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American Bach Soloists begins its 2014 Festival with music that influenced Bach

ABS violinist Robert Mealy working with a chamber orchestra of Academy students
ABS violinist Robert Mealy working with a chamber orchestra of Academy students
courtesy of the American Bach Soloists

Back in October of 2011, Corey Jamason prepared a program for his San Francisco Bach Choir entitled Before Bach: Music from the Family Archives. My account of that performance was entitled “The Bachs before Bach.” The concert influenced me profoundly through its compelling demonstration that “Johann Sebastian was born into a family context with a rich commitment to making music.”

This summer the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival has prepared two programs that extend that context beyond the bonds of family. Those programs share the title Bach’s Inspiration, and the first of them opened the Festival concert series last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. One way of approaching these programs is to recognize that ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas decided to demonstrate, through music, “how Bach became Bach.”

Last night’s program was organized geographically, rather than chronologically. All of the music from the first half came from Germany, while the second half shifted attention to Italy. Only one of Bach’s ancestors was included in the first half, Johann Christoph Bach (1642–1703). I include the dates because the name Johann Christoph occurs frequently in the family tree. His uncle (1645–1693) introduced Sebastian to the organ; and his brother (1671–1721) took care of him after both their parents died and also played a major role in Sebastian’s music education. However, the Johann Christoph on the program was a cousin of Sebastian’s father, Johann Ambrosius.

This Johann Christoph was a particularly accomplished member of the family. His memory was still vivid for Sebastian’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who described him as “the great and expressive composer … capable of composing in styles both gallant and singing, as well as remarkably polyphonic … strong both in the invention of beautiful ideas and in the expression of the meaning of words.” All of these strengths were evident last night in the opening selection, a choral setting of five verses from the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation. Christoph composed this in 22 independent parts (“remarkably polyphonic,” indeed!), scored for five-part chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, and bass), five vocal soloists (soprano Mary Wilson, alto Judith Malafronte, tenor Derek Chester, baritone William Sharp, and bass Max van Egmond), four trumpets, timpani, three violins, three violas, and continuo. The text depicts the war in heaven between Michael and the Satanic dragon, followed by the arrival of the Christ (all very nicely timed for those following Dominion on the Syfy channel). Thomas gave a rousing account of this music that could not have begun the Festival on a more stimulating note.

This was followed by a five-verse motet (BuxWV 62) by Dietrich Buxtehude on the hymn “Jesu, meines Lebens Leben” (Jesus, life of my life). Buxtehude is probably the best known of Bach’s influences due to the popular story of Bach’s encounter with him. Bach took leave from his position in Arnstadt to listen to Buxtehude perform on the organ. Bach made the 250-mile trip to Lübeck on foot, taking ten days to get there. Thomas’ notes for the program book speculate on what Bach might have experienced at the regular series of evening concerts that Buxtehude arranged (not exclusively of his own music).

BuxWV 62 is structured around an ostinato bass of only eight notes repeated 41 times. The verses are sung without interruption, making the ostinato the thread than joins them all. Solos for soprano (Wilson) and tenor (Chester) alternate with two trios, the first for alto (Malafronte), tenor, and bass (van Egmond) and the second for soprano, alto, and bass. The soloists then join the four-part chorus for the final verse. Thomas took this at a brisk pace, reflecting the passionate enthusiasm of the words of the text.

The final German vocal setting was a cantata by Johann Kuhnau, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (how lovely shines the morning star). Kuhnau was Bach’s predecessor in the position of Cantor of the Thomasschule at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig. The text comes from a hymn with words by Philipp Nicolai with the insertion of a verse from the Book of Isaiah. It is worth noting that Kuhnau used a pair of horns to “paint” the light of that morning star, a device that Bach would also use when he composed his BWV 1 cantata around the same hymn. The result was a work of bright instrumental coloration, setting a path that Bach would enthusiastically continue in many of his own Leipzig cantatas.

The final German selection was a flute concerto in C major by Frederick the Great. This concerto was probably composed more than a decade after Bach’s death. Thomas included it on the program as representative of the court-based secular music practices of Bach’s time. (Frederick himself played the solo part in his own concertos. We seem him in a painting by Adolph Menzel, accompanied by Emanuel Bach at the harpsichord.) The music also provided an excellent platform for Sandra Miller’s historically-informed performance on a period instrument.

The important thing about the second half of the concert is that Bach himself never visited Italy. Nevertheless, he had a rich knowledge of the music of that country, studying (and frequently copying) the scores of those composers whose reputations had extended into the north. That study often led to appropriation in his own music, and this provided the framework for the Italian portion of the program.

The first selection was an oboe concerto by Alessandro Marcello that Bach would subsequently rework as a harpsichord solo (BWV 974). This was followed by the BWV 1083 cantata Tilge, Höchster, meine Sünden (blot out, O God, my sins), a twenty-verse paraphrase of Psalm 51. The music consisted entirely of a reworking of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s setting of the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” hymn, complete with a German text duplicating both the trochaic tetrameter and the AABCCB rhyme scheme of the original Latin. Also duplicated was Pergolesi’s setting of the text for two high voices, sung by soprano Wilson and countertenor Eric Jurenas.

Both of these exercises in appropriation were fascinating. They revealed how thoroughly Bach understood the “music” (rather than just the surface structure) of his sources. Both compositions thus amounted to a musical rethinking that took both surface and “deep” structures into account. The result was a thoroughly engaging platform, particularly for the stimulating work of not only the two vocal soloists but also the polished sonorities of Debra Nagy’s historical oboe.