Friday, April 12, 2013

The Early Music Project performs at the Austrian Hospice (Jerusalem)

On April 2nd 2013, the Israeli Early Music Project performed a concert at the Austrian Hospice of the
 Holy Family, Jerusalem. The Austrian Hospice, located on the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem’s Old City, was officially opened in 1863 and is viewed as Austria’s cultural emissary in the region. Built in the style of a palace on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, the Austrian Hospice hosts dialogue between cultures and religions, its cultural agenda including conferences, art exhibitions and musical events. Prior to entering the salon to hear the concert, I took time to wander along the corridor of the first floor to read much information posted along the walls about personages instrumental to the Hospice and its history. Opening the event, Rector of the Austrian Hospice Markus Stephan Bugnyar offered words of welcome, mentioning the fact that the concert we were about to hear was one of the many and varied festive events of the venue’s 150th anniversary celebrations.

The Israel Early Music Project, established in 2006 by a group of students of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, aims to promote historically informed performance of music composed before 1850; the artists perform on period instruments. Mandolin-player, lutenist and conductor Alon Sariel (currently residing in Germany) is the group’s musical director. Taking part in this concert were Alon Harari-countertenor, Jonathan Keren-violin, Katharine van der Beek-‘cello and harp and Alon Sariel-archlute and direction. The Israeli Early Music Project performs in major venues and festivals in Israel, the UK and Europe.  Alon Harari introduced the evening’s works, drawing the audience’s attention to the program’s two themes: music by or about women and the battle between Rome and Venice.

The concert opened with German composer, poetess, theologian and mystic visionary Hildegard von Bingen’s (1098-1179) sacred chant “O virtus Sapientiae”, with Katharine van der Beek providing a basic ‘cello bourdon of unisons or fifths to Alon Harari’s performance of the antiphon. (It is not known whether Hildegard used instruments to accompany singing at the monastery; in her prolific writings she did, however, agree with the use of instruments, referring to stringed instruments as corresponding to the earthly condition of the soul and its struggle.) Harari’s large, mellifluous voice gave expression to the text’s rich imagery and conviction, his singing flexible and intense:
‘O strength of Wisdom
Who, circling, circled,
Enclosing all
In one life-giving path.
Three wings you have
One soars to the heights,
One distils its essence upon the earth
And the third is everywhere.
Praise to you, as is fitting.
O Wisdom’

Dario Castello (1590-1658) was wind master of St. Mark’s Cathedral Venice. Of his 29 sonatas, we heard Sonata Seconda, a single movement work made up of a number of small contrasting sections. Violinist Jonathan Keren, free of the constraints of reading the text, gave the work a spontaneous reading, allowing himself (and the audience) to fully indulge in its heady virtuosic passagework, expressive moments, its dignity, its dance rhythms, and with intelligent dialogue with Sariel and van der Beek, in some of the most daring and fantastic chamber music of the era.

Two laments on the program represented a woman’s emotions. Monteverdi’s opera “Arianna” was first performed in 1608, with the “Lamento di Arianna” (Ariadne’s Lament) constituting the centrepiece of the work. Of the opera score, only the lament has survived. In this, his most famous work, Monteverdi was recognized as having the ability to identify with Arianna’s humanity. The IEMP chose a very effective scoring for the aria, with Harari accompanied by archlute, harp (van der Beek) and violin. This sensitive, uncluttered and filigree-fine instrumentation allowed for expression of the work’s delicacy and intimate grief, its dissonances and harmonic surprises. Harari’s finely shaped phrasing and rising and falling intensity projected Arianna’s changing thoughts and emotions, culminating with her final desolation.  On January 30th 1649, King Charles I, found guilty of treason, was beheaded by his own government. One of the many artistic responses to this historic event was an Italian poem by the Habsburg Archduke Leopold William (1614-1662), set to music by Antonio Bertali (1605-1669) – maestro di cappella of the imperial court chapel. In the lament of Charles’ Catholic-born queen, Henrietta Maria, one detects many of the sentiments heard in “Arianna’s Lament” (Monteverdi) –the desire to die, self-pity, anger, despair, with all of these combined with sudden changes of mood in a long farewell. With Harari presenting the tragedy and beauty of the text, the instrumentalists reflected its sentiments, Keren’s interludes heightening the work’s emotional climate.

Alon Sariel performed Toccata III by composer and lutenist at the court of Archduke Maximilian I of Munich - Michelangelo Galilei (1575-1631) - the younger brother of the astronomer Galileo and son of the music theorist Vincenzo. In his performance of the toccata on the archlute, Sariel creates a relaxed, reflective mood with some pleasing voice-play and expressive figures; but, as the piece progresses, the listener begins to hear some daring harmonies (for the time it was written) and unexpected chord changes. Sariel’s playing is, nevertheless, understated and subtle, allowing for the composer’s somewhat revolutionary ideas to emerge articulately.
Of Italian Baroque women composers, Francesca Caccini (1587-c.1641) remains one of the most outstanding, if not the most prolific. Often referred to as “La Cecchina” (The Songbird), Giulio Caccini’s daughter, a musician of the court of Duke Ferdinand of Florence, was trained in keyboard, lute, guitar and harp and composition; she wrote Italian and Latin poetry, became a professional singer and was the first woman composer to write a full-scale opera.  We heard two songs from her 1618 volume “Il primo libro delle musiche” (First Volume of Music) - secular and sacred melodies with figured bass accompaniment. Harari performed the canzonets “Che c’ho fatt’io” (What Have I Done to You) and the dancelike “O chiome Belle” (O Beautiful Hair). Collaborating hand-in-glove with Sariel and van der Beek, Harari wove Caccini’s characteristically lengthy, florid phrases and sonorous texts with a sense of freedom and spontaneity.  A high point of the program was Alon Harari’s performance of Venetian poet, composer, singer and unconventional personality Barbara Strozzi’s (1619-1677) dramatic monologue “L’Eraclito amoroso” (Amorous Heraclitus), probably originally sung by the composer herself. Lending a feminine touch to the instrumental score and its lamenting descending ground bass, Keren and Sariel were joined once again by van der Beek on the harp, supporting Harari in his evoking of the ancient Greek philosopher’s anger and despair over the unfaithfulness of an unnamed woman. In his thrilling and intense reading of the piece, Harari’s burnished, powerful vocal timbre and ease propelled him to the heights, then plummeting to the depths of this Baroque rhetoric; its vivid word-painting, long bleak notes and daring leaps fared well.

With Giles Durant de la Bergerie’s (1550-1605) strophic, lilting  love song “Ma belle si ton âme” the artists played and sang of love’s more positive but fleeting joys, flexing their tempi and punctuating the written text with imaginative interludes:
‘My beautiful one, if your soul
Now feels itself glowing
With this sweet flame
Which compels us to love,
Let us go happily,
Let us go to the meadows,
Let us go while
Our young springtime lasts.’

The program concluded with two songs in Ladino (a Spanish dialect, the language of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492), these songs both sung- and traditionally passed on by women.  “El Rey de Francia” (The King of France), interpreting a dream had by one of the king’s daughters, opened with the intimate timbre of harp alone; one sensed the artists were inspired by the text - images of a pillar of gold, the songbirds, the apple tree, the 12 stars and the nightingale; especially beautiful were Keren’s embellished imitations of the vocal line and Sariel’s poignant solo. In “Ya salio de la mar la galena” (The Young Lass Went into the Sea - the sea here being a symbol for the public baths) is a joyful,  wedding song telling of the bride’s taking of the ritual bath prior to her wedding and how she emerged “between the sea and the sand” where “an almond tree was sprouting”. With the joyousness of wedding music, the artists presented the Judeo-Spanish traditional combination of religious feeling, the functional, the emotional and the erotic in this specific genre. For an encore, Alon Harari gave a soulful rendering of “Night”, a Yemenite song, his fellow musicians choosing a clear, minimal soundscape for the setting.

The Austrian Hospice salon provides an especially fine venue for this kind of chamber music. Well programmed and performed by four outstanding and informed musicians, one of the most exciting aspects of this concert was heard in the accompaniments, which, in true Baroque spirit, were improvised on the basis of the score, providing authentic spontaneity all too rare in the concert hall. Countertenor Alon Harari’s gripping performance is not to be missed!


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