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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
Green Music Center / Sunday, December 19, 2021
American Bach Soloists and American Bach Choir. Jeffrey Thomas, conductor

Conductor Jeffrey Thomas

AN OLD FRIEND RETURNS TO WEILL IN STERLING ABS MESSIAH PERFORMANCE

by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Sunday, December 19, 2021

A tremendous accomplishment by the American Bach Soloists Dec. 19 was near perfect performance of Handel's Messiah in Weill Hall. Long an annual tradition at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral, the ABS took to the road and delivered a Christmas gift of epic proportions to an obviously thrilled and enthusiastically moved, vaxed and masked Weill Hall audience. Tape bracelets were distributed at the entrance upon presentation of proof of vaccination or negative COVID test.

ABS conductor and Bay Area luminary Jeffrey Thomas brought crackling, delicate, tender, powerful shaping to the choruses and solos alike. Most of these are so generally well-known that it was possible to see people in the audience (myself included!) mouthing the words through their masks along with the music. The moment when we stood for the Hallelujah Chorus was brimming with an authentic sense of joyful unity. Such is music.

As for most of the audience, Messiah is an old friend of mine. Whether in live performance or recordings, it always takes me back to my first performances with a remarkable high school choir in Los Angelesí San Fernando Valley over fifty years ago, and I suspect that I am not alone in this. Such is Messiah. Many of us have strong memories attached to it.

Mr. Thomas is known for assembling the best of the best and this performance certainly showed it. Lead violinist Tekla Cunningham and all the strings (Clio Tilton, principal viola; principal cello and continuo Gretchen Claassen; Stephen Lehning, principal contrabass and continuo) played with a consistently perfect blend, lightness of tone and rhythmic discipline. Beautiful solo passages from woodwinds were dappled throughout, and the mood-setting color from harpsichord and organ was lovely, although both could have been a bit louder. My heart sank with a bit of apprehension however when I saw that Dominic Favia would be playing "The Trumpet Shall Sound" on the valveless natural horn. Itís daunting piece to accomplish on a regular D trumpet, and I cannot imagine how it is even possible to play it successfully on this instrument, even with such an accomplished performer. And this performance unfortunately was sprinkled with clams. But the 900 in the hall loved it anyway, and the clams coming from the horn were not nearly as irritating as the three loud cellphone interruptions.

The ABS Choir sang with extraordinary beauty, blend, lightness and accuracy, and the long runs showcased a pure, perfectly tuned and unified sound and amazingly understandable diction that is somehow not thin at all, but sumptuously rich in overtones. Itís a truly remarkable feat for a chamber ensemble of only thirty-four voices. Messiah is a long sing - three hours - even with crisp tempos, and there was no hint of fatigue by the arrival of "Worthy is the Lamb". That said, even with Mr. Thomas's unflagging forward momentum, it is rather taxingly long after intermission and there are a couple of numbers in Parts Two and Three that do not forward the story and could be judiciously dropped without any complaints from this seat.

Mr. Thomas leads with a profoundly focused energy that balances restraint and relaxed ease with power and thrill. This performance was the most dynamically and dramatically nuanced I have ever heard, and I loved watching him conduct the phrases rather than beats. In a piece like Messiah this is easier said than done, but when every musician and singer is as good as this group, it is totally possible. And what a difference high level singing makes. The conductorís tempos were very lively (thank you!) and sometimes I was wondering oh my, how are the runs going to be at this tempo? But they were always perfect.

It would have been nearly impossible to find a more satisfying solo quartet than the young singers who graced this performance. Soprano Nola Richardson possesses the quintessential angelic quality and sympathetic delivery that delights the ear with every note. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, the 2020 recipient of the ABS Jeffrey Thomas Award, presented a voice of rich beauty and emotional depth. Tenor James Reese sang with telling dramatic urgency and effortlessly produced fioritura, while bass Alex Rosen thrilled the audience with a luscious sound, powerful presence and declamation.

These singers were ideally balanced with each other and made me wish Handel had written a quartet.











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