Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir sings Dowland and Britten

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, conducted by Ofer dal Lal, performed “Two English Minstrels: A Birthday Tribute to Two Composers” a program of works by John Dowland and Benjamin Britten. Joining the choir was soprano Michal Okon, guitarist Roi Chen and actor Doron Tavori. The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, belonging to the larger group of Oratorio choirs, is an ensemble of 30 hand-picked singers performing widely in Israel as well as further afield. Its broad repertoire ranges from music of the Renaissance to contemporary works, including Christian- and Jewish sacred music, Israeli music and choral arrangements of folk music. Ronen Borshevsky directed the choir from 1998 to 2012, when Ofer dal Lal took over the position.

An honors graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Ofer dal Lal studied choral conducting under Professor Stanley Sperber, orchestral conducting under Dr. Eitan Globerson and composition with Professor Menachem Zur. He is currently completing a master’s degree in choral conducting under Ronen Borshevsky and orchestral conducting under Mr. Yi-An Xu at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv). Having been assistant conductor of the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (musical director: Stanley Sperber) for some time, dal Lal served as deputy conductor to the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir as of 2011 before taking over as full-time conductor.

Soprano Michal Okon graduated in vocal performance from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, studying with Miriam Meltzer and Marina Levit, also graduating with a B.Mus in Musicology from Tel Aviv University. With a wide repertoire, from early to contemporary music and from South American to Jewish music and Israeli works, Okon performs at concerts and festivals in Israel, Europe and the USA as a soloist, with orchestras and ensembles. Michal Okon is known for her performance of early music in Israel and overseas.

A graduate of the Faculty of Musicology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Roi Chen studied guitar with Professor Yossi Yerushalmi and composition with Gidi Chazor. He appears in Israel and overseas with ensembles playing jazz, classical music and tango. Roi Chen researches classical and early music originally written for voice and guitar and arrangements of classical works for guitar. A CD of his own works issued in 2005 has won him acclaim.

This writer attended the Birthday Tribute concert at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on March 17th 2013. The extensive program notes (compiled by Liora Herzig) refer to John Dowland (1563-1626) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) as neither being mainstream personalities in their own societies and mention the influence Dowland’s works had on Britten, referring to Britten’s interest in early music (in particular, Henry Purcell and folk songs) and older composing techniques. As did several composers of Dowland’s time and some 20th century composers, Britten took Dowland’s “Lachrymae” (Tears) melody (1604), one of the best-known English songs of the early 17th century, using it as the basis of a cycle of free variations in “Reflections on a Song of John Dowland” opus 48 for viola and piano. (Dowland himself wrote very many settings of the work.)Then there is Britten’s “Nocturnal after John Dowland” (1964) composed for guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream (a direct association with Dowland as a great lutenist and composer of the English lute song) based on Dowland’s “Come Heavy Sleep”, the music straddling the G major and B major scales (and neither fully modal or tonal) perhaps suggesting the stages between sleep and death.

A poet and one of the greatest of the English school of lutenist-song-writers, John Dowland suffered from bouts of melancholy and/or cultivated the idea of it in many of his songs as of the 1680s, the importance of this melancholic persona (in his secular music) constituting an awareness of subjective emotions and articulacy in expressing them never experienced before the Elizabethan era.  The evening’s concert opened with the choir singing a hearty rendering of the witty homophonic song “Say, Love, if ever”, the guitar (substituting lute) accompaniment chordal rather than contrapuntal, its volley of words demanding much individual attention. From Dowland’s instantly successful First Booke of Ayres (1597) – 21 songs and one instrumental piece in lute tablature - we heard a pleasing performance of the love song, Petrarchan in its suffering, “Come Again!” performed with guitar, the singers’ English happily leaning towards the British accent, with crisp consonants. Michal Okon and Roi Chen gave the love ballad “Come Away, Come Sweet Love” a rhythmical performance, urgent and explicit in its delight of love. From the Second Booke of Songs and Ayres (1600) –  22 songs published when the composer was in the employ of King Christian IV of Denmark - we heard Okon, Chen and the choir in “Now Cease my Wand’ring Eyes”, a light discourse on the fragility of love; in the more somber “O Sweet Woods”, Okon addresses the text’s meaning and sadness, supported by the choir’s delicate, lush choral sound. One of the most interesting performances of the evening was the chamber choir’s hearty, well contrasted singing of the flighty, anonymous text (possibly by the fine wordsmith Dowland himself) “Fine Knacks for Ladies”, the peddler’s wordy patter bristling with double entendres. Using Dowland’s setting of “Flow My Tears” for viol (or broken) consort, Ofer dal Lal arranged the lute song for choir, premiering his setting of the bittersweet, sometimes dissonant dirge at this concert; his reading of it was poignant and seriously elegiac, the choir displaying fine vocal blending. This was followed by Roi Chen’s gently embellished playing of the “Galliard to Lachrymae”, Dowland’s transformation of the original plangent pavan into a triple galliard. Dowland’s preoccupation with death and despair reaches its height in the rhetoric of the late lute song “In Darkness Let Me Dwell”, in which Okon and Chen created a mood of gloom, tenderness and drama, with Okon addressing Dowland’s evocative word painting in clean, unmannered singing:
‘In darkness let me dwell; the ground shall sorrow be,
The roof despair to bar all cheerful light from me;
The walls of marble black that moistened still shall weep;
My music hellish jarring sounds to banish friendly sleep.
Thus, wedded to my woes, and bedded to my tomb,
O let me living die, till death, till death do come…’

Homesick in the USA in the early 1940s, Benjamin Britten began to write arrangements of English folksongs, this first collection followed by another six that would include settings of French, Scottish and Irish folksongs. They were performed extensively by the composer and singer Peter Pears. Britten’s folksong arrangements defy sentimentality; with the composer never associating these works with the “folksong school”, they adhere less to authenticity than to personal expression and originality and were all composed with specific performers in mind – Peter Pears, Julian Bream, Osian Ellis, Sophie Weiss and the composer himself.  It was in the late 1950s that Julian Bream emerged as a highly renowned player of lute and guitar, accompanying Pears in performances of songs by Dowland and other Renaissance English composers. With encores in mind, Britten arranged songs for the two, his idiomatic and virtuosic writing showing a detailed understanding of the guitar and its ability. Several of Britten’s songs we heard performed come from Volume 6, songs published in 1961.  Okon and Chen performed the whimsical Dorset song “I Will Give My Love an Apple” (Riddle Song), its unconventional arpeggiated accompaniment peppered with tritones, the jaunty “Sailor Boy” (Appalachian Mountains), with Chen handling the dancelike guitar part skillfully and the Somerset folksong “Master Kilby”, with its poignantly minimal accompaniment. In “The Shooting of His Dear”, Britten makes his own comments on the story with heavy, unsymmetrical chords and descriptive, changing textures of dissonant harmonies; in “Bonny at Morn” the accompaniment also adds much to the bleak, haunting picture of Northumberland country life. The somber mood does not lift with “Yif Ic Of Luve Can” (If I Know of Love) a sacred piece from Britten’s late work “Sacred and Profane” (1975) for 5-part chorus, eight settings of medieval English poems; in this homophonic, almost totally atonal piece, Michal Okon’s expressive singing floats effectively above the choir’s singing of dark chords. The artists presented the audience with a fine, representative selection of Britten’s folksong settings.

Two of Benjamin Britten’s larger choral works featured in the concert. In an ambitious undertaking, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir sang the dazzling a-cappella “Hymn to St. Cecilia” (text: W.H.Auden) first performed on St. Cecilia’s Day (November 22nd) 1942, Britten’s 29th birthday.  Each of the three stanzas is different in musical concept, each highly challenging to choir and soloists; Auden’s text is inspired by the patron saint of music but colored by the destruction and cultural crisis of World War II and by Britten’s personal dilemmas. Dal Lal led the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir through the piece’s rich canvas with its abundance of word painting and mood changes, culminating in the descending 5ths of “weep away the stain” and the powerful “bow of sin…drawn over our trembling violin”. The concert ended with another large choral work – Britten’s Choral Dances from Act II of the 1953 opera “Gloriana” (text William Plomer) in which Queen Elizabeth I (another association with Dowland) is entertained at a colorful masque featuring six pieces paying homage to her. In a pageant of a-cappella sections, of sections performed by all, by women only, Okon and Chen (guitar in lieu of harp) and Okon alone, the dances took on life in all its effects and with fine diction.

Throughout the evening, Dal Lal and Chen spoke briefly about items on the concert program. Actor Doron Tavori’s reading of Hebrew translations of various English texts was interesting, however, read too fast and excerpts were too lengthy. Young conductor Ofer dal Lal has chosen a rich and enormously demanding program, has made a deep study of this fine English music and with pleasing results from his choir. It is repertoire to be continued. Michal Okon and Roi Chen added much fine performance and attention to detail and style. Dowland songs, however, cry out for the timbre of the lute! I think I, personally, would prefer hearing the Dowland songs first, to be followed by the Britten works.  

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