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Choral and Vocal
A MAJESTIC ABS MESSIAH ORATORIO RESOUNDS IN WEILL DEC. 18
by Joanna Bramel Young
Sunday, December 18, 2016
San Francisco’s American Bach Soloists (ABS) presented Handel’s incomparable oratorio Messiah, HWV 56, to a sold out Weill Hall Dec. 18. It was a celebratory afternoon. In the fashion ABS audiences have learned to expect, conductor Jeffrey Thomas brought out the best of orchestra, chorus and solo...
Choral and Vocal
EARLY CHRISTMAS SEASON TRIUMPH FOR 24 ANGELS IN WEILL
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Weill Hall Nov. 27 was packed with an audience of young and old excitedly waiting for an early holiday concert by the Vienna Boys Choir, and this esteemed Choir is a five-hundred year institution which is based in a school of 100 choristers. Four touring groups divide their time between studying and...
Choral and Vocal
EASTER AND ASCENSION ORATORIOS SOAR IN ABS MARIN CONCERT
by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, April 22, 2016
Three baroque composers were brought together April 22 at the American Bach Soloists‘ offering of oratorios: Buxtehude, Johann Kuhnau and Bach. In Belvedere’s St. Stephen’s Church the ABS highlighted the sequence of influence for these three masters, displaying stunning choral singing, virtuoso in...
Choral and Vocal
CHANTICLEER SINGS TO THE MOON IN WEILL HALL CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, April 16, 2016
The renowned male a cappella  Chanticleer choir presented an "Over the Moon" program April 15 at the Green Music Centers Weill Hall.  The audience, including many choral music cognoscenti, was entranced by a varied and enriching program spanning centuries and continents. The theme of the evening was...
Choral and Vocal
RUTTER REQUIEM PERFORMANCE ENNOBLES GOOD FRIDAY CONCERT AT INCARNATION
by Terry McNeill
Friday, March 25, 2016
There is a lot to like in John Rutter’s Requiem. Composed in 1985, it’s arguably the most performed large choral work of recent times, and it was a labor of love for choral director Carol Menke’s musicians in a memorable Good Friday concert in Santa Rosa’s Church of the Incarnation. Splendid Requi...
Choral and Vocal
SEAMLESS ENSEMBLE AT MENKE-THOMPSON-ZAJAC CONCERT IN SCHROEDER
by Christa Durand
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Those who braved the storm March 13 to attend diva Carol Menke’s recital in the intimate Schroeder Hall were rewarded with a warm program of chamber music for voice, clarinet and piano.  Brahms’ E-Flat Clarinet Sonata, Op. 120, No. 2, opened the concert.  The interplay and communication between pia...
Choral and Vocal
HANDEL A FEAST AT ABS BELVEDERE CONCERT
by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, February 26, 2016
American Bach Soloists (ABS) once again enchanted a full house in Belvedere’s St. Stephen’s Church February 26 with an exciting, varied, virtuosic performance, this concert offering works solely by Handel. Germany-born Handel made his way to England after an extended stay in Italy, where he was ...
Choral and Vocal
NEW ABS MARIN SEASON A BACH FEAST
by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, January 22, 2016
Playing to a full house Jan. 22 at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, the American Bach Soloists launched its twenty-seventh season with a program of four Bach Favorites - two delectable instrumental compositions sandwiched between a pair of cantatas that ABS had performed in its very first concert....
Choral and Vocal
MEDITATIONS ON THE ARTIST
by Mark Kratz
Sunday, January 17, 2016
Schroeder Hall's vocal recital Jan. 17 centered on the life of the artist, and tenor Nicholas Phan described the recital as “meditations on the artist” that highlighted the concepts of hypersensitivity and a sense of child-like wonder that many artists experience. The entire first half of the rec...
Choral and Vocal
MAGNIFICENT BACH CHRISTMAS ORATORIO IN ABS ST. IGNATIUS CONCERT
by Joanna Bramel Young
Saturday, December 12, 2015
The American Bach Soloists presented Dec. 12 a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in San Francisco’s magnificent St. Ignatius Church. The church, built in 1912 and one of San Francisco’s largest, was nearly filled with legions of appreciative Bach and ABS fans. First heard in 1734 and standi...
CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
American Bach Soloists / Saturday, December 12, 2015
Jeffrey Thomas, conductor. Héléne Brunet, soprano; Agnes Vojtko, also; Kyle Stegall, tenor; Jesse Blumberg, baritone

Soprano Héléne Brunet

MAGNIFICENT BACH CHRISTMAS ORATORIO IN ABS ST. IGNATIUS CONCERT

by Joanna Bramel Young
Saturday, December 12, 2015

The American Bach Soloists presented Dec. 12 a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio in San Francisco’s magnificent St. Ignatius Church. The church, built in 1912 and one of San Francisco’s largest, was nearly filled with legions of appreciative Bach and ABS fans.

First heard in 1734 and standing with Handel’s Messiah as a crowning celebration of the Christmas season, Bach’s masterpiece is not heard often, especially given the required array of unusual instruments. Comprising six individual cantatas that Bach had largely composed for other purposes in earlier years, the “Christmas Oratorio” traces the Gospel story of the Nativity. It includes choral sections (offering melodies at times familiar), recitatives that advance the story, vocal arias, and instrumental interludes. The American Bach choir, made up of four sopranos, four altos, four tenors, and four basses, is renowned as one of the finest in the country. Each “Choral” in the “Oratorio” was sung with inspired and captivating beauty, always expressing the emotions of the text.

As a frequent attendee at ABS concerts at St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, I wasn’t immediately comfortable with the character of the sound in the immensity of St. Ignatius. It’s preferable to hear early music at an intimate level, in a setting where the most delicate nuances of each voice and instrument can be heard. In St. Ingatius some of the musical subtleties were lost in the cavernous space. Despite this, there was much to enjoy in the evening’s impressive performance. Director Jeffrey Thomas, a respected tenor, was always in command of the sixteen-member “Choral,” the four soloists, and the finely coordinated instrumental ensemble, made up of strings, small organ, bassoon, trumpets, timpani, oboes, flutes, and horns (“hunting horns”). Rarely does one hear a piece scored for three different kinds of oboe, natural trumpets, and valveless French horns. This unusual choice of instruments enriched the wide palette of colors in this wonderful piece. All of the instruments were either eighteenth-century originals or carefully crafted modern replicas.

In the first Cantata, “Triumph, rejoicing, rise,” the chorus, forming a great semi-circle behind the orchestra, sang the dancey 3/4 rhythms, accompanied by trumpets playing brilliant fanfares, timpani, and orchestra. Oboes and flutes commanded front and center in the orchestra, surrounded by strings, bassoon, and organ. The Evangelist, the superb tenor Kyle Stegall, narrated the story with great passion, his delivery heartfelt and nuanced. In the Aria 4 “Prepare thyself, Zion,” alto Agnes Vojtko, a tall, stately beauty, was accompanied by Debra Nagy on oboe d’amore. Ms. Vojtko’s full, sonorous voice was perfectly matched to the deep-throated oboe, the voice making a statement and the oboe answering. Both were supported by the ever-reliable basso continuo (organ and cello), which provided the very important bass harmony underlying the entire work.

In Choral 7, “He is to earth now come so poor,” baritone Jesse Blumberg was joined by the women’s chorus and the two oboes d’amore. First the choir would make a statement, then Mr. Blumberg and the oboes would answer, ending in the Aria 8, “Mighty Lord, O strongest sovereign.” He has a rich, luminous voice, always bringing forth the meaning of the words. The second Cantata opened with a lilting pastoral lullaby-like melody, an introduction with flutes, oboes da caccia, strings, and continuo. The “oboes of the hunt” are shaped like the letter “C,” the bell facing downward, so that players‘ hands can reach the holes (opposite their chest) of this rather long instrument. Their tone is sumptuous, low and earthy.

In Aria 15, “Joyful shepherds, haste,” Mr. Stegall sang with flutist Sandra Miller, known for her superb technique and expressive tone. This beautiful aria showcased both the singer and flutist’s ornamented phrases, glistening with brilliant idiomatic flourishes.

In Aria 19, “Sleep now, my dearest,” Ms. Vojtko’s voice soared in sustained long notes above the quickly moving melodies of the flutes, oboes, and strings. In Cantata 3, in Aria 29, soprano Hélène Brunet and Mr. Blumberg sang the duet “Lord, thy mercy, thy forgiveness.” Ms. Brunet’s lustrous upper register rose above the orchestra, but the lower notes were overpowered at times by Mr. Blumberg’s compelling sound. In Aria 31 Ms. Vojtko’s solo with consummate violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock was exceptional in its beauty. The alto’s poignant tone epitomized sadness in “Keep thou, my heart,” and the violin’s expressive melodies wove around those sung by Ms. Vojtko.

Ms.Brunet’s most charming aria was Aria 39, “Doth my Savior” -- the echo aria--where an offstage soprano and oboist “echo” the soloists on stage. Ms. Nagy played with flawless precision, always with a limpid, sonorous tone. Ms. Brunet could be easily heard in this aria, which had the audience captivated. In Aria 47, “Illumine, too, my gloomy spirit” Mr. Blumberg and oboe d’amore player John Abberger joined in a duet of exquisite beauty. The oboe soared above Mr. Blumberg’s clear, deep, warm voice, which filled the great space of the church.

Later Ms. Blumenstock accompanied a vocal trio (soprano, alto, tenor) on Aria 51, “Ah, when will that time appear then?” and the exuberant violin part was elaborate in its structure, reminding me of an unaccompanied Bach Cello Suite. In Aria 57, “But a wave of his hand,” Ms. Brunet was accompanied by oboes d’amore, with light articulation and intricate interwoven melodies, always with great clarity of line between singer and instruments.

The Oratorio ended as it began, with the joyous sounds of trumpets and timpani, full orchestra and chorus. Instruments punctuated each phrase as it was “spoken” by the chorus. Highly animated instrumental parts could be heard below the simple soaring phrases of the chorus. Christ is now in the world. “Christ hath fully broken all that you opposed. Death, devil, hell and error to nothing are reduced.” All is well with the world. The ABS received a standing ovation for yet another memorable concert.