26 January 2016

American Bach Soloists: Bach Favorites

Last Saturday I headed out to First Congregational Church in Berkeley for the American Bach Soloists, who were performing a program they called Bach Favorites. Despite the title, there was no sense of retread over pieces too frequently played; it was quite a refreshing evening. It opened with a cantata, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (Watch! pray! pray! watch!; BWV 70), which takes a surprisingly lively and even joyful view of the approaching apocalypse; granted, the text takes cheerful consolation in the redeeming power of Jesus, but I have to admit that there are plenty of times when the thought of the fire next time adds a little lift to my steps too. Right before the music started conductor Jeffrey Thomas turned to us and said that the two cantatas we would be hearing were the ones ABS performed at its first concert twenty-seven years ago. And in a spirit of authenticity, we were invited to sing along with the chorale, just like the Lutherans in Leipzig back in 1723. He led us in a little rehearsal beforehand. I declined to sing; as Sister Maria del Carmen used to tell us back in the day, her gift to God was not to sing to Him; after all, if that's what he wanted, he could have given her a better voice. I believe I was not the only one to refrain. Despite or because of this, Thomas assured us that we sounded better than had the audience in Belvedere the night before. I have no idea where Belvedere is. Thomas may well have made it up for all I know.

Anyway the cantata is mostly solos, and we had a fine set of them: Mary Wilson, soprano; Jay Carter, countertenor; Derek Chester, tenor; and Mischa Bouvier, baritone. The chorus and orchestra were as always strong, clean, and lilting. Wilson sings with ABS fairly often, but I'm not sure I had heard her before; her clear soprano made a striking effect in its one solo, bringing the sort of consolation you find in the one soprano movement of the Brahms Requiem. After this rather elaborate cantata we had the famous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, only in a new guise: a solo violin arrangement made by our solo violinist, Tatiana Chulochnikova. Her strong, clear, steady tones seemed like an echo of the voices we had just heard. It's interesting to have the massive organ avalanche of this piece replaced by the more sinuous sound of a solo violin. After the intermission, Chulochnikova returned, this time with the orchestra, for an engaging performance of the Concerto for Violin in E Major (BWV 1042). This was, for me at least, the most familiar piece on the program, but welcome nonetheless. It was followed by a second cantata, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (Heart and mouth and deed and life; BWV 147). This piece was written for the feast of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth (mother of St John the Baptist), so I guess hearing it was my final farewell to last Christmas. It was a very satisfying end to a satisfying evening. Your next chance to hear ABS will be an all-Handel program, featuring the Handel / Dryden celebration of the power of music, Alexander's Feast. You can find out more information here.

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