach Soloists perform at a rather out-of-the-way venue at St. Stephen's Church in Belvedere; but that is where it all began 25 years ago, when conductor Jeffrey Thomas and former St. Stephen's organist Jonathan Dimmock fulfilled their dream of founding a world-class Baroque orchestra and chorus. This reviewer has had the pleasure of watching a finely tuned organization develop into what it is today--one of the most accomplished exponents of historically informed music in the world. It is well worth the drive to Belvedere from the North Bay to hear ABS; and fortunately nowadays it also offers each Marin program in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Davis.

Bach's familiar Orchestral Suite (Overture) in C major opened the all-Bach program on Feb. 21. On stage was a small orchestra--10 strings, two oboes, a bassoon and a harpsichord. Violins were on the left, woodwinds facing them on the right. This arrangement fostered pleasing contrasts between the two sections, which alternately shared the spotlight from one passage to another. The opening movement, or Overture, delighted with its seamless transition from the stately, majestic theme to the contrasting lively allegro section. Bach adds variety to this movement by having the woodwind trio play unaccompanied at times. In this performance, Debra Nagy and Stephen Bard on Baroque oboes and Dominic Teresi on Baroque bassoon played flawlessly throughout the evening.

Although a suite was originally a set of instrumental accompaniments for dancing by the nobility in Louis XIV's court entertainments, Bach composed such pieces for listening. The rhythms, tempos and nuances of the dances were not forgotten, however, and conductor Jeffrey Thomas masterfully brought the intricate steps to life. In the Courante (a "running" dance) charming syncopations caught our attention, and a "trumpet fanfare" was subtly played, not by trumpets, but by the violins. At one point, the very quick Bourrée switched into a minor key, with the woodwind trio once more playing unaccompanied. In the Passepied, which is a quick Minuet, the oboes played a 16th-note ornamentation over a simpler melody in the violins.

The Missa (Lutheran Mass) in G Major rounded out the first half of the program. For this, the four vocal soloists were Kathryn Mueller, soprano, Ian Howell, countertenor, Derek Chester, tenor, and Jesse Blumberg, bass/baritone, supported by the ever-reliable 20-member American Bach Choir. Singing with impressive precision and clarity, the choir revealed all the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach's melodic lines. Virtuosic singing was required in the opening Gloria--the choir supported by strings and oboes. On the words "Laudamus te; benedicamus te; adoramus te; glorificamus te" the choir's and the instruments' gentle lines wove expressively around each other. Jesse Blumberg's rich bass voice in the aria "Gratias agimus" (We give thanks) was supported by lilting strings, the aria ending with a brilliant long melisma, sung with heartfelt emotion.

Violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock accompanied soprano Kathryn Mueller and countertenor Ian Howell on the duet "Domine Deus." The two voices blended beautifully, the high countertenor adding a unique quality to the aria. Tenor Derek Chester's aria "Quoniam tu solus" (For thou only art holy), with oboe and continuo, was especially moving. Particular praise is due to keyboardist Corey Jamason, cellist William Skeen, and Steven Lehning on the great violone grosso for the solid ground they created, above which the higher voices floated, securely supported. The oboes, too, deserve special mention for their contribution to this aria. The choral section "Cum Sanctu Spiritu" (With the Holy Ghost) concluded the first half in a rousing Allegro, beginning slowly, then continuing to build, the powerful, steady continuo the engine driving the work.

The program's final offering was Bach's cantata "Laßt uns sorgen, laßt uns wachen" (Let us take care, let us watch over our own son of the gods), a dramatization of Hercules having to choose between Vice and Virtue. Bach composed this allegorical piece in honor of the 11th birthday of Friedrich Christian, Prince Elector of Saxony, possibly hoping to win his patronage. In the aria "Schlafe, mein Liebster" (Sleep, my beloved), Vice (Kathryn Mueller) urges Hercules to "taste the delight of a sensual nature and own no bounds." Her long held notes over the active string parts were especially beautiful.

Hercules (Ian Howell) sang the charming aria "Treues Echo" (Faithful echo), with Debra Nagy accompanying on oboe d'amore. Off stage Howell's voice was faithfully echoed, then an echo oboe d'amore would follow. Howell's voice is beautiful throughout its entire range and thus easy to savor. The repeated words "nein" and finally "ja" were tossed about among the singers and instruments on and off stage--a charming effect. A fulfilling low note from the oboe d'amore brought the aria to an eminently satisfying conclusion.

Another lyrical and joyous aria was beautifully sung by tenor Derek Chester: "Auf meinen Flügeln sollst du schweben" (On my wings you shall soar). Oboe, violin, and continuo joined in to create an intricate fugue among all the parts. Hercules' aria "Ich will dich nicht hören" (I will not listen to you)--directed at Vice--surged up from the heart.

I was looking forward to the alto-tenor duet "Ich bin deine" (I am yours), a love song between Hercules and Virtue, because of the rare use of two solo violas. Possibly because of the very complex counting required, with difficult entrances, one of the violas appeared to become lost in the work's contrapuntal maze.

Jesse Blumberg, bass, finally was heard for the first time in this cantata as Mercury, in the recitative "Behold, O gods, this is a perfect image of the youth of Prince Friedrich of Saxony!" Bass and choir concluded in a powerful ensemble with horns, oboes, strings, and basso continuo: "Hurry, my Friedrich, [glory] awaits you!"

So ended another evening made up of three very different works by one great composer. From a stately orchestral dance suite to a secular cantata honoring an 11-year-old Prince, we tasted--and enjoyed--the variety of Bach's timeless masterpieces.