With Chanucah starting tonight, it’s time to take a break from wars, terrorism and election politics and devote some time to those things which make life bearable – music, literature, things like that…
Last Saturday night (December 13th), the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir presented its first full-length concert of the 2014/15 concert season under the baton of our new conductor, Kate Belshé. Given the fact that it was a cold, rainy evening and that St. Andrew’s (Scottish) Church, where we performed, is notoriously cold and uncomfortable, we had quite a respectable turnout even though we were not completely sold-out this time. At all events, this was a great start to our work with Kate, who took over as our conductor only three and a half months ago and is already working magic. I can tell (to paraphrase Bogey) that this is going to prove “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”
One of the things I most enjoy about choir is the learning experience. A new conductor brings new ways, new ideas, new methods – and a whole lot of new repertoire. About two-thirds of the pieces we performed the other night were completely new to most of us.
Another thing I have noticed with this year’s repertoire – both in the Chamber Choir and in the full, 150-member Jerusalem Oratorio Choir – is that much of it is comprised of musical settings of fine literature. Since I always research the pieces that we sing, this has led me, via Google and its myriad links, into labyrinthine paths of knowledge, and to poets I had never heard of, or had heard of but never read, or had never read except in translation. Thus, for example, since, later this season, the women of the big choir will be performing Federico Garcia Lorca’s Romancero Gitano as set by the Italian-Jewish composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, I embarked on a Google search of both the poet and the composer. I never studied Spanish but my knowledge of Latin and French makes it possible for me to appreciate the beauty of the lyrics even without a translation.
Similarly, Kate’s choice of repertoire for the Chamber Choir, which included Morten Lauridsen’s beautiful setting of Dirait-on from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Les Roses, introduced me to Rilke’s French poetry. Rilke is well-known as a German-language poet so it came as quite a surprise to me to learn that he wrote over 400 poems in French. Moreover, as I do not speak German (although I sing it quite frequently!), I have never been able to enjoy any of his work in the original language – until now. At any rate, Liora, from the choir, who prepared the Hebrew translations for the concert programme, used as her source this English version, although she departed from it in translating “ton intérieur”, going for a more literal translation. However, she rendered “abandon” as “desertion”, rather than the more probable (in my humble opinion) “self-abandon” – in the sense of casting off restraint.
Both interpretations are possible, of course. That is the beauty of poetry.
Lauridsen is no stranger to us. We have, in the past, performed his settings of O Magnum Mysterium and Sure On This Shining Night. This time, however, it was Samuel Barber’s better-known version of the latter which we performed.
When we first performed the Lauridsen setting of James Agee’s poem, three or four years ago, my curiosity led me on a fascinating journey into the realms of American literature. Prior to this, I had read very little by American poets, and very few of them were known to me, beyond Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, the antisemitic Ezra Pound and the Jewish Emma Lazarus. Oh, and T.S. Eliot, of course, whom I had always considered more British than American and who was the only one I studied in any depth, at school.
James Agee, in particular, was the catalyst for some serious mental gymnastics as I struggled to help Liora find a suitable translation for the words “this side the ground”. In fact – and this just goes to show how a fresh pair of eyes, not necessarily those of a native English speaker, can contribute to our understanding of a work (we think) we know well – it was Liora’s Hebrew translation that made me realise that “the late year” is to be understood as meaning “last year”, rather than referring to the later months of the year (which had never made sense to me before). Now I could kick myself for not having seen it earlier! ;-)
Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night
I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.
Amazingly, it was only when preparing this post that I discovered that the song lyrics are only a small part of a much longer poem!
Yet another American poet of whom I had never heard until Kate brought us a setting of the beautiful Grace Before Sleep by contemporary American composer Susan LaBarr (of whom I had also not heard until now) was Sara Teasdale. My research on the latter was a striking example of the way a Google search can lead one, link by link, into what I have already described as “a labyrinth”. Sara Teasdale led me to Vachel Lindsay, previously unknown to me and he, in turn, led me to Langston Hughes whose novel, Not Without Laughter, I have read and enjoyed but with whose poetry, I am not familiar. Who knows where else my researches will lead me?
Other pieces performed included two songs by the Renaissance era French composer Clément Janequin, a song in an Australian aboriginal language, Tungarre, by Stephen Leek (with which we opened the concert, singing it as we entered, in procession), an arrangement by Paul Ben-Haim of the Ladino romance La Rosa and a setting by the young American (Jewish?) composer, David Asher Brown of Shelley’s To The Moonbeam.
Nor were our own, Jewish, sources neglected. Besides contemporary settings of verses from The Song of Songs by the Anglo-Canadian composer Healey Willan, the American Daniel Pinkham, and the recently-deceased Israeli composer, Yehezkel Braun (whose niece is a member of our choir), the Book of Psalms also figured prominently in our programme, with settings in Latin and English, as well as the original Hebrew. Besides Salomone Rossi’s early Baroque setting of Psalm 146, we sang a Latin setting of the first three verses of Psalm 96 by his German contemporary, Hans Leo Hassler:
The Psalms are a perennial favourite, and always relevant, even in contemporary times, as we can see from Bobby McFerrin’s “feminist” setting of the 23rd Psalm.
I will leave you with the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir performing a hypnotic, canonic setting based on a traditional Oriental melody, by Israeli composer Ofer Ben Amots, of Psalm 137. I think that, in these times, when our enemies and even the “enlightened” countries of the West, are disputing the inaliable right of the Jewish people to our capital, Jerusalem, it is as well to remind everyone that even throughout the long Exile from our land, our eyes were ever turned, in hope, to Zion.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee…
Happy Chanucah חג אורים שמח