Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir opens the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival with works from Bach to Bernstein

Opening the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival to a packed Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on March 22nd 2015 was “A Varied Sound – from Bach to Bernstein”, a choral evening performed by the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. Now in its 14th year, the Jerusalem Arts Festival gives the stage to Jerusalem artists in the fields of music, dance, theatre and the plastic arts. The event began with words from Mr. Shemi Amsalem, director of the Department of Arts of the Jerusalem Municipality, and Mr. Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, who also opened the festival. Veteran radio announcer and narrator Hayuta Dvir emceed the event, introducing the choirs, artists and works performed.

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir was established 28 years ago by Yehuda Fickler. Comprising five choirs today, it is the largest choral body in Israel, attracting amateur singers from all walks of life. Each choir prepares and performs its own repertoire, but, once a year, all the choirs join to work on joint repertoire to be performed at the annual festive concert. Joining the 150 Oratorio singers were the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Young Efroni Choir (musical director: Shelley Berlinsky). Conducting the Oratorio Choir and the Israel Chamber Orchestra were Naama Nazerathy-Gordon and Flora Vinokurov.

The concert opened with an impressive performance by the men of the choir singing the a-cappella piece “Vayimalet Cain” (Then Cain Fled) (text: Yaakov Shabtai) by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014). Articulately performed and well shaped, the singers presented the piece’s narrative in an engaging and vivid manner. Especially pleasing was the tenor soloist.

This was followed by some of the movements from J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Cantata 140 “Wachet auf” (Awake, calls the voice to us) conducted by Naama Nazerathy-Gordon. One of Bach’s best-known cantatas, it was composed in 1731, when the composer was in Leipzig in the employ of the Lutheran Church. It is based on a hymn composed by Philipp Nicolai in 1599. The Oratorio Choir’s choral sound was rich and mellow, both well blended and finely balanced with the orchestra. In Chorale verse 2, the choral tenors amalgamated to sing as a well blended section, alternating with the exquisite ritornello theme. In the role of Christ (in the accompanied recitative) baritone Yair Polishook addressed each phrase with insight and meaning. This was followed by the duet between Christ and the bride (savior and soul), with Polishook and soprano Daniela Skorka in an uplifting performance, their roles seemingly independent both melodically and register-wise, the interlacing of the voices, however, enhanced by the extrovert joy of the oboe obbligato. Skorka’s fine technique takes her up into the upper register with ease and beauty.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was barely 20 years of age when he wrote the “Cantique de Jean Racine” opus 11, a short hymn setting of a medieval Ambrosian Latin hymn for mixed choir, translated from Latin into French by Racine. This was the first of Fauré’s several religious works and his first significant composition. The text of “O Light of Light” is an entreaty to God for his heavenly gaze, fiery mercy and guidance towards the path of righteousness. Presented here in John Rutter’s setting for keyboard, strings and harp, the harp added silvery fibres to the beauty of this piece. Singing by heart, the many small girls and one boy of the Young Efroni Choir joined the Oratorio choristers in silky, translucent, well-prepared singing; both choirs linked well to give a subtle, restrained and convincing performance of this small jewel, bringing out its sober, limpid harmonies. With Nazerathy-Gordon conducting the ICO and Shelley Berlinsky conducting the children, the Young Efroni Choir then gave a competent, pleasing performance of “Vois sur ton chemin” (Look to Your Path) (music: Bruno Coulais, lyrics: Christophe Barratier) from the 2004 film “Les Choristes” (The Choristers).

The program then moved to a very different genre and soundscape, to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s (1895-1968) “Gypsy Ballads” opus 152, conducted by- and to a setting by Flora Vinokurov for mixed choir, guitar, harp and ‘cello (the original being for choir and guitar). Soloists were Yair Polishook, Daniela Skorka and mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm. An Italian-born, Jewish composer today best remembered for his guitar- and film music, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was familiar with Spanish music, as is evident in his seven “Gypsy Ballads”. Not easy music for amateur singers to learn and handle, the Oratorio Choir gave a richly-colored performance of the madrigal-style songs, their spirit suggestive of the cante jondo style (a vocal style in Flamenco music. Garcia Lorca was devoted to keeping this tradition alive), with the instrumental ensemble coloring the songs with Spanish rhythms and vivid harmonies. Adding to the audience’s enjoyment of the songs, Flamenco dancer Michaela Haran took to the stage in some dazzling costumes and dancing that was fetching, tasteful and no less dazzling than the music!

The event concluded with a performance Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”. The work was commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1965. Calling for boy soprano (or countertenor), vocal quartet, choir and orchestra, a reduction made by the composer pared the ensemble down to organ, harp and percussion. Naama Nazerathy-Gordon and the Oratorio Choir performed it with piano, harp and percussion. The texts used are Psalms 108, 100, 23, 131 and 133, including choruses sung in Hebrew, “a suite of Psalms, or selected verses from Psalms” in the composer’s words. Bernstein’s original name for the work was “Psalms of Youth”, but he subsequently changed it for fear people might think it easy to perform. Previous to composing the “Chichester Psalms”, the composer had spent a year experimenting with 12-tone music, but decided the style was not a natural musical language for him. The “Chichester Psalms”, therefore, are rooted in B-flat major. Uniquely, they comprise the vocal part-writing of church music with Judaic liturgical tradition. In a performance that never lagged, we were presented with the work’s kaleidoscope of contemporary and modal music, with its unusual meters, its drama and vigor, its devilish, jazzy moments and its flowing cantabile sections. As to the lyrical setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) Bernstein wanted a boy soprano to sing it as it bears an association with King David, the shepherd-psalmist. With no tradition of cathedral boy soprano soloists in Israel, 12-year-old Yael Shapira was chosen for the part. Her vocal timbre is very close to that of a boy’s and she created the tranquil mood of the piece very nicely, backed by the evocative harp role. With soloists, the Young Efroni Choir and members of the Oratorio Choir, Nazerathy-Gordon created the large, varied and vivid canvas of the life-affirming work representing Bernstein’s hope for brotherhood and peace.

“From Bach to Bernstein” was a very varied and highly ambitious program for any choir, let alone an amateur choir. Kudos to all performers and conductors for a performance that displayed musical interest, dedication and much involvement.

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