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Symphony
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Recital
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Symphony
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Choral and Vocal
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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW

Jeffrey Thomas

ABS SOARS WITH BACH CANTATAS

by Joanna Bramel Young
Friday, March 13, 2009

The American Bach Soloists (ABS) are celebrating their 20th anniversary season with the performance of four of Bach’s most beloved cantatas: “Wachet auf,” “Ich habe genug,” “Jesu, der du meine Seele,” and “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,” all masterpieces and all voted by ABS audiences to be their favorites. From their founding in 1989 at acoustically first-rate St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere, ABS has extended its geographic range for regular performances as far as San Francisco, Berkeley, and UC Davis, while also touring farther afield.

Jeffrey Thomas, co-founder of ABS, was a superstar among oratorio tenors for many years before he became artistic/music director of this internationally respected organization. On March 13 a Belvedere audience had the pleasure of finding Thomas, sans baton, contributing his rich tenor to three of the four cantatas presented. Joining him were soloists Yulia Van Doren, soprano, Jennifer Lane, alto, and William Sharp, baritone.

In addition to consistently superb singing, the audience was treated to the highly polished work of ABS’s instrumentalists. These consummate professionals have devoted themselves to mastering instruments that require quite different technique from modern instruments. Violins commonly played today may have been built in previous centuries but have been modified to withstand the tension of metal, rather than gut, strings, and they are bowed differently from their unmodified counterparts. The technique employed for baroque oboes, flutes, and bassoons also differs.

At the performance, the baroque oboes commanded center stage much of the time, flanked by the strings, while a small continuo organ, a bassoon, and a baroque flute rounded out the instrumentation. Limiting the ensemble to one voice and one instrument per part brought both intimacy and clarity to the music; and even without a conductor the ensemble was impeccably together throughout. Elizabeth Blumenstock stood as she bowed the small violino piccolo in support of Van Doren in “Wachet auf.” The oboists stood for their solos as well, thus projecting more fully, benefiting the audience members seated in the rear of the church.

John Abberger, one of the finest baroque oboists in the country, played his part in “Ich habe genug” with great conviction and finesse. The overall scoring is for bass singer, oboe, strings, and basso continuo, the interplay between singer and oboe being one of the greatest glories of Bach’s cantatas. Baritone Sharp could not have sung more beautifully.

Also deserving special mention is the continuo section of ABS, consisting of a small chamber organ played by Corey Jamason; the violone grosso (similar in appearance to a bass viol but more elegant) played by Steven Lehning; the cello played by William Skeen; and Kate van Orden playing the baroque bassoon. The beautifully coordinated work of this section gave the soloists a firm foundation upon which to cast their spell. Baroque flutist Sandra Miller flew in to contribute to “Jesu, der du meine Seele,” playing her ivory flute in support of Thomas’s lovely rendering of the aria “Das Blut, so meine Schuld durchstreicht.”

The next ABS concert at St. Stephen’s, featuring the Pergolesi “Stabat Mater” and Handel’s Italian Duets with soprano Mary Wilson and countertenor Ian Howell, is scheduled for April 3, at 8 p.m. Playing this good shouldn’t be missed.