Sunday, May 23, 2010

"This Night I Dance" - the PHOENIX Ensemble presents Baroque music from Latin America

Taking time out from the pace and pressures of everyday life in urban Israel, we made our way up to the Eden-Tamir Music Center - a venue nestling in its own leafy, tranquil garden in Ein Kerem Jerusalem - to be transported to Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia. “Esa noche yo baila” (This Night I Dance), a concert performed by the PHOENIX Ensemble on May 15th 2010, featured secular and religious music from Baroque Latin America: music of composers, of various ethnic groups and of the fusion that has resulted from the different cultural streams. Joining soprano Michal Okon were Dr. Myrna Herzog, founder and musical director of the PHOENIX Ensemble, performing on viol, rabel, recorder and crumhorn, Adi Silberberg on recorders, crumhorn, rauschpfeife and colascione, Michael Ely on Baroque guitar, Baroque charango and colascione and Nadav Gaiman on percussion.

The program was divided into groups of pieces representing music from the streets, from the palaces, religious music, music of the Blacks and that of the Indians. Some of the pieces performed were selected from the Trujillo Codex – an important and authentic collection of nine volumes of watercolors together with19 musical pieces gathered from 1782 to 1785 in the streets and villages of Peru by Baltasar Martinez Companon y Bajanda, Bishop of Trujillo. Opening with “Esa noche yo baila”, we find ourselves hearing a folksy, antiphonal song to the delicate background sounds of birds and street noises of 17th century Bolivia. In the Peruvian song “Marizapalos bajo una tarde” (One Evening They Left Marizapalos) we learn of a country girl and boy going off to the forest together, to be saved from “misconduct” by the arrival of the maiden's uncle, who is no other than the priest. Following Michael Ely’s poetic introduction, Michal Okon spins the earthy, tongue-in-cheek tale, her verses punctuated with delicate interludes on viol, guitar, recorder and percussion.

The program included pieces in the typically joyfully, infectious dance rhythms of Spain and Latin America. In Spanish composer Antonio Martin y Coll’s ((1660-1740) “Danza de la hacha” (Axe Dance) instrumentalists entertained the audience with recorder, alto- and bass crumhorns, rabel and Baroque guitar in a rousing, foot-tapping performance. In “La Bomba”, a piece representing the Blacks, we hear Herzog on the rabel (a bowed chordophone common in the Iberian Peninsula) and Silberberg on recorder. The folksy, repetitive character of the dance creates carefree timelessness.

The religious pieces on the program draw attention to the deeply spiritual conviction of the Latin American people. Of particular interest was “Qhapac eterno Dios” (God Omnipotent) written by Luis Jeronimo de Ore (d.1620), a Peruvian bishop and scholar of Indian dialects into which he translated several religious works, the above-mentioned piece being one of them. Composed in1598, it is actually a Credo. Sounding over a drone, the melody is presented in its simplicity by Okon, with Silberberg taking one verse on the recorder. Showing Baroque emphasis on text expression, Okon and the instrumentalists then present a tranquil, reverent reading of “Mi nino dulce y sagrado” (My Sweet, Holy Son) by Gaspar Fernandes (1565-1629), a Portuguese composer and organist active in the cathedrals of Antigua Guatemala and Mexico.

Music in the courts of Latin America was dominated by Spanish composers. Santiago de Murcia (1673-1739) was a Spanish guitarist and composer. Manuscripts of his music, however, have been found in Chile. Michael Ely performed de Murcia’s “Marionas” on Baroque guitar; the piece combines art music with traditional Spanish guitar music. In Mexican composer Francisco Escalada’s (fl.1677) Christmas song “Canten dos jilguerillos” (Two Finches Singing) the instrumentalists join Okon in the word rhythms.

Putting this program together saw Brazilian-born performer and researcher Myrna Herzog spending many hours in New York libraries, searching through archives and corresponding with researchers of Latin American music. All the arrangements are those of Herzog. On one hand, she begins rehearsals only once her scores are ready; on the other, she keeps an open mind to extra ideas resulting from discussion and suggestions with her fellow performers in rehearsals. The percussion format was worked out by Rony Iwryn together with Herzog. Over the years, PHOENIX’s concerts have given Israeli audiences the opportunity to hear and see early European and Latin American instruments – the rauschpfeife (a 16th century double-reeded “buzzy”), the rabel, the cajon (a robust Afro-Peruvian drum) and the colascione (a long-necked lute). The Baroque charango (a small South American stringed instrument of the lute family) Ely played is the only one of its kind in Israel and was made especially for PHOENIX projects.

Michal Okon was born in Israel to a Mexican father and a Belgian mother who had grown up in Uruguay. Her mother tongue is Spanish and she loves the music, dances, texts and the warmth of Baroque Latin American repertoire. Her voice is bright and stable throughout; her performance, articulate and uncluttered, allows the words and music to speak for themselves.

One of Herzog’s strengths lies in her choice of performers. Michael Ely’s playing illuminates both the rhythmic and harmonic dimensions of the music. Adi Silberberg, a multi-faceted artist, infuses his feel for Latin American music into each musical phrase and gesture…even on the recorder! Young percussionist Nadav Gaiman uses his sense of color and good taste to add hearty rhythms on one hand, with delicately, understated magical touches, on the other. Myrna Herzog’s arrangements are varied and rich in timbres; they invite her performers to both blend and give personal expression to the text at the same time. Her sense of joy, color and her perfectionism make the journey she takes her listeners through the streets and courts of Baroque Latin America a rich, interesting and fulfilling one.

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