Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The PHOENIX Ensemble - In the Green Fields of Scotland

The evening of July 12th 2009 was balmy. Through the large arched windows of the auditorium of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University), manicured gardens meet the eye; the background is the Old City of Jerusalem, spread out before us, with its countless square, stone buildings, small towers dotted here and there and the wall surrounding it. The gold on the Dome of the Rock Mosque sparkles in the last rays of daylight as the sky slowly turns from beige to indigo blue.

The PHOENIX Ensemble was presenting “In the Green Fields of Scotland” in the Brigham Young’s series of Sunday Evening Classics. Those performing were Brazilian-born researcher and teacher Myrna Herzog, the ensemble’s founder and musical director on treble and bass viols, Marina Minkin - harpsichord and organ - and soprano Tamar Kleinberger.

‘High in the misty Highlands,
Out by the purple islands,
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies.
Wild are the winds to meet you,
Staunch are the friends that greet you,
Kind as the love that shines from fair maiden’s eyes.’

The above verse is taken from “Scotland the Brave”, one of the traditional bagpipe tunes played by Herzog on the treble viol. Herzog’s performance of them was evocative and true to bagpipe style, with the artist adorning the beautiful melodies with a wistful touch of the characteristic drone. Her reading of “Amazing Grace” was moving.

Israeli soprano Tamar Kleinberger has a wide repertoire and has performed widely in Israel, England and Europe. Her years of study in Britain and fine command of British English make her well suited to singing Scottish songs. She uses her stable, silvery voice to convey the gestures of each song, never overstepping the bounds of good taste. The 16th century songs she performed speak of May - the season of love, of fidelity, of parting and of unreciprocated love. Andro Blackhall (c.1535-1609) was the most important of the first generation of post-Reformation Scottish composers. His jolly “Adieu, o desie of delyt” is in the form of a letter from a man to his lady. The anonymous “Let not, I say, the sluggish sleep” has religious content, its words suggesting that one’s soul should be examined before drifting into sleep at night. In this song, Herzog takes the melody of one stanza into the high register of the bass viol, creating an interesting timbre. Her arrangements of all these strophic songs delight the senses, offer instrumental solos and allow for a little ornamentation; she has the bass viol double the melody or add an extra melodic line to the song. Minkin’s fineness of taste and elegant harpsichord technique give the songs an air of delicacy. Unfortunately, not all the words came across clearly. Whether an issue of diction or balance, or both, it would have been helpful to have words of the songs printed on the program.

A pleasing combination was of the cantabile 17th century Scottish song “Tweedside” sung by Kleinberger, followed by Italian composer and violinist Francesco Maria Veracini’s (1690-1768) Scottish Sonata upon Tweedside for viola da gamba and continuo. Veracini was never in Scotland but spent time in London, where Scottish songs were all the craze. Herzog and Minkin gave a contrasted performance of this sonata, starting with its gentle first movement and moving into the abrasive introduction of the second, in which the song is then quoted. The resulting Scozzesse is a clever fusion of Scottish and Italian styles, with the following expressive Largo changing the mood once again. The work, itself, offers both artists opportunities for individual expression and was much enjoyed by the audience.

For a change of atmosphere, Marina Minkin, born in the Ukraine and in Israel since 1981, played an “In Nomine” by the English composer, keyboard player and organ builder John Bull (c.1562-1628). An organ piece of gradual harmonic and contrapuntal development, Minkin’s leisurely pace showed the listener through the text of the “In Nomine”. This work was well suited to the organ of the auditorium.

The concert ended with a group of Scottish folk songs, including the much discussed “Loch Lomond”. The style of Herzog’s settings reflects the fact these songs are “early music”. Her poignant setting of “I’m owre young to marry yet” for voice and viol was a treat.

In this momentary journey, the PHOENIX Ensemble placed before us the fresh greenness of Scotland’s scenery, its history and its poetry, in a concert beautifully presented and worked in fine detail.

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