Saturday, September 21, 2013

Judith Davidoff and Myrna Herzog talk about upcoming performances

Dr. Myrna Herzog, founder and director of Ensemble PHOENIX, is busy with rehearsals for two major upcoming performances in the very near future. Visiting her at her Ra’anana (Israel) home on September 20th 2013, I found it a beehive of activity, with three members of the New York Consort of Viols there, having flown in to Israel the same day. I had the pleasure of a short conversation with the consort’s musical director Judith Davidoff, who established the New York Consort of Viols in 1972. An international recitalist, teacher, lecturer and researcher, Ms. Davidoff plays early fiddles, viol and ‘cello. She was recently honored with the “Special Early Music Outreach Award” by Early Music America.

PH: Ms. Davidoff, I am delighted to meet you. Would you like to talk about the concert you will be performing on Monday September 23rd 2013 at the Renaissance Festival at the Yehiam National Park in the Western Galilee?

Judith Davidoff: Yes. The New York Consort of Viols has sent three members of our quartet to join up with two members of Ensemble PHOENIX. The five of us are going to present a program I put together a few years ago called “The Road from Valencia”.

PH: What lies behind the idea of the program?

JD: The program traces the travels of Jewish Sephardic musicians who were forced to leave Spain in 1492. Some recent research has discovered that at least two of those musician families went from Spain to Italy and further afield. Their journey to Italy took them to northern Italy where the two families – the Bassanos and the Lupos – were given residencies in small palaces. While they were there in Italy, they (probably the next generation - the dates we have are not all that convincing) were invited by the court of Henry VIII to go to England and join his instrumental ensemble. It turns out that Henry was very fond of Italian Jews in his ensemble. So, some of the Bassanos and Lupos went to England.

PH: How did you fit this episode of history into one program?

JD: The first three quarters of the program feature Spanish music, Italian music and English music that they would have encountered, composed or heard in their travels. The last section of the program focuses on the Diaspora, with (modern) contemporary works that have been influenced by Sephardic music. The three works played in this second part of the program are by Flory Jagoda (b.1925), David Loeb (b.1939) and Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984). There will also be a narrator, who will give some readings, among them, “The Edict of Expulsion” and the letter from the court of Henry VIII inviting the musicians to join his ensemble.

PH: Do you have enough time to rehearse?

JD: Well, Eliav Lavi (lute, readings) and Myrna Herzog (bass viol) have already rehearsed together, we three from New York – Lesley Retzer (treble viol), Lawrence Lipnik (tenor viol, voice) and I (bass viol) – rehearsed in New York, and tomorrow, all five of us will meet together and spend the day in intensive rehearsal.

PH: Many thanks, Judith Davidoff.

Myrna Herzog and I then talked about the PHOENIX production of “Venus and Adonis” or “La Púrpura de la Rosa” (The Blood of the Rose) by Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco, the first opera of the New World, an opera written in Peru in 1701. It will premiere at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival on September 26th, 2013. Taking part are members of VOCE PHOENIX: Alon Harari (countertenor), Hadas Faran-Asia, Revital Raviv, Michal Okon, Taliya Dishon, Liat Lidor and Ella Rosner (sopranos) and Eliav Lavi (tenor). Instrumentalists of Ensemble PHOENIX: Marina Minkin (harpsichord), Sunita Staneslow (harp), Eliav Lavi (Baroque guitar, theorbo), Alberto Fernandes (violone), Rony Iwryn, Nadav Gaiman (percussion). Stage director: Regina Alexandrovskaya. Myrna Herzog will play the viol and the schryari and is in charge of musical- and general direction.

PH: Myrna, would you like to talk about your love of opera?

Myrna Herzog: Yes. Well, let’s start with the fact that I had wanted to be an actress and, in the past, I studied theatre. After having changed my vocation to Baroque music, Baroque opera became my great love. And all the more so when doing opera in languages that I understand and know well. My dream has been to conduct Spanish-, South American- or French opera. French and Portuguese are both my first languages.

PH: How did this opera project begin?

MH: Years ago, when I was in New York, I found a score of the opera. I made a copy of it, took it home with me and was hoping I would some day have the opportunity of performing it. This opera is particularly interesting, being the first opera ever written and staged in the New World. Then, one day I was approached by Hanna Tzur, director of the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, who asked me if I knew the opera and if I would be able to conduct it. I said that I could and that I had the score. This request was like a present for me!

PH: What were the first stages of the project?

MH: I translated the opera into English (rather than Hebrew). Performing and lecturing quite a lot in South America nowadays, I used my connections there; they sent me a new transcription of the opera. Diana Fernández Calvo sent it to me and I made a revised version of it (I cut it slightly to fit into the time slot of Abu Gosh concerts) and prepared it all from scratch.

PH: This is home territory for you, isn’t it?

MH: Definitely. It is a privilege for me to work with material that is theatre in music, especially where the text is so familiar to me. Working with the performers I can explain the metaphors in it, how the words sound, etc. It is wonderful to take all its dramatic content, work with it and transform it into superb music. This is really what I like doing best! Theatre is my world.

PH: How is it shaping up?

MH: The result is very good. I am enjoying encouraging people to stretch themselves to their maximum limits of expression. That is where it becomes very fascinating: people have interesting personalities, with which they bring out the emotions expressed in the opera. I have the privilege of a first-class team of singers: Alon Harari-Mars, Hadas Faran-Adonis, Revital Raviv-Venus, Michal Okon-Belona , Taliya Dishon-Cupid, Liat Lidor and Ella Rosner are nymphs and Eliav Lavi-a peasant. And we have a very strong continuo section – all players are mentioned above.

PH: I have not heard of the schryari you will be playing. What kind of an instrument is that?

MH: It is a very noisy Renaissance instrument. It will only be used for the military scenes.

PH: Can you say a few words about the director?

MH: Regina Alexandrovskaya is from the Israeli Opera. She is wonderful - she has a fantastic imagination. The opera is nearly fully staged; it is not a concert version. Performing it as a concert version would be very unfair to Velasco, the composer.

PH: John Blow also wrote an opera called “Venus and Adonis”.

MH: True. This, however, is completely different from Blow’s version of the “Venus and Adonis” story. Well, it is the Spanish version, which means it has lots of passion, lots of amazing rhythms and it is very sensual, of course.

PH: How many performances will there be?

MH: The premiere will be at the Abu Gosh Festival September 26th. After that, there will be three more performances, one in each of the three main cities, with the support of the Spanish Embassy, the Marc Rich Foundation and the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport: December 5th at the Khan Theatre in Jerusalem, December 7th at the Mar Elias Church in Haifa and on December 11th at the Enav Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv. And for the two performances not in churches, we will have a lighting specialist - Dania Zemer.

PH: I wish you the very best of luck with these two interesting projects.

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