Monday, June 24, 2013

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir at Christ Church, Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir performed its final concert for the 2012-2013 season at Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. Completing his first year as full-time musical director of the ensemble, Ofer dal Lal conducted the singers in the concert, with Dror Schweid at the piano. The 30-member Chamber Choir is the representative ensemble of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, regularly performing in churches and concert venues in Israel and overseas. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir is supported by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and the Jerusalem Municipality.

Ofer dal Lal is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where he studied choral conducting with Professor Stanley Sperber, orchestral conducting with Professor Eitan Globerson and composition with Professor Menachem Zur. He is presently taking graduate studies in choral conducting with Mr. Ronen Borshevsky and orchestral conducting with Mr. Yi-An Xu at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv. Dal Lal has long served as assistant to both Professor Sperber and Mr, Ronen Borshevsky and conducted the premiere of "Loquimini Veritatem" by Israeli composer Sarah Shoham in 2012.

Works performed in the evening’s program spanned the 15th to 20th centuries. The concert opened with Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay’s (1400-1474) Marian antiphon “Ave Maris Stella” (Hail, Star of the Sea), the chant setting we heard performed cleanly and with elegance; vocal parts were clearly delineated, with the plainchant melody remaining audible. This was followed by the somewhat enigmatic English composer Richard Nicholson’s (1570-1639) setting of “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem”, an anthem highlighting “sound” and melody, but constructed with rather static harmonies. More interesting was Ofer dal Lal’s 5-voiced vocal setting of John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears”, a lute song reworked several times by the composer himself, by Byrd, Morley, Farnaby and others, also cited by poets and playwrights. Dal Lal’s reading of it drew attention to the poem and its key words (“happy” for example in this gloomy setting!), an emphasis practised by Dowland’s contemporaries in light of the enriched beauty of Elizabethan language. In a lighter vein, there was a pleasing, dynamic performance of Dowland’s whimsical madrigal “Come Away”, its double-entendres amusing, at the same time enumerating a lady’s disdain and rejection.

Two late sacred works by W.A.Mozart (1756-1791) constituted a major section of the concert. In lieu of a string orchestra, Dror Schweid accompanied the singers on the (unfortunately out-of-tune) piano. The first was Mozart’s exquisitely simple and compact “Ave Verum Corpus” K.618 (Hail, true Body), with dal Lal and his singers bringing out the piece’s meditational, tranquil, otherworldly mood. We then heard selected movements from Mozart’s Requiem Mass in d minor K.626. Soloist was soprano Noga Shahar.  The performance addressed the work’s sacred agenda, its drama and its pathos (the more relaxed sections sometimes a little behind the beat) in an expansive range of dynamic changes. The Requiem’s arcane counterpoint and evocation of strange liturgical archaism came together in a performance that could indeed be described as majestic and impassioned. Schweid dealt courageously with the role of evoking Mozart’s full orchestral score. 

We heard the Oratorio Chamber Choir in Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s 1843 setting of Psalm 43 “Richte mich, Gott” (Do me justice, o God), a work for eight voices but not scored as two equal choirs – rather, in gender groups. Opening with imposing singing of the lower voice motif, the various different sections of the piece contrasted well, moving into the imposing and rousing final section. The choir’s German pronunciation needs some work.

Moving into the 20th century and back to a cappella singing, we heard Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) “A Hymn to the Virgin” for two choirs, composed (in 1930, revised 1934) to an anonymous text. The ensemble gave a convincing performance of the piece, addressing its beauty of line and spare clarity of texture. With the first choir singing the text in English, the second – Naomi Brill Engel, Orna Harari, Shlomo Tirosh and Benny Schwarzwald, placed in the balcony – responded in Latin, creating a concept close to the format of traditional English devotional music.

With events in Israel currently celebrating composer Tzvi Avni’s 85th birthday, it was indeed fitting that the Oratorio Chamber Choir should perform a work of his. Avni’s “Piyutim LeShabbat” (Sabbath Melodies), a work composed in 1971 and based on Babylonian Jewish Melodies, constitutes one of several works in which Avni (b. 1927, Germany) has created an individual synthesis of oriental elements with his own personal musical language. A work of delicate textures and gentle dissonances, the ensemble gave Avni’s articulate choral writing and simple melodies that merge in flowing lines a pleasing reading. Shira Cohen was soloist.

The ensemble performed three Afro-American spirituals with infectious enjoyment. The members’ singing was confident and well-shaped, their English pronunciation suitably leaning towards the American. Elia Talbar Reznik’s earthy, well-endowed voice made for a fine and spirited solo in “Daniel”.

The program concluded with a work by one of today’s most important British composers of church music - organist, choral conductor and composer Colin Mawby (b.1936). In an interview with Kevin Mayhew, Mawby was quoted as saying “My composition is instinctive and I take no notice of musical fashion which, I feel militates against the sense of the spiritual…I try and write music that speaks to people’s souls, music that listeners can respond to emotionally and spiritually”. His “Ave Verum Corpus”, composed in 1978 for eight voices and organ (or orchestra) ended the concert on a tranquil and devotional note. Ofer dal Lal and his singers gave expression to the work’s stately, contemplative mood, its lush, sonorous texture of autumnal harmonies, set off by splendid melodiousness.

With much fine singing and a strong sense of collaboration between conductor and singers, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir gave the audience a rich sampling of the many styles of music in its repertoire and what we may expect in the future.

No comments: