Monday, October 26, 2009

G.F.Handel's "Alexander's Feast" at the Jerusalem YMCA

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 2009-2010 season October 20th at the Jerusalem YMCA’s Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship with G.F.Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast” in an all-Israeli production. The performance was conducted by Dr. David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and musical director. Soloists were soprano Claire Meghnagi, tenor Eitan Drori and baritone Yair Polishook. They were joined by the Collegium Singers (conductor and musical director – Avner Itai.)

“Alexander’s Feast” or “The Power of Music” (the libretto, based on the poem by John Dryden, was by Newburgh Hamilton), an ode celebrating the patroness of music St. Cecilia (St. Cecilia’s Day has been celebrated November 22nd in England since early Restoration times) was premiered in London’s Covent Garden in 1736. Handel’s first great effort to write for English taste, the work was a success from the outset, being performed another 30 times during his lifetime, then gaining popularity in Europe after the composer’s death. Shemer, in his concert notes, talks of this performance of “Alexander’s Feast” as marking the 250th anniversary Handel’s death.

The two-part work consists of an overture, recitatives, ariosos, arias, trios and choruses. A formal, elegant overture followed by courtly dances are Shemer’s invitation to his audience to enter the festive banquet hall, where Alexander the Great and his beautiful Thais are seated to celebrate the conquest of Persepolis. Tenor Eitan Drori’s opening recitative:
‘ ‘Twas at the royal feast, for Persia won
By Philip’s warlike son:
Aloft, in awful state,
The godlike hero sate
On his imperial throne.
His valiant peers were placed around;
Their brows with roses and myrtles bound:
(So should desert in arms be crowned).
The lovely Thais, by his side,
Sate like a blooming eastern bride,
In flower of youth and beauty’s pride.’
This is to be no ordinary banquet ,for the legendary singer Timotheus is present and his magical powers (those of his music and of music itself) on Alexander’s emotions provide the work with one of its most fascinating dimensions; the comparison between Timotheus and Cecilia brings the work to its climax. Despite little dramatic development, Dryden’s imagery had inspired Handel to write a work of wonderful color and variety.

We were presented with a rich performance, its energy and interest never wavering. In the nine wonderful choral movements, the Collegium Singers gave attention to accents, shape and diction as well as to key words; their collective choral sound is anchored and velvety. Tenor Eitan Drori lives the written text word for word, taking inspiration from all dramatic turns of the text, which he communicates in detail to his audience. With a voice boasting much strength, climactic moments were vehement, occasionally over-accented, sometimes lacking in subtlety. Yair Polishook is expressive, his fine rhythmic sense and musicality matched with rich and pleasing vocal color. Soprano Claire Meghnagi’s performance was outstanding. Her gorgeous, pearly voice is consistent in all registers, she weaves emotional meaning into melodic lines, gliding easily and leaning comfortably into ornaments. The audience was moved by the brilliance, the beauty and the poignancy of her performance.

Shemer’s conducting rouses his players and singers into performance that is precise and fired by his love for the genre, its elegance and language. Violinist Dafna Ravid added charm and energy to the soprano aria “War, he sung, is toil and trouble”. In “Your voices tune and raise them on high”, the audience enjoyed recorder players Katya Polin and Shai Kribus engaging in conversation with Drori.

David Shemer has dedicated much thought and planning to bringing worthwhile (and rare) Baroque works to Israeli audiences. His decision to introduce “Alexander’s Feast”, a work more familiar to British and European audiences than to Israeli concert-goers, to the local concert scene is to be applauded. Shemer’s program notes are always interesting and insightful. Perhaps Chorus 18 sums up the work that opened the JBO’s promising 2009-2010 season with a flourish:
‘The many rend the skies with loud applause;
So Love was crowned, but Music won the cause.’

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