Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Jerome Varnier (bass) and Thomas Palmer (piano) open the American Colony Hotel's new concert series with "Don Quijotte"

Guests arriving to attend the opening event of the new American Colony Concert Series on December 12th 2015 were met by an impressive display of Christmas decorations in the gardens and interiors of this unique Jerusalem venue. The American Colony Hotel, originally the palace of a pasha with his harem of four wives and subsequently a commune of messianic Christians before being converted into a hotel, is housed in a classical Ottoman building of great beauty. Classical music has played an important role in the cultural history of the American Colony Hotel. The hotel’s archives house old scores and music written at or for the hotel.  Mr. Yves Corbel, cultural attaché of the French Consulate, Tel Aviv, opened the event with words of welcome. The concert, organized and coordinated by Ms. Petra Klose (Vienna), no new face to music events in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the American Colony Hotel and its general manager Mr. Thomas Brugnatelli, was held under the auspices of the Jerusalem Institut Français and the French Consulate. “The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha”, a recital by two French artists – bass Jérôme Varnier and pianist Thomas Palmer – was held in the hotel’s Pasha Room, a small elegant hall graced with a magnificent hand-painted wooden ceiling, one of the only examples of its kind in the Middle East.

One of the most influential literary pieces of the Spanish Golden Age, Miguel de Cervantes’ “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” (1605, 1615), regarded by many as the first true novel,  has served as the inspiration for a range of literary, dramatic, operatic- and vocal works, tone poems, ballets, paintings and films, a work for two guitars (1982-3) by British composer Ronald Stevenson, for a rap song by the Funky Aztecs (2002), and more. The Jerusalem recital focused mostly on works by French composers.

The artists presented several items from Jules Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” (1910), a five-act heroic comedy opera rooted in its title character (the title part was created for renowned Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin), a man more ridiculed than admired but touching in his world-weary wisdom. Varnier’s portrayal of Quichotte was noble, touching and authoritative, taking on the drama of situations but never extravagant or over-sentimental.  One highlight was the magically lyrical performance of “Quand apparaissant les étoiles” (When the stars appear), with Palmer’s playing almost visually evoking the sparkling of stars. Altogether, his articulate playing of piano reductions throughout the evening bristled with a kaleidoscope of color and textures, strategic timing, often setting a mood or scene, never missing an opportunity for drama and suspense. Varnier’s understated portrayal of the dying Don Quichotte was poetic and bathed in a sense of tragedy.

In a spicy, exotic and polished performance of Maurice Ravel’s song cycle “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” (1932-3), composed for voice and orchestra and later arranged for voice and piano, Varnier and Palmer highlighted the exotic Iberian character of  the three fine concert pieces, entertaining the audience with their virtuosity. To texts of Paul Morand, the song cycle, the last of Ravel’s compositions, was to have comprised four songs and background music. It was commissioned by film director G.W.Pabst  for a cinema version of “Don Quixote”, also to star Chaliapin, but the worsening effects of Pick’s Disease, from which Ravel was suffering, prevented him from completing the task. The songs nevertheless represent the finest of Ravel’s sophisticated writing, presenting Don Quixote as an infatuated lover, a holy warrior and a drinker and with musical settings abundant in zesty dance rhythms. For the love song to Dulcinea “Chanson romanesque”, the first, Ravel engages a quajira, with its alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4, then using a majestic Basque zortzico for “Chanson épique”, the knight’s prayer for protection, flavoring it with gregariously dissonant chords and a modal soundscape. In the feisty strophic, comical “Chanson à boire”, the iota, with its vibrant cross rhythms, endorses the song’s devil-may-care toast:
…‘To hell with the jealous fool, dark mistress,
Who whines, who weeps and makes oaths
To always be the pale lover
Who puts water into his intoxication!
I drink to joy!

Joy is the sole aim
That I pursue…
When I have drunk.’

Jacques Ibert’s “Don Quichotte” songs form the continuation to the Ravel episode, with Chaliapin singing and Ibert conducting in Pabst’s film. Ibert did not use the Cervantes text but those of Pierre Ronsard and Alexandre Arnoux. The artists at the Jerusalem concert gave an impressive reading of the decidedly Spanish-influenced songs, with their improvisational melodic character, melismatic moments and flourishes, guitar-like accompaniment and emotional range. Varnier’s large, resonant voice, his dark timbre garnished with effulgence, is served well by excellent diction and an even timbre throughout. In the final song Arnoux leaves us with the unanswerable question of what characteristics are more genuine to us – our dreams or our reality.

The program ended with the artists’ hearty, flowing and warmly-nuanced performance of “La Quête”, the 1968 French-language adaption of “The Impossible Dream” from the 1964 musical “Man of La Mancha” (lyrics: Joe Darion, music: Mitch Leigh).  Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel translated the songs and played the lead in the musical in Paris (1968).

Opera singer Jérôme Varnier performs internationally in opera houses and at festivals. Thomas Palmer is a vocal coach and accompanist, also playing with orchestras. Palmer and Varnier have worked together intermittently for the last eight years. With music once more playing a prominent role at this imposing venue, the recital was a find opener to what is to be a promising series.

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