Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir performs works by Faure and Gounod

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, together with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, opened the 10th Jerusalem Arts Festival with a performance of Faure’s “Requiem” and Gounod’s “Messe Solonelle de Sainte Cecile” (Saint Cecilia Mass) March 29th 2011 in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert, “Vocal Liturgy with a French Aroma”, was conducted by Aharon Harlap. Soloists were soprano Enas Massalha, tenor Eitan Drori and bass-baritone Oded Reich.

Once a year, all four ensembles of the Oratorio Choir join to perform major works from the choral repertoire. Conductors of the individual choirs – Ronen Borshevsky (Oratorio Chamber Choir), Oded Shomrony (The Oratorio Singers), Noah Burstein (Bel Canto) and Flora Vinokurov (Cantabile) – work mostly on individual programs with their choirs. Maestro Ronen Borshevsky guided the singers through the lion’s share of preparation of the two large choral works for the concert, with Maestro Harlap adding the finishing touches and conducting the concert itself.

Words of welcome were spoken by Mr. Shemi Amsalem (head of the Jerusalem Municipality Arts and Culture Departments) and Mr. Yossi Heiman (General Director, Jerusalem Municipality.) They spoke of Jerusalem as an important centre of culture and of the 26 dance-, drama- and musical events of the Jerusalem Arts Festival in halls and in the open as providing a platform for local amateur performers.

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) spoke of his best-known work, the choral-orchestral setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead as “everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion” in “my Requiem, which, moreover, is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest”. Composed in stages between 1887 and 1900, Faure’s “Requiem” in D minor opus 48 got off to a shaky start: following the first performance January 16th 1888 at “La Madeleine” Church in Paris, where Faure was chief organist and choirmaster, with children making up the soprano section and a boy soloist performing the “Pie Jesu” (Kind Lord Jesus), the composer was reprimanded by the vicar for presenting prayers of “dangerous novelties”. Faure, clear in his intention to stay away from the operatic “bel canto” style and “larger-than-life” statements fashionable in Paris at the time, used melodies and rhythms from Gregorian chant in a setting suggesting freedom and spontaneity. However, he is more than explicit when it comes to markings and performance instructions; Faure uses color and rich, complex harmonies to paint his soundscape rather than dramatic fortissimos (of which there are, in all, 30 bars!) Viewing death as “a happy deliverance, an aspiring towards the happiness of the hereafter, rather than as a painful passing away”, the composer omits the “Sequentia” section of the Mass text, with its apocalyptic sense of wretchedness and allusions to hell; he adds the “Pie Jesu” and “In Paradisum”, both of which speak of eternal rest. As to the verbal text, Faure had no qualms about leaving out a phrase or adding a word in order to shape the music.

From the outset of the work, Harlap and his musicians create the mysterious, introspective mood of the work, its many effective dynamic changes expressed in pastel tints. The choir was well coordinated, its choral blend pleasing, if not always transparent. The large choir moved together well, exercising restraint and good taste, gestures and phrase beginnings and endings articulate and artistically chiseled. In the “Sanctus”, the atmosphere brightens, and ethereal timbres sweep away earlier introspection, the work returning to haunting acceptance and spiritual comfort of the “In Paradisum”. Bass-baritone Oded Reich handled the “Offertoire” (Offertory – when bread and wine are brought to the altar in the Eucharist service) and the “Libera me” (Deliver me) solos expressively and with conviction, his richly-colored vocal timbre matched with musicality and poise. Soprano Enas Massalha’s singing of the pivotal “Pie Jesu” (final couplet from the “Dies Irae” text) was profound yet understated, her shaping of it taking its cues from the text itself, her vocal quality captivating. Not to be ignored is the importance of the organ part throughout, ever present in its humility and ecclesiastical association, handled competently by Tanya Schupak, whose tireless work with the choir and its members is admirable.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is appreciated by the listening public as an opera composer, but his sacred works outnumber the 13 operas from his pen. In fact, he studied theology at the Saint-Sulpice Roman Catholic Church (Paris) and spent time in the Sistine Chapel studying the works of 16th century masters; for a while he even referred to himself as “Abbe Gounod”. The challenge of composing a grand mass in honor of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was no easy one, presenting the composer with many dilemmas. After the premiering of the “Messe Solonnelle de Sainte Cecile” November 1855 (St. Cecilia’s Day) in Paris’ Sainte-Eustache Church, Saint-Saens spoke of the work as causing “a kind of shock”, that “its serene light, which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people” and that congregants were “dazzled, then charmed, then conquered”.

One of the few Romantic Masses intended specifically for the church, it is rich and lush and cushioned in an accessible, highly Romantic harmonic style. Harlap’s reading of it brings out its intimacy, joy, pomp, fine melodies and its play of instrumental and vocal color; he steers away from the sentimentality sadly present in some performances of the work. Soloists Massalha, Reich and Drori weave their vocal lines in and out of the textural fabric. In the “Sanctus”, the climax of the Mass, tenor Eitan Drori, his silvery, distinctive voice projecting with ease, contends well with the orchestra. Massalha’s soothing and prayerful performance, opening the “Benedictus”, issues in the translucent and uplifting “Osanna”, with the compassionate Agnus Dei” rondo closing the work, in which solos and choral sections alternate. The ICO supported all the way, its brass section adding vim and gloss to climactic moments.

Most members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir are amateur singers. The results of their musicality, devotion and hard work, and that of the conductors, were impressive and, indeed, pleasurable in this festive and enjoyable concert.

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