Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presents four of J.S.Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at the St. Vincent de Paul Church in Jerusalem

I am a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.On Friday June 3rd 2011, people flocked to Jerusalem to enjoy a variety of short concerts in many of the churches, the Tower of David Museum and the Jerusalem Theatre…you might call it a one-day “fringe festival”, the result of collaboration between the Israel Festival and the Israeli Opera Festival.

Leaving the noise of the bustling shops, cafes and street musicians of the Mamilla Mall behind us, we opened a door to enter the tranquility of the Monastery of St. Vincent de Paul, an impressive ecclesiastical structure built in the 19th century. This was the venue for a concert of four of J.S. Bach’s (1685-1750) Brandenburg Concertos, to be performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

In his program notes, Dr. David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and musical director, begins the story of the six unique concerti grossi which make up the set of the Brandenburg Concertos: “In 1721, Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, received a present – a score carefully handwritten by Johann Sebastian Bach.” (Scholars speculate that the Margrave of Brandenburg did not even peruse the works, as the original manuscript has have been found to be unopened.) Shemer mentions the concerto grosso form, a genre consisting of one small group of solo instruments set against a larger group, the rest of the orchestra, concluding that “each of the six Brandenburg Concertos is characterized by a different and most unusual orchestration”.

The program opened with Concerto no.4 in G major, BWV 1049, the concertino consisting of two recorders (Drora Bruck, Katharine Abrahams) and violin (Noam Schuss). An inspired, exuberant reading of the ever-charming opening movement was followed by the touching Andante movement, Bruck’s small solo phrases played sensitively. Moving straight into the Presto, Schuss handled the virtuosic violin solo with energy and verve. Bruck and Abrahams partnered, blended and communicated.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048, scored for only stringed instruments, deviates from the usual concerto grosso mould, with the nine instruments playing individually or in combinations that constantly regroup. With violinist Dafna Ravid leading (and Katharine Abrahams now playing ‘cello) the effect created by the JBO was mellow, well profiled, bristling with exciting dynamic changes and individual expression, at the same time, addressing key notes and phrases. Moving from first to third movement via two linking chords, one’s attention was drawn to the technical bravura of the lower strings.

Concerto no.6 in B flat major, BWV 1051, composed in 1718, invites two violas (Amos Boazson, Daniel Tanchelson) and ‘cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) to form the concertino section. Bach, himself, probably played one of the viola parts, the question remaining being who played the second viola part, which is every bit as challenging as the first. It is likely that Prince Leopold played one of the viola da gamba parts, at this performance played by Myrna Herzog and Amit Tiefenbrunn. The firm basso continuo (Dara Bloom played the double bass) gave the texture a well grounded sound, the violas in constant dialogue, Messer-Jacobi’s presence majestic. The JBO’s playing of this concerto brings to mind Bach’s instructions to his pupils to write instrumental parts “like persons who conversed together as if in a select company”.

Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 in D major, BWV 1050 features flute (Genevieve Blanchard), violin (Dafna Ravid) and harpsichord (Davis Shemer) in the solo section. Bach was interested to show the merits of the new harpsichord he had brought to Cothen from Berlin in 1719, playing the harpsichord role of the concerto himself. It was the first time the harpsichord had appeared as a solo concerto instrument. How magical the instrumentation of this work is! After Ravid and Blanchard elegantly show the listener through the play of tonality shifts of the opening Allegro, supported by harpsichord and ripieno, the harpsichord part builds up to break into one of Bach’s most daring and brilliant moments – the lengthy, sparkling cadenza that grows more dazzling as it ends up showering down cascades of golden notes. Shemer pulls out all the plugs, juxtaposing and juggling the various sections with fine articulacy, his audience having a hard time containing its applause to the end of the concerto! Ravid, Blanchard and Shemer then presented the tranquil, intimate Affetuoso in a series of singing gestures, leaning into its dissonances, then floating the final movement of intricate passagework and light textures with joy and ease. Blanchard’s playing of the Baroque flute was outstanding in its eloquence.

The Brandenburg Concertos did not achieve their original purpose – to secure Bach a job in Brandenburg – but they never cease to thrill and surprise audiences and, I dare say, the players. The JBO’s performance did just that, players and audience joining in the elevating experience of this music. There were people in the audience who had come from out of Jerusalem to be part of the experience and there were people there, curious and excited, attending their first concert of that kind. The concert was no less inspiring for seasoned concert-goers.

Leaving the church, we walked out into Jerusalem’s blinding midday sun, still steeped in the sounds of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, not yet ready to be a part of the life outside.

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