Friday, October 26, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra - "Dixit Dominus"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the opening program of the 2012-2013 concert season was of special interest to me. Titled “Dixit Dominus”, this first concert was performed in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre October 23rd 2012 and in the newly refurbished hall of the Israel Conservatory of Music Tel Aviv October 24th. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the JBO, conducted the concerts. A choir was made up of members of Barrocade Vocale – Ye’ela Avital, Ella Wilhelm, Doron Florentin, Eliav Lavi and Yoav Wiess – joined by Hadas Faran-Asia, Avital Dery, Yair Polishook, Shmrit Tziporen and Shaked Bar.
To whet one’s appetite for a season of interesting and varied works on the JBO’s agenda, the concert began with the Sinfonia to Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Cantata 49, “Ich geh’ und such mit Verlangen” (I Go and Seek with Longing). Composed in 1726 for solo voices and instrumental ensemble, the text the anonymous librettist based on Matthew 22:1-14 creates a mystical marriage between Christ and the Soul. With strong associations with the Song of Solomon, one could say that this cantata is as close as the fervently religious Bach would get to using a sensuous text for a work. The Sinfonia begins with an outburst of joy - perhaps the idea of a wedding celebration. The rising chromatic scales in the middle section could well denote the striving towards union between Jesus and the Soul. In the Sinfonia (overture), a substantial concerto movement, the solo instrument is the organ. Maestro Shemer played the role on a positif organ, its action somewhat more limiting, in light of the intricacies and virtuosic demands of the piece, than that of the pipe organ. The intensity and drive of the piece made for exciting listening; Shemer’s handling of the flow of runs and detail was heartily supported by bass members of the string ensemble.

This was followed by J.S.Bach’s Lutheran Mass in A major BWV 234. Bach’s four Lutheran Masses, settings of only the Kyrie and Gloria, appear to have been composed and performed from 1736 onwards. The Mass in A, possibly designed for Christmas, was written around 1738. From the very outset of the performance, Shemer went for a sumptuous orchestral- and vocal sound. In the Kyrie, the flute lines (Idit Shemer, Avner Geiger) threaded themselves elegantly throughout the textures, there playing, in fact, as cantabile  as the singers’ voices. The vocal ensemble bristled with vibrancy, shape and fine intonation; the small vocal solos delighted with the strong, warm lustre and competence of some of Israel’s finest young singers.  Via the fine interaction and balance between string orchestra and singers the audience was exposed to the work’s moods, imitations, melismas and rich voice-play. At no time was the choir drowned out by the ensemble. In the “Domine Deus” (Lord God) sung by bass Yair Polishook, Dafna Ravid’s playing of the violin obbligato was intelligent, well-fashioned and personal, with Polishook’s singing highly expressive and devotional as he used different vowels to vary tone color. The flute obbligato duo, outstanding throughout, added poetry and intimacy to “Qui tollis peccata mundi” (Who takes away the sins of the world) sung by Ye’ela Avital, soprano, as did Maestro Shemer’s careful pacing. Avital’s singing was bright and easeful, each sound and phrase woven into the delicate, meditative plan of the movement. Creating a strong contrast in mood, the dancelike “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” (For Thou alone art Holy) was sung by alto Avital Dery. Her quiet confidence, intelligent reading of the text and directness of sound made for articulate expression. Tenor Doron Florentin’s singing delighted throughout the concert. David Shemer’s attention to detail was matched by his stirring reading of the work.

G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) “Dixit Dominus” (The Lord Said), composed in 1707 (Händel was only 22 years of age) at a time the composer was in Rome to further his career as an opera composer, is a setting of Psalm 109. With the display of brilliance in instrumental works of such composers as Vivaldi and Corelli and exciting musical theatre springing from the pens of the likes of A.Scarlatti and Caldara, Italy was the place to indulge in virtuosity; in command of the Italian style, the young Händel proved he was right up there with the finest of the Italian composers of the time. “Dixit Dominus”, one of the composer’s finest works, is, indeed, a showcase for players and singers, its energy and dramatic intensity posing challenges to all performers and attesting to the composer’s melodic-, harmonic- and contrapuntal invention. Händel takes on board a text that is indeed spiritual but, no less, vengeful and furious, creating a curious paradox in vivid colors. Scored for five-part choir, strings and continuo, the “Dixit Dominus” uses a cantus firmus as the work’s unifying element. From the first notes of the work, the JBO and singers had the audience following and involved in a performance bursting with energy and emotion. Following the exuberant opening chorus, Zohar Shefi (organ), ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi and alto Avital Dery performed the “Virgam virtutis” (Rod of power); Messer-Jacobi gave much meaning to the ‘cello obbligato part, with Dery’s play of textures chiseling shapes into the vocal line. Soprano Hadas Faran-Asia’s performance of the “Tecum principatus” (With your power)was richly colored and musically strategic, her reedy voice (much vibrato) exercising control, her palette of timbres varying with the text. Shemer kept the tension high, with dynamic contrasts, daring harmonies and venturous dissonances floated by suspensions coming to the fore in crisp rendition.  One of the most surprising moments was the effect of sudden, jaggedly detached chords outlining the word “Conquassabit” (He will smash), the fiery drama of that section followed by an introverted, moving movement with Avital and Faran-Asia’s voices forming a pleasant blend. An extended fugue concluded the work.

The JBO opened its season on a high note. The interest, sparkle and excitement communicated by Maestro Shemer, his perception of the works, his players and singers well appreciated by the audience. What worked amazingly well was the somewhat ad hoc choral ensemble; the singers produced a resonant, coordinated, warm sound, their many small solos offering listeners the opportunity to hear some wonderful individual voices.

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