Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in "The Four Seasons" and more

For myself as a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the “Four Seasons” program February 21st 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre was an important event for a number of reasons: first and foremost, the concert was dedicated to the memory of Aharon Kidron, who passed away a year ago. Aharon Kidron, dear to the hearts of all involved with the JBO, was the general director of the JBO from 2000 to 2010. Viennese composer and virtuoso violinist Johann Heinrich Schmelzer’s (1620-1680) outstandingly beautiful piece “Lamento sopra la morte di Ferdinand III” (Lament on the Death of Ferdinand III) was played to honor Aharon Kidron’s memory. The piece, probably uncommissioned and written spontaneously, was composed in memory of the Habsburg monarch Ferdinand, who died in 1657. He was Schmelzer’s employer and a fellow musician; Schmelzer was director of instrumental music at his court. The piece falls into a number of small sections, each of decidedly different character, from the somber depiction of the funeral procession with the sounding of the death knell, to an allusion to a madrigal written by Ferdinand himself, from florid passages to a little folk-like dance! Played by four string players, with Maestro David Shemer, founder and director of the JBO, at the harpsichord, the artists created the elegiac, fragile opening mystique, sustaining our interest throughout. First violinist Dafna Ravid’s expressive playing added to the poignancy of the performance.

During his employ in Leipzig (1723-1750), Johann Sebastian Bach was responsible for the music in four churches and for the music education of the boys of St. Thomas School. But he also wrote secular music for the community, most of which would have been performed by his Collegium Musicum. The Coffee Cantata BWV 211, composed some time between 1732 and 1735, could be viewed as a miniature comic opera (Bach wrote no operas). Its libretto, penned by Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici), centers around the new fashion of coffee houses and coffee-drinking in European cities. The conservative older generation of the time was alarmed at the effect of caffeine on young people; indeed, for this reason, coffee was not served in German homes until the second half of the 18th century. It could be said that the Coffee Cantata is Bach’s endorsement of the counter-culture. Schlendrian (baritone Oded Reich), representing the attitude of the older generation, is up-in-arms at his daughter Lieschen’s (soprano Revital Raviv) coffee-drinking habit, warning her that if she continues he will give her no wedding breakfast, no beautiful dress and no ring. The theme of this witty minor drama is, in Shemer’s words, a “particular generation clash”. Lightly scored for three singers, strings, flute and continuo, the cantata opens with the narrator (tenor Nadav Inbar) introducing us to the situation and then only singing the final aria, finally joining the only vocal trio of the cantata, this ending the work. The JBO went all out to entertain its audience. As the orchestra is tuning up, the Narrator rushes onto the stage singing
‘Be quiet, chatter not,
Give ear to what will now transpire…’
Where he announces Schlendrian’s entry (one of the translations of “Schlendrian” is “inefficient”) the bass-line of the continuo is marked “con pompa”! Oded Reich, indeed, portrays Schlendrian with comical grandiloquence, the singer’s movements and facial expressions (at one point he pleads his argument with’ cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi) evoking the thick-headed Schlendrian. Reich’s rich, warm timbre and natural resonance are always a source of pleasure. Revital Raviv was well cast as the coquettish, manipulative Lieschen, her bright vocal color, fluidity and agility matched by attention to delicate details. Section 4 saw Raviv joined by Idit Shemer’s sensitive and subtle playing of the flute obbligato, the flute part, however, totally independent of the vocal line and rich in its own brilliant passagework. With Lieschen eventually agreeing to give up the habit in favor of her father’s finding her a husband, Schlendrian proves he is almost 300 years ahead of his time; to the delight of all present, he produces a mobile ‘phone and begins the selection process. The scheming Lieschen, however, has her own secret agenda, stipulating that the marriage contract include permission for her to brew coffee whenever she wants. Interestingly, this last twist of the text (no.9) is not in Picander’s text; it seems Bach added it himself.

Of Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) 500 concertos, “The Four Seasons” – four violin concertos – are probably the composer’s best known and most frequently performed. Published in 1725 as part of a set of 12 concertos under the title of “Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (The Test of Harmony and Invention), it is known that Louis XV was extraordinarily fond of “Spring”, ordering it to be played at the most unexpected of moments! Among the most striking works of program music of the Baroque period, these four concertos for violin and string orchestra have been recorded countless numbers of times, used in films and have formed the basis for works by other composers. Vivaldi himself wrote descriptive sonnets to go with each of the movements, depicting the changing of the seasons in a pastoral landscape, the music being clearly evocative of the sonnets. Audience members, at the JBO concert, many of whom had previously been unaware of these texts, were able to read the sonnets on the printed program. Soloing and directing the work, we heard Russian-born Boris Begelman (b.1983); Begelman is no new face to Israeli concert-goers and to Baroque music audiences in particular. Begelman did not remain fixed to one spot on the floor: he led his players articulately, turning to and moving towards specific players at various times, his whole physical being taking on the role of leader and conductor as he inspired the orchestra to join him in what could only be called an outstandingly insightful and exciting performance of the work. On a musical canvas of dazzling variety, we experience the sultry Italian summer, a storm, the dripping of rain (played pizzicato on violins), we hear hunting horns and the hunters’ guns, bagpipes, bird calls (violinist Dafna Ravid), dogs barking, the buzzing of insects, swaying grass and bubbling brooks. The sensation of being in the icy cold of winter, almost palpably lowering the temperature in the Henry Crown Auditorium, opens the “Winter” concerto:
‘Trembling with cold amidst the freezing snow,
While a frightful wind harshly blows,
Running and stamping one’s feet every minute,
And feeling one’s teeth chatter from the extreme cold…..’
As to the human element, Vivaldi describes the celebrating peasant, drunkards slipping and sliding, a man walking on precariously thin ice and the little shepherd boy vulnerable to the elements:
‘The shepherd sobs because, uncertain,
He fears the wild squall and its effects.’
Fired with much violin know-how, virtuosic ease and youthful emotional energy, Begelman set before us emotions that are as changeable and varied as the “scenes” themselves – tranquility, longing, joy and celebration, vehemence, fear and wonder - in a performance that was one to remember! And as far as the JBO's programming is concerned, the whole concert was one of balance and excellence.

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