Every summer the students of the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Academy, held in conjunction with the annual Festival concert series, present three Academy-in-Action recitals to showcase their talents. This year those recitals were presented under the collective title Baroque Marathon. If the first of those concerts, presented yesterday afternoon in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), was representative, then there was no questioning the truth-in-advertising behind the naming.
All of the selections were on the scale of chamber music, and there was a particular emphasis on arias from the cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach. Eleven of those arias were performed in two sets prepared for the program, five arias in the first and six in the second. One of these, “Blast die wohlgegriffnen Flöten” (blow the well-handled flutes) was from the BWV 214 secular cantata Tönet, ihr Pauken! Erschallet Trompeten! (resound ye drums, ring out ye trumpets), composed in 1733 for the birthday of Maria Josepha, Princess Elector of Saxony and Queen of Poland. The remaining six arias were all taken from cantatas composed for specific Lutheran services. In addition, because of the French theme of the Festival, there were two motets by Étienne Moulinié and three “little” motets by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault. Finally, there were seven instrumental selections, interleaved among the vocal performances.
That was a more-than-generous amount of music to cram into a single recital program. Fortunately, the underlying logistics were excellently managed, meaning that the presentations took place between brief transition periods. Furthermore, it goes without saying that such an extended program provided more than ample opportunities for a large number of the Festival students to present their talents; and this was only the first of three scheduled concerts!
Nevertheless, it is worth observing that a concert experience should not be an endurance test. Stage directors who have to present the operas of Richard Wagner are well aware of this, as are those mounting productions of the operas of George Frideric Handel. However, opera has the advantage of a well-defined flow along a narrative arc. The major hazard with showcase programs is the risk that, somewhere along the line, the feeling of “one damned thing after another” (as Winston Churchill liked to describe the study of history) will begin to infect the audience; and this inevitably leads to a tendency to “tune out” due to fatigue.
Other marathons held here in San Francisco try to make the experience more manageable. Switchboard Music organizes their non-stop marathon of eight hours of music according to a timetable, which is released as part of the promotional material for the concert; and, on the basis of my last visit, they do a reasonably good job of keeping on schedule. The SFCM Hot Air Festival is also organized according to a timetable and operates somewhat like a three-ring circus with concurrent performances in different SFCM spaces. In both cases the members of the audience can schedule their time (and breaks) around those events that interest them (or at least pique their curiosity).
In fairness to ABS, however, the Academy-in-Action programs serve to feature not only the students of the Academy but also unfamiliar repertoire. Among the Bach selections, the one most likely to have been familiar to the Bach-lovers would have been “Wir eilen mit schwachen, doch emsigen Schritten” (we hasten with weak, yet eager steps) from the BWV 78 cantata Jesu der du meine Seele (Jesus, by Thy Cross and Passion), a duet for soprano and alto that is as likely to be found in a secular vocal recital as in a church ceremony. In this particular example, those who knew the music were definitely not disappointed, not only by the rapturous close harmonies of Grace Srinivasan (soprano) and Sara LeMesh (alto) but also by the deft cello accompaniment of Frédéric Rosselet.
Similarly, those who have attended these concerts regularly come to expect that there will be a composition for multiple flutes by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. This time it was a sonata for three flutes (Weronika Balewski, Aik Shin Tan, and Laura Randall) from his Opus 34 collection. The sonata was actually in four parts, the lowest being taken by bassoonist Leah Kohn. Still, what impresses about Boismortier is his capacity for homophony of similar sonorities; and yesterday’s performance was definitely a memorable one.
Nevertheless, familiarity is never really the order of the day at these showcases. Indeed, much of the value comes from discovering not only unfamiliar compositions but also unfamiliar names of composers. Still, for all the value of all that unfamiliarity, Churchill’s turn of phrase is basically a less polite way of describing cognitive overload. Fortunately, I tend to be pretty good at recognizing when my own cognitive processing needs a break. Unfortunately, yesterday afternoon that occurred before the end of the concert.