Sunday, January 27, 2013

Opening of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's 2012-2013 lecture-concert series

With “The Christian Split – Catholicism vs. Luther; Reformation vs. Catholicism”, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA opened its new Shohat-Nahari Concert-Lecture Series on January 23rd 2013 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. This series will focus on history, politics and ideology of different times and the music that arose from them. Presenting it are composer, conductor and pianist Gil Shohat, also known for his guided listening courses, joined here by Oren Nahari - world news editor and presenter on Israeli radio and television – whose broad knowledge and insight also take him into the field of music. Shohat and Nahari will present five lecture-concerts on five thematic events, discussing music in the relation to history, politics and ideology. The JSO was conducted by Shohat, with soprano Sivan Goldman as soloist. Shohat also soloed at the piano.

Israeli-born opera singer Sivan Goldman performs in opera houses in Israel and Europe. She has also given solo recitals in Hungary and Slovenia. The evening’s program opened with her performance of “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” (Zechariah 9:9-10) from Georg Frideric Händel’s “Messiah”. Goldman’s flexibility and energy took the listener straight into the joy of this coloratura aria as she navigated its effervescent melismatic passages with ease, her singing characterized by much vibrato (perhaps too much for some Baroque tastes). The middle section, emphasizing the word “peace” might have been pared down by Shohat to contrast the first with more of a sense of “time standing still”. No less exuberant or virtuosic is “Exultate, Jubilate”, composed by the 16-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for soprano and orchestra. A Latin motet in operatic style, it was inspired by- and written for the brilliant opera singer Venanzio Rauzzini, one of the most famous castrati of Mozart’s day. Goldman presented the motet’s lyrical melodic course with fluid elegance and glitter as she flitted confidently through its speedy, florid passages, contending well with the orchestra. Shohat’s orchestral players supported with elegance, well-phrased delicacy and freshness.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony no.5 in D, the Reformation Symphony (an early work, despite it being opus 107) was composed in 1830 to honor the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the document approved by Martin Luther, momentous in the Protestant Reformation. The first and last movements make musical reference to the event: the first quotes the “Dresden Amen”, the last the chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is our God), both themes treated dramatically rather than in a devotional manner. Shohat’s reading of this fine and much-neglected work was lush and earnest, his wind sections well coordinated and wonderfully rich in expression, his use of dynamic contrast creating powerful energy. The two middle movements were evocative of the congenial Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy familiar to us from other works. Shohat gave the second movement – a scherzo and its lilting trio - buoyancy, the cantabile third movement (a Song Without Words?) moving into the final Andante con moto with the chorale melody threaded in and out of the orchestral texture, creating an impressive effect. Noam Buchman’s flute solos were pleasing.

The program ended with the first movement of J.S.Bach’s Concerto no.1 in d minor BWV 1052, composed in Leipzig in 1738. Gil Shohat conducted from the piano. A work demanding virtuosic execution of arpeggiation, ornamentation and runs, Shohat took it at breakneck speed, yet still keeping lines clean with precise finger-work and little to no use of the sustaining pedal; he provided his own cadenza. For an encore, Shohat played Chopin’s Waltz opus 64, no.2 in a manner that was brilliant and capricious but somewhat remote from the melancholy and crystalline delicacy of the piece.

Throughout the evening, Oren Nahari spoke of the religious climate in Europe and to what extent the composers whose works were performed at this concert fitted into it at any given time. In his book “A General History of the Science and Practice of Music” (1776), Sir John Hawkins wrote of “the pleasure” Händel “felt in setting the Scriptures to music”. I wish to add the following: the composer’s oratorio “Esther” was met with outrage by the church and the bishop of London prohibited its performance. Händel, aware of on what side his bread was buttered, proceeded with the performance and the British royal family attended; but the church was still angry. In 1739, advertisements for “Israel in Egypt” were torn down by devout Christians, who also disrupted its performances. In 1741, the composer – bankrupt, ill and the victim of plots to sabotage his career – composed “Messiah”, bringing him back to the limelight.

Shohat commented that Mozart’s religion was music itself. Nahari mentioned Mozart’s avant-garde, flamboyant writing of “Exultate, Jubilate” as well as his noble setting of the Catholic Mass in the Requiem. It would be relevant to add that Mozart was a devout Freemason – this secret society pursuing truth, self-perfection and enlightenment. This did not appear to be in opposition to Catholicism, the religion in which Mozart was raised; however, there are those who object to that statement, claiming the Bible states that man cannot reach perfection on his own.

Nahari spoke of Felix Mendelssohn as the grandson of the practicing orthodox Jewish philosopher and scientist Moses Mendelssohn and of his parents’ and his conversion to Christianity as a ticket of admission to German culture. Felix’ cultural upbringing was, however, still that of the Jewish intelligentsia of the time: the composer Ignaz Moscheles, diplomat Karl Klingemann, violinist and composer Ferdinand David and the baritone, librettist, playwright, actor, theatre director and historian Eduard Devrient were frequent guests at the Mendelssohn home. Mendelssohn lived and died a practicing Lutheran; almost a century later, the Nazis besmirched his memory as a Jewish composer, forbidding his music to be played. Nahari referred to Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony as a more humanistic form of Christianity, with the wind sections performing the chorale in place of a choir. Taking us to the final work on the program, Nahari reminded us that we owe much to Felix Mendelssohn for his revival of Bach’s music, which had fallen into relative security by the turn of the 19th century.

This concert series promises much interest, obvious by the large audience attending the first event. Oren Nahari gave an informed general picture of the cultural climate of Europe. Both he and Gil Shohat display a wide knowledge. The lecture part of the evening was rich in detail, albeit a trifle too long and spoken too fast.

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