Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presents "A Storm in Versailles" - the dispute on French versus Italian style

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra has performed much French and Italian music over the almost-30 years of its existence, highlighting the differences between the two styles and approaches to art. Confronting the subject head-on, the JBO event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 25th 2015 presented the case of the wrangling between advocates of both styles in “A Storm in Versailles” with a lively theatrical-musical performance written by viola da gamba player Nima Ben David (Israel/France); Nima Ben David was guest artist in the JBO production. Originally written in French, “La Querelle des Bouffons” (Quarrel of the Jesters) “describes discussions between champions of Italian and French music taking place in 18th century Paris”, in Ben David’s words. Many important public figures took part in these debates, among them the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, authors, revolutionaries and self-appointed intrigants in texts well-stocked with the best of current French rhetoric. Soloists in the JBO performance were Nima Ben David, Noam Schuss (violin) and soprano Daniela Skorka.

To make the case for both sides, JBO founder and musical director David Shemer engaged the services of actor Itzik Cohen-Patilon, who held the audience in the palm of his hand with his articulacy, charisma, humor and wholehearted involvement in the subject at hand, his highly corporal performance clearly enhanced by the fact that his skills include pantomime and street theatre.  With many of the JBO players wearing wigs and colorful hats, they also took part in the performance together with Ben David…mostly with a volley of disdainful gestures, physical or musical, interrupting each other’s playing to display their displeasure and compete in virtuosity.  There was much brilliant playing on the part of Ben David and Schuss.  Maestro Shemer, representing Jean-Baptiste Lully (an Italian-born composer working in the court of Louis XIV of France) arrived on stage wearing an elegant white wig and carrying a long conducting staff, as was the custom of musical directors at the time. (Lully died of gangrene, having accidentally driven the staff into his foot when conducting a performance of his own “Te Deum”.) Appearing on stage with a  glittery gold mask held to her face, young soprano Daniela Skorka, today  enjoying much success on the lively local Baroque music scene, performed “Stizzoso, mio stizzoso” (Irascible, my irascible) from  Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” with pizzazz and whimsy as she sailed effortlessly through  her high vocal register. A little later, she returned to the stage to sing and conduct, her attire and manner dramatically finished with a black shawl and long black gloves, her theatrical flair and expressive face matched by her flexible, rich vocal performance. So, with Cohen’s performance interspersed with a salvo of lively and brilliantly presented excerpts from works of Corelli, Pergolesi and J-P. Rameau, constituting the first half of the concert, the audience was both well entertained and became better informed as to one of the most formidable disputes in the history of music.

Following Lully’s death in 1687, there was some effort to reconcile this stylistic argument in works that became crowd-pleasers in Europe. One such work was “L’Apothéose de Lulli” for various instruments and continuo (1725) by François Couperin, “composed to the immortal memory of the incomparable Monsieur de Lulli”, in which he endeavors to create a synthesis of the two styles. With Ben David announcing the title of each movement in French and Cohen offering following with the Hebrew translation, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performed the work.  The scene opens with Lully in the Elysian fields in discourse with the shades there.. When Lully is taken up to Parnassus, the music serves to remind us of the great French court composer’s Italian origins.  When Lully and Corelli meet on Parnassus, Apollo declares that the reunion of French “goût” (taste) and Italian style will form musical perfection never heard before. As elegant as it is, this multi-movement masterpiece has an element of humor threaded through it. Believing in the merging of the French and Italian sonata styles (goûts réunis), Couperin takes inspiration from both styles and adapts them to his own. When Lully and Corelli join forces, Couperin casts them in the image of two violins (played by Noam Schuss and Andrea Hallam), in which they “accompany” each other. Lully suggests a melody to Corelli and then vice-versa. And apart from the work’s programmatic content and effects, “L’Apothéose de Lulli” is indeed one of Couperin’s most varied and profound compositions.  The JBO’s performance of it was eloquent, offering duets delightfully played – Geneviève Blanchard and Idit Shemer (flutes), Schuss and Hallam (violins), Schuss and Idit Shemer.

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra signed out of this unique event with suave playing of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Gigue anglais”.

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