Thursday, October 8, 2015

Notes from from the October 2015 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Stanley Sperber
“Sacred Service – Ernest Bloch” was the title given to a concert on October 3rd 2015 at the 48th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. Taking place in the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Ye’arim, 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem, the concert featured the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, conducted by its musical director Prof. Stanley Sperber, with  alto Avital Dery as soloist in the Bloch work.

Prior to the performance of Bloch’s “Sacred Service”, the choir sang a number of short pieces representing a number  of Israel’s finest composers, opening with some of the choir’s repertoire of Sabbath songs:  Gil Aldema’s (1928-2014) arrangement of two traditional Sabbath songs “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace be upon you), “Tzur Mishelo” (The Lord, our rock, whose food we have eaten) and Yehezkel Braun’s arrangement of Mordechai  Zeira’s (1905-1968) “L’cha  dodi” (Come, my beloved, to meet the bride).  Lining both side aisles of the church, the singers welcomed festival-goers with singing that was unforced, clean, direct and so rewarding.  They captured the mystery and exotic flavor of Oedoen Partos’ (1907-1977) setting of the Sephardic traditional melody “HaMavdil” (The One who separates), traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Sabbath.  In Yehezkel Braun’s arrangement of the oriental melody to the medieval poetic text “Dror Yikra” (He will proclaim freedom) the singers gave expression to the piece’s antiphonal style, concluding it with a spirited dance, the darbuka  drum joining the dance.

As a young musician, Swiss composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) took the decision to write “Jewish rhapsodies for orchestra, Jewish poems, dances, mostly, poems for voice”.  This he did. It was during his time as director of the San Francisco Conservatory (1925-1930) that he befriended Cantor Reuben Rinder of the Temple Emanuel Reform Congregation, resulting in the commission to write “Avodath Hakodesh” (Sacred Service) for baritone, chorus and orchestra (or piano or organ).  In preparation for the task, Bloch spent a year studying synagogue music and the Hebrew texts used for Saturday morning services, subsequently composing the work over three years on his return to Switzerland in the early 1930s. The work consists of five sections, breaking down into 26 pieces.  In the Abu Gosh Festival performance we heard the role of cantor sung by alto Avital Dery, with Boris Zobin playing the organ. In the  choir and soloist’s  alternating and interweaving  throughout many of the movements, the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir and Dery struck a fine balance, with all choral strands articulate musically and diction-wise.  Maestro Sperber and his singers showed the listener through the work’s agenda, from drama and tension to brighter optimism, from meditation to intense choral exclamation, traversing strategically placed and thought-provoking dissonances to reach the final tranquility of the major-infused Benediction. Sperber’s direction was rich in sensitive shaping of phrases as it held the work’s tension throughout, giving meaning and immediacy to transitions from section to section in Bloch’s conglomerate process, to that of the service itself and to the work’s underlying message of  both strength and fragility.  In singing that was secure, articulate and expressive, the choir highlighted the beauty and subtleties of Bloch’s choral writing. At ease and addressing her audience, Avital Dery’s singing was profound, engaging, intelligent and balanced, her large, richly-timbred and mellow voice finding its way with ease through the text and to all corners of the church. Boris Zobin’s organ-playing added both presence and to the spiritual eloquence of the piece.  Altogether, this was an outstanding and moving performance of the work that Bloch himself referred to as a “cosmic poem…a dream of stars, of forces…amidst the rocks and forests in the great silence…”


David Sebba
Also taking place at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church on October 3rd was “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” works by Pergolesi and Puccini, performed by members of the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio with its musical director David Sebba at the piano. The Meitar Opera Studio, a practical study and performance program for young opera singers who have completed studies at music academies, provides the singers with a stepping stone into a full-fledged opera career.

Following four movements from Giovanni Battista  Pergolesi’s “Magnificat”, the program consisted mostly of solos, offering the audience the opportunity to hear several budding young opera singers, first in works of Pergolesi:  mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny in her rich, fresh and effortlessly musical singing of the charming song warning of love’s pitfalls (attributed to Pergolesi) “Se tu m’ami” (If you love me), soprano Tal Ganor’s exciting, dramatic and highly operatic approach in “Tu me da me divide” (You rend me from myself), in which  Aristea laments the cruelty of her lover from Act 2 of “L’Olimpiade”, and soprano  Galina Khlyzova’s theatrical  and well contrasted  performance of  “Stizzoso mio stizzoso” (Irascible, my irascible)  from “La serva padrona” (The Maid as Mistress). In “Lo conosco” from the same opera, Tal Ganor and baritone Yair Polishook   highlighted the contrasts between Serpina’s insistant “si, si, si” and Uberto’s equally obstinate “no, no, no” in true opera buffa whimsy.  The Pergolesi section of the concert ended with soprano Tali Ketzeff’s rich, focused, devotional and highly expressive singing of one of the composer’s two “Salve Regina” settings, music composed during the suffering of Pergolesi’s final months.

The connection between Pergolesi and Giacomo Puccini (two Italian composers, but therein ends the resemblance) was made via the same Marian hymn text – “Salve Regina”. (Puccini was the fourth generation of a family of church musicians, playing the church organ, his early forays into composition being with sacred works.) Following soprano Nofar Jacobi’s sensitive and involved presentation of Puccini’s “Salve Regina”, we heard Yair Polishook’s richly shaped and expressive performance of the “Crucifixus” from Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria”.  And then to Puccini’s operatic repertoire: soprano Efrat Vulfsons and tenor Osher Sebbag’s communicative and furtively tender  presentation  of the duet  between Rodolfo and Mimi “O soave fanciulla” (O sweet little lady)  from “La Bohème” , soprano  Irene Alhazov’s appealing  singing of “Dondo lieta” (Whence happy leaving) Mimi’s fond farewell to Rodolfo from the same opera, soprano  Tali Ketzef’s  convincing and finely controlled  rendition of “Chi il bel sogno” (Who could Doretta’s beautiful dream ever guess?)  from “La Rondine”, Efrat Vulfsons’ convincing performance of the tragic, grieving  mood piece “Senza mamma” (Without mama) from “Suor Angelica” and, finally, Osher Sebbag’s  introspective and commanding performance of “Torna ai felici di” (Return to the happy days) from the opera-ballet “Le Villi”, his substantial, pleasing vocal timbre and personality highlighting the aria’s dramatic content.

The concert concluded with three much loved vocal pieces sung as ensembles: two Neapolitan songs - Ernesto de Curtis’ 1902 “Torna a Surriento” (Come Back to Sorrento) and Turco and Denza’s “Funiculì funiculà”, composed in 1880 to commemorate the opening of the first cable car on Mount Vesuvius, but with its text changed here to wish listeners a happy New Year; and finally “Va pensiero”  (Fly thought, on wings of gold) – “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s” Nabucco” in a performance that was tastefully blended and rich in color. Throughout the program, Sebba’s spirited piano accompaniments gave a wealth of  color and support to his singers.

Adding to the audience’s enjoyment of the program is the fact that Israel is producing excellent opera singers. Conductor-in-residence of the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra, senior lecturer at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, singer, composer and conductor, accompanist and vocal coach Maestro David Sebba directs opera concerts for the Israeli Opera, also serving as translator for many of the Israeli Opera’s community productions.


Myrna Herzog

A major event of the 2015 October Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival was the Israeli premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti’s “Il Diluvio Universale” (The Great Flood) to a libretto of Vincenzo Giattini. The performance took place October 5th in the Kiryat Ye’arim Church. Performing the work were singers and instrumentalists of Ensemble PHOENIX conducted by the ensemble’s founder and musical director Myrna Herzog.  Putting the production together, Herzog worked from a transcription made by the Messina  musicologist Fabrizio Longo, to whom she is indebted.

Sicilian composer Michelangelo Falvetti (1642-1695) was born in Calabria but spent most of his life in Sicily, enjoying  a prestigious career in Messina, where he became maestro di cappella; that is where the “Dialogue for five voices and five instruments” (as he subtitled “Il Diluvio Universale”), was first performed in 1682. Whether or not this work – falling not quite into categories of oratorio or sacred opera – was influenced by Messina’s history, in particular by its suffering from- and rebellion against Spanish rule, with the Noah’s Flood story reflecting God’s punishing the world for its disobedience and corruption, is unclear.  What is clear is that the powerful story of the Great Flood offers and  inspires theatrical potential and variety, as would have Messina itself, a city ravaged by earthquakes and tidal waves and it remains flooded till today.  For starters, “Il Diluvio Universale” is a work of exceptionally fine quality, its originality and inventiveness fired with fine melodic, harmonic and polyphonic writing. And Falvetti has no compunctions about springing a few surprises on the listener, with his occasional unconventional gestures. We meet personifications of Divine Justice (Alon Harari), Human Nature (Einat Aronstein), Water (Claire Meghnagi), Fire (Oshri Segev), Land (Guy Pelc) and Death (Alon Harari). Baritone Guy Pelc, in his portrayal of God, was authoritative, secure and dramatic, some of the role’s vocal range dipping a trifle too low for his voice at this which case, the players might have adjusted their volume better  to suit his singing.  The tender and anguished duets of Noah (Oshri Segev) and his wife (Claire Meghnagi), providing a touching human element to a play of super powers, also tended to vary in musical balance. Meghnagi, very much at home on the opera/oratorio stage, handled the virtuosic moments with natural ease and charm, soaring into her high register with agility. Served well by his stable and richly-timbred tenor voice, Oshri Segev shaped vocal lines with artistry and highlighted the emotions written into the text. Soprano Einat Aronstein gave a skillful and informed performance, presenting the subtleties of the Baroque style of a challenging text.  As Divine Justice, countertenor Alon Harari brought out the moods and turns of the text, his luxuriant voice, evenly pleasing in all registers.  As to his portrayal of “Death”, Harari, a part cut out for him, Harari indulged in the role of the demonic character with alacrity and  with the wink of an eye, his enjoyment and spontaneity providing comic relief…and the audience loved it! 

Much of the strength of the performance must be attributed to Dr. Myrna Herzog’s deep and genuine enquiry into the score to produce a performance faithful to Italian music of the mid-Baroque and elegant in its restraint. With a strong background in theatre, she talks of the need to understand the text (translated into Hebrew for the program by her and Uri Dror) both in its linguistic detail and its theatrical potential.  What was especially beautiful throughout the performance was the variety of orchestration she chose, each instrumental scoring offering a new set of timbres. Herzog sees scoring  as a parallel to lighting effects in theatre. And Falvetti’s writing presents interesting effects – sweeping winds, the deluge itself, beginning with individual raindrops and building up, re-emergence of the sun and some surprising, dramatic halts at strategic moments. We were also presented with a rich array of dances. The choruses were sung with warmth and beautifully shaped, commenting and updating the listener on developments in the storyline and its changing emotional climate.  Herzog had a group  of very fine Baroque players at hand, reading into visual aspects and reflecting on the plot: violinists Noam Schuss and Ralph Allen, bassoonist Alexander Fine, cornetto- and recorder player Alma Meyer, viol players Tal Arbel and Sonja Navot, Myrna Herzog – Baroque ‘cello, Aviad Stier-organ,  Yehuda (Hudi) Itzhak Halevy on the violone (his first performance on this instrument), Liron Rinot on sackbut, guitarist Ian Aylon  and percussionist  Nadav Gaiman, whose understated use of instruments was both lifelike and fanciful.  Herzog herself alternated between conducting from the podium and playing in the ensemble. A musicologist with energy, curiosity and a fastidious bent, Dr. Myrna Herzog has once again thrilled festival audiences, introducing them to a little-known and rare Baroque treasure that recounts a well-known Bible story with freshness and magic.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Grand Choir "Masters of Choral Singing" from Moscow in a performance of a-cappella music in Ashdod, Israel
On September 29th 2015, the Academic Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing”, an ensemble from Moscow numbering 23 singers, performed a concert in the auditorium of the Monart Centre of the Ashdod Museum of Art, Israel. Established in 1928 by Alexander Sveshnikov, the choir has premiered works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schedrin, Khachaturian and many other composers. It has been led by such prestigious conductors as Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Spivakov, Helmuth Rilling and Kristoff Eschenbach and joined by several well-known vocal soloists. Performing a wide range of repertoire, the Academic Grand Choir specializes in a-cappella performance and has enjoyed success in the major concert halls of Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Indonesia, also receiving prizes for its recordings. The choir sang at the inauguration ceremonies of Dmitry Medevedev and Vladimir Putin. Handpicked for high-level performance, the singers perform both as team members and as soloists. Head of the Department of Contemporary Choral Music of the Moscow Conservatory of the Performing Arts, Professor Lev Kontorovich founded the chamber choir Spiritual Revival in 1997. As of 2005, he has been conductor and musical director of the Academic Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing”.

The program in Ashdod opened with a bold and jubilant performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s “Messiah”. In a setting for voices only, the choir members’ stable, dynamic and brightly-timbred singing held one’s attention in the absence of the composer’s festive brassy and percussive orchestral backing.  From the initial works on the program, we were quickly to become aware of the skillful representation of instrumental roles in the arrangements and performance of the choir’s unique repertoire. These included sung versions of J.S.Bach’s Invention in F-major - keyboard music sung with vibrancy and attention to contrapuntal textures - and the precise and polished singing of the “Badinerie” from Bach’s Suite no.2, its virtuosic flute solo presenting no stumbling block to the singers.  Both these interpretations followed the Swingle Singers concept of different sung syllables, producing a vivid “instrumental” soundscape. For their choral version of the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria”, some of the women sang the melody, with other choir members evoking the sound of muted bells in lush, velvety textures. In the Alleluia from Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate” K.165, soprano Serafima Kaniashna presented the solo in a sympathetic and sincere manner, with the other singers performing the orchestral score in a flexible mix of various different syllables, interspersed with some “alleluia”s. Then, with delightful transparency and lyricism, Kontorovich and his singers captured the richness of Romantic harmonies in one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”. For a short visit to the world of opera, Serafima Kaniashna was the soloist in Norma’s wistful plea to the moon goddess in “Casta diva” (Chaste goddess) from Bellini’s “Norma”, the choir taking on the role of both orchestra and opera chorus.

Then to the program’s Russian content, beginning with the luxuriant singing of a hymn by prolific church music composer Pavel Chesnikov (1877-1944), the bass singers’ substantial low register singing reminding the listener from where these singers come.  Tenor Andrei Bashkov’s tender singing of “Evening Song” with an evocative backing of bells and long drawn-out sounds all coming together in natural and gently flexed performance displayed the kind of precision and collaboration of only very seasoned artists. Following their rich, nostalgic and poignant singing of “Moscow Nights” (1955, Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi – music,  Mikhail Matusovsky – lyrics), the audience relished every enticing, come-hither moment of “Kalinka”, with tenor soloist Platon Greco enjoying it no less, its sweetly sentimental moments alternating with wild, carefree and brilliantly presented dancelike rhythms:
‘Juniper, juniper, juniper, my juniper,
In the garden there’s the berry, my raspberry.
Under the pine, under the green pine,
Lay me down to sleep.
Oh you dear pine, you green pine,
Don’t you rustle so loudly over me
Beautiful maid, dear maid,
Please fall in love with me!’

Leaving Russia, Maestro Lev Kontorovich and his singers then took the listener to the Americas – North and South. And what a treat it was to hear soprano Olga Taran in a performance so stylistically correct and so utterly engaging of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. From there to  Argentinean composer Ástor Piazzolla’s emotionally charged and sophisticated tango rhapsody “Adiós Nonino” (composed in 1959, following his father’s death) in singing that captured so well the piece’s Latin American bitter-sweet warmth, its excitement, heartbreak and mystery. Following the Colombian song “Prende la vela” (Light the Candle) by Eduardo Lucho Bermúdez (1912-1994), actually a “cumbia” - a syncopated frenetic dance – in which tenor soloist Wiachislav Verubiov and his fellow singers gave it their all, the Latin American segment ended with a virtuosic performance of “Mambo” by Cuban composer Guido López-Gavilán (b.1944), a piece bristling with complex vocal-, speech- and percussive effects, a true tour-de-force.

Especially for its Israel visit, the ensemble prepared and sang its own poignant version of “Kol Nidrei” (minus the verbal text), the sacred Jewish prayer that opens the Day of Atonement service, then to sweep the audience off its feet with a vocal version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”, the delicate but frenzied buzzing of the almost-visible bee moving around the stage from group to group. For their two encores, Professor Kontorovich and the Masters of Choral Singing gave a mellifluous and moving reading of Israeli composer Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”, sending the audience home with a jaunty, upbeat rendering of the modern Israeli folk song “Hava nagila” (Let Us Rejoice).

In performance abundant in interest, beauty, precision, stylistic attention and superb teamwork, Maestro Kontorovich and the Academic Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing” offered the audience an evening of choral singing of the highest standard.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Three piano duos perform at a benefit concert in Tel Aviv for the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes

Duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony
“A Celebration of Two Pianos”, a benefit concert for the Tel Hai International Piano Master Classes, took place at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on September 15th 2015. Performing at the concert were duo-pianists and teachers of the Tel-Hai course Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony, as well two young duos - Guy and Alon Ostrun and Rinat Tsodyks and Oren Lok.

Since its establishment in 1992, the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes have been attracting celebrated teachers and outstanding young pianists from more than 30 countries to engage in all aspects of piano performance. A summer school known for its dedicated work, its uncompromising standards and warm, encouraging atmosphere, several of its alumni have gone on to prestigious performing careers. In addition to the intensive tuition they receive, participants are encouraged to perform in public concerts. At the time of the Second Lebanese War, the course was moved from the Tel-Hai Academic College in the far north of Israel to the unique and inspiring desert-scape of Midreshet Sde Boker in the Negev, where it has remained.  All master classes and concerts take place in the George Evans Auditorium of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University of the Negev. The piano duo course was begun there in 2005. It is taught by Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony. Winners of several international competitions and awards and appearing in over 20 countries, the husband-and-wife team performs and teaches and has recorded for the Naxos and Romeo Records labels. In addition to their teaching at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv University), the two artists hold master classes worldwide.

The program opened with Franz Liszt’s “Concerto Pathétique” S258, the composer’s 1856 arrangement for two pianos of his Grosses Konzertsolo and was performed by 20-year-old twins Guy and Alon Ostrun, students of the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes. Taking on the ambitious challenges of this two-piano extravaganza, the young pianists orchestrated the intensity of the work’s “tutti” sections, capturing the dreamy mood and Romantic outpouring of the central movement and indulging in many cantabile and personally expressed moments. This was certainly a fine effort at performing a work that is gregarious and thrilling, a vehicle of both pathos and strength. Where the Ostruns’ playing occasionally fell short on eloquence, it certainly made up in youthful energy and sincerity. Guy and Alon Ostrun later performed the two-piano version of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse”, the composer’s own transcription, a work replete with virtuosity, technical brilliance and richness, described by the composer himself as a “sort-of homage to the memory of the Great Strauss, not Richard, the other – Johann”. The Ostrun twins’ playing evoked the work’s glittering and opulent  homage to the Viennese waltz, its nostalgia, sweeping movements and twirling figurations, and it also made reference  to Ravel’s comment on corruption in society and on warfare, as expressed in work’s percussiveness, distortion and dissonance…these complexities, both technical and emotional, must certainly present a challenge to very young artists. The brothers, however, highlighted different characteristics of the various waltzes, also expressing Ravel’s message of destruction. Students of Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony, Guy and Alon Ostrun are winners of the Young Artists’ Competition and have been performing in the Tel-Hai course concerts for the last three years.

As a piano duo formed over the last year, Rinat Tsodyks and Oren Lok, both also pursuing solo careers, aim to perform a variety of new and interesting repertoire. They have given recitals in halls, at art exhibitions and at private functions. They were pronounced Most Distinguished Musicians at the 2015 IBLA Grand Prize (Italy) for their performance of Oren Lok’s composition “Humoresque”, playing Lok’s two-piano version of the original orchestral setting. The composition itself also received a Special Mention. Tsodyks and Lok performed the work at the concert at the Blumental Center. As a virtuosic symphonic overture composed in rich tonal language, Lok’s work makes reference to the music of J.S.Bach, to symphonies of the 19th century, to jazz, musicals and to Hassidic music. Here, Lok is joining the new movement of composers wishing to revive tonality, turning his back on the avant-gardism that has dominated music since the 2nd World War. Creating the piece’s intensive canvas of ideas and styles in rapid flow and with ceaseless energy, Tsodyks and Lok’s playing evoked the orchestral origins of the piece articulately - its whimsy, its dance moments and its occasional moments of furtive reticence, all threaded through the busy collage of textures. The artists’ easeful, musical playing of this highly layered score placed the work’s richness and exuberance at the fore, offering the audience much enjoyment. Rinat Tsodyks and Oren Lok are graduates of the Tel-Hai International Master Classes.

Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony concluded the concert with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite no.2 for two pianos opus 17. Admony, offering information on the artists and works throughout the concert, explained that this work had come after the composer’s three-year silence that followed a disastrous premiere of his Symphony No.1 and the caustic comments when Rachmaninoff played his music to Tolstoy two years later. It seems the composer’s confidence was restored with the help of a hypnotherapist, who also happened to be an amateur musician. Completed in 1901, Rachmaninoff, a highly renowned pianist himself, and his cousin and teacher Alexander Siloti premiered the work at a concert of the Moscow Philharmonic Society the same year. In a work that has too often been performed as a muscular show of piano acrobatics, Kanazawa and Admony kept well clear of this approach, having much to say about the music and its emotional and stylistic agenda, from the opening movement, chiseled effectively with its chiaroscuro contrasts and varied textures, followed by the 2nd movement Waltz. Here, we heard the fast devil-may-care vibrancy of the waltz punctuated by small, strategic hesitations, there to announce a new idea, as the artists dipped into their extensive palette to suggest different moods, to flex, to offer cantabile- and velvety melodies in what one could only consider as music of the senses. With the same motif sometimes moving from piano to piano, the pianists’ even balance and consummate artistry led the listener to endeavor to follow the musical line… if not aurally, at least visually. Then, in the exquisitely fashioned Romance, its interlacing melodies and rich melodies swelling up from an arpeggiated accompaniment, Kanazawa and Admony took the listener into the pensive, Romantic setting of moving melody and harmony. Following this, the artists kept audience members at the edge of their seats with expectation as they gave the virtuosic Tarantella a good dose of feisty energy and excitement, served by their large textural and dynamic range, however, never ignoring the need to contrast. A work not heard often enough, Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony’s precision and attention to the detail of Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.2 gave the score life, meaning and the pleasure of music-making.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The upcoming Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival - October 2nd to 5th 2015

The Crypt, Abu Gosh
The 48th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will take place from October 2nd to 5th 2015.  Directed by Hanna Zur, the festival has existed twice a year and in its present format since 1992. Concerts are held in the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, the church gracing the hill at Kiryat Ye’arim, and also in the intimate Crypt of the 12th century Benedictine Church of Abu Gosh. This magical venue, a cool retreat from the midday sun, nestles in a tranquil, exotic garden. In the upcoming festival, many of Israel’s finest choral ensembles and soloists can be heard in programs consisting of sacred- and secular music, folk music and, most importantly, music of Israeli composers.

There will be several events to appeal to festival-goers with a taste for early music. This festival’s guest artists include Hortus Musicus (Estonia) led by violinist and conductor Andres Mustonen, neither of them newcomers to the Israeli concert scene. With soprano Daniela Skorka as soloist, they will please early music lovers with a selection of mostly Renaissance vocal works, accompanied on period instruments (Concert no.7, October 4th). Concert no.5 (October 3rd) will present Baroque music of Vivaldi (“Stabat Mater”) and Purcell (“King Arthur”), with Shalev Ad-El conducting the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra Israeli. Soloists will be Revital Raviv, Hadas Faran, Reut Ventorero, Avital Deri, Moshe Hess, Haggai Grady, Eitan Drori, Guy Pelc and Yair Polishook, several of whom are well known on the Israeli Baroque music scene. In “Pergolesi – Stabat Mater”(Concert no.13, October 3rd) soprano Sharon Dvorin, mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin and pianist Yoni Farhi will present Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” in its original version for two singers and organ. Soprano Ye’ela Avital, recorder player Doret Florentin, guitarist Gil Evron and percussionist Ori Dekel will take the listener on a journey of “Mediterranean Love – Hadjidakis, Theodorakis, Landini, Dufay” (Concert no.15, October 5th) with a full bill of really early music, starting with a 13th  work and then progressing as far as the 21st century. Renowned Israeli countertenor Alon Harari, together with pianist Tal Samnon, will include some early English music delights in “On the Thames – London Awaits Him” (Concert no.16, October 5th). A unique event bound to attract Baroque music aficionados will be Ensemble PHOENIX’s Israeli premiere of Sicilian composer Michelangelo Falvetti’s (1642-1692) spectacular oratorio “Il Diluvio Universale” (Concert no.8, October 5th). PHOENIX musical director Dr. Myrna Herzog speaks of this music as being “characterized by sensuality and…Mediterranean expressivity”.

With Romantic music appealing to many concert-goers, here are some of the works to be heard at the Succoth Abu Gosh Festival: opening the festival on October 2nd (Concert no.1) will be Dvorak’s “Stabat Mater opus 58, performed in its original version for choir and piano. Hanna Zur will conduct the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir, with soloists:  soprano Alla Vasilevitsky, alto Sigal Haviv, tenor Joseph Aridan and bass Alexey Kanonikov; Irit Rub is the pianist. Dvorak’s seldom-performed “Festive Mass for a Cathedral Inauguration in Bohemia” will be included in Concert no.6 October 4th; Michael Shani will conduct the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir, with organist Alexander Wolch. David Sebba will direct and accompany soloists of the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio in music of Verdi and Puccini in “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” (Concert no.4, October 3rd). The Verdi “Requiem”, arranged for chamber ensemble by Michael Betzner-Brandt (Germany) will be performed by soloists and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (Yuval Benozer, conductor and music director) on October 5th (Concert no.10). One Romantic work among a selection of other works to be heard by soloists and the Moran Ensemble (conductor: Naomi Faran) will be Schubert’s Mass no.2 in G major, D.167 (Concert no.2, October 2nd).

Festival fare is always enhanced by music from other traditions. The Kolan Quintet  (Avraham Kosashvili, Simon Kricheli, Yosef Hadar, Matanel Vahtang, Reuven Bar Yosef) with present songs from Georgia and Russia, as well as Neapolitan- and Hassidic songs (Concert no.11, October 2nd). Soprano Keren Hadar, performing with Hortus Musicus, will include songs from Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia and Armenia (Concert no.9, October 10th).

Israeli music will also be represented comprehensively, with works by Eyal Bat, Menachem Wiesenberg, Gil Aldema, Mordechai Zeira, Oedoen Partos, Yehezkel Braun, Yitzhak Edel, Paul Ben-Haim, Miki Gavrielov and more.  Those of us interested to hear music of the young generation of Israeli composers  might want to attend “Enchanted Tunes” (Concert no.14, October 3rd) featuring  soprano Einat Aronstein and vibraphone player Oded Geitzhals; the program will include works by Udi Perlman (b.1990), Shai Cohen (b.1968), Assaf Roth (b.1973) and Micha Gilad (b.1992). In what promises to be a unique festival event, “Tel Aviv – New York” (Concert no.12, October 2nd), actor, singer and ‘cellist Eli Gorenstein, joined by pianist Guy Weingarten, will perform a variety of musical settings to words of some of Israel’s finest poets, followed by songs of such greats as Duke Ellington, Rogers and Hammesrstein, Charlie Chaplin and Paul Anka.  

And as to those who fancy spending a day outdoors in the tranquil scenery of the Judean Hills while the weather is still conducive to such, there remains the opportunity to picnic, visit the high-quality craft stalls and enjoy a selection of concerts in the open area around the Kiryat Ye’arim Church.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The PHOENIX Ensemble in the Israeli premiere of J-Ph. Rameau's complete chamber music

Noam Schuss,Myrna Herzog,Marina Minkin,Genevieve Blanchard

In a program titled “Tradition and Innovation”, Ensemble PHOENIX opened its 2015-2016 season with the Israeli premiere of the complete collection of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Pièces de clavecin en concerts”. Performing them were Geneviève Blanchard – Baroque flute/piccolo, Noam Schuss-violin, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and musical director Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba. This writer attended the performance in the Ran Baron Hall of the Lin and Ted Arison Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on September 8th, 2015.

 Best known for his operas and solo harpsichord music, J-Ph. Rameau (1683-1764) composed only one collection of chamber music works, but this work stands alone as a masterpiece and a groundbreaker in the chamber music genre. There are five trios – the composer referred to them as “concerts” - each having three movements, apart from the second, which comprises four.  Rameau worked on them from 1737 to 1741, taking the initiative of giving each instrument an independent role; they were inspired by Gaspar LeRoux and Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville, both of whom had published harpsichord pieces with violin accompaniment. Rameau wrote: “I have given them the form of little suites for harpsichord, violin or flute, and viol or second violin”; he considered the collection to be predominantly pieces for solo harpsichord. Interestingly, he published them in score form, not common at the time, to allow each player to follow all parts.

 As to the various extra-musical titles of pieces, the composer devised them with the help of his friends. How truly programmatic they are remains unclear, but the titles certainly serve an important purpose: they offer the listener a glimpse into the composer’s rich imagination, to members of his circle and into the lifestyle of wealthy musical patrons enjoying the arts and life’s delights, in general. The PHOENIX players also made it clear from the outset that these were no suites of stylized and impersonal courtly dances, no music that might float past the ears of noble society.  And the pieces are not as abstract as how we might nowadays conceive the “chamber music” genre. These “concerts” are a genre unto their own in every way, inviting the listener to ponder Thamas Kouli Khan, hero of a pseudo-historical novel set in Persia in La Coulicam (1st concert), musical acquaintances such as in La Laborde (a harpsichord child prodigy  who later wrote a book on the harpsichord in which he denounced equal temperament tuning as a vice!), La Boucon (a prominent woman harpsichordist), La Forqueray, La Marais and La Cupis (Marie-Anne de Cupis, a brilliant dancer, appeared in performances of several of Rameau's operas. She was the first woman to execute the entrechat quatre, to wear ballet slippers, the calf-length ballet skirt and the now standardized tights), patrons of the arts (La Livri, La Poplinière) and even a place - Le Vezinet - a picturesque countryside town in the environs of Paris, a location offering much to delight  visitors. The collection does include some dance movements – the menuet, tambourin  – as well as a few character pieces – L’agaçante (the annoying one), La timide, L’indiscrète, La pantomime..

 The strength of the PHOENIX performance was the artists’ in depth enquiry and insight into each and every movement of the concerts, an exceptionally rich and motley collection of pieces - French music spiced with some Italian flavors. In their study of them, the concept of each piece has undergone fine chiseling to result in splendid execution of Rameau’s huge range of ideas, from the elegant rondeau of La Livri (1st Concert), its delicate, sedate and aristocratic melody (a “tombeau” dedicated to the Comte de Livri who had died that year) fashioned by the flute (Blanchard), to the folksy drone of pipes and heavy-footed enjoyment of La pantomime (4th Concert), punctuated by some small musical comments. Reference to folk music was also represented by the two tambourins (3rd Concert), the tambourin being a lively, duple Provençal dance form much liked and used by Rameau.  Here, Blanchard played the melody on piccolo, reminding the listener that the tambourin would have originally been played on a small flute. In La Cupis (5th concert), flute and viol duet and converse gracefully, the viol (Herzog) utilizing the high register to meet the graceful flute at certain moments, at others, returning to support the harpsichord bass line.  Rameau’s musical portrait La Forqueray (5th Concert) is a true masterpiece; in this gregarious fugue (celebrating the wedding that year of the great player and composer, Rameau’s friend) there was much give and take between harpsichord (Minkin) and violin (Schuss).  The fine teamwork in L’agaçante (2nd Concert), with its opposing registers and unpredictable phrases punctuated by small pauses, made for interesting listening.  We also receive an introduction to Monsieur Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Poplinière, an especially rich tax-farmer and patron of the arts, at whose Paris mansion the best of chamber music was performed and heard. (Rameau, who received financial support from La Poplinière, was idolized by him and, it seems, also by his wife.) I enjoyed the jolly and slightly pompous description of the gentleman in La La Poplinière (3rd Concert) as the players halted here and there to allow the M. de La Poplinière to pose…or was he bowing?

 The heart of the “Pièces de clavecin en concerts” is the harpsichord, its fully written-out obbligato part demanding and virtuosic. Marina Minkin’s reading of it was secure, interesting and brilliant in execution. The viol part, however, is also extremely challenging; from his instructions to the viol player, it is clear the Rameau was well aware of some of the impossibility of his demands! Herzog imagines it may have been played by Forqueray. She was playing on an original Andrea Castagnery 7-string French viol, built in 1744, three years after the concerts were published. The Baroque expertise of all four artists took the pieces beyond that of technical know-how, recreating the evocative selection of musical vignettes in all their intricate detail. Altogether, the ensemble’s careful and strategic consensus on such elements as tempo, ornamentation, doubling and inégal playing made for a result that was stylish, personal, convincing and enormously enjoyable.  


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (USA) and Elena Bashkirova in recital at the 2015 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

Michelle DeYoung
A unique event of the 18th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from September 3rd to 12th 2015, was a recital of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (USA) with the festival’s music director Elena Bashkirova at the piano on September 5th.

 The artists opened the festive Saturday morning event with three Brahms Lieder. In the first “Von ewiger Liebe” op.43/1 (Of Everlasting Love) DeYoung’s richly endowed lower register well described the scene of two lovers meeting in a forest, the dark, the silence and the anxiety of  the young man;  the scene lightened up with the girl’s confirmation of how strong their love was. Then, an unhurried, tranquil reading of “Dein blaues Auge” op.59/8 (Your Blue Eyes), followed by the effusive vigor and nature metaphors of love described in “Meine Liebe ist Grün” op.63/5 (My love is as green as the lilac bush) to a text of Felix Schumann (Robert and Clara Schumann’s youngest child; Brahms was his godfather.) With just three songs, the two artists took the audience into the emotional world of Brahms in performance that was deeply felt, vibrant and wonderfully satisfying.

 Gustav Mahler chose five of the 428 poems of Friedrich Rückert’s “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children) for his own work of the same name and subject (both he and Rückert had lost children) composed between 1901 and 1904 for voice and chamber orchestra. The piano-vocal version is not an arrangement of the orchestral version but a true alternative version, having been played, for example, by the composer himself to accompany baritone Johannes Messchaert in 1907, and used till today. DeYoung and Bashkirova’s approach to the work was reflective, fragile, acutely sensitive yet controlled, the songs imbued with a sense of the pain, fate, courage and empathy as guided by attention to the text. DeYoung highlights key words with eloquent shaping, with Bashkirova making use of dissonances to affect and highlight the subject. And how effective their performance was of the third song “Wenn dein Mütterlein” (When your dear mother comes through the door) its duet comprising two separate musical agendas, its childlike naivety woven round a sense of tragedy, the short dramatic final section ending on a note of dejection. From the fine tuning of wispy-fine textures from the first piece, the artists’ interpretive capabilities and articulacy held the listener suspended in the fragile  void between life and death right up to the fifth song, the eerie atmosphere suddenly swept away by Bashkirova’s intense, horror-stricken introduction to the fifth song “In diesem Wetter” (In this weather, in this bluster, I never would have sent the children out), its waves of sound rising and falling gusts and squalls in the internal storm as in the storm raging outside. Bashkirova reminds us throughout that Mahler’s accompaniment and voice are equal forces. With the anger of the storm past, the artists shape the work’s final moments with tender, warm thoughts of the children in the next world, Bashkirova taking time to place each and every final almost-inaudible sound into the sound world of distant memory, of comfort. DeYoung and Bashkirova’s performance was a rare, memorable performance.

 One of the two central themes of the 2015 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival focuses on works of European composers who settled in the United States (the other focuses on Beethoven’s quartets and piano trios) hence the performance of two of Arnold Schoenberg’s eight Brettl Lieder from a collection titled “Deutsche Chansons”, written in the composer’s yet  tonal language during the first years of the 20th century, when he worked as a conductor at the Überbrettl, a literary cabaret in Berlin. “Galathea” (text: Franz Wedekind) exploits the narrator’s infatuation of a man for a woman. Against Schoenberg’s richly textured and vibrant piano setting, the artists pulled out the plugs to express the song’s sparkling, saucy and energetic text (Wedekind was considered one of the most promiscuous poets of his time) the poem’s moral then to be revealed in the song’s conclusion:

‘But to my kisses, darling maiden
Revealed your lips should never be
For the fullness of their charms
Are only found in fantasy.’

In “Mahnung” (Warning), DeYoung and Bashkirova communicate the home truths and advice of Gustav Hochstetter’s lyrics to beautiful young women on how to conduct themselves, conveying words and music with a lighthearted touch of theatre and whimsy, DeYoung’s facial expressions as telling as some of the composer’s piano gestures. Behind their seductive and satirical facade, these Schoenberg songs have some serious messages, speaking of the polarities in Viennese society.

 DeYoung and Bashkirova concluded with two Kurt Weill songs, their gently lilting, sentimental and tasteful reading of the texts referring to the transience of love in “September Song” (from the operetta “Knickerbocker Holiday, text: Maxwell Anderson), its minor-major mood changes affecting and nostalgic, to be followed by the same theme and thoughts on growing old in so sensitively lush and soulful a manner in “Speak Low” (lyrics: Ogden Nash), sending the audience home moved and thoughtful.
'We’re late darling, we’re late,
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
Too soon, too soon,
I wait darling, I wait
Will you speak low to me,
Speak love to me and soon.’


Michelle DeYoung’s voice moves seamlessly through its registers in singing that feels natural and effortless, her beautiful diction and range of color and inflection making for singing that is inspiring, fresh and always meaningful. She and Elena Bashkirova perform hand-in-glove, balancing ideas and collaborating on a number of levels. Bashkirova is an outstanding accompanist, sometimes using just a few delicate pianistic brushstrokes or more intensely orchestrated textures to set a scene, to comment, to present feeling, meeting DeYoung at eye level in performance that is gripping and thrilling.

Elena Bashkirova

Friday, September 4, 2015

"Requiem for a Holy Island", pianist Zecharia Plavin's novel about music and society

Prof. Zecharia Plavin
“Requiem for a Holy Island” is the first English language novel of Zecharia Plavin. Originally written in Russian, but somewhat changed and translated into English by the author, the book was published in 2015 by Dekel Publishing House, Tel Aviv, Israel and Samuel Wachtman’s Sons, Inc., CA, USA. It is basically the story of a community of a small island living under the tyrannical leadership of people of warped minds and tells of the committed people who strive to change it. The story is woven of several layers, each with its own agenda and characters, but all connect. It spans whole lifetimes in pre-war France, French Saigon, the island – Pinto Island - and Paris in the late 20th century.

We enter the story frame via a woman’s search for her lost love, Illirio Mariafels. A courageous and energetic idealist, Illirio has the gift of singing in two voices simultaneously and teaching the island children the technique, its unique sound bringing tranquility, albeit temporary, to those who hear it.  Illirio’s mother is the French concert pianist Adélaïde Fourangier, who spends many years on the island, mostly teaching piano. Illirio’s father is Costas Tegularius, a doctor most determined to rid the island of its emotionally and physically toxic leadership. Then there is the endearing old traveler and director of the meteorological station Jean-Luc Lefevbre, a person steeped in wisdom: “…truth be told, I no longer know the difference between laughter and weeping. In old age I think they become the same”. (p.278) These people are the novel’s major characters. They represent culture, human warmth, idealism and social conscience in an environment so negative, so physically disgusting and degrading that their goodwill shines brightly in the environment of a warped regime, whose main victims are the islanders themselves.

For the music-lover and educationalist there is much written on the subject of music practice, the learning process, concert criticism, on the choice of piano repertoire and on children’s music education; there are references to the great Franco-Swiss pianist and teacher, known especially for his interpretation of the works of Chopin and Schumann, Alfred Cortot (Adélaïde’s teacher). Among the most poignant descriptions of the book are accounts of the young islanders’ piano and vocal studies and the naïve beauty of these in a contaminated world in which so many islanders perish. Plavin also draws our attention to the harm caused by hard-headed directors of conservatories and music inspectors and how limiting their narrow-mindedness is on those teaching and those learning. As to the meeting of different musical cultures, the writer brings together the musical worlds of the French Romantic piano school and the folk culture of Pinto Island in Illirio’s ventriloquial singing.

Most of the book consists of diary entries, recordings, reports or newspaper articles. A very few photos give the story a sense of reality. Kathleen Roman’s language editing is consistent; I personally would rather the use of “children” than “kids” (slang).  “Requiem for a Holy Island” is definitely a page-turner; it is enormously rich in content, joyful and tragic; but, most importantly for both writer and reader, Zecharia Plavin is making a statement on the horrors of stringent regimes of so-called “justified” ideologies, such as those of the Nazis, Stalin, Al-Qaeda, etc., of narcissistic regimes devoid of all human conscience. Making his point, he does not soft-pedal when it comes to countless (at times, excessive) descriptions of the disgusting physical filth promoted as a way of life by the ideology of the island’s secretaries. In her diary entry of March 28th 1977, Adélaïde writes: “The island is now the embodiment of Danté’s Inferno, with naked secretaries dancing around their own excrement like wild apes. They have lost all resemblance to humans…” (p.278)

Softening some of the horror of the island situation described are two tender and rich relationships – Adélaïde and Costas and Illirio and the musically gifted Nissa. Those readers with a sharp eye may just pick up on many symbols: dates of certain events that parallel to those of Stalin’s death, Kennedy’s death, demolition of the Berlin Wall, etc.; Jean-Luc’s name comes from that of Jean-Luc Picard, a character from “Star Trek”; and, with Plavin being an admirer of Hermann Hesse, the name (Costas) Tegularius comes from Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”, in which Fritz Tegularius represents a prophecy of what Castalians might become if they remain insular; the name (Illirio) Mariafels is taken from  the Benedictine monastery from the same novel. And, as Illirio’s two-voiced singing represents two cultures - the fabric of any peace-making process and a weapon against fanaticism, Zecharia Plavin’s message is that peace is created from the joining of two voices, of two cultures. In Plavin’s own words: “Illirio’s chant is the hope for all future liberal idealists who look for identities to lean upon in their struggles for liberty, dignity and fairness for their fellow people”.
Author, scholar, composer, concert pianist and educator Zecharia Plavin was born in Lithuania in 1956, immigrating to Israel in his youth. Professor Plavin teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and at the Ono Academic College.