Sunday, May 6, 2018

French Exotica - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in Couperin's Leçons de ténèbres and on imaginary visits to faraway lands and cultures

David Shemer,Myrna Herzog,Ophira Zakai,Yeela Avital,Anat Czarny (Eliahu Feldman)
“French Exotica”, Concert No.5 of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2017-2018 season, marked 350 years of the birth of François Couperin. As its title implies the program also presented a specific phenomenon, that of certain 17th-century musical innovators, in this program, the fascination of French Baroque composers with distant and exotic lands, places actually only read about in literature, places whose culture and music was basically unknown to them, lands they would never visit. This writer attended the event on May 2nd at the Jerusalem International YMCA.


François Couperin is best known as a composer of harpsichord music. In his program notes, Prof. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, opens by stating that “the music of François Couperin is no obvious choice for an orchestral program” but that “the 350th anniversary of his birth is too important a milestone to be forgone in JBO programs!”  In programming of a less conventional kind, Maestro Shemer decided the perform different sections of Couperin’s sacred “Leçons de ténèbres” between other pieces on the program. Amongst the small amount of Couperin’s ecclesiastical music that was published during his lifetime, its text, from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, was traditionally sung close to- and during Easter. To signify the descent into darkness, candles placed on a candelabrum were extinguished one by one after each lesson, until the church was plunged into darkness (Tenebrae). Performing the Leçons, soprano Yeela Avital and mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny alternated in the solo role, performing the final more intense and at times dissonant section together. With Yeela Avital’s more introverted yet vehement emotional approach and Anat Czarny’s more declamatory way of reflecting on the devastation of Jerusalem, both singers dealt admirably with the work’s stringent technical- and musical demands, its controlled yet potent intensity and power. As to the same construction of each section, they introduced each incipit (marked with a Hebrew letter) with its demanding lengthy melismas, followed by Jeremiah’s anguished lament, then to close each section with Jeremiah’s words to the people of the Holy City: ‘Jerusalem, turn to the Lord your God’. The JBO players endorsed the work’s personal introspection.


Travelling the world began with Georg Muffat’s “Nobilis Juventus” (Noble Youth) published in 1698, his parade of nations including sections dedicated to the Spanish, the Dutch, the English, and the Italians. “Not really French” but “the most French of the non-French composers”, in Shemer’s words, Muffat, who had studied with Lully, has become “the most valuable source of information on French Baroque performance practice”. Indeed, we were treated to a suite played with majestic and delectable French elegance.


The title of Couperin’s “La Sultanne” probably refers to a French noblewoman who is said to have appeared at a ball disguised as the wife of a sultan. The composer’s  four-voiced chamber setting was here enhanced by two flutes (Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard); the elegance, poignancy and tender moments throughout the work probably vouching for the fact that the lady was indeed a woman of noble bearing, with the dark, mellow timbre of the two viols at its opening suggesting the the composer's homage to her An Italianate work, using many aspects of the French Baroque style, it is of exquisite beauty, offering solos and duets to the delight of the audience.  For 'cellist Lucia D'Anna, it was her first performance on viol, carried out (alongside her teacher Myrna Herzog) with assurance and stylistic conviction.


The program concluded with the final suite from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet “Les Indes Galantes”, a work whose titles (referring to African slaves and savages) would today not be considered politically correct. However, behind these fantastical stories set in distant lands, lies one historical event that connects Rameau with exotic peoples and inspired at least some of the movements of “Les Indes Galantes”: in 1725, a delegation of Native Americans from the Louisiana Territory visited Paris to pledge allegiance to King Louis XV. During that visit they performed a dance that Rameau witnessed and took as his inspiration to compose a movement for harpsichord he called "Les Sauvages." That same piece reappeared in 1735 as music for the climactic "Danse du grand calumet de Paix" (Dance of the great peace pipe) of the final suite of “Les Indes Galantes”. The instrumentalists gave the suite an exuberant, good-natured reading, its heavy ( steps only a minimal part of what was basically finely-chiseled court music, complete with French Ouverture, its final exuberant movement joined by the singers. A program of exquisite music played with attention to detail and pleasing stylistic engagement.


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