Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir sings at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, conducted by its musical director Ronen Borshevsky, performed a concert titled “Let Everything That Has Breath Praise the Lord” on January 20th 2011 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem prior to its concert tour of Geneva. The Geneva tour included three concerts, one at the United Nations Office at Geneva, another in a church, with a third concert to be performed for the Geneva Jewish Community. Among works on the programs were a number of pieces to biblical texts by Israeli composer Yitzchak Tavior.

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, a large choral enterprise, was founded in 1987 and consists of a number of small- and medium-sized vocal ensembles. The individual choirs perform chamber concerts, also joining to take part in large choral and orchestral projects. The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, Oratorio’s representative group consisting of 25 singers, is led by Ronen Borshevsky.

Ronen Borshevsky (b.1971), the main conductor and musical director of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir won the 1997 Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting and the 1998 International Conductors Competition in Denmark, was a recipient of the Koussevitzky Scholarship, has conducted all major Israeli orchestras and has conducted in the United States, in Japan, Germany and Denmark. Maestro Borshevsky is considered one of Israel’s foremost choral conductors.

The evening’s program consisted mostly of a cappella works. The setting for “Adon Olam” (The Lord of all) by the Amsterdam rabbi, author and musician David Aaron de Sola (1796-1860) is used in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues, especially in English-speaking communities. Borshevsky’s delicate phrasing, coupled with the tranquil beauty of this piece, made for a sensitive performance. Soloists were Naomi Brill Engel and Simone Kessler. The Chamber Choir’s singing of Italian Jewish composer Salomone Rossi’s (1570-1630) 5-part motet “Shir Hama’alot” Psalm 121 (I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills) reflected the composer’s reading into the text and its contrasts, with different vocal combinations producing a variety of textures.

The concert included several works of Israeli composers. Yehezkel Braun’s (b.1922) oeuvre consists of choral- and orchestral works, chamber music, Lieder and music for theatre, film and dance. His interest in liturgical chant and Jewish folk music is reflected in the two works we heard: A Psalm of David (Psalm 29), the Jerusalem version, and his setting of the oriental piyut (religious poem) D’ror Yikra (He will proclaim freedom) by Dunash HaLevi ben Labrat. In the latter, choir member Amit Pal’s darbuka (goblet drum) accompaniment of the spirited Sephardic songs - a kaleidoscope of vocal lines void of western harmonies - was deft and attentive. Hungarian-born Oedoen Partos (1907-1977) made a study of Israeli folk material, especially of that of the Sephardic Jews. Influence of the latter was present in the continuously interesting “Hamavdil” (Who distinguishes) (2004). Borshevsky achieves a fine choral blend characterized by velvety yet transparent textures and fast dynamic changes.

The singers performed arrangements of songs of various Jewish traditions. Their rendition of “La Rosa”, a Ladino love-song song, from Six Sephardic Folksongs” (1971) arranged by Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984), brought out the wealth of Ben Haim’s late Romantic harmonies and temperament. They also sang Gil Aldema’s arrangement of “Unter di Curves” (Under the ruins of Poland) to words in Yiddish of Itzik Manger and to a melody by Shaul Berezovsky. In this nostalgic and moving performance of a song that mourns the destruction of the Polish Jewish community, we heard Shmuel Karsh as soloist.
‘A large bird of mourning
Flies above the ruins
Carries in her wings
The song of grief
Over the ruins of Poland.’

Hannah Senesh (1921-1944) was executed by the Germans in Hungary where she was on a mission to save Jewish lives. She is known for both her heroism and her poetry. “Eli,Eli”, also known as “Walk to Caesarea”, arranged for choir by Gil Aldema, was moving in its melodiousness and sincerity, with soloist Shlomo Tirosh interacting with the audience.

In a very different mood, “Sapari Tama Tamima” (Where are you, my soul?), a Yemenite song to words by the 17th century poet Se’adia Ben-Amran; the text is found in the “Diwan” – the Jewish Yemenite poetry book – and tells of the poet addressing his own soul on finding his way to God. Arranged for choir by Zvi Sherf, the song, based on traditional Yemenite dance rhythms, is an outburst of joy and strength. Soloist Elia Reznik’s personality and reedy voice are well suited tothis music, Pal’s darbuka playing adding fire to the performance.

One of Israel’s foremost composers Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927) “Mizmorei Tehilim” (Psalm Songs) for mixed choir (1967) opens with compelling, forthright textures and parallel, strident octave passages in “Clap your hands, all you nations” (Psalm 47). Psalm 48 “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” begins in a gentler vein but builds up massive crescendos bristling with parallel fourths. Borshevsky’s reading off it is, nevertheless, sensitive. Psalm 150 “Hallelujah” is a celebration of the text and its word rhythms, once again, using octave passages versus large chunks of harmonies and a myriad of daring choral textures. The concert takes its name from this colorful and joyfully spiritual text:
….’Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet,
Praise Him with the harp and lyre,
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing,
Praise Him with the strings and pipe,
Praise him with the clash of cymbals,
Praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.’

Leaving Jewish composers, we heard two settings of “O Vos Omnes” (O all ye that pass by the way) from Lamentations 1:2. Within the Roman Catholic rite, this text is sung during Holy Week (Easter); in this context, the speaker is assumed to be Christ on the cross, asking all who pass on the road to judge whether any sorrow can compare to his. The first version was by the Spanish Jesuit composer Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), its pathos infused with chromaticism, dissonance and the “tear motif” (descending seconds within a tetrachord). The choir’s performance of it was smooth, sensitive and, indeed, spiritual. The second setting was that of the great Spanish Catalan ‘cellist, Pablo Casals (1876-1973). Composed in 1932, this somber motet, rich in harmonic complexity, reflects Casals’ deep sense of the divine in music. Borshevsky’s reading of it emphasizes the startling effect of contrast in pitch in a soundscape tinted with bitter-sweet seventh chords.

The concert ended on a joyous note, with two Afro-American spirituals. In “I Been in de Storm So Long”, arranged by Jewel Thompson for soprano, mixed choir and piano, soloist Naomi Brill Engel engaged her audience in telling the story and contended well with the choir and accompaniment. A fine singer, Brill Engel would do well to enlist more support in her higher register. In Undine S. Moore’s arrangement of “Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord”, soloist Elia Reznik’s use of her sturdy lower register gave the song a folksy, earthy touch.

In response to the audience’s enthusiasm, Borshevsky and his singers had a few encore pieces up their musical sleeve. In Ben Haim’s lovely, soothing “Hitrag’ut” (Tranquility) we heard Rommy Albert in the solo. Michael Sullivan’s solo in “Yesterday” (somewhat unsuited to the mood of the program, but, lovely nevertheless) proved that singing with true simplicity can warm the cockles of sophisticated audience’s heart.

A concert of many styles of music, it was an evening full of interest and variety; the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir’s singing emanates superb musicianship, much fine vocal blending, expressiveness and versatility, all the result of in-depth work..

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