Lady Phoenix rises with song

Violist Myrna Herzog leads her ensemble into its 20th season.

Myrna Herzog (photo credit: PR)
Myrna Herzog
(photo credit: PR)
Now reacquainted with her 17th-century Lewis viol gamba, Myrna Herzog is leading Ensemble Phoenix in a daring 20th season, scored with curiosity and fiery passion. The viol gamba is a stringed instrument that is similar to a cello and is played between the legs.
Much like the mystical winged creature after which she named her ensemble, conductor and violist Herzog rose from the scattered ashes of an exhausted career in Brazil at age 40 and flew the coop to Israel.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Herzog says. “I owe everything to my musical upbringing in Brazil.”
Herzog began bowing in her youth, at a time where her country had already shown interest in the Early Music Movement.
“We did not have Internet, so it was quite difficult to get external information,” she said. “We had to rely on our small community of crazy, passionate musicians. Wow, were we ever crazy! We’d do anything to learn our instruments, no matter the cost.”
Painfully aware of the downsides of being isolated in her field in comparison to European period musicians, Herzog beams with optimism nonetheless. She smiles brightly in the immense strength that she admits to gaining as a result of learning in this less accessible world, and brighter still in her response to the recent damage to her prized 17th century viol during an Alitalia flight.
After a brief shock, Herzog chose to overcome her trauma by telling her story on Facebook, as well as reaching out to the airline for compensation, and eventually, the proper repairmen.
Thankfully, the instrument has risen from the dead, just like a phoenix, and will be played by Herzog alongside its identical twin this February.
“You value things according to the amount of sacrifice you had to make in order to have them,” she noted.
And so, after tremendous success in South America, where she directed the Academia Antiqua Pro-Arte (one of the first Baroque orchestras for early instruments in the continent) for nearly a decade, and blossomed in the Quadro Cervantes group, which was filled with “curiosity, stamina, and all the unquiet space to experiment,” Herzog had grown tired of hitting her head on the Brazilian music community’s low ceilings.
In 1992 she found the perfect cure for her headaches: a one-way ticket to Israel.
Why Israel of all places?
“Zionism, pure and simple,” she answered automatically.
As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Zionism has pulsed through Herzog’s veins ever since she was old enough to hold a viol. Though her mother was born in Brazil to European parents, her father hailed from Poland.
“Visiting Israel with my father was one of the most moving things you could imagine. He was in awe of the Jewish state. So I came here because I thought it was my place,” she said. “And it was.”
Herzog immediately fell in love with Israel’s research libraries as well as its proximity to Europe, which holds the roots of early music. Not only did she immediately fall in love with Israel, Israel immediately fell in love with her.
“Everyone was very eager to have a professional gamba player at the time. I was well received by my colleagues and it did not take long to found my own ensemble with the help of David Shemer.”
UPON ORCHESTRATING the donation of four viols from the Viol da Gamba Society to Bar-Ilan University, Herzog apprenticed the first generation of Israeli gamba players. Initially meant to exist purely as a consort of viols, after a raving review by The Jerusalem Post – calling the ensemble’s first concert “a red letter day for Israel’s music life” – under Herzog’s guidance, Phoenix’s wingspan stretched wider:
“First, people started asking me to create programs with more than just viols, with other instruments and voices, too, which is basically what I started to do.
“Then came the Abu Ghosh festival, where I was constantly asked to take on new projects, to which I always accepted, of course.”
One such project was a memorable Bolivian Baroque music project, which challenged Herzog greatly and changed her life.
Without planning, this challenging three-choir, 13 to 14 voice piece would free her from her director’s cage and guide her toward an unexpected new passion for conducting. Herzog had always thought of herself as a musician first and foremost. Even when directing a quartet or orchestra, she led from behind a wooden security blanket, whether a cello or viol. Then one day she awoke, yet again, into a new life. Only this time, she had traded in her bow for a baton.
“We think we know ourselves, but then, we find out that we really don’t. Phoenix was as much of a professional trip, for me, as a physical one,” she said.
Discovering that she could conduct had a huge impact on the ensemble. Driven by curiosity, a decisive aspect of Ensemble Phoenix’s repertoire, Herzog began to experiment with different early instruments, including medieval instruments, Renaissance, Baroque and early Romantic. Each project became a “voyage into a different sphere,” a notion Herzog used to craft this year’s audacious program.
Following Haydn’s Sun Quartets, next up in this momentous season is a Neapolitan delicacy: La Caduta Dell’ Angeli (The Fall of the Angels). Francesco Rossi’s oratorio depicts a very dark biblical battle, one that leads to the fall of Lucifer and his rebellion of angels. Herzog has chosen to counteract this serious narrative with the bright, young voices of the Tel Aviv University vocal department.
“I wanted to connect our performance to the music conservatory of Sant’onofrio,” Herzog explained. The works were all written around 1670 at this important institution in Naples and were sung by soloists of a similar age to those in the Tel Aviv University choir, so her goal was to create a piece of tourism for the audience.
“‘Welcome to Naples!’ I want to tell them.”
In addition to the soloists of the Tel Aviv University vocal department, Ensemble Phoenix will also be joined by Portugal’s Ludovice Ensemble. Herzog first met the Ludovice Ensemble at the Felicja Blumental International Music festival. In addition, Ensemble Phoenix has received generous support from the Embassy of Portugal since introducing Israel to José Maurício Nunes Garcia, the most important Brazilian colonial composer.
“This connection brings me great pride. Despite moving to Israel, I am still very Brazilian, and Portuguese influence on Brazilian culture is adamant. Their music speaks to me in a very personal way. With Phoenix, I have this privilege of only doing things that I am totally in love with. Otherwise, why should I do them? Phoenix has survived as an ensemble because we’re known for always bringing new things to the stage. If I’m going to invest an immense amount of work and hours, then it has to be in something that I really love. I do things that are worthwhile and that I am passionate about. This passion is contagious. It spreads to the musicians and the public as well.”
Ensemble Phoenix will perform on December 5 at the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace in Jerusalem, on December 6 & 7 at Tel Aviv University’s Clairmont Concert Hall, and on December 8 at St. Joseph’s Church in Haifa. For details, visit