Friday, December 2, 2011

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, soloists and The Collegium Singers celebrate St. Cecilia's Day

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and a Baroque music buff, I was drawn to hearing the JBO’s second concert of the current season - “Hallelujah, Santa Cecilia” – on November 27th 2011 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert was conducted by Dr. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the JBO; his program notes provided plenty of interesting information as to Saint Cecilia – the acclaimed patron saint of music and church music, of musicians, composers, instrument-makers and poets - and about the works performed annually on St. Cecilia’s Day. A thousand years after she was condemned to death (she survived suffocation and beheading before dying of loss of blood) her following flourished; songs and poetry were written in her name, she was painted by Raphael and Rubens and commemorated by Chaucer. The JBO’s Santa Cecilia concert did, in fact, take place close to her traditional feast day, celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches on November 22nd.

George Frideric Händel (1685-1759) composed his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day HWV 76 in 1739 to a poem by John Dryden of 1697. It is a true ode, having no plot, and, although often overshadowed by “Alexander’s Feast” (also celebrating St. Cecilia), it is Händel’s writing at its best. We heard the Overture to the Ode, paradoxically, not in the least evocative of purity, martyrdom or Cecilia’s grisly end, but rather, a text of lively, splendidly scored and effusive music to flatter Händel’s patrons and entertain his London audiences. Opening with a dotted French overture, leading to a fugal section and a Minuet, the work draws, to some extent, on Gottlieb Muffat’s “Componimenti Musicali per il Cembalo” (Händel was an inveterate recycler) but reworked and transformed by Händel. Shemer’s reading of the overture was crisp and bristling with vitality, its pacing, overall shape and radiant timbres whetting the audience’s appetite to hear the complete Ode.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) composed “Hail! Bright Cecilia”, also known as the “Ode to St. Cecilia”, the last and greatest of the composer’s four Odes to St. Cecilia, to a text based on Dryden’s poem by Anglo-Irish poet and clergyman Nicholas Brady in 1692. “Hail, Bright Cecilia” is the largest of the four Odes, with orchestra, six-part choir and six vocal soloists; it depicts a competition between various musical instruments, with the organ winning. The first performance took place at the Stationers’ Hall (which still exists) in November 22nd. According to P.A.Motteux, who attended the premiere, it met with “universal applause” and had to be repeated!

Shemer and his musicians presented the rich, many-faceted scope of Purcell’s writing in a performance of constant interest and aesthetic pleasure. Oded Reich’s performance in solo, duet and trio was exemplary in depth, musicality and richness of vocal color. Mezzo-soprano Avital Dery (singing the role frequently performed by a counter tenor) was attentive to detail, her vocal ease, timbre and range impressive, her awareness of the text colored by its emotions. (Unfortunately, the muffled acoustic of the Henry Crown Hall is not conducive to projecting the darker voice!) Her handling of the melismatic, heavily ornamented aria “’Tis Nature’s Voice” was, indeed, competent. Tenor David Nortman’s voice and musicality are well suited to this style: he excels in the delicate shaping of phrases, his uncluttered singing and his sensitive approach and fine British diction.

The bright, articulate and silvery signature sound of the Collegium Singers (musical director Avner Itai, prepared for this concert by Eduardo Abramson) was especially well suited to the work and Purcell’s contrapuntal choruses. We heard two sopranos from the choir in solo- and ensemble roles.

With the text of the work rife with references to musical instruments (Dryden was the first to suggest that Cecilia invented, rather than just played, the organ) the score calls for much obbligato playing and the JBO players did not disappoint. We heard delightful recorder-playing (Drora Bruck, Katharine Abrahams) in the sarabande “Hark, each tree” and in the expressive alto and tenor duet set to a passacaglia bass “In vain the Am’rous Flute”; oboes (AmirBakman, Shira Ben Yehoshua) and bassoon (Alexander Fine) in “Thou tun’st the world” and joining Oded Reich in the compelling “Wondrous machine”. Playing on natural trumpets, Yuval Shapira and Richard Berlin added sparkle and pizzazz to the energy and overall timbre of the ensemble.

A celebratory work, comprising of masterful instrumental sections, majestic choruses and various solos, duets and trios, the work’s unparalleled invention and richness is as fresh and inspiring today to performers and audiences alike as it was when composed. Seventeenth century audiences appear to have been less taken up with verbal texts than today’s concert-goers, with Purcell’s captivating music making up for some of the lesser quality texts he chose; his word- and text painting is a brilliant feature of his writing and not to be ignored.

As fate would have it, Purcell died on the eve of St. Cecilia’s Day of 1695, probably of pneumonia. He was only 36 years old.

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