Sunday, November 20, 2016

"Baroque Decadence" - Enrico Onofri (Italy) leads and soloes with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in the opening concert of the 2016-2017 season

Maestro Enrico Onofri (photo: Maria Svarbova)

On November 14th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 28th concert season with “Baroque Decadence”. Violinist Maestro Enrico Onofri, on his second appearance with the orchestra, led and soloed throughout the evening. The pioneering ensemble of Baroque music in Israel, the JBO was founded by Dr. David Shemer, who continues to serve as artistic director and house conductor. Andrew Parrott (UK) is the orchestra’s honorary conductor.

Born in Ravenna, Italy, Enrico Onofri began his career as concertmaster of Jordi Savall’s La Capella Real, followed by engagements with Concentus Musicus Wien, Ensemble Mosaiques and Concerto Italiano. From 1987 to 2010 he was concertmaster and soloist of Il Giardino Armonico. In 2002, Onofri launched his international conducting career. Since 2006, he has been principal guest conductor of Orquesta Barroca de Sevilla. Many of his recordings have been awarded prestigious international prizes. Since 2000, Enrico Onofri has served as Professor of Baroque violin, also teaching interpretation of Baroque music, at the Conservatorio Bellini (Palermo).

The program opened with Georg Philipp Telemann’s “Ouverture des Nations anciennes et modernes” for strings and basso continuo, one of more than 100 orchestral suites penned by possibly the most versatile composer of the first half of the 18th century. Opening in the grand French style, Telemann draws on the German, Swedish and Danish styles and in older national styles, those not just contemporary to him, constantly contrasting the more staid “ancient” manner with the racier, more vigorous modern style.  With his distinctive fresh, precise direction, Onofri leads the players through the series of colourful and witty sketches of other nationalities with plenty of dynamic contrasts and some elegant ornamenting. ‘Cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi’s solo bristled with allure and expressiveness.

Then to the more intimate setting of the Ciaccona from Arcangelo Corelli’s Sonata No.12 opus 2, in which Messer-Jacobi, Ophira Zakai (theorbo) and David Shemer on harpsichord provided the basso continuo, anchoring the variations to a familiar four-note descending figure, over which Onofri and the JBO’s first violinist Noam Schuss  engaged in musical dialogue, in mutual exchange based on listening and enquiry, fine blending and the dovetailing of imitations, with the opulent ornamenting of the return of the slow tempo never detracting from the piece’s noble spirit. Connecting with this was Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso for two violins, ‘cello, strings and basso continuo, one of Geminiani’s orchestrations of 12 sonatas of Corelli, his teacher. Leading the JBO through the movements’ typically Italian series of mood changes via some virtuosic florid openings and transitions, Onofri reminds us that Geminiani’s setting has added not only embellishment to the sonatas, but also sonorities and contrapuntal voices. In playing that was sensitive, warm and exuberant, the players’ reading into the work was true to both composers.

And for another connection, George Frideric Händel had met Corelli in Rome and had played for him. Published in London in 1740, Händel’s Concerti Grossi opus 6 form a kind of answer to Corelli’s opus 6 Concerti Grossi, despite exploring a different sound world of expanded proportions. In Händel’s Concerto Grosso No.1 opus 6 in G major, one of the Twelve Grand Concertos, Onofri was joined by core JBO musicians Dafna Ravid and Orit Messer-Jacobi to form the concertino section. Onofri’s direction highlighted the composer’s more theatrical and generously proportioned approach to the concerto grosso as written for English taste,  in daring dynamic contrasts, in highly coloured, fired tutti alternating with intimate pianississimo tutti and gentle asides, adding a little whimsy here and there, yet never unleashing wild tempi that might undermine rhythmic stability. With Ravid not standing next to Onofri, and somewhat hidden from view, I felt the audience was missing some of the visual aspect of their interaction.

Adding Venetian colour to the evening, the program included two works of Antonio Vivaldi. The Sinfonia in G-major for strings and basso continuo RV149 also bears the title “Il core delle muse” (Choir of the Muses). In an extravagant event in honour of Prince-Elector Frederick Christian (son of the King of Poland and Elector of Saxony) it was originally performed prior to a cantata of the same name by a certain Gennaro d’Alessandro, a Neapolitan composer who was appointed maestro di cappella in 1739 at the Ospedale della Pietà, where Vivaldi was employed, to be dismissed in 1740, disappearing from Venice and from history. In an exuberant, energetic performance of the Sinfonia, with Onofri once again sometimes paring the sound down to his quintessential pianississimo (still heard at the back of the hall!), one was reminded of those who would have played the work - the all-female orchestra of orphan girls. Ravid and Onofri’s gentle duet in the Andante movement would surely have been performed by Vivaldi’s finest pupils, the virtuosic Anna Maria and Chiara (they had no family names) of the Ospedale. Here was a glimpse into what might be for some listeners a lesser-known part of Venice’s history.  Concluding an evening of grand aristocratic music, we heard Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin, strings and basso continuo in D major RV208 “Il Grosso Mogul”, with Maestro Enrico Onofri as soloist. “Il Grosso Mogul” refers to the Indian court of the Grand Moghal, Akbar. This character was obviously the inspiration for the zesty, fiery outer movements and the intense, brilliant cadenzas, which were dealt with articulately, with joy and pizzazz by the soloist. As to the elaborate and mysterious solo violin part in the central movement, here was an Italian musician presenting a heartfelt Italian “narrative”.

So what is the relevance of “Baroque Decadence”? In Maestro David Shemer’s program notes, he explains that the late Baroque, “this era, characterized by the full-blown and crystallized Baroque style, bears the seeds of its dissolution…” With a minimum of gestures, Enrico Onofri, at times facing the audience, at others, facing the orchestra, communicates comprehensively and in depth with his fellow musicians and with the audience, producing music that is elegant, alive and exciting. He conducts with his whole being.

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