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Symphony
SO CO PHIL BON VOYAGE CONCERT AN ODYSSEY OF CONTRASTING SOUND
by Terry McNeill
Friday, June 15, 2018
In a splashy bon voyage concert June 15 the Sonoma County Philharmonic Orchestra launched its June 17-25 Costa Rica tour, performing gratis in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater the repertoire for tour concerts in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, and in surrounding towns. Conductor Norman Gamboa pr...
Chamber
COMMANDING CHOPIN AND DEBUSSY IN SLV RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
Concerts at the classy Spring Lake Village Retirement Home in Santa Rosa have admission limited to residents and a few guests, but the chance to hear a first cabin North Bay pianist June 6 brought a Classical Sonoma reviewer into the audience of 100. The crowd numbers were unusually low due to a ba...
Recital
MUSICAL ALCHEMY INSIDE A HIDDEN GEM
by Kayleen Asbo
Friday, May 25, 2018
The Petaluma Historical Library and Museum is a hidden gem of Sonoma County, a gracious building that is one of Sonoma County’s loveliest venues for chamber music concerts, with a fine period piano particularly suited to Romantic music.  Of the surprisingly large array of festivities there, one of t...
Chamber
FINAL VOM MUSICIANS CONCERT IN SCHROEDER A SCHUBERT DELIGHT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, May 12, 2018
It's rare to have the opportunity to compare in a short period two performances of the same major Schubert work, in this case the great B Flat Piano Trio, D. 898. The chance came May 12 when the Valley of the Moon Festival musicians played it in Schroeder, just over a month since the Hall’s residen...
Symphony
FERRANDIS BIDS ADIEU WITH MAHLER’S FINAL SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 06, 2018
Sonoma State students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the university’s stone gates on Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the university’s Green Music Center, where Bruno Ferrandis bid adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the ...
Symphony
SONIC SPLENDOR AT MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Abby Wasserman
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
The Marin Symphony Orchestra ended the current season with a flourish, interpreting big and small works by Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Strauss and Stravinsky were contemporaries for 40 years, but inhabited different worlds. Both composers were affected by cataclysmic changes and war, and musical...
Symphony
ORGAN SYMPHONY IN SSU ORCHESTRA CONCERT IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Though Classical Sonoma seldom reviews student concerts, as ample North Coast concerts keep the staff of 11 reviewers busy. But the chance to hear the Sonoma State University Orchestra tackle St. Saëns’ majestic Organ Symphony April 29 was a rare opportunity and not easily to be missed. Avec l’...
Recital
HEAVENLY SCHUBERT AND DEMONIC CHOPIN
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 21, 2018
One of the anomalies in the long ago “Golden Era” of romantic pianism (about 1905 to 1940) is that the virtuoso giants of the time didn’t play Schubert. It took the German pianist Artur Schnabel to bring the beauties of Schuber’s work to the public’s attention, and now they seem to be on almost ever...
Symphony
SPLENDID JUPITER AND ZOOMING CONCERTO AT VALLEJO SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 15, 2018
Over the past two years the Vallejo Symphony has made big changes, moving from a stark middle school auditorium to the snazzy remodeled 1911-era downtown Empress Theater, and engaging Marc Taddei as its seventh conductor. April 15 was the season’s final concert of the 86th season. In a programmin...
Chamber
VIRTUOSO CELLO AND GUITAR TRANSCRIPTIONS AT RAC SEBASTOPOL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 14, 2018
Listeners and yes even music critics usually prepare for a concert with research, checking recorded performances, looking at artist biographies and even reviewing sheet music. This was a difficult task for the April 14 Redwood Arts Council concert in Sebastopol’s Community Church, as the performers...
CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Sunday, December 21, 2014
American Bach Soloists. Jeffrey Thomas, director. Mary Wilson, soprano; Eric Jurenas, countertenor; Wesley Rogers, tenor; Jesse Blumberg, baritone

ABS Conductor Jeffrey Thomas

ABS PERFORMS HANDEL'S MESSIAH IN TRIUMPHAL WEILL HALL DEBUT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Sunday, December 21, 2014

The American Bach Soloists (ABS) made their Sonoma County debut at Weill Hall December 19, performing the three-hour-long oratorio “Messiah” to a full house. In the 25 years since its founding in Marin the ABS has achieved world renown, and has long performed regularly in Belvedere, San Francisco, Berkeley, and Davis. For Sonoma County devotees, it was especially exciting to hear them display their remarkable skills so close to home with Weill’s splendid acoustics.

The ABS orchestra performs on 17th and 18th-century instruments, some originals and some authentic replicas. For “Messiah” Handel employed strings, oboes, bassoons, trumpets, harpsichord, organ, and timpani, making balance adjustments until performances offered in 1753 (the version under review) while the actual libretto dates from 1743.

In the 1700’s burgeoning London was divided between the prosperous and the very poor, leading to the establishment of the city’s Foundling Hospital by wealthy donors for the many young children in dire need. According to conductor Jeffrey Thomas’s absorbing program notes, Handel took an interest in the Hospital and contributed to its support as he best knew how - as a composer able to stage fund-raising performances of his works. During the Hospital’s early years “Messiah” was a major source of cash for its expansion and operation. Even before Handel had perfected it, as the program notes report, “Messiah” was praised thus by a 1742 Dublin reviewer: “Words are wanting to express the exquisite Delight it afforded to the admiring crowded Audience. The Sublime, the Grand, and the Tender, adapted to the most elevated, majestick and moving Words, conspired to transport and charm the ravished Heart and Ear.” In fact, these words depict well this reviewer’s opinion of Sunday’s performance. “Messiah” revived Handel’s faltering reputation as a composer, and he reclaimed his name in London as “the great Mr. Handel.”

Everything about the ABS performance was superb: Mr. Thomas (himself a world-renowned tenor) and the vocal soloists (soprano Mary Wilson, countertenor/alto Eric Jurenas, tenor Kyle Stegall [substituting for Wesley Rogers], baritone Jesse Blumberg) consummately honed the 35-member American Bach Choir, and the splendid American Bach Soloists Orchestra. Mr. Thomas seated the orchestra at the front of the stage and created in effect two choirs, half the full choir behind to the right, and the other half behind to the left. Between the two choir sections, also behind the orchestra, Mr. Thomas placed the four vocal soloists on a platform so that they could look out over the orchestra. This arrangement made for a striking antiphonal effect.

The four soloists were all splendid. I found no grounds for the least quibble with respect to any of them. Their voices rang out above the orchestra, whose sound was carefully calibrated to maintain appropriate balance. Jeffrey Thomas has such a mastery of the score and knowledge of all the performers that he is able to call forth every possible nuance from the musicians. Watching him conduct, one can see how the most subtle gesture is obeyed by all.

In the orchestra principal string players were Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin; William Skeen, cello; and Steven Lehning, contra-bass, and they anchored the precise orchestral accompaniment. Harpsichordist Corey Jamason and organist Steven Bailey rounded out the basso continuo.

The first vocal solo was by Mr. Stegall singing “Comfort ye, my People,” leading into “Ev’ry Valley shall be exalted.” Mr. Stegall’s soaring melismas and ascending ornaments, accompanied by the orchestra, left no doubt that he was in full command of his instrument. Eric Jurenas sang “But who may abide ...For he is like a Refiner’s Fire.” Simulating flames with quick “shimmering” bowing, the strings brought to life the word “Fire.” Mr. Jurenas’s brilliant virtuoso singing rose crystal clear above the spirited orchestral accompaniment.

The choir, on the words “And he shall purify,” demonstrated its flexibility with glorious antiphonal runs on the word “purify.” This choir’s members sang with one unified sound and negotiated every brilliant allegro, and aligned seamlessly with the swiftly moving orchestral notes.

Mr. Blumberg’s powerful and expressive voice sang the affecting song “The People that walked in Darkness have seen a great Light,” supported by the orchestra playing an ominous melody that symbolized the fear that accompanied the words Darkness and Death. Hearing him sing in unison with the strings--also in unison--in the da capo aria was especially moving. Quickly following this dark aria, the chorus sang “Unto us a Child is born,” one of the most beloved and stirring arias in “Messiah.” Negotiating the elaborate ornaments, the antiphonal choir sang effortlessly, with lilting voices. The words “Wonderful!, Councellor!” rang out above the sparkling orchestra.

In the Chorus “Glory to God on the Highest” the trumpets were heard for the first time. When they sounded, I looked for them in the orchestra, and then realized the two of them were playing high in the rear second-floor corners of the audience section, behind the orchestra, one trumpet on the left and the other on the right. This height and separation gave them a clear, ethereal sound that rose above the entire ensemble. The trumpets of the eighteenth century have no valves, are about three feet long (curved over upon themselves) and have only a few tiny holes played by the right hand. Much of the technique depends on the lips. It is quite remarkable that they can be played by John Thiessen and William Harvey so perfectly in tune, and with such delicate expression.

Before Intermission another famous song was the alto and soprano “duet” “He shall feed his Flock.” The song is not technically a duet because the two singers never sing at the same time. The first alto Mr. Jurenas sang a verse, then soprano Ms. Wilson sang one. On the closing words “And ye shall find Rest,” her voice ascended effortlessly to a held high note on “Rest” that left the audience transported. In “Behold the Lamb of God” the chorus had a special purity of tone, singing very slowly and softly. The choir sang with an absolutely straight, even tone, with no vibrato, creating a clean, clear sound; every word could be understood.

In the alto solo “He was despised and rejected of Men,” Mr. Jurenas sang the words “despised” and “rejected,” and the orchestra punctuated each word. “Acquainted with Grief” was supported by an achingly beautiful instrumental melody. Mr. Blumberg’s coloratura singing in “Why do the nations so furiously rage” demonstrated his mastery.

Of course the “Hallelujah!” chorus brought the entire house to its feet, and the ABS didn’t disappoint. They gave it their sublime all, every member fully involved. The great fugue “And he shall reign forever” resounded throughout the hall.

In the last section of the oratorio Mary Wilson demonstrated her brilliance in “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Following a haunting, soulful instrumental introduction, Ms. Wilson entered, singing with arresting beauty and tenderness. The last time through, on “For now is Christ risen,” her voice rose higher and higher, then closing extremely softly, as the orchestra played the da capo.

A highlight of what was already a remarkable afternoon was Mr. Thiessen’s trumpet solo with Mr. Blumberg, in “The trumpet shall sound!,” supported by a simple basso continuo (cello, bass viol, and harpsichord). The bass cadenza at the end was flawlessly executed. On the da capo, the trumpet sounded its last great solo. The culminating Amen chorus is a grand fugue: the choirs began, stepping aside briefly for the orchestra, and then they united in a sumptuous compelling close.

This superb performance of Handel’s “Messiah” was a perfect opportunity for Sonoma County audiences to experience the all-around brilliance of the American Bach Soloists. It is to be hoped that this will be the beginning of a long collaboration between the Green Music Center and the extraordinary ABS.