Saturday, December 10, 2011

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble performs the Zapotec Mass

The PHOENIX Ensemble is once again performing “The Zapotec Mass”, a Mexican Baroque work; the first modern performance of the work was presented by PHOENIX in the Israel Festival of 2006. A recent performance took place November 28th 2011 at Our Lady of Peace Chapel at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. The imposing building, overlooking the New Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, was completed in 1984; it suffered heavy damage in 1948 and was restored to its original status as a pilgrim centre in 1973.

In the course of her research on Latin American Baroque music, PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog met American musicologist Dr. Mark Brill after having read his article “Stylistic Evolution in the Oaxaca Cathedral:1600-1800”. Brill, who had discovered the Zapotec Mass at Tulane University, New Orleans, sent Herzog a score of the work, which he had edited. Having later heard Herzog’s performance of it, Brill was thrilled with the PHOENIX rendition, claiming that her “festive approach” was “exactly what this kind of music needs”. A four-voiced work with some stylistic traits of native Mexican composers, Herzog worked much on deciphering its tempi and rhythm changes and, aware of the fact that the Mexicans like the Mass performed with instruments – chrimias (shawms), recorders, sackbuts, dulcians, rebec, etc. - she needed to find suitable instruments and the people to play them! In the Jerusalem performance, the VOCE PHOENIX Vocal Ensemble made its official debut. Formed by Herzog, this new group consists of seven solo singers – sopranos Einat Aronstein and Michal Okon, altos Avital Deri and Alon Harari (countertenor), tenor Yaacov Halperin, baritone Zachariah Kariithi and bass Assaf Benrath.

The Zapotec Mass was written by an Indian of the Zapotec tribe. Dr. Herzog has put together a “spectacle”, which includes the Mass as well as songs and dances of a number of Mexican Baroque sacred music composers, in what she refers to as a “time-space-culture trip”, the music representing various local populations: Indians, black slaves and Europeans of different origins. The Kyrie-Gloria, Credo, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei include pieces of various composers, each section ending with the relevant movement from the Zapotec Mass. The pieces accompanying the Mass were chosen by Herzog in an attempt to create an imaginary trip to Mexico. In fact, she recently visited the region of the Zapotec Indian tribe, the capital of which is Oaxaca, and was impressed by the area and its pyramids.

With gentle bird call effects issuing in the evening’s music, we are immediately transported far away from our own urban reality to the colors and rhythms of Mexico’s natural surroundings. The different styles represented here work well together - from gentle, lilting Mexican dance rhythms, to contrapuntal sacred music, to joyful celebratory pieces; this is due to careful, sensitive and tasteful approach to detail, shaping and balance of timbres. Singers were heard as soloists, duos, in small groups and as an ensemble. Kenyan baritone Zachariah Kariithi’s rich, easeful and natural singing was convincing and uplifting; countertenor Alon Harari’s vocal presence and articulate diction, Avital Deri’s well-profiled, mellow singing, Einat Aronstein’s delightfully pure sound and Assaf Benraf’s anchoring bass voice were joined by Michal Okon’s clean, tasteful and well-projected singing. Okon is clearly at home in the Spanish language and with this genre.

No less pleasing was the instrumental ensemble, outstanding in its attention to each individual mood and color, the blending of instruments and to the quality and textural diversity of the various solos. Herzog mostly conducted, infusing the music with its innate joy and infectious rhythms; at other times she joined as an instrumentalist.
The players were Shira Ben Yehoshua (shawm), Adi Silberberg (recorders, colascione), Raphael Isaac Landzbaum (alto bajón, recorders), Liron Rinot (sackbut), Alexander Fine (bass bajón), Omer Schonberger (charango, vilhuela, Baroque guitar), Dara Bloom (violone). Among the solos, there was some very impressive recorder-playing. Alexander Fine’s leading of the wind band, Rony Iwryn’s awareness of style and sensitive percussion playing and Yizhar Karshon’s (harpsichord, organ) attention to harmonic structure and to all his fellow players made for the integrating of all the musical strands.

Drawing all the threads of the program matter together to end the concert, we heard a Juguete (carol) & Guaracha (a genre of popular Cuban music of rapid tempo and with lyrics) by Juan Garcia de Zéspedes (c.1619-1678). Born in Puebla, Mexico, he sang as a choirboy under chapel master Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (we heard a piece of Padilla in the Credo section of the program), eventually succeeding him in the post. Zéspedes composed both sacred and secular compositions in many styles – from that of Palestrina to the folkloric. “Convidando está la noche” (The night is inviting)begins as a tender lullaby, or perhaps something between a chorale and a sarabande; then, graced by vocal solos, the music changes and the Christ child is celebrated by an exuberant guaracha, Iwryn’s percussion solo lending spontaneity to the piece.
'The night is inviting here
With various pieces of music;
To the newborn infant
Let's sing tender songs of adoration...
Oh, in the guaracha, let's celebrate him
While the infant surrenders to dreams...
May they play and dance
Because we have fire in the snow, snow in the fire...' Translation:Myrna Herzog

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