Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble performs Portuguese music

Concert no.2 in the Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s 3012-2013 Vocal Experience series was a program of Portuguese music, mostly a-cappella. Guest conductor was Paulo Lourenço. This writer attended “Portugal: A fascinating Musical Mosaic” at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church on March 2nd 2013.

Born in Lisbon, Paulo Lourenço is one of Portugal’s leading conductors. He heads the Choral Music Masters Program at the Lisbon Superior School of Music, where he teaches choral literature, conducting and vocal technique. Among the many choirs Professor Lourenço has established and directed in Portugal is the acclaimed a cappella TETVOCAL. He has been guest conductor in Europe, South America and the USA and was an adjudicator for the 1st and 2nd Winter Choral Festivals in Hong Kong. Paulo Lourenço dedicates a substantial part of his work to the performing of contemporary music; over the last 15 years, he has conducted more than 90 premieres of works by Portuguese composers. He has been a guest conductor at the Zimriya – World Assembly of Choirs in Israel.

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble was founded in 1993 by its present musical director Yuval Ben Ozer; the ensemble comprises professional singers and performs a wide range of repertoire, from medieval music to contemporary works, premiering new works and participating in festivals in Israel and overseas.

In his program notes, Paulo Lourenço speaks of Portugal as the cultural crossroad between northern- and southern Europe, located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and between ancient- and modern worlds. It is the meeting place of the strict counterpoint from the Franco-Flemish region of northern Europe, of modality and the melancholy music of the Jewish legacy, of Italian opera as well as rhythms brought from Africa; also simple rustic melodies combined with more sophisticated Brazilian harmonies. For a program covering many of the above-mentioned aspects of the rich palette of Portuguese music, Lourenço asks his audience to listen to this music with an open mind, to be ready to experience unusual combinations of harmonies, rhythms and details of language.

The program opened with “Olà zente que aqui samo” (Hail people who gather here), to an anonymous 17th century text - a busy community scene in which a person journeying to Bethlehem to see Jesus takes gifts “of our land” (meaning African products); they dance merrily and play instruments (pipes, drums, castanets) because today the black folk (from Guinea and S. Tomé) “have opened the glories of heaven”. In this colorful, joyful tableau, there are vocal solos, lute, recorder and percussion. Portuguese-born singer, instrumentalist and organist Gaspar Fernandes (1566-1629) lived and worked in Guatemala and Mexico; his oeuvre includes some 250 villancicos (a common poetic/musical form of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America from the late 15th- to 18th centuries, using a mix of sacred and profane, refined- and vulgar language) forming the largest extant collection of secular music from the 17th century New World.  In his earthy a-cappella “Pois com tanta grace” (As he was born with such grace) soloists and choir used the words for percussive effect. The anonymous “Sã qui turo zente pleta” (We are all black people, all from Guinea) was performed with humor, its fast, wordy, rhythmically animated style creating a boisterous village scene.

From Portugal’s late-flowering Renaissance, we heard works by Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650) and Duarte Lobo (1565-1646), Portugal’s two most important composers of sacred works of the time. In Cardoso’s restrained motet “Non mortui” (They are not dead who are in hell), the choir minimized its use of vibrato to allow its richly sonorous legato bring out the work’s chromatic inflexions, its mirror effects, canons and massive use of suspensions.  Lobo’s six-voiced motet “Audivi vocem” (I heard a voice from heaven) created a sense of timelessness, the choir’s upper voices present in crystalline clarity. Moving to sacred music of the 20th century (stepping aside temporarily to Spain), we heard Pablo Casals’ (1876-1973) personal style and thick-textured choral language in his deeply yearning, sad setting from Lamentations “O vos omnes” (O ye people). Portuguese historian and composer Eurico Carrapatoso’s (b.1962) beautifully shaped, homophonic “Ave Maria” was followed by “O magnum Mysterium” (O great mystery), the latter written for women’s voices. Carrapatoso’s intentionally communicative musical language is colored with references to the styles of Landini, Machaut, Monteverdi, Fauré, Stravinsky and other composers, his use “of the perfect chord” being “with the same liberty as I use a cluster”, in the composer’s words.   Moving to Carrapatoso’s secular music, his 2004 “Poemário de Sophia” (text: Sophia de Mello Breyner Andreson, 1919-2004) is scented with personal nostalgia, the IVE’s sweeping phrases and tranquil, autumnal mood doing justice to the gentle, introspective song cycle. We also heard songs of Carrapatoso in which he incorporates strong folk elements.

Other compositions based on modern Iberian poetry included the Israeli premiere of Luis Tinoco’s (b.1969) “Descubro a voz” (I am revealing the voice that sounds from fear) (2007), an effective  mood piece set to a poem by the composer’s father José Luis Tinoco, calling for humming colored with gentle dissonances as a backing to the melody; also “4 Canciones”, a set of contrasted and poignantly emotional miniatures by Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) and the Catalan Spanish composer Federico Mompou’s (1893-1987) “Cantar del Alma” (Song of the Soul) (1951) in which we hear Mompou’s personal, lyrical and evocative musical idiom to a text by the Spanish mystic and ascetic St. John of the Cross (1542-1591).

Works grouped under the category of “The New World”, the fabric of each drawing folk elements into art music, included Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ (1887-1959) love-song “Rosa Amarela” (Yellow Rose), Carrapatoso’s dreamy, flowing setting of the Angolan spiritual “Tuendi oko komunda” (I look up to the mountain)  and the poly-layering of the Mozambique  folk song “Vangelo” (Gospel). Included in this group  were two Brazilian songs arranged by Paulo Lourenço himself: his setting of the cheeky folkloric poem “Ólhó Rojão” (Look at Rojão), using spicy dance rhythms and harmonies, words as rhythmic effects, a shaker and much exuberance, was followed by the no less humorous “O Pato” (The Duck), complete with the quacking of ducks.  

Under the expert guidance of Professor Lourenço, the IVE singers took a courageous plunge into the expansive repertoire of Portuguese vocal music. The IVE displays flexibility and and open mind to new and complex material. This included language challenges and the performance of many styles - from sacred music in strict Renaissance counterpoint to the highly spirited, unbridled (at times, raucous) joyousness of street music. Soloists were well chosen, confident and convincing. And there was clearly fine rapport between Maestro Lourenço and the singers as they touched on the many moods, aspects and influences inherent in Portuguese music. Quite a journey! It was involving, exhilarating and classy.

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