Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ensemble PHOENIX closes the 46th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival with "Of Shadows & Angels"

Concluding the 46th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival on October 18th 2014, Ensemble PHOENIX premiered “Of Shadows & Angels” in the intimate Crypt below the 12th century Crusader Church in the lower part of the town of Abu Gosh in the Jerusalem Hills. Performing on early instruments, we heard Cordelia Hagman and Tali Goldberg – Baroque violins, Dr. Marina Minkin – virginal and PHOENIX founder and musical director Dr. Myrna Herzog on Baroque ‘cello. This was Cordelia Hagman's first performance on Baroque violin. In her debut with PHOENIX, we heard guest soloist soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir.

The program opened with “Angels Ever Bright and Fair” from G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) oratorio “Theodora” (1750). In this aria, Theodora begs the angels to take her away rather than be enslaved in the royal court brothel – a fate worse than death. In delicate dialogue between singer and violins, Sharon Rostorf-Zamir created the fragile situation together with Theodora’s stately and noble character in delicate, emotionally loaded understatement. In “Ombra mai fu”, setting the scene for Händel’s opera “Serse” (1738), (originally to be sung by a castrato) Rostorf-Zamir’s directness and unmannered approach allowed for the sheer beauty of this piece to emerge, her ease and clarity in the upper register floating the plaintive aria:
‘Tender and beautiful fronds
Of my beloved plane tree,
Let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning and storms
Never disturb your dear peace…’
Rostorf-Zamir’s superb vocal control and warm personality shone in her singing of the gentle (tenor) aria “Waft her, angels thro’ the skies” from “Jeptha” (1751), where Jeptha mourns his daughter in the last of Händel’s 18 oratorios in English. It came across with tender eloquence, colored with dynamic variety.
“Come nube che fuggedal vento” (As a cloud which flees from the wind) from “Agrippina” (1709), introducing a very different mood, was a highlight of the concert. Here, Rostorf-Zamir’s opera background gave fine expression to Händel’s fine dramatic writing in the Italian opera seria style as she negotiated the aria’s frenzied melismatic passages with pizzazz. She drew attention to the text, its word-painting highlighting such words as “flies”, “wind”, “fire” and “cold” in conjuring up the evil, cunning and deceitful goings-on of the 1st century Roman court. No less exciting was the ensemble’s involved playing.

The central vocal work on the program was Alessandro Scarlatti’s (1660-1725) chamber cantata Serenata “Notte ch’in carro d’ombre” (Night that in the chariot of shadows), one of over 600 works of this genre written by the composer. Not an easy score to come by, Myrna Herzog, following months of searching, finally obtained a copy of it from Polish colleagues. In the cantata, the lovesick Amaryllis, unable to fall asleep at night, announces that she would prefer to die. In this intense soliloquy, Rostorf-Zamir uses her palette of emotional colors to take the listener through the different moods, changing like theatrical scenes, moving through Amaryllis’ mind – their optimism, their urgency and their pain . Alongside the long, lush vocal lines, there was much instrumental interest and entanglement, the players always a part of the dramatic cantata’s intense – at times, dissonant - verbal and musical imagery evoking night, dreams and unfulfilled love.

Of the instrumental music in the program, Myrna Herzog and Marina Minkin, enlisting imagination and the lively exchange of artists who have performed together for many years, gave a poignant and cantabile performance of a set of anonymous (but familiar) “Divisions upon an English Ground”. Not often enough heard, Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) 4-part sonatas (published after his death) give insight to the composer’s juggling of English style and the Italian model together with some “French air…good for gaiety and fashion”, a picture of what was current in London’s musical life of the 1680s, a somewhat controversial affair! In bold, fresh playing of chamber music of repertoire intended for the London concert scene, bringing out Purcell’s personal melodic- and harmonic idiom, this piece gave much independence and say to both violinists, with some virtuoso passages for the ‘cello.

Taking a giant leap from the Baroque period into contemporary Israel, but still on the subject of angels, the PHOENIX players and Sharon Rostorf-Zamir premiered violinist Jonathan Keren’s setting of a song by composer, pianist arranger and singer Yoni Rechter (b.1951, Israel), “D’ma’ot shel Mal’achim” (Tears of Angels) to lyrics of Dan Minster. Keren’s sensitive arrangement of this nostalgic song was sophisticated, delicate and subtle, preserving Rechter’s unique mix of classical, jazz and pop styles, offering pleasing textures to players and singer. Here was Sharon Rostorf-Zamir, a singer with an international recital- and opera house career, indulging quite naturally in a very different genre, winning over the audience with her personal and touching performance of this bittersweet and thought-provoking song.
“And when angels weep
In the other world,
We are then sadder in this world…” (Translation P.Hickman)

With the audience seated on three sides of the stage, close to the artists, the Crypt was the ideal venue for Myrna Herzog’s evocative and creative program. With the concert over, we climbed the ancient stone steps back to daylight and arrived back in the tranquil, exotic gardens surrounding the church, pausing for just a few more moments to call to mind the unique mood “Of Shadows and Angels”.

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