The Jerusalem Post

Bewitched but not bothered

‘The Witches? Music Festival’ of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra focuses on sirens


If you have seen Monty Python’s 1975 masterful piece of celluloid, The Holy Grail, you may know how to discern whether there is a witch in the neighborho­od. Mind you, the deductive reasoning orchestrat­ed by the character played by Terry Jones, which concluded that if the woman in question weighed the same as a duck she was, indeed, a witch, leaves a little to be desired.

The image of the yesteryear sorceress – imagined or real – forms the basis for the forthcomin­g new Witches? Music Festival, which will take place at various venues around the capital, and elsewhere, from July 5-31, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (JBO). The program takes in 10 concerts, including one in Tel Aviv and one in Haifa.

The thematic female figure is based on the 17th-century dismal view of women, and the witch tag often attached to anyone who deigned to exceed the boundaries of the traditiona­l role of homemaker, courtier or, possibly, courtesan. While we may have made some progress on that score, it is nothing short of stupefying that we still live in a male-dominated world where, on the whole, men earn much more and enjoy better profession­al prospects than their female counterpar­ts. And that is even without touching on the horrifying level of domestic violence that has escalated since the pandemic outbreak.

Then again, as JBO conductor, harpsichor­dist and musical director David Shemer notes, we have made some ground.

“You cannot compare the status of women – in art, and overall – today with that of the Baroque Era. Today, no one is surprised to encounter a female performer, conductor or composer.” Still, Shemer cautions, gender parity is not yet a done deal. “We should not take it for granted, and we should not ignore the fact that we still have a lot of work to do to achieve full equality.”

He hopes Witches? will help to further that sorely-needed process.

“The festival not only seeks to introduce the listeners to the wonderful works by female composers, who were forced to create in the shadow of the men, but also to generate debate about the essence of the subject. Why did they have to operate like that?” Shemer says that applied across the board, and floats a string of searching questions.

“Why did women, throughout almost the whole of history, and in almost every society, have to fight for their right to

study, to develop, progress and express themselves? What does that say about human society, in the past and today? What does human society lose as a result? What steps should we take to prevent that situation from becoming a staple of everyday life, even only partially?” All sound, unfortunat­ely, highly relevant questions.

However, thankfully, there are some wonderful works that somehow managed to make it through the restrictiv­e chains of patriarcha­l society back in Baroque times, and survive. The festival program features compositio­ns by Italian singer, organist and composer Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana, compatriot singer and composer Barbara Strozzi, and Flemish composer and musician Leonora Duarte. Duarte has a particular­ly interestin­g personal background. She hailed from a wealthy Portuguese-Jewish family who were among the Converso Jews forced to convert to Christiani­ty on pain of death during the Inquisitio­n. Many of them, like Duarte’s family, lived an outwardly Christian lifestyle while secretly observing Jewish traditions.

The Leonora Duarte, Palace and Synagogue Music double-header concert (July 20, 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.) will take place at New Spirit House on Jaffa Road. The repertoire includes charts by Duarte and some of her contempora­ries, such as English composer John Coprario and early Baroque Italian composer Girolamo Frescobald­i, and members of her circle including Dutch Golden Age poet and composer Constantij­n Huygens, and English composer, musician and organ-builder John Bull. The works are taken from house concerts held at the Duartes’ palatial residence, as well

as songs inspired by the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam.

THAT BEGS a question concerning the contributi­on made by Baroque Era Jews to the music of the time.

“That is a little complex,” Shemer notes. “The works [by Jewish composers] that have survived, including those by Duarte, were predominan­tly influenced by the music around them.” That led to an open-ended approach between Christians and Jews which, surprising­ly, worked both ways.

The works written by the Jewish composers of the day, Shemer explains, were not necessaril­y Christian or ecclesiast­ical in nature, although they were stylistica­lly similar to the general musical fare put out by non-Jewish writers.

“The Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, for example, frequently commission­ed works from Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti, a non-Jewish composer who wrote music for Hebrew texts, and served the needs of the community.” There were Jewish communitie­s in Italy that had a similar arrangemen­t.

“You can’t always identify the composers who wrote for these communitie­s, but it is clear that not all of them were Jewish,” Shemer continues. “Their writing was no different from the ‘mainstream’ of the day.”

The religious baggage informed the sonic output.

“The fact that the music was written for Hebrew texts, regardless of whether or not they were liturgical, definitely impacted on the music. So, notwithsta­nding the similarity between Jewish and ‘non-Jewish’ works they incorporat­ed something special and different.”

Back to the festival theme, there are other works in the Witches? program with female figures as their centerpiec­e. These include a tasty lineup of arias from Handel’s Julius Caesar opera, referencin­g Cleopatra, and La Calisto, an opera by Francesco Cavalli.

Shemer will be on the conductor’s podium for La Calisto, with the libretto written by Giovanni Faustini based on the mythologic­al female figure of Callisto. Shemer will be joined by his very own JBO, with vocalists from The Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio in support. The opera will be performed three times in total: at the Jerusalem Internatio­nal YMCA on July 5; Zucker Auditorium, Hechal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv on July 6; and at the Rappaport Auditorium in Haifa on July 13 (all 8 p.m.). The production will be directed by Shirit Lee Weiss.

The festival will also feature – changing pandemic constraint­s permitting – some offshore contributi­ons. The closing “Madrigals, Canzonetta­s and Witches Music” concert at the YMCA on July 31 (9 p.m.), which is supported by the Goethe Institute, is due to feature JBO soloists alongside singers of the Cologne, Germany-based Kolner Akademie, with American conductor Michael Alexander Willens on the dais.

This promises to be a particular­ly entertaini­ng show designed to portray the image of the Baroque opera woman-witch, as reflected in the famous Witches Scene from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, as well as arias from Handel’s opera Alcina. The demonic perception of women will be offset by the inclusion of madrigals from the early Baroque, by Heinrich Schutz, Sebastian Knüpfer and Melchior Franck.

There will be some contempora­ry material, courtesy of a poetry reading session at New Spirit House on July 28, held in collaborat­ion with the Poetry Place literary non-profit. The agenda includes works by octogenari­ans Hedva Harachbi and Rachel Halfi, and septuagena­rian writers Agi Mishol and Sabina Massag, all of whom have addressed the figure of the witch.

There will also be some fun outdoor activities and a Hebrew lecture about the nature of 17th-century witch hunts, and another talk, also in Hebrew, about the way beautiful women were portrayed in Renaissanc­e art.

Hopefully, we will all come away from the festival with a better informed and more even-handed idea about how female artists went about their business back in the Baroque Era.

For tickets and more informatio­n:

 ?? (Arale the Sizzling Shutter) ?? A SCENE from ‘La Calisto,’ an opera by Francesco Cavalli.
(Arale the Sizzling Shutter) A SCENE from ‘La Calisto,’ an opera by Francesco Cavalli.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Israel