Saturday, May 19, 2012

Handel's "Alexander's Feast" performed in Jerusalem, conducted by Oded Shomrony

Georg Friedrich Handel

Conducted by Oded Shomrony, the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, together with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and soloists soprano Carmit Natan, tenor Liran Kopel and bass Hemi Levison, performed Georg Friedrich Händel’s oratorio “Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Music” May 15th 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. The 100 or so singers taking part are all members of four branches of the Oratorio Choir – The Oratorio Singers (director - Na’ama Nazrati), Bel Canto (director - Noa Burstein), Cantabile (director - Flora Vinokurov) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir (director - Ronen Borshevsky).

Händel based “Alexander’s Feast” on an ode by poet laureate, dramatist, critic and leading literary figure of Restoration England John Dryden (1631-1700). It was composed in 1736, to be performed at the annual St. Cecilia’s Feast Day celebration (November 22nd). Edited by Jack Lynch, with additions by Newburgh Hamilton, the latter arranging it into a sequence of recitations, arias and choruses, the text of “Alexander’s Feast” only makes reference to St. Cecilia in the final few pages. Neither a traditional oratorio nor an opera in genre, Händel completed “Alexander’s Feast” in record short time, aware of the fact that performance of a work of this kind was sure to appeal to London audiences and would be remunerative for him. A product of his later years, with the composer now well established in London as a composer and impresario, “Alexander’s Feast” became one of Händel’s most admired compositions; it was popular during the composer’s lifetime and after, and was one of only two of his choral works published in full during his lifetime (the other being “Acis and Galatea”).

The oratorio opens with a banquet scene, where Alexander the Great is celebrating his victory over Darius and the Persians in 331 B.C.; Timotheus, the legendary flautist, is entertaining the guests. His singing, flute- and lyre-playing arouse intense emotions in the audience, ranging from sublime divinity to fiery revenge. When Cecilia, the patroness of musicians, appears, her influence extends even beyond that of Timotheus. It is then concluded that Timotheus and Cecilia should divide the musical crown between them. Dryden’s aim is to show the effects of music on the emotional harmony of man, conceiving of music as the harmonization of human passion and universal order.

Why choose “Alexander’s Feast” for the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir’s annual combined choral work? Despite the oratorio having very little dramatic development, its verbal text bristles with fine poetry and picturesque imagery, its musical score delighting throughout, inspiring performers to give their all to this fine music. This is precisely what happened at the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir concert. Despite the wide range of standards among his choral singers, Maestro Shomrony produced a well blended, velvety choral sound; his attention to dynamics, phrasing and British diction paid off well, producing an articulate and intensely musical performance. Choral singers were coordinated, attentive and energetic. They followed the work’s poetic references, musical course and atmosphere, bringing out Händel’s brilliant and unpredictable setting of such verses as the following:
‘Behold, behold, Darius great and good,
By too severe a fate,
Fallen, Fallen from his high estate…’
The Israel Chamber Orchestra’s playing, on the other hand, lacked precision and clean tuning, sometimes falling short of the Baroque grace and sophistication written into Händel’s instrumental score.

Soprano Carmit Natan addressed the text’s detail and moods; she paced descriptive moments well, the audience enjoying her bright, joyful vocal timbre, her delicacy and tasteful ornamenting. Baritone Hemi Levison displays fine legato technique with a forthright, transparent sound. The young singer’s British diction still needs some work; however, his addressing of the text’s dramatic temperament and contrasts was highly effective:
‘Revenge, revenge! Timothy cries,
See the furies arise;
See the snakes, that they rear,
How they hiss in their hair,
And the sparkles that flash from their eyes!
Behold a ghastly band,
Each a torch in his hand!
Those are Grecian ghosts, that in battle were slain, And, unburied, remain
Inglorious on the plain.’

Tenor Liran Kopel is especially well suited to this genre of English music, his inspired opening recitative and aria setting the scene for what is to come and inviting the audience to be involved in the music. He displays fine, articulate British diction, a detailed approach to the verbal- and musical text and its key words and an exhilarating, songful and stirring manner in performing it.

Oded Shomrony studied piano violin and singing, taking up conducting at age 17 in which he earned his M.Mus. from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. In addition to directing the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, his conducting experience includes work with such orchestras as the Israel Camerata Jerusalem and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, as well as with singers in the International Opera Workshop (Tel Aviv), The Moran Choir, the Adi Choir and the Open Concert Project. Oded teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and is the baritone singer of the Thalamus Quartet. His direction of Händel’s “Alexander’s Feast” on May 15th brought months of detailed and constructive musical work to a satisfying conclusion, producing a concert that sparkled with energy and the joy of music-making.

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