Last night the Baroque Marathon presented by this summer’s American Bach Soloists (ABS) Academy came to a conclusion with its third concert in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). This was the first of the marathon’s three programs to offer a cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach performed in its entirety. The cantata was BWV 131, Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu dir (from the depths I call to you, Lord), based on Psalm 130 with interpolated text by Bartholomäus Ringwaldt.
This cantata was conducive to a “chamber” performance with a single performer for all parts other than the continuo (which was provided by Frédéric Rosselet on cello, Shawn Alger on bass, and Kyle Collins on organ). Thus, the four vocalists, soprano Chelsea Morris, alto Sara LeMesh, tenor Matthew Hill, and bass David Rugger, performed both the choral and solo lines. The cantata has the rather unique structure that the chorale theme, “Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut” (Lord Jesus Christ, thou highest good), is interpolated into the two arias, each of which is a duet. In the first the bass “solo” is accompanied by the soprano singing the chorale. In the second the alto sings the chorale to accompany a tenor solo.
Bringing clarity to such instances of interleaving parts is not necessarily within the domain of chamber music. As a result, last night’s performance was conducted by ABS Artistic Director Jeffrey Thomas. Through his leadership one could appreciate the structural individuality of this particular cantata, as much an ambitious exercise in design as a piece of “functional church music” (although there are questions as to just what function this particular cantata actually served). Still, the balance of the four voices was not consistently on the money, suggesting that they were all thinking as soloists. This was most evident when the intonation of the chorale theme risked being masked by the more elaborate male solo lines. Nevertheless, the uniqueness of Bach’s capacity for invention in this cantata still made for absorbing listening.
Last night’s program was also distinguished by having the largest instrumental ensemble on stage. This amounted to a preview event for Marin Marais’ opera Sémélé, which will be performed twice in its entirety on Thursday and Friday. The group was led from the concertmaster’s chair by Robert Mealy; and the performance consisted of four short dances and one extended (“honkin’ big,” as Mealy put it in his introduction) chaconne.
The ensemble had to be a large one because of the number of separate parts. In the wind section there are first and second flutes, first and second oboes, first and second recorders, and bassoon; and all of those parts have both solo and group lines. Similarly, the string second is divided into five parts, following French terminology, rather than instrument names: Dessus I, Dessus II, Haute-contre, Taille, and Quinte. (The first two of these were taken by violins and the remaining three by violas.) Continuo was provided by five cellos, four basses, one theorbo, and two harpsichords. (When the opera will be performed, there will be a third harpsichord to provide continuo for the individual vocalists.)
All this made for the grandest sonorities of the marathon. The chaconne was particularly delightfully structured to alternate the full ensemble with different groups of soloists. Had the stage not been so full of performers, that alternation would probably have made for an engaging visual experience. However, the layout allowed one to appreciate the variations in spatial orientation as the chaconne progressed.
This would have been enough to bring the marathon to a rousing conclusion. However, there were still six cantata arias to follow. That rousing conclusion was, instead, provided by a reprise of the music played in the SFCM atrium that welcomed the audience to the very first Festival concert, a set of short trumpet pieces composed by Michel Richard Delalande for performance on the canal on the grounds of the Versailles palace. This involved three trumpets (Louie Eckhardt, Dominic Favia, and Steven Marquardt) performing antiphonally against two oboes (Cameron Kirkpatrick and Anke Nikel) and two bassoons (Georgeanne Banker and Neil Chen). Continuo was provided by Matthew Girolami and Benjamin Rechel on bass and Paul Morton and Tatiana Senderowicz on guitar. Flutist Jonathan Slade put aside his instrument to take the timpani part, and the group was conducted by John Thiessen.
So it was that (with apologies to Guillaume de Machaut) the marathon’s end was the Festival’s beginning.