Saturday, July 12, 2008

Music from the Lively Court of Dresden

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s final concert for the 2007-2008 season was “Music from the Lively Court of Dresden”, a program of music by Antonio Lotti and Jan (or Johann) Dismas Zelenka. The concert was conducted by Andrew Parrott, the JBO’s honorary conductor. At the harpsichord was Dr. David Shemer, the orchestra’s musical director. For the last 18 years, the JBO has been performing Baroque music on period instruments according to historical performance practice, putting Israel on the map in Baroque orchestral playing of the highest standard.

In the 18th century, Dresden, the capital of the Saxon Electorate, also referred to as “Florence on the Elbe”, was one of the most vibrant cultural centers of Europe. Saxony enjoyed its “Augustan” Golden Age under the reign of Frederick Augustus I (Augustus the Strong) and his son, Frederick Augustus II. The Dresden royal orchestra, the “Hofkapelle”, was known far and wide, performing church music, opera and works written for events at court. Vivaldi and J.S.Bach, in particular, both had connections with the court and its orchestra.

Antonio Lotti (1776/7-1740) was born in Venice and made his name as a musician at St Mark’s Basilica as an alto singer and organist, and he was a renowned teacher; in 1736 he became maestro di cappella, a post he held till his death. In 1717, the Crown Prince of Saxony was in Venice with specific instructions from his father, the king, to secure the services of singers for the court opera and church in preparation for his wedding in 1719. Lotti was given leave to go to Dresden and he left Venice with his wife, a librettist and a number of singers. In Dresden, he composed three operas. In October 1719, Lotti and his wife– the singer Santa Stella- left Dresden to return to Venice. As a souvenir of his visit, he was able to keep the carriage and horses given him for his return trip to Venice.

Lotti composed 24 operas in all, but only eight have survived. “Alessandro Severo”, premiered in 1716, was one of Lotti’s final operas for the city of Venice before he left for Dresden. Apostolo Zeno, a member of the Arcadian Academy, wrote the libretto; he was one of the first to define the “opera seria” as a return to “classical” drama. The JBO’s concert opened with the Sinfonia to the opera. Scored for strings and harpsichord, in three sections, it was given a crisp rendition. Sandwiched between two lively movements, the slower middle section was furtive and singing, with dissonances producing harmonic tensions.

Lotti’s “Missa Sapientiae” is among his most important religious works. Around 1730, J.D. Zelenka, having given the mass its name, added to its instrumentation. Handel copied out sections, using them in some of his oratorios and Bach owned a copy of it. For this performance, the JBO was joined by the Collegium Singers, a first class ensemble of twenty-five young, professional singers, founded by Avner Itai, its conductor, in 1997. Most of the soloists of the evening are members of the choir. Scored for strings, organ, harpsichord, oboes and bassoon, the work is a remarkable collage of pieces, of solos, groups of soloists, choruses, and so on. Different textures contrasting one another make this work interesting. Soprano Efrat Carmoush was impressive and competent; I also enjoyed hearing baritone Assif Am-David. The “Qui tollis” was especially moving, with a small two-note motif dominating the first half, repeated and imitated by upper and lower strings. In the “suscipe deprecationem nostrum” (Receive our prayer) the words were not only distinct but shaped beautifully into the musical phrase. The final movement, “Cum sancto spirito”, was rich in color and contrapuntal strands, exuberant and convincing.

Born in Ludovice, Bohemia in 1679, Jan Dismas Zelenka moved to Dresden in 1710, playing violone (a very large viol) in the court orchestra and receiving the title of “Court composer of church music” due to the numerous sacred works he had composed for the Dresden Catholic church. He died there in 1745. In 1715, he left for Vienna to study counterpoint under Johann Joseph Fux (whose book “Gradus ad Parnassum”, whereby the rules of counterpoint are set down, is still read by students of counterpoint.) On traveling to Venice in 1716, he met Lotti and may have studied with him; this meeting laid the basis for their friendship that would continue into the period they would be together in Dresden. Zelenka returned to Dresden in 1719 and the sophisticated counterpoint of his works written thereafter show results of his time studying with Fux. Zelenka composed the “Ouverture Hipocondrie” in 1723 for the crowning ceremony of Charles VI of Bohemia. The name given to this work is somewhat of an enigma but people in Zelenka’s circle of the time have mentioned that he suffered from bouts of hypochondria. Scored for strings, oboes, bassoon, and harpsichord, the work opens with a movement in dotted rhythms, the oboes playing in parallel rhythms. The second movement gives opportunities for quite demanding instrumental solos, punctuated by short homophonic octave sections.

In his motet “In Exitu Israel de Aegypto” Zelenka takes his text from Psalms 113 and 114 but adds the doxology. In this rich and varied work, solos weave in and out of choral sections, with soloists also singing in ensembles; words and music are well wed. Moving through fugual movements, elaborate textures and dissonances, the motet ends with a joyful and richly exhilarating Amen.

British musicologist and conductor Andrew Parrott coordinated orchestra, choir and soloists in a performance that was, indeed, pleasing and interesting, inspiring the audience to listen to music of Baroque composers not familiar to everybody. Looking back on the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2007-2008 season, I feel we are privileged to enjoy programs offering a rich variety of Baroque repertoire together with excellent performance. Shemer’s program notes (only in Hebrew) are always well worth reading. As of this season, Benny Hendel has been presenting a few words about works and composers in the concerts, adding interest, background information and humor.

“Music from the Lively Court of Dresden”
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra
David Shemer-musical director
Andrew Parrott-conductor
The Collegium Singers
Avner Itai-director
Benny Hendel-concert presentation
Efrat Carmoush-soprano
Orly Hoominer-soprano
Goni Bar-Sela-alto
Oded Amir-tenor
Assif Am-David-baritone
Peter Simpson-baritone

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