Behind the mask

The Jerusalem A-Cappella Singers have shown their faces in many high-quality performances over the years, but Masks Off concert at the Augusta Victoria Church will find the 20-plus ensemble partly in disguise.

Jerusalem Acapella Orchestra 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem Acapella Orchestra 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘We will perform a couple of things with masks on,” explains The Jerusalem A-Cappella Choir’s British-born conductor and artistic director Judi Axelrod.
“What is a mask?” she continues, somewhat enigmatically, before explaining that there may be more here than meets the eye, literally.
“We all wear masks. Do we have the courage to remove our masks? Nino Rota did and Kurt Weill did. They had the courage to show another face.”
The gents in question are just two of the composers whose work will be performed in this evening’s Jerusalem A-Cappella Singers repertoire. Weill’s pieces are performed regularly by all manner of instrumental and vocal outfits, but Rota’s name is not one that readily springs to mind in such a setting.
“The whole concept [for the concert] started from Rota. He had a legendary relationship with Federico Fellini,” says Axelrod.
“He wrote some of the greatest film music ever, but he was not known at all as a composer of classical music.”
The conductor feels this is an injustice and, presumably, hopes the choir’s concert will go some way toward redressing the accolade deficiency for the man who is, perhaps, best known for writing the soundtrack for The Godfather.
“He wrote some nine operas and symphonic music and chamber music, and it’s never performed. The man was a genius.”
When Axelrod came across Rota’s classical oeuvre, she was duly impressed and determined to get some of it out there, especially in this country.
“I thought, ‘My job as a conductor is to bring new works to the stage.’ Choirs in Israel, in general, tend to perform similar pieces,” she says, although adding that she fully understands the bottom line consideration.
“There are people who go a little bit off [mainstream material], but there is always this fear of not selling tickets. There is always this thing in your mind about having to attract an audience. But in this concert, I didn’t think about that. I just thought I want to do things that contribute to concert tradition, to audience experience and coming face to face with things you have never heard before, which I happen to consider being very good.”
ROTA, IT seems, is the perfect choice for putting together a visually, as well as aurally, entertaining program.
“He loved anything to do with theater,” explains Axelrod.
“He was a collector of toys and trinkets and was very attracted to the circus and makeup and costumes and masks. He was a very interesting character, aside from his music. Rota was the starting point for me.
The more I found out about him, the more I realized I had to do some of his works. He had masks, but he also removed them and showed another face to the public.”
But Rota’s output is not just about putting a smile on the audience’s face. There is some uplifting and moving stuff in there too.
“For me, he was revealing his more fragile side, and a lot of his music is also deeply religious, Christian music,” continues Axelrod, “and we’ll be doing some of that in the concert.
Instead of the music of [Fellini movies] 81⁄2 and Roma, which is so dramatic and passionate and humorous, you’ve got his Il Presepio, for mezzo and string quartet, which is all about Mary singing to the baby, and she is so poor she can’t heat the room.
We’re also doing Rota’s Salve Regina [for mezzo and organ]. You can see Rota’s soul in his music”.
But this evening’s concert is about much more than Rota and Weill. It also takes in contributions by English 20th-century composer Vaughan Williams, 41-year-old American Grammy nominee Eric Whitacre, septuagenarian Icelandic composer Thorkell Sigurbjornsson and contemporary envelope pusher John Cage.
Although he has a high profile in popular operatic circles, Axelrod feels that Kurt Weill could also do with some PR in other areas of his work.
“I thought, ‘What is there by Weill for a choir?’ He is best known for The Threepenny Opera and his songs. He wrote Kaddish for a choir, but that didn’t move me. Then I discovered an opera called The Silver Lake – Der Silbersee. It is a highly emotive piece. Weill wrote in 1932, when a lot of people were starving. The two protagonists are digging graves just to make a few pennies, and there’s a whole duet about how their stomachs are turning. It’s very powerful.”
Axelrod says her Weill selection fits the Masks Off bill.
“With this piece, the mask of opera is being removed because opera, even when there is death and love and passion, is always done in a poetic and beautiful way.
Here, Kurt Weill is giving us a different story altogether.”
With such an intriguing and adventurous program, and with a setting to match, Axelrod and the choir look set to offer the public a rare treat.
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