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Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Each holiday season when a Classical Sonoma reviewer is assigned to cover a concert with Handel’s seminal Oratorio The Messiah, the question arises about what new commentary can possibly apply to the often performed choral work. Well, if it’s the American Bach Soloists performing the piece, written...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Friday, March 30, 2018
Maurice Duruflé’s short and intense Requiem has been heard in Santa Rosa’s Church of the Incarnation before, but the March 30 Good Friday performance was stripped down in the number of performers, combining Cantiamo Sonoma and the St. Cecilia Choir with musical underpinning from organist Robert Youn...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 18, 2018
Two weeks does make a hefty difference. Feb. 3 saw the diva Renée Fleming beguile a full Weill Hall house in a mix of Brahms, Broadway show songs and Dvorak chestnuts. It was a gala event with couture gowns and colorful extra-musical communication between singer and her rapt audience. Dorothea Rösc...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, December 10, 2017
The mid-December concert season seems for jaded reviewers to invariably include a Messiah performance, and perhaps a Messiah in a long string of similar and mundane performances. This was decidedly not the case when San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque mounted Handel’s eminent three-part 1742 Orato...
Choral and Vocal
by Joanna Bramel Young
Sunday, December 18, 2016
San Francisco’s American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented Handel’s incomparable oratorio Messiah, HWV 56, to a sold out Weill Hall Dec. 18. It was a celebratory afternoon. In the fashion ABS audiences have learned to expect, conductor Jeffrey Thomas brought out the best of orchestra, chorus and solo...
Choral and Vocal
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Weill Hall Nov. 27 was packed with an audience of young and old excitedly waiting for an early holiday concert by the Vienna Boys Choir, and this esteemed Choir is a five-hundred year institution which is based in a school of 100 choristers. Four touring groups divide their time between studying and...
Choral and Vocal
by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, April 22, 2016
Three baroque composers were brought together April 22 at the American Bach Soloists‘ offering of oratorios: Buxtehude, Johann Kuhnau and Bach. In Belvedere’s St. Stephen’s Church the ABS highlighted the sequence of influence for these three masters, displaying stunning choral singing, virtuoso in...
Choral and Vocal
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, April 16, 2016
The renowned male a cappella  Chanticleer choir presented an "Over the Moon" program April 15 at the Green Music Centers Weill Hall.  The audience, including many choral music cognoscenti, was entranced by a varied and enriching program spanning centuries and continents. The theme of the evening was...
Choral and Vocal
by Terry McNeill
Friday, March 25, 2016
There is a lot to like in John Rutter’s Requiem. Composed in 1985, it’s arguably the most performed large choral work of recent times, and it was a labor of love for choral director Carol Menke’s musicians in a memorable Good Friday concert in Santa Rosa’s Church of the Incarnation. Splendid Requi...
Choral and Vocal
by Christa Durand
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Those who braved the storm March 13 to attend diva Carol Menke’s recital in the intimate Schroeder Hall were rewarded with a warm program of chamber music for voice, clarinet and piano.  Brahms’ E-Flat Clarinet Sonata, Op. 120, No. 2, opened the concert.  The interplay and communication between pia...
American Bach Soloists / Friday, February 26, 2016
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor. Anna Gorbachyova, soprano; Arron Sheehan, tenor; William Sharp, baritone; Maria Christina Cleary, harp

Soprano Anna Gorbachyova


by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, February 26, 2016

American Bach Soloists (ABS) once again enchanted a full house in Belvedere’s St. Stephen’s Church February 26 with an exciting, varied, virtuosic performance, this concert offering works solely by Handel.

Germany-born Handel made his way to England after an extended stay in Italy, where he was supreme in the writing of Italian opera. After being wooed to England, however, he turned from opera to the more popular English tradition of the oratorio. Comfortably working in this genre, Handel was drawn to the dramatic possibilities of Dryden’s ode Alexander’s Feast; or, the Power of Music. Hosted by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, in the Persian capital, the feast as recounted by Dryden enabled Handel to musically highlight a sequence of emotional states as Alexander is unknowingly led through them by Timotheus, singing and playing the lyre. Collaborating with Thais, Alexander’s wife, Timotheus ultimately evokes Alexander’s burning desire to avenge the Greeks slain in earlier Persian wars, and Persepolis is torched.

Handel’s realization of the tale gave ABS the opportunity to demonstrate how complex the composer’s music can be, as through choruses, recitatives, and arias the listener accompanied Alexander from spiritual uplift to the bloody culmination.

A variety of instruments also added to the rich fare, the string orchestra being enhanced by oboes, trumpets, bassoons, horns, recorders, timpani, harpsichord, and Irish harp. The harp (a copy of a 17th century instrument) visually dominated the stage with its graceful wooden curves, rising above the musician’s heads. Besides being used for continuo in Alexander’s Feast and the Concerto Grosso in C Major, it was also the featured instrument in the intriguing Concerto for Harp in B-Flat Major, enabling Irish harpist Maria Christina Cleary to demonstrate her crisp elfin touch and mature musicality.

Following Handel’s original programming, the Harp Concerto and the Concerto Grosso were incorporated into the oratorio itself, the former near the beginning of Part One of Alexander’s Feast, and the latter right after the intermission, before Part Two.

Jamie Apgar, a countertenor singing alto in the superb chorus, delivered a pre-concert lecture concerning the importance once ascribed to music in moving the passions--in the case of Alexander’s Feast, toward fervor. In his program comments, Jeffrey Thomas notes that Dryden, the librettist, designed his work to show how the Christian St. Cecelia could inspire spiritual well-being and more noble deeds. Hence the last two choruses in the work invoke her name: “At last Divine Cecilia came, inventress of the Vocal Frame...”

The vocal soloists were soprano Anna Gorbachyova (in her ABS debut), tenor Aaron Sheehan, and baritone William Sharp, a masterful ABS regular. Ms. Gorbachyova’s voice was splendidly rich and powerful, and could be easily heard above the carefully modulated orchestra. Mr. Sheehan used his strong, eloquent tenor to further the story line in his recitatives, and the arias he sang were glorious. In the charming Air with Chorus he sang “Happy, Happy, Happy Pair!” the Chorus finishing with “None but the Brave deserves the Fair,” referring to the love between Alexander and Thais.

The immaculately honed Chorus served as the guests at the Banquet, or the “crowd.” In “The List’ning Crowd admire the lofty Sound...” the Chorus sang at full volume with the orchestra, shaking the church’s rafters. Throughout, the Chorus’s articulation and intonation were unequalled, even down to the triple pianissimo conclusion.

In the tenor Recitative “the praise of Bacchus, then, the sweet Musician sung,” two matched horns (valveless “hunting horns”) sounded jubilant fanfares on the words “Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.” And in the bass Aria “Bacchus, ever Fair” the two horns played an extended virtuosic duet. Bringing fresh, unique color to the scene with their earthy, evocative horns, Paul Avril and Loren Tayerle demonstrated highly skilled handling of these challenging, rarely heard instruments.

Throughout the performance conductor Jeffrey Thomas drew every ounce of expression from the ensemble. In the Air “He sung Darius Great and Good, by two severe a Fate,” Ms. Gorbachyova plumbed the depths of sadness, with the Chorus echoing her deeply moving words, ending with “On the bare Earth expos’d he lies, With not a Friend to close his Eyes.” In the Air “Softly sweet, in Lydian Measures,” the soprano and cellist William Skeen combined in a hauntingly beautiful duet. An essential part of the “backbone” of the continuo section, Mr. Skeen must have delighted in the opportunity to shine on his exuberant, brilliant solo.

After the tenor Air comparing war and love, the always supple chorus burst forth on the words “The Many rend the Skies, with loud Applause; So Love was crown’d, but Musick won the Cause.” Immediately following the great explosion of raw emotion, the soprano Gorbachyova sang one of the most poignant and moving airs of the evening: “The Prince, unable to conceal his Pain, Gaz’d on the Fair ...and sigh’d and look’d, sigh’d and look’d...” As if controlled by invisible strings, Jeffrey Thomas’s hands gently led the soprano and two solo violins through long, expressive pauses punctuating the repeated phrase “And sigh’d and look’d, sigh’d and sigh’d again....”

Part Two of Alexander’s Feast, following the delightful Concerto Grosso in C Major, opened with the resounding “...Break his Bands of sleep asunder,” which is intended to jolt the sleeping Alexander from his drunken slumber. Trumpets, fortissimo timpani, full Chorus, and orchestra combined to wake the dead in a surging wave of sound and pounding rhythm.

Mr. Sharp was called upon for only a few arias in Alexander’s Feast, but his Air “Revenge, Revenge, Timotheus cries, See the Furies arise...” was worth the price of admission. The powerful orchestral support (trumpets resounding) for “And the Sparkles that flash from their Eyes ...” fell away at “Behold a gastly Band,” the instrumentation changing completely, with only horns, bassoons, cellos, and continuo accompanying the words. Repeating the opening “Revenge,” the full trumpet-led orchestra entered to conclude the Air. Mr. Sharp’s arresting runs up and down the scale enlivened the dramatic text.

The Concerto in B-Flat for Harp was a delight, Ms. Cleary is indeed a master of her rare and instrument. This unusual work began with unaccompanied harp and paired recorders played lyrically by oboists Debra Nagy and Stephan Bard. The strings then entered, balancing beautifully with the harp. In the opening Allegro Ms. Cleary negotiated flowing sixteenth-note passages with sinuous fluency; and then In the Larghetto recorders and orchestra entered, followed by unaccompanied harp. Ms. Cleary’s cadenza, a tapestry of quick arpeggios, segued into a scintillating Allegro in quick triple time.

The four-movement Concerto Grosso in C Major, which opened the second half of the concert, featured two violins with cellist William Skeen. Consummate violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock led, and shared the spotlight with Jude Ziliak, an alumnus of the ABS Historical Performance Academy at the San Francisco Conservatory. The two violins and cello interacted with flawless nuanced balance and intonation, entrancing the audience.

The American Bach Soloists’ masterful performance of three contrasting Handel works, the composer born the same year as Bach, demonstrated the far-ranging prowess of one of the greatest composers of his age.

The next ABS concert will take place in April, with Easter and Ascension Oratorios by Bach, Buxtehude, and Kuhnau.