Thursday, July 4, 2024

"Polyphony", a collaborative concert of Baroque music performed in Jerusalem by the Mezzo Ensemble, Ensemble Naya and the Jerusalem Vocal Consort. Vocal soloists: Yeela Avital, Yaniv d'Or


Claudio Monteverdi

Salamone Rossi manuscript

The Mezzo Ensemble (artistic director: Doret Florentin) hosted Ensemble Naya and the Jerusalem Vocal Consort in “Polyphony”, an evening of mostly Italian Baroque works at the Eastern Music Center, Jerusalem, on June 30th, 2024. Vocal soloists were Yeela Avital (soprano) and Yaniv d'Or (countertenor). Playing on Baroque period instruments were Doret Florentin (recorders), Noam Schuss (violin), Orit Messer-Jacobi ('cello), Gideon Brettler (guitar) and Aviad Stier (harpsichord). 

Works of Claudio Monteverdi constituted a major part of the evening's program, meaning that emotions would be running high as, within the course of just a few bars, Monteverdi's madrigals would take  performers and listeners through a whole realm of human experience. Yeela Avital and Yaniv d'Or, the vocal ensemble and instrumentalists opened with “Ardo, avvampo mi struggo” (“I burn, I burn, in flames I melt.”) in which love is, quite literally, a disaster as the singers urge to “tell everyone of the danger!” In “Et e pur dunque vero” (Is it then true), to an ostinato bass and affected by Monteverdi's use of dissonance, Avital, haughty yet vulnerable, was convincing in the role of the slighted, angry lover. Then, introduced by two solo singers, we heard a fresh, well-integrated performance of "Vago augelletto che cantando vai" (Pretty little bird, you that are singing), distinctive for its dance rhythms and changing moods and tempi. In "Si dolce è’l tormento" (So sweet is the torment), its wistful text telling of a broken heart leading it to the "victim" being suspended between hope and pain, we are reminded of how Monteverdi renders texts with a radically modern sense of human subjectivity. The song provided a fine template for d'Or's expressive facility, with hearty sonic interest added by the guitar (Brettler) and an embellished version of the melody played by Florentin. But that wasn't all: on stage, engaging in movement and some vocalization, three women dancers (choreography: Michal Grover-Friedlander) conveyed the text's theme of heartbreak and unreciprocated love. In "Lamento della Ninfa" (the Nymph’s Lament), written over the ground-bass pattern moving through a descending minor tetrachord ("lament emblem"), we hear the nymph (Avital) lamenting her fate in the middle section and the choir of pastori (male choir members) introducing, commenting and concluding the nymph's story in splendidly blended singing (note again the daring Monteverdi dissonances!) Prefacing this piece, the composer had specified that the soloist was "to sing according to her emotions" (al tempo dell’affetto del animo), while the pastori were expected to sing at a regular beat (al tempo della mano). Avital's interpretation gave poignant expression to the nymph's depth of despair.

When Claudio Monteverdi arrived at the court of Mantua, he was initially engaged there as a viol player (a fact often overlooked), where instrumental music played an important role. The latter was largely dominated by the violinist Salomone Rossi. Playing the upper parts of Rossi's "Sonata dialogo detta la Viena", Noam Schuss and Doret Florentin highlighted the piece's conversational nature, with the two parts taking turns, playing independently rather than sharing themes. Anchored onto a mostly harmonic bass line, the unique style of this trio sonata (Rossi was a pioneer of the trio sonata form) invited Schuss and Florentin to attest to the work's improvised nature, as each retained her individual style of performance. Rossi’s great claim to Jewish musical fame came with his publication in 1623 of "Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shelomo", a collection of 33 Psalms and other liturgical poems (with Hebrew texts) set for combinations of from three to eight voices and intended for use on festive synagogue occasions. There is little information as to the manner in which any of  Ha-Shirim were performed. In "Barekhu'' (Bless the Lord), the solo was sung by d'Or (the precentor), with sections sung by the vocal ensemble (congregation) and some instrumental solos, the harpsichord solo (Aviad Stier) concluding the piece. Rossi's "Kaddish" (a doxology sanctifying God’s name) was sung a-cappella. The singers gave lively expression to this strophic song written in the balletto style, colouring its joyous dancelike manner with dynamic-, textural and tempo variety and the use of a tambourine. 



 It is always a joy to revisit Tarquinio Merula's exuberant Ciaccona from the "Canzoni overo sonate concertate per chiesa e camera" (1637), its short bass ostinato pattern (here, introduced by Orit Messer-Jacobj) providing the treble instruments with the structure for variation and melodic invention.  Florentin and Schuss handled these roles with gusto and mastery. The final Italian work on the program was Antonio Lotti's 8-voiced "Crucifixus". Issued in by the lowest basses, the choral weave builds up with suspensions, the texture soaring into piercing intensity by the time the highest voice enters. The singers called attention to the motet's variety, incessant invention and outrageous, luscious harmonies, the work representative of music written for the Basilica of San Marco in Venice at a time when expense and extravagance were not spared!


The concert concluded with works of J.S.Bach, beginning with "Leget Euch dem Heiland" (Lay yourselves beneath the Saviour) from “Himmelskönig sei willkommen” BWV 182, the aria given a moving and profound rendering by d'Or, with Florentin's playing of the recorder obbligato elegantly shaped. Concluding the program was "Ich lasse dich nicht" (I will not let you go), Bach’s earliest known motet, written not later than 1712, and possibly his most unusual (leading scholars to be suspicious about it being from the pen of J.S. Bach). Both introspective and playful, the two-movement motet for double choir made for a rewarding and moving conclusion to the program. And there was one more offering - J.S.Bach's funeral chorale "Dir, Jesu, Gottes Sohn, sei Preis" (To you Jesus, God's son, be praise) performed by all singers and instrumentalists.

It was an evening of fine collaboration and informed, high-quality performance.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

A concert of works by Morton Feldman performed at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Conductor: Yuval Zorn


Morton Feldman (Feldman Edition 10)

The Lower Gallery of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art was the venue on June 25th 2024 for the final concert of a marathon held under the auspices of Hateiva. (Hateiva, an intimate performance hall in Jaffa, Israel, is a centre for experimentation in music, for concerts of contemporary- and other classical music, electronic sound art events, video exhibitions and screenings, multidisciplinary events and lectures on new music.) The evening's program consisted of two works of New York composer Morton Feldman (1926-1097), one of the most significant figures in the music of the second half of the 20th century.



The concert opened with "The King of Denmark" (1965) a short solo-percussion piece performed by multi-disciplinary musician Oded Geizhals. A study in instrumental colour, the score, notated graphically, consists of a three-part grid indicating high-, medium- and low pitches. It abounds in numbers, letters and symbols representing instruments and articulations. The actual choice of instruments, however, is left almost entirely to the performer and there is no use of sticks or mallets. The sounds are produced only by the performer’s hands or arms. Might one, therefore, consider this an anti-percussion piece?  A tempo runs throughout, but bearing no rhythmic coherence. From the work's first diaphanous, scarcely-audible sounds, Geizhals' gracile and unwavering delivery draws the audience into the intimate canvas of "The King of Denmark", as mostly-single gestures seem to float out, detached and weightless, the large instruments and small finding uncanny uniformity of volume. Adding to the sound world created by the artist's subtle handling of the many instruments surrounding him on three sides was the intriguing visual aspect of the making of music.



Morton Feldman’s "Rothko Chapel" (1971), a tribute to Mark Rothko, was named for the Houston, Texas multi-faith chapel, a place for meditation and inter-religious conferences. Built to house fourteen of Rothko's large paintings, the work had its première in the chapel in 1972, a year after its opening. Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko (born Markus Rothkowitz in Dvinsk, Russian Empire), was a friend of the composer. Feldman had a deep understanding and appreciation of Rothko’s paintings. At the Tel Aviv concert, Feldman’s sonic meditation existing within a sparse soundscape, was performed by Imri Talgam (celesta), Oded Geizhals (percussion), Yoni Gartner (viola), Einat Aronstein (soprano), Ina Magril (alto) and 20 singers making up the Moran Singers Ensemble (conductor: Tom Karni; music director: Naomi Faran). Yuval Zorn conducted the performance. Tel Aviv Museum's Lower Gallery is a tall, imposing, stark space, devoid of artworks, devoid of colour and of distraction. With the singers lined along both sides of the hall, the instrumentalists located at the front and Zoran conducting from the back, it was as if the performers had physiologically recreated the chapel and that we, the attenders, were seated within this human sonic shell. Feldman had said that his "choice of instruments (in terms of forces used, balance and timbre) was affected by the space of the chapel as well as the paintings" and that he had wanted the music "to permeate the whole octagonal-shaped room and not be heard from a certain distance.”  Approachable, more structurally straightforward and explicitly tonal than much of his oeuvre, the economy of this music echoes the simplicity of Rothko’s imagery. Here, time is stretched. Silences are as much a part of the musical experience as the sounds. Maestro Zorn drew all these elements and the performers into a meticulously amalgamated realisation of the score. With articulacy, the singers, humming and singing wordless syllables, sometimes together, at others, in small groupings, gave finely-controlled expression to the work's static, fragile timbres, these punctuated by the occasional lush, gossamery cluster. Geizhals and Talgam's playing endorsed the piece's carefully-paced haunting beauty and reverence. In small gestures, then in melodiousness wrought of easeful leaps and, later, in her dialogue with Yoni Gartner, Einat Aronstein's pure, resonant vocalization coincided with the work's meditative aspect. Gartner's playing, poised, measured, elegiac and reflective, was a moving reminder that, in this piece, Feldman's Jewishness is never far removed; the closing lamenting viola melodies, set against repeated four-note patterns in the vibraphone and celesta, including a lonely melody which Feldman wrote when he was a teenager, are clearly Hebraic in origin. An eloquent, profound and imposing performance.


Sunday, June 23, 2024

An evening of opera favourites performed at St. Andrew's Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, by the A-Cappella Jerusalem Vocal Ensemble and soloists (conductor: Assaf Bènraf)

Photo: Assaf Ofek


A visit to the opera house is an exciting affair. Orchestras and ensembles sometimes offer semi-staged operas or concert opera performances (the latter having no sets and only very minimal props.) Taking place at St. Andrew's Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem on June 20th 2024, "Twelve Dramas in one Act", a festive opera concert performed by the A-Cappella Jerusalem Vocal Ensemble (conductor/musical director Assaf Bènraf) and soloists, took the listener on a whirlwind tour of some of opera’s best-loved moments. Accompanying on the piano was Dor Gidon Amran. Soloists: were Efrat Raz (soprano), Ilona Toivis (mezzo-soprano), Marc Shaimer (tenor) and Roi Witz (baritone).


In a sparkling evening presenting love and tragedy (the theme of most operas), the audience was treated to a rich potpourri of arias and choruses. Starting with the comical yet serious dimensions of W.A.Mozart's "Don Giovanni" sounded like a good strategy, as choir, Efrat Raz and Roi Witz sang of the legendary libertine's amorous escapades, of love, morality, and the consequences of people's actions. Raz, her voice fresh and honeyed, her phrasing fine-spun, evoked the countess’s deep sadness expressed in "Porgi amor".  In "Se vuol ballare", Witz was convincing as a Figaro seething with rage over Almaviva's agenda and vowing to make the Count "dance to his tune". Then to well-shaped, silken choral singing of the heart-rending "Ah! se intorno a quest' urna funesta" from Christoph Willibald Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice", punctuated by moving "comments" on the part of Toivis.


Works by Giuseppe Verdi formed a substantial part of the program. "La Traviata", the story of the unconditional and hopeless love between Alfredo and the terminally ill Violetta was represented by Raz and Shaimer in the popular Drinking Song duet and by the women choir members in the light-textured Gypsy Chorus, its cheeky parlance intersected by Toivis and Witz. A theatrically effective and finely intonated Anvil Chorus (Il Trovatore) was followed by well-blended, sensitive singing of "Patria oppressa" (Macbeth), one of opera repertoire's great choral moments, with Amran's discerning gestures completing the bleak canvas. From "Nabucco", the much-loved "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves'' (also known as "Va, pensiero" - "Fly, thought, on golden wings''), emerging introspective and subtly phrased, concluded the Verdi set. 


And to the world of French opera, first with excerpts from Georges Bizet's "Carmen" (the third most-frequently performed opera and the most-performed French opera!) The choir opens with "A dos cuartos" from Act IV, a market scene taking place in a square in Seville, with merchants selling their wares - water, oranges, fans, programmes, and lorgnettes. Then to the fiery “Habanera” aria (Act 1) in which Carmen sings of the untamed nature of love. Toivis, displaying her rich timbre in the lower register, presents the piece with admirable control and sensuality, as she and the choir strike a pleasing balance. As to the deliciously heady "Seguidilla", (a traditional Castilian dance), in which Carmen seductively invites José to join her at a tavern outside Sevilla, Toivis' easeful and agile singing highlights the message, as she remains within the bounds of good taste for concert performance. In "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour" (Barcarolle) from Jacques Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann", Raz and Toivis weave the duet threads through the piece's lilting, caressing fabric.


We heard two numbers from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin", beginning with the Chorus of Maidens, sung by the women choir members with warmth and stylistic relevance. Light and playful as it was, the maidens' singing here has a reason: all are slaves of Tatyana's family; they are picking berries for their masters and are forced to sing so that they cannot eat the berries at the same time. This chorus was followed by ‘Where have you gone, O golden days of my Spring?’, sung by Marc Shaimer with emotion and conviction, a poignant, reflective moment as Lensky sings of the loss of his beloved Olga.   


And to America and George Gershwin's 1935 folk opera "Porgy and Bess". In "It ain’t necessarily so" (lyrics: Ira Gershwin), drug-dealer Sportin' Life offers his irreverent take on stories from the Bible. In its call-and-response form for soloist and chorus, Roi Witz gave the piece his theatrical all, stepping into the brazen shoes of the charming, challenging and witty Sportin' Life, communicating the text with crystal-clear diction and the wink of an eye.


The two final items of the evening gave the audience one last opportunity to hear the four fine soloists side-by-side with the choir. “Dal tuo stellato soglio”, the famous prayer of Moses and the Israelites on the banks of the Red Sea from Gioachino Rossini’s "Mosè in Egitto", opened with Mosè’s hushed, reverent prayer in the minor key, to be taken up by the other soloists and chorus, before soaring into a sublime ensemble in the major key The result was eloquent and majestic. Then to the rollicking, exuberant Champagne Song from Johann Strauss II's "Fledermaus", a chorus espousing the extravagance and light-heartedness of Viennese social life, in which champagne symbolized the carefree joy of living.


Taking on the role of "opera house orchestra", Dor Gidon Amran (also known as a mandolin player, conductor and composer) gave coherent, tasteful and colourful expression to the piano accompaniments, supporting choir and soloists in attentive playing. 


It was quite a tour! This is Assaf Bènraf's first concert with the ensemble since taking on the role of conductor/musical director in early 2024. Maestro Bènraf gave the audience concise, informative (sometimes candid) introductions to the stories and characters behind each opera. The audience delighted in the music, in the singers' rich, well-blended voices and in the high-quality, polished and finely-detailed approach to each work. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Giuseppe Sarti's "Armida e Rinaldo" - a production of the Jerusalem Opera (conductor: Omer Arieli), the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance

Maria Mel (Nadav Yaniv)



Marc Shaimer, Noa Sion (Nadav Yaniv)

Maestro Omer Arieli (Nadav Yaniv)

Of the more than two hundred operas telling the story of Armida and Rinaldo, as found in Torquato Tasso's epic poem "Gerusalemme liberata" (Jerusalem Delivered), Giuseppe Sarti's setting is one with which current audiences may be less familiar. The Jerusalem Opera, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance joined forces to produce a sparkling performance of "Armida e Rinaldo" in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on June 13th 2024. The stage director was Miriam Camerini. Jerusalem Opera musical director Omer Arieli conducted the performance.


Born in Faenza, Italy, Giuseppe Sarti (1729-1802) travelled to St. Petersburg in 1784 to replace Paisiello as court bandmaster to Catherine II. There, Sarti's operas immediately attracted the public's attention, one opera being "Armida and Rinaldo" (libretto: Marco Coltellini), premiered at Catherine the Great's Hermitage Theatre in 1786. It had been specially created for two famous singers of the Italian court troupe L. R. Todi and L. Marchesi, who had arrived in St. Petersburg. The setting for this dramma in musica is Jerusalem at the time of the 1st Crusade. Sarti kept the number of soloists to a minimum, there being only four - Armida (soprano), her confidante Ismene (soprano), Rinaldo (mezzo-soprano) and Ubaldo (tenor). (Regarding the role of Rinaldo, "pants"- or "trouser" roles designate female singers to depict male characters, these roles often portraying young, romantic male figures, even strong, heroic men of high status.)


The sorceress Armida, Queen of Damascus (Maria Mel), wields her magical powers to protect Jerusalem from the Crusader invasion. She bewitches Rinaldo (Noa Sion), a brave Crusader knight, spiriting him onto her enchanted island, where he falls in love with her. To her surprise, she has also fallen in love with him and is now afraid to lose him. Ubaldo (Marc Shaimer), Rinaldo's fellow soldier, finds Rinaldo, frees him from Armida's spell and returns him to the French forces that are about to conquer Jerusalem. 


Act 1 opens with a banquet scene in the pleasure gardens of Armida's island. All on stage are dressed in white, including the revelling chorus members (nymphs) sporting tall, imaginative head-dresses as would befit non-mortals. Only the dancers (demons), twisting and writhing, wear black, portending the tragic outcome. Ukraine-born lyric soprano Maria Mel carries the role of Armida admirably, her strong, flexible operatic voice, exceptional vocal dexterity, musicality and dramatic bearing taking the course of events from Armida's seductive scheming, through her realization of Rinaldo's change of heart and then on to the frenzied anger and despair in the final scene, as she, scorned and abandoned, laments her fate, orders the destruction of the island and swears revenge. Noa Sion engaged her gorgeous, ample mezzo-timbred voice and stable, competent vocal technique to evoke the more naive, understated bearing of Rinaldo, first lured into- and controlled by Armida's enticement, then to be brought back to the reality of his duty as a Christian soldier (and controlled) by Ubaldo. In the role of Ubaldo, Russian-born tenor gave an unambivalent portrayal of the "voice of reason", the killjoy, the committed military man, warning Rinaldo to beware of Armida's charms, then reversing her magic spell and bringing his fellow Crusader back to take part in the siege of Jerusalem. In her debut with the Jerusalem Opera, playing the smaller role of Ismene, Armida's confidante, soprano Shlomit Lea Kovalsky displayed a good voice and natural stage presence.


Drawing on her wide experience in stage production and opera, Israeli-Italian stage director Miriam Camerini created interest and fantasy throughout, proving that lavish stage sets and numerous props are not a basis for fine performance. Indeed, in a performance that never lagged, all eyes were on the singers and dancers themselves, as the plot emerged crystal-clear through every stage of its development. Interesting use was made of colour, with costumes (Polina Adamov) symbolically starting out as all white, moving to the disquieting associations of red and finally to black. There was, however, a minimal use of props, one, for example, beautifully showing the ship all lit up that was to take Rinaldo away. Altogether there was much delightful use of small lights…even on some of the costume head-dresses! 


As in several other past Jerusalem Opera productions, Omer Arieli draws all the musical threads together masterfully. Despite orchestra and conductor being relegated to the right rear area of the stage, seemingly at a disadvantage, Maestro Arieli made this arrangement work. The JSO instrumentalists' playing endorsed the proceedings on stage in precise and crisp sounds, chorus numbers emerged coherent and well- blended and the soloists found fine timbral fusion and balance of sonority in duets and trios.


Once again, opera has taught us that true love can not endure. In Tasso's poem evoking a world inhabited by humans,style nymphs, demons and other creatures, there can be no lasting harmony between the protagonists. Armida and Rinaldo (of different ethnic backgrounds) both struggle with their own contradictions: Rinaldo is torn between his feelings and his allegiance, Armida between the world of darkness and the light of noble, redemptive love. In order to keep Rinaldo at her side, the sorceress holds him captive in a lifestyle of hedonism. Rinaldo indulges in this sweet imprisonment until he is bound to turn his back on love and return to duty. The Jerusalem Opera performance had the audience at the edge of their seats, imbibing in Sarti's glittering music, feasting eyes on the characters, on the plot unfolding on stage and enjoying yet another splendid, high-quality presentation.



The chorus (Nadav Yaniv)


Monday, June 10, 2024

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble (director: Yuval Benozer) performs French sacred works of the 20th century at St. Andrew's Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem


The Israeli Vocal Ensemble (Niv Shimon, Craft7 Studio)

French 20th century sacred works were the bill for a morning concert at St. Andrew's Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on May 31st 2024, in which the Israeli Vocal Ensemble performed Francis Poulenc's Mass in G major and Maurice Duruflé's Requiem Op.9. The works were conducted by IVE founder, conductor and musical director Yuval Benozer. Soloists were soprano Tom Ben Ishai and bass-baritone Alexei Knonikov. Boris Zobin played the organ for the Duruflé Requiem.


Dedicated to his father, who had died 20 years earlier, Poulenc's G major Mass, completed in 1937, is essentially a Missa Brevis (there being no Credo). The work, scored for soprano solo and mixed unaccompanied choir, reflects the composer's rekindled (Roman Catholic) faith that was now to spur him on to an important new phase in his creativity. Characterized by ethereally high soprano lines, dense harmonies and daring chromaticism, it includes a variety of styles and textures. As he enlists frequent appearances of solo voices to heighten the traditional text, Poulenc pays homage to chanted settings of the past, yet still creating a distinctively modern sound. A challenging work to perform, it stands as one of the most important a cappella works to have been written in the 20th century. From the impassioned opening Kyrie with its strong rhythmic gestures and startling, barbed harmonies (Poulenc referred the Kyrie as "savage"), through dramatic exchanges between groups of voices in the Gloria, to the tranquil carillon-associated overtones heard in the Sanctus, these followed by the strident harmonies of the homophonic Hosanna, the singers gave the Benedictus a hushed, intimate setting coloured in mysterious yet daring harmonies. As to the Agnus Dei, opening with a magical soprano solo, there was an otherworldly sense of infinity, presenting Poulenc at his purest and most mystical. Despite the overactive acoustic reaction of St. Andrew's Church (at times counterbalancing the work's reflection and serenity) Benozer and the eighteen IVE singers addressed the work's contrasts, both musically and in sentiment, exercising precise intonation and clarity of attack. 


His largest and most important work, Maurice Duruflé's Requiem Op.9 exists in three versions - with organ and large orchestra (1947); with organ (1948) and with organ and small orchestra (1961). Performing the 1948 version, the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble was joined by organist Boris Zobin, with soprano Tom Ben Ishai and bass-baritone Alexei Knonikov in the solo roles. Although a 20th-century work, it is largely based on Gregorian chant and the Gregorian Mass for the Dead.  As a child, Duruflé was educated at a choir school for Cathedral training, hence the strong influence of plainsong traditions (evoking holiness, lyricism, free-flowing meter and serenity) which he combines with modal harmonies. With his goal set at retaining the fluid, elastic approach to rhythm characteristic of the chant, the melodies emerged organically expanded and cushioned in Impressionistic harmonies. Indeed, from the start, with the ensemble's singing smooth and effortless in the flowing "Requiem aeternam", one became aware that the bar lines had indeed been banished. In his own program notes the composer explained that his Requiem was “not an ethereal work which sings of detachment from earthly worries". This being so, we are led through the Requiem text's range of powerful human feelings - resignation and hope, fear and terror and the agony of man faced with the mystery of his ultimate end. The work concludes with Duruflé's sublime setting of "In Paradisum", the latter evoking a sense of time standing still. The IVE members' choral sound was clean, luminous and sincere. The vocal soloists added their own individual refinement. Although the baritone role is not  substantial, Alexei Knonikov's reading of it was expressive and profound. In the fervent but delicate Pie Jesu solo, Tom Ben Ishai responded eloquently to the text, maintaining the tension of its long phrases and spinning its glorious line with fervent understatement. An organist himself, the modest and elusive Duruflé is widely recognized today for having created some of the greatest works in organ repertoire. Zobin's interpretation of the challenging organ role created a devotional ambience for the work. His playing was emotional, imaginative, punctiliously detailed and subtle, supporting- and "commenting" on each gesture of the text, on each turn of mood. It conveyed the composer's rich composoyional palette and his spiritual world, reminding the listener that. Duruflé's new musical language articulates ideas that are ancient and mystical.


With Maestro Benozer at the helm, the prestigious Israeli Vocal Ensemble continues to hold its position as one of Israel's finest chamber choirs. The Jerusalem event concluded with the serenity and Romantic charm of Gabriel Fauré's much-loved "Cantique de Jean Racine" (1865). 

Maestro Yuval Benozer (courtesy YB)

Monday, June 3, 2024

"Under Her Wings" - the Jerusalem Vocal Consort and Nari Baroque Ensemble in a joint performance at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem


Recorder:Naomi Hassoun,Jerusalem Vocal Consort © Basilius Schiel OSB,Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

The Nari Ensemble and the Jerusalem Vocal Consort joined forces to perform "Under Her Wings" at the Dormition Abbey (Mt. Zion, Jerusalem) on May 27th, 2024. The evening's program centred around Giacomo Carissimi's oratorio "Regina Hester". Today, Carissime's "Jephte", "Ionas" and "Job" are familiar to aficionados of Italian Baroque sacred choral music; "Regina Hester", however, is relatively unknown to audiences. A work exemplifying the unique style developed by the cardinalate nobility in mid-17th century Rome and Carissimi's establishment of the characteristics of the Latin oratorio genre, the oratorio tells the story of Esther, the Jewish queen of Persia. The text is a free adaptation (probably Carissimi's own) of the biblical story (some sections of which do not appear in the oratorio.) As to the passages of the Bible told by the narrator (Historicus), here we heard excerpts read in Hebrew by Naomi Hassoun. With Carissimi's oratorios surviving in manuscript only, indications as to instrumentation are few and far between. For this concert, the Nari Ensemble consisted of soprano Liron Givoni, Naomi Hassoun (recorders), Guy Pardo (harpsichord) and guest player Yulia Lurye (Baroque violin). (Nari Baroque 'cellist Yotam Haran was in absentia). Vocal soloists were Liron Givoni (Aman/Hester) and Jerusalem Vocal Consort members Dmitrii Negrimovskii, Yael Dushy, Michael Bachner and Kristina Geldman. What was unique to this performance was that the oratorio's four Acts were interspersed by other works, an interesting approach and one indeed proving effective, allowing for the proceedings of each Act to settle before being followed by the next. Elegantly shaped recitatives moved in and out of the arioso, with choruses emerging crisp and with a sense of immediacy. Displaying fine vocal facility, the soloists sang with commitment. In her substantial role, Givoni's performance was involved and imposing. Not to be ignored were the instrumentalists, whose playing vividly reflected the dramatic course. Despite the minimal choral and instrumental forces at hand, the contrast and pomp threaded through the work emerged powerfully. The performance highlighted Carissimi's word-painting, placing clear focus on dramatic delivery of the text, reflecting its pictorial and rhetorical aspects, as, for example, in Haman's savage command to expel the Jews from Persia - "expelliatur, dissipetur, prosternatur, extirpetur" (be expelled, scattered, destroyed, extirpated).



Carissimi's Recorder Sonata in D minor was found in a 1698 manuscript collection of C. Babell - "Album of Selected Pieces for One or Two Flutes". The performance of it by Yael Hassoun and Guy Pardo was a veritable meeting of minds - articulate, well contrasted and peppered with attractive ornamentation. Hassoun 's expressive reading was well paired with Pardo's imaginative delivery on the Dormition Abbey's Sassmann harpsichord. As with the oratorio, the movements were also spread throughout the program.



As to other choral pieces, we heard two Psalm settings of two French composers. Arguably the greatest composer of French "grands motets", Michel-Richard de Lalande wrote an expansive, intensive setting of the "Miserere" (1687). In this, his most celebrated motet, a setting of the penitential Psalm 51, Givoni's singing expressed the text's exigency. Henry Du Mont's choral "Cantate Domino" (Psalm 96) was given a rousing rendition.



The program included two works from Op.12 of Heinrich Schütz’ "Symphoniæ Sacræ III" - "Der Herr ist mein Hirt" (The Lord is my shepherd) SWV 398 (Psalm 23) and "Siehe, wie fein und lieblich ist's" (How good and pleasant it is) SWV 48 (Psalm 133).  Performing these small masterpieces, the artists struck a fine balance between the energy and colour of Schütz' Italian models and the restraint and solemnity of the German Lutheran tradition. The Dormition Abbey resonated with the works' abundance of harmonic colour, textural detail and rhythmic vitality, displaying their grand statement as well as their intimate sentiments.


Built on land German Emperor Wilhelm II received from the Ottoman Sultan on his visit to the Holy Land in 1898, the Abbey of the Dormition was inaugurated in 1910. It is an architectural masterpiece. Enhanced with beautiful mosaics, the church's interest, beauty and serenity create one of Jerusalem's most inspiring locations to visit. Performing music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the Jerusalem Vocal Consort (conductor: Yael Dushy, assistant conductor: Rotem Kidron) comprises twelve young singers, who are vocally competent and stylistically informed. Uncluttered by vibrato, their choral sound is whistle-clean, fresh and punctiliously blended. Established in 2019, the Nari Ensemble specializes in the performance of Baroque music. Inspired by historical performance practice, the members' presentation of vocal- and instrumental works displays insight, deep enquiry and excellence.

Guy Pardo, Liron Givoni © Basilius Schiel OSB, Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem


Thursday, May 16, 2024

Bach in Italy - Ensemble PHOENIX (director Myrna Herzog) performs works of J.S.Bach and Italian composers at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Jerusalem

Myrna Herzog,Tali Goldberg,Marina Minkin,Noam Schuss,Yulia Lurye (© Yoel Levy)


Taking place at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem on May 10th 2024, "Bach in Italy", performed by members of Ensemble PHOENIX, together with its founder/director Dr. Myrna Herzog, was a celebration of the 25 years of this ensemble's existence.


It is a fact that such Baroque masters as Schütz, Froberger, Muffat, Handel and Hasse crossed the Alps to imbibe in the world of Italian music, its spirit and its secrets. Yet the composer who most fully perceived the Italian style was Johann Sebastian Bach, who had never even set foot in Italy. This he achieved through studying scores of Italian composers as of his childhood, beginning with the transcribing of concertos by Vivaldi and Marcello and then, through taking himself on a vivid (virtual) journey from Vivaldi’s Venice to Frescobaldi’s Rome. Bach’s transcriptions show an absolute technical mastery that was unprecedented at the time. Under its founder and director, Myrna Herzog, Ensemble PHOENIX, playing on period instruments, took the audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Center on such a journey. Performing the works were Noam Schuss and Tali Goldberg (violin), Yulia Lurye (viola), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba).


The event opened with Trio Sonata in B minor, Op.3 No.4 by Arcangelo Corelli, a work dating from the 1680s. Performing the "church sonata" (the term somewhat of a misnomer), the artists' lucid, intuitive playing highlighted the composer's idiomatic string writing, carried out with the dignity associated with the noble Roman academies for which the music was intended. Bach's Fugue in B minor on a Theme of Corelli probably dates from the early years of his Weimar period (1708-1717), during which he was the court organist in the service of the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar. Being of the canzona genre, the subjects are drawn from the second movement (Vivace) of the Corelli work that opened the concert. Adding a fourth part and greatly elaborating the fugal character, Bach clearly sought possibilities to align Corelli’s joie-de-vivre with the strict rules of German organ music, hence, its more serious (indeed, less Italianate) demeanour. With Bach's writing growing somewhat more animated by the brighter second half of the piece, the PHOENIX performance (arr. Myrna Herzog) traced the work's increasing, (however, subtly wrought) sense of tension. With articulate exposure of  each timbre, each voice, indeed, the clear enunciation of each inner voice, the listener was aware of the string quartet "hierarchy" of sound and no less of Bach's brilliantly-crafted fugal writing.


Bach’s works in variation form are few and far between. The "Aria variata alla maniera italiana in A minor", BWV 989 (Air varied in the Italian manner) is a keyboard work that was composed around 1709. It develops a theme by Domenico Zipoli (a composer known beyond the borders of Italy) in a series of ten variations (each in binary form). More proof of Bach's close study of contemporary Italian music (of Vivaldi, in particular) in the early years of his tenure as organist/concertmaster for the Duke of Weimar, the "Aria variata alla maniera italiana", a piece laced with invention and virtuosity, is the master's own take on the Italian style. Bach (an incurable recycler himself) would surely have delighted in the many arrangements that now exist of the work... including one for carillon! In Herzog's vivid setting for the specific ensemble for this event, she scores each section for a different combination of the instruments at hand, mixing timbres and colours, yet reminding us of the piece's genesis with several moments (including the whole of Var.V) devoted to the harpsichord alone. The artists' reading of the Aria featured some fine solo playing, pleasing embellishments, plenty of dialogue, imitation and playful gestures, to conclude in a majestic, cantabile fashion.


Another seldom-performed work on these shores is J.S.Bach's " Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo" (Capriccio on the departure of a beloved brother) BWV 992, from the composer's many single pieces that bear a diversity of titles. It was written at age 19, possibly to mark his brother Johann Jacob leaving to become an oboist in the army of Charles XII in Sweden (set in the key of B-flat major, it may refer to the family's name - "B" in German, B-flat in English); or it might have been intended as a farewell gesture to a friend. Bach's only piece of programme music (programmatic works of a kind being popular at the time) the style shows a different side of the great polyphonist. In its six short and imaginatively-titled movements, Myrna Herzog's setting of Bach's delightful and exquisitely-crafted keyboard piece creates a vivid canvas, its stage furnished with such associations as the postal coach's horn but also with a gamut of emotions. In the lamenting Adagissimo movement (a passacaglia originally in the "prophetic" key of F minor, here in C minor) Schuss and Herzog evoke a sense of grief at the young man's imminent departure, as the movement concludes in the minimal gestures of just a few brush strokes.


Then to Trio Sonata Op.1 No.8 of Tomaso Albinoni. Albinoni's Op.1 collection was published in Venice in 1694, when the composer was 23 years old (at which time, he referred to himself as an "amateur Venetian violinist".) The PHOENIX artists' playing conveyed lucidity, offered tasteful ornamenting, the appealing delivery of melodies and melodic shaping and the addressing of dissonance… performance displaying a sense of shared purpose. The esteem in which Albinoni's instrumental music was held is reflected in the fact that J.S.Bach borrowed certain themes from Op.1 as subjects for a number of his fugues, one such being the Fugue in B minor BWV 951, which  is based on thematic material from the 2nd movement (Allegro) of the above Albinoni trio sonata. Marina Minkin gave a dedicated and informed performance of the fugue (2nd version), an extensive work, whose richly balanced harmonic plan and formal- and tonal refinement would point to the fact that it belongs to the composer's second decade of keyboard compositions.    


Once again, the experience acquired by Bach through his careful transcriptions is reflected in the Italian Concerto, a work that might be defined as a keyboard arrangement of a virtual and imaginary Italian orchestral model. The Italian Concerto is unique among Johann Sebastian’s compositions, being a concerto in the Italian style for solo keyboard, without orchestra. Originally titled "Concerto nach Italiænischen Gusto" (Concerto in the Italian taste) in F major, BWV 971, the three-movement work, composed for two-manual harpsichord solo, was published in 1735 as the first half of Clavier-Übung II. One of Bach's most loved works, it has served as the blueprint for many settings, among them being for harp, for two harps, for piano, for orchestra, flute and alto flute, flute and piano, string quartet, three recorders, soprano saxophone and piano and for saxophone quartet. The arrangement made by Myrna Herzog and Marina Minkin endorses the twofold task Bach had set himself -  that of simulating the two contrasting ensemble forces of the concerto grosso model and presenting the exuberant spirit of the Italian model. (Supporting the former, Bach supplied many indications for piano and forte dynamics.) The PHOENIX setting calls into play contrasting string- and harpsichord textures and gestures, bringing out voices, indeed, inviting the harpsichord to be the solo instrument in its own concerto. To the pared-back ostinato accompaniment, Noam Schuss' playing of the D-minor slow movement, so string-like in its lengthy melodic contour, was wonderfully sculpted and moving. 

Invariably well researched and of a high artistic standard, PHOENIX performances never fail to introduce the listening public to works rarely (or never before) heard here. As to  how Bach went about familiarizing himself with Italian music (the thread running through the "Bach in Italy" concert) perhaps today's music education institutions should encourage students to find the time and patience to experience his methods. 


As Myrna Herzog will presently be returning to Brazil, this was Ensemble PHOENIX' last concert in the present format of four to eight programs a year. Over the last 32 years, Dr. Herzog's contribution to the Israeli early music scene has been immense, as has been her teaching of the viola da gamba. Concert-goers will be pleased to know that Dr. Herzog will lead annual performances of Ensemble PHOENIX on Israeli concert platforms in the future.