Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir in "Wake Up Sleeping Hearts"

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, conducted by Ronen Borshevsky (deputy conductor Ofer Dalal), performed “Wake Up, Sleeping Hearts” a concert of music from the 16th- to the 21st century, most of it sacred music, most of it a cappella. This writer attended a concert on January 14th 2012, at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem.

Several of the works sung were to texts from Psalms, the earliest being motet settings of Psalms 96 “Cantate Dominum” (Sing to the Lord a New Song) and 81 “Exultate Deo” (Sing Aloud to God Our Strength) of Hans Leo Hassler (c.1564-1612). The singers gave the highly polyphonic style an articulate, joyful and dynamic reading. Characteristic of Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni’s (1657-1743) later style, his “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord) Psalm 150 was largely homophonic, its simpler harmonies and clear word rhythms dictating a well-orchestrated sound.

Danish composer Niels La Cour’s (b.1944) oeuvre includes much instrumental music, but he is best known for his choral music. The choir performed two of the three noteworthy Mottetti Latini (1982) based on Gregorian themes. In his arrangement of the 13th century monophonic chant “Hodie Christus Natus Est” (Today Christ is Born), the composer adds meter and harmony to the chant, the changing metrical structure preserving the early character of the melody. La Cour’s music is neo-Classical in approach, with harmonies evocative of those of Maurice Duruflé, evident in his setting of Psalm 117 “Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes” (Praise the Lord, all ye Nations). György Orbán’s (b. 1947 Rumania) tranquil “Ave Maria”, using a lush, sophisticated and basically tonal harmonic and melodic musical language, was introspective. And back to Psalm texts - we heard the “Hallelujah” (Psalm 150) from Israeli composer Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927, Germany) “Mizmorei T’hilim” (Psalm Songs), a work commissioned for the 1967 Zimriyah International Choral Festival in Israel. The Oratorio Chamber Choir’s performance, bristling with energy, joy, dance-type rhythms and Avni’s uncompromising use of strongly-profiled Mediterranean modes, was carefully shaped and nuanced, the singers’ full sound never falling into the pitfall of roughness.

Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) “Cantique de Jean Racine”, composed at age 19 in his final year at the École Niedermeyer, was the composer’s first significant work. Typical of the small-scale works the composer chose for personal and intimate expression, it was originally scored for 4-voiced choir and piano or organ, its text a devout expression of a large body of Jean Racine’s poetry:
‘Word equal to the most high, our only hope, eternal day of the earth and of the heavens,
We break the silence of the quiet night.
Divine Saviour, cast your glance upon us…’
The Oratorio singers managed well with the French text (often a problem in Israeli choirs); however, the work suffered from the inadequate, somewhat lifeless timbre of the electric piano (pianist: Tania Schupak).

American composer Morten Lauridsen’s (b.1943) “Sure on this Shining Night”, one of three songs making up “Nocturnes” (2005) is slow-moving, contemplative, declamatory, mannered and basic in harmonies, the latter colored with seconds and ninths. The many exposed single melodic lines challenge each voice to give meaning and interest to what may not innately have those qualities, save the fervent treatment of specific words, such as “shining”. Lauridsen’s choice of American author and poet James Agee’s (1909-1955) mystic poem has not produced a piece that is convincing, despite the Oratorio Ensemble’s sincere approach.
‘Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.’

The opening text of Clément Janequin’s (1485-1558) “Le Chant des Oyseaux” (Song of the Birds) – “Reveillez vous, cueurs endormis” provided the title for this concert. Composed around 1520, this chanson remains one of Janequin’s most popular (also with instrumentalists). This complex 4-voiced piece, in five clear sections, its onomatopoeic bird call effects taking sound-sense correspondence to a programmatic extreme, makes great demands on singers. In the text, the god of love awakens dormant, wintry hearts by using birds as his messengers - the thrush, the robin, the starling, the cuckoo and the nightingale. The JOCC did not disappoint in conveying this, its polished performance entertaining the audience with light textures, well-articulated phrasing, humor and well-tuned twitterings of nature’s menagerie. I was not quite sure why this piece had found its way into a program of sacred- and mystical music, apart from the fact that Janequin himself held several church positions, composing much sacred music.

Of special interest were two works of American composer and conductor Eric Whitacre (b.1970). “Lux Aurumque” (2000) is a setting of a poem by (the enigmatic poet) Edward Esch, translated into Latin by Anthony Silvestri. The work was originally performed by a “virtual choir” – 185 (previously auditioned) singers from 12 different countries videoed themselves singing parts; Whitacre synchronized them all, producing a video film of the “choir”. The work itself is spiritual and introspective, steeped in tranquil, silken loaded chords and clusters to describe the stillness and wonder of the nativity; these are the hues of Whitacre’s palette. The Oratorio Chamber members’ performance of the piece was true to the work’s sense of wonder and humility, their choral timbre clean, silvery and well blended.
Warm and heavy as pure gold,
And the angels softly
To the newborn babe.’

Whitacre joins Weelkes, Tomkins, Robert Ramsey, Gombert and other composers in his choice of the text of David reacting to Absalom’s death – Samuel II, Chapter 18:33.
‘When David heard that Absalom was slain
He went up to his chamber above the gate and wept
My son, my son, O Absalom my son,
Would God I had died for thee.’
Whitacre sets the scene with the dark colors of the opening chords. He then takes his listeners ever deeper into the tragedy of a father’s loss, using sectional utterances, small solos, smooth segments, silences, devastating climaxes and much use of fragments, the latter mostly settings of “my son”. At times, the score calls on the singers to color the canvas with chords of 14-or-so notes. The general effect is that of time standing still, of incomparable tragedy and utter loneliness. The Oratorio members handled the work splendidly: its pitches, texture and togetherness are, indeed, a challenge to every singer. The audience was moved. A fine work with a powerful message, but perhaps overly extended – 15 minutes.

The concert ended with two energetic arrangements of Afro-American spirituals. In “I Been in De Storm” (Jewel Thompson) we heard Naomi Brill Engel singing the solo; she has a pleasant mix of vocal color, the piece, however, sitting a little too high for her natural range. We then heard Undine Smith Moore’s arrangement of “Daniel” (1952) with alto Ella Talbar Reznik as soloist. Moore (1904-1989), referred to as the “dean of black women composers” made transcriptions of songs her mother had sang, this being one of them.

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir’s work is detailed and profound, addressing musical form and style. The dedication of its conductors and members is matched with musicality and good taste.

No comments: