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CHORAL AND VOCAL REVIEW
Sonoma Bach / Saturday, October 29, 2022
Bob Worth, conductor. Sonoma Bach; Agave; Jennifer Paulino, soprano

Henry Lebedinsky

TRAVELS WITH SEBASTIAN IN SONOMA BACH'S OPENER IN SCHROEDER

by Pamela Hicks Gailey
Saturday, October 29, 2022

First up in this season of Sonoma Bach’s Bach’s World series was an Oct. 29 concert in Schroeder that focused on Bach and three of his contemporaries: teacher and friend Georg Böhm, the French composer Nicolas Bernier and the Italian Francesco Bartolomeo Conti.

For this “Travels with Sebastian” event, Sonoma Bach hosted one of America’s premier baroque ensembles, the spectacular six-member AGAVE, fronted by the soprano Jennifer Paulino, for a lively and virtuosic presentation of three lesser known baroque jewels by Conti, Böhm, and Bernier, and three pieces by Bach, all very different from each other, yet related. Of the six pieces, three were for solo singer, two were instruments only, and one for organ.

AGAVE’s virtuoso “historical keyboardist” (organist, harpsichordist), arranger, founder and propeller, Henry Lebedinsky, curated the concert, which also featured the Hall’s beautiful Brombaugh Opus 9 tracker organ. Cofounder and guitarist Kevin Cooper alternated the theorbo with guitar. Co-director Aaron Westman dazzled as violinist and violist, as did Anna Washburn, violinist, Katherine Kyme, violist and cellist William Skeen. Mr. Lebedinsky alternated between the loft organ, the floor console for continuo, and harpsichord.

By way of introduction, Sonoma Bach’s director Bob Worth asked the audience: “How did Bach become Bach?” As an aside I would add that, in the vast world of baroque music, bordered by strict rules of melody, harmonization, form, instrumentation, counterpoint and fugue, one can state that nobody else sounds quite like Bach, and Bach sounds only like himself, even when his works are so varied amongst themselves, and the total European baroque canon is so gigantic and covers roughly the years1600-1750. This concert answered part of Mr. Worth’s question via the actual music performed, and we can assume that such a genius does begin with early exposure and nurturing, and Bach definitely enjoyed both. He enjoyed a broad exposure to the music of his time, not only German, but copious amounts of French and Italian works as well. He was also well-nurtured and mentored, and unusually well-traveled, pursuing his work in many different cities over the course of his life and career.

To explore this aspect of Bach’s enormous compositional output and those that influenced him, AGAVE and Ms. Paulino first performed three works that are representative of the forms and styles that Bach was exposed to during his formative years. Georg Böhm was an important early teacher, mentor, and lifelong friend to young Sebastian. The two met when Bach was a student at St. Michael’s Church Choir School in Lüneberg, and Böhm took the gifted teenager under his wing, introducing him to the works of native German, French and Italian composers, and instructing him in their varying compositional genres and styles. His own Suite No. 2 for keyboard was here arranged delightfully for strings by Mr. Lebedinsky.

Later, as a young musician at Weimar, Bach continued to hone his craft, making extensive studies of Italian concertos and French organ works, sometimes arranging a piece to suit his own desires or needs. It is logical to assume that Bach’s absorption and distillation of the best of what Italy, France, as well as Germany had to teach him, through the filter of his genius, contributed to his unique sound and stylistic variety. The Italian example presented was Conti’s cantata Languet anima mea, sung exquisitely by Ms. Paulino. Here we heard the budding Italian operatic style of solo cantata that informed Bach’s vocal writing and the passionate text and declamatory recitative that helps define it.

From the French composer Bernier the charming cantata “Le Caffé” was heard. It differs from Bach’s own semi-operatic version, which has named characters and something of a story. Bernier’s version is more of an ode, a solo coloratura romp for one singer and an instrumental ensemble.

The second portion of the concert was given over to three works by Bach. Mr. Lebedinsky opened with Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 662, an improvisation on the hymn tune for organ. This particular organ has had a very interesting life and journey, and it was a personal thrill to hear it for the first time in the hands of a master playing a masterwork.

Orchestral Suite No. 2 (BWV 1067a) followed, with Mr. Lebedinsky returning from the loft to the harpsichord and the organ’s floor console, alternating between the two. I was struck by the natural and effortless communication among the players. The program closed with Bach’s early solo cantata Non sa che sia dolore, BWV 209. Of all his cantatas, this is the only one he wrote on an Italian text.

Ms. Paulino is the best coloratura specialist I’ve heard in many years, her voice light, rich, dark, agile and expressive in a way that recalls the Italian superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. Although the Bernier music sits rather too low for her soprano voice, she made light work of the fioritura demands of all three of her pieces. A more dramatically commanding presence, together with more ear-grabbing declamation and complete memorization would have enhanced her performance visually, but vocally she was superb.

Regretfully, Schroeder Hall was only a bit over half full for this stunning performance, and although AGAVE’s performers all appear to be in young middle-age, the audience demographic was exclusively over sixty. I saw no SSU students in attendance.