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2014 American Bach Soloists Festival gives its first B minor Mass performance

The first rehearsal of BWV 232 last Wednesday night
The first rehearsal of BWV 232 last Wednesday night
courtesy of the American Bach Soloists

Here in San Francisco the “rite of summer” is the presentation of two performances by the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 setting of all six section of the Latin Mass text. The first of those concerts also provides the first extended opportunity to experience the efforts of the ABS Academy students, for whom the Festival provides the setting for an intensive two-week training program in historically-informed performance. The ABS Academy Orchestra has many of these students sitting alongside the seasoned professionals with whom they have been studying, while all solos are taken by vocal students. The choral portions are performed by the American Bach Choir, and ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas conducts.

From the listener’s perspective, however, this opportunity to experience so many “new faces” is complemented by the fact that, because there is so much to be mined from the score of BWV 232, Thomas always provides a platform for new insights into Bach’s music. My guess is that this is not a matter of Thomas consciously deciding every year, “How will I make things different this time?” Rather, the novelty of the situation stems from the fact that the music resides not in the marks on the score pages but in the music makers themselves. By virtue of the Academy, those music makers are different every summer, which means that every summer Thomas is working with new resources. It is because he does not try to shoehorn those resources into some “ideal vision” of the music defined only by the notation that there is always a fresh immediacy to the performance of BWV 232 every summer.

It is also worth noting that the listeners change, too. That includes the present party. The mind I brought to listen to last night’s performance of BWV 232 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) is not the same mind that experienced last summer’s performance. As anyone who reads this site knows, over the last twelve months I have been doing a lot of listening. This involved not only ABS and an impressive number of other opportunities to experience historically-informed performances but also a generous share of repertoire from all successive centuries. Sitting in the SFCM Concert Hall, I was working with resources that were just as fresh as the resources Thomas had assembled to do the music making.

In this context I have discovered that, because Bach put so much into this particular composition (which is not to slight how much he put into so many other compositions), mind often seeks out particular aspects that have always been there but seem to deserve closer attention. Thus, while it goes without saying that counterpoint, with a particular emphasis on fugue, dominates the entire score (beginning at the fifth measure of the opening “Kyrie eleison” movement), last night I found myself drawn into Bach’s rhetorical use of stretto. This technique of having the voices enter at a more rapid pace than when the fugue subject is first introduced is often used to signal that one has reached the coda. However, in BWV 232 Bach often does not wait that long; and sometimes several of these stretto gestures will recur in the unfolding of a single fugue.

I may have been more aware of this feature last night because of the brisk pace that Thomas tends to bring to his tempo selections. Frequency of stretto thus created a sense of urgency, which, in turn, serves as a reflection that the words of the Mass itself have elevated beyond mere ritual to an almost passionate embrace of religious conviction. (One rarely encounters such intense devotion when one encounters a “real” celebration of the Mass at a local church.) One might imagine that kind of transition from an abstract musical form to such a visceral interpretation of that form could have served as the inspiration behind the “castle of heaven” metaphor that John Eliot Gardiner evoked in his recent book about Bach.

Even without the religious connotations, however, Thomas’ interpretation of Bach’s approach to stretto made clear that Bach’s “gift to the world,” so to speak, was not a very large pile of papers filled with music notation but the knowledge that within that pile was a vast sea of opportunities to realize that notation in the vivid immediacy of performance. During the ABS season we experience that immediacy through the instrumental and vocal resources Thomas has cultivated for his own ensemble. During the summer we experience it through a new generation of musicians. They may still have much more to learn about that immediate nature of the making of music, but they are definitely going down the right path.

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