UC Davis Today
Big on Bach
“Our job is to render audibly what we see on the musical page. Not everyone can hold a score to Bach's music, and not everyone is able to understand it. But we seek to be the medium through which audience members can have a glimpse at the extraordinary compositional achievements of Johann Sebastian Bach.”
— Jeffrey Thomas
By Jeffrey Day
If you’re blown away by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach — or want to be — Jeffrey Thomas is the man to see.
Thomas, professor of music at UC Davis, is artistic and music director of the American Bach Soloists, which just kicked off a weeklong festival that provides a total Bach immersion.
The festival , which runs through July 20 at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, traces Bach’s influences with performances of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Giovanni Pergolesi, Georg Melchior Hoffmann and Dieterich Buxtehude as well as Bach’s Mass in B Minor. That mass is considered one of the most important works in Western music.
“We focus on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach to a degree that is far beyond the pursuits of any other historically informed performance ensemble in the country,” said Thomas, who leads several choruses and teaches choral conducting and early music at UC Davis.
“While other very fine early music ensembles typically present concerts that offer a fairly broad range of music, we have kept our focus on our namesake.”
Draws musicians across the nation
The American Bach Soloists, made up of musicians from throughout the nation, presents concerts in the San Francisco Bay Area and Davis throughout the year and operates an academy for young musicians during the summer festival.
The group has released 19 recordings, including six volumes of Bach cantatas and a critically acclaimed disc of Bach’s Mass in B Minor. One of the most popular is Handel’sMessiah, recorded live at the UC Davis Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. In December, the group will once again perform Messiah at the center.
“Many of my colleagues at UC Davis publish books as the end product of their research,” said Thomas, who came to UC Davis in 1996 and is the first holder of the Barbara K. Jackson Chair in Choral Conducting.
“For me, it is the publication of audio recordings that serves to document my work. So far, with about 20 recordings with American Bach Soloists, I've been able to be quite prolific along these lines.”
Before devoting himself to conducting, Thomas was a tenor with the San Francisco Opera and a recipient of the company’s Adler Fellowships. He and other singers in the Bay Area were often called upon by conductors who wished to lend an authentic touch to performances of works from the baroque period. As interest in early music expanded, Thomas co-founded the American Bach Soloists in 1989.
Drawn to Bach as a child
“Even as a child I was drawn to the music of Bach and I was fortunate to find mentors at an early age who helped cultivate my interests and direct my studies,” said Thomas who attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music.
The first American Bach Soloists concerts were held in Belvedere, a summer festival was launched there in 1993 and a few years later the group was performing throughout the region. The summer academy started in 2009, and operations moved to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music the following year. This summer the ABS Academy has 62 participants, most of whom are recent graduates of top conservatories.
Concerts — especially those during the summer festival — regularly sell out. Many who studied with Thomas at UC Davis and members of the UC Davis alumni chorus he founded a decade ago are strong supporters.
“I am able to work with extraordinary musicians who bring their dedication and experience to all of our rehearsals and performances,” he said. “They share my desire to pursue perfection in the rendering of the music that we perform.”
Jeffrey Day covers arts, humanities and social sciences for UC Davis Strategic Communications.
UC Davis Professor Jeffrey Thomas, music and artistic director for the American Bach Soloists, conducts a performance. Gene Kosoy/photo