Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Gloriana Ensemble performs "Gloriana Armada" at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem

Focusing on Renaissance music, the Gloriana Ensemble is one of Israel’s newest vocal groups. It was founded two years ago by countertenor Noar Lee Naggan; in the meantime, however, the ensemble has undergone changes in an effort to find suitable singers and the kind of blend Naggan had in mind. It presently consists of mezzo-soprano Avital Dery, countertenor Noar Lee Naggan, Eliav Lavi-tenor voice and lute and bass-baritone Oded Reich. An unusual combination of voices, Lee Naggan sings the soprano part, with Dery (whose lower register is extensive and mellow) singing the second line. Noar Lee Naggan studied Animation at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, nowadays designing websites, but has taken voice lessons and sung all his life, soloing as a boy and adult with choirs and orchestras.

At St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church (Jerusalem) on July 17th 2011, the Gloriana Ensemble performed a concert of English- and Spanish Renaissance music, both sacred- and secular. The program’s title - “Gloriana Armada” (The Armed Queen) – refers to the “Golden Age” in England – the period of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (she was sometimes referred to as “Gloriana”).

From the first notes of an anonymous Spanish villancico (a 15th- and 16th century Spanish form of poetry and music similar to the frottola) “Riu riu Chiu” (representing the chirping of the nightingale) to a text about shepherds in the Christmas story, the ensemble’s rich, bold signature timbre, superbly blended sound and finely sculpted phrasing became apparent, and the singers had the audience in the palm of their hands for the duration of the evening! They gave life and humour to the saucy, miniature anonymous Spanish romance “Dindirindin”, the song’s message also embellished with bird calls. Still on the subject of birds, we heard composer and playwright Juan del Encina’s (1468-1529) villancico “Cucú, cucú” a whimsical song that deals out a few home truths on how to keep one’s wife from straying!

Of the English sacred music in the ensemble’s repertoire, we heard three works of Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). “Remember not, o Lord God” and “If ye love Me” are both anthems, written in the vernacular, for the use of the Anglican Church. (Tallis was a Catholic.) The mostly homophonic style of these pieces gives rise to emphasis of specific key words and to the devotional sentiment of the works. In the votive antiphon “Sancte Deus” (Holy God, Holy Mighty One), its Latin text, however, reflecting Tallis’ Catholic faith, the Gloriana singers bring out the highly personal character of the work. Their crystal-clear diction, fired with consonants, addresses the importance of the textural meaning. Also of the Catholic faith, William Byrd (1543-1623) was a pupil of Tallis. The Gloriana Ensemble gave a moving performance of Byrd’s magnificent motet “O Admirabile Commercium” (O wondrous exchange) in a reading rich in choral color and melodic shape.

With the lights in the church lowered, the audience was invited to appreciate the mystic and spiritual temperament of two works of Tomas Luis de Victoria (c.1549-1611). “O Vos Omnes” (1585) belongs to the Tenebrae, a prayer ritual traditionally sung in a darkened church. A work of extraordinary pathos, the composer outlines words of the plangent text with chromatics and other musical devices.
‘O all you who pass by the way,
Pay heed and see
If there is any sorrow like my sorrow.
Pay heed, all people
And see my sorrow.
If there is any sorrow like my sorrow.’
From the same Responsories from the Tenebrae Matins, we heard “Judas Mercator Pessimus” (Judas, the vile merchant), a vehement, at times stark decry of Judas Iscariot. The singers display the passionate, emotional quality of the piece, showing awareness of its “text painting”. Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (c.1590-1664) was greatly influenced by the music of the older Victoria. Using one of the great Marian texts, describing the mother of Jesus at the foot of the cross, Padilla’s “Stabat Mater” is more modest than that of Pergolesi, its scoring less lush that the music of Victoria.

And to the secular content of the program: Alonso Mudarra (1510-1580), a canon at Seville Cathedral, played the vihuela lute and wrote music for it. We heard Avital Dery singing a coquettish, traditional-style villancico from his “Tres Libros de Música” (1546) with Eliav Lavi on lute. Dery and Lavi bring to life Mudarra’s lively vocal- and instrumental score, creating a charming vignette of situation and emotion. Dery’s voice is stable, her singing effortless and pleasingly rich; she displays confidence and competence. A member of the Israeli Bach Soloists, she has soloed with ensembles and orchestras, among them, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Dery is also a physicist.

On the lute, Eliav Lavi then performed a fantasia by court musician Luiz de Narváez, one of the great 16th century masters of Spanish music. “La canción del Emperador”, a reworking of Josquin des Pres’ “Mille Regretz”, can be found in “Les seys libros des dolphin” (1538), a collection including most of Narváez’ works, the vihuela parts written in contemporary Italian tablature. From the rich number of ideas in the piece, it is apparent that Narváez was a skilled improviser on the vihuela. Lavi’s playing of it was delicately paced and flexed, his melodic lines almost narrative in character. This was followed by John Dowland’s Cornish Galliard. Lavi is studying lute at the Academy of Music. He has sung in a number of choirs and taken part in larger productions, including Purcell’s “Fairy Queen”. Lavi has also been a member of a rock band and sometimes plays electric guitar for rock- and pop recordings.

Oded Reich, a student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, is no unknown quantity to the Israeli concert-goer, his soloing in many large choral works, such as Fauré’s Requiem, Gounod’s Saint Cecilia Mass (Aharon Harlap, Oratorio Choir) and the Bach B minor Mass (Andrew Parrott, Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra), inspiring and thrilling audiences with his expressive quality and rich vocal timbre. He will presently be joining the Opera Studio of the Israel Opera.

The Gloriana Ensemble cashed in on the playful and risqué character of John Farmer’s polyphonic, pastoral chanson “Fair Phyllis I Saw Sitting All Alone”, enjoying its humor and conjuring up the hide-and-seek antics of shepherdess Phyllis and her lover.

“When Griping Griefs”, found in William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”, survives both in text and music. A poem by Richard Edwards printed posthumously, reads:
‘Where griping grief the heart would wound
And doleful dumps the mind oppress
Then music with her silver sound
Is wont with speed to give redress,
Of troubled mind for every sore,
Sweet music hath a salve therefore.’
This bitter-sweet work, its melodic and harmonic path one of surprises, was performed by Naggan and Reich, singing alternate verses and then joining, with Lavi accompanying on lute. Noar Lee Naggan understands the genre of Renaissance vocal music; he has fine vocal presence, his countertenor voice powerful, highly colored and even.

The Gloriana Ensemble singers presented their audience with an interesting and well-balanced program, their voices embracing the (problematic) acoustic of the Scottish Church with exuberance and alacrity. The four singers communicate with the audience and each other, presenting a cappella performance with excellence; their accuracy, fine intonation, pleasing pronunciation and innate musicianship will appeal to the most discerning of music-lovers in Israel and further afield. Lutenist Eliav Lavi is an asset to such a group.

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