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The first American Bach Soloists Academy 2014 recital features vocalists

Portrait of Claudio Monteverdi (c. 1630) from the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum
by Bernardo Strozzi, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music the American Bach Soloists presented the first of three Academy-In-Action Concerts. These events showcase the talents of the Academy students with greater breadth and depth than can be afforded by student appearances in the Festival concerts (such as the vocal and instrumental solos taken in Sunday’s performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 232 Mass setting in B minor). While there were two impressive instrumental selections, the focus of last night’s program was on the Academy vocalists, eleven of whom had performed on Sunday.

The selections covered a mix of the sacred and the secular. The most impressive secular work was “Ardo, avvampo, mi struggo, ardo” (I burn, I blaze, I am consumed, I burn; come running) from Claudio Monteverdi’s 1638 eighth book of madrigals. This is the one book to carry a descriptive title, Madrigali dei guerrieri et amorosi (madrigals of war and love). The subjects of war and love are divided into two separate sections, although many of the poems in the war section use the subject as a metaphor for love.

This is certainly the case with “Ardo, avvampo,” which Monteverdi set for eight distinct vocal parts, two sopranos (Elise Figa and Molly Netter), two countertenors (Travis Hewitt and Nicholas Burns), two tenors (Corey Shotwell and Jason Rylander), and two basses (Ben Kazez and David Rugger), along with the additional parts for violins (taken by Academy Faculty violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Robert Mealy). Everything in the text about an all-consuming fire and the desperate attempts to put it out are clearly code for a burning passion that cannot be subdued, and the rhetorical energy of last night’s vocalists clearly underscored this double meaning.

The love section of the collection was also represented by a trio for two sopranos (Eliza Bagg and Fiona Gillespie) and alto (Gabriela Estephanie Solis). The text was the anonymous canzonetta “Su, Su, Su, pastorelli vezzosi” (come charming shepherd lads). Instrumental accompaniment was provided by Paul Holmes Morton on baroque guitar. This was performed with the same dramatic focus that worked so well in “Ardo, avvampo;” but now the energetic rhetoric was directed towards teasing seduction, rather than uncontrollable passion. The same performers preceded “Su, Su, Su” with a more serious madrigal by Luzzasco Luzzaschi, “O dolcezz’amarissimne d’Amore” (O bitter sweets of Love).

A more explicit secular narrative was performed by soprano Elsa Nicol in Joseph Bodin de Boimortier’s Diane et Actéon cantata. This composition imaginatively engaged solo instruments to represent the two respective characters, while Nicol’s text served only to narrate the tale of the mortal hunter’s fatal encounter with the goddess of the hunt. Diana’s “instrument” was a lyrical oboe part performed by Joel Verkaik, while Acteon was embodied in a natural horn performed by Sadie Glass. Continuo was provided by cellist Sarah Stone and harpsichordist John Steven Yeh.

On the sacred side the major focus was on three solo arias from Bach cantatas, each involving a flute solo. The flutists were Mara Winter and Joshua Romatowski, who alternated in accompanying performances by mezzo Raquel Winnica Young, soprano Gillespie, and bass Kazez. Each of these pieces was a minor gem in its exchange of two melodic lines with continuo support from Michael Kaufman on cello and Kyle Collins on organ.

A more extended sacred composition was by Johann Bach, brother of Sebastian’s grandfather Christoph. This combined a single verse from the First Book of Chronicles with two verses from the Gospel According to Saint John and texts by four German poets. The title is taken from the Chronicles verse, Unser Leben ist ein Schatten auf Erden (our life on the earth is a shadow). The music is set for a vocal trio of alto (Solis), tenor (Mark Alexander Bonney), and bass (Randall John Bunnell) and a “chorus” performed by two sopranos (Bagg and Netter), countertenor (Min Sang Kim), and two tenors (Rylander and Michael Jankosky). The chorus introduces the opening line, but it serves primarily to echo phrases sung by the trio.

Boismortier also provided one of the instrumental selections, his 1727 concerto for five flutes. Winter and Romatowski were joined by Kelly Roudabush and Alissa Roedig, as well as faculty flutist Sandra Miller. This music is impressive for Boimortier’s ability to endow each line with its own distinctive voice within a context of overall uniform sonority. More differentiation could be found in the C minor sonata by Johann David Heinichen for oboe (Glenda Dahle Bates), gamba (Joshua Keller), and harpsichord (Melissa Niemeyer). In this case I have to confess that I knew of Heinichen only through his theoretical writing on thoroughbass, so there was a certain comfort discovering that his theories were probably informed by a solid command of practice.

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