The musical week got off to a good start last Saturday evening with a concert by the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, of which I have been a member since it was founded almost 25 years ago. I have no qualms about defining Saturday night (Motzei Shabbat – מוצאי שבת – the end of the Sabbath) as the start of the week. For my non-Jewish readers, I should explain that in Jewish law, the day starts the evening before (“and it was evening and it was morning, the first day”). Thus the first day of the new week starts on Saturday evening, with the end of the Sabbath.
Our concert took place in St. Andrew’s Church – which, for those interested, belongs to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland – a simple, elegant building overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem. This was by no means the first time we have appeared there, so we knew, from bitter experience, that although the acoustics are excellent, it was also likely to be extremely cold. Although the heating – such as it is – is usually turned on during concerts, it is rarely in operation when we arrive 2 hours or so before the concert is due to start, for rehearsals and balance checks. While this is tolerable in summer, in winter, the cold from the stone floor seeps through one’s bones.
To surmount this difficulty, Orna had the brilliant idea of substituting pashminas for the light grey chiffon scarves usually worn by the ladies of the choir. I understand (from my reading of “Bridget Jones’ Diary“) that a genuine pashmina is (or was) something of a status symbol. However, fake pashminas can be purchased in the bazaars of the Old City and from many low-cost stores all over town, for as little as 20 shekels. They won’t keep you warm, though – certainly not in the Arctic conditions of St. Andrew’s. In the event, last Saturday night was particularly cold, and although the day started off sunny, by evening a steady drizzle was falling. Even my (perfectly genuine, 70% cashmere wool, 30% silk) pashmina was not going to suffice and – for only the second or third time in my concert career – I had to resort to wearing a sweater (albeit an elegant one) and a jacket, and even high-heeled boots in order to ward off the chill. It wasn’t enough and by the end of the evening, my feet felt like blocks of ice and I couldn’t feel my toes. The audience, those sixty or so brave souls who braved the elements, kept their coats on.
What did we sing? A fairly eclectic mix of music ranging from 16th-century polyphony to contemporary Israeli and American music and 20th century settings of the Roman Catholic liturgy from the Dane, Niels Lacour and the Hungarian György Orban. Clément Janequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaulx followed hard on the heels of the youthful Fauré’s prizewinning setting of Le Cantique de Jean Racine. Baroque psalm settings by Hassler and Pitoni were followed by Zvi Avni’s take on Psalm 150 in the original Hebrew (the 3rd psalm in this recording, made last year, also in St. Andrew’s). Contemporary American choral music was also represented, with a lyrical piece by Morten Lauridsen, Sure on this Shining Night (to words by James Agee) and Eric Whitacre’s searing, heart-rending version of David’s lament on the death of Absalom, When David Heard. Countless composers have set these particular verses from II Samuel 18:33 to music, but I have never heard a setting more gut-wrenching. Scored in parts for as many as seventeen voices, it is also extremely difficult to sing and can leave both choir and audience physically and mentally exhausted.
We rounded off the evening with a couple of African-American spirituals
and, in response to audience demand, a saucy Renaissance period French ditty for an encore.
The week ended no less musically, with a trip to the Israel Opera in Tel Aviv on Thursday. This gave me the opportunity to dither about what to wear and to change my mind several times, before getting all dolled up in a grey wool mini-dress, high-heeled boots (it was threatening to rain again – and did so) and a new, deep mauve pashmina (fake, this time – but such a pretty colour ;-)). Kurt Weill’s anti-capitalist satire Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny), to lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, is more of a musical than an opera, but I enjoyed it greatly – not just the singing and acting but also the staging, the clever use of lighting, the scenery and the costumes.
I’m rounding off my musical week (even though, technically, it’s already the start of a new week, since it is once again, Motzei Shabbat) by writing this while listening to a live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera of New York, of a new opera-pastiche, The Enchanted Island, courtesy of the BBC.