The following is an excerpt from an interview with Fanfare Magazine‘s James Altena and members of the Bach Aria Soloists. The full interview is available for subscribers online and will be in the May/June 2023 Issue of the Magazine:
There sometimes remains in certain circles a lingering impression that top-notch and noteworthy classical performers and events in the USA work and occur only on the two coasts and in Chicago, with all others having second- or third-tier. One enterprising ensemble that refutes any such supposition is Bach Aria Soloists (BAS), a female quartet based in Kansas City, MO, that devotes itself to enterprising programs rooted in Bach and his contemporaries but extending to the present and embracing multi-genre presentations and educational outreach programs. In conjunction with the release of the ensemble’s premiere recital CD, Le Dolce Sirene, I interviewed the group’s founder, executive artistic director, and violinist, Elizabeth Suh Lane, along with ensemble members Hannah Collins and Elisa Williams Bickers.
What chains of circumstances led each of you to the Kansas City area, and how did you come to know each other? At what point, and why and how, did you decide to form Bach Aria Soloists?
HC: I moved to Kansas in 2016 to become cello professor at the University of Kansas School of Music. Elizabeth and I were put in touch by a mutual friend, who knew that we shared a love for chamber music in a wide variety of styles and had some past mentors in common.
EWB: I moved to the KC area to get my doctorate in church music at the University of Kansas, and towards the end of my degree was awarded the position of principal organist at Village Presbyterian Church. The previous harpsichordist for BAS needed to step back to pursue other professional goals, and Elizabeth asked me to come read some Bach sonatas with her. The rest is history.
ESL: After my daughter was born, we decided to relocate to Chicago from London. My husband was headhunted for a job in Kansas, and as my parents were still living in the area, we decided to move to KC to be closer to them and for my husband’s new position. Each person in Bach Aria Soloists today was recommended to me by a former BAS member or colleague who had worked with BAS. Our wonderful original soprano Rebecca Lloyd retired and introduced me to Sarah Tannehill Anderson. A friend and colleague in NY introduced me to Hannah Collins, who had just moved to the area. A keyboardist who was working with BAS told me about Elisa Williams Bickers.
I founded Bach Aria Soloists after moving to KC. I left my orchestral position in London because we just had a baby and wanted to relocate to the USA. As a new mother, I had no idea how it would be to juggle motherhood and being a musician, but as I had always wanted to start a chamber music ensemble, I thought this might be the perfect time to try. I founded BAS to build my own idyllic world—being a mom and playing chamber music, including with great vocalists so we could learn Bach cantatas—and strive to balance my new family of four with managing Bach Aria Soloists from my home. Thus, BAS was born.
Let’s turn now to your new CD, Le Dolce Sirene. First of all, how did the four of you determine what its contents would be? Is there a particular thematic unity that you all see as linking and binding the selections together?
EWB: I recall that we wanted to create something that would infuse some beauty into both our own lives and our listeners’ lives during the darker and more confusing days of the COVID pandemic. To put some of our most favorite pieces on a single CD, recorded in a lovely sanctuary by a sisterhood of professional musicians, seemed like a great way to do that.
ESL: We wanted to select arias that we loved and had been wanting to record with our soprano Sarah Tannehill Anderson by Bach, Handel, McDowall, and Monteverdi. As we do most of our own arrangements, all of the pieces we included have really rich, substantial parts for each of us. The sweetness lies in the music, with each piece having a different facet of dolce, whether literally as in Si dolce è’l tormento and Süße Stille, or musically as in the Bach Adagio of the Violin Sonata or in Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata.
HC: Programming Süße Stille, sanfte Quelle, HWV 205, in our concert season that year was originally my request, inspired by Carolyn Sampson’s wonderful recording with the King’s Consort.
In its more historical contents, the CD includes a Monteverdi madrigal, two Handel arias (one very famous and one scarcely known), a cantata aria and a violin sonata by Bach, and a movement from a Mendelssohn organ sonata. Given that there are well over 100 soprano arias apiece by Bach and Handel, about 10 Bach accompanied violin sonatas (including adaptations and disputed works), and six Mendelssohn organ sonatas with two or three movements each, one is curious to know: Why this particular aria or sonata or sonata movement, as opposed to any other one? A happenstance interest of the moment? An intuitive feel for what pieces “work” together in a program? Particular complementary or contrasting features? Or something else?
ESL: The Monteverdi madrigal is one of the most stunning texts we have encountered, with a haunting melody and chords that beg for a colorful palette of elaboration/improvisation.
The Bach Sonata for Violin and Clavier in G Major is one we perform a lot because we love it so much, and each movement is pure brilliance and perfection in brevity! As you said, there are volumes of arias from Bach’s cantatas, but we wanted a delightful, upbeat aria that would be challenging for all of us, and that we could contrast with Süße Stille and the Adagio of the sonata. Sarah has said that Süße Stille is her favorite piece on the recording. It is very beautiful, so intimate in its writing, just perfect for our ensemble, something which we all recognized from the first moment we played it. Sarah captures the essence of each of the arias exceptionally well, so we tried to select a wide spectrum of our favorites that could highlight her and each of the soloists.
BAS also has a commitment to contemporary music, and the CD includes the Four Shakespeare Songs of the British composer Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951). How did these particular songs come to the attention of BAS, and what made them sufficiently attractive to you that you would want to record them? How do they fit in with the other works on the CD?
EWB: I first met Cecilia when I was the chair for new music for the American Guild of Organists 2018 National Convention. We commissioned her to write an organ piece, and working with her was so delightful and rewarding that I wanted to explore her extensive oeuvre even more. I brought her chamber works to the attention of BAS, and we discovered those beautiful Shakespeare Songs. The first time I saw that score, I could clearly hear Sarah bringing those excellent melodies to life with her amazing range and sensitivity. They were originally composed for piano and voice, but Cecilia was most happy for us to rearrange them for our instrumentation. I think their fit on the CD is like the other works on the disc—they make us happy, and we know that our unique interpretation of them is something others would enjoy hearing.
Finally, your disc closes with a set of improvised variations on the famous Baroque Italian tune La Folia. What inspired you four to undertake this?
ESL: BAS was challenged by a former colleague to create our own set of improvisations on this famous theme; we all thought it was an intriguing idea, and that it would be fun to undertake. The more we performed it, the more our ideas coalesced and solidified.
Of course, improvisation is not utterly spontaneous and unplanned without any forethought—and improvisation by a group rather than a solo musician compounds the complexities involved. For such a group improvisation, how much general prior planning or discussion goes into such matters as who takes a turn improvising, and when, and for how long? And, how much prior thought is invested into what will be improvised, and how?
EWB: We wanted to “cover” many bases in this improvised partita, from longing, pastoral legato renditions to peppy rhythmic dances, so as to bring the beloved theme to life in as many ways as possible. We found ourselves inspired by our instruments and by other composers who have undertaken La Folia variations. We also thought it would be neat to not keep the theme trapped in the Baroque, but to dare to add some modern elements as well. We shared the musical roles among us. For example, the harpsichord was sometimes a continuo instrument, sometimes a solo instrument, sometimes a melodic instrument, and the two stringed instruments explored different functions depending on the variation as well. As you can imagine, we never perform it exactly the same way twice.