Monday, January 14, 2013

The winning "Messiah": Vox Ama Deus

Radu's 'Hallelujah' was fast without seeming rushed.
    BY: Steve Cohen (Broad Street Review)
- 01.04.2013

Who’s the fairest Messiah of them all?

Some singers and listeners prefer a weepy approach to the Messiah story— which, of course, includes a section about Jesus’s crucifixion. Yet if you believe in a proactive God who chose to have his son executed, for a purpose, then why feel sad? God’s will was done, and his act should be praised. 

I heard four Messiahs this holiday season. Three were respectably devout; only one was exciting. 

The Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Pittsburgh Symphony performances were conventionally reverent, with sizeable orchestras and choruses. The differences among these three were mainly a matter of which solo vocalists you preferred.
Vox Ama Deus, on the other hand, gave a distinctive performance that used smaller forces, early instruments and 18th-Century performing practices. This approach produced more effervescence and joy. 

Under its musical director, Valentin Radu, Vox Ama Deus seeks to recreate music in the style of its time, using performance practices that the composer intended. Consequently, the Vox Ama Deus version differed from its conve

Lower key

1. The orchestra numbered 30 musicians and the chorus contained 45 singers. In the Romantic era, those numbers were commonly doubled or tripled to achieve grandeur. (Actually, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s group is much reduced now from a few years ago.)
2. Vox Ama Deus played and sang in a lower key— the pitch that was used in Handel’s time: half-a-tone below what’s common now.
3. Tempi were faster and brisker. Later, when Messiah was performed in cavernous halls and in cathedrals, with reverberation, conductors slowed the tempi to enhance the clarity for the listeners.
Big trumpet, little trumpet trumpets
4. Vox Ama Deus used Baroque instruments. Its strings were gut, not steel, and its oboes lacked keys. Their sound was sweeter and mellower. The ensemble included a theorbo—a long-necked, lute-like instrument— and two trumpets, one of them longer than today’s, the other a short Bach-style trumpet, less than half the normal size and producing a brilliant high tone.
5. Vox Ama Deus used period vocal style, with ornamentation added by Radu and the singers. In Handel’s day vocalists were expected to embellish vocal works by improvising cadenzas near the end of each song.
6. Ama Deus performed a longer version of Messiah. Handel wrote three sections: The birth of Jesus, his death, then his Resurrection. (Messiah actually was premiered on Good Friday of 1742; only later did it become associated with Christmas.)
Missing sections 

The Philadelphia Orchestra and the other big orchestras omitted three sections in Part Two and four in Part Three. I especially missed the soprano aria, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” that should be heard just before the final chorus. 

We can forgive these large orchestras for their deviations from Messiah; after all, Handel often made revisions himself in order to accommodate different singers at various performances. But I can’t help wondering: Do the large organizations choose shorter versions for artistic reasons, or to reduce their overtime pay? 

Radu— drawing on his studies with Nicholas Harnoncourt, a pioneer conductor of period-style performances— took the “Hallelujah” chorus rapidly, even more so than Helmuth Rilling, who led the New York Philharmonic’s performance (and who owns good credentials in early music). Rilling’s “Hallelujah” took three minutes, 42 seconds, and Sir Neville Marriner took 3:47 with the Pittsburgh Symphony. (I wasn’t able to time the Philadelphia Orchestra.) 

By contrast, Radu’s “Hallelujah” lasted 3:16 without sounding rushed. Rather, it was sprightly— a joyful holler rather than a hymn. 

Lost in Verizon

With Goodwin conducting a reduced Philadelphia Orchestra, we heard leaner instrumental textures than in decades past. Karina Gauvin, soprano, and Diana Moore, mezzo, were excellent soloists. Tenor John Tessier was more problematic. His light lyric voice didn’t carry well in the large Verizon Hall, and he used old-fashioned formal English enunciations. A more conversational approach would make the drama more relevant. 

The Ama Deus soloists comprised a well-matched quartet, including Andrea Lauren Brown, soprano; Jody Kidwell, alto; Timothy Bentch, tenor; and Ed Bara, bass. All of them handled the trills and other technical tricks while communicating the text commendably.
Vox Ama Deus has issued a recording of Messiah that includes the world-famous Julianne Baird as soprano soloist. I recommend it highly.

Gershwin and Ellington Through the Eyes of the Maestro

A Candid Talk with Valentin Radu

Maestro Radu was born and raised under the communist dictatorship of Roma­nia. When it came to decadent art, this seemingly more liberal of the Eastern Bloc states held the same position as its Iron Curtain cousins: that American Jazz was to be officially proscribed and suppressed. Of course, as history tells us, this alone would have been enough to make a substantial number of educated Romanian teens and young adults say, "Hell no!" But when you think about how great this music is--how it speaks to the hearts and souls of untold millions worldwide--it is no surprise that a very large number of Romanians of all ages were sub-rosa ardent devotees of this forbidden, degenerate art form!

Since the "fall of the Wall," Valentin Radu has regularly presented jazz programs in Europe and in newly democratic Romania. In fact, he has long been a proponent, in Eastern Europe and particularly in his native Romania, of George Gershwin's music, starting in 1998 to celebrate the Gershwin centennial. This was a strong motivating factor for Maestro Radu to lead VoxAmaDeus into the inaugural PIFA Festival during April 2010 with a concert he entitled Rebels in Paris: Fauré, Stravinsky and Gershwin. This in turn led Maestro Radu last January to program an all-Gershwin gala concert with famed British piano virtuoso Peter Donohoe, which concert they reprised in Bucharest in June 2012. These composers (Gershwin, Fauré, Stravinsky, and this January adding Duke Ellington to the mix) and their music are intertwined, and speak to both his "classical" and "free-spirited" musical sides. Nor should we overlook the direct connection between the importance of improvisation in the performance of Baroque- and Classical-era compositions and its importance as the key element at the core of jazz music and its performance. In Valentin Radu, one artistic style's improvisatory fundamentals inform the free-flowing and natural performance of the other style: Jazz to Classical or Classical to Jazz.

Stories from His Past and Present...

I was a fan of Duke Ellington before I encountered George Gershwin. One of my "stealth" mentors of jazz was a great fan of the Duke. And so my love affair with jazz began with Ellington.

This mentor was a very interesting character. His name was Johnny Raducanu, known to us in Romania as "Mr. Jazz." (Sadly he passed away last year after a long illness. He will be very missed by the jazz world in Romania and elsewhere in Europe.) He was a truly legendary gypsy performer. While most gypsies are fiddle or clarinet players, Johnny was for many years the principal double bass player for the Romanian National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Bucharest. He was so short he had to stand on a special stool to play his instrument. He was also a phenomenal pianist and singer. And like other great gypsy musicians, he was a master of improvisation.

One day I remember a brand-new concert-grand Petroff piano being delivered to the Orchestra. Johnny decided to try it out, and he played a piece by Ellington. The music stopped me in my tracks, because I had never heard anything like it. This was the first live jazz I had ever heard!

At the National Radio Orchestra I was very, very well known as a wunderkind pianist. So when I expressed interest in jazz, Johnny knew I was for real. He was honored to teach me the secrets of jazz and I was thrilled. He was an excellent mentor through his unconditional love of jazz.

But all of his jazz music was underground. Jazz was truly a sub-culture, done behind closed doors and in private homes. Another way we got to hear jazz was over Radio Free Europe. RFE would rebroadcast jazz programs from the BBC World Service or the Voice of America. And at home I would sometimes get bootlegged reel-to-reel tapes. In this way I taught myself to play jazz.

At Devon Preparatory School, where I taught music for eighteen years, I dedicated a quarter of the year's music curriculum to teaching the boys about jazz. They learned that the word "jazz" originated in the cotton fields and was a code word for "freedom!" We would then look at the amalgamation of different styles, their origins, the combination of instruments used, and the eleven regional styles that constitute jazz: New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Bebop, West Coast, Southwestern, etc.

I met George Gershwin's music much later because so much of it is orchestral, i.e., "symphonic" jazz, of which he is the father. Gershwin added jazz instruments and compositional styles to the orchestra, stretched its rhythmic possibilities, and added syncopated blues rhythms from the jazz world. Printed scores of such decadent music were not to be had in Romania.
But once I came to America I got the scores and fell in love with Gershwin. I really mesh with him. Our personalities are in tune--his wild imagination, his daring modulations. All of those gorgeous melodies, many of them based on African-American culture, or his own Russian and Jewish heritages, and jazzed up with style and impeccable taste. 

I see Gershwin as a suave and elegant gentleman among a sea of jazz maniacs! But after all, he was classically trained, and he masterfully melded these seemingly disparate styles. This is why I readily joined the PIFA Festival with a concert that demonstrated how Gershwin, Stravinsky and Fauré all interweave.

Duke Ellington is an interesting phenomenon. He was the first jazz master to write out the solo riffs for his Big Band pieces. He was king of the Cotton Club in New York City. Here the world came to him, and I see the Duke as being the emcee to that music world. His music had great range, from the two-minute "Koko" to the 60-minute "Brown, Beige, and Black," which he performed at Carnegie Hall to great triumph and controversy.

So, performing this Gershwin-Ellington concert is an artistic dream fulfilled. And pivotal to the success of this venture is the phenomenal British pianist, Peter Donohoe.

Peter is truly a Renaissance man: timpanist, violinist, pianist, and a master of more than one style of music. I feel that we are "musical brothers" in that we both are classically trained, and both adore jazz. To be on stage at the Kimmel Center--a Romanian and a Brit-performing Gershwin and Ellington on their home turf: this proves the old adage that music has no borders and can bring people together. Last January we performed a Gershwin Gala that we then took to Bucharest last June for two performances in the Bucharest Philharmonic Hall in the company of the famous George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra. The building is also called the Romanian Athenaeum--a temple of "classicism"--and yet it rocked to funky rhythms, delivering happiness and excitement to standing-room-only audiences.

Peter Donohoe, in addition to being one of the world's foremost pianists, is a true gentleman and a scholar. He is very modest and has a humanitarian nature. He is witty, easy-going, funny, and full of amazing stories of the cognac-and-cigar variety. But Peter is never pompous or "diva-esque" like some pianists with a fraction of his talent. He is deeply committed to his own excellence, but never at the expense of the ensemble. He is so happy making music. And so am I!

Together with my Ama Deus Ensemble, padded for this occasion with world-class jazz orchestra players, we will deliver a high-energy, stylistically accurate, top-level performance! Join us on Friday, January 4, at 8 p.m. at the Kimmel Center. 

And a Happy New Year 2013 to all our friends, fans, and supporters of VoxAmaDeus.