Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2011-2012 season with "The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was curious to hear the ensemble’s opening concert for the 2011-2012 season - “The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan” - in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre November 1st, 2011. This all-Bach program was the JBO’s first concert in this venue. The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra was founded by Maestro David Shemer in 1989 and continues to be directed by him.

The program opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Ouverture-Suite no.3 in D major BWV 1068, one of four Orchestral Suites (also referred to as “Ouvertures”) probably composed in Leipzig in the 1720’s and possibly first performed by the Collegium Musicum – an association of musicians and music enthusiasts, of which Bach was a member. In his program notes, Shemer talks of the Collegium Musicum concerts as being one of the first concert series in Europe. With Bach and his contemporaries constantly “borrowing” from themselves, these suites may well be arrangements from previously composed works. In the D major Suite, orchestration varies from movement to movement; the instrumentation – which includes three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, strings and continuo - suggests that it may have been written for performance outdoors. The oboes rarely play independently of the violins, with the trumpets and drums adding color and emphasis. Bach chose the bright, open key of D major for this suite, which is based on French dance movements. Opening with a dotted, decidedly grand French overture the JBO presented each dance and mood, leaning into dissonances, the rich scoring supporting the more exuberant movements. Violinist Boris Begelman leads articulately, etching phrases with elegance and shape. In the well-loved second movement – Air – Begelman’s cantabile (but, happily, not over-sentimental) playing of this much-loved solo melody delighted the audience, his tasteful and sparing use of vibrato ornamenting longer- and key notes.

The JBO’s performance of Bach’s secular cantata “The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan” BWV 201 was a groundbreaker, being the first performance of this wonderful work on period instruments and by an Israeli ensemble. To a libretto by Picander (after Ovid), it is unique in that it was neither commissioned nor dedicated to a patron, thus giving the composer the liberty to express his own opinions on aesthetic- and other matters. The opening chorus, with its rich, swirling instrumentation, sets the scene for Bach’s prescribing of a few home truths, these clothed in a frivolous storyline. Take, for example, the wisdom of Momus (god of satire, mockery, censure, writers and poets) in an aria performed by young soprano Anat Edri. Edri’s voice is excellent for Baroque music, her technique light and agile.
‘My lord, this is just wind –
When someone brags and has no cash,
When someone thinks the truth
Only what is in front of his eyes,
When fools are clever,
When fortune itself is blind –
My lord, this is just wind.’

Mezzo-soprano Inbal Hever’s reedy, strong voice has presence and a rich mix of vocal color. As Mercurius (god of trade, abundance and commercial success) it is she (he, actually) who suggests that Pan and Phoebus should each choose a judge and that they hold a context. In her final aria “Puffed up passion”, in which Mercurius warns those who know nothing not to judge, flautists Geneviève Blanchard and Idit Shemer join forces, gracing the aria in a superb obbligato duet. It seems this aria carries a word of advice to music critics….

Phoebus was played by bass Assif Am-David. His understanding of Baroque style, excellent German, humor and natural stage ability were matched by mellifluous singing of melismatic passages and delicate ornamentation in “With longing I press your tender cheeks”. Bach’s lighter instrumentation creates the mood, also expressed elegantly by Blanchard on flute.

Tenor David Nortman, sang the role of Tmolus - a mountain god, judge of the musical contest between Phoebus and Pan. In his pleasing presentation of the aria “Phoebus, your melody was born of charm itself”, he is joined by the warm and caressing sounds of the Baroque bassoon (Alexander Fine) in dialogue with superb playing on the part of German oboist Inge Brendler, who, at the last minute, more-than-competently took over the reins from the first oboist who was taken ill.

Adding a lighter vocal timbre was Jake White (UK) who played Mydas, the wealthy but foolish king of Phrygia, whose golden touch did not prevent him from being awarded a pair of asses’ ears (we hear the braying in Bach’s score) for his poor judgement in preferring the music of the pipe. Setting off the vocal line was the articulate and artfully-phrased playing of double bass player Dara Blum
‘Ah! Do not torment me so much.
That is the way I heard it.
How badly this appointment
Has turned out for me.’

Audiences are currently enjoying bass-baritone Oded Reich’s lustrous, stable voice and musicality in many local performances. Outstanding in his expressive performance of sacred music, he, indeed, entered into the whimsical spirit of this cantata in the role of Pan. Both facially expressive and light of foot in the following aria, he also created a nice contrast in the serious content of middle section.
‘In dancing and leaping my heart shakes.
When music sounds too laborious
And the voice sings under control,
Then it arouses no fun”.

The soloists also formed the chorus, as in the manner of Bach’s own performances of his choral works. Unfortunately, the changed acoustic of the recently-refurbished stage of the Henry Crown Auditorium seemed to somewhat intercept the JBO’s brightness and articulacy of sound before it reached the ears of the audience. There were also some intonation problems with the Baroque trumpets; nevertheless, it was a treat hearing these natural instruments in a Bach cantata, problematic as they are, and let’s hear more of them!

“The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan” is a fine work, worthy of more airing. The audience followed the text with interest and left the concert smiling and well entertained. This reviewer, however, is not taking Picander’s text and Bach’s message with a grain of salt!

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