Bravura Baroque by American Bach Soloists

Above, from left: Jeffrey Thomas, Gail Hernández Rosa, Rachell Ellen Wong, Yvonne Smith, and Ramón Negrón Pérez. Click for full photo.

American Bach Soloists, led by Jeffrey Thomas, performed six masterworks by Bach, Vivaldi and Telemann on February 3 in Tiburon’s St. Stephen’s Church.

Opening the famed ensemble’s 34th subscription season, the program was generously conceived and beautifully executed, and required five different set changes, which was a good thing, because without some down time the musical fare would all have been too all rich. Clearly, Mr. Thomas picked some of his very favorite pieces, bravura works all. The ensemble numbered sixteen, plus soprano Hélène Brunet.

The concert opened with Telemann’s Sinfonia Spirituoso, TWV 44:1, written about 1700. The three-part work, a first for the ABS, was exquisitely performed. The first movement, through which the main melody cycles multiple times, was all ecstatic forward motion, and the Largo second movement was performed as a poignant lament adorned with baroque swirls and ornaments. The concluding Vivace seemed a rustic evocation of bustling, earthbound life. First violinist YuEun Gemma Kim’s playing was elegant in this glorious work.

Soloist Ms. Brunet performed Vivaldi’s Laudate, pueri, Dominum, Psalm 113 (112), RV 600, composed between 1713 and 1719. This is a 10-part work for voice and orchestra, written for one of Vivaldi’s star students at Venice’s Ospedale della Pieta, Anna Giro, and each part has contrasting moods. Ms. Brunet sang with a radiant coloratura, her warm, flexible voice and palpable joy created an instant connection with the audience. In the second part (Sit nomen domini) the strings carried a translucent lightness under a lamentation that was almost painfully intimate. A eolis ortu, a duet by Ms. Brunet with violinist Toma Iliev, was all hope and harmony, and the Excelsis part sounded affectingly tender, with Gretchen Claassen’s cello introduction, and a lovely trio of cello, organ, and voice. Each subsequent part was spellbinding, and the last, the Amen, purely remarkable—beautiful coloratura melisma singing of only two syllables in endless variation.

The stage emptied momentarily as music stands were rearranged in a semi-circle for Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major, BWV 1052. Now led by violinist Rachell Ellen Wong, eleven players—three violins, three violas, three cellos, contrabass and harpsichord--performed the whirling dervish of this masterpiece with great zeal. Everyone had a solo and a chance to shine, and the tutti sections were dazzling for their speed and precision. Three movements were listed on the program but only a brief violin ornament separated the first and third movements. The faces of the performers above their flying bows were blissful; they seemed to be having the time of their lives. It was exhilarating to be carried along with their energy.

After intermission the stage was again reconfigured, bringing ABS’s fabulous harpsichord to the front. Made by Willard Martin in 1990, after a François Blanchet instrument, it features a striking lid painting in the Chinese brush style of a tiger and a cloud.

The ensemble then performed Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1052, with soloist Gabriel Benton. Because the sanctuary at St. Stephens (the stage) is above the level of pews, some of the harpsichord’s sound went over our heads, but Mr. Benton’s performance was a great treat. This was Bach’s own borrowing from a previous work, probably a concerto for violin, and features complex figurations and suspenseful chromatics that wander up and down the keyboard, while the ensemble provides a highly textured background.

The harpsichord was moved and the stage set for Vivaldi’s B-flat Major Concerto for Bassoon, Strings, and Basso continuo, “La Notte” RV 501 (1720-24), with baroque bassoon soloist Nate Helgeson.

Mr. Helgeson’s tone was like a warm moonlit summer night. The Largo had mesmerizing softness of fog rolling in or dark water lapping; the Presto had the character of a chorus of night birds, with the bassoon a hunting owl. Ghosts flew in the third part and in the fourth, “Il Sonno” (Sleep), the bassoon and Ms. Claassen’s cello line wove a dreamy harmony. A musical dawn came in “Sorge/ Aurora.”

The final work was Bach’s cantata Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51. Ms. Brunet returned to the stage for a pairing of two sweet sounds, a Baroque trumpet and soprano duo. Trumpter Steven Marquardt stood side-by-side stage left with Mr. Benton (now playing organ) while Ms. Brunet stood down stage right, next to violinist Jude Ziliak. This helped to leaven the sound, and the organ, trumpet, violin and soprano harmonies were a joy to hear.

“Bringing forward” could be the theme of American Bach Soloists, where each musician has their turn and each player has star quality.

After initial bows, the audience’s appreciation did not fade, and Mr. Thomas took the podium once more for an encore. Utter silence and palpable gratitude greeted “Air on the G String” from Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite.