Friday, November 6, 2020

The 2020 Online Vocal Fantasy Festival - five days of concerts, pre-concert talks and master classes in live streaming from Jerusalem, October 2020

If varied programming, music both sacred and secular, familiar and unfamiliar works, historic and unconventional styles, interesting Jerusalem venues and fine performance are what go to make a good music festival, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s recent Online Vocal Fantasy Festival ticked all the boxes. With concerts taking place from October 27th to 31st 2020, each event began with a discussion on the concert at hand. The audience was also invited to view master classes at no extra cost. The festival was directed by JBO founder and director David Shemer.


“From Johannes to Hans” (October 27th) introduced viewers to the untiring work of Jewish, Austrian-born musician Hans Lewitus, whose professional life was spent in Peru. The concert represented a project undertaken by recorder player Inbar Solomon to introduce Lewitus’ unique arrangements to the concert-going public, an important connection between her and Lewitus being the many arrangements he had made for recorders. Ricardo Lewitus, spoke about a recently issued CD of his father’s duo and trio arrangements. In the concert, under Solomon’s direction and taking place at the Jerusalem Music Centre, the artists performing settings of Bach chorales and South American folk songs (alongside some Spanish Renaissance music) were soprano Yeela Avital, Inbar Solomon and Adi Silberberg (recorders), Inbar Navot (viola da gamba) and Gideon Brettler (guitar). This “broken” consort gave richly textured and vibrant expression to the Bach works, bringing out each voice with articulacy; Avital sang the Latin American songs with stylish gusto, Silberberg’s improvisations flowed in quick-witted supply, with Brettler’s performance of Renaissance works, elegant and pleasing.

Photo: Yoel Levy


Prior to the performance at Jerusalem’s Hansen House of the Israeli premiere of G.F.Handel’s St. John Passion, Lior Friedman (Galei Zahal, Israeli army radio) and Maestro David Shemer discussed whether this somewhat enigmatic work was actually a very early work from Handel’s pen or whether it had been composed by some other Hamburg composer. (A German scholar has suggested it was written by Georg Bohm.) Despite a technical problem of synchronization in the live streaming, viewers were able to gain an impression of the attractive work, one decidedly shorter and less dramatic than that of J.S.Bach, a work consisting mainly of short numbers wrought of a direct, straightforward, rather conservative late-Baroque style, with the conventional tenor Evangelist (Doron Florentin). Six singers - Yeela Avital, Liron Givoni, Alon Harari, Doron Florentin, Hillel Sherman and Noam Lowenstein - gave some proficient to excellent readings of solos, duets and chorus movements, supported by eloquent, finely-detained and attentive playing on the part of the instrumental ensemble. The work, as yet unfamiliar to the general concert-going public, deserves a repeat performance before too long.


Designed by German architect Conrad Schick, the Hansen House was first opened in 1887 by the Protestant community of Jerusalem as a leper asylum. The Jerusalem Development Authority then took on the Hansen House preservation project, reopening the impressive historical building to the public in 2013 as a design, media and technology centre. The Hansen House’s imposing interior provided the perfect setting for “Assembly”, a program featuring Baroque musicians Doret Florentin (recorders), Idit Shemer (flutes), Orit Messer Jacobi (‘cello) and Aviad Stier (harpsichord), performing works in addition to items sung by the Great Gehenna Choir. The instrumentalists gave scholarly and refined readings of music by such composers as Palestrina and Castello, with Doret Florentin performing a work of the latter with virtuosity. The Great Gehenna Choir, an ensemble supported by the Jerusalem Arts and Culture Division and a collaborative project with the Mamuta Art and Research Center, was established in 2016 by Noam Enbar as an alternative to the more traditional concept of choral singing. It comprises classical singers, composers, singer-songwriters and multidisciplinary artists, who perform what could be conceived as transformative, contemporary ceremonial works. Its members, performing mostly unaccompanied, apart from the use of percussion instruments, work and create as a team, presenting works by such composers as Noam Enbar, Amit Fishbein, Ido Akov and Faye Shapiro. Standing and moving in various formations within the concert space, each item was led by a different member, as the young singers took the audience into the ageless realm of ethnic, oriental, spiritual, primordial and meditational music in performance that was both spontaneous and polished. A connection between both ensembles seems to have been formed through the Baroque players’ exquisite and atmospheric melange of Ladino songs, its course prompted by a sense of freedom and the magic of the moment, inspiring both ensembles to finally intermingle musically and with spontaneity. The event was enhanced by the  visual effect of a large, gleaming moon rising up, as inspired by Faye Shapiro’s “Hymn to the Moon”. Certainly, splendid festival fare!


Who were Handel’s divas? The Hansen House was the setting for a theatrical-musical event, offering viewers the chance to learn something of the personal dynamics behind  the London opera scene of the 1720s. “Handel’s Divas'', directed by David Shemer from the harpsichord, tells of four of the many foreign artists there at the time, catering to the Londoners’ passion for Italian opera, at a time when singers were the darlings of the opera houses, with audiences in the habit of shouting, clapping...and jeering quite freely. Actor  Itzik Cohen-Patilon was our witty compere, serving up a healthy dose of showbiz gossip from 18th century London, informing the audience on the competition between G.F.Handel and Giovanni Bononcini (till such a time as the Italian composer was forced to leave London following charges of plagiarism for putting his name to a madrigal by Lotti) and on two Italian opera singers - Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni, to both of whom Handel and Bononcini dedicated several roles. As to the singers, they certainly competed and bickered, but it was the opera-going aristocrats who began taking sides, engaging in fist fights and drowning out the music whenever one or other began to sing. Amid a few subtle gestures of female snubbing, we heard soprano Inbal Brill (Bordoni) and mezzo-soprano Karina Radzion (Cuzzoni) in several arias of both composers - Brill highlighting the fiery (and tender) emotions of the Italian aria and offering some effective ornamenting, Radzion performing with richness of timbre, melodic power and poise. Their performance of the “Dolce conforto” duet from Bononcini’s opera “Astianatte” highlighted the differing roles the composer allotted to each of his singers. Offering relief to the stormy dynamics ruling the London Italian opera scene, we heard JBO instrumentalists in lively, stylistic and elegant playing of two Handel works - the Overture to Rinaldo and Trio Sonata in G minor, Op.2. The ensemble consisted of violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Tami Borenstein; Netanel Pollak (viola), Yotam Haran (‘cello) and David Shemer (harpsichord). Indeed, an event full of interest, colour and spice...certainly, tailor-made to festival-goers on an autumnal Friday at noon.

Courtesy Miri Shamir


“French Fantasy”, directed by JBO 1st violinist Noam Schuss, brought the 2020 Vocal Fantasy Festival to a close. Schuss was joined by Dafna Ravid (violin), Ophira Zakai (theorbo), Tal Arbel (viola da gamba) and Aviad Stier (harpsichord). Not commencing in France, however, the program took the listener to Lübeck of 1696 with Dietrich Buxtehude’s Sonata for violin, viola da gamba and basso continuo in G minor, BuxWV 261. Invigorating, daring and exciting, with virtuosic moments, as displayed by Schuss, the performance gave expression to the work’s Italian influences, reflecting the improvisational, fanciful, expressive and colourful mannerisms of Buxtehude and his school, accurately referred to by Johann Mattheson in 1739 as the “stylus fantasticus”. Then to France with “La Française” - a sonata and dance suite from François Couperin’s “Les Nations”...also not purely French in concept, as Couperin places himself between the Italian and French musical styles of his day to create a fusion of beauty and excellence, combining the style of Lully and Louis XIV's court with Corelli's brilliance. In playing that was both robust and refined, the artists’ reading of the Italianate trio sonata with its free-form virtuosity, followed by a large-scale and elaborate French dance suite, was rich, sensitive and engaging. Many of us associate  Louis XIV with the splendour of Versailles and the art of  ballet, as well as with the stage spectacle, but, as the Sun King grew older, the tastes of his court became more subdued and chamber music began to dominate the royal repertoire, of which the cantata was a prominent genre  Louis-Nicolas Clérambault was the composer most associated with the French cantata. Published in 1713, Clérambault’s cantata “Léandre et Héro” is based on the tragic story of Leander, the lover of Hero - a priestess of the goddess of love, living in the city of Sestos, on the Grecian side of the Hellespont. Leander lives in Abydos on the Asian side. To reach his lover, Leander swims the Hellespont nightly. One night, the jealous god of the north wind brings about a storm in which Leander drowns. Grief-stricken, Hero casts herself into the waves. Neptune, however, takes the tragic lovers into the realm of the immortals, where they are united forever. Singing the text by heart, soprano Daniela Skorka gave splendid vocal and dramatic elucidation to the composer’s range of dramatic expressions, convincingly conveying eager love, heroic resolve, terror and inconsolable grief, as supported by the strikingly descriptive instrumental score. The cantata concludes with a reproach to love: “Always on the most tender of lovers fall the cruellest sufferings.”