Friday, December 19, 2014

In "Owlos on Strings", the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra is joined by the New Israeli Recorder Quartet

Baroque oboist Bruce Haynes
For “Owlos on Strings”, the second subscription concert of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season, on December 4th 2014 at the Jerusalem International YMCA, the JBO took its audience on a different musical journey –a Baroque musical journey, but one of a different kind. Directed by its founder and musical director David Shemer, the string section of the JBO was joined by the Owlos Recorder Quartet – Drora Bruck, Alon Schab, Idit Paz and Idit Shemer. Established in 2012, the New Israel Recorder Quartet performs in concerts and festivals; the ensemble is presently working on locating Israeli works rarely or not performed by professional musicians, and bringing them back to the public’s attention in the concert hall and on recordings.

Several of the works on the program were antiphonal, a style originating in Venice, in which separate choirs (vocal or instrumental) were placed in different parts of the Basilica of San Marco, Venice, for which composers wrote in a polychoral style evoking imitative and echoing effects. Such was Canzon XXXI à 8 of the (almost anonymous) early 17th century Italian composer Sabastiano Chilese, who flourished in Venice around 1608, with the two mixed instrumental “choirs” placed on either side of the stage. This was followed by two pieces by one of the greatest representatives of the Venetian School and principal organist of St. Mark’s Basilica, Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612). Both works come from a collection from 1608. Performed on strings and harpsichord, with violinist Noam Schuss’s ever secure and richly-fashioned leading, Canzon Prima “La Spiritata” à 4 was given a mellifluous and poetic reading, its fluid sections well contrasted in keeping with the composer’s interest in dynamics. With Canzon “Vigesimaottava” à 8, we were back to antiphonal music, this time with one choir of strings and the second of recorders, in playing that was fresh and indicative of G.Gabrieli’s rhythmically daring originality.

The works of Massimiliano Neri (c.1623-1673), an organist in Venetian churches, one of them being the Basilica of San Marco, represent an attempt to merge the Gabrieli tradition with the “stile moderno”. In the double-choir Sonata decima à 8, Neri’s scoring calls for a first choir of three violins and theorbo and a second choir of three recorders and theorbo. Apart from presenting different instrumental combinations, the first movement of the work boasted some highly attractive solos and duets, played without interruption –violin (Noam Schuss), harpsichord (David Shemer) together with theorbo (Eliav Lavi), ‘cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) and more.

With the rich scoring of Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s (1644-1704) Sonata pro Tabula à 10, here was dinner music for a sumptuous feast in 17th century northern Europe, a work abounding in colorful folk music associations assimilated into a sonata with suite elements. Remaining in the same region, we heard Concerto in C major, one of German composer and theorist Johann David Heinichen’s (1683-1729) Dresden Concerti. From the vivacity and variety in this work of the “Gruppenkonzert” (group concerto) genre common to the region, the style employing a variety of solo instruments, much instrumental color and alternating “choirs”, one must suppose that the Dresden court orchestra was an excellent ensemble of players. The JBO string players and their Owlos guests entertained the audience well with this music, which is joyful and elaborate, also elegant, and light without being banal, the predilection for wind instruments at the Dresden court adding the sweetness and virtuosity of the flauto dolce to the orchestral timbre of a composer fairly obscure till recent times.

Continuing the series of Baroque oboist Bruce Haines’ New Brandenburg Concertos, six concertos made up mostly of movements from J.S.Bach cantatas, and numbered from seven to twelve, the JBO performed No. 10 in D minor. The idea for these works was based on the fact that Bach himself was a champion recycler and that the original Brandenburgs are, in fact, merely a part of the composer’s large corpus of instrumental music written for the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, some of which is probably lost. Haynes’ works adhere to Bach’s variety of scoring: as are the original Brandenburg Concertos each colored with different instrumentations, so are those of Haynes. With Haynes’ Concerto no.10 in D minor calling for a number of wind instruments, the Owlos recorder players were in the right place at the right time. For this work we were presented with one choir of recorders and one of strings, with much civilized chamber-music-like conversation held between them and some superbly polished solo-playing on the part of ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi. If Haynes’ arrangements were referred to by him as “speculative trials”, these appealing pieces have set JBO audiences thinking, disgussing and weighing up opinions…also ready in anticipation for the next.

With a change of atmosphere, we heard violinists Noam Schuss, Rephael Negri, Dafna Ravid and Nahara Carmel performing G.Ph.Telemann’s Concerto à 4 Violini in G major TWV 40:201, one of Telemann’s very many chamber works, 80 or so being composed without basso continuo, of which three were for four violins, written possibly to provide court-employed violinists with some challenging but enjoyable drill and in which the composer may very well have played. Concise and concentrated, the G major Concerto, offering moments to remind the listener that this was indeed a program built around antiphonal music, was a highlight of the evening. In playing that was subtle, personal and profound, the four players showed the listener through Telemann’s score of rich, moving harmonies, his daring use of dissonances, motifs of sharp profile, fugal ideas, folk idiom and humor, as they concluded it with a Vivace movement of jolly fanfares.

The evening’s program ended back in Italy, where it had begun, with Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Concerto in due Cori con flauti obbligati, RV 585 (c.1708), a work for solo violin (Noam Schuss) and antiphonal orchestra, with each of the “due cori” consisting of two violins and two recorders, the second also including keyboard. This would probably have been performed by the orphaned girls of the Ospedale della Pieta, who, it should be known, played not only violin but recorders, and, in fact, a host of other instruments. Vivaldi’s employment there as music master inspired him to explore the many possibilities inherent in the concerto, heard here in imaginative textural combinations of instrumental sonorities, his writing for violas (Daniel Tanchelson, Tami Borenstein) forming a formidable textural and flexible element. In this concert, the recorders function as orchestral instruments. In the solo violin role, Noam Schuss gave an outstandingly gripping solo performance once again, the work also peppered with such treats as an intricate harpsichord solo (David Shemer) and a touching violin duet for violin and theorbo (Schuss, Lavi).

Audiences showed much interest in this unique concert, enjoying the high quality playing of four of Israel's finest recorder players with the JBO's suave string orchestra, stepping out of the realm of mainstream Baroque concert repertoire performed in this country to be rewarded with a fresh, new listening experience.

The Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance opens the 2014-2015 season

The Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, under the
'Cellist Michal Korman
baton of its musical director Professor Eitan Globerson, will open its 2014-2015 concert season in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA at 20:00, December 22nd 2014. In 2012, the orchestra was named in memory of Professor Mendi Rodan, the Israel Prize laureate for music in 2006, who taught conducting at the Academy from 1962 and was Head of the institution between 1965 and 1994. He conducted many important orchestras in Israel and overseas. Born in Romania in 1924, Mendi Rodan became the first violinist of the National Orchestra of Romania at age 16 and its conductor at age 24. The result of his applying for a permit to immigrate to Israel in 1954 resulted in the termination of his job with the orchestra. In 1960, he arrived in Israel with his family. He was principal conductor and music director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra from 1963 to 1972. Maestro Rodan died in 2009. Maestro Zubin Mehta has referred to him as a “musician of giant stature…and a unique and talented conductor.”

Members of the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra are students of the Academy’s Faculty of Performing Arts; they are required audition in order to join the orchestra. Participating in the Mendi Rodan Orchestra offers the students the chance to become familiar with orchestral repertoire, thus paving the way towards becoming professional orchestral players. The orchestra performs major works of orchestra repertoire, its rehearsal program beginning with intensive and detailed work with sectional instructors prior to rehearsals of the full orchestra.

Works to be performed at the concert on December 22nd are the Overture to Giuseppe Verdi’s opera “La Traviata”, Johannes Brahms’ Symphony no.1 and Edward Elgar’s Concerto for ‘Cello in E minor opus 86, soloist: Michal Korman. Born in Jerusalem, Michal Korman studied at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) and at the Juilliard School (USA). An avid chamber musician, Ms. Korman is a founding member of the Israel Chamber Project. She performs widely as a soloist and ensemble musician.

Tickets: 054-9293405,
Information: 052-7030504

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Jerusalem Theatre of Chamber Opera (Opera Aeterna) in two comic operas at the Jerusalem Khan

“Everlasting Love” was a tongue-in-cheek title for the Jerusalem Theatre of Chamber Opera’s latest
production at the Jerusalem Khan on December 8th, 2014, a production of “Art Rainbow”, a non-profit organization that receives support from the Center of Absorption of Immigrant Artists and Returning Residents and the Israeli Ministry for Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption. The concept of “Everlasting Love”, Opera Aeterna’s 12th annual production, was of Maestro Ilya Plotkin; Gera Sandler was stage director and narrator, with sets and costumes designed by Irina Tkachenko. All artists taking part were immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The program consisted of two small operas performed back to back. The first of the double-bill was Gaetano Donizetti’s (1797-1848) one-act opéra-comique “Rita”, written in 1841 to a libretto of Gustave Vaëz, the original text being in French. The only opera of Donizetti’s not to be performed in his lifetime, it was finally premiered posthumously on the stage of the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1860, with “Le mari battu” (the Battered Husband) as its subtitle, probably not the original, but one that would be a fitting description for the evening’s entertainment at hand! With so much talk of battered wives in today’s media, the Aeterna artists were about to present an evening focusing on cunning, scheming women and the unfortunate men in their clutches. Believing her husband Gasparo to be drowned, Rita (Galina Ziferblat) marries the not-too-bright Beppe (Dmitry Semenov). Their life is thrown into turmoil when Gasparo (Andrey Trifonov) appears at Rita’s inn, in the Aeterna production, as a pirate accompanied by a harem of pregnant women! Believing that Rita has died in a fire, Gasparo has returned to obtain her death certificate in order to marry another woman. Beppe sees her rightful husband’s return as his opportunity for him to break free of her tyranny and abuse. The question now is who is to be Rita’s husband and partner for life. The two men agree to a game in which whoever wins will have to stay with Rita. Both try to lose. Gasparo, the winner, pretending he has lost his hand, insists Beppe declare his love for Rita and takes his leave from the reconciled couple. With the opera performed here in Italian (Donizetti himself had had it translated) Gera Sandler, playing (in speech) the drunk servant in Rita’s inn, kept the audience informed as to the course of the plot. Soprano Galina Ziferblat was very well cast as the tough, saucy and wily innkeeper, her large voice and energy used well to show her dominance over the men, her stage personality savoring every moment of the role. Tenor Dmitry Semenov, sporting a black eye, offered a fine portrayal of the henpecked, gullible Beppe, singing through the constant movement and hi-jinks on stage. (In her aria, Rita had addressed the ladies of the audience, explaining that marital happiness might be attained by having a husband who was not especially bright.) Baritone Andrey Trifonov made for an imposing, charismatic and macho-oriented Gasparo, his singing always warm and fetching. Whether one sees the libretto as nonsensical or simply as fine distraction from the real world in which we live, the music in this small piece offers plenty of good melodic material. To Natalie Rotenberg’s very competent and informed piano accompaniment, we were treated to three arias (one sung by each character), two duets and a trio, with the men singing in patter in the latter. This operatic farce, boasting an economical score, was a fine vehicle for these Aeterna artists who are familiar to the Jerusalem opera audience from former productions.

With G.P. Telemann’s (1681-1767) “Pimpinone” about to begin, and the small ensemble (musical director: Ilya Plotkin) was tuning up, Ziferblat, Semenov and Trifonov took seats at the side of the stage, now assuming the role of audience members. “Pimpinone”, a witty intermezzo performed for comic relief between acts of Telemann’s adaption of Händel’s opera seria “Tamerlano”, was first performed in 1725 and remains Telemann’s best-known stage work. To a libretto of Johann Philipp Praetorius, there are two characters – the elderly merchant Pimpinone and Vespetta, his pretty, scheming chamber maid, her name in Italian actually meaning “little wasp”. We were in for another battle of the sexes, 18th century style, or could it not have been a situation familiar to us today? Vespetta, played delightfully by the vivacious Irina Mindlin, out to improve her station in life, lures her employer into marrying her. Bass Dmitry Lovzov, as Pimpinone, positively preening himself in blushing response to Vespetta’s flattery, falls straight into her trap. In the first scene (or intermezzo) the two come closer vocally and physically, dancing together and singing a duet that is not true harmony but cleverly made up of intertwined vocal lines. In Intermezzo II, the chamber maid threatens to leave the wealthy old bachelor if he does not marry her; Vespetta’s plea gives way to the couple’s first real performance in (musical) harmony in the love duet. By Intermezzo III, things have soured between them, with Pimpinone’s mockery and threats expressed in his outstanding aria as he skillfully shifts registers. The increasing dissonance between them is brilliantly reflected in the music, giving way to chaos on stage, with both singers in full throat simultaneously. In addition to its originality and involvement, Telemann’s vocal and instrumental score is a real treat. The instrumental ensemble did justice to its elegance and opulence. And the Aeterna production pulled out all the plugs, with constant action on stage and a good dose of risqué hilarity (Pimpinone resorts to taking Viagra; he also mutters in Yiddish!) as Mindlin and Lovzov moved, flirted, danced, beat each other and played out all the small opera’s developments vocally and visually. They used body language and much facial expression to provide fine entertainment in presenting ”Pimpinone”, also known as “The Unequal Marriage” or “The Domineering Chamber Maid”.

Once again, the Jerusalem Theatre of Chamber Opera’s unwavering devotion to the genre, its stagecraft and its fine singing and instrumental musicianship was a reminder that there is opera in Jerusalem and that Opera Aeterna’s annual production is always a delight.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Amaya Piano Trio at the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Jerusalem) in a concert of works of Sibelius, Schoenberg and Brahms

 The Amaya Piano Trio has recently performed a number of concerts in Israel. This writer attended their concert at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem on November 29th, 2014.  Established in 2011 by Israeli pianist Batia Murvitz and two Finnish musicians – violinist Lea Tuuri and ‘cellist Lauri Rantamoijanen – the Amaya Trio (taking its name for the Japanese word for “night Rain”) performs music from the Classical period to contemporary music. In February 2014, the three young artists premiered a work written for them by Finnish composer Jens Lindqvist. As well as appearing in Israel, the Amaya Trio has performed in prestigious venues in the UK, Finland, Cyprus, Austria and India.
The concert opened with Finnish composer Jan Sibelius’ (1865-1957) Piano Trio in C major “Lovisa”, this performance of it probably being the Israeli premiere of the work. Composed in 1888, this work, like most of the composer’s chamber music, receives too little attention in the concert hall. Sibelius was 23 when he composed the work for the family trio (the composer, his brother Christian and their sister Linda) in the summer at the family country home near the village of Lovisa, hence its title. It is the composer’s first foray into the fully Romantic style. The Amaya artists gave the opening Allegro a reading buoyant with energy and warmth, its flow of melodic ideas fresh. The Andante, more thoughtful and perhaps tinged with Nordic folk-like melody, was followed by the effervescent Allegro con brio, a movement daring in its tonalities and technical demands, proof of the young Sibelius’s fine sense of instrumentation. A work brimming with beauty and youthful optimism, it is relevant in both soundscape and landscape to the Amaya Trio.

Taking the audience into a very different mood, the Amaya Trio performed Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874-1951) “Verklärte Nacht” Opus 4. Originally written in a mere three weeks in 1899, and scored as a string sextet, it was arranged for piano trio by the Austrian-born pianist and composer Eduard Steuermann and only published as late as 1993! In 1898, Schoenberg had discovered modernist poet Richard Dehmel’s volume of poetry “Weib und Welt” (Woman and World). In “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night), a poem from this collection, and controversially sensual for its time, a man and woman meet at night in a chilled, moonlight grove; she confesses to her lover that she is carrying the child of another man. Following a long pause of brooding meditation, he resolves that their love will make the child their own. Referred to by the composer as the first programmatic chamber work, the single-movement piece was not merely inspired by the poem: its descriptive course remains exceedingly close to that of the poem in its late Romantic use of leitmotifs and transformations. Allowing time for each aspect of the text to form, the Amaya players paced the narrative strategically, creating a stark, otherworldly but active canvas, colored with heavy, foreboding tension, longing and Romantic sentiments, to end in idyllic tranquility. Harsh, intense utterances were tempered by plangent, languishing and tender moments, the players ever acutely aware of the textual thread at any given moment and of each other. Via a language at times tonal, at others, struggling to break free from tonality, they recreated Schoenberg’s agenda of “nature and human feelings”. Batia Murvitz brought out the unique timbre and emotion of the piano role (only present in the trio setting, not in the sextet) as the string players passed melodies back and forth in a performance that was evocative and intimate, richly expressive and dramatic, but never pushing the boundaries of good taste.

If this concert was to focus on works written by composers in their 20s, here was Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) first chamber composition – his Piano Trio in B major, opus 8. (Perhaps another important connection to the previous work performed is the fact that Schoenberg was deeply influenced by Brahms.) Published by the 21-year-old Brahms in 1854, he returned to revise it 35 years later and although he claimed not to have provided it “with a new wig, just combed and arranged its hair a little”, there were substantial changes in the revised version. One could therefore surmise that this work bears the stamp of both the young- and the mature composer, not to speak of reminders of the composer’s characteristically brooding spirit, despite the fact that the work is anchored in a major key. In 1890, Brahms, having played in the premiere of the revised trio, was satisfied with the result and the work was saved from the fate of other chamber works of his, which went into the fireplace! The Amaya Trio players gave a deeply involved reading of the work, from the lush and vigorous sweeping Allegro con brio movement, its smaller nuances addressed and shaped no less than its outbursts of passion, to the playful Scherzo, its poignant and dramatic moments played out with the surety of much eye contact. Then to the Adagio movement, its curious, frozen outer sections providing a hushed soundscape of choral-like piano timbres backing lengthy phrases in the strings, its reticent but emotional middle section warmer and earthier. For the Finale, the players took us back to the nervous Brahms-type of energy, drama and excitement, its tumultuous build-up ending with the message of a minor chord. The three artists explored the composer’s emotional palette, drawn by endless combinations of the three instruments, offering the audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Center a richly rewarding performance of one of the pillars of the piano trio repertoire.

The Amaya Piano Trio's choice of repertoire, consisting of works familiar to the listening public as well as those less familiar and new works, always makes for interesting listening. The players' individual gestures and nuances were picked up by the lively acoustic of the Eden-Tamir Music Center.

Monday, December 1, 2014

S.Ansky's "Dybbuk" as the inspiration for multimedia performances at the Hansen Hospital, Jerusalem

The Hansen Hospital
The 2014 Voice of the Word Festival, in memory of Mario Kotliar, a joint collaboration of Mamuta Art and HaZira – Performance Art Arena – presented “In His Voice: the Dybbuk”, three evenings (November 24th to 26th 2014) of multi-media performances at the Hansen Hospital, Jerusalem. The project curators were Guy Biran and the Sala-Manca Group. This writer attended the event of November 26th. The aim of the three events was to examine the relationship between word/text and performance art. Artworks on display at the Mamuta spaces of the Hansen House took their cue, directly or indirectly, from the Dybbuk phenomenon, as presented in Russian Jewish writer and ethnographer S.Ansky’s Yiddish play “The Dybbuk” or “Between Two Worlds” (1912-1919). S.Ansky’s play is the story of a young bride possessed by a dybbuk – a malicious intrusive spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. The play is based on research Ansky carried out documenting folk beliefs and stories of Hassidic Jews in the small towns of the Ukraine and Russia.

The Hansen Hospital, established as the “Jesus Help Asylum” by the city’s Protestant community in 1887 in what is today Jerusalem’s affluent Talbiyeh neighborhood, nestled in a large walled compound, consisting of four water cisterns, a vegetable garden, fruit trees and livestock; a shelter for people suffering from leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease) it was designed to be self-sufficient. Run from 1887 to 1950 by the Herrenhut Brotherhood of the Moravian Church, it housed 60 patients. It was sold to the Jewish National Fund in 1950. With the development of an effective cure for leprosy, the last patients left the hospital in 2000. Sympathetically restored, the centre today is one of Jerusalem’s most beautiful buildings, housing exhibition spaces, an animation laboratory, theatre performance space, a projection room and studios, constituting a home for design, media and technology, combining creativity, education, research and continuing activities.

The Mamuta Centre for Art and Media, located in the Hansen building, is a centre of activity, of encounter, research and exhibitions. The Center offers project support, produces and initiates projects at the Hansen House, in other venues in Jerusalem and further afield, supporting individual- and group work as influenced by the times and location in which it is created. The HaZira Arts Arena, established in 1988, focuses on various disciplines of performance arts and their combination – theatre, dance, music, exhibits and multimedia. Its creative agenda aims at advancing inter-discipline performance in cultural- and artistic dialogue and initiating original, new productions in Jerusalem and Israel in general.

The three evenings at Hansen House took the form of a number of very different small events taking place in various rooms of the building. The audience moved from room to room, negotiating dimly lit corridors, climbing up and down stone stairs, moving from small basement rooms with barrel-vaulted ceilings to pleasant ground floor rooms, eventually arriving in the upper storey hall. The small basement rooms were well suited to the intimacy of some of the happenings – text-sound artist Josef Sprinzak recording and rerecording his own voice in song and word-play that focused on the Dybbuk’s inability to escape, followed by two other artists engaging in groans and tremors, some instrumental effects and some recorded sound to produce a hellish, psychotic-sounding display of horrific suffering; then, to Shira Borer of the Sala-Manca Group, portraying a young woman doing house chores, strange in her actions, seemingly possessed, locked into isolated, frozen silence. In another room, Lee Lorian’s charming, tasteful and poignant visual presentation (sound: Adam Yodfat) consisted of a small stage placed on a table, also shown on a screen, with changing scenes of Jewish village life, most scenes showing Theodore Herzl looking in, the performance backed by a nostalgic and richly colored soundtrack.

Most refined was an event taking place in an intimate and pleasant living room, its dining table set with an elegant, old coffee service. Seated at the table were Argentinean-born Eliezer Niborski and his teenage daughter Attala. With mesmerizing and haunting eloquence, time stood still as the two read from S.Ansky’s original Yiddish text, Eliezer reading from a leather-bound copy of the work, the yellowing pages attesting to its age. Another impressive and moving event, also connecting directly to Ansky’s text, was performed in both Yiddish and Hebrew by experimental Israeli vocalist Victoria Hanna and musician Noam Inbar with some sparse sounds of a zither. Sometimes seated, at others, moving around the room in circles, Hanna’s huge vocal- and emotional range reflected the different sides and predicament of Ansky’s Leah, with Inbar (his tenor voice often singing above hers!) representing Hannan as soothing and ever inspiring hope, comfort and support.

In the hall on the upper floor, a room with a superbly crafted wood ceiling, we watched a shortened version of the 1937 film of “The Dybbuk” or “Between Two Worlds” spoken in the Yiddish language. Directed by Michal Waszyński and filmed in Kazimierz (Poland) and in a Warsaw studio, its eerie, stark and dramatic grey and black visuals bring home the elements of magic, fate and folk beliefs, as the living mingle with the dead. Adhering to the extravagant German Expressionistic style, the film is still considered to be one of the greatest films in the Yiddish language. Most of the players were then known to have perished in the Holocaust. Seated behind the screen in the hall of the Hansen House was the Jerusalem Academy Conservatory Orchestra. Conducted by Michael Klinghoffer, the well-trained young players gave a vivid and zesty performance of sections of Smetana’s “Moldau”, synchronized to fall in with dramatic moments of the film. This was an unusual idea - experiential and certainly effective.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2014-2015 season with "Vespers"

Charles Avison
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, under the direction of its founder and conductor David Shemer, opened the 2014-2015 season with a very different kind of Baroque program. This writer attended the concert on November 11th 2014 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Peace, the Jerusalem YMCA.

The program opened with Concerto Grosso No.6 in D major by Charles Avison (1709-1770), a composer and church organist who spent his life in Newcastle, in the north of England. It is known that Geminiani visited him, but whether Avison actually studied under him remains unclear. Avison’s celebrated “Essay on Musical Expression” is the first English work on musical criticism; here he discusses the contrast between “sublime music and beautiful music”. Apart from a small amount of sacred music composed by him, Avison’s success lay in secular music and in the institution of the subscription concert series – first in London and, later, closer to home. In addition to church activities and concerts, Avison taught harpsichord, violin and flute, also giving theatrical performances. His oeuvre consists of harpsichord/organ concertos, chamber music, keyboard sonatas and 60 concerti grossi, with another 12 concertos that were arrangements of harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. The latter works constitute a landmark of English music, with Avison not merely arranging the Scarlatti sonatas, interspersed with movement of his own, but orchestrating them imaginatively. Listening to Concerto Grosso no.6 in D major, it was not difficult to hear that Avison’s skill and originality produced music in which “Scarlatti’s highly idiomatic keyboard writing becomes equally idiomatic writing for strings and especially for the violin”, in Shemer’s words. The appealing violin solos were performed adeptly by 1st violinist Dafna Ravid, with some lovely comments and support provided by violinist Jonathan Keren. Complementing them was well balanced and poignant playing on the part of the ripieno section. A composer virtually unknown to most concert-goers, here was a fine opportunity to make the acquaintance of “an elegant writer upon his art” as Charles Burney had referred to him.

Then to the Israeli premiere of one of six of Bruce Haynes’ “Brandenburg Concertos” (more of them to be heard in this season’s concerts) after works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). In 2010 Canadian oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes conceived the idea that six new “Brandenburg” Concertos could be constructed from rich concerto pickings present in movements of Bach cantatas. The idea was based on the fact that Bach himself, under pressure to produce pieces for new occasions, frequently recycled his own works and those of others. Haynes’ argument was that if Bach himself had turned instrumental works into cantatas, the opposite process must be possible. After orchestrating three of the new Bandenburgs, Haynes sadly died quite suddenly in 2011. His widow, ‘cellist Susie Napper, completed the set of six (a traditional grouping of Baroque works being). Brandenburg Concerto No.11 in D minor, constructed from two cantata movements and one concerto movement, is scored for oboe, harpsichord, strings and basso continuo. It offers much beautiful solo material for both oboe and harpsichord, a seemingly unlikely pair to be engaging as soloists together. Israeli Baroque oboist Aviad Gershoni, currently living in Italy and performing widely, gave a fresh, mellifluous and richly ornamented reading of the solo oboe part, to be answered by David Shemer in cascades of delicate, finely detailed and lustrous extended solo harpsichord phrases. A magical and zesty performance of what is surely an enticing piece of music.

And on the subject of recycling, the third and final work on the program was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) “Vespro della Beata Vergine”. In 1732, Pergolesi composed a setting of the Vespers in honor of St. Emidius, the patron saint of Naples and protector against earthquakes. However, the only parts that have survived are the “Domine ad juvandum”, and three Psalm settings – “Dixit Dominus”, the “Laudate” and “Confitebor”. Taking pieces from throughout Pergolesi’s much-too-short career, Malcolm Bruno, an American-born musicologist today living in Wales, reconstructed the Vespers. Premiered at the 2007 Boston Early Music Festival, it presents a full cross-section of Pergolesi’s artistic development. With David Shemer now conducting from the positive organ, this was the Israel premiere this inspiring compilation. The choice of the ADI Choir was in keeping with the JBO’s interest in nurturing the new generation of Baroque performers. Established in 2006 and under the auspices of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, the ensemble of young singers is directed by Oded Shomrony, known to many from his work with the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, the Moran Singers Ensemble and as the baritone and musical director of the Thalamus Quartet. Shomrony’s work with the ADI Choir was detailed and thorough, the young singers’ performance buoyant, articulate, well phrased and energetic. Especially memorable was the poignant, cantabile singing of the Gloria Patri of the “Dixit Dominus”, colored with beautiful oboe-playing on the part of Aviad Gershoni and Tal Levin. Israeli soprano Daniela Skorka, whose repertoire includes both sacred works and opera, recently took 3rd prize at the Pietro Antonio Cesti International Competition for Baroque Singing (Innsbruck). Her handling of the mammoth solo role in the Pergolesi was outstanding. What was clear was her profound understanding of the work at hand; she created each mood, threading ornaments and melisma through the musical text with natural agility, also communicating well with her audience. Skorka’s voice, stable and unforced throughout its registers, is a fine and pleasing instrument. The “Vespers” ended with her convincing and compassionate performance of the “Salve Regina” (at times reminiscent of the composer’s “Stabat Mater”), its many gestures, dissonances and emotions purporting to one of the pinnacles of devout Baroque music and spirituality.

Maestro David Shemer and his instrumentalists’ sensitive and delicate performance throughout the evening provided each work with refinement and grace of style. The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2014-2015 season promises to take listeners into less familiar regions of Baroque music, albeit representing compositional practices common to the time this music was written. The season set off to a fine start.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Romanian organist and harpsichordist Zsolt Garai ends his three concerts in Israel with an organ recital at St. George's Anglican Cathedral, Jerusalem

On November 7th 2014 Romanian organist Zsolt Garai gave the last of three organ recitals in Jerusalem on his first concert tour of Israel. Under the auspices of the Romanian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv), the recital took place at the Cathedral of St. George the Martyr. Established in 1898, the Anglican Cathedral, situated in East Jerusalem, is the seat of the Bishop of Jerusalem of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. Its buildings surround a typically English collegiate quadrangle. The church organ, a Rieger instrument (Austria, 1984) boasting a lively temperament and many reed stops, stands at ground level at the back of the church. With the seats turned to face the back of the Cathedral for the occasion, people attending the concert enjoyed a rare opportunity of seeing the artist performing from close proximity, not the case at most organ recitals. Garai was assisted by Inna Dudakova, organist of St. George's Cathedral.

Born in 1979 in Arad (Romania), Zsolt Garai began piano lessons at a young age. He attended the Sabin Dragoi Art School (Arad), proceeding to the Gheorghe Dima Music Academy in Cluj, Napoca, where he studied organ and composition, taking a master’s degree in 2005 and receiving his PhD in 2013. With a busy international performing career in Europe, Zsolt Garai is presently a lecturer in the Music Pedagogy Department of the Emanuel University, Oradea Romania and is the harpsichordist in the “Il Pastor Fido” Baroque Music Ensemble.

The program opened with J.S.Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). Probably composed some time from 1703 to 1708 (the original manuscript did not survive) and published in 1833 through the efforts of Felix Mendelssohn, this work never fails to grip the listener with its opening unison phrase peeling out like a flash of lightning. Garai brought out all the Toccata’s different motifs, pacing them spontaneously and presenting the piece’s rhapsodic, dazzling character. With the Fugue beginning more modestly, he built it up gradually, offering its conversational aspect with small echoing responses, arriving at its momentous and dramatic interrupted cadence, giving way to brightly timbred runs, dissonant chords and energy to bring the work to an exhilarating conclusion.

We then heard a work written by Bernardo Storace, an Italian composer (fl.1664), about whom very little is known, apart from the fact that he was vice maestro di cappella to the Messina senate. His only known volume, an impressive collection of keyboard works published in Venice (1664), belies his predilection for variation forms. Garai’s performance of a Passacaglia (played with no pedals) was colored with timbral contrasts, also contrasts of meter and mode, with vitality as well as humor, its stylish, imaginative keyboard writing and varied techniques attesting to the composer’s own technical ability.

Daniel Croner (1656-1740), apparently a native of Kronstadt (now Brasov, Romania), a theologian and composer of organ music, completed four books of organ tablatures. A scribe, he was known to have spent four years copying works from the Brasov manuscript, mostly for his own use and for the Lutheran service. The Magnificat 8 toni, from the Brasov manuscript, consists of five verses, based on a traditional cantus firmus, probably originally alternating with sung chant. In four of them, the cantus is presented in long note values in the pedals, with the two manuals creating contrapuntal lines boasting much imitation. Garai’s playing offered an informed glimpse into the articulate and imaginative style of German pre-Bach organ composition, conservative and unpretentious in nature, yet innovative and certainly not lacking in dissonance.

An introspective moment was provided by French organist and composer Alexandre Guilmant’s (1837-1911) Sonatina, an organ arrangement of the first movement of Bach’s funeral Cantata no.106 “Gottes Zeit” (Actus Tragicus). Garai captured the meditative atmosphere of the work, the melody (scored by Bach for recorder) singing in bell-like tones against a veiled, mysteriously evocative registration of the lower instruments.

C.P.E Bach’s Sonata in G minor Wq70,6, one of five or six for the organ, takes the listener away from the complex counterpoint of Baroque organ music and into the realm of transparent lines bristling with melodic ideas. They use the manuals only as they were written for Princess Amalia of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s sister, who was unable to play the pedals. Garai’s unmannered and direct approach in his performance of the G minor sonata entertained the listeners with the music’s galant style, humor and joie-de-vivre.

The last two pieces on the program connected directly with J.S.Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor that had opened the recital. The first was “Ataccot” by Enjott Schneider (b. 1950, Germany), a musician of amazing versatility; musicologist, organist, singer, conductor and organist, he is a major composer of film music, his works characterized by the merging of many styles, from serial techniques to rock music. “Ataccot”, a tongue-in-cheek piece for organ, is simply a retrograde version of the D minor Toccata (hence its name). Neither unpleasing nor nonsensical to the ear, this piece is effective. In his playing of it, Zsolt Garai preserved Bach’s majestic soundscape. Listening to it, I found myself unraveling the various motifs to restore them to their originasl order!

The artist enjoyed the quality of the organ at the Cathedral, finding it lively and reactive. Garai's choice of the Toccata was not coincidental: as a doctoral candidate, he did research on the origins of the organ toccata from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The recital ended with Zsolt Garai’s “To-kka-tes”, also inspired by-and based on the same Bach Toccata. Taking motifs from the Toccata, Garai develops them with a generous dose of fantasy, dynamic variety, textures and timbres, choosing motifs that produce some decidedly dissonant and energetic material, his use of clusters imaginative and vivid. An avalanche of ideas sounding fresh and spontaneous and displaying the organ’s colorist possibilities, Garai gave the virtuosic text his all, signing out with a merging of old and new and the wink of an eye.