Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Works of Rimsky-Korsakov alongside Tan Dun's Percussion Concerto - soloist Chen Zimbalista; Muhai Tang conducts the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion

Maestro Muhai Tang, Chen Zimbalista (photo: Miri Shamir)

The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion’s recent subscription concert “RimskyKorsakov, Tan-Dun” was a unique concert. Orchestra and percussion soloist Chen Zimbalista were conducted by Muhai Tang (China), One of the highlights of the current concert season, the event constituted the first meeting of its kind between the Israeli public and a work by Tan Dun, a Chinese composer now living in New York. This writer attended the event at the Meir Nitzan Cultural Center, Rishon LeZion, on January 11th 2020.


The program included two works of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. “Capriccio espagnol” was originally intended to be a virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra; changing his concept of it, Rimsky-Korsakov, however, decided it should be an orchestral piece with virtuoso instrumentation, a piece that was “to glitter with dazzling colours” in the composer’s words. Composed in 1887, it was premiered in St. Petersburg the same year under the baton of the composer; the audience was so impressed that it demanded a full repetition as soon as the first performance ended. In fact, at rehearsals, orchestral players frequently interrupted to applaud the composer-conductor. From the work’s first sparkling utterances, Maestro Tang and the Rishon LeZion players availed themselves of Rimsky-Korsakov’s particular genius in orchestration, highlighting the work’s Spanish themes of dance character, its vigorous tutti and appealing sentimental melodiousness, its grandiose and tumultuous moments and its sensuousness, creating a decidedly Spanish soundscape and mood. But it is the work’s rich selection of solo cadenzas and small group sections, each utterance perfectly suited to the sonority of a particular kind of instrument, that makes attending a live performance of it so exciting. Whether violin, clarinet, harp, snare drum or castanets, brass, French horn or cor anglais, the Rishon LeZion Orchestra players did not disappoint, presenting them with freshness and involvement and with the marvellous contrasts and combinations of sound only a brilliant orchestrator can call forth.


Referring to his “Scheherazade” Symphonic Suite Op.35 (1888), Rimsky-Korsakov wrote: ”All I had desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after the other…” Inspired by “1001 Arabian Nights”, and having no programmatic elements other than the ominous theme of the sultan - a loud, grim bass motif -  and the recurring tender, sinuous melody for solo violin intended to suggest Scheherazade herself, we are nevertheless reminded of the initiative of the Sultana, one of history's greatest storytellers, and the tales she weaves. With Muhai Tang a master of the large, colourful orchestral canvas, the orchestra was swept into a flurry of evocative musical scenes. Once again, the many solos added constant interest, the most substantial, of course, being the graceful and arcane mood skilfully created by concertmaster Eckart Lorenzen, weaving the mysterious Scheherazade theme over harp arpeggios.


A unique concert experience was the Israeli premiere of “Tears of Nature”, composed by pianist, viola d’amore player and conductor Tan Dun (b.1957), China’s most cosmopolitan composer. Most widely known for his movie scores, he composed this concerto in 2012 for percussion artist Martin Grubinger with the aim of giving the often-neglected percussionist centre stage. Due to the work’s scope and complexity, the composer made a video demonstration for the purpose of “sharing the methods I used to draw out the many colours of show the unique techniques such as finger flicking, rubbing, scraping etc.” The three movements, all deeply influenced by the composer’s background in Chinese music, focus not only on nature’s sounds and colours, but also on the trauma of three natural disasters of recent years. The first movement, “Threat of Nature”, its motif recurring persistently producing much tension, was prompted by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. “Tears of Nature”, in which the soulful marimba conveys an eerie, disturbing message, is descriptive of  the misery of Japan’s 2011 tsunami. The final movement, ‘Dance of Nature’, chaotic, frenzied and spine-chilling, reflects New York’s revivification following Hurricane Sandy (2012), here evoked by the use of a large number of percussion instruments, causing the percussionist to whirl around, this symbolizing “both nature and the human spirit dancing together.” Introducing the work, Israeli percussion virtuoso Chen Zimbalista spoke of the composer as taking the listener on a journey into nature, fearing it and calling for help. To describe the performance that ensued as “gripping” seems almost to be an understatement. Never taking his eyes off Maestro Tang, Zimbalista, his memory of the complex score serving him well, moved from one instrument to another (some placed at the front of the stage, others at the back) soloing with total brilliance and conviction. There would be few percussionists in the world capable of performing this solo role. Joining him were percussionists Amir Lavie, Rafi Feigelson, Yana Krichevsky and Santiago Kuschnir. Certainly not familiar fare to the orchestra, the players, guided by Maestro Tang’s coherent and vibrant conducting language, embraced the work’s non-European style and mood with verve. Two encores followed: all the percussionists took part in Minoru Miki’s “Marimba Spiritual”, a piece written in response to the starvation and famine in Africa during the early 1980s; the second encore was an electrifying improvisation for tambourine and ankle bells, performed by Zimbalista alone.


Born in Shanghai in 1949, Muhai Tang is the youngest son of celebrated Chinese film director Tang Xiaodan and brother of painter and poet Tang Muli. In 1983 he was invited by Herbert von Karajan to work with the Berlin Philharmonic. Having studied in Shanghai and Munich, he has taken various positions with orchestras worldwide. He is currently artistic director of the Shanghai Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra and principal conductor of the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra. Conducting Rossini’s “Otello” at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in 2015 made Muhai Tang the first Chinese conductor to work there in the 237-year history of the legendary opera house. Tang’s recordings include symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler, Haydn’s ‘Cello Concertos and Orff’s “Carmina Burana”, an album of music by Fazıl Say and two DVDs from the Zurich Opera featuring Cecilia Bartoli. His recording of guitar concertos by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun with Sharon Isbin and the Gulbenkian Orchestra was awarded a Grammy in 2002.


Chen Zimbalista has dazzled audiences around the world with the myriad of rhythmic sounds he produces on some forty instruments. He performs classical music, blues, jazz and, occasionally, rock repertoire. His interest in percussion was sparked at age five when hearing a drummer at a wedding. Among his teachers have been Alon Bor, Morris Lang and Bent Lillof. A winner of several international competitions, Zimbalista has performed at the Kennedy Center, with the Detroit Symphony, with the Israel Philharmonic, Sinfônica Brasileira, the Ankara Symphony and at international music festivals.  A recording artist, he has also commissioned pieces from M. Wiesenberg, B. Nagari, M. Hagerty, S. Gronich, B. Yusupov and Hadas Goldschmidt Halfon.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Musica Aeterna Chamber Choir, conductor and musical director: Ilya Plotkin, performs a Christmas program in Sergei's Courtyard, Jerusalem

Ilya Plotkin (courtesy Musica Aeterna)
“Gloria”, a Christmas concert performed by the Jerusalem Musica Aeterna Chamber Choir (conductor: Ilya Plotkin), took place in Sergei’s Courtyard, Jerusalem, on January 7th, 2020. Sergei’s Courtyard, part of the 17-acre Russian Compound, consists of a complex of verdant gardens and fish ponds surrounded by a square of two-story stone buildings with two Renaissance-styled towers. It was funded by an uncle of Tsar Nicholas II and built in 1890 by the Imperial Orthodox Society of Palestine to house pilgrims. The Israeli government purchased the compound’s land in the 1960s. In 2008, then prime minister Ehud Olmert decided to offer Sergei’s Courtyard as a “reconciliation gift” to Russia. The site has been carefully restored. The original dining room, a grand space replete with crystal chandeliers and muraled ceilings, was the venue for the Musica Aeterna concert. Maestro Plotkin conducted the ensemble of eighteen singers, with Nataly Rotenberg accompanying certain of the works on keyboard.


Following lively performances of Part 1 of Vivaldi’s “Gloria” and Bruckner’s lush a-cappella motet “Locus iste”, we heard A.Diabelli’s “Missa Pastorale” (1830). Then to a bracket of works of Russian composers, opening with Ukrainian-born Dmitry Bortniansky’s Choral Concerto No.6 “Glory to God in the Highest”, its sections rich in contrasts and punctuated by instrumental interludes. Bortniansky (1751–1825) spent ten years in Italy, on his return to Russia achieving great success as a composer and choral director, in 1796 becoming director of the Imperial Court Chapel. Following the first Israeli performance of a Christmas Concerto by Stepan Degtyarev (1766-1813), the choir’s singing of Rachmaninoff’s “Hail, O Virgin”, from the composer's All-Night Vigil “Vespers” was sensitively shaped and intimate in sound, re-creating the piece’s sense of awe and mystery. Returning to Latin sacred texts, a tender and expressive reading of Mozart’s “Ave Verum” gave way to William Byrd’s 1605 setting of the same text, its polyphonic phrasing, imaginative harmonic colours and profound empathy making it one of the gems of sacred English Renaissance music. In the "Domine Deus" and "Agnus Dei" from Vivaldi's "Gloria", alto Oksana Kaliberda’s solos threaded through the weave of the piece were finely shaped, tastefully ornamented and expressive. No Christmas concert would be complete without the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah”, here, sounding a little too strident for the strongly reverberant acoustic of the hall; the choir’s English pronunciation was a little under par.


A nice touch to the festive evening was the Christmas carol “Silent Night” sung most agreeably in both Russian and English, with choir member Leonid Akselrod’s lyrical guitar timbres added to Rotenberg’s accompaniment.  Altogether, Nataly Rotenberg’s skilful and attentive accompanying added much musical meaning and artistry to the evening. Musica Aeterna, a vocal a-cappella ensemble, specializing in music by Russian composers, was established by Maestro Ilya Plotkin in1996. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra hosts pianist Martha Argerich in a program of 20th century music at the Jerusalem International Conference Center; conductor: Lahav Shani

Martha Argarich (

There was magic in the air at Subscription Concert No.3 of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s 84th season. Conducting the orchestra was the IPO’s conductor designate Lahav Shani; guest artist was Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich. This writer attended the concert on January 6th 2020 at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. 


Preceding the concert itself, there was a short film in which Lahav Shani spoke of the oriental music influencing (German-born) Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), an immigrant in a new culture, who became the most prolific of the founding fathers of Israeli music. Ben-Haim’s aim in Symphony No.1 was to bring Israelis together culturally and not just socially. Shani also mentioned that, apart from the middle movement which has had several performances, the IPO has not played the complete symphony for many years. Ben-Haim emigrated to Palestine in1933. Symphony No.1 (1940) was the first symphony composed in Eretz-Israel (British Mandatory Palestine). It was premiered by the Palestine Orchestra (which would become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). Under Shani’s zesty baton, the IPO’s playing highlighted Ben-Haim’s well-structured writing in the compelling, uncompromising and forthright orchestral textures of the first movement, its soundscape at times dark and velvety, at others, a bright, optimistic awakening, always returning to full orchestral textures. The third movement, intense, urgent and daunting, clearly reflects the general mood engendered by the tragic events and destruction in 1940 Europe. Sandwiched between the outer movements, and in  total contrast to them, is the “Molto calmo e cantabile”, its long phrases quoting- and hinting at the oriental melodiousness that so fascinated Ben-Haim on hearing the microtonal singing of Jews from Arab countries; following  a passionate central climax, the movement returns to the idyllic, rapturous and dreamlike expression. This is music ideally suited to the substantial sound of a large orchestra and still as relevant and important to Israeli audiences as it was in 1940. Shani also invites the listener to delight in the more individual utterances of the woodwinds, violin, violas and harp.


Completed in 1931, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G was intended to be a “frivolous” work, “in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns” - the composer’s own words, its light-hearted nature present from the first sound we hear in the opening movement - a whimsical percussive whip-crack. However, the performance at this concert gave expression to the work’s sophistication, its many musical aspects and layers and to the elements making the work such a fine concert piece. Maestro Shani and pianist Martha Argerich (one of today's greatest pianists) have clearly weighed up all the concerto’s micro- and macro aspects to produce a superbly balanced collaboration of orchestra and piano, brimming with joy, delightful French transparency and jazzy musical elements. The opening movement, an outstanding piece, made for energizing listening, its mood at times vivid, at others, pensive, also including a rich offering of solos, its almost-vocal, trilled melodies under Argerich’s fingers seeming to defy gravity. As to the unique Adagio assai movement, its harmonies coloured with an occasional, flavoursome dissonant tinge, Argerich takes the listener into the weave of its long, serene piano monologue in moving, personal expression wrought of beautifully sculpted melodic lines, finally to be endorsed by lyrical orchestral playing. An exquisite moment in this movement was the restatement of the first theme, its subject  played by the cor anglais while accompanied by gossamer-filamented ornamentations on the piano. Even in the dazzling and unrelenting final movement (Presto), a celebration of fast-flowing rhythms and textures, with a smattering of humorous gestures thrown in, each piano utterance, however delicate, emerged with articulacy and presence. And then there was a treat awaiting the audience: seated together at the piano, Argerich and Shani performed two movements of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite in its original 1911 setting for piano four hands, their playing crystalline, imaginative and unhurried, fragile, strategically timed and subtly flexed. 


The concert concluded with Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, music written for Sergei Diaghilev's Paris-based "Ballets Russes". In their first collaboration, Diaghilev engaged 27-year-old Igor Stravinsky, who had already worked for the Ballets Russes as an orchestrator, to write the music for Michel Fokine's new ballet. It was later made into a five-movement instrumental suite. Lahav Shani brought to life Stravinsky’s rich musical canvas, the composer’s writing moving beyond traditional tonality, incorporating chromatic- and sometimes dissonant extended harmonies, off-beat rhythms and folk-melodies into an otherwise familiar tonal landscape, its musical style also stemming from an indigenous Russian tradition. The IPO’s playing emerged incisive, lush, gregarious and with much attention to strong dynamic contrasts, the many solos offering an opulent display of timbres and shapes. But also, vividly portraying the emotions surrounding the fantastical tale of a prince, a magical firebird, a wicked sorcerer and an enchanted princess, Shani’s rendition held the work’s tension throughout as the IPO’s playing gleamed with the mysterious, the wicked, the exotic and the otherworldly. 



Monday, January 6, 2020

Duo Sans Souci Berlin performs works of the French and German Baroque at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Christoph Huntgeburth (courtesy UdK Berlin)

Irmgard Huntgeburth (courtesy UdK, Berlin)
Seeing in the new year on January 2nd 2020 at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, was a concert of French- and German Baroque music played on authentic instruments by Duo Sans Souci Berlin - Irmgard Huntgeburth, playing a violin by Till Riecke, Cremona 1994, after Stradivari and Christoph Huntgeburth, playing a transverse flute by Simon Polak, 2019 after Palanca. It was the duo's first visit to Israel. Prof. C. Huntgeburth held a master class at the JMC.


We heard two sonatas of Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, one of the most prolific and versatile composers in France in the first half of the 18th century and who was unique in the fact that he was not connected to church or court. Many Baroque music aficionados are familiar with his chamber music (he also wrote motets and operas and two treatises, the latter now lost.)   Au courant with the current musical taste of the French bourgeoisie, including the great popularity of the transverse flute at that time (also among amateurs), Boismortier provided them and us with much genial repertoire composed in the galant style. The artists played two of the “Six Sonates pour une flûte traversière et un violon par accords, sans basse”, Op.51 (1734), the original scoring for flute and violin highlighting the individuality of each instrument. With the violin taking on the twofold role of providing a measure of harmonic basis but also engaging in some melodic banter with the flute, the Huntgeburths’ elegant reading of Sonatas 3 and 1 “breathed” naturally, indulged in gentle flexing, offered stylish inégal passages, textural variety and much sophisticated ornamentation of the flute line. Boismortier published music which was within the reach of amateurs, but it must be noted that there were many skilled and well-educated amateur players meeting in the fashionable music salons for an evening of chamber music. 


Also galant in style, No.7 of Georg Philipp Telemann’s Twelve Fantasias for Violin without Bass comes from a collection of twelve works for “Kenner and Liebhaber” (professionals and amateurs), written to be challenging enough for the former but not too difficult for the latter. Solo pieces for violin with no continuo part are rare in Baroque repertoire; these Telemann pieces, not heard often enough, provide stylistic variety, constituting a veritable kaleidoscope of 18th century musical genres. In fact, the Twelve Fantasias constitute a pivotal work representative of the musical transition that took place during the composer’s life. Taking time to spell out the opening movement’s course, Irmgard Huntgeburth’s playing draws the listener in with her articulate playing of melodies and essential skeleton “bass” notes, as she shaped each miniature movement with delicacy and suspense. No.7 in E flat major gives a semblance of different voices (or instruments) and sonorities in its use of the “luthé” technique (playing melodies in different registers.) 


The pieces published every two weeks in Telemann’s music periodical “ Der getreue Musikmeister” (The Faithful Music Master) are the first known examples of musical works presented in instalments (1728, 1729; a total of 25 issues). Telemann thus pleased the music-loving public (and his own pocket) by constantly offering new pieces for domestic music-making and for different instrumental combinations. Introducing Telemann’s Duetto in G major from the series, Christoph Huntgeburth said it was the composer’s only duet for flute and violin. The artists’ playing of it was lyrical, singing, playful and finely coordinated, with delicately-shaped movement endings, the work signing out with the jolly Vivace e staccato movement, its bourdon and folk-like romp over in the wink of an eye.


Then to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Duet for flute and violin in E minor (1748), one of Emanuel’s two surviving duets of the three he wrote without a harpsichord basso part. Displaying the contrasts and rhetoric of the “empfindsamer” (sensitive) style adopted by J.S.Bach’s most audacious and unconventional son, the artists gave an evenly-balanced performance of the work’s dialogue, rich in intricacy, mood changes, dynamic variety and gestures of gentle and bold character, its third movement (Allegretto) a colourful mix of reticence, jollity and jocular imitation. Even its key scheme of one minor- and then two major movements reflects the free flight of fancy of the composer whose music was referred to by Charles Burney as “not the wild ravings of ignorance or madness, but the effusions of cultivated genius”


The Jerusalem concert was an evening of short, concise works, substantiating how the Baroque musical style can say so much in so few gestures; but the quintessence of the miniature was to be heard in Christoph Huntgeburth’s playing of Jacques Hotteterre’s “Préludes pour la flûte traversière”. During his lifetime, Hotteterre owed his fame largely to his talent in playing the flute, an instrument for which he wrote several pieces, significantly extending the instrument’s repertoire. His “L'Art de préluder sur la flûte traversière” (1719) is an excellent source on ornamentation and improvisational practices during this period. We were presented with the stream of minute tiny musical vignettes in different keys, each just a few bars long, each different in character, each perfectly formed from start to finish, strategically timed and suavely ornamented, separated by just a breath between each. Hotteterre’s poetic musings were splendidly displayed through the traverso artist’s rich palette of colours and textures, Huntgeburth’s precise intonation never revealing the obstacles posed by this poetic but uncooperative instrument!


A concert appealing to the most discerning of Baroque music aficionados, it comprised an interesting and varied selection of pieces, elegantly, personally and subtly presented by experts in historically informed performance.


Christoph Huntgeburth studied music in Münster and Basel with W. Michel and Hans Martin Linde. He started teaching at the Bern Konservatorium in 1982 and was appointed Professor at the University of the Arts Berlin in 1984. He performs both as soloist and principal flautist with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin and as a chamber musician in Germany and abroad. He has made numerous recordings of Baroque, Classical and Romantic flute repertoire. The instruments he plays are either original period instruments or made by him.


Irmgard Huntgeburth studied singing, violin and baroque violin in Münster, Freiburg and Basel, in 1984 deciding to specialise in period performance practice on Baroque string instruments. Co-founder of the Ensemble Sans Souci Berlin, she performs as concert-master and chamber musician in Germany and abroad. She joined the Early music department at the Berlin University of the Arts in 1992, where she teaches Baroque violin, viola and chamber music. As music director of opera productions with the Ensemble I Confidenti and Barocco Continuo, her focus is on the connection between musical- and dramaturgic artistry.




Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Handel's "Judas Maccabaeus" performed in Jerusalem: Yuval Benozer conducts soloists, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and soloists. Narrator: Tomer Sharon

Maestro Yuval Benozer (
For Concert No.2 of its Vocal Series, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, now in its 82nd season, presented George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus”. Joining the JSO were soloists Daniela Skorka, Alon Harari, Ron Silberstein and Oded Reich, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (artistic director: Yuval Benozer) and Tomer Sharon-narrator. Yuval Benozer conducted the performance, which took place in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on December 25th 2019.


Historical events have given rise to one of Handel’s greatest and most-loved choral works. In his program notes, Yuval Benozer recounts how Handel composed the oratorio immediately following the Duke of Cumberland’s bloody suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion, his victory in the Battle of Culloden (1746); the oratorio's celebration of the Maccabean victory became analogous to the English triumph. Thus, the heroic exploits of the guerrilla rebel Judas Maccabaeus proved particularly relevant to that time in British history. Handel's score even features a dedication to the triumphant Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland: “The plan was designed as a compliment to the Duke of Cumberland upon his returning victorious from Scotland… Had not the Duke carried his point triumphantly, this Oratorio could not have been brought on.” The libretto, written by Rev.Thomas Morell, is based on I Maccabees (2–8), with motives added from the “Antiquitates Judaicae” of Flavius Josephus. Reducing the libretto to its bare bones, Morrell wrote with less subtlety, more pageantry and closer connection to current events than Handel’s former librettists; and it seems Morrell was a good fit with the new and less sophisticated London audience of the time. At the Jerusalem concert, in place of the cantata’s recitatives, sections of I Maccabees were read masterfully in the original biblical Hebrew by actor Tomer Sharon, this also befitting to the Feast of Lights that coincided with the event. Benozer holds a special predilection for “Judas Maccabaeus”, with its combination of depth and lightness, drama and entertainment, the beautiful choral sections and, especially, its finale which, “in a most uncommon way, praises peace over war”, in the conductor’s own words. 


A finely responsive body of voices, the Israel Vocal Ensemble (Chorus of Israelites) gave performance of the choruses that was sensitive, incisive, rich in timbre and outstanding in the attentive detail addressed to every turn and emotion of the verbal text. The singers’ diction was impeccable (far clearer than many native speaking choirs), all sections well balanced, the members blending as one and engaging in subtly-textured dynamics. The evening's solo singing too was also exemplary. A new face to many of us, young tenor Ron Silberstein, issued in the work with a call to arms accompanied by torrential scales and agitated concitato playing of the unison violins.  Involved and dramatic in the role of Judas Maccabaeus, he addressed the audience, performing his final aria (with trumpet obbligato) with dynamic variety and technical skill. Daniela Skorka portrayed the Israelitish Woman with a clear clean soprano and mellifluous top notes, her singing easeful, lyrical and communicative.  She was well paired with Alon Harari, who, in his warm stable tone and equal flexibility, sculpted each utterance and made use of small but strategic pauses, also enlisting some elegant ornamentation. As the allegorical duo, the Israelitish Woman and Israelitish Man giving voice to the personal feelings of their people, Skorka and Harari performed their duets superbly, as in their absolute togetherness in “O lovely peace”, the flute line threaded through it adding to its pastoral tranquillity and sense of well-being. Bringing to bear his richly resonant tone, baritone Oded Reich embraced the priestly role of Simon with fine diction, articulacy and vigour, endorsing each emotion with stirring conviction, his voice moving securely and seamlessly between registers.


In Handel's lifetime, “Judas Maccabaeus” was even more popular than “Messiah”. Maestro Benozer’s direction of “Judas Maccabaeus'', with its eloquent orchestral accompaniments (including fine obbligato trumpets and timpani) brought  all participants together in a performance that never lagged, that was both refined and triumphal, giving choir and soloists latitude to be expressive, shape lines and deliver their characterizations with self-possession, capturing the work’s force. “Judas Maccabaeus” is George Frideric Handel at his heroic best. His music of mourning, rousing calls to arms and rejoicing in victory gave Jerusalem’s Handel aficionados much to enjoy.  

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Pianist Benjamin Hochman performs the first of a series of concerts of the Complete Piano Sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the Israel Conservatory,Tel Aviv

Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Jerusalem-born pianist/conductor Benjamin Hochman is presenting the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas at the Israel Conservatory in Tel Aviv and also at the Bard College Conservatory, New York, where he is a member of the piano faculty. The five concerts will comprise Mozart’s eighteen piano sonatas and five shorter works. This writer attended the first concert of the series, which took place on December 23rd 2019 at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv.


The program opened with Sonata No.1 in C major K.279, one of six composed 1774-1775 in Munich and whose numerous dynamic markings reveal Mozart’s intention to play them on the fortepiano, enlisting the instrument's wide dynamic range and rich bass timbre. Indeed, Mozart performed all “six difficult sonatas” (as he referred to them) from memory in concerts in Munich and Augsburg. Hochman’s playing of the opening Allegro gave Classical beauty and festiveness to the movement, his judicious use of the sustaining pedal leaving the text’s clarity totally intact. Following the tranquil, thoughtful and gently flexed Andante, the final Allegro, rich in fine detail, offered a sprinkling of somewhat nonchalant moments of intensity, albeit, quick to disperse.


Then to Mozart’s Sonata No.11 in A major K.331 (1783) to which Hochman brings elegance, freshness and depth of feeling, starting with the delicacy, lyricism and a profusion of intricate detail of the Theme and variations - Andante grazioso - with some vibrant, bold flashes emerging in the 6th variation. Following the majestic Menuetto and its velvety Trio (bearing occasional strident comments), we heard the Rondo alla Turca. A much-mistreated piece, Hochman kept well clear of the rough “janissary bash” often produced by pianists, rather, offering a precise and controlled reading of it, infusing “tutti” sections with hearty textural substance.


Some mystery surrounds Sonata No.17 in B flat major K.570, a late Mozart work which the composer, according to some scholars, intended as a work for his students to perform. Its deceptive Classic simplicity, however, goes far beyond the realm of student performance.  In fact, it was Mozart’s biographer Alfred Einstein who referred to this sonata as “the most completely rounded of them all, the ideal of his piano sonata.” Exuding elegance and a sense of well-being, Hochman’s playing of the Allegro movement addressed importance to all melodic lines in fine-spun detail and sparkling runs. The Adagio movement, its tranquillity sometimes interrupted but always returning to calm simplicity, yielded to a delightfully deft jovial and contrasted reading of the final Allegretto, its lively syncopations and unexpected thematic leaps there to entertain!


In August 1777, Mozart resigned from his post as court musician, leaving for Europe in search of employment. The journey was beset by tragedy when his mother passed away from an undiagnosed illness while accompanying her 22-year-old son on tour in France. Composed under the aura of these traumatic circumstances, it is no coincidence that Sonata No.8 in A minor K.310 represents Mozart’s first experiment in writing a large piano work in a minor key.  Hochman addressed Mozart’s ground-breaking use of unrelenting pulsating rhythms, asymmetrical melodic phrasing and irregular cadences, maintaining the intensity, contrast and strong colour of the opening movement, yet observing its “maestoso” marking. One of the evening’s highlights was Hochman's playing of the Andante cantabile con espressione, splendidly crafted in aristocratic gestures, with darker, soul-searching grief evoked in the middle section in contrast to the (near perfect) mood of composure and dreamlike singing of the outer sections. As to the final Presto movement, the artist presented its suspenseful excitement together with fragility of textures. In the letter to his father informing him of his mother’s death, Mozart wrote: “I have indeed suffered and wept enough – but what did it avail?” 


In this first concert of the Tel Aviv Mozart Sonata Series, Benjamin Hochman’s eloquent, light-fingered, glittering and largely understated playing of Mozart sonatas allowed one to forget the dimensions of the concert hall to join him in the intimate world of the musical salon. For his encore, the artist played a piano version of a soprano aria from J.S.Bach’s "Sheep May Safely Graze"  from Cantata BWV 208, its melodic lines flowing in natural silhouettes from a crystalline setting. 


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Frank Liebscher (Germany) performs movements from J.S.Bach's Suites for Violoncello on the saxophone at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

Frank Liebscher (
A Christmas concert of a very different kind took place at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday December 21st 2019. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, was a devout Protestant. It therefore stands to reason that his music should be played at the seat of the Provost of the German Protestant Ministries in the Holy Land and the headquarters of the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. But Bach’s ‘Cello Suites played on the alto saxophone? The saxophone family of instruments was only invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in the early 1840s! This was going to be interesting! Frank Liebscher (Leipzig, Germany) was the artist who would perform movements from Bach’s solo ‘Cello Suites for what could only be called a “very curious” audience. 


Following welcoming words from Rev. Rainer Stuhlmann, interim Propst of the Redeemer Church, Liebscher opened his program with the Prelude from Suite V, his playing rich in melodic content, the occasional low notes joining to form a skeleton bass over which the artist’s voice-play emerged effective in the saxophone’s different registers.


We have read much about J.S.Bach’s  extraordinary skills in improvisation, of how he, for example, improvised a complex six-part fugue for Frederic the Great, King of Prussia or an elaborate chorale fantasia lasting almost half an hour for Jan Adam Reincken, organist of St. Catherine’s Church in Hamburg. We also know that Bach put improvisation skills at the centre of his teaching and that they were part-and-parcel of his own daily music-making. It is important for today’s musicians to reclaim the integrated, communicative art of improvisation as a part of composition and performance. The element of improvisation was present throughout Liebscher’s program in one way or another, from a fanfare figure preceding his playing of Suite I to the addition of passing notes, ornamental features and noble flourishes. It is no mean challenge to adapt music whose technique is natural on the ‘cello to a wind instrument. Liebscher’s easeful, brilliant technique figured considerably throughout the performance, with much jaunty dexterity of arpeggios and runs, some so flexed and so breathless as to skip by before the ear had time to process them. Liebscher’s background is, after all, in jazz. I must admit that I found the artist’s wistful, more strictly-measured playing of the two Bourrées from Suite III calming, touching and most satisfying.


As to the mysterious and mystic inner workings of Bach’s mind, these found expression in Liebscher’s poignant playing of the Preludes from Suites V and of II and in the Sarabande from Suite V, the latter’s tragic course set with bijou ornaments and punctuated with small, pensive pauses, its climax tender rather than triumphant. There might have been a few raised eyebrows from any members of the authentic early music movement in the audience (had they been there); happily, Liebscher’s playing of Bach was, however, clear of vibrato, save for his engaging in it to ornament final notes with a touch of poesie. What was also most pleasing was the artist’s familiarity with church acoustics, as he took into account the building’s play of echoes. For his encore, the artist played his own skilful arrangement of J.S.Bach's  fantasia on the chorale "Wachet auf" (Awake, the voice is calling us). The concert was a unique, interesting and inspiring event.


Dr. Frank Liebscher brings a rich academic- and artistic background to his performance. Composer, arranger, band leader and sideman in a wide range of genres, his teaching experience covers the school-, music school- and university levels; he lectures and holds workshops internationally. With a PhD in music education (his dissertation was titled “Mental Practice - A Creative Approach to Jazz Improvisation”) Frank Liebscher's current interdisciplinary research focuses on music- and practice methodology, deliberate practice and performance studies.