Sunday, February 22, 2009

Handel the Entertainer , PHOENIX Ensemble

The PHOENIX Ensemble, under the musical direction of Myrna Herzog, presented an evening of music by Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Artists performing in this delightful concert were Revital Raviv-soprano, Yasuko Hirata-Baroque violin, Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba and David Shemer-harpsichord.

The evening’s fare consisted mostly of arias and vocal pieces from Handel operas, oratorios and vocal works. Herzog’s program notes were helpful and informative, providing a brief outline of the plot of each and the specific situation wherein each aria appears. Israeli soprano, Revital Raviv, a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and the Royal Academy of Music (London) performs widely, singing Baroque opera and giving recitals.

Handel left Germany for England in 1711 in the entourage of the Duke of Hanover, who would become King George I of England. By the time George succeeded to the British throne, Handel was fully established as his loyal servant and his salary as court musician was raised. London aristocrats were developing a taste for Italian opera and, with the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719, opera was given more support, with the Queen’s Theatre offering subscriptions and becoming the London centre of opera. Here, from 1720 to 1728, Handel produced some of his greatest works for stage.

Composed to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, “Julius Caesar”, premiered in 1724, was the composer’s most ambitious project to date. Richly orchestrated, it was a great success musically and as dramatic theatre. Israeli Soprano Revital Raviv, in the role of Cleopatra, with violin, harpsichord and supporting viol, performed two arias from the opera. In “Tu la mia stella sei”(You Are my Star) , Raviv presents a Cleopatra possessed with vengeance and greed for power, whereas in “Piangero la sorte mia” (I Will Cry for my Fate) she becomes a Cleopatra who alternates between cantabile lamenting and angry melismas of a scheming woman. Each phrase in the recitative, each idea, was given a different reading. In “Blessed the Day”, an aria graced with charm and dance rhythms, from the oratorio “Solomon” (1748), Raviv is amorous and coquettish, using facial expression and eyes to enhance her role as a queen recalling her wedding day.
‘Bless’d the day when first my eyes
Saw the wisest of the wise!
Bless’d the day when I was led
To ascend the nuptial bed!
But completely bless’d the day,
On my bosom as he lay,
When he call’d my charms divine,
Vowing to be only mine.’

In “Credete al mio dolore” (Believe my Pain) from “Alceste” (premiered in 1735), only viol and harpsichord play, with Herzog’s somber, rich, dark melodic lines contrasting vividly with the heart-rending chagrin expressed Raviv’s silvery register. Raviv sets the scene for the wonderful, soothing “Oh Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?” from “Semele”, a work that is more an opera than an oratorio, making use of her stable but controlled and delicate legato. Her diction is outstanding. (The Scottish Church’s acoustic puts any singer’s diction to test.) No less mellifluous was “Softly Sweet in Lydian Measures” sung by Thais, from “Alexander’s Feast” (1736), the setting being a banquet held by Alexander the Great and his mistress, Thais.

Three works on the program offered the audience an opportunity to hear each instrumentalist in a solo capacity. The Sonata in C major for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord Obbligato, performed here by Herzog and Shemer, had been found in Handel’s own hand and was initially attributed to him. It was later thought to have been composed by the German composer Matthias Lefloth (1705-1731) but this hypothesis has since been rejected, the work now being considered anonymous. We were presented with a communicative, brilliant and colorful performance, with melodic strands shining out and interweaving articulately, with Herzog assuming centre stage at a given moment, immediately stepping back to give the harpsichord the say at the next.

Japanese-born classical- and Baroque violinist Yasuko Hirata, in Israel since 2000, has studied and performed in Japan and Europe. Her commanding tone and reading of Handel’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo opus 1 no. 12 in F major, set off by Shemer’s fine continuo language, was a celebration of elegant, cantabile and dynamic playing, a myriad of nuanced phrases and varied textures.

Handel was among Europe’s best keyboard players. His 25 or so harpsichord suites are, however, a mixed bag; it seems he used them for teaching purposes, not originally intending to see them published. Some consist of only one movement. Two collections of them did eventually appear in print during his lifetime and another 12 remained unknown till the 20th century. Shemer, playing on a Klop harpsichord, performed Handel’s Suite in D minor HWV 436, from the second collection (1733). From the opening of the luxuriant Allemande, where Shemer allows each phrase to dictate pace and flexibility, through his fiery rendering of the Gigue, to the lilting final Minuetto con 3 Variazione, Shemer invites his audience to indulge in active listening, to be entertained at the royal court.

Dr. Myrna Herzog’s programming is creative and different. Each PHOENIX concert is a musical adventure and the players she chooses with whom to make fine music are of the highest quality. This concert was no exception.

“Handel the Entertainer”
Soloists of Ensemble Phoenix
Myrna Herzog-musical director, viola da gamba
Yasuko Hirata-Baroque violin
Revital Raviv-soprano
David Shemer-harpsichord
St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem
February 12, 2009

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra "The Double Leaf"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third concert of the 2008-2009 season, “The Double Leaf”, was a special affair. Guest artists from Italy were Baroque oboist Paolo Grazzi and his twin brother Alberto Grazzi, on the Baroque bassoon. Joining them was Israeli Baroque oboist Aviad Gershoni. The JBO’s musical director, Dr. David Shemer, conducted the concert.

Paolo Grazzi teaches, performs with several European ensembles, researches and manufactures replicas of historical Baroque oboes. Alberto Grazzi plays with various Baroque orchestras, records and teaches. He is co-founder of the Zefiro Ensemble. Aviad Gershoni studied oboe and composition in Israel, has recently been studying with Paolo Grazzi at the Verona Conservatory and performs widely.

The concert opened with Georg Muffat’s (1653-1704) Nobilis Juventus (Noble Youth) Suite on d minor from his Florilegium Secundum. Muffat, who considered himself German, was of Scottish parents but was born in Savoy, France. Showing great talent early in life, he was sent at age ten to study with Lully. After two years as organist at a church in Molsheim, he departed in 1674 in order to study Law. He never took up Law but secured a position in Salzburg in the service of Archbishop Gandolf. He took leave of the post in about 1861 to travel to Italy, where he studied with Pasquini and came under the influence of Corelli. In 1690, Muffat became Kapellmeister at the Passau court of Bishop Johann Philipp. It was there that he produced his important Florilegia orchestral suites, (the term “Florilegium” refers to a collection of excerpts from written texts, especially works of literature), the first in 1695; the second, written three years later, consists of eight suites for orchestra. In his prefaces, he gives valuable information as to performance practice of Italian- as well as French Baroque music. The suites are unusual in the sense that, although written by a German composer, they are fashioned in the French style. The Suite in d minor we heard is from the second collection. Played on strings, oboes, bassoon and theorbo, with Shemer at the harpsichord, Muffat presents us with an elegant dance suite opening with a French Overture, each dance depicting the character of noblemen, perhaps also hinting at national character traits, of different countries. Violinist Noam Schuss played the solo in the “Air pour les Hollandois”.

The evening’s program included three Vivaldi woodwind concertos. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) composed three concertos for two oboes and strings. The Concerto in d minor for two oboes would have been composed some time between 1715 and 1725. Soloists were Paolo Grazzi and Aviad Gershoni. In a performance that was a joy to the senses, Grazzi and Gershoni’s phrases, many of them homophonic, were well etched, their ornamenting perfectly coordinated. In the second movement – Largo - sandwiched between two energetic and exhilarating movements, the oboes answered and imitated each other producing a dreamy, lyrical, piano tone to die for, they artists treating dissonances with articulate subtlety.

Of the more than 500 concertos Vivaldi wrote, some 39 were for bassoon. The Concerto in e minor for bassoon was written for performance at Venice’s Ospedale della Pieta, an orphanage for girls where Vivaldi taught. The demands made on the soloist are proof of the high standard of musicianship at the school. Bassoonist Alberto Grazzi was joined by four bowed instruments, theorbo and harpsichord, making for a delicate, velvety soundscape. Alberto Grazzi allowed each phrase to dictate its own natural pace in the first movement – Allegro poco – where the bassoon has much lively interplay with the strings. In the Andante movement, the violins collaborate in serious, poignant passages, with the bassoon adding warmth of sound. In the third movement - Allegro – Grazzi was commanding and wove his lines in with brilliance and ease, neglecting neither the shaping of small nuances nor a play of color and textures.

Vivaldi’s pairing of the solo instruments in his Concerto in G major for oboe and bassoon is a rare one but he makes an unforgettable statement as to the expressive possibilities of such a concerto. The Grazzi brothers were soloists for this concerto. The opening Andante molto establishes his soloists as independent of each other in a movement of lavish beauty, whereas, in the dignified middle movement, Vivaldi dispenses with the orchestra, leaving his soloists with the basso continuo. The audience reveled in the individual quality of colors brought out by the soloists, their technical ease, flexibility and accuracy and, overall, the delicacy of textures they produced.

Another opportunity to hear the Grazzi brothers was the Trio Sonata in F major for oboe, bassoon and basso continuo. This work is generally attributed to George Frideric Handel but the manuscript was never found. Slow movements were tender and melodic, with fine quality of tone. The Allegro movements were dynamic and performed with energy and brilliance, the soloists, however, never sacrificing good taste to showy performance.

Like Muffat, French composer and violinist Jean-Fery Rebel (1666-1747) studied with Lully. Rebel enjoyed a long, illustrious career that included playing in the “Twenty four Violins of the King” and serving as court composer to Louis XIV. Some of Rebel’s works, therefore, combine dance with music; a new theatrical form of entertainment referred to as the “ballet d’action” appeared around 1720, with dance and gesture combining to relate a story and express emotions. “Les Caracteres de la Danse”, Rebel’s second ballet, was premiered in Paris in 1715, featuring two great and very different dancers of the day - Marie Salle and Marie-Anne Cupis de Camargo. Voltaire admired both dancers, clearly not to the same extent, and dedicated the following to them:

‘Ah! Camargo how brilliant you are!
But Salle, great gods, is ravishing!
How light your steps; but how sweet are hers!
You are fresh, she is inimitable
Nymphs jump like you,
But the Graces dance like her!’

This unique and graceful composition is a pot-pourri of condensed court dances (of those elevated to a place of supreme importance by Louis XIV, a fine dancer, himself) , with two demanding, short sonata sections in the Italian style. The work is festive, its structure intelligent; the evening’s delightful and spirited performance was enhanced by having the Grazzi brothers join the ranks of the JBO.

“The Double Leaf” refers to the double-reeded instruments played by the evening’s soloists. These players’ strength lies in their ability to blend, their fine intonation and their joy in sharing the delights of courtly entertainment with the audience. In their hands, playing these tricky instruments looked easy! Added to these, Shemer’s fine programming made it a festive concert indeed.

“The Double Leaf”
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra
David Shemer-conductor
Paolo Grazzi (Italy)-Baroque oboe
Alberto Grazzi (Italy)-Baroque bassoon
Aviad Gershoni-Baroque oboe
The Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship – Jerusalem YMCA
January 27, 2009