Large audience hear unfamiliar Christmas music in enthusiastic performance by Festival Singers

Festival Singers. Director: Jonathan Berkhan

Feliz Navidid – A South American Christmas
Music from the 16th to 21st centuries

Accompanist: Thomas Nikora; tenor solo: Joe Fecteau; guitar: Bernard Wells; percussion: Ingrid Schoenfeld, Monika Smith; bass: Samuel Berkahn

Jonathan Berkahn: Gloria
Pedro de Cristo: Es nasçido
Pedro Bermúdez: Christus natus est nobis
Gaspar Fernandes: Xicochi xicochi
Domenico Zipoli: Organ pieces from his Sonate d’intavolatura
José Maurício Nunes Garcia: Two responsories from Matinas do Natal. (no 2: Hodie nobis de coelo pax and No 4: O magnum mysterium
Ariel Ramírez: Misa Criolla (Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei)
Jonathan Berkahn: Gloria

Bravo Ensemble: accordion: Emilio Bertrand; piano: Thomas Nikora; violin: Slava Fainitski; violin: Sarah Martin; viola: David Daniela; cello: Brenton Veitch; contrabass: Louis van der Mespel

Astor Piazzolla: Five Tangos

Island Bay Presbyterian Church

Friday 28 November 2014

This festive concert programme drew a large audience to the Island Bay Presbyterian Church, and it was apparent from the first bar that the choristers hugely enjoyed singing it. The opening Gloria by the choir’s director Jonathan Berkahn immediately set the scene with its vigorous, bouncy rhythms and easy harmonies, cleverly offset by a central section of more stately and peaceful mood. The following three items formed a most interesting bracket of contrasted works from three of many Baroque missionary priest-musicians who moved out from Europe, taking their musical and ecclesiastical traditions with them, and developed these in the fresh environment of the New World.

Es nasçido is a Portuguese nativity hymn of full-bodied harmonies and traditional Baroque chorale tonalities, which was given a warm and enthusiastic delivery. Christus natus est nobis was more subdued, and displayed clear part singing from the various interweaving choral voices. And the third item, the lullaby Xicochi xicochi sung for the baby Jesus in the Aztec language, was a beautifully crafted piece, using solo guitar accompaniment. It opened with women’s voices only, and was marked by gently lilting melodies, later offset by busier syncopated rhythms from the men. It was a remarkably liberal fusion of Old and New World elements resulting in a composition that had moved a very considerable way from contemporary European practice.

We were treated next to two organ pieces from Domenico Zipoli’s Sonate d’intavolatura, very masterfully played by Jonathan Berkahn. The first was a Pastorale, in structure and style very reminiscent of the Pastoral Symphony in Handel’s Messiah. Gentle triplet figures wove attractively over the top of a rich bass pedal note, with a brief and lively episode providing contrast in the centre. The following number was an Offertory, where busy contrapuntal development unfolded once again over a bass pedal, culminating in a closing coda of rich, full throated chords. Jonathan Berkahn had voiced both pieces to show off the very best of the electronic organ, and they provided a very successful contrast to the other works in the programme.

José Garcia apparently wrote a huge amount of both choral and instrumental music, from which Berkahn had selected two responsories from Christmas Matins. Their full, warm harmonies, warmly delivered, closed off most satisfactorily this selection of works that gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into Baroque music making in the New World.

Bravo Ensemble was given a free hand by the director, and they chose five tangos by the well known 20th century composer Astor Piazzolla. Though born in Argentina, he spent most of his life in the USA, and these pieces displayed a very wide range of stylistic influences including the traditional dance tango, jazz, Joplin-esque ragtime, modern music, you name it. All were rooted in the fundamental tango idioms, but the first piece was a wild celebratory dance, while the second oozed slow, sultry rhythms, and lazy melodies full of veiled innuendo, where you could almost smell the smoke rings wafting on the warm night air.

The central number was composed on the day Piazzolla’s father died, and it captured so vividly the violently conflicting emotions of grief and loss. Episodes of deep contemplative sadness, marked by exquisite melodic writing and rich harmonies, were contrasted with others which raged, raged against the dying of the light, recalling Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary poem written as his father too approached death.

The Bravo Ensemble marked every phrase and mood with a passion and dedication that elevated this particular number to an artistic level I had never associated with traditional tango music. But likewise the next piece was a work of art in a very special way – an exquisite accordion melody floated over swaying tango rhythms and rich harmonies from the strings, underpinned by a pizzicato bass line beautifully crafted by Louis van der Mespel, which swelled from the whisper of the opening bars, through the rich sonorities of the central section, and faded finally into a breathless pianissimo close.

The last number was called Ave Maria, a title which had me wondering how this hallowed Catholic prayer might sit with tango. In Piazzolla’s creative hands, however, it proved to be an extraordinary marriage. No arbitrary boundaries here between sacred and profane –  even the term “sacred dance” seemed artificial. The depths of tango sensuality were somehow in complete harmony with the profundities of religious experience. It was a piece that rounded off a truly eye-opening selection of compositions in tango form. I don’t know whether any of them has ever been set to dance, but it would be fascinating to see how creative choreographers/dancers would express the huge range of emotions and idioms they encapsulate. Thank you Jonathan Berkahn for the inspired inclusion of this bracket in the programme.

The choral programme was rounded off by three movements from Ariel Ramírez’ Misa Criolla. The director explained that the decision in 1963 by Vatican II to allow mass in the vernacular had led the creative flood gates to burst wide open in South America. This 1964 work used a tenor soloist, choristers and instrumental accompaniment to achieve a very creative and different setting for the mass. A lyrical tenor solo above muted humming voices marked the Kyrie setting, then a colourful instrumental introduction led into the vigorous jazzy dance rhythms of the Gloria. A calm central episode had the tenor declaiming the text above quiet choral writing before a repeat of the opening section.

The audience loved this enthusiastic movement, which was followed by the calm of the Agnus Dei. Here the tenor voice again floated above the humming choristers, to bring the number to a beautifully serene close. Joe Fecteau handled the solo tenor role very ably with a voice that has some attractive timbres, yet is crying out to be trained. There is real potential there that would merit some skilled teaching and development.

The evening closed very aptly with a repeat performance of Jonathan Berkahn’s vigorous Gloria.

It rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s music making, where the director had very skilfully put together a programme offering a glimpse into a whole world of South American musical tradition that most of the audience would, I imagine, have been previously quite unaware of. The concert was built around the central theme of Christmas, yet it spanned an astonishing breadth of styles, all of which the musicians took easily in their stride.

The enthusiasm of both singers and players was infectious, and it caught up everyone in an evening that was a refreshing celebration of this great Christian festival. No matter that modern scholarship has revealed more myth making than history in the gospel stories – their musical traditions are clearly still alive and well-loved in a world now full of plastic commercialism.

Feliz Navidad!