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The second ABS Academy 2014 recital offers sacred and secular Bach

ABS Academy students Janna Elesia Critz and Fiona Gillespie rehearsing the "Christe eleison" from BWV 232
ABS Academy students Janna Elesia Critz and Fiona Gillespie rehearsing the "Christe eleison" from BWV 232
courtesy of the American Bach Soloists

Listening to last night’s Academy-In-Action Concert by the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Academy students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was reminded of my “first contact” with ABS. They had visited Stanford University to present a recital program consisting entirely of solo arias from the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Each aria was presented in a chamber music setting with a harpsichord and at most a small number of additional instruments accompanying the vocalist.

That was the first time I found myself thinking about just how diverse Bach’s musical language was over the vast number of sacred cantatas he composed, each for a specific church occasion. As a result of reading Albert Schweitzer’s biography, I had come to recognize how aware Bach was of the words he was setting in each of these compositions. Schweitzer went so far as to identify recurring motifs in the texts, which would then be reflected by a repertoire of musical tropes.

Many years later I learned that most of these tropes had been around long before Bach. Learning them was part of his music education. They serve enough as a “key” to the texts that one need not follow the words particularly closely to know what the “message” is. Over the course of many years of listening to Bach, I have come to realize that these musical motifs for “word painting” were not the only “patterns” in Bach’s toolkit. His secular instrumental music reveals just as abundant a vocabulary of tropes engaged primarily for the sake of embellishment. Thus, the diversity of a full evening of cantata arias owes just as much to these “abstract” motifs as to the literary ones.

Last night’s program did not consist entirely of Bach cantata arias. However, six of them provided a generous enough selection to appreciate the composer’s inventive diversity. They were arranged as two groups of three, each group employing the same continuo performers on cello and harpsichord. The first group featured a countertenor (Daniel Cromeenes) and a tenor (Corey Shotwell), singing first as a duet and then alternating as soloists. In the second group each soloist was from a different vocal range (countertenor Nicholas Burns, bass David Rugger, and soprano Elise Figa), each performing with either one or two solo violins. Taken together, these two sets made for a thoroughly engaging “in-depth” examination of one particular aspect of the music that Bach was writing on a regular basis as part of the contracted duties of his appointment at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig.

Last night’s program also provided a less familiar (but not less fascinating) contrast in the form of the secular cantata Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra by Alessandro Scarlatti. In contrast to Joseph Bodin de Boimortier’s cantata about the myth of Diana and Acteon, performed at the first Academy-In-Action concert, Scarlatti’s cantata is a dialog between the two characters (mezzo Janna Elesia Critz as Cleopatra and countertenor Travis Hewitt as Anthony), rather than a third-party narration of the action. No context is set in the libretto, but presumably Scarlatti’s audiences knew enough Roman history to recognize that this was Anthony’s farewell to Cleopatra before setting off for Actium for a battle that he would not survive.

All things considered the libretto (author unknown) is as thick with verbiage as the music is with its depictions of the hot-and-heavy passions of Anthony’s leave-taking. Indeed, if considered on a word-for-word basis, this cantata could well have laid the groundwork for the encounter between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. (When it comes to amorous passions expressed through music, there is not much new, at least at the basic narrative level, under the sun.) Here, too, there was a vocabulary of tropes serving both to highlight the text and to provide embellishments. Indeed, as a result of my study of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, I even recognized a few of those tropes that had been passed from father (Alessandro) to son (Domenico).

Last night also saw the first Academy performance of Bach’s instrumental music. This was the BWV 1064 concerto in C major for three harpsichords. As had been the case with the ABS performance of the F major “Brandenburg” concerto (BWV 1047) this past Saturday, each ripieno part was taken by a single player: first violin Addi Liu, second violin Suhashini Arulanandam, and viola Salwa Bachar. Unfortunately, the three harpsichordists (Patrick Parker, Bryan Anderson, and John Steven Yeh) had to deal with some very thick textures that probably would have benefitted from somewhat more modest instruments. The result was that the ripieno work emerged with far more clarity than the “solo” parts.

Much more satisfying was the conclusion of the evening with a “full orchestra” performance of an overture (suite) in F major by Philipp Heinrich Erlebach. This was conceived in six parts marked only as I Dessus, II Dessus, Haute-contre, Taille, Quinte, and Basse. All these parts were taken by string sections with the addition of one oboe (Bethan White) on I Dessus, another oboe (David Dickey) on II Dessus, and a single bassoon (Nate Helgeson) on Basse. In contrast to the Bach concerto this was performed with thoroughly engaging clarity and a well-integrated sense of rhythm for each of the dance movements requiring only a minimum of suggestive leadership from concertmaster Cynthia K. Black.

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