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American Bach Soloists Academy 2014 students run their final lap of recitals

Academy students J. Adam Young (cello), Elisa Figa (soprano), David Dickey, and Joel Verkeik (oboes) in rehearsal
Academy students J. Adam Young (cello), Elisa Figa (soprano), David Dickey, and Joel Verkeik (oboes) in rehearsal
courtesy of the American Bach Soloists

Once again solo arias from the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach dominated the programming of the third and final Academy-In-Action Concert, presented by the students of the American Bach Soloists Academy in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Once again diversity was the order of the day. This time, however, a certain amount of diversity could also be experienced in the music of Bach’s predecessor Dieterich Buxtehude and his near contemporary Georg Philipp Telemann. (Telemann had applied for, and was chosen for, the post of Thomaskantor at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. However, he turned down the offer, as did the church’s second choice, Christoph Graupner, thus leading to Bach taking the position in 1723.)

After three nights of these student recitals (as well as student participation this past Sunday in the performance of the BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor), faces are beginning to look familiar, often in association with some memorable approaches to performance. It thus seems appropriate to look back to consider which of those memories are most salient and why. Granted, this is little more than unabashed personal opinion; but those opinions tended to be grounded on how the overall listening experience was impacted to particularly beneficial effect.

This approach has its origins in a Q&A session that Sheri Greenawald opened up to the audience attending a master class she taught for the Opera Academy of California last summer. Asked about auditioning, she observed that a talented command of musicianship was not enough to prevail at an audition. There were so many opportunities for first-rate training in musical skills that the playing field was pretty much level (and vast) at just about any audition. Greenawald stressed that the winning competitor was one who could make a lasting impression beyond technical skill.

Ironically, the most lasting impression over this past week came from an Academy student, who, in all likelihood, had opera experience. This was soprano Molly Netter, who seems to have cultivated an appreciation for the virtue of singing with the entire body and then turning that appreciation into effective practice. Whether the words came from the sacred text of a cantata (the poetry of Salomon Frank for Bach’s BWV 168) or Italian verse (the anonymous poet for Claudio Monteverdi’s “Ardo, avvampo, mi struggo, ardo”), Netter always seemed to come up with a moderate but effective combination of posture, gesture, and facial expression, all of which worked together to endow every word of the text with signification. These two examples were particularly challenging, since she had to blend in with seven other voices in the Monteverdi, while her Bach selection was a duet with mezzo Janna Elesia Critz that involved lengthy passages of virtuoso embellishment in parallel thirds. (Both singers showed visible relief at the end of this selection.)

This seems to have been a good summer for mezzos. Both Critz and Agnes Vojtko first sang in the BWV 232 performance. Both of them summoned up sonorities that were rich, warm, dark, and comforting. (I feel as if I am trying to ground my impressions on the metaphor of Mexican hot chocolate.) In Critz’ case this was again a highly embellished duet (with soprano Fiona Gillespie), as impressive for its level of virtuoso skills as for its thoughtful account of sonority.

On the male side the deepest impression also seems to have been connected to opera. This was countertenor Dan Cromeenes’ performance of the aria “Va tacito e nascosto” (moving silently and stealthily) from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 17 opera Giulio Cesare. This is a rather elaborate bit of drama, since it requires Cesare to explain to Curio the ways in which he suspects Tolomeo will betray him. He presents himself as prey to Tolomeo’s hunter, so the performance requires that the authority of a successful military commander be tinged with suspicion of vulnerability. In addition to maintaining a solid command of Handel’s music, Cromeenes also designed his own body language for staying in character during the instrumental coda.

Since that aria uses the hunt as metaphor, it provided Handel with an opportunity to compose for horn. This, in itself, involved virtuoso command of the upper harmonics on an instrument whose underlying physical properties lacked much of the engineering skill of its modern successors. Sadie Glass took on the horn part for this aria for all it was worth, evoking all of the frightening aspects of a hunt in the process. Listening to Glass’ interpretation, one could appreciate that Handel understood and exploited the raw quality of the instrument of his day. Any performance of that music on a modern horn would sound far too innocuous for the dramatic demands of the situation.

In the case of the strings, I have to say that I was most impressed when they all came together to perform orchestral suites by Telemann (last night) and Philipp Heinrich Erlebach (Tuesday night). Given how much attention focused on solo work, there was something very rewarding about listening to a well-balanced ensemble that seemed to enjoy the prospect of making music as a group-social event. Last night was further enhanced by the wit brought to Telemann’s portrayals of different nationalities in his “Völker” (peoples) overture. His depiction of the Muscovites was particularly funny, especially to those familiar with Stephen Sondheim’s don’t-touch-the-coat take on that same nationality in Pacific Overtures.

On the solo side, however, I feel I should close by observing that cellist Laura Gaynon had a few really stunning moments of solo continuo work during the BWV 232 Mass performance; and, since she was not listed as a soloist in the program (which is often the case for the continuo), it seemed fair that her name should appear “in print” somewhere!

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