Sunday, December 30, 2012

PHOENIX performs French Christmas music

Ensemble PHOENIX and VOCE PHOENIX (founder and musical director - Myrna Herzog) performed an evening of French Christmas music December 28th 2012 at the Cathedral of St. George the Martyr, Jerusalem. In the thirteen years of its existence, PHOENIX has been performing the gamut of art- and traditional musical repertoire of the years 1200 to 1800 on period instruments as well as new arrangements for early instruments.  The newest addition to Ensemble PHOENIX is VOCE PHOENIX, an ensemble of up to seven singers. As well as directing PHOENIX’s many concerts and her own solo career, Brazilian-born researcher and viol player Dr. Myrna Herzog has established the playing of viols in Israel, teaching and nurturing the first generation of young Israeli viola da gamba players.

 St. George’s Cathedral is the Anglican (Episcopal) centre in Jerusalem and the Middle East and the seat of the Bishop of Jerusalem. Building began in 1891. Dedicated to the early Christian martyr St. George of Lydda, the imposing Cathedral is a whitewashed neo-Gothic edifice resembling Oxford’s New College, with its typical collegiate quadrangle, and is located a few blocks from the Damascus Gate.  It was here, in the Bishop’s residence, that the Turkish governor surrendered to British General Allenby in 1918.

The PHOENIX concert opened with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s (1634-1704) “In Nativitatem Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum” (Song for the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ) H.314, scored for SATB choir, soloists, keyboard, two violins, basso continuo and optional ‘cello.  Among the French Baroque’s hidden masters, Charpentier was one of the composers whose pursuit of personal prestige was hampered by Jean-Baptiste Lully’s royal monopoly on the production of opera in Paris under Louis IV. Indeed, on his return to Paris from studying with Carissimi in Italy, Charpentier found himself in the paradoxical situation of being a Frenchman using Carissimi’s Italian liturgical style in Paris, the largely secular environment of Lully, who was, himself, originally Italian!  Long forgotten and then hailed in the 20th century as a great composer, Charpentier was a master of harmonic- and melodic invention, a Catholic composer skillfully merging the morally problematic combination of beauty and devotion into a seamless whole. He was particularly drawn to writing Christmas music. The earliest of the composer’s Christmas dialogue motets, “In Navitatem” relates the angels’ annunciation to the Judean shepherds of Christ’s birth. Aiming for clarity, Herzog uses the vocal quartet – soprano Hadas Faran-Asia, alto Ella Wilhelm, tenor Eliav Lavi and bass Guy Pelc – as both ensemble- and solo singers. The instrumental ensemble consisted of Jonathan Keren and Katya Polin– Baroque violins, Adi Silberberg– recorders, Shira Ben Yehoshua– Baroque oboe, recorder, Eliav Lavi-lute, Sonia Navot-tenor viol, Myrna Herzog-bass viol, Inbar Navot-Baroque bassoon, Adiel Shmit-Baroque ‘cello and Marina Minkin-harpsichord.  The ensemble displayed fine balance, executing the dance-based pieces with lively elegance, with Herzog abandoning the viol for drum and tambourine in some sections. Coloristic- and scoring effects moved the spotlight around the ensemble as, for example, when instrumental pairs – recorders (Silberberg and Ben Yehoshua) and violins (Keren and Polin) - alternated in the “Marche”. The velvety, buoyant texture of the vocal quartet evoked French timbre and “bon goût” throughout the concert, Faran-Asia paring down her large operatic voice to suit Baroque style. Alto Ella Wilhelm’s sound, richly honeyed and unforced, has much beauty in the lower register, Lavi juggles his double role of player and singer with admirable lightness; Pelc’s fine diction as well as the mix of depth and brightness in his vocal palette are rewarding. The work concluded with some delightful, meaningful violin-playing colored with gently-colored dissonances.

Prolific composer, organist, author of many musical textbooks and publisher Michel Corrette (1707-1795) had the ill-fortune to be writing Baroque music after its time;  he was still using Baroque musical language when it was considered outdated by 1760.  From the sale of his books, he had become relatively wealthy, arousing jealousy from his contemporaries, who sometimes made sure his music received mediocre reviews. Christmas carols – “noëls” in French – were popular in France and mostly played on the organ. Corrette used many in his “Six Symphonies des Noëls”, and, looking further afield, he included noëls from countries such as Poland, Germany and America. He builds the structures from short, binary popular tunes. Colorful and programmatic as they are, it may sometimes be difficult to define why they represent music typical of one country or another, but Corrette’s range of instrumental ideas is pleasing and entertaining. We heard Symphonies nos. 2 and 4; the title of each movement provides information as to its source.  Symphonie no.2 in D major is a short work focusing on the beauty of instrumental timbres, on their contrasts and  ability to please; their unadulterated expression of joy and peace were clear in the artists’ enjoyment – in the exuberance of the first movement, in witty harpsichord (Minkin) comments (this music apparently held an element of humor at the time it was composed), in the gentle second movement and in the fine solo- and duet work in the third (Keren-violin, Polin and Silberberg-recorders).  Symphonie no.4 in d minor also presents contrasts of mood from movement to movement, these peppered with charming solos, foot-tapping dance tunes and with a measure of percussion (Herzog). Cantabile playing on Baroque oboe (Ben Yehoshua) gracing the work, with some attractive ornamenting, was a feature of the performance. Were we listening to light music of the 18th century? Perhaps; but this does not rule out its appeal, beauty and color, its bright timbres and sparkling Christmas joy.

The concert ended with Charpentier’s “Messe de minuit pour la nuit de Noël” (Christmas Midnight Mass) which dates from around 1690 and was probably composed for the great Jesuit Church of St. Louis in Paris, where the composer held the post of maître de musique. Although the use of Christmas folksongs had filtered into French church music, even into some sophisticated instrumental arrangements, Charpentier’s idea of basing a whole Mass on them was, nevertheless, enterprising. The use of music of profane origin, such as Christmas carols, together with sacred texts puts the “Messe de minuit” into the category of the “Parody Mass”. In the work, Charpentier employs eleven noëls, worked in typically Italianate counterpoint, the dancelike character of some another clear reminder of their secular origins, all these skillfully held together by originally composed material. The noëls performed by Minkin on harpsichord between the Kyrie movements would have been performed on the organ. Lilting and joyful, this is no “light” music; rather a volley of inspirational variations on traditional French carols, music that is quintessentially French Baroque in its transparency, dotted rhythms, homophonic textures and crystal clear counterpoint.  Within each movement, sections alternate between solo- and choral forces, with Charpentier’s instrumental setting being of great subtlety, his use of woodwind instruments lending both festivity to the work and preserving the spirit of the folk tunes.  The PHOENIX performance was uncluttered and clean, the instrumental mix rich and variously colored in timbres, the singers – both solo and in ensemble – blending smoothly with the instruments. There was fine teamwork. Herzog’s reading of the work encouraged suave dynamic changes, embellishments, coquettishly swayed rhythms, gentle dissonances and florid endings, offering her singers and players opportunities for personal expression. There is much to be said for one-to-a-part playing and singing: when performed well, no gesture is lost in this ideal, transparent setting. Such was the case in PHOENIX’s delightful concert. In the two vocal works, the artists were performing from hitherto unpublished scholarly editions  – the score of the Midnight Mass was prepared by Prof. David Schildkret of Arizona State University and that of “In Nativitatem” by Dr. John Powell of the University of Tulsa.

A new face on the local Baroque music scene is that of classical ‘cellist Adiel Shmit, here making his debut on the Baroque ‘cello; he carried it out with true excellence, playing with expression, sensitivity and fine intonation.

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