Monday, May 21, 2018

A tribute to Leonard Bernstein - Stanley Sperber conducts the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music at the 53rd Abu Gosh Festival

Photo: Rochelle Elbaz

The Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival takes place twice a year in and around Abu Gosh, a town located 16 kilometers west of Jerusalem on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. The 53rd Abu Gosh Festival (May 18th-20th, 2018) opened with “Angels Singing” at the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant on May 18th. Performed by the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance under its director Stanley Sperber, the concert commemorated 100 years of the birth of Leonard Bernstein.


The program included some short works of Israeli composers. With the choir members standing in the two side aisles, the program opened with Israeli composer Paul Ben Haim’s choral setting of Psalm 121, its autumnal harmonies splendidly woven into a sensitive reading of the piece. Matityahu Shalem’s arrangement of “Simchu-Na” (Rejoice) for choir and piano (Irina Lunkevich) took one back to the early Israeli kibbutz-oriented hora repertoire, largely forgotten in today’s choral repertoire. In Yehezkel Braun’s playful a-cappella setting for men’s voices of “Vayimalet Cain” (Then Cain Fled) (text: Yaakov Shabtai), the singers presented the piece’s narrative in an engaging and vivid manner. Especially appealing were the “comments” of tenor soloist Michael Bachner.


The program also included four sections from Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”. Scored for three-part boys’ (or women’s) choir, soloist and harp, Britten wrote the Christmas work during World War II on a perilous journey crossing the Atlantic in 1942 aboard a cargo ship. Some of the carols are in Latin and some, in Middle English, are based on poems from the 15th and 16th centuries. The ladies of the Academy Choir produced the appropriate bright, pure vocal timbres Britten would have envisaged when writing for boys’ voices, from the forthright strident gestures of “Wolcom Yole”, to their tranquil and tender treatment of “There is no rose”, to Inbal Brill’s poignant singing in the major-minor “Balulalow” lullaby, to the urgency and triumphant singing of the canonic “This little babe”. Maria Golberg’s playing of the splendid harp role was supportive, spirited and satisfying.


Then to works of Leonard Bernstein, the first of which being the entertaining “Warm-Up” (1970), a jaunty round for mixed choir used in Bernstein's Mass. The choir also performed some numbers from “West Side Story”: a delicate reading of “Somewhere”, its lush harmonies sprinkled with the occasional Bernstein dissonance, to “Tonight”, its hearty text coloured with just a hint of melancholy, the buoyant, carefree and breezy singing of “I feel Pretty” and an effervescent, upbeat performance of “America”, whose solos were suitably imbued with a South American twang.


Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” (1964) strike a very different chord. A commission for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival (UK) from such an eclectic composer as Bernstein, it is not surprising that its definite modernist techniques mingle with the composer’s signature popular sounds in an ode to diverse influences. The work incorporates Jewish biblical verses (Psalms sung in the Hebrew language) into a work inspired by Christian choral tradition and singing conventions, setting originally secular Broadway melodies to sacred texts. Sperber and his singers presented the work’s complexity and intensity on a confrontational, uncompromising and vigorous canvas. Making clear its background of personal struggle, the work’s powerful but undeniably optimistic message is ever present. 14-year-old Nimrod Werber, joined by harp in the second movement, showed fine musicality, excellent intonation and also poise on stage. The performance left the listener deep in his own thoughts as the serene finale, closing the work with the concept of mankind living in harmony - “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” concluded with an almost-whispered Amen, its final “n” nevertheless rendered sonorous.


The Academy Chamber Choir’s polished rendition of two spirituals (soloists: Maria Liubman, Michal Tamari) was yet another reminder of the ensemble’s musicality, fine diction, precision and attention to detail, all contributing to music-making of an outstanding quality, and with much joy, under the guidance of Maestro Stanley Sperber.


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