Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Gloriana Ensemble performs "Though Amaryllis Dance in Green" at St. Andrew's Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem

“Though Amaryllis Dance in Green”, the Gloriana Ensemble’s recent concert, took place on December 20th 2014 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem. Established in 2010, the group today, consisting of five singers – Lucie Bloch-soprano, Noar Lee Naggan-countertenor, Hillel Sherman-tenor, Yoram Bar Akiva-baritone and Joel Sivan-bass - specializes in performing sacred and secular polyphonic music from the Renaissance and Baroque.
Apart from one Spanish- and two French pieces, the ensemble’s new program is made up of a-cappella works from England and Italy, the connection between the two briefly outlined by Hillel Sherman, who introduced works on the program, providing some background about each. When King Henry VIII sent his agents to Venice to engage for his court the best wind and viol players Europe had to offer, the stage was set for English music to be transformed. The music at Queen Elizabeth I’s court took Italian music to its heart, blending it with the inherited glories of earlier English music to produce one of the richest and most evocative repertoires in musical history.

Showing the genre’s sometime connection with Italy, the concert opened with the paradigm of the Renaissance English madrigal, Thomas Morley’s ebullient and effervescent ballett of 1596 “Now Is the Month of Maying” (based on a canzonet of Orazio Vecchi), the English spring freshness and humor of its words only marginally masking its risqué text. The Gloriana Ensemble’s flexible, bright and engaging singing of it promised an evening of pleasurable listening. In William Byrd’s “Is Love a Boy?” (1589), the text’s enigmatic and troubling questions came thick and fast from each voice, emerging with individuality and a sense of urgency, highlighted by Byrd’s sophisticated writing and a play of dynamics. The singers presented the dense contrapuntal texture of Byrd’s “Though Amaryllis Dance in Green”, from which the Gloriana Ensemble’s program takes its name, making incisive use of consonants Then, to one of the many vivid early English market-place street-sellers’ songs: to play out all the levels of meaning in John Dowland’s “Fine Knacks for Ladies” (1600), with its descriptive detail, its teasing syncopations and courtly puns, the singers gave much attention to each word, to timbral colors, to detached phrases as against more legato moments, finally leading to the song’s message – that love remains true in the heart more so than any pretty trinkets for sale. Performing these pieces depends greatly on fine diction and the flavor of British English; the Gloriana singers did not disappoint.

Still in the realm of secular music, but leaving England, we heard three light-hearted songs. In “Le Chant des Oiseaux” by Clement Janequin (c.1485-1568), one of Paris’s foremost chanson composers, the four men dealt admirably with the song’s tricky, onomatopoeic text, its comical patter and descriptive calls of thrushes, robins, nightingales and cuckoos. The singers then delivered an upbeat, witty reading of 16th century Spanish composer Juan del Encina’s “Cucu,cucu”, a song more about adultery than ornithology. In Pierre Passereau’s “Il est bel et bon”, in which two country women brag about their husbands, the singers combined the chanson’s grace and lightness with its hints of rustic directness and double entendres.

The young man singing to his lady-love in Orlando di Lasso’s “Matona mia cara” is a German, probably a soldier; the song, a parody of how Germans spoke in broken Italian, With much animation, the singers conveyed the young man’s infatuation and the lack of subtlety of his intentions! Even more curious is “Allala pia calia”, one of six “moresches” composed by Lasso in a dialect influenced by Moors living in Renaissance Italy. Enjoying the theatrical antics of this flamboyant, unabashedly bawdy villanella, the Gloriana singers took on board its rhythmic and syllabic effects, allowing for an imaginative and richly dynamic performance.
The program presented a number of sacred works. In Orlando di Lasso’s luminous motet “Justorum Animae”, the singers presented the piece’s rich texture, its unique tenderness and hope. Lasso’s curious motet “Super Flumina Babylonis” Psalm 136 (137), speaking of the Hebrews in captivity in Babylon, saw the singers lending whimsy to the game Lasso plays with syllables and the comical spelling out of letters and words in his strange form of humor. A pivotal work in sacred section of the program was (some of) Venetian composer Giovanni Croce’s “Nove Lamentatione”, a lofty, spiritual piece sung to texts from the Book of Lamentations. In the program notes, Dr. Alon Schab (Haifa University) wrote about this mysteriously unknown work, whose original parts are in the Münster Regional Ecumenical Library (Germany). With Hillel Sherman reading the text of each section, the male singers, conducted by Joel Sivan, took listeners into the pious and mournful mood of Lamentations, allowing time to place phrases strategically, these phrase endings carefully shaped. On a lighter note, the quintet performed Mantuan Jewish violinist and composer Salamone Rossi’s “Hallelujah” (Psalm 146) from the composer’s 1622 groundbreaking collection of Hebrew motets, always a crowd-pleaser and for good reasons!

William Byrd’s wonderfully contemplative and stately “Confirma Hoc Deus” boasts two superb soprano magical parts, here, not entirely matched in timbre by Noar Lee Naggan’s reedy countertenor sound and Lucie Bloch’s delicate, slimmer soprano voice. This was followed by Thomas Tallis’ small anthem “O Nata Lux”, suitably bathed in “light”, its homophonic texture colored with cross-rhythms harmonic dicords to evoke the suffering conveyed in its text.

With a new line-up of singers, Ensemble Gloriana has much to offer its audience in the way of polished, well-informed performance, fine intonation, excellent diction and interesting repertoire. Some singers are more communicative with the audience than others. Pieces conducted by Joel Sivan fared better than those not; his warm, blending voice provides the ideal bass line for Renaissance and Baroque music. Noar Lee Naggan's sturdy countertenor voice adds body to the general sound Lucie Bloch’s creamy, delicate voice and Noar Lee Naggan’s pithy vocal timbre do not always find a meeting point. But the group's performance is stylish, delving into the profound and spiritual mood of scacred music and reaching out generously to the insouciance inherent in secular vocal repertoire of the time.

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