Sunday, August 14, 2016

American Bach Soloists Concludes “Italian Journey” with a Visit to Venice and Rome

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented the final program and penultimate concert in the Festival portion of its 2016 Festival & Academy. The “Italian Journey” of the overall Festival theme came to a conclusion with visits to Venice and Rome through the music of those cities’ most notable virtuoso composers, Antonio Vivaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, respectively. None of the five Vivaldi compositions followed his most familiar genre of the violin concerto, while Corelli’s music was presented by a larger than usual ensemble.

The Vivaldi portion of the program consisted of four concertos and one sonata. The latter, the last in his Opus 5 collection of twelve sonatas, was Vivaldi’s take on the traditional “Folia” theme, played by two violins with continuo. This was probably the most flamboyant exercise in virtuosity of the evening, with violinists Robert Mealy and Elizabeth Blumenstock exchanging their takes on this brief theme as both pace and embellishment gradually increased in intensity, with occasional interruptions from William Skeen on cello to allow the continuo to participate in the fun. This was “Baroque jamming” at its most joyous and provided just the right punch line before allowing the audience to take its intermission break.

Each of the concertos involved Vivaldi working with less familiar solo resources. The first was “Il Gardellino” (the goldfinch), the third (in G major) of the Opus 10 collection of six flute concertos. As might be guessed, this was a “special effects” concerto; and Sandra Miller was at the top of her game in deftly negotiating all of the bird chirps she had to imitate, all balanced by a highly reduced string ensemble in which all flute solos were accompanied by one-to-a-part playing. This was followed by the more programmatic “La Notte” (the night), the RV 501 concerto for bassoon in B-flat major. The score required the depiction of ghosts, eventually overcome by deep slumber, which is then roused by the emergence of dawn. Vivaldi clearly appreciated the comical nature of bassoon tones, and Dominic Teresi was not shy in bringing his own sense of humor to his performance. He was followed by trumpeter John Theissen and oboist Debra Nagy sharing solo duties in a D major concerto originally written for two oboes. Most impressive was Theissen’s control of his dynamics, providing just the right blend when the two instruments played in parallel motion. Finally, there was a thoroughly virtuosic concerto for two cellos (Kenneth Slowik and Skeen), which offered up some of the most vigorous bowing of the evening.

Corelli’s portion of the program was inspired by a print by Christofor Schor showing him leading a very large ensemble before a standing audience in the Piazza di Spagna in Rome, using the “Spanish Steps” to allow him to organize his players in ascending ranks:

from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The ABS instrumentalists were joined by all of the string players from the ABS Academy Orchestra standing on platforms at the rear of the stage. Only the cellos and basses and two harpsichordists (Corey Jamason and Academy student Caitlyn Koester) were seated. The selection was the first concerto grosso (in D major) in Corelli’s Opus 6 collection of twelve. This was spectacle at its finest in which the joy of listening was complemented by just as much joy in watching it all. The ensemble then gave an “encore” of Francesco Geminiani’s string ensemble arrangement of the last of Corelli’s Opus 5 violin sonatas, another take on the “Folia” theme. Once again Blumenstock and Mealy led the way through the elaborately ornate variations, this time in a far grander setting that put the cap on an evening of unconventional delights.

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