Yesterday afternoon the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was turned over to the students of the 2016 American Bach Soloists Academy for the first of a series of “Academy-in-Action” concerts known collectively as the Baroque Marathon. The program consisted of seventeen compositions performed without intermission. It began at 3 p.m. and ran until slightly after 5 p.m. This made for a generous supply of early music packed into about two hours.
Much of that generosity was devoted to arias from the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. In this context I must confess to a weak spot. My very first contact with American Bach Soloists took place in the Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the campus of Stanford University. There were only a few performers, basically vocalists with continuo accompaniment; and the program consisted entirely of cantata arias. Prior to that concert, it had just not crossed my mind that most of the music in Bach cantatas was on the scale of chamber music; and I have been hooked on the intimacy of those arias ever since then.
The most memorable of the seven arias presented was the last of them, primarily because it provided an excellent platform for the countertenor Nicholas Burns. The aria was taken from the BWV 72 cantata Alles nur nach Gottes Willen (all must be as God wills it); and Burns sang the first aria from this cantata, “Mit allem, was ich hab und bin” (with everything that I have and am), along with the preceding recitative and arioso. He delivered the text with a solid and confident rhetoric, consistent with the unwavering commitment to devotion professed by the words. Equally important was the clarity of his diction, reminding the audience that those cantata texts not taken from Scripture almost all amounted to mini-sermons to be comprehended and appreciated by the congregation. Burns attentiveness to the semantics behind the words also served him well in singing Antonio Lotti’s vocal trio “Inganni dell’umanità (deceptions of mankind) with tenor Jorge Prego and bass Brian Jolly, which was probably the best-delivered account of part singing in the entire program.
On the instrumental side the high point of the afternoon had to be the two performances by Sadie Glass on valveless horn. (I avoided the adjective “natural” for a reason. A talk prior to a Philharmonia Baroque concert observed that “historical” brass instruments are now often built with three finger holes to enable micro-level adjustments to pitch.) Glass had gotten off to a somewhat shaky start at the beginning of the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” aria from the BWV 232 Mass setting on Sunday evening; but there was nothing shaky about her two chamber music selections yesterday afternoon, composed, respectively, by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel and Friedrich Hartmann Graf. Her sense of pitch always securely harmonized with the other instruments in her respective ensembles, and her tone was polished far beyond what one would have expected from an eighteenth-century instrument. Indeed, the greatest virtue of her performance may have been her impeccable control of dynamic levels, which always enabled her blending securely into the collective sonorities of the music.
Individual virtuosity was on display at the end of the program with some rather unique duo work involving violin and bassoon. These were single-movement sonatas composed, respectively, by Giovanni Battista Fontana and Dario Castello (both of whom happened to be included on an album released by ECM New Series in May of 2012). Two bassoonists were featured, Leah Kohn (who had also been featured in the BWV 232 performance) and Georgeanne Banker. Both were joined by violinist Ūla Kinderyté. Both sonatas offered a generous share of give-and-take exchange of elaborately embellished motivic material, demonstrating, once again, that jamming was alive and well as early as the seventeenth century.