Thursday, December 8, 2022

Early 19th century Brazilian music - Ensemble PHOENIX (director: Myrna Herzog) hosts the Madrigal Singers Ensemble (director: Etay Berckovich) and soloists in a concert in Jerusalem celebrating 200 years of Brazil's independence

Dr. Myrna Herzog (Ariel Weiss)

 September 7th 2022 marks 200 years since Dom Pedro I, on the banks of the Ipiranga River, declared Brazil's independence from Portugal. Of the events in Israel celebrating 200 years of Brazil's independence, "Brazil: The Monarch Composer" performed by Ensemble PHOENIX (musical director: Dr. Myrna Herzog) added a new dimension to this episode of Brazil's history, that being that Pedro d'Alcântara, Duke of Bragança (1798-1834), (also referred to as "the Liberator"), founder and first ruler of the Empire of Brazil, was also a renowned composer, whose works were much played during his lifetime. This writer attended "Brazil: The Monarch Composer" on December 2nd, 2022 at the Church of the Monastery of St. Vincent de Paul, Jerusalem, an imposing western-style structure built almost 150 years ago, located not far from the walls of the Old City. Joining Ensemble PHOENIX, its members playing on instruments of the Classical period, were the Madrigal Singers Ensemble (director: Etay Berckovich) and soloists Monica Schwartz - soprano, Noa Hope - mezzo-soprano, Itamar Hildesheim - tenor, and Gili Rinot - Classical clarinet.


Opening this concert of Israeli premieres was "Missa Pastoril para a Noite de Natal" (A Pastoral Christmas Mass) by black Brazilian composer/organist José Maurício Nunes Garcia (1767-1830). From the very first sounds of the work, what met our ears was the lush, mellow nature of the orchestra emanating from the sound of Classical period instruments, but also due to the absence of violins. Add to that the fact that the work called for six violas! This naive-style Mass gives much prominence to the clarinets (Gili Rinot, Nurit Blum), their melodies weaving lavishly throughout the Mass. Schwartz, Hope and Hildesheim gave beauty and meaning to solo sections in unforced, mellifluous singing, with the fine blending of the Madrigal Singers' voices, its members clearly well informed in the style, addressing each gesture with precision and artistry. Of the some 70 works he composed for royal solemnities, Nunes Garcia had offered the Pastoral Mass to the then Prince Dom Pedro. Nunes Garcia also happened to be Dom Pedro's first music teacher.


Marcos António da Fonseca Portugal (1762-1830) was Pedro's second and most influential music teacher. Born in Lisbon, Portugal served there as composer/organist at the Patriarchal See, and was maestro at the Theatre of Salitre from c.1784, composing a series of farsas (farces) and entremezes (intermezzi) for the Salitre. However, his reputation rests mainly on his religious music. Portugal lived in Italy from late 1792 to 1800, where he wrote 21 operas for various Italian theatres. He was the best-known- and the most acclaimed Portuguese opera composer of his time to spend time in foreign countries. In 1811, the Prince Regent summoned him to the Portuguese colony of Brazil, where he was appointed music master to his sons and daughters, also becoming the official royal composer. Portugal's Overture to "Il Duca di Foix" (The Duke from Foix), a dramma per musica in two acts, first performed in 1805 in Lisbon, was the second item at the PHOENIX concert. With the ceremonial quality of the opening followed by a sprightly tune that skitters all over the orchestra, including some hearty utterances of the winds in thirds, the listener becomes aware of music whose style already hints at what Rossini would soon be doing. Herzog and the ensemble's vivid reading of the overture swept the Jerusalem audience into the glittering splendour of the early 19th century Italian opera house, the overture's moments of joyful outbursts and suspense hinting at the scenario, with the opera house audience surely watching for the weighty, fringed, tasselled curtain to rise and the action to begin. 


As to D. Pedro I of Brazil and IV of Portugal himself, it is known that he sang well, conducted and played the piano, flute, clarinet, violin, double bass, trombone, harp and guitar. However, his compositional oeuvre is of prime importance. In 1831, on his visit to Paris to seek political and military support to regain the throne of Portugal from the hands of D. Miguel I, he had his own music performed at the Italian Theatre. The performances, which drew direct support from Gioachino Rossini, received mostly favourable reviews. The King-Emperor ventured into theatrical music, he composed music for piano, chamber/salon music, had great success in his writing of patriotic songs and was known for his religious works. Of the latter, the Credo in C major was performed at the PHOENIX concert. One of his most frequently performed works, it moves in contrasts, swinging from ebullient, richly-coloured, even dancelike sections to chiffony devotional, introspective moments and back again. This work also highlights the clarinet in many gorgeous utterances. Orchestra, choir and soloists took on board the work's counterpoles, its drama and rich kaleidoscope of timbres, moods and gestures. Young tenor Itamar Hildesheim gave an impressive reading of the Confiteor, engaging the different colours of his voice to convey the text's message.


The event concluded with an exuberant performance of the anonymous "Lundu da Cachaça". A style of Afro-Brazilian music and dance originally associated with witchcraft, the lundu, by the 19th century, had become the music of choice for the Luso-Brazilian bourgeoisie. Characterized by the interplay of tonic and dominant harmony, with strummed chords layered atop a syncopated rhythm reminiscent of traditional West African music, it represents the root of the samba. An unbridled outburst of joy, Herzog's setting of the strophic song, embellished with plenty of percussion and offering vocal and instrumental solos, brought smiles to the faces of the audience and also to those on stage, as soloists and choir wound their tongues around the delivery of the Portuguese words. As to the last two stanzas of the song, they are Herzog's own addition, in which she extols Dom Pedro's achievements and celebrates of 200 years of Brazil's independence. 


The concert featured some outstanding solos and duets, to mention just a few: 1st violist Amos Boasson in duo with Monica Schwartz in the “Laudamus Te” of the Mass; Baroque ‘cellist Marina Katz’ wonderful small utterances in response to the clarinet throughout the Mass; and kudos to Baroque clarinettist Gili Rinot, who handled the very many solos and dialogues throughout the three longer works with competence and musical insight. A moment of breathtaking beauty was the “Et Incarnatus” of the Nunes Garcia Mass, with Rinot’s masterful dialoguing with Monica Schwartz, Noa Hope and the two ‘cellos (Marina Katz, Hamoutal Marom.)


Some of us were drawn to the event for the rare opportunity of hearing (and seeing) early 19th-century music played on period instruments – Baroque stringed instruments played with Classical bows (as in Brazil at that time), authentic woodwind instruments and natural horns. Some concert-goers came to fill gaps in their knowledge of history of the Americas, whereas others were curious to hear repertoire previously unheard on these shores. Of course, there were some Brazilian-born people in the audience. But, common to all those attending "Brazil: The Monarch Composer" (and there were people of all ages) was the appeal of this music - the joy, the colour, the vivacity and the wholehearted life-affirming message of Brazilian music. Addressing its every detail and gesture, and re-creating the sound world of early 19th century music, Dr. Myrna Herzog, herself Brazilian-born, presented the beauty of this repertoire with balance, good taste and personal involvement, inviting each of the musicians on stage to shine. The project was supported by the Brazilian Embassy, Tel Aviv.

Emperor PEDRO I. Painting by Simplício Rodrigues de Sá.

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