Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choral Singers in "On the Wings of a Dove"

Conductor Naama Nazrati-Gordon

“On the Wings of a Dove” was the title of a concert performed at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church (Jerusalem) June 30th 2012 by the Oratorio Choral Singers, an amateur choir - one of the four ensembles that make up the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. The Oratorio Choral Singers’ concert was directed and conducted by Naama Nazrati-Gordon. Soloists were soprano Carmit Natan and alto Nitzan Yogev. Tania Shchupak played piano- and organ accompaniments.

Naama Nazrati-Gordon has studied conducting, composition and voice at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. She is a member of the Thalamus Quartet, an ensemble specializing in the performing of a cappella works. Ms. Nazrati teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance as well as in the Faculty of Cantorial Studies of Hebrew Union College (Jerusalem).

The evening’s program focused on settings of the “Ave Verum Corpus” text, on the subject of night and on the dove of peace. The program opened with several settings of the “Ave Verum Corpus”, a Eucharist hymn based on a text dating back from the 14th century. The first we heard was Charles Gounod’s (1818-1893) homophonic setting of the text, sung in a well blended and nuanced manner, to be followed by a clean and prayerful reading of William Byrd’s (1543-1623) “Ave Verum Corpus”. A masterpiece of text setting and compositional devices, this Aeolian motet is considered by some scholars to be Byrd’s finest sacred work. We then heard Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) setting of 1894 performed by the two soloists, with Tania Shchupak at the organ, the music evoking the simple and emotional style of Fauré’s Requiem. Carmit Natan’s bright, focused timbre and expressive, unmannered singing make for pleasurable- and communicative performance. Nitzan Yogev possesses an authentic molasses-textured alto voice, compelling presence and musicality. The teamwork and mix of voices of both was, indeed, agreeable.

British composer, pianist and jazz musician Will Todd (b.1970) is best known for his choral works, from small pieces to large-scale works, from opera, to oratorio, from church music to jazz. In his “Ave Verum Corpus” setting (2001), for SATB choir and piano or organ, Todd offers choirs the option of singing the anthem in English or Latin. Nazrati-Gordon competently led the choir through the beautifully crafted off-beat rhythms, jazz-tinted melodic lines and harmonies which float hauntingly above the decidedly independent keyboard role, the latter handled well by Shchupak. The “Ave Verum” section of the concert concluded with W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) much-loved motet in D major K618 (1791), the work encased in just 46 bars (actually incomplete, with the last two verses missing); it was composed during the last months of the composer’s life. Nazrati and her singers created the miniature motet’s otherworldly peacefulness in velvety, floating sounds, clear phrasing, dynamic change and acceptable intonation.

On a very different note, we then heard a number of songs by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) sung in the original German; these were all on the theme of night, nighttime mirroring the composer’s aesthetic- and emotional sensitivity. “In stiller Nacht” (In the Quiet of the Night), one of the composer’s best-known folk song settings from the “Deutsche Volkslieder” collection, was sung with poignancy, with attention to word textures, to the piece's lush, soft Romantic tone-colorings and expressive moments. Nitzan Yogev, accompanied by Tania Shchupak, then performed “Nachtwanderer” (Night Wanderer), its strangely alternating major- and minor chords evoking the trancelike state of the sleepwalker. Highlighted with the honeyed notes of her high register, Yogev’s control and understatement open the way for the painful yearning of the song’s message to emerge.
‘Silently lost in his dream
He traverses deep chasms,
Drunk from the full moon’s light,
Woe to the lips that would call out to him.’
Yogev’s singing of Brahms’ “Lullaby” was mellow, confident and pleasing.

“Nächtens” (Nightly Visions) to F.T.Kugler’s poem of the same name, is one of Brahms’ “Seven Evening Songs”. Although a night piece, this is no serene nocturne. Nazrati and her singers convincingly created the disturbing canvas of a malevolent night of madness and destruction, unease and dread, the sotto voce unison passages making for a suitably ghostly effect. Brahms’ unique seething and restless piano accompaniment is vital to this piece; Shchupak managed it admirably on electronic piano. With “O schöne Nacht” (O Lovely Night) composed in 1877, using a German translation of a poem from Georg Daumer’s collection of Hungarian folk poetry, the section of Brahms songs concluded with the glowing splendor and wonderment of night, the poem describing how nightingale harmonies accompany the moonstruck youth to his beloved. Filled with lyrical contrapuntal lines of great beauty, the piece's text painting is masterful in all voice parts; the piano part, filled with florid shapes, seems to evoke the shimmering of stars.

The concert ended with Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) “Hear my Prayer/ O for the Wings of a Dove” for solo soprano, choir and organ (1845), the composer’s best-known sacred piece. Originally written to the German text of Psalm 55, we heard it sung to William Bartholomew’s English paraphrase of the German. The composer wrote it for the English audience, modeling its form on the English 17th and 18th century verse anthem, with alternating solo- and choral writing. A challenging piece for all concerned, it is beautifully crafted, with interplay between accompaniment, choir and soprano soloist. Carmit Natan’s energy was instrumental in moving the text forward; singing into the heart of the phrase, she brought out the piece’s contrasting moods, always well synchronized with the choir. Some of her longer notes tend to fatigue and would benefit from more inner spiraling power. The choral singers were articulate in their building of the tensions of the work’s dramatic course, and the intertwining of forces made for interesting listening.

The concert was one of careful- and balanced programming. The Oratorio Choral Singers’ sound is both blended and coordinated. Naama Nazrati-Gordon’s tireless work on expression, understanding, diction and musicality has produced fine results. Tania Shchupak, Carmit Natan and Nitzan Yogev’s participation added to the evening’s quality and enjoyment.

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