Wednesday, August 9, 2017

ABS Marathon Concludes with an Endurance Test

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the American Bach Soloists Academy presented the last of its three “Academy-in-Action” Baroque Marathon concerts. Clocking in at about three hours, the program was the one truest to the name of the series. This duration was apparently necessary to make sure that all Academy students had the opportunity to present the fruits of their labors. However, after about two hours had elapsed, members of the audience began to trickle towards the exit doors. The trickle gradually grew to a stream, which, happily, only flowed during applause between selections.

As was the case with the preceding programs, the vocal offerings involved more arias and duets from the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, this final program presented a more generous offering of instrumental selections. While there again was considerable variation in the technical side of execution, the overall offering covered an impressive number of different ways to combine instruments. There was also one instance of what might be called “program music” that definitely deserved recognition.

This was the only selection by Bach’s highly capable son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Emanuel’s 300th birthday on March 8, 2014 had provided me with the opportunity to write at considerable length on his compositions both in performances and on recordings, and I found myself jumping into that opportunity with great enthusiasm. Sadly, he then dropped back into those same shadows that had concealed him during all preceding seasons that I had covered. I make this observation simply to note that just seeing Emanuel’s name on the program brought me some cheer.

Nevertheless, my past experiences in listening to Emanuel’s music did not prepare me for last night’s selection. The piece was a trio in C minor, the first of a set of two that he had composed in 1748 during his service to Frederick the Great. Frederick liked to be entertained, and Emanuel conjured up some delightfully imaginative entertainment. Given the title “Der Sanguineus mit dem Melancholicus,” the “program” of the score involved a dialog between personifications of sanguinity and melancholy, those personifications assumed by two violin parts, the upper voices of the trio (with a cello as the low voice).

Much of Frederick’s entertainment probably derived from Emanuel treating this composition as an exercise in amateur theatrics. Rather than simply provide the two violin parts with sharply contrasting melodic lines and rhythmic patterns, he scored these two voices in such a way that they are constantly interrupting each other. Thus, while the Latinate names suggest a setting akin to a Platonic dialogue, the rhetorical devices of the music itself quickly establish an encounter like a barroom brawl.

It was therefore delightful to see last night violinists, Rachell Wong and Rebecca Nelson, supplement their technical skills in negotiating Emanuel’s “text” with a generous amount of thought devoted to body language and facial expression. That left matters to cellist Poppea Dorsam to provide the sort of foundation of stability that one might associated with an innkeeper, with harpsichordist Michael Delfin serving, perhaps, as the inn itself:

Rachel Wong, Rebecca Nelson, Michael Delfin, and Poppea Dorsam after their Emanuel Bach performance (photograph by Sam Siegel)

This trio was the third selection on the program; and, inevitably, it was a tough act to follow. The deepest impressions tended to be made by the more imaginative instrumental combinations. Thus, when bass Matthew Cramer sang the aria “Laß mein Herz die Münze sein” (let my heart be the coin) from Sebastian’s BWV 163 cantata Nur jedem das Seine (to each his own), he was accompanied by three cellos: Nick Loucks, Eugenio Solinas, and Sydney ZumMallen. ZumMallen basically supported the continuo work of Mariana Paras Pena on bassoon and Arthur Omura on harpsichord, but Loucks and Solinas served up duo work that blended engagingly with Cramer’s voice. An even richer texture of strings could be found in a five-part sonata by William Young, four of whose parts were taken by violinists Gail Hernandez Rosa, Pama Lynn Broeckel, Kiyoe Matsuura, and Aniela Eddy.

Those who persisted to the very end got to enjoy what was probably the best oboe work of the evening. Marea Chernoff and Sara Vicinaiz took the top two voices in a trio sonata by Johann David Heinichen, the third voice being played by bassoonist Laura Miller. Double-reed instruments are probably the greatest beneficiaries of advances in instrument-building; and those who play those instruments in their earlier stages have to get used to coping with the sense that the instrument has an obstreperous mind of its own. Chernoff, Vicinaiz, and Miller prevailed in the face of adversity, much to the joy of those who remained to listen.

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