Monday, June 13, 2016

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir closes the 2015-2016 season with "In Wndsor Forest"

Windsor Forest (

Taking place on June 9th 2016 at Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City, “In Windsor Forest” was the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir’s closing concert for the 2015-2016 concert season. Conducted by Kate Belshé, the ensemble’s director as of 2014, the selective choir of 30 singers presented a demanding program of music from the British Isles, from the Renaissance to the 20th century and some folk music. Soloist was soprano Shira Cohen.

The program opened with Samuel Wesley’s (1766-1837) double choir anthem “In Exitu Israel” (When Israel Went Out), Psalm 113, a work demonstrating the composer’s admiration for J.S.Bach’s fugal style (Wesley was one of the composers to introduce Bach’s music into England), a tricky work with which to open the unaccompanied section of the concert. “Beati Quorum Via” (Blessed are those whose way) Psalm 119 a motet in six voices by Sir Charles V. Stanford (1852-1924), fared better, the choir’s reading of it capturing its mysterious, intimate and meditative character, with effective contrasts drawn between upper and lower voices.

Secular music occupied the majority of the program, with a representative group of madrigals of composers writing for the court of Elizabeth I, beginning with the choir members’ silken and poetic singing of John Bennet’s (c.1575-c.1614) “Weep O Mine Eyes”, their luxuriant waves of sound both quoting and expressing the melancholy and despair of John Dowland’s “Flow my Teares”, on which it well may have been based. Presenting Thomas Weelkes’ “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints”, Belshé and her singers offered a lively blend of voices and dynamics, their direct, unfussed rendition of the madrigal conveying the work’s underlying message on love as hinted at by Weelkes in the piece’s harmonic and rhythmic twists. As to Thomas Morley’s less subtle “ballet” madrigal “Now is the Month of Maying”, with its bawdy double-entendres, it was performed with gusto and with plenty of dynamic colour. Moving into the Baroque and Henry Purcell’s “Sound the Trumpet” a birthday ode for Queen Mary II, performing it with soprano and alto sections seemed to bypass the opportunities for personal expression, energy and ornamentation offered by the duet when sung by two individual singers.

The concert presented a fine opportunity for the audience to hear English music from the early 20th century, a marvellous body of repertoire sadly neglected in Israeli concert halls. Kate Belshé’s precise direction of “My Spirit Sang all Day”, the setting of a Robert Bridges poem by English-Italian Jewish Sephardic composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), gave expression to the composer’s in-depth approach to the English language in his effusive and emotional declaration of the joy of love, and all in 44 bars. A highlight of the concert was the performance of Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) early song “My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land” to words of Scottish poet and folk tale collector Andrew Lang – an evocative, atmospheric reading, the singers’ fine intonation and clean, well-blended sound re-creating the Romantic richness of Elgar’s melodic lines and harmonies together with Lang’s nature scenes washed over with melancholy. The Oratorio Chamber Choir’s attention to the melodic layering and delicacy of Gustav Holst’s splendid setting of the modal Cornish folksong “I Love my Love” sketched in the details and despair of a young girl committed to Bedlam (Bethlehem – the infamous London asylum) and deranged as her loved one has been sent to sea, creating the music’s sense of rocking (the girl’s lonely rocking back and forth?) in scintillating sounds. In the choral arrangement David Overton made for the King’s Singers of the Scottish folk song “Loch Lomond”, baritone Shlomo Tirosh sang the solo in a relaxed, pleasant manner.

Then to English music’s strong connection to theatre. We heard an excerpt from Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Pirates of Penzance” or “The Slave of Duty” (1880), with soloists David Goldblatt, Shira Cohen, Simone Kessler and Louis Sachs. Accompanying on the piano was Rina Schechter. In the role of the sergeant, David Goldblatt displayed richness of vocal timbre; too poker-faced for the roistering hi jinks of this opera, Goldblatt’s voice was also a little too reticent. Shira Cohen, looking comfortable in the role, made for a saucy Mabel, her light coloratura easeful, agile and most pleasing. The final work performed was “In Windsor Forest”, a cantata of choruses drawn from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) opera “Sir John in Love”. Based on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”, “Sir John in Love” was composed in 1928 and premiered in London in 1929.  The cantata opened with “The Conspiracy” (words: Shakespeare), a celebratory piece sung only by the women members of the choir. In the “Drinking Song” (words: John Still, Bishop of Bath and Wells!), the choir’s men singers pulled out the plugs to create its roguish, rollicking folksy character. “Falstaff and the Fairies” (Shakespeare, Ravenscroft, Lyly) offered some gossamer-fine textures as it took us into the forest but also some dramatic moments, its playful ending somewhat of a patter song; Shira Cohen’s theatrical flair gave pizzazz to her solo here. In the “Wedding Chorus” (Ben Johnson), the only tranquil movement of the cantata, the choir created a piece of delicacy and lyricism. Concluding the work, the “Epilogue” (Campion, Rossiter), displaying some strange counterpoint, bids farewell with words of wisdom:

“All our pride is but a jest.
None are worse and none are best.
Grief and joy and hope and fear
Play their pageants ev’rywhere.
Vain opinion all doth sway,
And the world is but a play.”

Kate Belshé and the ensemble gave this rarely-performed work a spirited performance, with Rina Schechter’s piano accompaniments supportive and lively. The Oratorio Chamber Choir saw the audience out with Bob Chilcott’s tender arrangement of “O Danny Boy” (Londonderry Air).

Ms. Belshé holds degrees from the University of Southern California and Williams College and is the recipient of several awards. She sings in the Gary Bertini Chamber Ensemble and Choir.  In 2010, she formed the Walworth Barbour American International School Advanced Chorus and was assistant conductor of the Meitav Vocal Ensemble (Rosh Ha'ayin) from 2013 to 2014.  

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