Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2014-2015 season with "Vespers"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of its founder and conductor David Shemer, opened the 2014-2015 season with a very different kind of Baroque program. This writer attended the concert on November 11th 2014 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Peace, the Jerusalem YMCA.

The program opened with Concerto Grosso No.6 in D major by Charles Avison (1709-1770), a composer and church organist who spent his life in Newcastle, in the north of England. It is known that Geminiani visited him, but whether Avison actually studied under him remains unclear. Avison’s celebrated “Essay on Musical Expression” is the first English work on musical criticism; here he discusses the contrast between “sublime music and beautiful music”. Apart from a small amount of sacred music composed by him, Avison’s success lay in secular music and in the institution of the subscription concert series – first in London and, later, closer to home. In addition to church activities and concerts, Avison taught harpsichord, violin and flute, also giving theatrical performances. His oeuvre consists of harpsichord/organ concertos, chamber music, keyboard sonatas and 60 concerti grossi, with another 12 concertos that were arrangements of harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. The latter works constitute a landmark of English music, with Avison not merely arranging the Scarlatti sonatas, interspersed with movement of his own, but orchestrating them imaginatively. Listening to Concerto Grosso no.6 in D major, it was not difficult to hear that Avison’s skill and originality produced music in which “Scarlatti’s highly idiomatic keyboard writing becomes equally idiomatic writing for strings and especially for the violin”, in Shemer’s words. The appealing violin solos were performed adeptly by 1st violinist Dafna Ravid, with some lovely comments and support provided by violinist Jonathan Keren. Complementing them was well balanced and poignant playing on the part of the ripieno section. A composer virtually unknown to most concert-goers, here was a fine opportunity to make the acquaintance of “an elegant writer upon his art” as Charles Burney had referred to him.

Then to the Israeli premiere of one of six of Bruce Haynes’ “Brandenburg Concertos” (more of them to be heard in this season’s concerts) after works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). In 2010 Canadian oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes conceived the idea that six new “Brandenburg” Concertos could be constructed from rich concerto pickings present in movements of Bach cantatas. The idea was based on the fact that Bach himself, under pressure to produce pieces for new occasions, frequently recycled his own works and those of others. Haynes’ argument was that if Bach himself had turned instrumental works into cantatas, the opposite process must be possible. After orchestrating three of the new Bandenburgs, Haynes sadly died quite suddenly in 2011. His widow, ‘cellist Susie Napper, completed the set of six (a traditional grouping of Baroque works being). Brandenburg Concerto No.11 in D minor, constructed from two cantata movements and one concerto movement, is scored for oboe, harpsichord, strings and basso continuo. It offers much beautiful solo material for both oboe and harpsichord, a seemingly unlikely pair to be engaging as soloists together. Israeli Baroque oboist Aviad Gershoni, currently living in Italy and performing widely, gave a fresh, mellifluous and richly ornamented reading of the solo oboe part, to be answered by David Shemer in cascades of delicate, finely detailed and lustrous extended solo harpsichord phrases. A magical and zesty performance of what is surely an enticing piece of music.

And on the subject of recycling, the third and final work on the program was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) “Vespro della Beata Vergine”. In 1732, Pergolesi composed a setting of the Vespers in honor of St. Emidius, the patron saint of Naples and protector against earthquakes. However, the only parts that have survived are the “Domine ad juvandum”, and three Psalm settings – “Dixit Dominus”, the “Laudate” and “Confitebor”. Taking pieces from throughout Pergolesi’s much-too-short career, Malcolm Bruno, an American-born musicologist today living in Wales, reconstructed the Vespers. Premiered at the 2007 Boston Early Music Festival, it presents a full cross-section of Pergolesi’s artistic development. With David Shemer now conducting from the positive organ, this was the Israel premiere this inspiring compilation. The choice of the ADI Choir was in keeping with the JBO’s interest in nurturing the new generation of Baroque performers. Established in 2006 and under the auspices of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, the ensemble of young singers is directed by Oded Shomrony, known to many from his work with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, the Moran Singers Ensemble and as the baritone and musical director of the Thalamus Quartet. Shomrony’s work with the ADI Choir was detailed and thorough, the young singers’ performance buoyant, articulate, well phrased and energetic. Especially memorable was the poignant, cantabile singing of the Gloria Patri of the “Dixit Dominus”, colored with beautiful oboe-playing on the part of Aviad Gershoni and Tal Levin. Israeli soprano Daniela Skorka, whose repertoire includes both sacred works and opera, recently took 3rd prize at the Pietro Antonio Cesti International Competition for Baroque Singing (Innsbruck). Her handling of the mammoth solo role in the Pergolesi was outstanding. What was clear was her profound understanding of the work at hand; she created each mood, threading ornaments and melisma through the musical text with natural agility, also communicating well with her audience. Skorka’s voice, stable and unforced throughout its registers, is a fine and pleasing instrument. The “Vespers” ended with her convincing and compassionate performance of the “Salve Regina” (at times reminiscent of the composer’s “Stabat Mater”), its many gestures, dissonances and emotions purporting to one of the pinnacles of devout Baroque music and spirituality.

Maestro David Shemer and his instrumentalists’ sensitive and delicate performance throughout the evening provided each work with refinement and grace of style. The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season promises to take listeners into less familiar regions of Baroque music, albeit representing compositional practices common to the time this music was written. The season set off to a fine start.


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