Yesterday afternoon in St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, Artistic and Music Director Jeffrey Thomas led the American Bach Soloists (ABS) in the first San Francisco performance of its main subscription season. The title of the program was Bach Favorites, and all selections were by Johann Sebastian Bach. However, Thomas prepared an ingenious program that both looked back to the very first ABS performance while also projecting into the future.
The program was framed by the two Bach cantatas that began and concluded that first program, BWV 70, Wachet! betet! betet! wachet! (watch, pray), and BWV 147, Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (heart and mouth and deed and life). Both of these come from the first cycle of cantatas that Bach composed in his new post as Thomaskantor, music director of the Thomanerchor, the boys’ choir affiliated with the four Lutheran churches in Leipzig. Both cantatas are rhetorically diverse; and both extend the usual string instrumentation with trumpet (John Thiessen) and oboes (Debra Nagy and Stephen Bard). (The oboe parts in BWV 147 also include both oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia.)
Thomas also used BWV 70 to revisit an occasional tradition that he exercises, that of having the “congregation” (audience) sing the final chorale with the full ABS ensemble. To this end music and words (in both German and English) were printed in the program book; and Thomas “rehearsed” us with a run-through before beginning the performance (noting, probably in jest, that we were a more responsive audience than the one he had previously tried to lead in Berkeley). This was yet another instance of the ABS commitment to historically informed performances. Where the cantatas were concerned, the setting was a church service at which the congregation was not expected to be merely passive listeners.
Both cantatas required a quartet of vocal soloists (soprano Mary Wilson, countertenor Jay Carter, tenor Derek Chester, and baritone Mischa Bouvier) as well as a four-part chorus (the 21 members of the American Bach Choir). The ensemble was kept to a suitably modest size, led by violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock and consisting of three first violins, three seconds, two violas, and two cellos, one of whom (William Skeen) provided continuo along with Steven Lehning on violone grosso, Nate Helgeson on bassoon, and Corey Jamason on organ.
In addition, both cantatas were in two parts with chorale settings concluding each part. Most likely the parts were sung at different stages of the overall service. However, this meant that both were relatively long pieces with a generous share of arias and interstitial recitative sections. However, Thomas always seemed to have just the right sense of a suitably brisk tempo; so there was never a sense that either cantata was going on for to much time. In addition, just as Bach created his music with an acute sensitivity to the meaning of the words he was setting, yesterday’s performance consistently honored that sensitivity, thus vividly reinforcing the historically informed agenda of the group.
Between the two cantatas was the “future oriented” portion of the program. This consisted of two performances by violin soloist Tatiana Chulochnikova, winner of the third annual Jeffrey Thomas Award. This award was founded in 2013 to recognize and encourage young leaders within the early music community in the hope that the future for historically informed performances will be as bright as the present. Chulochnikova’s predecessors have been the English tenor Guy Cutting, who performed with ABS almost exactly two years ago, and local cellist Gretchen Claassen, who gave her performance this past May.
As might be expected, Chulochnikova’s performance included one of Bach’s solo violin concertos, specifically BWV 1042 in E major, performed, again, with the reduced ABS string resources. Thomas gave this concerto a brisk and dazzling account, most evident in the almost lighter-than-air delivery of the outer movements. Chulochnikova’s agility was the perfect match for Thomas’ lightness of touch, endowing the entire performance with a delightful sense of intimacy that is almost always lost when this music is performed in a large concert hall.
Chulochnikova’s other selection was, however, “something completely different.” She prepared her own solo violin transcription of Bach’s BWV 565, the D minor coupling of toccata and fugue. This was a remarkably bold move, considering that the music is usually associated with the full forces of a well-endowed pipe organ (or that arrangement by Leopold Stokowski that allowed him to “play” the Philadelphia Orchestra as if it were a pipe organ). This was one of those bold dog-walking-on-hind-legs undertakings that had to be admired for being done at all, even if there were noticeable shortcomings in the results.
The toccata portion fared the better of the two. Chulochnikova clearly grasped the improvisational spontaneity of this music and made a strong case that she could jam just as compellingly on a single violin as Bach himself may have done with all the ranks of the pipe organ at his disposal. (If Chulochnikova has not yet done so, she should probably check out Trey Gunn’s Chapman Stick performance of the fantasia portion of Bach’s BWV 903 “chromatic” fantasia and fugue in D minor. Gunn also had a keen sense of how to distill extensive keyboard work down to a single string instrument.)
The fugue, on the other hand, never quite managed to sound like a fugue. This may have to do with the fact that the fugue subject was already in two voices (even if one of those voices was an ostinato). As can be seen in the solo sonatas, Bach knew that a single violin was capable of playing a fugue; but he also put a lot of thought into composing the subject for such a fugue. The BWV 565 transcription, on the other hand, sounded a bit like an attempt to reduce the fugue’s counterpoint to a single melody line. Taken on its own terms, that reduction was impressively effective; but it never quite caught as much of the spirit of the music as the toccata transcription had achieved.