Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Baroque Marathon series of “Academy-in-Action” concerts by the students in the 2016 American Bach Soloists Academy came to a conclusion with the last of its three presentations. Once again the program ran for somewhat over two hours with no intermission, offering eighteen compositions, eleven of which were arias from the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. As with the first concert, this required taking in a generous quantity of music; and, as might be expected, there was a fair amount of variation in performance. Once again, however, there were several high points for the attentive listener that deserve some retrospective reflection.
One of the virtues of last night’s program was that it provided those listeners with the opportunity to revisit some of the more impressive soloists that had contributed to the performance of Bach’s BWV 232 setting of the Mass text given this past Sunday evening. Among the vocal selections, one of the most compelling was the account of the “Agnus Dei” aria by contralto Robin Bier. Bach specified this aria for alto, and there is a good chance that Bach never composed with a contralto in mind. (This would have been a time when the range was more closely associated with opera.) Nevertheless, many contraltos have taken the “Agnus Dei” aria to heart, the most notable of them being Kathleen Ferrier, whose rich warm sonorities were entirely consistent with the hypothesis that BWV 232 was never intended for sacred purposes.
Bier’s performance of “Agnus Dei” had all of the promising signs of a “Ferrier in waiting.” Last night those signs were reinforced with her performance of “Wer Gott bekennt aus wahrem Herzensgrund” (he who acknowledges God the true depths of his heart) from the BWV 45 cantata Es ist der gesagt, Mensch, was gut ist (He showeth to thee, man, what right is). Again, this was music that Bach composed for an alto, most likely one of the choirboys from the Thomasschule zu Leipzig, whose choir Bach conducted. However, unlike BWV 232, BWV 45 was functional, rather than abstract. Nevertheless, Bier provided an interpretation of the text that was compellingly devout, while, at the same time, displaying again the full warmth of her command of the lower register. On this occasion, however, she was excellently complemented by flutist Christa Evans, who, as had been the case on Sunday, had to command a broader register and did so with the full measure of both sound technique and expressive interpretation.
Equally impressive was the return of countertenor Nicholas Burns. This time he made only one appearance, singing in the final work on the program, a six-part madrigal by Luca Marenzio. Once again he was joined by the equally impressive tenor Jorge Prego. However, what was most striking was the clarity of the two of them blending with the other vocalists, bass Ethan Sagin, sopranos Ashley Valentine and Christina Kay singing the canto and quinto parts, and mezzo Katie Clark singing sesto. The result was an intricately woven vocal fabric in which the attentive listener could revel in the significance of each individual thread.
On the instrumental side the most impressive efforts of the evening came from a full string ensemble of Academy students that filled the stage at the beginning of the program. The group was capably and sensitively led by concertmaster Toma Ilive. For their second selection, Georg Philipp Telemann’s TWV 55:D18 overture in D major, they were joined by trumpeters Duncan Campbell and Roman Golovanov and Henry Reed on timpani; and the continuo was supplemented by bassoonists Ben Matus and Leah Kohn. This was clearly intended for “mass entertainment,” complete with post horn tropes in the penultimate movement; and high spirits prevailed under Ilive’s leadership. This made for the best possible reminder that making music is, by and large, more a matter of “playing well with others” than one of individual display.