Sunday, April 24, 2016

Vag Papian conducts the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, two Oratorio Choirs and soloists in "Song of Destiny" at the Jerusalem YMCA

Maestro Vag Papian (
“Song of Destiny” – a program of Romantic works – was performed by the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir (musical director: Kate Belshé) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Bel Canto Choir (musical director: Salome Rebello). All were conducted by Maestro Vag Papian, who serves as principal conductor of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra. The concert took place on April 19th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, the Jerusalem International YMCA.

The program opened with a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 in a-minor opus 56, “Scottish”. On his visit to Scotland in 1829, Mendelssohn, deeply impressed by the rugged ruins of Holyrood Palace (the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland) wrote “I believe I found today in the old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony”. An accomplished painter, the composer returned from his trip with some 30 dated pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches; his musical sketches, however, were laid aside, not to be completed as a symphony till 1842. When Mendelssohn conducted its premiere, he presented the work as “absolute” music; indeed, it includes no Scottish melodies and was probably largely influenced by the spirit of the Scottish literature the composer had read as well as the Scottish landscape. Maestro Papian and the Ashdod Orchestra gave expression to the large work, from the first movement’s sombre opening “Holyrood” theme, its tension and agitation, its plaintive and stormy moments and its pictorial and poetic aspects. Following the scurrying staccato Vivace movement, with its fanfare interjections (an association of the composer’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”), the players stressed the Adagio’s dramatic, at times reflective and sweeping intensity. In the final movement, the orchestra juxtaposed the threatening first subject with the second more wistful idea, bringing the work to a powerful and majestic close. The performance indeed captured the heavy, brooding, sometimes martial character of much of the work (punctuated by the lightness and grace of the second movement), offering some very fine wind playing throughout.

One of the four Masses written in his teen years, Franz Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G-major (1815),  a work scored for mixed choir, string orchestra and organ, was written within six days. The Jerusalem performance highlighted the work’s lyricism, moments of grandeur and innate tunefulness, the Oratorio Choirs (joined by both conductors in the soprano section) opening with velvety singing of the Kyrie, then competently weaving Schubert’s largely homophonic textures into and around the lines sung by the three soloists. Soprano Efrat Vulfsons’ substantial, richly coloured voice added emotional weight to the Christe, conveying tranquillity and the element of personal utterance in the Agnes Dei as the choir represented the collective plea. Bass Yoav Meir Weiss, his voice mellifluous and fresh, joined Vulfsons in the Gloria, as they transformed its jubilance into the more grievous Domine Deus. Ron Silberstein’s full-bodied tenor voice formed a trio with Vulfsons and Weiss in the Benedictus. In their splendid singing of the stile antico Credo, the choirs presented its simple, hymnlike melody set against the detached, moving bass line, their singing infused with eloquence and displaying a finely blended choral sound.  A drawback in the YMCA hall was having the choirs surrounding the orchestra from the back and sides; the tenors and altos were not sufficiently audible, which was unfortunate.

Johannes Brahms “Schiksalslied” (Song of Destiny) opus 54 was begun in 1868. It took three years to complete and was premiered in October 1871, with Brahms himself conducting. The poem itself appears in Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel “Hyperion” (1799), in which the title character is an 18th century Greek who fights against the Ottoman Empire and ponders the rift between the ideal perfection of unity and the destructive effects of suffering borne of personal freedom. The work is scored for 4-part mixed choir and orchestra. In contrast to the mainstream choral fare performed by many Israeli choirs,  the Oratorio choirs took on board the musical- and emotional challenges of this intensely Romantic tone poem; devoid of soloists, the choirs engaged in the contemplative, philosophical character of the text, its contrasts and its unanswered questions, performing the work in pleasingly intelligible German. No less integral to the work’s message, the orchestra contributed much to the unique work, as it opened with a slow, ominous instrumental Adagio. Still in the Adagio vein, the choirs then extol the peace of the Olympian gods, who are “free from care”. Then the tables turn, with the choir then setting before the audience the pitiful lot of man, the suffering of humanity, the choral part then fading away:

‘To us is allotted
No restful haven to find;
They falter, they perish,
Poor suffering mortals
Blindly as moment
Follows moment,
Like water from mountain
To mountain impelled.
Destined to disappearance below.’ (Translation: Edwin Evans)

Leaving the choir “wordless”, the orchestra takes over, concluding on a more positive note with the composer finally spreading a message of peace in the postlude.  Orchestra and choirs collaborated closely in conveying the work’s profound text and mood most effectively.

A graduate of the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories, Vag Papian’s international career as a conductor has covered orchestral music and opera; he also continues to perform as a pianist. Since immigrating to Israel in 1990, he has conducted- and soloed with several Israeli orchestras.  Today musical director of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, Vag Papian is also a professor at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv).  His engaging and hearty direction at the Jerusalem concert drew players, choristers and soloists into the program material with commitment.    




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