Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra presents a concert of Magnificats

Conductor Daniel Cohen

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA, in cooperation with The Israeli Opera, came up with an interesting program concept for concert no.3 of its 2011-2012 Vocal Series: a program of Magnificats. The Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre was filled to capacity February 23rd 2012 to hear the JSO, The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (conductor and musical director Yuval Ben-Ozer), The Adi Choir of The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (conductor Oded Shomrony) and soloists sopranos Claire Megnaghi and Alla Vasilevitsky, mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman, countertenor Yaniv D’Or, tenor Nimrod Grinboim and baritone Noah Brieger. Conducting the concert was Maestro Daniel Cohen.

The Magnificat – the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-55) - traditionally formed part of the Roman Catholic service of Vespers. After the Reformation, it was incorporated into evening services of the Lutheran- and Anglican churches. The Magnificat has been set to music more than any other liturgical text (other than the Mass) from 5th century plainsong settings to the 2002 Magnificat by Canadian composer Ruth Watson Henderson.

The concert began with Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Magnificat D.486. It was composed by the 18-year-old composer in 1815 – a productive year, in which Schubert had also composed some 150 songs. Not frequently performed, this Magnificat made for a good concert piece, with its opening flourish of trumpets (and fine trumpet-playing it was) and drums, the somewhat Haydnesque work expressed with a large, scintillating choral- and orchestral sound. The more subdued middle section, sung by four soloists, provided a thoughtful and expressive interlude. Young Russian-born Alla Vasilevitsky’s reedy voice and musicality shone throughout the evening.

W.A.Mozart’s (1759-1791) years in Salzburg (1771-1779) saw much emphasis on church music. The “Dixit and Magnificat” K.193 (1774), written for performance in the Salzburg Cathedral, is indicative of the ingenuity and energy (indeed, manic intensity) of the 17-year-old composer. Abounding in fine counterpoint, (Alfred Einstein found it “somewhat too showy”), we heard the Magnificat, its streamlined text making “heroic” demands on orchestra and singers.
The Magnificat in C major from the “Vesperae solennes de Dominica” K.321 is charged with temperament (and, indeed, a touch of opera buffa), with sudden pianissimi punctuated by vigorous trumpet interjections, powerful unisons and playful violin arpeggios setting off heightened dramatic writing for chorus and solo voices, all culminating in the emphatic and positive “Amen”. Nimrod Grinboim’s zesty, flexible singing provided enjoyment. The K.321 Magnificat was composed for ordinary Sunday use, whereas the “Vesperae solennes de Confessore K.339 (1779), also in C major, the last work Mozart wrote for his employer Archbishop Colloredo, was composed for a feast day. The Magnificat concluding the K.339 Vespers, expressing joy and thanksgiving, opens with emphatic triplets in a sweep of stormy orchestration, with staggered entries of the choir. Commentary from the choir is interspersed with solo passages. The three Mozart Magnificats we heard constitute joyful, excellent concert hall music. One wonders, however, if they did not raise a few eyebrows among more conservative Salzburg church-goers. The audience in the Henry Crown Auditorium enjoyed the vibrant, colorful and articulate performance of the three Mozart Magnificats.

Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Magnificat (originally composed for women’s choir in 1715) exists in four distinct versions and its wide circulation in Europe suggests it was the composer’s best-known composition. The version we heard at the JSO concert was a combination of the RV 610a and RV 611 versions. Here, from the outset, we are acutely more aware of the text’s religious nature than in the Mozart settings(Vivaldi was an ordained priest), the NIVE and the Adi Choir performing the first, homophonic movement (Magnificat) ceremoniously and with grandeur, presenting its chromatic content and placing its weighty, religious message in the foreground. Soprano Claire Megnaghi handled the “Et exultavit” and “Quia respexit” with easeful flexibility, florid ornamentation and competence. Megnaghi and Vasilevitsky showed fine teamwork in the “Esurientes”. Yaniv D’Or, wielded the melismatic passages of the “Esurientes” in a well-defined manner, but his voice was not heard well enough due to the acoustic limitations of the Henry Crown Auditorium. His voice would be enjoyed and appreciated better in a smaller venue and with Baroque period instruments. The choirs took on board the tension, drama and unique text-painting of the work, infusing the “Fecit Potentiam” with biting energy, expressing the rich textures, chromaticism and majesty in choruses. Daniel Cohen, going for clarity, avoided daredevil tempi, thus giving articulacy and depth to his reading of this celebratory work.

The concert ended with J.S.Bach’s Magnificat BWV 243, composed in Leipzig for the 1723 Christmas Vespers. Bach later revised it, removing the Christmas content to make the piece more flexible for use at Easter and throughout the year. He also transposed it from E-flat major to the brighter key of D major, for the convenience of trumpets. A work on a grand scale, it calls for five soloists, a five-part choir and a large orchestra (for the time) including two flutes, two oboes, three trumpets, strings and continuo. Following the radiant instrumental opening, we heard the choirs in inspired, buoyant singing, the excitement of the “Omnes generations” and the carefully woven intricacy of lines and vehemence of the “Fecit potentiam” providing high points, the fugal texture of the “Sicut locutus” cleanly delineated. Solo sections and duets provided much delight: Vasilevitsky’s use of vibrato-ornamentation in the “Et exultavit”, the gently flexed, discretely melancholic interweaving of oboe, bassoon and voice (Megnaghi) in the “Quia respexit”, the teamwork of organ, bassoon and compelling singing (Noah Brieger) in the somber “Quia fecit” and D’Or and Grinboim’s attention and blending in the gently lilting “Et misericordia”. Grinboim’s handling of the tortuous, instrumental-type melodic line of the “Deposuit potentes” was expressive. The “Suscepit Israel” (Vasilevitsky, Megnaghi, D’Or), with its touching oboe obbligato, preceded the final choral sections.

Young Israeli-born Daniel Cohen, chief conductor of the Jersey Chamber Orchestra, musical director of the Eden Sinfonia (London) and artistic director of the Gropius Ensemble, has been permanent guest conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra since 2010. His conducting is dynamic, detailed and communicative. His vitality and enthusiasm made for a high level of interest and energy in this uplifting concert.

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