Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Violinist Enrico Onofri directs and soloes with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a program of Italian music

Enrico Onofri

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 5th concert for the 2013-2014 concert season featured Italian violinist Enrico Onofri as soloist and conductor. It was Onofri's first collaboration with the JBO. Born in Ravenna, Onofri’s career took wing when Jordi Savall invited him to serve as concertmaster of “La Capella Reial”. Onofri has worked with many ensembles and orchestras and is the founder of the “Imaginarium” Ensemble, a chamber group performing Italian Baroque repertoire. Enrico Onofri records widely. As of 2000, he has been professor of Baroque violin and Baroque interpretation at the Bellini Conservatory (Palermo), has tutored and conducted the European Union Baroque Orchestra and holds master classes in Italy, Europe, the USA and Japan.

In “La Follia Italiana”, on April 8th 2014 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre, Onofri and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (with founder and musical director David Shemer at the harpsichord) took the audience on a whirlwind 150-year journey of Italian music, opening with a Canzona from Book II of Dario Castello ‘s (c.1590-c.1658) “Sonate concertate in stil moderno”. Castello was a composer and chamber musician at Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, at the time Monteverdi was maestro di cappella there. Promising an evening of exhilarating music, Onofri led the players through the work with the adventurous nuances, extreme dynamics and skilful playing typical of stile moderno in Italy and especially of Castello’s dazzling sonatas, utilizing expressive harmonies and theatrical effects. Then, via a communicative and sensitive reading of Giovanni Gabrieli’s (1557-1612) Sonata XXI con tre violini (Onofri, Dafna Ravid, Noam Schuss), its moods constantly changing, to the well-chiseled melodic lines and strongly Venetian style of Sonata in a minor for 4 violins and basso continuo from Giovanni Legrenzi’s (1626-1690) opus 10 “La Cetra” (The Lyre) of 1673 (Onofri, Ravid, Schuss, Ruth Fazal), its rhythms fiery, its transitions delicately ornamented by Onofri.

Less virtuosic than that of contemporaries such as Vivaldi, Albinoni’s music, in the hands of unaware players, runs the risk of ending up as rather pleasant background music. Not so here. In Tomaso Albinoni’s (1671-1751) Sonata V in B flat major for strings and basso continuo opus 2 no.9 from “Sei Sinfonie a cinque” beauty of melody, articulacy and variety were the key, with Onofri’s solo playing leaning into dissonances to give a gentle tug at the heartstrings without ever being too sugary.

The program included two of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) violin concertos – Concerto no.8 in g minor RV 332 and no 9 in D major RV 230. Dealing with their glittering virtuosic sections with alacrity, high energy and radiance, Onofri’s playing was, nevertheless, a far cry from showmanship and pyrotechnic display; he riveted our attention on Vivaldi’s text, its shaping and its poignant, delicate and expressive aspects, inspiring players and audience alike. The fine-spun sounds of the theorbo (Eliav Lavi) added timbral gleam to the ensemble sound throughout the evening.

With Baldassare Galuppi’s (1706-1785) oeuvre largely made up of opera, sacred vocal works and solo harpsichord music, his small output of instrumental music tends to be overlooked. Musicologists date Galuppi’s concertos for string ensemble at around 1740; without a solo part and flexibly scored in high, Italienate style, these concertos are among the last of their kind. Rococo in style, highly melodic yet using early imitative practice, Concerto in D major offered much dialogue and made for fine ensemble fare. The program ended with Concerto Grosso no.12 in d minor, referred to by Maestro David Shemer in his program notes as “a creation of no less than three composers”, this work being Francesco Saverio Geminiani’s (1687-1762) orchestration of Corelli’s variations on an anonymous composer’s “La Follia” (Folly) melody, based on a dance of Portuguese origin. Geminiani’s setting of Corelli’s virtuoso part (Onofri) is mostly unchanged, but he went and deftly added a second solo violin part (Schuss). Other solo roles were performed by violist Daniel Tanchelson and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi. With concertino and ripieno juxtaposed to heighten contrasts between sections, here is a concert piece of the most exciting kind. Following the noble and forthright statement of the “La Follia” melody and harmonic scheme, we were presented with over twenty variations – from caressingly lyrical, cantabile variations, bristling with charm and fine ornamentation, to intoxicatingly thrilling moments, Onofri’s liberated expression inviting the other soloists to take part in the musical delight. Orit Messer-Jacobi’s solos were infused with energy and joy.

Punctilious about good intonation, Enrico Onofri addressed each player in order to tune with him between works. Onofri’s musical language and effervescent personality epitomize the energy and joyfulness of Italian music. His involvement and that of the JBO players on stage were transmitted to the audience. There was magic in the air!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Zsolt Nagy and the Israel Contemporary Players at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Maestro Zsolt Nagy
Concert no.4 of the Israel Contemporary Players’ 2013-2014 Discoveries Series was a program of premieres - premieres for the ensemble or new settings of existing works by composers. Taking place at the Jerusalem Music Centre April 6th 2014, the concert was conducted by Zsolt Nagy, the ICP’s chief conductor and artistic adviser as of 1999, with soloists Gao Ping (piano, voice) and Boris Filanovsky (voice).

Founded in 1991, the Israel Contemporary Players perform 20th- and 21st century works of composers from many countries, they receive regular commissions, perform and record works by Israeli composers and have premiered over 100 new Israeli works to date. The ensemble and series are under the artistic direction of Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutsky.

“Rewind” by Ofer Pelz (b.1978) was composed in 2013 for a workshop of the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. The final version of the work was, however, premiered by the Israel Contemporary Players and received the ACUM Prize for a work presented anonymously. As the name implies, “Rewind” makes reference to the world of digital music, in which “one can turn back and say the same thing again and again”, in the words of the composer. Performed on acoustic instruments, however, the work opened with a lot of very small, delicate effects (instrumental and otherwise) those including the crinkling of paper; it was constructed of short phrases, some of minimal sound, some of delicate, high pitches consisting of flageolets, with others more intense. Phrases were punctuated by silences, these pauses taking on more meaning as they accumulated, plunging the listener into a heightened state of concentration and bringing him into close contact with his own senses. The beauty of small gestures articulated cleanly and with delicacy is paramount in this work. One of Israel’s most prominent young composers, Ofer Pelz is currently engaging in doctoral studies at Montreal University. He was present at the concert.

Born in Leningrad in 1968, Boris Filanovsky recently immigrated to Israel. A graduate of the Rimsky Korsakov State Conservatoire and former student of Paul-Heinz Dittrich and Louis Andriessen, he performs as a vocalist/narrator, with dozens of works by Russian composers dedicated to him. Since 2000, he has been the director of “eNsemble”, the only contemporary music ensemble in Leningrad. “Words and Spaces” (2005) is scored for baritone parlando and nine players. The work is based on the last words of Dutch Schultz (born Arthur Simon Flegenheimer 1901-1935) a New York City German-Jewish mobster, who made his fortune in organized crime and was known for his ruthlessness, violence and temper. A strange stream-of-consciousness, the 600-word text presents the gangster’s final, disjointed, utterances after he had been shot. Filanovsky chose the specific scoring of flute, piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, French horn, trumpet, trombone and double bass to create potency and intensity of mood. Performing the text in the original English in what was the Israeli premiere of “Words and Spaces”, Filanovsky’s reading strode well beyond the boundaries of poetry recital. Moving with the music, with the words taking on a theatrical dimension, from vehement shouting, to a kind of Sprechgesang and strange contortions of words, the composer/performer layered the text with “instrumental” effects as offered by the potential of certain words when presenting the confused delirium of the dying mob boss’s warped mind. The work’s instrumental textures moved hand-in-glove with the words in confrontational synchronization. Filanovsky is certainly an interesting artist. This was polished performance at its most expressive.

The second half of the program consisted of works by Chinese composers. Born on 1958 in a small village in southern China, Deqing Wen studied Composition in China, Switzerland and France. Today he is professor of Composition and Analysis of Performance of Contemporary Music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. His creative style and inspiration bring together traditional Chinese music and complex western techniques. Wen is profoundly influenced by Chinese culture, in particular, philosophy, painting and the ancient art of calligraphy; “Ink Splashing” (2007) for nine instruments is indicative of the latter. Sensitively threaded into an evocative canvas alive with a great many textures, motifs and ideas, including blowing effects, glissandi, muted trombone-playing, vibraphone sounds and long, drawn-out notes sung by some of the players, all came together in a world of imaginings and ancient remembrances. Nagy and his players address the work’s textures, using dynamics ranging from the most fragile to a full-blown, sturdy instrumental statement.

The program concluded with “The Four Not-Alike” (2012), a concerto for multi-function pianist and chamber orchestra by Gao Ping, who was also soloist in his work. Born in the Sichuan Province in 1970, Gao Ping gained his keen interest in vocal music from his singer mother and in contemporary music from his father. A sought-after pianist on the international scene, Gao’s recitals often feature improvisations. He received his doctorate from the University of Cincinnati, taking up a lectureship in Composition at Canterbury University (Christchurch, New Zealand), currently serving as professor of Composition at Capital Normal University (Beijing). Similarly to Deqing Wen, Gao merges western and eastern styles, his music reflecting his interest in China and its multiple pasts. In an interview with Hanna Virtanen for the GBTIMES in July 2012, Gao said that, in his youth, Russian and French music had been the main influence on him, music he had learned and grown up with. “Then there is the other side, my Chineseness, and I think it is a mix.” “The Four Not-Alike” was composed in 2012 for the Forbidden City Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble whose members play on traditional Chinese instruments. The setting we heard at the Jerusalem Music Centre was an arrangement created especially for the Israel Contemporary Players. A vibrant work, Gao’s performance included fresh, buoyant, virtuosic playing, Chinese traditional opera-style singing – his range wide and flexible – and other effects: clapping, whistling, striking the piano, strumming the piano strings, etc. Within its opening notes, the first movement had drawn the audience into a kaleidoscope of vitality, jazzy rhythms and nostalgic Chinese-sounding melodies soaring above a robust instrumental texture. The second movement presented an exotic soundscape based on delicate, descending minor seconds, the flute (Naama Neuman) enouncing a haunting melody, with the third movement expressing deep, personal sentiments via short utterances, exhaling effects and Gao’s vehement singing. The final movement, energizing and full of timbral interest, brought the work to a close.

Zsolt Nagy and the Israel Contemporary Players’ meticulous and diligent performance gave meaning and depth to what was indeed, a fascinating program.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Barrocade Ensemble performs an all-J.S.Bach concert at Abu Gosh

“Happy Birthday, Bach!” was a celebration worth attending, even if the birthday celebrity was unable to be present. Conductor and violinist Andres Mustonen (Estonia) led the proceedings with soloists Kati Debretzeni-violin (UK/Israel), Shai Kribus-oboe/recorder, Geneviève Blanchard-flute, Ofer Frenkel-oboe, Ye’ela Avital-soprano, Ella Wilhelm-alto, Doron Florentin Dallal-tenor and Guy Pelc-bass. Barrocade – Israeli Baroque Collective – was joined by Barrocade Vocale. This writer attended the performance at the Kyriat Ye’arim Church, Abu Gosh, April 4th 2014.

The first half of the program consisted of three concertos of the Italian model – each having three movements (fast-slow-fast). It opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Concerto for Oboe and Violin in c minor BWV 1060R, Bach’s own adaptation of a concerto for two harpsichords. Performing the solo parts we heard Andres Mustonen and Shai Kribus, with Mustonen using the violin part’s arpeggiated figurations, rhythmic flexing and ornaments to lend affect and excitement. Kribus’ wholesomely stable and expressive playing was indeed pleasurable. Following the slow movement, with the two artists trading pieces of the same long-lined melody to create a mood piece of lyrical tenderness, the final Allegro took off at a fast, frolicsome pace, Mustonen’s substantially accented and zingy devil-may-care reading of it making for a lively Saturday morning’s entertainment.

For Bach’s Concerto for Violin in E major BWV 1042, Mustonen took the seat of first violinist, with Kati Debretzeni now soloist. Her leading the instrumentalists consisted more of the language of eye contact and facial expressions than of large gestures, her tempi and intentions ever clear and secure as she lay emphasis on the expressive and the personal, on small details and much suave playing. Presenting the text made of the purest Bachian splendor, the well contrasted opening movement gave way to serene, spontaneous expressiveness in the Adagio, the Allegro Assai’s exuberance and virtuosity allowing for well balanced give- and- take of soloist and orchestra, reminding us that Bach was a German Lutheran, careful about the excesses of secular music.

The manuscript parts used in performance of the Concerto for Two Violins in d minor BWV 1043 date from around 1730 to 1731. With no documentary evidence to suggest that the work was composed any earlier, this makes sense stylistically as the work exemplifies the Bachian concerto at its most sophisticated and progressive. With Mustonen and Debretzeni as soloists, I was interested to hear on what wavelength two such different artistic personalities would meet in a work not only of solos, where imitation is taken to an extreme, but where Bach’s texture presents “one voice in two parts”. The result was rewarding, the density of polyphonic structures of the outer movements intense and interesting, with solo- and orchestral forces in ever-changing combinations. There was no need for either to give up on his/her signature style. In the poignant slow movement, the orchestral backdrop pared down, the soloists engaged in sensitive and bewitching dialogue.

Probably more transformed than most other Bach works, the “Easter Oratorio”, basically a large-scale Sunday cantata of 11 movements, began as a Baroque pastoral fantasy composed in 1725 for Duke Christian of Saxe-Weissenfels’ birthday. The composer later transformed it into “Kommt, gehet und eilet” (Come, go ye and hasten), a cantata for Easter Sunday, setting a new text to existing arias and adding new recitatives. In 1726 Bach once more reworked the original secular cantata to commemorate the birthday of Count Joachim Friedrich von Flemming, governor of Leipzig and a patron of the composer. In the mid-1730s, he expanded the Easter Cantata to an oratorio, then revising it a decade later, rearranging the third movement for 4-part choir.

Bach’s celebration of Easter is mostly a joyous one. From the lively and richly orchestrated opening jubilant opening Sinfonia, the Barrocade instrumentalists gave an evocative, energetic and rich “description” of the visual scene, with the wistful sounds of fine woodwind playing and “sigh” motifs descriptive of the sorrow of Easter morning in the ensuing Adagio. In choral sections, the eight Barrocade Vocale singers (musical direction: Yizhar Karshon) presented their sophisticated vocal lines bristling in unique individuality, inviting the audience to indulge in active listening. Singing the role of Mary Magdalene, alto Ella Wilhelm’s performance proved substantial, reedy and most pleasing, her forthright and dramatic aria “Tell me, tell me quickly” joined by oboist Ofer Frenkel in fine collaboration. In Mary Jacobi’s aria, Geneviève Blanchard gave an outstandingly beautiful and expressive reading of the obbligato part, its “circling” melody describing the laurel wreath and infinity, partnering in Ye’ela Avital’s agreeable and confident performance of the soul-searching soprano aria:
‘O soul, your spices need no longer be myrrh.
For only crowning with the laurel wreath will quiet your anxious longing.’

The focal point of this oratorio is the bourrée-lullaby in which Peter sings Death to sleep. To a pulsating bass line and bewitchingly continuous rippling of flutes/recorders, tenor Doron Florentin Dallal sculpted the text using shapes of words to do so, his gilded, distinctive voice filling the church with a timbre that speaks of color and vigor. John’s recitative was handled imposingly by bass Guy Pelc.

Throughout the concert, the Barrocade players (musical director - Amit Tiefenbrunn) indulged in well detailed and subtle orchestral playing.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Hortus Musicus (Austria) performs Gesualdo's "Sabbato Sancto" Responsories

Don Carlo Gesualdo

Born in Naples, Don Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613), Prince of Venosa and Count of Conza, was a composer and personality of untamed contrasts. A poet and a statesman, he murdered his wife and her lover - the Duke of Andria - later imprisoning two of his own concubines, tried and convicted of witchcraft, in his castle. The Vatican issued the composer “although divinely talented and of regal lineage” with a warning, to which he responded “I am both Nero and as the Pontius Pilate, untouchable in my actions”. Add to this the fact that he was into wild bouts of self-flagellation, spending his final days in a state of melancholia bordering on insanity. Towards the end of his life, Gesualdo began his ‘religious period’, his music obsessed with themes of guilt, pity and death. Gesualdo's “Responsoria for Holy Week”, as well as two massive volumes of madrigals, appeared in 1611. Interestingly enough, he was a mediocre musician, with no singing voice and no instrumental mastery, yet his compositional style was uncompromisingly experimental and sophisticated, wildly overstepping the boundaries of convention but boasting unique beauty. After his death, Gesualdo's vocal compositions faded into obscurity, with public interest remaining only in the gruesome details of his notorious deeds. However, the 1950s saw renewed interest in Gesualdo’s music on the part of musicologists. In 1960, Igor Stravinsky wrote a piece called “Momentum pro Gesualdo”, there are some 11 operatic works on the subject of Gesualdo’s life and, in 1995, Werner Herzog produced a fantastical pseudo-documentary called “Death for Five Voices”.

Prior to the performance of Gesualdo’s “Sabbato Sancto” by the Austrian vocal group Hortus Musicus on March 29th 2014 at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, which is situated on the Via Dolorosa of Jerusalem’s Old City, Rector Markus Stephan Bugnyar made mention of the composer’s extreme character traits as well as the work’s relevance to Easter and Lent. “Sabbato Sancto” is the last work of the three “Responsoria” works sung on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Considered the composer’s masterpiece, its texts are taken from the Old- and New Testaments, focusing on the death of Christ and the destruction of Jerusalem.

In Tenebrae (Latin: shadows, darkness) services, held on the evening - or early morning of the last three days of Holy Week, the church’s candles are extinguished one by one until the congregation remains there in darkness. Taking place in the Austrian Hospice chapel, Hortus Musicus’ rendition of the “Sabbato Sancto” Responsoria followed this tradition. Its members - soprano Christa Mäurer, mezzo-soprano Waltraud Russegger, tenor Michael Nowak, bass Dietmar Pickl and the group’s musical director, baritone Günter Mattitsch – were joined by tenorino Michael Gerzabek to form a six-voiced ensemble. With Gesualdo's music generally fiendishly difficult to perform, the singers gave superb, articulate expression to the work’s emotional intensity, its subtlety of color and daring musical language. Each of the six voices offered both distinctive vocal colors and depth of expression of the verbal text, their integrative timbre vivid, stable, penetrating and gripping. Mattitsch and his singers’ reading of the musical- and verbal text also referred to the work’s multi-faceted content – from the sorrow of the darkness of the world and the solemnity of Easter to Gesualdo’s blatantly autobiographical references to torment, anguish, self-pity, humility and betrayal, all projected via the composer’s unorthodox, idiosyncratic, chromatic harmonic- and rhythmic language, a language in which surprise and dissonance play a focal part. Yet, free of delirium, superficial extravagance and singing displaying technical acrobatics, Hortus Musicus’ unmannered performance allowed the audience to be part of the somber, contemplative text that gradually lightens, shown through a fascinating interplay of voices, luxuriant vocal lines, finely chiseled shaping of phrases and timbral luminosity. A rare musical experience, this was surely one of the highlights of the current concert season.

The Austrian ensemble Hortus Musicus was founded in 1972, originally a vocal- and instrumental ensemble focusing on Gothic- and Burgundian music. As of 1990, the ensemble has consisted of five singers, its repertoire consisting of music of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance as well as contemporary music. Travelling and recording widely, Hortus Musicus is involved in the running of concert series, one of its goals being to make contemporary music accessible to the general public.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ensemble PHOENIX performs Hummel's settings of Mozart and Beethoven symphonies

Baas fortepiano (1800)
Amidst deafening thunderclaps and forks of lightning illuminating the night sky on March 12th 2014, we mounted the steps to the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family in the Via Dolorosa in the Jerusalem’s Old City. The evening’s event was “A New Angle: Hummel’s Chamber Versions of Mozart and Beethoven” performed by Ensemble PHOENIX members Flautist Moshe Aron Epstein, violinist Jonathan Keren and keyboard player Marina Minkin, with PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog on ‘cello.

Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), a prominent composer of the late Classical period, was best known for his solo compositions and piano concertos, but his oeuvre includes chamber music, operas and sacred works. His groundbreaking three-volume treatise “A Complete Theoretical and Practical Course on the Art of Pianoforte Playing”, published in 1828, was bought by thousands of musicians throughout Europe. Hummel was born in Bratislava. When his family moved to Vienna in 1786, he went to study with Mozart, with whom he lived for two years; these two years paved the way for his career as a piano virtuoso, composer and conductor. After a concert tour of Europe at age ten, Hummel and his father spent time in London, where Hummel studied with Clementi. Back in Vienna in 1793, Hummel, now 14, began studies with Albrechtsberger, turning his attention from the concert stage to teaching and composing. His first major appointment was in April 1804, when he took the position of concertmaster to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy at his Eisenstadt court, from which the composer was dismissed in 1811. Returning to live in Vienna, he toured Europe with much success as a pianist and conductor. His last posts were as Kapellmeister in Stuttgart (1816) and Weimar (1819).

Musical arrangement was central throughout Hummel’s career. These transcriptions served as house music. Dr. Myrna Herzog introduced the concert by reminding the audience that people of the time did not attend many concerts and those who played instruments could enjoy familiarizing themselves with these orchestral works by playing them at home. Many 4-hand piano arrangements of symphonies exist from that time. Hummel’s transcriptions for more instruments, however, create a more orchestrated soundscape. He produced some fifty transcriptions of works in a variety of musical genres, from opera overtures to symphonies and chamber music.

We were to hear two arrangements played by instruments of his time: Moshe Aron Epstein played a late Classical/early Romantic flute built by George Rudall (London, 1827), Jonathan Keren played on an English violin of the late 18th century, Marina Minkin on an 1800 Baas fortepiano, and Myrna Herzog on a ‘cello built by Andrea Castagnery (Paris, c.1740). Herzog and Keren were using Classical bows, producing a sound very different to that heard when playing with Baroque bows. The salon of the Austrian Hospice could only be considered the ideal setting; its side walls painted by F.Eichele and J.Kaltenbach, with four biblical scenes on the ceiling painted by an unknown wandering artist, transported the audience back in time to experience what would have been music-making in a private home in the early 19th century.

Hummel’s arrangement of Mozart's works are an eloquent mark of respect to his teacher. In 1823 and 1824, he received the commission for these arrangements from J.R.Schulz, a musician/publisher living in England at the time, a good businessman and negotiator. These arrangements were completed during Hummel's time as Kapellmeister at the Weimar court. They display a deep understanding of Mozart’s music and thinking; it is known that Hummel invested much time into writing these arrangements and that the outcome was lucrative. Schultz wanted Hummel to change some of Mozart’s harmonies, the request supported by fellow composer Ignaz Moscheles, but Hummel was not comfortable with the idea. Changes he did make tie in with contemporary (early Romantic) taste and his own virtuosity, making the piano prominent in these settings. To create a sense of orchestral sound, he made some rhythmic changes, inserting crescendo signs and also adding more contrasted dynamic markings. He took a more modern approach to the manner of ornamenting, abandoning the Baroque practice of starting an embellishment a second above the melody note; he also gave each movement precise metronome markings (not that early metronomes were precise).

In a carefully balanced reading of Hummel’s setting of W.A.Mozart’s Symphony no.38 in D major, the distinctive sounds of the four instruments played off against each other in a combination of sounds that formed a vividly-colored interwoven musical fabric, yet one highly personal and articulately delineated by nature of the timbres of the four instruments and their players. With Marina Minkin’s spirited treatment of the virtuosic keyboard part, the ‘cello’s support present in its imperative role as the bass timbre, violin (Keren) and flute (Epstein) communicated closely in interaction bristling with charm and tenderness. Moshe Aron Epstein’s secure, stable sound came across as effortless, the 1827 Rudall flute sounding warm, mellow and solid. With Jonathan Keren, no gesture passed him by without receiving response, shape, expression and affect. The Baas fortepiano is proving to be no wimp; following recent work on it by restorer Zamir Havkin, its unbridled sound dazzled and excited more than ever under Minkin’s fingers. Its uniquely gregarious timbre is not to be missed by anyone interested in historical instruments. With no intention to imitate a symphony orchestra and no apology for the absence of clarinets, Hummel’s setting of the “Prague” Symphony was an uplifting experience.

For many years, Hummel enjoyed a close friendship with Beethoven, this more than once marred by disagreements, the last of which taking place in the late 1810s, possibly over Hummel’s arrangements of Beethoven’s music. Then, hearing that Beethoven was very ill, Hummel traveled from Weimar to visit the great master before his death. At Beethoven’s wish, Hummel improvised at his memorial concert. In Hummel’s 1826 arrangement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony no.1 in C major, the keyboard player is, once again, presented with a score abundant in challenges; Marina Minkin took them on impressively. The quartet juxtaposed the drama with the cantabile aspects of the symphony, the tutti substantial, warm and satisfying, the more minimally orchestrated (and exposed) moments searching, fragile and carefully crafted.

No season goes by without Dr. Myrna Herzog offering audiences new insight into rare works or seldom-heard settings of familiar works. This unique program constituted more than just a musical curio: here was superb house-music of times past delivered with stylish and well-informed performance. Elated and inspired, some listeners stayed on, not ready to leave the venue before engaging in lively discussion with the artists on Hummel's arrangements before braving the elements outside.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Highlights from the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg
The 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival took place at the Dan Eilat Hotel from February 24th to March 1st. In its 9th year, the festival’s general- and artistic director is violinist and conductor and founder of the festival Leonid Rozenberg. Gilli Alon-Bitton of Carousel Artists Management & PR was artistic consultant and coordinator. Yossi Shiffmann presented each of the concerts. The festival offered 14 concerts as well as master classes for young musicians. Concerts took place in two halls at the Dan Hotel – the Tarshish Hall and the larger Big Blue Hall.

“Trees, Walls, Cities”, its title taken from the final work in the concert performed by the Brodsky Quartet and mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg, was one of the high points of the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival, both in the concert’s distinctive performance and its original programming. In a very atypical opening to a concert of this kind, the Brodsky Quartet and Lore Lixenberg shake the chamber music audience out of any conventional expectations by performing Icelandic composer-singer Björk’s philosophical song “Cover Me”. We are now already a party to the quartet’s delicate approach and Lixenberg’s multi-faceted art. It transpires that the Brodsky Quartet has recorded with Björk, herself.

With convention happily out of the way, it was smooth sailing into Franz Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” (You are Rest and Peace), with quartet and singer floating the sensuous, almost spiritual course of the song in rich tranquility, with Lixenberg moving seamlessly from forte to fragile piano, losing no sonority on the way. This was followed by a memorable performance of Schubert’s “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden), the miniature but powerful dialogue playing out in Lixenberg’s convincing and controlled depiction of both characters, ending with Death’s voice depicted in dark, soothing tones. In “Dido’s Lament”, from Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, Lixenberg and the quartet held onto the piece’s mellifluous calm, Lixenberg using key words to color and build towards the piece’s vehement ending in a performance that was intensely personal. Turning to a different genre, yet connecting with the mood of the preceding pieces, we then heard the Brodsky Quartet in a performance Schubert’s String Quartet no.13 in a minor D.804 opus 29, “Rosamunde”. The players – violinists Ian Belton and Daniel Rowland, violist Paul Cassidy and ‘cellist Jacqueline Thomas - paid respect to the work’s introspective character, its darkly, lyrical mood created by the suffering of an ailing Schubert. With an economical use of decisive, forte playing, the players wove its nostalgic beauty in sculpted, filigree lines, Schubert’s brighter moments clothed in warmth and charm rather than pulsing energy. Taking its name from the great Russian violinist Adolf Brodsky, the Brodsky Quartet, not restricted to merely performing string quartet repertoire in its 40-year existence, tackles non-mainstream theatrical-musical material.

”Trees, Walls, Cities”, a newly commissioned song cycle for the Brodsky Quartet and Lore Lixenberg is, in the words of Ian Ritchie, initiator of the project and director of the London Festival, involved in the brokering of peace. The project, created by the City of London Festival in partnership with the Walled City Festival and brought together by Nigel Osborne, links Derry-Londonderry, the City of London, Utrecht, Berlin, Vienna, Dubrovnik, Nicosia and Jerusalem via eight songs of local poets and composers in the message that trees symbolize freedom, nourishment, environmental planning and peace, whereas as city walls can exist either as historic, defensive structures surrounding people or as modern means of keeping people apart. At its Israeli premiere at the Jerusalem International YMCA on February 26th 2014, composer and oud player Habib Hanna Shehadeh (b. Rama, a Galilee village, 1974) spoke of the work as a “journey of love”. The songs were varied in style and message; Lixenberg took on the character of each, her sturdy voice once operatic, once folk-sounding, producing bird calls (music-Jocelyn Pook, Richard Thomas-lyrics, London), the reality of spoken text (Theo Verbey-music, Peter Huchel-lyrics, Utrecht), to the entwining of her voice around the sensuous text of the Song of Songs (Hanna Habib Shehadeh-music, Jerusalem). The challenging instrumental settings allowed for much imagination and expression, from the prominent, evocative string part of “Once There Was an Island” (Christopher Norby music, Matt Jennings-lyrics, Derry-Londonderry), to the complex intensity of “Just Outside” (Søren Nils Eichberg-music, lyrics, Berlin), to the atonal, mixed textures of the frenzied “When God Was Creating Dubrovnik (Isidora Žebeljan-music, Milan Milišić-lyrics, Dubrovnik) to the evoking of inner- and outer voices in fragmented word-play uttered by the instrumentalists against Lixenberg’s singing of incomplete Turkish phonemes in the sad, haunting “Walls Have Ears” (Yannis Kyriakides-music, Mehmet Yashin-lyrics, Nicosia) to the energetic, tonal chords but oriental rhythms wedding the Palestinian composer’s music education with the traditions of his background in “Song of Songs”. Born in the UK, singer and director Lore Lixenberg has a palette of timbral colors to match her extensive emotional scope; her repertoire ranges from opera to recitals and concert repertoire and to music-theatre, with much focus on contemporary classical music.


In his piano recital in the Tarshish Hall of the Dan Eilat Hotel on February 28th, Daniel-Ben Pienaar played all 24 preludes and fugues of Book 1 of J.S.Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”. Born in South Africa, Pienaar moved to London at age 18 to study at the Royal College of Music, where he is now Curzon Lecturer in Performance Studies. After so many of us have followed the authentic movement’s roller coaster re-education on the subject of Baroque music performance practice, here is a pianist aware of all the performance styles Bach’s music has been through and, refuting none of them, brings his own ideas of playing Bach on the piano to the concert platform. Performing the whole of one book of the WTC would have been unheard of in Bach’s time; Bach wrote the pieces for personal enjoyment and for educational purposes. His manuscript consisted only of the musical text with almost no markings for the performer, thus inviting the keyboard player to form his own interpretation of these perfectly formed small pairs of pieces. Pienaar has made a deep enquiry into the micro and macro of Book 1 of the WTC, has formulated his own ideas on each piece and how they all “stack up”, in his words. Utilizing his superb technique, his fantasy and the possibilities of the modern piano, Daniel-Ben Pienaar takes us on a truly exciting journey through the pieces, showing the uniqueness of each as well as how the pieces can be contrasted with each other. Prelude no 3 in C sharp major, for example, is played with light, buoyant brilliance, its fugue fresh and bold. Following it, Prelude no. 4 in C sharp minor’s mystery unfolds via Bach’s surprising harmonic course, its fugue bathed in a sense of almost religious awe. Prelude no.15 was played a sense of weightlessness, the incredible speed and agility with which the artist took it ruling out neither articulacy or nor direction. The fugue was a celebration of Bach’s literally offbeat rhythmic ideas. Pienaar is into the use of textures and color and sees his use of the sustaining pedal here as inter-connected with other musical techniques and ideas. Another strategy he uses is taking tiny pauses between pieces or not, using the latter to keep tension high by proceeding directly with no breath between pieces. Listeners were kept at the edge of their seats throughout, finally arriving at Prelude no. 24 in B minor. Here, Pienaar took the listener into both the inner regions of the mind and into the sophistication of Bach’s canonic thinking, then concluding with the mighty 4-voiced B minor fugue (actually marked Largo by Bach), its subject using all 12 semi-tones, a work atonal well before its time, bringing to an end a recital bristling with interest, creativeness and aesthetic beauty.


Founded in 1997 and taking its name from Vivaldi (who was both a priest and a redhead) “Red Priest” is an English quartet of early music specialists – Piers Adams-recorders, Julia Bishop-violin, Angela East-‘cello and David Wright-harpsichord – who combine music, theatre and visual effects in performance that is unrestricted by academic formalities, yet well grounded in knowledge of the music. The opening of the “Venetian Carnival” program on Friday February 28th in the Dan Eilat Hotel’s Big Blue Hall saw the Red Priest players performing a Vivaldi concerto (“The Nightmare Concerto”) with frenzied energy; looking satanic in black cloaks, their faces also covered, with images of fire flashed onto the screen and the occasional thunder clap mixing in with the music, the artists were inviting listeners to let down their guard and join them in a musical-theatrical-visual experience that was about as unorthodox as it gets! With cloaks out of the way and faces now in view, the Red Priest players gave their unique take on a number of small works: these included an energetic ostinato-propelled Ciaccona of Mauricio Cazzati, Händel’s “Aria Amoroso” with Piers Adams’ expressive and caressing recorder playing inclusive of interesting ornaments played to scenes showing Venice, ‘cellist Angela East’s luxuriantly resonant and naturally flexed playing of the Prelude from J.S.Bach’s ‘Cello Suite no.1 and Piers Adams’ virtuosic performance of one of the Van Eyck sets of variations, beginning with the theme whistled. Their performance of Corelli’s “La Folia” Variations bowled one over with its variety of fiery moments, a brilliant harpsichord variation, jazz references and the virtuosic Adams making use of different recorders. In the two concerts Red Priest performed at the festival, we were to discover that Piers Adams is the ultimate quick-change recorder artist. And to fuel the satanic mood with which the event began, we heard Robert Johnson’s (1911-1938) “The Witches’ Dance” on violin, ‘cello and harpsichord, its ghostly moments peppered with much brilliant violin playing (Julia Bishop) as well as strange effects and witchlike laughs. (A famous blues guitarist, it was said that the devil gave Robert Johnson mastery of the instrument in exchange for his soul.)

Following the intermission, with the artists’ demonic black and red clothes all but forgotten, the artists appeared dressed as country characters in light colors for the pastoral mood of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”; on the screen, nature scenes and poetry added to the mood. In this work, the instrumentalists were joined by dancers Mario Bermudez Gil and Shani Licht, both members of the Batsheva Ensemble (Israel); expressive and masterful, the dancers added much interest and beauty to the performance. The players themselves presented the moods of each season theatrically and musically, with much pizzazz and the wink of an eye.

In Red Priest’s new program, “Händel in the Wind”, performed March 1st, we heard several of the composer’s celebrated works, however, with the ensemble’s own approach. In his program notes, Piers Adams provides the audience with some background to Red Priest’s decisions, mentioning the fact that Händel was known to have played the harpsichord “at whirlwind speed”, that “in Baroque times the personal whim and creativity of the performer were paramount” and that “some accounts” of concerts of the time “describe scenes more akin to modern day rock concerts than classical recitals”. The performance in hand presented several movements from “Messiah”, the idea initiated by ‘cellist Angela East. The pieces were infused with bird calls (played by Adams on two recorders), an energizing performance of “Every Valley”, “The Trumpet Shall Sound” being replaced by “The Recorder Shall Sound” played by Adams as festively as any trumpet would and with more ornamentation, poignant violin melodies (Julia Bishop), small whimsical quotes, some blue notes and a … jazzy “Hallelujah Chorus”!

In Red Priest’s treatment of Georg Frideric Händel’s soprano aria “Lascia ch’io pianga”, recycled a number of times by the composer himself, the soulful melody was initially presented most expressively by ‘cellist Angela East:
‘Let me weep
My cruel fate
And sight for liberty.
May sorrow break these chains
Of my sufferings, for pity’s sake.’
This was followed with skilful variations on violin and concluding with a boogie-woogie-based recorder version. In “The Harmonious Blacksmith”, a melody first heard by the composer when whistled by a London blacksmith, the ensemble gave it a folksy atmosphere, with virtuosic performances from East and Adams.

Harpsichordist David Wright’s scintillating performance of the Prelude of Händel’s B flat major Keyboard Suite highlighted the composer’s lavish style, spontaneity and fantasy, its energy and unpredictability. Of Händel’s sonata repertoire, we heard vivid readings of Sonata in F major opus 2 no.4 and Recorder Sonata in B minor in which contrast, beauty of sound and brilliance of technique made for music-making that was vital and spirited.


I wish to mention some of the works in which pianist Amir Katz played. “Trios”, which took place on March 1st in the Tarshish Hall of the Dan Eilat Hotel, opened with Robert Schumann’s “Märchenbilder” (Fairytale Pictures) for viola and piano, opus 113. The set of vignettes composed in 1851 (subtly shaded with the early signs of Schumann’s approaching madness) and centred on the D tonalities (major and minor) was played by Lise Berthaud (France) and Amir Katz (Germany/Israel). In this delightful work, not frequently performed on the concert stage, the artists displayed much give and take and a good measure of fantasy. They used fragile understatement, inner sensibility and play of color; the magical escapism of the world of fairy tales was sensitively balanced with both the forthright- and submissive sides of the composer’s character (referred to by Schumann himself as Florestan and Eusebius).

This was followed by Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, performed by violinist Anton Barachovsky (Novosibirsk, Russia), ‘cellist François Salque (France) and Amir Katz (b. Ramat Gan, Israel). Creating a rich kaleidoscope of Romantic textures and moods, these three very fine artists wove together the threads of the work’s personal voice. Amir Katz opened the second movement with a solo infused with the delicate grace of what could easily have been one of the “Songs without Words”. The artists gave the Scherzo - fleet, capricious and devilishly virtuosic – a touch of the playful magic, as heard in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, this to be whisked away by the powerful rush of the final movement, at times orchestral in proportions, in which Katz dealt no less skillfully with its dizzying arpeggios and chromatic octaves as with the work’s lyricism. The performance brought together playing possessing freshness, ideas and total involvement.

Following the series of Beethoven sonatas he performed throughout Europe throughout last year, pianist Amir Katz is laying that specific repertoire aside to engage in recitals of Romantic music. In the festival’s Grand Finale, taking place in the Big Blue Hall on March 1st, Katz performed Frédéric Chopin’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no.2 with the Igor Lerman Chamber Orchestra from Russia (conductor - Igor Lerman) the resident orchestra for the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival. Chopin wrote his two piano concertos within a year, with Concerto no.2 in F minor actually written first; the composer was only 20 when he completed it. Following the long orchestral exposition of the opening Maestoso movement, Katz tempered the virtuosic piano part with a sense of well-being and poetry; filigree melodic strands, “hidden” voices and delicate details cascading forth were cushioned in the warmth of Chopinesque harmony. Orchestra and soloist struck a fine balance in the Larghetto movement, something of a Nocturne, Chopin’s delicate, dream-filled and limber melodies overlaid with sensual ornamentation that was never marred by excessive use of the sustaining pedal; here, we heard Katz producing some bewitching, glowing, bell-like piano colors. Resplendent with brilliance, the Allegro Vivace, with its piquant references to Polish dances, was not used as a vehicle for showmanship in Katz’s hands: passagework meant direction, with key changes ever shading the music differently.

Once again, the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival offered a fine variety of concerts and repertoire and the opportunity to hear some of today’s most interesting artists.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Dan Eilat Hotel as the venue for the Eilat Chamber Music Festival

The Dan Eilat Hotel

The 9th Eilat Chamber Music Festival took place at the Dan Hotel Eilat from February 24th to March 1st 2014. This was the second time the festival has been held at the Dan, a hotel of 375 rooms on Eilat’s north shore. Under the general- and artistic direction of Leonid Rozenberg, the Eilat Chamber Music Festival offered 14 concerts this year, its artists also running master classes for young musicians. Gilli Alon-Bitton of Carousel Artists Management and PR was artistic consultant and coordinator, with Yossi Schiffmann as presenter.

How is a resort hotel transformed to a classical music festival venue? I met with the Dan Eilat Hotel’s general manager Mr. Lior Mucznik on February 28th to discuss the question.

PH: What can you tell me about the Dan Eilat Hotel?

Lior Mucznik: The Dan Eilat is considered Israel’s number one vacation hotel today. The hotel has won several certificates of excellence and awards from several organizations, those including the Council for a Beautiful Israel. By the way, the Dan Eilat Hotel was listed as one of the 25 best vacation hotels of the Middle East, with the top ten being in Dubai. No other Israeli hotel made the list. An Israeli 5-star hotel right on the waterfront, with three pools of its own, the Dan Eilat caters to the Israeli- and overseas visitor, to families and to conference tourism. For obvious reasons, the summer is best suited to family vacationing. In other seasons we run events of a very different kind. The Dan is the main conference center in Eilat. As of the end of October up to February every year, we host a great number of conferences – medical conferences of all kinds, conferences for lawyers, accountants, insurance agents, biologists, solar energy specialists, hi-tech people, etc.

PH: What sections of the public interest you?

LM: We are interested in attracting many different sections of the community, one very specific group being the classical concert-going public.

PH: Do you host music festivals other than the Eilat Chamber Music Festival?

LM: No. But we take part in other Eilat festivals in that we accommodate guests attending them, whether it is the summer Eilat Jazz Festival or the Eilat Winter Jazz Festival.

PH: And the Eilat Chamber Music Festival?

LM: For some time, I have been aware that this is a festival of a superior standard, with high quality events. Two years ago, I took the decision to host the Eilat Chamber Music Festival here at the Dan Eilat. Last year’s festival, the first at the Dan, was in May in order to fit in with American actor John Malkovich’s schedule. He played in “The Infernal Comedy”, which was the main event of the 2013 festival. But May is somewhat problematic timewise, bordering on the summer season; because we need more rooms at the hotel for the Chamber Music Festival, I believe it should take place in the winter. So this year it was at the end of February and we can see how much more successful this timing is. (Next year’s will take place at the beginning of February.)

PH: What is the capacity of the halls?

LM: As concert venues, the Big Blue Hall seats some 500 people and the Tarshish Hall has 323 seats. We sold over 2000 concert tickets for the 2014 Eilat Chamber Music Festival!

PH: To Israeli- or overseas guests?

LM: To both. However, to encourage incoming overseas tourism, I have offered the concert tickets for free to overseas guests choosing to stay at the Dan. Some of these guests, of course, stay longer than the festival.

PH: How much of the hotel is occupied by festival-goers this week?

LM: That is difficult to estimate with any accuracy. I know how many people booked hotel-ticket packages through us, but there are other guests here who ordered concert their tickets separately. However, looking at our guests, it is obvious to me who the festival-goers are. What I can tell you is that, of the 375 rooms in the hotel, we kept 300 for those people attending the festival. The artists are accommodated at the Dan at our expense. There are no vacancies this week, meaning that, whatever the number of guests we have, the festival has attracted a great many people. I would estimate that more than 50% of the rooms are occupied by people here for the festival.

PH: I have noticed that there are many more concerts over the weekend than in the preceding days.

LM: Yes. Here we take into account the fact that people are freer to attend the festival over the weekend. It is a fact that there were considerably more festival guests from Thursday to Sunday.

PH: Have people living locally been buying tickets to the concerts?

LM: Most definitely.

PH: Would you like to talk about preparations made at the hotel for the festival?

LM: Yes. Prior to the festival, it takes a week to set up our two large halls – the Tarshish Hall and the larger Big Blue Hall – to build stages, to install risers. We need to prepare other rooms for the master classes as well as practice rooms for the artists. In the week set aside for setting up the halls as concert halls, we do not host conferences. Another aspect is the business of planning and marketing the festival, the packages, the special prices and the decision to keep many rooms reserved for festival-goers right up to the last moment. The festival centre is then set up here, as are ticket stands. We need ushers. Then there is the subject of catering and the printing up of new menus; the lobby menu, for example, takes on a more Viennese flavor, with Apfelstrudel and Sachertorte served. And, following the last evening concert each day, our chefs are there with hot soup, pastries, chocolates and wine for everyone. These post-concert spreads have been much appreciated by audiences. The festival ends with a cocktail party for the artists. All the above details come together within one week after months of planning.

PH: Do you bring in extra workers for the festival?

LM: No. We organize it using our own staff. Only when it comes to ushers, we do employ extra people in order to have enough of our security people manning the hotel.

PH: What about pianos?

LM: We have one piano in the hotel. More pianos are brought in for the duration of the festival. And, of course, there is also the importance of tuning them.

PH: Do you consider all of this profitable businesswise?

LM: That I really cannot say and it is not even our top priority in this case. But, as far as putting the Dan Hotel Eilat “on the map”, this is indeed an important and auspicious event.

I spoke to some of the festival audience members to hear their opinions on the festival and on the Dan Eilat as a concert venue. A couple from Tel Aviv – she a biochemist and he in the tourist business – was attending the festival for the third time. They have, however, stayed at the Dan Eilat several times. In Tel Aviv, they subscribe to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s concerts and the New Israeli Opera. Attending six concerts of the present festival, they were happy with the acoustics of the two Dan Hotel halls; with a tendency to back pain, she found the seats uncomfortable. Now attending the festival on a regular basis and full of enthusiasm for it, they mentioned their surprise at the fact that the festival was not highly publicized.

I approached a couple from Eilat. Both now retired, he is an engineer by profession and she worked in air travel. A keen music-lover, she remembers when there were no classical music events in the town. She now attends all classical music events in Eilat, most of them taking place at the Eilat Conservatory. She and her husband have been attending the festival from the day it started, this year choosing to hear two concerts. With a special love for chamber music, she finds the Big Blue Hall less friendly than the smaller, more intimate Tarshish Hall. Another Eilat resident seen at the concerts was Dutch-born Mrs. Agnes Brevet. A pianist, ‘cellist and flautist and teacher at the Eilat Conservatory, she and Leonid Rozenberg have spent much time exchanging ideas on the quality of Eilat’s musical life. Feeling that something was missing in the town’s cultural existence, Mrs. Brevet wanted to contribute to improving it. She contacted the Arnica Foundation in Holland and, with the support of this foundation, she and Rozenberg started the Eilat Chamber Music Festival nine years ago. She has remained involved in the festival ever since and has only praise for the Dan Eilat and for the wholehearted and generous way the hotel has taken the festival under its wing. Mrs. Brevet spoke of the halls at the Dan as, despite not being built as concert halls, being as good as any of the hotel halls the festival has used, and far superior to the Eilat Theatre.

A couple visiting from Manchester, U.K., combining a good-weather vacation with fine music, was attending the Eilat Chamber Music Festival for the third time. The two, he a lawyer and she a social worker, attend concerts and opera at home. Not staying at the Dan Hotel, they were attending five concerts of the festival. Referring back to when the festival took place at the poorly situated Eilat Theatre, the two were more than satisfied with the two Dan Hotel halls. Two other non-Israelis attending the festival were a journalist couple from Berlin, Germany. This was their first trip to Eilat. Regular concert-goers in Berlin, they had heard about the Eilat Chamber Music Festival from a Jerusalem friend and were surprised there had been so little publicity for the event. Staying at a hotel within walking distance of the Dan, they attended three concerts; they found the Dan Hotel halls to their liking and were impressed by the variety of musical events offered. “Trees, Walls, Cities” (the Brodsky Quartet with mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg)had left a strong impression on them.