The Sacramento Choral Calendar
American Bach Soloists
Bach's Legacy - April 28, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
This was my first experience of the American Bach Soloists. From the concert program, I learned that they "were founded in 1989 with the mission of introducing contemporary audiences to the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach through historically informed performances. Under the leadership of co-founder and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, the ensemble has achieved its vision of assembling the world's finest vocalists and period-instrument performers to bring this brilliant music to life." All that was confirmed by what I saw and heard at the Davis Community Church this past Monday evening.
The purpose of this concert, "Bach's Legacy," was to illustrate the influence of Bach on other composers, and so a piece or two by Bach was followed by a composition by another composer (e.g. Mendelssohn or Brahms) that illustrated the influence. Artistic & Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, an internationally recognized expert on Bach and Baroque music, gave 10 pages of notes in the concert program that are extraordinarily informative. I read as much of them as I could before the concert began and during intermission – and wished I had somehow been able to make his pre-concert talk.
The orchestra entered first, and among them I saw at least one instrument that I don't recall ever having seen before. Consulting the program, I was amazed to find that the instruments were all annotated, with information on their creators and dates of creation – most from the 18th century, but two from the 17th century. I also learned that it is the instrumentalists who are the American Bach Soloists. They are accompanied by the American Bach Choir.
And what an impressive choir it is: 33 mostly young singers in formal dress (tails for the men) who filled the small, resonant church with singing that could only be described as sublime. I found the sections perfectly balanced and never overpowered by the 11-piece orchestra. Especially in fugue passages, when one voice part after another rose above the surging sea of sound, I couldn't help but be impressed by the purity of the section's sound and crisp articulation of the musical line. It was interesting to note, consistent with the historical accuracy of the work of American Bach Soloists, that half of the altos (and one soprano) were men.
The vocal soloists are "artists," and well named because baritone, Thomas Thompson and tenor, Jon Lee Keenan, performed their extensive parts in "Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir" with great control, precision, pleasing tone and – ultimately – artistry. It was in that piece as well, when I was moved enough to comment in my notes that the ensemble sang "with passion and commitment." Enlarging on that observation, I was struck with the animation of nearly every singer. They sang with more than their voices. I saw joyful faces and swaying, surging bodies. Amateur though I am, I know that this matters. These people demonstrated the difference between merely singing the music and feeling it, and I dare say everyone in the audience benefited from that difference. And although there were others like her, there was one young, dark-haired soprano in my line of sight who I couldn't resist watching. She was so immersed in the joy of singing that my attention was drawn back to her time and again by her animated and beatific expression.
I can't emphasize enough that to me, this ensemble felt like it defined the difference between professional singers and the amateurs with whom I'm so familiar. At times, their sheer power was disarming. But I was also conscious of a consistently beautiful blend and crisp articulation, especially in the frequent a cappella selections. Then there was a bit of mystery. In Mendelssohn's "Sechs Sprüche zum Kirchenjahr," there are six separate sections – all a cappella – each separated by a few moments of silence. All parts began confidently singing sections #2 through #6, but I kept wondering, where did the starting pitches come from? Whatever the source, it was completely transparent – maybe they all have perfect pitch – or more, likely a well developed pitch memory.
Speaking of the silence, any musician knows that rests are as important as notes, and by analogy the occasional silences between pieces or movements, had value – to me, at least. Call it a cleansing of the musical palette. That's why a constant hum in the church, probably from a faulty light fixture, was a minor annoyance.
It was a little sad to see how the audience was, for the most part, quite elderly, many members quite infirm. It was sad in that I wish there were more young people who appreciate this music. But on the other hand, it was inspirational to imagine the enormous obstacles some of these people had to overcome and the pains and inconveniences they had to endure to hear this wonderful music so expertly performed.
The end of the concert was anticlimactic to a degree – at least for me. The ensemble performed Bach’s “Komm, Jesu, Komm,” and then followed it with a 2005 composition with the same title by Swedish composer, Sven-David Sandström. I’m not knowledgeable or perceptive enough to have seen Bach’s influence in the latter piece, which had many unusual choral effects and innovative harmonies. In fact they were innovative enough that the elderly lady next to me felt compelled to put her hands over her ears in the loud parts. I can see how it might be an acquired taste or at least intellectually pleasing to understand this music, but it was hard for me to find pleasure in it. I did take note of the fact that Thomas seemed especially proud of the chorus after they concluded it.
“Immortal Bach” a 1988 composition by Knut Nystedt concluded the concert. Here again, I couldn’t perceive Bach’s influence, but I was impressed by the laser-like attention of the chorus and the precision of the dissonant notes. Part of that attention was due to the unusual structure of the piece. This is how it is explained in Thomas’ notes: “After the entire ensemble sings the first several phrases of Bach’s music, he returns to the beginning, asking each of the five groups, or choirs, to sing one phrase at a time in ever slower virtual tempos. This is accomplished by his instructions as to how long the value of each note should be. For example, for one of the choirs a quarter note should take 4 seconds; for other choirs, the same quarter note will take six, eight, ten, or twelve seconds. The staggeringly breathtaking effect is that Bach’s music is overlaid upon itself, several times, creating a distinct impression of enduring permanence…. The final resting point of the piece – when all the performing groups coalesce into the tranquility of the last E-flat major chord – dawns slowly. Even its end seems to be not so much of a stop but rather a release into eternity. The music becomes virtually immortal.” It was a brave, maybe even reckless, way to end a Baroque concert, especially for the audience I observed around me. Yet I, too, felt the tranquility of that last chord, and I wouldn’t mind hearing it all again with the little bit of extra understanding I now have. I come back to the fact that Thomas is an educator (professor of music at UC Davis) as much as he is an expert and an artist. In this concert, he was teaching us as much as entertaining us, and I, for one, feel enriched for the experience.
This organization, with its regular visits to Davis, is a gift to the cultural life of our community of immeasurable value. I can say from experience that the kind of performance – quality and content – that I experienced is just not available anywhere else in the Sacramento region. That’s not to say that we lack excellence in choral music: it is abundant here. But American Bach Soloists fills a niche for Baroque choral music and especially that of Bach, and fills it to such a high degree of virtuosity, as to make their contribution to the Sacramento music scene unquestionably unique.