Saturday, June 9, 2018

A richly imaginative production of Henry Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" at the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv

Photo: Yossi Zwecker

The Israeli Opera’s recent performances of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” brought together several Israeli artists and ensembles: Ensemble Barrocade, the Israeli Opera Chorus and soloists performed under the musical direction of Ethan Schmeisser. Stage director team Cecile Boussat and Julien Lubek, who directed, and designed the sets and costumes of “Dido and Aeneas” for the Opera de Rouen’s production of “Dido and Aeneas”, brought their creative production to Tel Aviv. This writer attended the performance at the New Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv, on June 3rd 2018. The all-Israeli line-up of vocal soloists (in this specific performance) comprised Anat Czarny-Dido, Oded Reich-Aeneas, Daniela Skorka-Belinda, Guy Mannheim-sorceress/ sailor, Moran Abouloff-Pick-2nd woman, Tali Ketzef & Nitzan Alon-enchantresses and Yaniv d’Or-spirit.


From its modest beginnings as a work composed for a girls’ boarding school run by Josias Priest in Chelsea, a work calling for a limited number of soloists, chorus and a few dancers (Josias Priest was the dancing master) “Dido and Aeneas laid the foundations for English opera and is today ranked among the most popular British lyrical works. However, due to the fact that the work’s dating is uncertain and that the original manuscript is lost, many questions regarding the work remain unanswered.  As to its librettist Nahum Tate, a negligible poet, Purcell kept only a part of his text, this taken from Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid”. With its astonishing economy of resources, one might refer to the work as a chamber opera, given its extreme brevity of three short acts, but it is the tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas in itself that inspired Purcell to write a work of strong emotions, offering the full range of dramatically intense feelings, those juxtaposing the conflict between duty and passion and resulting in the separation of the two lovers. The Queen of Carthage, abandoned by Aeneas, transcends her suffering by the beauty of her singing, before greeting the death she cannot escape after the hero leaves.


A number of features combined to make the Israeli Opera production of “Dido and Aeneas” enchanting. Possibly out of sight down in the orchestra pit but certainly not out of earshot were members of Ensemble Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, whose delicate, polished playing on period instruments from the very opening sounds of the French-, Lully-style overture (they later engaged in some Baroque-style improvising) imbued the performance with an aura of delicacy, elegance and authenticity.  Placed behind the instrumentalists were singers of the Israeli Opera Chorus. Their crucial contribution to the opera, participating in the denouement of the action, taking on multiple roles - of cupids, courtiers, huntsmen and witches - was carried out with splendid articulacy, timbral beauty and stylistic competence.


As to the soloists, here was a production rich in home-grown talent. Mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny gave a sensitive and convincing portrayal of the ill-fated Dido alongside baritone Oded Reich’s compelling, bold and tender handling of the role of Aeneas. Soprano Daniela Skorka was well cast as Dido’s sympathetic handmaid Belinda. A whimsical touch was the portrayal of the sorcerer as a giant octopus seated atop a craggy rock at sea, the part appropriately assigned to tenor Guy Mannheim. Then there were the enchantresses Tali Ketzef and Nitzan Alon, here in the guise of mermaids, descending from the ceiling on flying rigs. Intermittently, the stage was alive with dainty, young, Elizabethan-style female dancers and some wonderful acrobats, the latter at times portraying dark, slimy sea creatures; then in Act III, we see the same artists scampering up and down the ropes of Aeneas’ ship like the best of sailors. And then there was sylph-like acrobat Aya Dayan, suspended on a ring high above the stage, defying gravity and charming the audience with her repertoire of delicate dance movements.  With their background of mime, drama, acrobatics, dance and illusion, Cecile Boussat and Julien Lubek present staging that is imaginative and magical, with its seascapes of a myriad of blues, of waters inhabited by mermaids, the mauve shell serving as a safe refuge for the lovers in better times, as well as several humorous effects. And, finally, following Czarny’s poignant, finely crafted and richly ornamented rendition of Dido’s Lament, the stage is plunged into darkness and candles are extinguished one by one, depicting the Queen of Carthage’s tragic end. All that remains is for the chorus to request the "cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart”.


Kudos to the producers, to Maestro Ethan Schmeisser and to the many, many artists and opera team members whose performance presented a fine balance between drama, fantasy and Henry Purcell’s sublime music.

Photo: Yossi Zwecker


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

American pianist Gilbert Kalish performs with students and friends at the Jerusalem Academy of Music

Gilbert Kalish: lower row, fourth from left. Photo: Lea Agmon
In May 2018, New York-born pianist Gilbert Kalish held a week of master classes in Jerusalem. Leading professor and Head of Performance Activities at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Kalish (b.1935) was a founding member of the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble and is known for his partnerships with other artists, in particular for his thirty-year collaboration with mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, but also with ‘cellists Timothy Eddy and Joel Krosnick and soprano Dawn Upshaw. In “Gilbert Kalish and Friends”, a concert on May 23rd in the Navon Hall of the Jerusalem Academy Conservatory, his partners in works for four hands were all ex-students of his, besides one current student. Hosted by the  Edward Aldwell Center for Piano Performance and Musicianship in Jerusalem (director: Lea Agmon), Prof. Kalish referred to performing with six of his students (as well as his granddaughter) as a “dream come true”. The concert was organized by Dr. Dror Semmel, head of the Piano Department of the Jerusalem Academy Conservatory.

The program opened with Gilbert Kalish and Dror Semmel’s playing of Franz Schubert’s Fantasie in F-minor for piano 4 hands D.940. One of the great masterpieces of ensemble piano repertoire, Schubert completed the Fantasie early in 1828, premiering it with his friend  composer Franz Lachner shortly before his death later that year.  A highly satisfying performance, Semmel and Kalish gave expression to the work’s noble inner richness, its stormy moments and its elegiac tenderness, to the characteristic Schubertian major-minor shifts, the use of ornamental trills and, of course, to the haunting, affecting melody that opens the work heard over a murmuring accompaniment, possibly even more moving when it returned after the massive climax towards the end of the work, then to be followed by its agonized, dissonant parting. And, on the subject of teacher and pupil, Schubert dedicated the work to Karoline Esterhazy (the daughter of his one time patron, the Duke of Esterhazy) with whom he had played for countless hours when he employed as her private piano teacher for some years.

A more recent student of Kalish, Guy Slapak joined his teacher to perform Igor Stravinsky’s “Five Easy Pieces” for piano four hands (1916-17). Each inspired by different cultures, Stravinsky wrote the five miniatures for his children. Despite their being considered early examples of 20th-century Gebrauchsmusik (music for use) ­ for home music-making or for pedagogical purposes (the composer even referred to them as “popcorn”), the pieces bristle with character, interest and imaginative piano textures. With Guy Slapak taking on the (highly complex) lower role - that of the teacher -  the audience enjoyed the colour, wit and occasional  boisterous energy of the vignettes that take the listener on a whirlwind trip of Europe, with No.3  “Balalaika” (the composer’s favourite) attesting to Stravinsky’s own cultural background.

Michal Tal was Gilbert’s first Israeli student some 30 years ago. Introducing their playing of Ravel’s one-piano duet version of Claude Debussy’s symphonic poem “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un Faune”, Kalish spoke of the importance of the Debussy work as a “window into the 20th century”. Ravel had limitless admiration for Debussy's famous orchestral work, going so far as to say in an interview that it was his innermost wish to die to the sounds of this “unique marvel in the whole of music”. Ravel’s arrangement, abounding with technical challenges and acrobatic hand-crossing, presented no stumbling block to the two pianists, whose flexed playing and generous use of the sustaining pedal were suggestive of the work’s exotic, lush agenda, and there was no lack of interest in their performance. For me, the piano’s timbres failed to create the poem’s dreamy, otherworldly bitter-sweet atmosphere suggestive of Mallarmé’s subtle sensuality and imagery as when played by the woodwinds and harp with idiomatic French transparency in Debussy’s orchestral setting.

Shir Semmel, a current student of Gilbert Kalish, joined her teacher in four of György Kurtág's miniatures for four hands. Kalish talked of the composer performing his own transcriptions and original piano pieces together with his wife Márta. At the Jerusalem concert, we heard three transcriptions of Bach chorale preludes. Playing the primo (upper role), Shir Semmel’s rendition was beautifully sculpted, at times majestic, at others, poignant, the arrangements of Bach’s chorale melodies all stamped with  Kurtág's own discrete ornamentation and invention, as in  “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit” (“God’s time is the best time”), the opening Sinfonia from  Cantata 106, “Actus Tragicus”. Dark-toned, both sparse and intense, “Hommage à Sebok”, one of Kurtág's memorial pieces, was given a sensitive and personal reading with Ms. Semmel taking time to form each small gesture. Referring to his musical credo, Kurtág wrote;  "I am always on a journey in search of brevity; I want to discover the maximum possible density of expression by means of the minimum possible sound."

Then to works for two pianos: Gilbert Kalish was joined by Tomer Lev to perform the Romanza from Rachmaninoff’s  Suite No.2 Op.17, a virtuosic work of rich and bold sonorities. With its title evocative of the movement's emotional qualities, here was a performance that was genial, rich in spontaneity, communicative and wholehearted in its presentation of sweeping lines of ravishing Romantic melodiousness. Fadi Deeb has recently returned to Israel following his studies with Kalish at Stony Brook. Deeb and his teacher performed two movements of Olivier  Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen”, a work for two pianos written by Messiaen in 1943, shortly after his release from a prisoner-of-war camp. Infused with the composer’s deep religious belief, it  also represents the first of his many collaborations with Ms. Loriod (his student, who was to become his second wife.) Almost inaudibly, with the “Amen of Creation” beginning with  eerie, highly-pedalled bell effects, the artists took the listener through the piece’s astounding process of clanging carillon sounds, as it spiralled into a scene of  sparkling ecstacy and awe, enlisting the pianos’ full registers, and on a grand, orchestral scale. The work’s final meditation, the “Judgement Amen”, as its title infers, emerged weighty and uncompromising, its bassy clusters and monumental explosions daunting. This is definitely music to be experienced in the concert hall. With true dedication and involvement, and not only regarding the work’s thorny technical demands, Kalish and Deeb presented the pieces’ gripping atmosphere of spiritual exaltation and transcendence.

The concert concluded with W.A.Mozart’s Piano Quartet in E flat major K.493. This time, Gilbert Kalish was joined by friends - violinist Miriam Fried, ‘cellist Hillel Zori - and his granddaughter violist Becky Kalish. In playing abounding in colour, expressiveness, joy and wit offering all artists plenty of personal say in playing that seemed to emanate effortlessly from under their fingers, many outstandingly eloquent moments were provided by Miriam Fried. Here was Mozart the humanist and the experimentalist in the hands of fine chamber music players.

Introducing- and performing in each work of the long and varied program, Prof. Kalish is indeed a teacher and artist of dedication and stamina.


Monday, May 21, 2018

A tribute to Leonard Bernstein - Stanley Sperber conducts the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music at the 53rd Abu Gosh Festival

Photo: Rochelle Elbaz

The Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival takes place twice a year in and around Abu Gosh, a town located 16 kilometers west of Jerusalem on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. The 53rd Abu Gosh Festival (May 18th-20th, 2018) opened with “Angels Singing” at the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant on May 18th. Performed by the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance under its director Stanley Sperber, the concert commemorated 100 years of the birth of Leonard Bernstein.


The program included some short works of Israeli composers. With the choir members standing in the two side aisles, the program opened with Israeli composer Paul Ben Haim’s choral setting of Psalm 121, its autumnal harmonies splendidly woven into a sensitive reading of the piece. Matityahu Shalem’s arrangement of “Simchu-Na” (Rejoice) for choir and piano (Irina Lunkevich) took one back to the early Israeli kibbutz-oriented hora repertoire, largely forgotten in today’s choral repertoire. In Yehezkel Braun’s playful a-cappella setting for men’s voices of “Vayimalet Cain” (Then Cain Fled) (text: Yaakov Shabtai), the singers presented the piece’s narrative in an engaging and vivid manner. Especially appealing were the “comments” of tenor soloist Michael Bachner.


The program also included four sections from Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols”. Scored for three-part boys’ (or women’s) choir, soloist and harp, Britten wrote the Christmas work during World War II on a perilous journey crossing the Atlantic in 1942 aboard a cargo ship. Some of the carols are in Latin and some, in Middle English, are based on poems from the 15th and 16th centuries. The ladies of the Academy Choir produced the appropriate bright, pure vocal timbres Britten would have envisaged when writing for boys’ voices, from the forthright strident gestures of “Wolcom Yole”, to their tranquil and tender treatment of “There is no rose”, to Inbal Brill’s poignant singing in the major-minor “Balulalow” lullaby, to the urgency and triumphant singing of the canonic “This little babe”. Maria Golberg’s playing of the splendid harp role was supportive, spirited and satisfying.


Then to works of Leonard Bernstein, the first of which being the entertaining “Warm-Up” (1970), a jaunty round for mixed choir used in Bernstein's Mass. The choir also performed some numbers from “West Side Story”: a delicate reading of “Somewhere”, its lush harmonies sprinkled with the occasional Bernstein dissonance, to “Tonight”, its hearty text coloured with just a hint of melancholy, the buoyant, carefree and breezy singing of “I feel Pretty” and an effervescent, upbeat performance of “America”, whose solos were suitably imbued with a South American twang.


Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” (1964) strike a very different chord. A commission for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival (UK) from such an eclectic composer as Bernstein, it is not surprising that its definite modernist techniques mingle with the composer’s signature popular sounds in an ode to diverse influences. The work incorporates Jewish biblical verses (Psalms sung in the Hebrew language) into a work inspired by Christian choral tradition and singing conventions, setting originally secular Broadway melodies to sacred texts. Sperber and his singers presented the work’s complexity and intensity on a confrontational, uncompromising and vigorous canvas. Making clear its background of personal struggle, the work’s powerful but undeniably optimistic message is ever present. 14-year-old Nimrod Werber, joined by harp in the second movement, showed fine musicality, excellent intonation and also poise on stage. The performance left the listener deep in his own thoughts as the serene finale, closing the work with the concept of mankind living in harmony - “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” concluded with an almost-whispered Amen, its final “n” nevertheless rendered sonorous.


The Academy Chamber Choir’s polished rendition of two spirituals (soloists: Maria Liubman, Michal Tamari) was yet another reminder of the ensemble’s musicality, fine diction, precision and attention to detail, all contributing to music-making of an outstanding quality, and with much joy, under the guidance of Maestro Stanley Sperber.


Sunday, May 20, 2018

Flautist Roy Amoz joins members of the Carmel Quartet for an evening of salon music at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Roy Amotz,Rachel Ringelstein,Yonah Zur,Tami Waterman (photo:Chana Avni)

“The Magic Flute”, Concert No.4 of the Carmel Quartet’s 2017-2018 Strings and More Series, deviated from the usual format of the Carmel Quartet explained concert series. First of all, the quartet’s director and violist Dr. Yoel Greenberg was not present, with guest flautist Roy Amotz making up the quartet and violinist Yonah Zur, joined by Rachel Ringelstein (on viola this time) and ‘cellist Tami Waterman, took on the role of guiding the audience through the concert’s works. Roy Amotz also gave a short explanation on the Baroque flute and its modern counterpart. This writer attended the English-language event on May 16th 2018 at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim in the magical Yemin Moshe quarter.


Yonah Zur’s commentary focused on the role of the flute and the stylistic developments accompanying it in chamber music from the time of J.S.Bach to that of W.A.Mozart. The concert opened with Roy Amotz’ reflective and finely chiselled playing of the Prelude from Bach’s Partita in A-minor for solo flute BWV 1013, played on the Baroque flute. Zur then spoke of German viol player Carl Friedrich Abel’s connection with the Bach family, from when he went to stay with them as a 13-year-old, to when he moved to London in 1758, where he and the youngest Bach son Johann Christian were court musicians, establishing their own concert series, providing a stage for their own works and those of others. Relevant to this concert program was the fact that Abel knew J.J.Quantz, who wrote extensively for the flute. Quantz was in the employ of Frederick the Great: the king himself was a keen amateur flautist. In his writing, Abel rejected the academic Bach approach to music in favour of the more instantly accessible galant style, its charm and melodiousness obvious in the artists’ playing of Abel’s Flute Quartet in B-flat major op.8 no.2, charming salon music of no great drama or complexity, but, in the hands of fine players, performed with colour and balance...certainly, music to delight.


Arriving in London with his father, eight-year-old Mozart took lessons with Abel and J.C.Bach. Years later, at age 22 in Mannheim, Mozart wrote to his father that he “couldn’t bear” the flute. This statement might have been made when he was struggling to fulfill a commission from a wealthy Dutch amateur musician for numerous flute works. Who knows if the composer was also not put off by the playing of some of the flautists he heard around him - the single-keyed instrument of his time demanded much skill to be played in tune. Yet, Mozart wrote well for the instrument, as we heard in the two of his quartets performed at the Carmel Quartet concert, the artists devoting attention to dynamics, shape and small gestures, as Amotz led with natural grace. It is clear that Mozart endowed the flute with concerto-like prominence in the opening movement of the Allegro of Flute Quartet in D-major K.285, to be followed by the especially alluring Adagio, its flute role of Elysian beauty played with poignancy against the pizzicato strings. Referring to Flute Quartet in C-major K.258b, composed a mere three years after the D-major, Yonah Zur reminded the audience that Mozart had mainly been known as an opera composer in his lifetime and that this work indeed bears some operatic traits. In the opening Allegro, the players’ polished playing brought out its moods and small dramas, topped off by Amotz’ breathtaking delicacy of sound. In the second movement, a theme and six variations, there was much personal utterance, as the variations highlighted different instruments and their players, perhaps as opera characters performing solos and duets. Zur spoke of the work as being “sophisticated with a veneer of simplicity”.


And to the Haydn brothers -  Joseph, who became a court composer and Michael, who ended up in Salzburg as an organist. Michael Haydn, writing in the galant style, was close to Mozart, although it seems there was also some competition between them. The artists performed Michael Haydn’s small Flute Quartet in D-major P117, its vivacious and sparkling opening Andante con variazione characterized by the decidedly challenging flute part. The Rondo presto assai movement, bristling with good cheer and whimsical comments, abounded in Haydnesque humour. Joseph Haydn, always aware of what music was in demand, wrote the Trios Hob. IV:1-4 (1794-5) for two flutes (or flute, violin) and ‘cello (London Trios) at a time when the flute was extraordinarily popular among amateurs on the bustling London musical scene. Flute Trio in G-major Hob. IV:2, (performed here by Zur, Amotz and Waterman), proved that replacing the second flute with a violin brought out the work’s inventiveness in no lesser way, its ebullience challenging the technique of all the players most agreeably.


In repertoire ranging from early- to contemporary music, Jerusalem-born Roy Amotz performs worldwide as a soloist and ensemble member. He is currently principal flute of the Geneva Camerata and a member of the Meitar Ensemble, an Israeli group performing and recording modern music. Yonah Zur’s commentary throughout the evening was articulate, informative and definitely entertaining.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Tel Aviv Collegium Singers, the Israel Brass Quintet and organist Aviad Stier perform at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Photo: Uri Zur

The Tel Aviv Collegium Singers (director/conductor: Yishai Steckler), Aviad Stier (organ) and the Israel Brass Quintet joined forces to present “Life and Death Experience - a Journey through the Liturgical Music of England & France”. The concert took place on May 12th 2018 at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem.
The program opened with Aviad Stier’s resourceful and focused performance of William Byrd’s Fantasy in A-minor, its many different sections proceeding in a rapid flow of quasi-improvisatory ideas. Then, to a number of Romantic choral works, the first being Edward Elgar’s 3 Motets, Op.2 (1887) - Ave Verum Corpus, Ave Maria and Ave Maris Stella - for soloist, mixed chorus and organ. Adding to the choir’s finely-blended timbre and highly dynamic singing was soloist soprano Sarah Even Haim’s calm, articulate and tasteful singing. Not one of Elgar’s more frequently performed works, its deep spirituality throughout and compositional style show the composer to have been a highly skilled and expressive composer of sacred choral music.
Gabriel Fauré’s “Messe basse” (Low Mass), the French analogue of the Missa brevis, was written originally for the village church of Villerville in Normandy. The final version, heard at this Jerusalem concert, written for upper voices, soloist and organ, is one of the few existing settings of the Mass for female voices and organ. Once again, Sarah Even Haim featured as soloist. Fauré’s “Cantique de Jean Racine”, composed when the composer was twenty years old, is very much a precursor to the Requiem, with similarly lush, intense choral writing layered on top of its sparse organ accompaniment. Clearly inspired by the work’s beauty and delicacy, Steckler and his singers’ reading of it offered musical phrases of graceful archlike contours hovering above solemn harmonies. The work displays Fauré’s skilful blending of the French chanson genre and the liturgical motet, enhancing and underscoring Racine's sacred text.
Known for his operas and his popular “Ave Maria”, one is not always aware of the fact that Charles Gounod had written hundreds of vocal and choral sacred works. Accompanied by Aviad Stier on organ, the choir’s performance of Gounod’s restrained but lavish “Ave Verum Corpus” (1879) was beautifully shaped, direct and appealing and indicative of Gounod’s deep religious piety. Also well presented was César Franck’s setting of the Latin communion hymn “Panis Angelicus” (1872), one of the composer’s most enduring and most frequently arranged vocal pieces, its straightforward and lyrical melody set above a subtle and complex counterpoint.
Digressing from the concert’s French/English theme, the Israel Brass Quintet took the audience to Baroque Germany and Italy, opening with Contrapunctus IX from J.S.Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, the players’ lively interaction and clearly defined melodic lines making for an exciting performance of the challenging double fugue. Samuel Scheidt’s “Battle Suite” (1621), actually three separate pieces often performed as a group, was originally written for five viols, but Scheidt himself indicated that it could be performed on other instruments. As to the work’s possible programmatic content, it seems that the trumpets (Guy Sarig, Yuval Shapiro) represent the two battling sides in the “Galliard Battaglia”. The “Courant Dolorosa”, indeed dolorous, was given a tender and profound performance, the piece’s slower tempo allowing for some genial ornamentation. As to the joyful “Canzona Bergamasca”, the final piece, the artists highlighted its vivid play of imitation in some dramatic musical language. An impressive choice for this fine ensemble. Then, to Italian Jewish court composer Salamone Rossi’s (Hebrew) setting of Psalm 8. Rossi was the composer of the only extant collection of polyphonic music for the synagogue (Hashirim Asher Lish’lomo) to appear in print before the 19th century. Despite the absence of the verbal text in the Israel Brass Quintet’s rendition, the members created a performance that was beautifully crafted, pensive, expressive and luxuriant.
The concert ended with the Israel Brass Quintet joining the Tel Aviv Collegium Singers and Stier to perform Henry Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary”. For her funeral ceremony in March 1695, Purcell composed a brass canzona and the anthem “Thou know'st, Lord”, the ceremonial music also including previously-composed material, including two funeral anthems. For the Jerusalem concert, the brass quintet, together with choir assistant Itay Berkovich on drum, was located in an upper gallery of the church. The quintet’s uncompromising and majestic  brass playing (the work’s majestic and impactful character endorsed by the drum) was punctuated by the choir’s contemplative, devout and occasionally vehement singing of the funeral texts, their spirit anguished when not serene and reflective. Via diction that was articulate, the singers gave expression to the work’s tragic meaning and message. Queen Mary had been one of England's most beloved monarchs and her death from smallpox just after Christmas of 1694 plunged the nation into genuine grief.
“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and ne'er continueth in one stay” (Book of Common Prayer, Order for the Burial of the Dead)
Maestro Steckler and the artists gave a gripping performance of one of the English Baroque’s most heartfelt and melancholy works.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

The St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra performs Shostakovich's Symphony No.7 at the Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv

Maestro Yuri Temirkanov (photo: Stas Levshin)

In Israel for festive concerts, the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra played two different programs of Russian music at the Charles Cultural Center (Heichal Hatarbut) Tel Aviv on May 9th and 10th 2018. Both programs were conducted by Yuri Temirkanov, who has served as the Orchestra’s chief conductor for the last 30 years. This writer attended the event of May 9th; the program consisting solely of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 “Leningrad”, a work originally intended to be a celebration of the Russian victory over Nazi Germany in the Great Patriotic War (as Russians call it). May 9th is indeed the date of Victory Day. It was also Maestro Temirkanov’s wish to perform in Israel with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in honour of 70 years of the State of Israel.


There could be few works in Western musical repertoire that have a history as dramatic as the Shostakovich 7th. Its first full performance was in Leningrad (St Petersburg) in August of 1942 and played by a half-starved Radio Orchestra, of which only fourteen players had survived. Dzaudhat Aydarov, who (symbolically) played the most demanding role in the symphony -  the side drum that beats the relentless rhythm of war at the heart of the first movement - was discovered still alive in the morgue by conductor Karl Eliasberg. Other stories of heroism and humanity associated with the “Leningrad” Symphony have been revealed by the moving accounts of Olga Kvade and Tamara Korol’kevich, who were in the audience in the Grand Hall of the Philharmonia at its premiere; the music surely reflected the tragedy and suffering of their own experiences in the siege. The symphony also resonates Shostakovich’s propaganda power as a Soviet composer, writing the sounds of resistance to the Nazis at the same time as he was saving the Leningrad Conservatory from German incendiary bombs as a firefighter on the roof of the building; his picture in fireman’s uniform appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in the summer of 1942, as the 7th Symphony embarked on a tour of a war-torn world.


And that is not where the symphony’s history ended: the work itself has undergone a battering at the hands of known figures of the musical community, from when American critic and composer Virgil Thomson claimed that the symphony “seems to have been written for the slow-witted, the not very musical and the distracted” to contemporary British composer and writer Robin Holloway, who has described Shostakovich’s writing as “music to rouse rabble, to be seen from far away like slogans in letters 30 feet high, music without inner musical necessity”. Yuri Temirkanov’s profound and sensitive reading into Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony proved much to the contrary. In his unforgettable Tel Aviv performance of the “Leningrad”, Maestro Temirkanov showed the audience that, when its melody appears the most banal, as the innocent but stealthy tune that pervades the first movement, it represents how the most mediocre and unthinking idea – or person – can inflict the greatest devastation. Shostakovich was revealing the truth of all ideological tyrannies. The composer himself said that one of its themes was “Fascism. But music, real music, can never be literally tied to a theme. National Socialism is not the only form of fascism; this music is about all forms of terror, slavery, the bondage of the spirit.” By the end of the work, it was clear to those present at the Tel Aviv performance that victory is hard won, by no means emerging in an idyllic state.


The St. Petersburg Philharmonic is a huge orchestra, but the Tel Aviv audience, of which many people were from the former Soviet Union, was witness to how over one hundred instrumentalists play as one. Their joint precision is as remarkable, indeed arresting, as is their expressiveness and collective orchestral sound. Conducting without a baton, Temirkanov coloured each tutti with his full palette of dynamics. The many solo utterances emerged personal and nostalgic, evoking loneliness and silence, in superbly shaped melodies that represent the individual human. The conductor invited his players to present the agony, the memories, the dreams, anger and the bitterness of the people, its sentiments not devoid of Shostakovich’s signature cynicism. It was common knowledge among Russians that their greatest living composer had written a symphony in support of their heroic resistance. Whether this work is optimistic or pessimistic is for the listener to decide. Hearing it performed by Maestro Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra was a moving, for many present, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It is no easy task to follow such a work with an encore, but Maestro Temirkanov and his orchestra managed to do so and with refinement: "Nimrod" from Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations" made for a tranquil, ponderous and poignant finishing touch to the evening.



Thursday, May 10, 2018

Trio Noga performs works of European composers and premieres a new Israeli work

Maggie Cole, Idit Shemer, Orit Messer-Jacobi (photo:Lilach Waise Engelrod)

Trio Noga - Idit Shemer flute, Orit Messer-Jacobi ’cello and Maggie Cole (USA/UK) piano - has just completed another concert tour of Israel. Together with people of many local communities and visitors to Jerusalem, this writer attended the event at St. John’s Chapel of the Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City. Guests were welcomed by Prof.Hartmut Rohrmeyer, the Redeemer Church’s new director of music.


The concert opened with Joseph Haydn’s Piano trio in E-flat major H.XV:29, thought to have been written during one of the composer’s visits to London, to be performed in the drawing rooms and parlours of the elite English, venues which served as locales for his chamber music. One of three piano trios representing his last comments on the genre, Haydn dedicated the work to the highly-regarded London-based German pianist Therese Jansen Bartolozzi. A work especially challenging for the pianist, it becomes clear from the opening Poco Allegro movement that Haydn composed the trio with a solid knowledge of what the piano of his day could accomplish, with the flute here sharing some of the spotlight with the piano. Particularly enjoyable was Maggie Cole’s illumination of the piece’s improvisatory character. Following the artists’ rich, sympathetic reading of the tranquil Andantino ed innocentemente, a song-like vehicle for the piano (in the distant key of  B-major) with a stormy centre, the artists gave expression to each of the effervescent musical ideas of the Finale surging past in quick succession, with Cole presently slowing things down to take emotional stock before the tightly knit trio paid tribute to folk music, capitalising on vitality of spirit.


With Trio Noga’s interest in promoting contemporary Israeli music, we heard the world premiere of Irena Svetova’s “Venetian Drafts”. Present at the event, the composer spoke of the fact that everyone makes his acquaintance with Venice, a city with a complicated history, in his own personal way. She spoke of the five pieces making up the work as “reflections” rather than “visual images”. In the first piece, “Arrival in Venice”, the shimmering piano part invites long phrases from flute and ‘cello, together producing a splendid collage. “Roughness” is an imposing piece, somewhat daunting, its heavy piano footsteps and dark countenance then to be swept away by the gently lilting “Frozen Beauty”, its nevertheless solid anchor giving rise to light timbres, as evoked by flute and piano. “Abandoned Ghetto” starts out with flute and ‘cello playing in fifths, then sometimes in dialogue, at others in separate gestures, with minimal, spasmodic piano comments...a mood piece, approached sensitively by all three artists, its ponderous character also conveyed via generous amounts of the sustaining pedal. As the last movement “The Secret of Venice” draws to a close, its canvas a mosaic reminiscent of the former movements, we are left with just an echo of the musical vignettes whose soundscapes have fired the imagination. A fine piece of writing, Svetova’s new work, suggestive and appealing and not totally divorced from tonality, is subtle, appealing to the senses. Members of the Noga Trio gave it a profound and dedicated reading. Moscow-born Irena Svetova immigrated to Israel in 1991. Her oeuvre includes chamber music, choral- and orchestral music, music for theatre and for young musicians. Her works have been performed in Russia, Europe and Israel.


Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837), a celebrated Austrian pianist and composer straddling the Classical- and Romantic periods, was a huge figure in his time. His Adagio, Variations and Rondo on a Russian Theme, Op 78, published in 1818, reflect his involvement with opera, of which he composed fifteen.  This charming work, in three movements, published in 1818, uses a sad Ukrainian folk song called 'Schõne Minka' (Pretty Minka). The Schõne Minka theme was very popular in Vienna around 1814, so much so that a competition was sponsored by a Viennese music publisher for the best set of variations on the theme. Several important composers entered the competition but it is not known who actually won.


Hummel’s work opens with a slow, cantabile introduction, leading to the Pretty Minka tune that becomes the source of a series of seven variations, each a new treatment of the theme. The variations alternate between major and minor tonalities. We are reminded that Hummel was one of the leading piano virtuosos of the day: the second variation is a virtual piano solo, and the third, fifth and last variations unleash pyrotechnic displays. In the sixth variation, the piano tremolo chords under the cello and flute melodies, evoking the sound of a dulcimer. A work of much charm and colour, Trio Noga’s performance of it was vivid and entertaining. It is to be hoped that Hummel’s works will be heard more on today’s concert platforms.


The concert concluded with two movements of French composer Jean Françaix’ Trio for Flute, ‘Cello, & Piano (1995). Not a familiar figure to many concert-goers here, Françaix (1912-1997) wrote more than 200 pieces, including operas and other works for the stage and for film; orchestral- and chamber works; instrumental solos, choruses and vocal solos; he also made orchestrations of pieces by French composers. Written when the composer was 85, the trio is, nevertheless, typical of Françaix’ style - transparent, fresh, defiant of bar-lines, jazzy at times, humorous and, of course, refreshingly French and transparent. The Noga players took and gave delight in the cheerful divertimento-like work’s effects and surprises, all well anchored within the composer’s masterful contrapuntal and harmonic skills. Of the illusive nature of his music, the composer himself wrote: “I wish to be honest: when I am composing, the finest theories are the last things that come to mind. My interest is not primarily attracted by the ‘motorways of thought’, but more the ‘paths through the woods’.


Trio Noga’s outstanding players offered a rich and varied musical program, also introducing each work to the audience. Not just a tranquil and beautiful venue for an evening of chamber music, St. John’s Chapel also has excellent acoustics.