A unique event of the 51st Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (May 30th – June 3rd 2017) was Ensemble PHOENIX' “A Brazilian Requiem for a Portuguese Queen”, taking place at the Kiryat Yearim Church on June 3rd. PHOENIX is known for its performance of Renaissance-, Baroque- and South American music on authentic instruments. This program, researched and conducted by Brazilian-born PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog, offered festival-goers a totally new listening experience, with the ensemble transformed into a full orchestra performing on period instruments from the Classical period.

Overseas guest artists soprano Sofia Pedro (Portugal), violinist Lilia Slavny and Brazilians - violinist Luis Otávio Santos (Brazil) and Classical bassoonist and cavaquinho player Ricardo Rapoport - were joined by Israeli soloists: mezzo-soprano Anne Marieke Evers (Holland-Israel), tenor Oshri Segev, baritone Yair Polishook and clarinettist Gili Rinot. Making up the playbill were the PHOENIX Ensemble instrumentalists and the Upper Galilee Choir (director: Ron Zarchi). Myrna Herzog expressed her appreciation to the Portuguese- and Brazilian Embassies for their support in bringing the four overseas artists.

From the opening sounds of José Maurício Nunes Garcia’s (1767-1830), orchestral overture, featuring virtuosic playing on the part of clarinettist Gili Rinot, one becomes aware of the downy, smooth textures of the Classical orchestra. It was followed by Damião Barbosa de Araújo’s (1778-1856) “Memento Baiano” (a prayer traditionally recited in the house of a person recently deceased) for choir and orchestra. The composer was Chapel Master in the Cathedral of Bahia, before moving to Rio, where the whole of this program takes place, around 1816. As to the work itself, the choir's careful diction and bracing tutti, colored with much highly expressive presence of the clarinet (Gili Rinot) highlighted its moods, its style indicative of the European influence on Brazilian church- and court music, both genres embraced by de Araújo.

Marcos Portugal (1762-1830) was not only the most prolific Portuguese-born composer ever, but also the most successful, both in Portugal and abroad (he died a Brazilian citizen). For Sofia Pedro's warm and appealing singing of Portugal's "Cuidados, tristes cuidados" (Worries, Sad Worries), featuring all four overseas guest artists, Herzog joined the players to play the 'cello in this tender and unabashedly sentimental modinha (traditional Brazilian love song). We also heard Pedro in "Qual piacere e qual diletto" (What pleasure, What Enjoyment) from Portugal's opera buffa "Oro non compra amore" (Gold Does Not Buy Love). Her luxuriant, easeful and substantial voice reached all corners of the Kiryat Yearim Church, as she eyed her audience, teasing it with the word-painting of the love-struck aria. Gili Rinot's playing of the clarinet obbligato role was suave and richly shaped.

Creating the flavor of Afro-Brazilian traditional dance, a smaller all-Brazilian ensemble of bowed and plucked instruments – Baroque violinist Luis Otávio Santos, accompanied by Ricardo Rapoport on the cavaquinho, with Herzog herself playing the rabeca (north Brazilian fiddle) – played a lundu, a flirtatious couple dance of typical Brazilian propulsive rhythm, its backing typified by alternating tonic-dominant harmonies.

With 2017 the 250th anniversary of the birth of the most important Brazilian colonial composer José Maurício Nunes Garcia, it was Myrna Herzog's aim to introduce his music to the Israeli public, with the Israeli premiering of his "Requiem for the Portuguese Queen Maria I, the Mad" (1816). Of this Afro-Brazilian composer and organist, the grandson of slaves, 240 works survive. When the Portuguese Royal Family took refuge in Brazil in March 1808, clerics who accompanied them tried to remove Garcia from his position because of his race. However, Padre José Maurício Nunes Garcia was one of the greatest exponents of Classicism in the Americas. Nunes Garcia's music was strongly influenced by Italian opera from the beginning of the 19th century. His membership in a literary society brought him into contact with a leader of the Brazilian struggle against Portuguese rule, and led him to add Brazilian popular music and folk music to his liturgical compositions. Nunes Garcia put into practice all the techniques and coloristic possibilities of the large orchestra he conducted. He also explored all the virtuosic possibilities of the excellent singers he had at his disposal. This Requiem is considered to be one of his most outstanding works. The composition, in the key of D minor, shows parallels in several places to Mozart’s Requiem, which Garcia himself directed two years later (1819) for the first time in Brazil. Myrna Herzog's performance of Garcia's Requiem presented its genesis and the rich possibilities of the work. Her large orchestra (although not numbering the 100 players Garcia had in his court orchestra) highlighted the score's vibrant colors. It included natural horns (Alon Reuven, Ruti Varon) still a rarity in Israel; no less rare were the presence of two Classical clarinets (Gili Rinot, Nurit Blum), two Classical bassoons (Ricardo Rapoport, Alexander Fine), Classical flute (Moshe Aron Epstein) and natural timpani (Nadav Ovadia). The result was an orchestral canvas of great richness and subtlety, offering as much interest to the players as to the audience. The Upper Galilee Choir gave a most impressive, finely detailed, well blended and meaningful performance, its choral sound fresh and flexible. The vocal quartet’s teamwork (Pedro, Evers, Segev, Polishook) produced a sympathetic and sensitive blend. Tenor Oshri Segev's full and mellow timbre and musicality were well suited to the work. Especially imposing was Yair Polishook's performance – his vivid mix of bass timbres, careful pacing and compelling dramatic sense drawing the listener with him into the work’s emotional fabric. Myrna Herzog's production of Garcia's Requiem was electrifying. Once again, she has introduced Israeli audiences to repertoire not previously heard in this country and in the most uncompromising and authentic manner. In this ground-breaking event of great interest and beauty, the audience was swept into the excitement experienced by the artists involved in the performance.

Photo: Ami Shamir

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