Interview by James A. Altena, Review By Henry Fogel
Handel’s Messiah Done with Grace: An Interview with Jeffrey Thomas of the American Bach Soloists
By James A. Altena
The American Bach Soloists (hereafter ABS) was co-founded by Jeffrey Thomas in 1989, and—as can be ascertained from reviews in both the Fanfare Archive and other publications—in very short order established itself as a force to be reckoned with in performances of Baroque and Classical choral works, though in recent years it has also taken on contemporary music as well. For his part, Thomas originally made his mark as one of the world’s leading tenors in the same repertoire, with engagements in famous locales with equally renowned conductors and ensembles too numerous to enumerate here. In conjunction with the release of their new live recording of Handel’s Messiah in the famed Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, Thomas took a break from his usual whirlwind of activities to conduct this interview.
Let’s start with the real hardball question that is probably on the minds of folks reading these lines. There are almost 100 recordings of Messiah in the active catalog, including about half-a-dozen in video formats, many featuring some of the world’s greatest choral ensembles and soloists, including a previous live CD recording by you and the ABS that Delos released in 2005. What is the need and justification for yet another recording? What special or unique dimensions do you believe you offer that should motivate lovers of this work to seek out this new version?
We have been fortunate to present Handel’s masterwork in the truly beautiful setting of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral for nearly two decades now. I believe it to be a remarkably spiritual work. At times, the intensity of its dramatic thread is quite breathtaking, and similarly its episodes of calming comfort and tranquility are, in my opinion, rather unparalleled. Bringing together Handel’s understanding of how our emotions are moved through music—indeed, he was a master at that, as is evidenced in so many operatic works—and the spiritually charged space of Grace Cathedral is an experience that has been shared by countless thousands over the years. We wanted to bring that opportunity to many more individuals around the world. As Michael De Sapio noted in his review, one of our primary goals was carefully to weave the beauty of Grace Cathedral into the performance footage, showing relevant depictions of scenes at the most appropriate moments. All in all, we hoped to create a film that was a feast for the eyes, the ears, the mind, and the soul.
For your previous recording, you chose to go back to Handel’s original score of 1741. This time, you have used the version presented at the London Foundling Hospital in 1753. It is closer than the 1741 score to what might be termed the “standard” version most often performed, that incorporates some subsequent alterations Handel made for other performances, but still has some noticeable differences from that (e.g., a short recension of “Why do the nations?”). What are the rationales for your choices of editions, both in 2005 and in 2015?
You’ve already hit the nail on the head: Both of these recorded performances do in fact reproduce exactly the versions (two of at least a dozen) that Handel himself presented, being always willing to customize the work in order to bring both it and his current set of vocalists to the best possible light. That practical matter of customizing a work from year to year was very common, especially among the singers that Handel often employed. Handel wanted to put them, and his music, forward in the most successful way possible.
The motivation behind the 2005 recording was this: Knowing that Handel modified the music constantly, year after year, in order to accommodate and best display his soloists, it’s fascinating to realize that Handel actually never heard the work as he first composed it. Even in Dublin, for the premiere, he had to make modifications due to some inadequacies that he found among the soloists there. So, when we planned the 2005 recording, we chose to chronicle what he composed before the Dublin performances, before any modifications were required. Over the course of the next 10 or so years following the premiere, Messiah enjoyed at first a very welcome reception that subsequently waned when the work was presented in the London theaters. It was only after it again became associated with charity, through performances at the Foundling Hospital, that its identity as a great and popular masterwork took hold. Therefore, the Foundling Hospital version is the best snapshot that we can take of the work as it was when its future became secured. Your readers might enjoy knowing more about Messiah’s transformation in this way through either the bonus feature on the Blu-ray/DVD or via the film’s web site that can be found at americanbach.org/media.
When did you begin to make your transition from singing to conducting, and what prompted you to do it? Do you believe that having begun your musical career as a major vocal soloist has shaped your approach to conducting in any way noticeably different from conductors who trained as such from the beginning, or were first instrumentalists instead?
After trying to maintain essentially two careers as a singer and conductor simultaneously, I recognized that one would have to give way to the other. I absolutely believe that our job as performers of historical art music is to render what the composer has notated without much, if any, need for “interpretation.” The page is full of indications, whether in ink or implied according to our understanding of harmony and rhetoric. I thought that I might have the opportunity to bring that perspective to more colleagues as a conductor than as a singer. I was lucky also to have been trained from my childhood as a keyboardist and a violinist. That, along with my experience as a singer, has enabled me to understand rather thoroughly what common goals of expression are shared by singers and instrumentalists, and to understand first-hand the differences in the means to bring about those expressions. Throughout the history of music, instruments and voices often traded places in terms of which group developed new techniques, and they traded places back and forth, sharing new methods of expression among each other. I think that my multi-faceted background has enabled me to more quickly reconcile the practical differences in execution for the sake of finding a very palpable (and powerfully unified) common ground of expression.
Tell us more about the personnel of the ABS. How did its founding come about? Does it have a more or less permanent membership, or is its constitution fluid? Is it made up entirely of professional musicians, or does it also include skilled amateurs?
ABS is comprised only of professional musicians. We began as a conductor-less ensemble, focusing primarily on the incredibly rich repertoire of Bach’s cantatas. But as our repertoire grew to include larger works, a conductor became necessary, and as I had experience doing that since my teenage years in Pennsylvania, I stepped in, rather humbly at the start. Our roster adjusts to the needs of the works that we perform and, more recently, in order to include the tremendously talented new generations of early music specialists. Our ABS Academy is on the forefront of institutions that are committed to the engagement and training of those emerging professionals who are taking their places on concert stages worldwide.
Being a highly skilled and experienced singer yourself, what particular qualities do you look for in members of the ABS? How would you characterize your philosophy of training and coaching singers, and your ideal for choral sound?
The most essential qualification for being part of ABS is a willingness to trust the process of the pursuit of ideally perfect renderings of the composer’s page. This was a great challenge at first. The early years of the period performance movement welcomed with open arms lots and lots of personal expression in performance. It was almost a requirement that bursts of personal inflection would carry forward into performances, creating a kind of excitement in live music-making that had previously not been associated with Baroque music, not at least as it was heard in recordings before the 1950s. But then, as we learned more and more, came the realization that some of the world’s most disciplined orchestras existed in the Baroque era. Those found in Dresden, in Paris, and in a number of other European cities were unmatched in terms of the phenomenal ensemble skills that each and every player brought to the table. That kind of conformity to a group ideal was not so easy to bring to assemblies of early music players who had the skills, enthusiasm, and temperaments to make music in a more individualistic manner. Now, though, our world has some superb Baroque orchestras that place the highest importance on unanimity of purpose, of musical concept and style, and on technical realization.
What is your typical schedule for rehearsals, performances, and recordings? How is repertoire chosen for a concert season and projected recordings? How do you go about selecting soloists for a particular project such as this Messiah?
Since many members of ABS come from quite far away to join us for a concert set, we typically meet for three or four days before a performance set begins. Recordings take place, ideally, following several days of performances, but that luxury is not always an option. We are committed to performing the great “standards” of the Baroque repertoire, as more and more audiences today are less and less experienced with that music. And we also program quite imaginatively, often turning to works that have not been premiered in the USA before. Some of those recent programs included the West Coast premiere of Antonio Lotti’s Mass for Three Choirs in 2011, and the first North American performance of Heinrich Biber’s 53-part Missa Salisburgensis—perhaps the largest-scaled surviving work from the Baroque—utilizing the composer’s full instrumentation at the 2013 ABS Festival & Academy. In 2015, the Festival offered the first performances outside of Europe of Marin Marais’s 1709 opera Sémélé. Handel’s complete serenata Parnasso in festa is being given its North and South American premiere at the 2016 Festival & Academy. Regarding vocalists, I am fortunate to hear many, many singers over the course of any given year. I admit that I tend to re-engage those whose work I know and admire, but there is nothing quite as thrilling as the discovery of a new and vibrant talent. For me, it’s not exclusively about the voice; rather it is the combination of voice, intellect, and rhetoric that make an ideal singer.
You and the ABS have apparently established a particularly strong relationship with Grace Episcopal Cathedral. How did that come about? What were the distinctive advantages and challenges to giving your performances and making your recording of Messiah in that venue? What special dimension do you think the visual aspects of your new recording add to the performance?
We are indeed fortunate to enjoy a strong relationship with Grace. It developed over the years of our annual performances of Messiah in that space. There have been other projects, too. For example, to celebrate the 20th Anniversary Season of ABS, we performed Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks in the Cathedral, along with a spectacular laser show projected on the walls and ceiling. The greatest challenge in making the Messiah film in the Cathedral was the occasional sound of San Francisco’s famous cable cars that run just outside the Cathedral door. In an urban environment, the sounds of the city can make their way even through several feet of exterior walls, but we did our best to mask those sounds with the help of our extraordinary audio crew headed by Chris Landen. As I mentioned above, the art within the Cathedral is exquisite and enabled us to link together Handel’s music and particular works of art within an absolute context.
The ABS is committed to a “period performance practice” (PPP) approach. As you doubtless know, and perhaps have personally experienced, this is a topic that still can excite strong passions, and much resistance in some quarters. Do you find that you are able to persuade skeptics to give PPP a hearing, particularly in a work such as Messiah where long-established preferences may seem set in stone? If so, how do you go about that?
In my experience, I no longer find any resistance to historically informed performance practice (HIPP, the other acronym). It seems to have been fully embraced, more or less universally. One manifestation of that acceptance is perhaps evidenced in a radio program that I host (heard worldwide on KDFC.com) on which I play exclusively period performance recordings. I don’t ever recall receiving a feedback email along the lines of a listener wanting to hear, say, Stokowski’s orchestration of Bach or Handel, or even a very fine but not PPP or HIPP recording. So, I think it’s safe to say that we’re here to stay!
You have at various times used either one voice per part (OVPP) or larger vocal ensembles in performing and recording works such as several Bach cantatas, the B-Minor Mass, and the St. Matthew Passion. Have your thinking and tastes on this point evolved over the years to a preference one way or another, or do you freely adopt either approach depending on the given work and performance venue in question? Also, how would you respond to critics who insist that OVPP is either a misinterpretation of the evidence or else was an adverse condition that circumstances imposed on Bach and other composers who actually preferred larger performing contingents?
We know that there is no question whatsoever that the scale of Bach’s forces changed according to venue or location, and even from Sunday to Sunday. That does not mean that larger forces were a preference. It simply indicates that Bach’s music and a good amount of the music from the Baroque is truly scalable. Would I perform Messiah OVPP? Certainly not. We know how many players and singers he had in Dublin and in London. Would I perform the Mass in B Minor OVPP? I might, but haven’t. They are different types of compositions, from different performance traditions. Bach’s music looked backwards in style, for the most part, and part of the earlier style of “concerted” music was, in fact, one instrument or voice per part. Nevertheless, our recent ABS performances have rarely been one per part, even though I fully believe in the integrity of that approach.
What do you find to be the greatest challenges to balancing vocal and instrumental forces in your performances, and how do you resolve those issues?
Tying back to an earlier question, if both “halves” of the performing forces learn from each other’s methodologies and possibilities, we find a unified realization of articulations and shapes, and that can resolve almost all issues of balance. In other words, we become aware of those instrumental versus vocal balances if the two groups approach their notes differently. If they render them in the same way, tremendous clarity breaks through any perceived conflict of balance.
In the past, at least, you both conducted and sang solo tenor parts in performances and recordings. Do you still do that? Did you consider trying that for this new Messiah? If so, what dissuaded you from that?
It was many years ago, when ABS was recording some cantatas, I believe, that I had the realization that my vocal colleagues could spend the day before a recording relaxing and resting in preparation for that evening’s recording session. I, however, was conducting, producing, and even editing other movements all day long, and when it came time for my voice in front of the microphone, I clearly remember feeling somewhat disadvantaged. The singing voice is fragile, susceptible to the tiniest of irritants or most subtle circumstantial situations. I felt that it was best for the music that we were recording, whatever that would be, were I to take off one of my hats, so to speak. I’ve never looked back.
A very welcome quality I find especially striking in your new version of Messiah is a sense of moderation. Compared to many other current PPP performances, which emphasize briskness, drive, drama, and tension, yours is relatively relaxed, buoyant, and sunny. Was this a conscious reaction against other PPP performances as being too forceful, or did it spring from some other aesthetic basis?
Thank you! Any and all musical decisions were based on wanting to deliver Handel’s rhetoric in what we felt was the most expedient and successful way, removing any performance aspect that might be interpreted as willfulness or interpretation. I hope that’s what comes across.
In a work such as Messiah that consists of over 50 discrete movements, how do you go about establishing a sense of integration and overall unity? In particular, how do you determine the “right” tempos, dynamics, rhythmic emphases and accents, etc., to achieve that goal?
In almost all cases, the “right” tempo is the natural tempo, that at which the voice and instruments can deliver their parts most clearly and, believe it or not, easily. Sometimes that might mean faster or slower than expected. But when it is found, it fits like a glove. Dynamics and rhythmic emphases, I believe, are clearly indicated by the composer, despite the utter lack of them in print in most cases. Again, it is the pursuit of rhetoric (that “teaches” the music and text to the listener) that is the overriding impetus for us. A great composer chose every aspect, every pitch, every note value, etc., deliberately. We must figure out why he or she made a particular decision at a particular place, and then determine how best, how most efficiently we can indicate that rhetoric to the listener.
Have you significantly changed your mind about how to present certain movements from one set of performances to another across the years? Do you freely experiment with different approaches at different times, either in order to explore new facets of the score or simply for the sake of variety?
Perhaps I can answer that best with this: There is always something to polish to a brighter sheen. That is why, when approaching great works of art, we never grow tired of them. There is always something more to observe, to understand, and to admire.
In recent years you personally have ventured into performances of contemporary music, such as the operas of David Conte. What motivated you to move in that direction? Do those endeavors effectively operate as a separate world from the ABS, or do you find ways of bridging the two and bringing them together?
It’s mostly a separate world. However, in some performances by the choral forces of ABS, the American Bach Choir, we have enjoyed presenting 20th-century works. For example, I’m a fan of the music of Sven-David Sandström, whose restatements of music originally by Bach and Purcell, for example, are absolutely stunning.
What major new performing and recording projects do you and the ABS respectively have in the works? What new repertoire do you hope to explore in the future?
We are presently making those decisions for the long term. In the immediate future, we’ll be recording Bach’s motets for double chorus in 2017.
HANDEL Messiah (1753 version) & • Jeffrey Thomas, cond; Mary Wilson (sop); Eric Jurenas (ct); Kyle Stegall (ten); Jesse Blumberg (bar); American Bach Ch; American Bach Soloists • AMERICAN BACH SOLOISTS no catalog number (Blu-ray: 147:00 + 31:00) Live: Grace Episcopal Cathedral, San Francisco 12/18–19/2014. Also available in standard DVD format
& Welcome to Grace Cathedral; Introduction to Messiah
It would be beyond foolish to recommend any single recorded performance, video or audio, of Messiah as the definitive one. One could be forgiven for thinking that the last thing we need is another recording of Handel’s eternally recurring oratorio. However, I would have missed something valuable and important had I not seen and heard this release, available directly from americanbach.org.
The American Bach Soloists was founded in 1989; Jeffrey Thomas, who conducts this performance, was one of the co-founders, and has been with them ever since. The group specializes in historically informed performance practice, using period instruments (or modern reproductions of period instruments). For those of you who carry a bias about the HIPP movement, put it aside and see or hear this performance. This is impassioned, sensitive, warm, committed music-making that never feels like a dry, scholarly analysis.
The version of Messiah used is that of a 1753 performance for the Foundling Hospital of London. The actual performance takes about 145 minutes; the remainder of the duration (except for the credit roll) is taken up by two extras, a lovely tour and history of Grace Cathedral and a thorough and well-delivered discussion by conductor Thomas about Handel’s work, its performance history, and this version.
It is known that Handel during his life changed arias around for different soloists, depending on the abilities (and, probably, fame) of his singers at any given performance. The 1753 charity concert for the Foundling Hospital featured one of the most famous stars of the day, the castrato Gaetano Guadagni, who sang what we today consider the alto part. So the final aria, “If God Be for Us,” which Handel composed first for soprano was transposed for other singers (usually alto or castrato) from the first performance on; it was actually first heard sung by a soprano in the final performance conducted by Handel, in 1754.
What distinguishes this performance is the combination of careful scholarship, superb technical execution, and heartfelt, impassioned playing and singing. The quality of the playing is apparent from the outset. One presumes that these are freelance musicians from the San Francisco area, but that area’s longtime specialization in early music has clearly paid dividends. The tone quality and variety of color that these musicians are display is significantly richer and more varied than is frequently the case in HIPP performances. In addition, there is a pliancy and suppleness in their phrasing and in Thomas’s conducting that keeps us engaged throughout the more than two-hour length of the oratorio. Although the American Bach Soloists and Choir perform Messiah annually, at this same location, there is not a whiff of routine here. It would be so easy for the performance to give off a feeling of “It’s December again, so it must be Messiah.” Instead we get the feeling that these musicians are discovering the music for the first time.
The four soloists are excellent. From tenor Kyle Stegall’s first entrance we recognize that we will have singing that combines tonal beauty, complete security of technique and production, and imagination. Repeats of arias are moderately ornamented, and each of the four singers is capable of using the full dynamic range while maintaining the quality of their timbres. Countertenor Eric Jurenas has a uniquely rich voice capable of lovely, dark colors. Jesse Blumberg executes all of the rapid passagework in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” brilliantly (and kudos to trumpeter John Thiessen as well). Soprano Mary Wilson displays evenness of tone throughout her range and floats some gorgeous pianissimos.
I am familiar with a handful of other videos of Messiah; Helmuth Rilling’s is not a relevant comparison since it is of the Mozart version, and is in German. This release seems to me preferable to the others (Marriner, Hogwood, and Cleobury) for its combination of virtues: clarity, beauty, excellence of execution, and an overall sense of cumulative power from beginning to end. The video direction is sensitive to the music as well (Frank Zamacona is credited as director of photography, Eddie Frank as editor, and Abigail McKee as producer). Shots are not changed jarringly or too rapidly, and they alternate between the gorgeous interior of the Cathedral, including stunning stained glass windows, and the performers. The sound, heard in two-channel stereo, was clear and well balanced, and gave a nice sense of the space of the Cathedral. The viewer has the choice between 2.0 DTS-HD stereo and 5.1 DTS-HD surround sound. I will confess that I did not look forward to the assignment of reviewing yet another Messiah, but in the end found this an extremely gratifying and rewarding experience. Henry Fogel