Thursday, October 27, 2011

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs "French Delight - Songs of Wine and Love" at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary with a wide choice of concerts performed in the two Abu Gosh churches. Festival-goers came from far and wide to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the concerts, small outdoor musical events under the expansive trees, the craft stalls and a picnic in the natural surroundings of the Judean Hills in autumn. The Crypt below the Crusader Church, with its lively acoustics, is the venue for a host of chamber concerts. The church’s leafy, well-tended garden, with its flowers and mature palm trees, offers the visitor tranquility.

Four members of the PHOENIX Ensemble – Assif Am-David (baritone), Yasuko Hirata (Baroque violin), Marina Minkin (spinet) and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog (viol and recorder) performed “French Delight – Songs of Wine and Love” in the Crypt October 20th, 2011. The artists opened with a an anonymous 12th century Jongleur song “A l’entrada del temps clar” (When the clear days come) a jolly song celebrating spring, dance, love and fertility, sung in Occitan (a vernacular local to southern France and Spain and areas of Italy) with all the musicians joining in singing of the chorus.

Marina Minkin takes us into the realm of elegant French court music with the third prelude of François Couperin’s “L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin” (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) - actually an 18th century instruction book containing information on technique, fingering, phrasing, ornamentation and keyboard performance style. Minkin’s performance of it is pensive, carefully paced and gently swayed. Couperin’s Concerts Royaux (Royal Concerts)were composed for the ailing Louis XIV and to be performed at the Sunday concerts at Versailles by renowned court musicians, including the composer himself. We heard a sympathetic reading of two movements from the Second Concert Royal, the Prelude played on bass viol and spinet, with Yasuko Hirata sculpting each musical gesture in the more Italienate Air Contrefugué.

In “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (1919), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wished to celebrate “Le Grand” as a founder of the French school of keyboard music in a set of piano pieces written in the instrumental forms of Couperin’s time. In the Menuet (dedicated to the memory of Jean Dreyfus, one of the fallen of the First World War) Herzog plays the opening melody on recorder, later moving to the bass viol. Minkin’s abundant use of spreads adds a plucked texture and intensity to the melancholy character of the piece. A small tasty morsel was Francis Poulenc’s (1988-1963) Villanelle for pipeau (a French folk flute, chosen by the composer to lend an authentic aspect to the villanelle, a peasant song) and piano (1934). The piccolo role was played on recorder by Herzog in this miniature of French transparency and harmonic richness.

The program offered much variety of French vocal music. When Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683-1764) opera “Dardenus” (libretto: Charles-Antoine le Clerc) was premiered in 1739, the critics accused Rameau of creating an opera with no coherent plot; they claimed that the inclusion of the sea monster violated the French operatic convention of having a clear purpose for encounters with supernatural beings. Rameau eventually rewrote the tragédie en musique leaving out some of the supernatural elements. But, for those of us with a penchant for the fantastic and the bizarre, the “Monstre affreux” (Hideous Monster) number was a treat, its introduction already warning us that we were in for some full-on drama. Baritone Assif Am-David is convincing, dramatic and expressive, the piece’s range bringing out the pleasing mix of vocal color in Am-David’s high register.
‘Dread monster, fearsome monster,
Ah! How kind fate would be to me
If he exposed me only to no blows but yours!
Dread monster, fearsome monster
Ah! Love is much more terrible than you.’

This was followed by Rameau’s early cantata “Thétis” (c.1715), a work borrowing elements of French opera. Thétis is a very beautiful sea-goddess. The cantata tells of her being courted by both Zeus (Jupiter) god of the sky and weather (thunder included) and Poseidon (Neptune) ruler of the waves, both of whom demonstrate their power in a terrifying fashion. Thétis chooses to marry a mortal – Peleus - bearing him a son, Achilles. Herzog referred to this cantata as a feminist work.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) used a poem of 16th century poet Clément Marot for his song “D’Anne jouent de l’espinette” (To Anne Who Plays the Spinet) of 1896. In this pre-World War I song, Am-David’s descriptive approach and fine French enunciation is coupled with Minkin’s strategically timed and refined playing, Ravel’s whimsical keyboard writing suggesting the young Anne at the spinet practicing. (Marina Minkin was playing on a triangular spinet, built in 1992 for Herzog in San Paulo, Brazil, by Abel Vargas.)
‘When I watch the pretty young brunette, and hear her voice and her fingers making a sweet sound on the keyboard, both my eyes and ears feel a greater pleasure than the saints in their immortal glory – and I become as glorious as they are when I think that she might love me a little.’

In keeping with all things French, the concert ended with four songs on the subject of food and wine, beginning, on a sad note, with Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) “Tristesse” (Sadness) opus 6/2, composed originally for voice and piano. The text is from Gautier’s “La Comédie de la Mort” (The comedy of Death) (1838). This song, with its Parisian emphasis on the first, rather than second syllable and melodramatic refrain, takes the listener on an interesting and not-always-predictable melodic journey, with the violin adding bitter-sweet comments. Am-David weaves in the melodic line sensitively, also speaking some of the words…giving it a very French flavor.

It is fitting that Ravel’s last completed work, his song cycle for voice and orchestra “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” (Don Quixote to Dulcinea) (1932-33) to texts by Paul Morand, should refer back to his Spanish roots, both musically and in subject matter. The audience delighted in Am-David’s exuberant performance of the Drinking Song, a jaunty, sassy jota (Spanish song-dance form), enhanced by Minkin’s Spanish guitar effects on the spinet. Following J-B de Bousset’s (1662-1727) tamer drinking song, the concert ended with Gabriel Bataille’s (1575-1630) strophic courtly air “Qui veut chasser une migraine” (Whoever wants to chase away a migraine headache). Rife with dance rhythms, the lascivious text, peppered with the graphic details of rustic “courtship”, offers a dubious cure for the affliction – drink!
‘Water does nothing but rot the lungs,
Drink, drink, drink, friends!
Let’s empty this glass and fill it up again…’

Myrna Herzog does not hesitate to mix secular French works of the 17th- to 20th century in one program, and in no specific chronological order; and this works well! The PHOENIX arrangements, created partly by her and partly evolving from discussion among the players themselves, are pleasing and colorful and allow for individual expression. The intimate Crypt, with the festival audience seated on three sides of the stage, offers a very lively acoustic to players and singers and to the joy of listeners. The intermingling of church bells and the muezzin calling to prayer provide a meaningful background to the Abu Gosh events.

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