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Sweet and Lowdown 

Wednesday, Jan 23 2002
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“3 a.m. Paris. Montparnasse, fabled haunt of Hemingway and his pack and still a center of Parisian nightlife. A last-minute decision to add one of the great viol fantasies to a recording devoted to Purcell has us working late. To capture the viol’s throaty resonance and the fantasy‘s intricate polyphony, many microphone checks are necessary, and so we play the opening bars over and over again. Each reprise makes us more adventurous, and the opening motif takes a decidedly modern turn. My musical memory finds something quite Gershwin in Purcell’s theme.”

Purcell and Gershwin? While the rest of the world would have asked why, internationally acclaimed viola da gambist Jay Bernfeld asked, Why not? And so, out of a recording session at 3 a.m. -- the hour when the monks rise to prepare for just another morning of listening to the moon and the stars and God -- came an inspiration either insane or divine: the pairing of the 17th-century man commonly referred to as England‘s greatest composer with the 20th-century titan of symphonic jazz. Bernfeld’s visionary eyes saw beyond the improbable and into the inner dimensions of genius that transcends time and space.

“At first it seemed like the type of clumsy piano-top cohabitation that keeps plaster busts of Mozart in uneasy company with plaster Tchaikovskys,” says Bernfeld, “but my 3 a.m. state of mind had already begun searching the parallels between Purcell and Gershwin. Both were renowned for their harmonic daring; justly famous for their theater music, both composers found greater satisfaction in their ‘serious’ work; each left one landmark opera -- Purcell his Dido and Aeneas and Gershwin his Porgy and Bess; both composers were dead before their 40th birthdays, leaving devoted publics bereft.”

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The result of Bernfeld‘s epiphany is a new CD, Fantasy in Blue, and a concert this weekend, when Bernfeld and his ensemble of viols, Fuoco e Cenere (Fire and Ashes), and Israeli soprano Rinat Shaham will perform selections from their recording at the Ebell Club of Los Angeles, courtesy of Chamber Music in Historic Sites.

Fantasy in Blue is the musical equivalent of a Chinese Italian restaurant: The combination should send you running for the Pepto-Bismol, but you find your taste buds thrilled by the collision of ingredients. Shaham and the viols sizzle in “Summertime,” make a seamless segue into a Purcell Fantasie, and slide back into “Embraceable You,” opening ears to the delights of Gershwin in early-music mode.

Precursor of today’s cello, the viol was one of the most popular instruments of the 17th century, esteemed for its softness of tone. It blends with Purcell like strawberries and cream; when Fuoco e Cenere belts out the composer‘s “Strike the Viol,” the instrument is in its glory, a perfect fit with music composed just for it and nobody else. But imagine a chorus of viols accompanying a sultry mezzo in Gershwin’s “Sweet and Low Down.” At first it‘s an eerie sound, the strings groaning and whispering like a restless night wind. Where’s the piano, the sax, the rest of the instruments that would round out the accompaniment, give it the full palette of color you‘ve come to associate with jazz? Then it begins to grow on you. The viols seem to capture the naked purity of the piece, ancient instruments creating a new mood for a work written some 300 years after their heyday.

As a youngster living in Manhattan in the early ’60s, Bernfeld fell in love with Metropolitan Opera diva Renata Tebaldi. “I persist in believing that I play the viol today because of my adoration of Tebaldi‘s voice,” he says. “For what could be closer to this voice than the powerful resonance of this fragile instrument?” The natural outgrowth of Bernfeld’s dual passion was Fuoco e Cenere. “My purpose in founding the ensemble,” he explains, “was to create a group which reflected my love of voice and viols mixed. This has remained a strong point of the ensemble, although we do accept lutes and harps, and the occasional recorder.”

Bernfeld met Shaham at the Festival d‘Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence. The young soprano had been dazzling international audiences since her 1994 debut with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. As Zerlina, Cherubino and Idamante, she had come to be associated with Mozart, although her instrument is equally at home with Poulenc, Rossini, Ravel and composers of more popular fare.

Bernfeld acknowledges the challenges in bringing off Fantasy in Blue: “To obey the many rules deemed useful for the performance of old music and still let shine the insolent, youthful fervor of Purcell is rough work. To let go of these rules and find Gershwin‘s music is no easier.”

But it looks like the world’s most reckless gambist gambled -- and won.

Fuoco e Cenere performs at the Ebell Club of Los Angeles on Sunday, January 27, at 4 p.m. Fantasy in Blue is available on Atma Classique, www.atmaclassique.com.

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