Arts & Events

A Baroque New Year’s Eve with American Bach Soloists

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday January 04, 2019 - 05:24:00 PM

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and soprano Mary Wilson joined American Bach Soloists for a splendid 4:00 pm concert on New Year’s Eve at San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre. Musical Director Jeffrey Thomas announced from the stage that he intends to offer similar concerts every New Year’s Eve. If future such events are anything like this one, Bay Area audiences are indeed fortunate, for this was magnificent. Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen lived up to his advance billing. His countertenor voice is superbly rich in tonal variety, and his range is stupefying. Moreover, Cohen is an immensely gifted interpreter of the music he performs. With exquisite diction in Italian, Cohen brought immediacy and intensity to everything he sang at this New Year’s Eve concert. Perhaps the highlight of the whole affair was Cohen’s interpretation of “Che farò senza Euridice” from Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. This aria, of course, is a familiar chestnut; but Aryeh Nussbaun Cohen made it sound new and fresh. Likewise, veteran soprano Mary Wilson, who needs no introduction to Bay Area audiences who have heard her many wonderful performances over the years with Jeffrey Thomas’s American Bach Soloists, brought her refreshingly bright, gleaming tone to this concert’s selection of soprano arias from George Frideric Handel.  

To open the program, conductor Jeffrey Thomas led his period instrument orchestra in the Overture to Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s opera Pigmalian, which featured broad sweeping passages in the strings. Throughout this concert, instrumental works and vocal works were nicely interwoven. Included among the instrumental items, in addition to the Rameau overture, were three overtures from Vivaldi operas, and a Sinfonia from Alessandro Scarlatti’s La caduta de’ Decemviri. The Vivaldi overtures were, as you might imagine, peppy, sprightly, and bright in tone. Indeed, a recorder brightened up the tone of Vivaldi’s Overture to Ottone in Villa, a work which also featured superb solo passages from violinists Elizabeth Blumenstock and Jude Ziliak.  

Given the prominence of Handel arias in this concert, there was plenty of coloratura. Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen wasted no time in showing off his adroit coloratura in his very fist aria, “Sperai vicino il’ lido” from Gluck’s Demofoonte. Likewise, Mary Wilson offered splendid coloratura in her first aria, “De tempeste il legno infranto” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. From this same opera, Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen unleashed plenty of vindictive coloratura in the aria “Empio, dirò, tu sei.” In addition to its coloratura passages, an aria from Handel’s Agrippina featured Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen holding a note for what seemed an eternity on the final syllable of the word “dolor”/”grief”. Equally impressive was Cohen’s agitated and spiteful aria “Vivi, tiranno, io t’ho scampato” from Handel’s Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi.  

Although the vocalists were mainly featured in solo arias, they did perform several duets together. One such duet, “Io t’abbraccio” from Handel’s Rodelinda, regina de’ Longobardi was among the many highlights of this splendid concert. Another highlight was Mary Wilson singing the immensely sorrowful lament “Lascia ch’io piangere mia cruda sorte.” A final bright-hued duet brought this wonderful New Year’s Eve concert to a happy ending. What a splendid way to bring in the New Year!