Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Back to the future with Handel


American Bach Soloists music director Jeffrey Thomas on stage with members of the ABS Festival Orchestra. Photo: Filip Celander
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It may seem strange to frame a performance of Handel's L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740) as pointing to the future. But in the hands and hearts of the young participants in American Bach Soloists' annual Summer Festival and Academy, Handel's pastoral ode shone with a freshness that provided an aural antidote to today's increasingly frenetic and hideously compressed MP3 soundscape.

Heard on July 18 from an ideal location in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music's airy and resonant concert hall, Handel's sweet jewel glistened as if composed anew. True, Maestro Jeffrey Thomas' careful pacing was so "moderato" as to sometimes render the experience more rarefied than invigorating, but the presence of so many student instrumentalists and vocalists who are still feeling their way undoubtedly influenced his tempos. Nonetheless, when flutist Joshua Romatowski (Dearborn, MI) chirped along with his fellow Academy participant, soprano Hailey Fuqua (Boston, MA), on the famous aria, "Sweet bird, that shun'st the noise of folly," and the orchestra's mix of professional and student string players chirped with delicious delicacy over a perfect bass foundation as Academy soprano Anna Gorbachyova (Yekaterinburg, Russia) sang "Mirth admit me of they crew," all concerns were replaced with wonder.

Key to the success of both performances were the women's astounding trills and perfectly placed high notes. The higher these sopranos went, the more wonderful their voices became. At one point, when Gorbachyova unexpectedly chirped out a high D (at baroque pitch), several audience members gasped in amazement. Nor was Fuqua's high E in "Sweet Bird" anything but wondrous. While neither she nor Fuqua possesses the dew-like radiance and clear enunciation of some of the great early-music sopranos of present and past, their shining high ranges and technical facility hold promise for successful careers.

In the tenor department, Michael Jankosky's (Pittsburg, PA) cutting clarity, vocal beauty, excellent enunciation, and technical surety could well put him in high demand in the years ahead. If his slightly cocky attitude and overdone facial expressions reflect an artist still finding his way, his voice suggests that he is already there. The same may be true for bass David Rugger (Bloomington, IN), whose fabulous, mature sound and gratifying ability to alter vocal color to match the text of his sole aria helped one forgive his pompous attitude and overly studied movements.

Special mention must be made of the hallowed depth and supreme stillness that mezzo-soprano Agnes Vojtko (Siofok, Hungary) brought to "There held in holy passion still," and to her subsequent recitative and aria. Hers may not be the deepest voice, but there is something rare about its exceptionally even, modestly plush, and heart-touching sound. With the rightful successor to the lineage of "spiritually-voiced" early-music mezzos that includes Kathleen Ferrier, Janet Baker, and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson not yet apparent, it is possible that the emotional truth at the center of Vojtko's tone may soon elevate her into their rank. More, please.

Bass Benjamin Kazez (San Francisco) may be lighter-voiced than those above, with his bottom a bit shallow and the top sometimes coarsely produced, but there is a handsome core to his sound. Sad-visaged tenor Jason Rylander (Arlington, VA) may be weak at the bottom of his range, but his sweetness on top is lovely. Soprano Fiona Gillespie (Williamsport, PA) and adorable tenor Corey Shotwell (Ionia, MI) may also possess smaller voices, but when their evenly matched instruments sang the final duet to the heavenly accompaniment of faculty member Debra Nagy's oboe and Nate Helgeson's (Eugene, OR) bassoon, their light, sweet beauty was perfection itself.

Special mention is also due the horn of Sadie Glass (Manitowoc, WI), trumpet of Steven Marquardt (Burnsville, MI), heavenly singing of the ABS Chorus, and excellence of the orchestra. The supremely beautiful ensemble sound that Thomas has achieved during his 25 years at the helm of ABS testifies to his mastery.

A personal postscript: It is with a mixture of sadness and excitement that my husband and I, having found ourselves priced out of the East Bay housing market, will soon begin our lives anew in Port Townsend, WA. I extend my deepest gratitude to Thomas and B.A.R. arts editor Roberto Friedman for making this, my final local performance review for this publication, such a joy.


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