Sunday, December 23, 2012

Elam Rotem's "Joseph and His Brothers"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was more than curious to hear the orchestra and guest artists performing a newly-composed work in the style of early Baroque opera. It is rare in life to attend a musical event, leaving speechless with emotion and filled with a sense of awe at having experienced rare artistry of the highest level. Such was my feeling on having attended the Israeli premiere of Elam Rotem’s “Rapprasentatione di Giuseppe e i Suoi Fratelli” (Joseph and His Brethren) December 21st, 2012 in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre.

Israeli composer, harpsichordist and bass singer Elam Rotem is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance,  where he studied harpsichord under Dr. David Shemer; he then furthered his studies in early musical style and performance practice at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Switzerland, and is presently researching early Italian opera in a collaboratory PhD program of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis with the University of Würzburg (Germany). Taking the original biblical Hebrew text, Rotem has composed a work in the musical language and spirit of the very early operas written in Florence, Rome and Mantua of around 1600. Composers who inspired Rotem in this project are Cavalieri, Caccini, Peri and Monteverdi. Rotem was also guided by the pioneering Jewish composer Salomone Rossi from Mantua - the first Baroque composer to have used Hebrew texts for choral art music. In keeping with the practice of the time, Rotem also reminds us that the composer was very often one of the performers of his work.

In the Henry Crown Hall, the stage was arranged thus: to the left was the positive organ, played by JBO founder and musical director David Shemer, in the centre were chittarone-player Ori Harmelin and lirone-player Elizabeth Rumsey (Australia), and, to their right there was a separate instrumental ensemble – violinists Katya Polin (leader) and Timothée Weiss, viol players Tal Arbel and Myrna Herzog, violone player Alberto Fernández, Bari Moscovich on theorbo and Elam Rotem himself on harpsichord. As the first overture was being played, members of the prestigious male vocal quintet “Profeti della Quinta” filed onto the stage – countertenors Doron Schleifer and David Feldman, tenors Dino Lüthy (Switzerland) and Dan Dunkelblum and bass Elam Rotem. The “Profeti della Quinta” ensemble was established in Israel but is now located in Basel, where all members have undertaken early music studies. The group researches and performs hitherto neglected repertoire and has also sung much of Rossi’s music.

And so begins the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the hands of countertenor Doron Schleifer as narrator, the story and its universality spring to life before us event by event. Schleifer is a storyteller, he is theatrical, his language is clear and his mellifluous voice never fails to express a mood and interest the listener in the many nuances and twists of the story. Singing the lion’s share of the work, Schleifer’s addressing of the more emotional parts of the story became more intense, more ornamented, ever convincing. David Feldman, interacting well with Schleifer, displayed fine stage presence, delighting the audience with his expressiveness, his vocal timbre and a temperament well suited to early opera. Other members soloed and sang beautifully coordinated duets and trios, each of these hand-picked singers coloring a different aspect of the plot, each displaying individual vocal timbre. The ensemble's exciting signature sound is essentially bright, with countertenors and tenors juxtaposed to Elam Rotem's bass voice. And with every new utterance of Elam Rotem, singing the role of Joseph, the story’s dark canvas was enriched in both detail and in emotion, his voice assured and well endowed. As an ensemble, the “Profeti della Quinta” is richly colored, expressive and polished, bearing the stamp of artists whose musicality is now entwined.

Shemer, Harmelin and Rumsey mostly accompanied the singing. The ensemble at the right of the stage mostly performed instrumental pieces – overtures, courtly dances and ritornelli. Here was an opportunity to hear early instruments at their most elegant, their silvery beauty of timbre and tasteful performance presenting the above-mentioned instrumental forms to please the most discerning of listeners! Katya Polin (also playing recorder) led confidently and articulately.

Elam Rotem has created a work brilliantly convincing in 1600 Italian idiom. In his suave and subtle use of this musical language, its finely-threaded counterpoint and logistic dissonances, he has staged the story of Joseph in all its dramatic possibilities, with both vocal- and instrumental sections throwing light not just on the sequence of events but also on its changes of atmosphere and how the latter will affect us so deeply as audience. The psychology of a dramatic piece is all present. Addressing its moods, Rotem’s fine musical details also relate to the smallest nuances. The composer, for example, suddenly graces the following dream passage with triplet rhythms:
‘And Joseph said unto him: “This is the interpretation of it. The three branches are three days. Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head and restore thee unto thy place…’ His instrumental sections threaded throughout present sophisticated entertainment as royal as that of early Baroque Italian opera, also providing dramatic relief to the enormous tensions of the story.

Kudos to Maestro David Shemer for his initiative in introducing Israeli audiences to a new work and for his sensitive work with the ensemble as a whole, drawing all the various threads together.  To those of us present, experiencing a work of such beauty, high quality and superior musicianship has been a humbling and enriching experience.

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