Baroque music by the dozen

The three-day event is the brainchild of David Shemer, musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

July 17, 2019 22:18
Baroque music by the dozen

THE JERUSALEM Baroque Orchestra, under Latvianborn Jerusalemite conductor David Shemer (right), will anchor the Vocal Fantasy Festival.. (photo credit: RUSTAM BAERAMOV)

There are, for my money, few more stirring sounds than hearing a top-notch choir singing liturgical material in a space with the appropriate aesthetics, atmosphere and natural acoustics. It can be emotive cantorial fare, or works of Christian grandeur, as the fruits of the primordial musical instrument – the human body – wash over you.

That and much more will be on offer at various locations around Jerusalem – principally the YMCA, as well as St. Andrew’s Church and Agnon House – courtesy of the Vocal Fantasy Festival, July 25-27. The three-day event is the brainchild of David Shemer, musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, which provides the ensemble anchor for the whole agenda.
With Shemer and the JBO at the helm, the general order of the musical day is largely of a Baroque nature, with the German Requiem by 16th-century German composer and organist Heinrich Schütz, and early Italian Baroque works sung by Israeli soprano Daniella Skorka, with lutist Ophira Zakai and Shemer playing harpsichord. There is also some “extramural” earlier and later material in the program, including The Kings’ Songs slot with music from the 12th and 13th centuries; a show with contemporary singer-songwriter offerings with some Middle Eastern seasoning; and a concert of works by Schumann, Debussy and Latvian composers.

And, while we’re on the subject of matters Baltic, the main draw of the festival is a performance of Handel’s Esther Oratorio, by the JBO and conducted by Shemer with a slew of soloists from The Collegium Choro Musici Riga, Latvia, under chorus master Maris Kupcs. This is an Israeli premiere of a new adaptation of Esther by Shemer and fellow conductor and harpsichordist Shalev Ad-El. Esther combines two different works by Handel, written for the same story with a Hebrew language libretto written in 1764 by Italian musician and writer Rabbi Jacob Raphael Saraval for the Jewish-Portuguese community in Amsterdam. The Vocal Fantasy features two performances of the work: at the Zucker Auditorium, Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv on July 26 at 1 p.m., followed by another airing at the YMCA in Jerusalem on the next day at 9 p.m.

Kupcs says he is eagerly anticipating the concerts and to have the opportunity to sing a work in Hebrew in Israel. The plan has been a couple of years in the making and was hatched together with one of his Jerusalem hosts. “It was a joint idea of mine together with David Shemer, whom I have known for a long time,” says the 52-year-old Latvian who also plays harpsichord. Shemer also hails from Riga and made aliyah in 1973. “David came to a concert of ours in Riga and we started talking afterwards, and I told him I’d like to perform some Jewish Baroque music, which is not very much known. So we said it would be a nice idea to perform Esther, in Hebrew. It is an exceptionally nice piece.”

While the coals-to-Newcastle analogy is not a watertight fit, coming from Riga to Jerusalem to sing an oratorio in Hebrew when you are not exactly fluent in the language must be quite a daunting prospect. “Of course we are not pretending to speak or sing without any accent. People in the audience will probably understand that,” Kupcs laughs. “But, of course, we will do our best. There aren’t many people in Riga who use Hebrew, except in synagogues. I remember old people around me in Riga speaking not Hebrew but the different, European, version.” Yiddish? I suggested. “Yes! Yiddish! Of course. It is much easier to speak Yiddish,” he chuckles.

COLLEGIUM CHORO Musici began life almost nine years ago. It was, Kupcs explains, a matter of keeping the vocal output trim and following the mind-set of one of the Baroque era’s greatest exponents. “We built the choir especially to go a little bit deeper into Bach’s music, Bach’s dreams. Bach wanted a choir of 12 people.” Collegium Choro Musici comprises an even dozen vocalists. Apparently, the great Baroque organist and composer had to contend with some weighty marketing constraints, which meant that he generally had to stick to more voluminous offerings. “He never actually got 12 people in a choir,” Kupcs adds.

That numerical challenge continues to this day, and the Latvian choir master says the call is generally for performances on a far grander scale. “We usually sing here, with huge choirs.” Huge means huge. “We can even have 20,000 people singing together,” he notes. Indeed, the whole of the Baltic region – including Lithuania and Estonia – is feted for its choral output, often of a gargantuan nature. Back in the late 1980s, people from all three countries expressed their opposition to Soviet dictates by holding spontaneous gatherings where they sang works by nationalist poets, hymns and even rock music. That continues to this day, in the post-Soviet era. “All our countries have huge singing fests,” says Kupcs.

But what, exactly, is so special about the number 12? Is there something mystical about it? Why was Bach so keen to write music for lineups of a round dozen? “I don’t really know,” says Kupcs. “I know that he actually couldn’t really get 12 people together in a choir, but we have performed with 12 people and it sounds amazing. For some reason, if you add more voices it loses something.”

The choir that will perform Esther is a pretty young lot. “They are all in their 20s and early 30s,” Kupcs says, adding that he had a good idea of what he would get from his singing charges. “They are all ex-students of mine.”

It is not only the chorists who are in their first flush of vigorous tender years. “Early music is really young in Latvia,” the choir master notes. “We founded the Early Museum Department [of the University of Latvia] in 2005. All my colleagues, professors in my department, they are younger than me,” Kupcs laughs.

Kupcs says he is grateful to Shemer for coming up with the idea of doing the Handel oratorio here, and says he is excited at the prospect of performing a work in Hebrew, in the main language of the host country. “It is also the place where things [Esther’s Purim storyline] happened,” he adds, confusing Persia with this part of the world. When I pointed out the slight geographical inaccuracy, Kupcs quickly qualified his observation. “It is very exciting to sing for people who can understand the importance of those events.”

Besides bringing the story of Purim, as charted by an 18th-century Italian rabbi, Kupcs is also looking forward to making his first trip to Israel. Perhaps he’ll have an opportunity to beef up his Hebrew while he’s here? “I don’t know about that,” he laughs. “I do know ‘mazel tov!’ That’s about it.”

Regardless of how the choir master’s Hebrew vocabulary progress here next week, the concert should be a moving experience for one and all.

For tickets and more information: 02-671-5888, *6119 and

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