Friday, May 6, 2011

Inaugural concert of the new St. George organ at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center

The inaugural concert of the new St. George pipe organ at the Our Lady of Peace Chapel of the Pontifical Institute, Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, took place on Easter Friday, April 29th 2011. The organ had been built in 1905 by the Nelson Organ Company for the St. George Methodist Chapel of Wearhed, County Durham (UK). The instrument has 650 pipes, several having being produced before 1905. The Orgelbauwerkstetten Willi Peter GmbH & Co.KG (organ builders) suggested installing this organ in the Notre Dame Chapel, there having previously been no organ there, and the company invested at least 2000 hours of work in restoring it. This was made possible by the generosity of Georg and Barbara Balkhausen (Germany). The Easter concert at Notre Dame was also one of the official events of a program organized by the Bishop’s Conference to celebrate the beatification of Pope John Paul. Pope John Paul had played a significant part in Notre Dame’s recent history.

Following words of welcome and thanks from church officials, including from Archbishop Antonio Franco, Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, Georg Balkhausen, attending the event with his wife, addressed a few words to the audience and, being an amateur organist himself, played a piece on the organ. The St. George organ is primarily used for worship; there are a few volunteer organists who play it and a chapel choir is in the process of forming.

The concert began with a number of solos played by German organist Thiemo Dahmen, the organist of St. Peter’s Catholic Church in Cologne. Dahmen also directs organ tours, performing on historical organs in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. The first piece he performed was a reworking by J.S.Bach of the Violin Concerto in G major by Johann Ernst, Prince of Sachsen-Weimar. Bach worked in Weimar between 1708 and 1717, during which time he wrote profusely for organ, also writing organ and harpsichord transcriptions of works by contemporaries, notably Vivaldi, Telemann, Marcello and Johann Ernst. It seems Bach was challenged to achieve the concerto effect on a two-manual organ; or, perhaps he and his colleagues wished to familiarize themselves with contemporary works without needing to employ an orchestra. (Bach has also created a harpsichord arrangement of Ernst’s G major Concerto.) Prince Johann Ernst, a nephew of Bach’s employer in Weimar, was a talented young composer; he died at age 18. Bach, in his arrangement of this Violin Concerto, elaborates on the harmonic and contrapuntal layers of the original, preserving the solo and tutti dimensions. The middle Grave movement begins as two single voices before developing into a thicker texture. Dahmen chose bright registers for the young Bach’s setting.

The Liechtenstein organist, composer and teacher Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901) wrote instrumental, vocal and choral music (his Catholic liturgical music is still much in use today) but he is principally remembered for his organ music, namely the 20 Organ Sonatas composed throughout his career. Organ Sonata no.8, opus132, is possibly the most popular of them. Dahmen performed the Intermezzo from it, presenting its tranquil, autumnal toning and varied sections poignantly.

Pietro Alessandro Yon (1886-1943) was an Italian-born organist. For a time, he served as an organist in the Vatican and at the Royal Church in Rome before moving to the USA in 1907, where he remained, working as church organist, recitalist and composer. His oeuvre includes instrumental music and songs; he is, however, considered one of the most important American composers of sacred choral- and organ music for the Roman Catholic Church. Yon’s Humoresque “L’organo primitivo” (Toccatina for Flute), inspired by a primitive portative organ he had seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), is written for the most basic of organ resources, but is, nevertheless, technically demanding, more so for both hands than for the feet. The work’s gentle yet bright timbres partner its effervescent, perpetual movement, optimistic and personal and colored with a gentle sprinkling of humor.

The solo organ recital ended with two works by French composers. Jean Langlais (1907-1991), blind from the age of two, became a reputed teacher, improviser, organist, string-player and composer. He held the prestigious position of organist at Sainte-Clotilde (Paris) for 42 years. He composed vocal, instrumental and organ music, the latter being second in extent only to that of Bach! We heard Langlais’ “Chant de paix” (Song of Peace) from his “Nine Pieces for Organ”. The pensive, meditational fabric of the piece is woven in clusters, creating a mood piece of delicate beauty.

One of the more conservative French composers, organist and teacher Francois-Clement Theodore Dubois (1837-1924), wrote important books on counterpoint and theoretical and practical harmony. Most of his compositions have been forgotten. He composed oratorios, ballets and symphonies, his best-known work being the oratorio “The Seven Last Words of Christ” (1867). Dubois’ Toccata in G for organ (1889), from the “Twelve New Pieces for Organ”, is the composer’s most familiar organ piece. A cheerful, tonal piece, Thiemo Dahmen’s playing of it demonstrated dexterity and fine the use of registration. The artist’s choice of works was well suited to the venue, the characteristic bright, clean timbre of the Saint George organ and to the audience.

We then heard the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir in a performance of Gabriel Faure’s (1845-1924) “Requiem in D minor” opus 48 (published 1900) conducted by its musical director Maestro Ronen Borshevsky, with choral conductor and musical director of St. Engelbert Catholic Church (Cologne) Wolfgang Siegenbrink at the organ. Despite the lack of orchestral instruments, or, should I say, as a result of the latter, the audience was able to focus on the choir’s sumptuously colored and finely shaped performance, the organ (Siegenbrink, disadvantaged in being placed behind Borshevsky) providing the mesmerizing, mystical and spiritual musical basis of the work. The choir’s finely blended sound embraced the chapel, the singers’ diction crystal clear, creating a sense of floating timelessness, the “Libera me” bringing the work to a dramatic peak:
‘On that day of dread,
When the heavens and earth shall move,
When You shall come to judge the world by fire.
I am made to tremble, and to fear,
When destruction shall come,
And also your coming wrath….’
Peace is restored with the radiant “In Paradisum”, its intertwining of texts effective and delicate. Young soprano Stav Tsubery sang the “Pie Jesu” expressively (often sung by a boy soprano), her voice pure but not “covered”. Bass-baritone Oded Reich’s performance was outstanding in every way, his singing evocative of the work’s message and spirituality, his mellifluous voice reaching out to move the listener. This was, altogether, a very satisfying performance of Faure’s Requiem, a work that has been referred to as a “lullaby of death”.

Bringing the festive evening to a close, the “Laudamus Te” Choir and Orchestra (Stuttgart), joined by a few members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, performed Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) “Gloria” in D major, RV 589. The choir was founded in 2007 by its conductor, Brazilian-born Monica Meira Vasques, who is no newcomer to the Israeli concert scene. Motivated to bring people of different cultural origins and nationalities together through musical projects in Germany and abroad, the “Laudamus Te” Choir and its members have developed a close relationship with Israel and the Jewish people. Soloists in the evening’s performance were soprano Carin Rommel and alto Sonia Maria Hoefler.

Vivaldi’s “Gloria” was composed in Venice, probably in 1715. In this traditional Gloria from the Latin Mass, the composer’s palette offers daring leaps, imitative and antiphonal styles, chromaticism and bracing harmonies. His most famous choral piece, it is thought to have been performed by the choir of the Ospedale della Pieta, a school for orphan girls where Vivaldi was employed. The “Laudamus te” movement, a duet for soprano and mezzo-soprano (performed here by Rommel and Hoefler) is indicative of the high standard of music at the Ospedale. Vasques’ reading of the “Gloria” was fervent, the choir’s signature sound large, highly colored and joyful, a trifle ragged at times and lacking in moments of subtlety, Vasques’ soloists also having expansive voices; the soloists indulge in more vibrato than might sit well with Baroque music. Hoefler’s solo in the “Domine Deus Agnus Dei” was poignant and meaningful. The orchestra’s trumpeter and oboist added sparkle and verve to the work’s positive atmosphere with their fine performance.

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