The 2017 Vocal Fantasy, hosted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, followed the vision of the late Shimon Bigelman, who founded the festival in 2012. The six concerts, a celebration of choirs and voices taking place from July 12th to 15th 2017 and with the endorsement of the Jerusalem Development Authority, was dedicated to Shimon Bigelman’s memory.

The event opening the festival (Jerusalem July 12th and closing it in Tel Aviv July 15th) was Georg Frideric Händel’s “Messiah”. Handel wrote the original version of “Messiah” in three to four weeks. Premiered in Dublin to an audience of 700 people on April 13th 1742, women were requested to wear dresses without hoops and men to leave swords at home in order to “make room for more company”. Conducting the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the NFM Choir (Wrocław, Poland; artistic director Agnieszka Frankow-Żelazny) and soloists was JBO founder and musical director Maestro David Shemer. The festival’s visiting choir from Poland, singing in clear, British English, offered a careful blend of rich, well-anchored voices, coloring and contrasted gestures, highlighting key words, responding to orchestral textures and giving pleasing articulacy to the complexities of fugal sections as it propelled the work forward with impact and its uplifting messages. Characterizing tenor Eitan Drori’s performance were his acute awareness of each shade of meaning, his timing and word-painting, as he found new expression for each turn of the text and its emotions. His is a large, lustrous tenor voice, maneuvered however with tenderness in the opening “Comfort ye”, then with hurtling fire to “laugh them to scorn” or “dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel”. Bristling with presence and descriptiveness, authority and contrast, bass-baritone Assaf Levitin presented his arias in definite colours, lending a keen sense of contrast to such passages as “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light” and triumph and joyousness in “The trumpet shall sound”, in which he was joined by Yuval Shapira’s fine handling of the natural trumpet. Soprano Hadas Faran Asia gave convincing balance to the solo soprano’s richly varied role of recounting the story and of emotional response to it - joyous and lyrical responses and the sense of awe of Händel’s own faith, as in her gently ornamented and dynamically varied singing of “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. Zlata Hershberg, her lower register occasionally obscured by the orchestra, wove peace and melodiousness into idyllic texts, whipping up the drama and tension as she sang of Jesus who “hid not His face from shame and spitting” in “He was despised”.

There was much buoyant- and beautifully shaped playing on the part of the instrumentalists and plenty of close communication between them and choir and soloists. With its drones, the sweetly bucolic and dreamy "Pastoral Symphony" (entitled Pifa) set the scene for the shepherds’ arrival in the fields. First violinist Noam Schuss delighted audiences with her ever well-spoken, lucid- and unmannered obligato playing.

And to the pinnacle of Händel’s “Messiah”, the Hallelujah Chorus, (for which audiences in some locations still rise to their feet in honour of this musical credo). On completing his writing of the piece which would take its place in history as the festive "Hallelujah Chorus", the composer, with tears streaming down his face cried out to his servant "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself." The festival audiences in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv remained seated for the Hallelujah Chorus, but they certainly rose to their feet, shouted and whistled in appreciation at the conclusion of the majestic and exciting performance. The fact remains that this epic masterpiece is as fresh and inspiring as ever, still awing listeners 250 years after the composer’s death.

Photo: Maxim Reider

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