Last night the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall saw the annual Distinguished Artist Series recital for the American Bach Soloists (ABS) Festival 2015. The featured soloist was John Thiessen, performing on baroque trumpet. He was joined by soprano Kathryn Mueller and seven of his ABS colleagues. The program divided into five Italian baroque composers for the first half and three works from the English baroque in the second. ABS performers provided chamber music “spacers” between Thiessen’s selections.
The second half of the program was probably more familiar to most of the audience. This portion began with Jeremiah Clarke’s Suite of Ayres for the Theatre. Clarke is probably best known for having composed Henry Purcell’s “famous trumpet voluntary,” favorite theme music for television programs and other middlebrow pastimes (like planetarium shows) with intimations of intellectuality. If we are to judge by how recordings were labeled, then the proper attribution to Clarke of what is now more properly called “The Prince of Denmark’s March” only took place in the latter half of the twentieth century. This was the first movement of the suite played last night.
In the “bad old days” this music would be performed as a modern trumpet solo soaring about a very large orchestra with lots of percussion. (Think of what the Masterpiece Theatre production team did to Jean-Joseph Mouret.) In last night’s setting Thiessen played Clarke’s four-movement suite in a chamber setting with one-to-a-part performances by two violins (Robert Mealy and Elizabeth Blumenstock), viola (Katherine Kyme), cello (William Skeen), bass (Steven Lehning), and harpsichord (Corey Jamason). The music sounded much better for being more spritely, calculated more to raise audience spirits than to intimidate them into awed respect.
Similar resources were engaged for the final English selection, the aria “Let the bright seraphim” from George Frideric Handel’s HWV 57 oratorio Samson. Here again there was a lightness of touch in the graceful balance between Mueller’s delivery of the text and the interjections of Thiessen’s “heavenly” fanfares. Considering how few words are repeated so many times, Mueller’s spirited delivery did much to enhance the spiritual nature of the music without ever letting it feel overly portentous.
These two selections were separated by a G minor sonata “in Foure Parts” by Purcell himself. The parts were taken by violinists Blumenstock and Mealy, Kenneth Slowik on gamba, and Jamason on organ. Having cleared up any misapprehensions about his trumpet music, audiences now tend to know Purcell best for his vocal music. However, this sonata was an engaging interplay among its four performers that suggests that Purcell’s instrumental music could benefit from a bit more attention.
On the Italian side the soprano-trumpet selection was Su le sponde del Tebro (on the banks of the Tiber), a secular cantata by Alessandro Scarlatti. As Lehning put it in his program notes, the text “is one of unrequited love,” far more depressing than the more spirited English offerings. However, this provided an opportunity to listen to Thiessen take on a more subdued rhetoric; and his control was impressive. Nevertheless, the high points came when the trumpet kept silent while the two violins wove an anguished web of particularly striking dissonances.
The “novelty selection” for this half was actually a cello sonata by Antonio Caldara, which served as a “spacer” between the Scarlatti cantata and a sonata for trumpet, two violins, and continuo by Arcangelo Corelli. Skeen’s cello work in Caldara’s sonata was as expressive as Mueller’s approach to Scarlatti’s cantata, allowing the program to highlight the contrasts between high and low registers. Indeed, that sense of the low register was reinforced by Lehning’s bass contribution to the continuo; but this sonata (in the key of A major) was anything but somber.
Thus, while this program was designed to feature the baroque trumpet, it provided considerable diversity in the sonorities of historical instruments, all of which contributed to a thoroughly engaging evening.