Friday, December 14, 2018

"The Fall of the Angels" - the PHOENIX Ensemble celebrates 20 years of performance with guests in a concert of 17th century Italian music at Notre Dame, Jerusalem

Photo: Shlomit Mayer

“The Fall of the Angels”, a concert of 17th century Italian instrumental- and choral music was an auspicious event in Israel, bringing together the PHOENIX Ensemble (director: Myrna Herzog), members of the Ludovice Ensemble (Lisbon, Portugal) and students of the Vocal Department of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv (Head of Dept: Prof. Sharon Rostorf-Zamir). Myrna Herzog initiated and directed the project, also conducting the concert. This writer attended the concert at “Our Lady of Peace”, the chapel of the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute of Jerusalem on December 5th 2018. The project received support from the Portuguese Embassy, Tel Aviv and the Italian Institute, Haifa..


The program opened with a Sinfonia à 6 by Giovanni Battista Vitali (1632-1692), a church musician and violone player, whose various methods of experimentation and innovation were instrumental in bringing about the emergence of the Baroque ensemble. Issued in by the drum (Rui Silva) the ensemble gave the majestic work, in all its (typically Italian Baroque) small sections of contrasting material, a brisk, suave performance, the winds engaging in ornamentation on repeats. It seems that Vitali was a student of another northern Italian composer - Maurizio Cazzati (1616-1709) - of whom we heard the Ciaconna from his “Varii e Diversi Capricci per camera e per chiesa” (Bologna, 1669) A figure almost unknown today, he is, nevertheless, one who ought to command our attention as one of the most prolific and successful composers of his day whose copious oeuvre covered every genre. In great demand as a musical director, Cazzati held the prestigious position of maestro di cappella at the Basilica of San Petronio (Bologna). At the Jerusalem concert, the ensemble’s vibrant mix of timbres, the conversational duetting of violins - Yaakov Rubinstein, Noam Gal -  (Cazzati established the Bologna school of violin music as the greatest of Modena, Venice and Bologna) and the players’ use of improvisation gave the ensemble’s reading of  the ostinato piece unstilted freshness and a living sense of connection between music written 350 years ago and what today’s players have to say.


In addition to holding numerous posts as organist, Pietro Andrea Ziani (c.1616-1684) composed various works throughout his lifetime, including operas, oratorios, masses, psalms, overtures, organ pieces, and several three- to six-part instrumental sonatas. Well connected, he was one of the first Venetians of his century to bring local music to Vienna, Dresden and Naples. And talking of connections, Ziani succeeded Cazzati as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, in 1657. The ensemble’s performance of Ziani’s Sonata Op.VII No.17 gave eloquent expression to the composer’s graceful melodic lines, his characteristic tremolo-style orchestration, echo effects and his penchant for chromatics. Guiding the listener through the work’s musical processes, the players (strings, organ) created a soundscape that was richly communicative, but also decidedly spiritual in mood. (Ziani was a priest, becoming a deacon in 1640).


All of what is known about Bernardo Storace (1637-1707) is printed on the title-page of his only collection of music, the “Selva di varie compositioni d’intavolatura per cimbalo ed organo”, published in Venice in 1664. Nobody has solved the mystery of the fact that, living in Sicily he published his music in Venice and that his keyboard works share more with North Italian keyboard writing than with the southern compositional style of Rome or Naples. Herzog transcribed Storace’s keyboard piece “Ballo della Battaglia” for the ensemble at hand, creating a spirited score, the performance profiting from the play of diverse timbres, as in the cheerful banter between violins and cornetto with recorder (Alma Mayer, Inbal Solomon). The Italians loved the feisty, descriptive character of the “battaglia”; this, however, was a hearty battle, bowing out with the wink of an eye…


An early representative of the Neapolitan operatic school, composer, organist and tenor Cristofaro Caresana (c.1640-1709) studied under Pietro Andrea Ziani in Venice before moving to Naples in his late teens, where he joined the theatre company of Febi Armonici which produced early examples of melodrama. Indeed, Caresana’s works have all the passion, the seamless fusion of sacred and profane and the glitter of musical colour characteristic of the Neapolitan Baroque. “La Vittoria del Infante” (Victory of the Child) is a quasi-theatrical Nativity cantata, stacked with comedy, drama and exuberant energy. Spanish associations in text and music - suggestions of bullfighting and the use of castanets - are anti-Spanish satire (condemning the oppressive rule of Naples by the Spanish). Presenting the work’s urgency, moments of battaglia and triumph wrought in strong Neapolitan sentiments, Herzog, her ensemble and the singers also displayed its genuine beauty. Their close collaboration gave voice to the cantata’s interplay of solos, vocal ensembles and highly coloured instrumental writing. Baritone Hagai Berenson (Lucifero) was imposing and communicative; showing involvement and awareness of the work’s text and changes of mood, young countertenor Eliran Kadussi dealt laudably with the demanding role of San Michele.


When an angel challenges God this can only lead to turmoil in the heavens - whirlwinds, flashing lightning, palpable darkness and terribly bitter moans, roars, crying and shaking.and a sorry fate. This is the subject of Francesco Rossi’s oratorio “La Caduta dell’Angeli”, performed here for the first time in Israel, and from which the program took its title. Dr. Myrna Herzog outlined the story thus: “Based on the apocryphal book of Enoch, LA CADUTA DELL' ANGELI depicts the rebellion of angels led by Lucifer (then an angel of light = luce), their defeat by Archangel Michael and his army of good angels, and their fall into the abyss.” It was this story of arrogance, rebellion, hard-headedness, evil and justice that inspired librettist Salvatore Scaglione and composer, organist and maestro di cappella Francesco Rossi (b.1625) to produce a work that could only be deemed as “theatrical”! (Born in Bari, Rossi studied in Naples, moving to Venice in 1686, where he wrote operas and sacred music.) Following the course of the text, one cannot help being amazed by its universality, its lively, natural dialogue and emotions, all accessible long after being penned. Both soprano soloists - Shira Miriam Cohen, as Lucifero (angel of light) and Sharon Tadmor, in the role of San Michele - their voices bright and stable, performed with impressive confidence and conviction, addressing the audience and also blending well in duet sections. No less competent was tenor Daniel Portnoy (God) offering expressive and empathic singing and some tasteful ornamenting. After his fall from grace, Lucifer is then portrayed by a bass-baritone, an interesting effect of characterization; in this role, Yoav Ayalon reflected on the fate of a fallen angel expelled from Heaven in dark, dejected tonings:
“What terrible abysses
Fate has prepared here,
Death is visible in them.”
The work concluded with resplendent choral singing, as the final chorus brought us all back to earth with a lesson to be learned by the story:
“Whoever imitates Lucifer is awaited by Hell”.


Three guest instrumentalists joining the PHOENIX Ensemble - on violone, Brazilian-born Gio Sthel, today living in Stuttgart and conductor of the LALA HÖHÖ early music Ensemble, and the two members of the Ludovice Ensemble - its musical director Miguel Jalôto (organ continuo) and percussionist Rui Silva - added their superlative musicianship to the project. Altogether, the evening’s instrumental playing was stirring and inspiring. As to the young student vocalists, their diligent work under Myrna Herzog’s guidance (this early music style being a totally new musical experience for them) resulted in singing that was unencumbered by heavy vibrato without sounding forced, showing the primacy of the words; within a short period of time they had, in fact, achieved a vocal timbre authentic in style and tuning for 17th century Italian music.


The festive event was a special project marking twenty years of Ensemble PHOENIX’ authentic musical performance in Israel.  Founded and directed by Myrna Herzog, the ensemble’s performance of European and Latin American music, J.S.Bach, viol consort music, music from the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and even early Romantic periods, opera, Jewish- and Christian music, ethnic- and world music and solo recitals, have changed the Israeli music scene, encouraging Israeli musicians to embrace music of all periods and in the appropriate authentic manner. Herzog has introduced Israeli audiences to a host of renowned overseas artists and performed much previously unknown repertoire. Above all, PHOENIX is known for its performances of an uncompromising, high level. Since immigrating to Israel from Brazil, viol-player, ‘cellist and researcher Dr. Myrna Herzog has also opened listeners’ ears to the important role of the viol in early music and, in the field of music education, created a new generation of local viol players.


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