Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Laudatus Te Choir (Stuttgart) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir perform Mendelssohn's Songs of Praise in Jerusalem

Photo: Tamar Balter

“Mendelssohn’s Songs of Praise”, the second concert in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s Vocal 
Series and the first of its Liturgical Series, featured the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and the Laudamus Te Choir (Stuttgart). Conductors were Naama Nazrati-Gordon (Jerusalem) and Monica Meira Vasques (Germany), with soloists sopranos Daniela Skorka, Alla Vasilevitsky and Jennifer May Owusu and tenor Alexander Yudenkov. This writer attended the concert on October 27th 2016 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre; this and the concert following in Tel Aviv completed yet another joint project of the two choirs, in which they had performed the same program in Stuttgart some days prior to the Israel concerts.

The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s Psalm 42, opus 42 “As Pants the Hart”, conducted by Naama Nazrati-Gordon, with Daniela Skorka performing the solo role. Mendelssohn wrote 19 settings of Psalm texts, prompted by the high esteem he held for J.S.Bach’s music and by his love of Martin Luther’s hymns. Opus 42 was composed in 1837, when Mendelssohn and his bride Cécile were on their honeymoon. Usually a severe critic of his own music, the composer, in letters to his sister Fanny and other friends, referred to the work as his “very best sacred composition”. Opening with the image of the hart (stag, deer) yearning for fresh water, the absence of both shows becomes apparent, with the water appearing as tears, rushing streams and surging waves. At the Jerusalem performance, Nazrati-Gordon directed the choirs in a fragile, poetic reading of the opening chorus, the later more forthright choral utterances vehement and intense but steering way from roughness of sound. Contending well with orchestra and choir, Daniela Skorka, her voice bright, ample and easeful, shaped words into eloquent phrases, giving meaning and emotion to the texts, some delightful oboe-playing-playing accompanying the first soprano aria. Movement 6, in which Skorka was joined by tenors Alexander Yudenkov and Ori Batchko, baritone Dor Magen and bass Dov Faust, formed a sonorous and rich ensemble piece. The JSO players presented the vivid score with elegance, highlighting the variety, colour and beauty of Mendelssohn’s evocative instrumental writing.

In 1838 or 1839, Mendelssohn began writing a symphony in B-flat major. Having later received the commission to write one of the works celebrating the 1840 quadricentenary of Gutenberg’s movable type for a Leipzig festival, the composer returned to the symphony sketches, using them and new material as the basis of the three-movement sinfonia that would be followed by a series of nine vocal movements involving choir and soloists to form the mammoth Symphony No.2 in B-flat major opus 52 “Lobesgesang”. The “Hymn of Praise” texts, most of which are taken from the Bible, praise God and mankind’s progress from darkness to enlightenment. Mendelssohn’s most ambitious undertaking, it enjoyed much popularity during his lifetime, becoming a rarity on the concert platform after that, a strange fact considering its celebration of the German Reformation and literacy (to which Gutenberg had contributed), of German church music and Bach’s weighty influence (chorales, fugal writing) on him. The work also merges music of the concert hall with church music, forming a hybrid genre breaking the tradition of separating the two. Symphony No.2 was premiered at St. Thomas Church Leipzig, where Bach had served as Kapellmeister for 17 years.

Monica Meira Vasques conducted orchestra, choir and soloists in the “Lobesgesang” Symphony. In the three movements of the Sinfonia, the trombones open with a noble, Luther-like hymn tune that proceeds to thread its way through sections of the three orchestral movements, setting the scene for the choral movements. Tenor Alexander Yudenkov, his voice warm and substantial, possesses fine musical presence: his gripping rendering of the texts was both articulate and convincing, at times narrative, at others, emotional, raising the dramatic level:

‘The sorrows of death had closed all around me,
And hell’s terrors had got a hold upon me
With trouble and deep heaviness; (Psalm 116)

Opera singer Alla Vasilevitsky displayed flexibility, power and lyrical beauty of timbre, her collaboration with Yudenkov in “My song shall always be Thy mercy”, highlighting key words, producing a fine duet. In her duet with Jennifer May Owusu, the two soprano voices did not find an ideal balance, possibly due to the fact that the two were standing too far away to hear each other, Owusu’s rich, creamy voice not quite audible enough, and more the pity! The choir’s singing of choruses was well prepared and engaging, however, often drowned out by the orchestra, rendering the verbal text unintelligible.

Formed in 1987, the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, numbering some 140 singers and performing repertoire from early to contemporary music and folk music, works in separate groups and with different conductors, the groups joining up once or twice a year to perform a large choral work. Oratorio ensembles have performed in the UK, Italy, Romania, France and Germany and have recorded eight CDs. Naama Nazrati Gordon is currently musical director of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir.

Laudamus Te (Stuttgart) was formed in 2007 by current conductor Monica Meira Vasques. It consists of a chamber choir, a project choir, an orchestra and various smaller vocal ensembles, their repertoire spanning from Baroque- to contemporary music. Laudamus Te performs in the Stuttgart region as well as outside of Germany. With Vasques’ strong emphasis on sacred music, a close friendship with Israel has developed, their association with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir existing since 2008 and resulting in several joint performances both in Germany and in Israel over recent years.

With the Henry Crown Hall full to capacity, the ambitious undertaking by both choirs and conductors in “Mendelssohn’s Songs of Praise” made for a vivid, festive affair. 




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