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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
American Bach Soloists / Friday, May 1, 2015
Jerffrey Thomas, conductor. Gretchen Classen, cello. Elizabeth Blumenstock and Cynthia Black, violin; Ian Howell, counter

Countertenor Ian Howell

ABS CLOSES 26TH SEASON WITH POTENT BACH AND VIVALDI WORKS

by Terry McNeill
Friday, May 1, 2015

In a May 1 program that balanced vocal and instrumental virtuosity the American Bach Soloists closed their 26th season in grand style in Belvedere’s austere St. Stephen’s Church.

Led by the indomitable conductor Jeffrey Thomas the first half of the program featured a rarely heard cello concerto, a sensuous psalm setting and music’s most famous concerto for two violins. ABS concertmaster Elizabeth Blumenstock was joined by Cynthia Black in Bach's D Minor Concerto, BWV 1043, and the three movements all were at brisk tempos. Though sight lines in the vaulted concrete church are poor, the sound is direct if a bit muted, as the soloists use gut stringing. So brilliance is slighted in favor of ensemble, maybe
as Bach intended.

The violin line congruence reached its height in the plaintive Largo that lacked string vibrato but even at a fleet pace was gorgeous. Ms. Blumenstock was especially expressive with a deft left hand and trills,
Throughout the work the conductor’s sure hand never let the music linger, and cutoffs were always quick. No long fermatas allowed.

Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus (RV 608) featured exceptionally lithe singing from countertenor Ian Howell, and there was perfect balance with the ensemble. In the second movementLargo Mr. Howell stretched the vowels to great effect, and subtly increased intensity in long upward passages that for me were mesmerizing. There is a lot of lament here, especially with the church acoustics favoring the continuo of cellist William Skeen and organist Corey Jamason, the latter playing the portable Brumbaugh organ and doubling all evening on an exquisite two-manual harpsichord. In this haunting work from the 1720s the upbeat Allegro sections were in sharp contrast with short recitatives from the violins and violas. Mr. Howell’s sweet voice didn’t need any more reverberation than the short one-half second of St. Stephens. It was a captivating performance that lent mystery to Psalm 127 of the text.

Completing the first half was a Cello Concerto in A Major by the unknown Neapolitan Leonardo Leo. The soloist, 2015 ABS award winner Gretchen Claassen, played the charming work with attention to detail and a quick and accurate left hand fingerboard technique. The music, passing by without much weight, seems to lead to the early Haydn C Major Concerto. It was lively and fluent.

Following the ABS’s usual gratis intermission gourmet finger food in the Parish Hall, two big Bach works completed the concert. The first, Cantata 169 (“Got soli allein mein Herze Haben”), was best. Here Mr. Jamason was the stellar player, and the conductor led the audience in singing the 16-bar Choral from the seventh movement. At times the organ scale passages and roulades were muddy but perhaps Mr. Jamison found it necessary to support the ensemble this way in short phrases. There were fetching duos with oboes, violins and organ.

With all the lovely vocal and instrumental playing it is easy to overlook the “glue” that makes ABS concerts so special, and that is Mr. Thomas’ conducting. Every time I have heard him he seems not so interested in vivid and loud contrasts, or unique inner lines, though his control of these factors in the Cantata and the D Major Orchestra Suite (No. 4) that closed the concert is sure and canny. What he is interested in is shaping the delicate rise and fall of phrases, never through histrionics trying to get more from the small ABS orchestra than the music dictates. His conducting shows a mastery of shading and noble proportion.

The last of the four Orchestra Suites is the least popular and in its five movements featured a plenitude of oboe parts, with performers Debra Nagy, Stephen Bard Brandon Labadie joining bassoonist Nate Helgeson in a feast for winds. The penultimate Minuet was especially bouncy but throughout I found the Suite an anti-climax to the glorious preceding music.

The audience in St. Stephens, though surprisingly for the ABS not a sell out, provided loud applause.