Monday, September 1, 2014

The Jerusalem Academy Choir in concert prior to its concert tour of Hungary

Maestro Stanley Sperber
On August 27th 2014, the Jerusalem Academy of Music Chamber Choir, conducted by its artistic director Professor Stanley Sperber, performed a program of a-cappella works prior to the choir’s concert tour of Hungary as guest choir of the 2014 Jewish Summer Festival. The concert took place in the Navon Hall (Giv’at Ram Campus) adjacent to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, in the presence of Mr. Yitzhak Navon, fifth President of the State of Israel and Honorary President of the JAMD, Attorney Yair Green and other members of the Academy board of directors. Established by Avner Itai in 1969, the Academy Chamber Choir (manager: Nir Cohen) today comprises 30 singers, mostly vocal department majors training for careers in singing. The ensemble performs the gamut of choral music, appearing widely. One highlight of the choir’s 2013-2014 season was singing in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polish Requiem”, conducted by the composer himself. One of the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir’s upcoming performances in Hungary will take place in the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, the largest synagogue in Europe, having seating for some 3000 people.

The evening’s program was rich in content, offering a wide selection of a-cappella mixed choir repertoire. The singers set the scene with Salamone Rossi’s 6-voiced motet “Od’cha” (Psalm 118:21-24), their natural singing voices blending to create a bright, unadulterated choral sound, allowing for the work’s meaning to shine through:
‘I thank you that you have answered me
And brought salvation to me.
The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the cornerstone…’
The choir gave a beautifully introspective performance of Henry Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer” (Psalm 102:2), its suspensions and false relations used to communicate and color the text. Sperber’s reading of William Byrd’s anthem for six voices “Sing Joyfully” (Psalm 81:2-5) uses incisive textures to fire the piece’s brilliant counterpoint and exuberance, vocal textures also evoking timbres of the timbrel, harp, viol and trumpet, all mentioned in the text.

A unique work on the program, and of Giuseppe Verdi’s oeuvre, was “Ave Maria” (1889), a motet based on a bizarre enigmatic scale devised- and advertised in a journal by a certain Adolfo Crescentini, who challenged composers to write a work using it. The aging Verdi took up the challenge, his result magical and austere, unusual in its harmonic ambiguity and a technical tour-de-force. The Academy Chamber Choir’s performance of it was soul-searching and spiritual, the members’ transparent choral sound allowing for the rising and falling cantus firmus, the “scala enigmatica”, to be followed.

A central and larger work of the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St, Cecilia” opus 27 (text: W.H.Auden), one of the choral masterpieces of 20th century English music and a work that challenges performers on many levels – technical, emotional and interpretational. The Academy Choir’s fresh, bright and poignantly luminous timbre was wholly suited to the concept of early 20th century British (and the young Britten’s) choral sound (the boy soprano solo in the third section replaced here, for obvious reasons, by a woman soprano); Sperber and his singers worked effectively with Auden’s imaginative text and precarious transitions.

Hungarian music, of one form or another, occupied a central part of the program. There were two arrangements of pieces by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1744-1828), the first Hassidic Rebbe of Hungary, sometimes referred to as the “sweet singer of Israel”; Yehezkel Braun’s arrangement of Taub’s “Royz, Royz” (Rose, rose) was sung in Yiddish, while “Szól a Kakas Már”(The rooster crows in the morning), a traditional Hungarian Hassidic tune arranged in lush harmonies by the choir’s associate conductor Tami Kleinhaus, was performed in Hungarian. We heard Zoltán Kodály’s arrangement of the Hungarian folksong “Esti Dal” (Evening darkness overtook me near the woods), its touching melodic beauty outlined by unaffected soprano voices set against gentle humming and, then surprisingly, Koday’s full-bodied setting of “Baruch Shem K’vod” (Blessed be the name of the glory) from the Jewish prayer book, in Hebrew! Stanley Sperber spoke of Kodaly’s interaction with Jews and his familiarity with “nussach” (traditional Jewish melody). The program also included works of Hungarian-born Israeli composers. In Oedoen Partos’s (1907-1977) fine setting of the “Mavdil” prayer (Who distinguishes), based on traditional Sephardic tunes, the choir presented the work’s strong melodiousness and ample dissonances with joy and spontaneity. Composer and ethnomusicologist Andre Hajdu (b.1932), who was a student of Kodály in Budapest, was present at the Academy concert. His tonal, playful “Arba Midot” (Four Qualities) was followed by “She’elot Habanim” (Questions of the Sons), a small but vivid canvas in which Hajdu’s writing brings to life characters from the Passover Haggadah with sharp theatrical color, humor and some references to Jewish cantillation.

Still within the realm of Jewish music, the choir performed Stanley Sperber’s arrangement of Ben Zion Shenker’s “Eshet Chayil” (A Woman of Worth), Proverbs 31:10-31. Shenker (b.1925), a Modzitz Hassid from Brooklyn, has done much to maintain the Modzitz musical tradition, but is also a leading composer of Chassidic music in his own right. “Eshet Chayil” is one of his best known Sabbath songs; the choir gave this jaunty arrangement a sympathetic and charming rendition.

Maestro Sperber then led his singers through a selection of Israeli song repertoire: following a spirited reading of Mordechai Zeira’s “Shirat Hechalil” (Song of the Flute) (arr. Michael Wolpe), the darbuka accompaniment lending zing and regional flavor, we heard a sensitive performance of David Zehavi’s “Halicha LeKesaria” (A Walk to Caesarea), in an arrangement by Shai Sobol, a graduate of the choir. Its text is by Hannah Szenes (1921-1944), a young woman who assisted in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz and who was eventually tried and executed. The song was sung by the Academy Chamber Choir at Dachau two years ago. In a lighter vein, Tami Kleinhaus’s spiffy, bluesy, joyful arrangement of Yoni Rechter’s “Atur Mitzchech” (Your forehead is ornamented), then Menachem Wiesenberg’s jagged, densely textured, full-on dissonant arrangement of Yohanan Zarai’s “Vayiven Uziyahu” (And Uziyahu built) (Chronicles II, 26:9-10), a daring and interesting musical gesture on the part of the arranger and a real feat on the part of the singers!

Yehezkel Braun was born in Germany in 1922. His family moved to Mandate Palestine when he was two, where he grew up surrounded by local traditional music that was later to leave a profound influence on him as a composer. He was deeply interested in Jewish melody and Gregorian chant. Yehezkel Braun died on August 27th 2014, the very day of the Academy concert. For all present, it was especially meaningful to hear his “Hem Amru” (They said) from the Sayings of the Fathers. A work written in 2005, this is a small musical gem, one of the many by Yehezkel Braun. We were well entertained by the piece, as by the soloists, as the singers enunciated the verses articulately, presenting the many shades of wisdom and meaning of each verse.

Professor Sperber brings solo voices together to form a fine choral blend. Throughout the evening, the students performed many solos within the works. Under Stanley Sperber’s guidance, the Academy Chamber Choir excels in precision and fine intonation, in the performing of different styles and in warmth of sound resulting from good teamwork and enjoyment.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Maggie Cole and Idit Shemer perform music of Philippe Gaubert at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv

Idit Shemer
Maggie Cole


A truly unique program to see the 2013-2014 Israeli concert season out was “Philippe Gaubert’s Coloring Box”, a concert performed by Israeli flautist Idit Shemer and visiting keyboard artist Maggie Cole (USA/UK). This writer attended the performance at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on June 28th
 2014. The recital consisted solely of music for flute and piano by French composer, flautist and conductor Philippe Gaubert. Cole and Shemer have been working on the Gaubert project for a year. At the end of August, they will be resident musicians at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, New Hampshire, also making a recording of Gaubert’s works.

Philippe Gaubert (1869-1941) was one of the primary interpreters of the French flute school. His father, a cobbler and a fine amateur clarinetist, gave him his first music lessons. As a child, Gaubert took flute lessons with Jules Taffanel and later with his son the great pedagogue Paul Taffanel. In his teens, Gaubert played first flute at the Concerts du Conservatoire and the Paris Opéra, becoming assistant conductor at the Concerts du Conservatoire from 1904 and professor of flute at the Paris Conservatoire following World War I, also building up a splendid career as a conductor, particularly of modern music. His first recordings were made in 1918. He became musical director of the Paris Opéra in 1920. Gaubert was still conducting with the Opéra when it was evacuated to Cahors – his hometown – in June 1940. His oeuvre includes many chamber works, several scored for flute – reflecting the revolution in flute playing initiated by Debussy and flute builder Theobald Boehm - but also for other instruments. Gaubert also composed songs, three symphonic poems, a violin concerto, ballet music and two operas – “Fresques” (1923) and “Naïla” (1927). Today, he is probably best remembered by flautists for his editing and completion of Paul Taffanel’s comprehensive treatise “Méthode complete de flute”, published in 1923, a major treatise covering the history, theory and practice of the flute. With Gaubert a prominent flautist/composer of his day, his music is now enjoying renewed interest. In 2009, the renowned French flautist and flute teacher Nicolas Duchamp was formally commissioned by the Gaubert family to celebrate Gaubert's life, music and contribution to the French art of flute playing. This took the form of concerts performed worldwide titled "GAUBERT VIVANT!" with pianist Barbara McKenzie, premiering in Paris in 2009. Duchamp has also recorded using the famous Gaubert flute.

The concert opened with “Sicilienne”, originally composed for flute and orchestra, but better known in its setting for flute and piano, probably arranged by Gaubert himself. Other short pieces we heard were “Romance”, “Ballade” and “Madrigal”. The major works of the recital were the first two of Gaubert’s three neo Romantic/Impressionistic sonatas for flute and piano – Sonata no. 1 in A major (1917), dedicated to the memory of Paul Taffanel and Sonata no. 2 in C major (1924) dedicated to the renowned flautist and teacher Marcel Moyse. What came across throughout the concert was the fine sense of balance and give-and-take Shemer and Cole have created. Their total immersion in- and communication of Gaubert’s lyrical, delicate style (influenced much by Fauré and Debussy) took the audience on a journey of superbly crafted, lush melodic playing and suave harmonic color, imaginative transitions, pastoral associations (Sonata no.2), alluring inner voices, well crafted shapes and gentle whimsy. More intense moments were treated subtly, never tainted by excessive drama or roughness, the artists also keeping a safe distance from over-sentimentality in the works’ many intimate, gossamer-fine and mellifluous moments. Here were two artists offering polished, secure performance, fine collaboration and good taste. Gaubert offers the flute some sparkling, virtuosic passagework, his keyboard writing challenging, pianistic and by no means secondary; Cole and Shemer, however, used the music’s technical challenges to lend prominence to the music’s elegantly French aesthetic.

American-born Maggie Cole began playing piano as a child. An interest in early keyboards led her to England, where she studied harpsichord with Jill Severs and Kenneth Gilbert. Today she performs internationally on piano, harpsichord and fortepiano. She is a prominent figure on the early music scene. With an avid interest in the Classical style, she explores it with Trio Goya, in which she is joined by violinist Kati Debretzeni and ‘cellist Sebastian Comberti. A member of the Sarasa Ensemble, Cole frequently appears with them on harpsichord and fortepiano. She also has much interest in performing contemporary music. Residing in London, Maggie Cole is involved in community issues and active as a promoter of concerts, running concerts at London Lighthouse to raise money for this AIDS/HIV facility.

In addition to modern flute, Jerusalem-born Idit Shemer performs on early flutes. She studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the University of Wisconsin (USA) and in England. Performing in Israel and Europe, Shemer frequently appears as soloist with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, also playing in chamber groups and has recorded four CDs in recent years. Such composers as Oded Assaf, Oded Zehavi and Haim Alexander have composed works for her. Seeking to expand the repertoire for flute, she looks for original, unknown works and also arranges music written for other instruments. Apart from performing and teaching, Idit Shemer writes prose, has published two novels, the first having won the Prime Minister’s Prize.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"Spanish Soul" - Hadas Faran Asia, Ira Givol, Oded Shuv at the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Hadas Faran Asia
One of the more intimate events of the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival was “Spanish Soul – Lorca, De Falla, Bizet”, an afternoon concert June 7th in the crypt of the 12th century Abu Gosh Crusader Benedictine Church. Those performing were soprano Hadas Faran Asia, ‘cellist Ira Givol and guitarist Oded Shouv. In this, their first performing project together, the artists took the listener on a short historical tour through vocal- and instrumental Spanish music from the 15th century through to music of the 20th century, beginning with anonymous songs. Oded Shouv gave explanations on the various works, also providing most of the arrangements for the program.

One interesting arrangement was the merging of “Mille Regretz”, a chanson attributed to Josquin des Prez (c.1440-1521), with a version of the same text composed 100 years later by Luis de Narváez (fl.1526-1549) titled “La Canción del Emperador” (The Emperor’s Song) .
‘A thousand regrets at deserting you
And leaving behind your loving face.
I feel so much sadness and such painful distress
That it seems to me my days will soon dwindle away.’

An interesting work, and one probably unfamiliar to many of us in the audience, was G.F.Händel’s secular ‘Spanish’ Cantata “Nò se emenderà jamàs” (1707), an early composition from the composer’s Italian period and the only Händel cantata in the Spanish language, calling for obbligato guitar. Perfectly scored for this trio, the artists gave it a spirited and communicative performance, celebrating Händel’s only, somewhat enigmatic foray into Spanish music. In addition to being a poet, painter, pianist and arranger, Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) collected songs from singers in Spain. We heard three of his arrangements of these, set by him for voice and piano, rearranged by Oded Shouv for guitar and voice. Beginning with the off-beat rhythms of the untamed “Anda Jaleo” (Go Make a Row), to the sultry 15th century “La Morillas de Jaén” (Jaén’s Morals) to the vivid and exuberant “Viva Sevilla!” there was much fine collaboration between the two artists, with Faran Asia infusing the songs with verve, emotion and spontaneity and Shouv displaying real expertise and virtuosity in the Flamenco style. A friend of Lorca, Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was influenced by Flamenco-, gypsy music and by Impressionism. His “Siette Canciones Populares” (Seven Popular Songs) of 1914 feature songs from different regions of Spain, their pre-existing melodies and authentic texts arranged somewhat freely by the composer. Via the music’s fiery rhythms, its poignant moments, colorful scoring and textures and its intense dance rhythms, Faran-Asia, Shouv and Givol painted a scene of vivid Spanish colors and temperament. Punctuating the intensity and movement, time stood still in their poignant performance of the fragile lullaby “Nana”. A splendid arrangement of the Habanera and Seguidilla from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen” was the final vocal work on the program, with Faran Asia wholeheartedly depicting Carmen as a sensuous, fickle and hot-blooded character. Altogether, her temperament and vocal timbre and agility suit this musical genre; her performance was rewarding.

Offering a glimpse into Spanish instrumental music, Oded Shouv and Ira Givol gave a brilliant and dynamic reading of a Ricercada of Diego Ortiz (c.1510-1570), a clean, precise and athletic performance of Gaspar Sanz’ (1640-1710) “Canarios” - a lively, syncopated dance from the Canary Islands (originally written for the five-course Baroque guitar) - and a movement from Falla’s ballet “The Three-Cornered Hat” arranged by Shuv, in which the artists used instrumental effects to describe the situation involving the two main characters - an infatuated, macho judge and the miller’s gentle, faithful wife.

Offering an attractive program in the fine acoustics of the Crypt, these three artists, each known individually to the concert-going public, provided a polished and totally enjoyable musical event. This was excellent festival fare.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Soprano Keren Hadar, the Bat-Kol Girls' Choir, the Ma'ayan Choir and Sapir Quartet at the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Soprano Keren Hadar
Despite taking place parallel to the 2014 Israel Festival, the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (June 3rd to 7th, 2014) drew people from near and far, filling the two local churches to hear 17 different programs.

“Mendelssohn and Mozart with Keren Hadar” took place June 7th at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, a Catholic church, overlooking natural forests of Jerusalem Pine, built in Kyriat Yearim in 1911 on the site of 5th century Byzantine church. Joining Israeli-born soprano Keren Hadar were the Ma’ayan and Bat Kol Choirs, both directed by Anat Morahg, organists Janina Tsitrin and Odelia Eliazarov and the Sapir String Quartet (violinists Jana Gandelsman, Yonah Zur, violist Amos Boazson, ‘cellist Oleg Stolpner).

The program opened with the Bat-Kol Girls’ Choir in a scintillating, fresh-sounding performance of Alessandro Constantini’s (c.1581-1657) motet “Confitemini Domino” (Give thanks to the Lord). Morahg and her young singers gave expression to the piece’s pastoral nature and interesting textures in an impressive, uplifting and well contrasted performance of F.Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847)“Surrexit pastor bonus” (The shepherd blest has risen) opus 39 no.3 for female voices and organ, the girls’ bright, silvery voices a reminder to the listener that the work was inspired by the delicate sounds of a nuns’ choir Mendelssohn heard when traveling in Italy in 1830. Morahg’s work with this choir is outstanding: the girls sing by heart, their performance disciplined, polished and shaped, their voices blended. The Bat-Kol Girls’ Choir of the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, was founded by Anat Morahg, its current director and conductor. Consisting of some 100 children singing in three ensembles, choir and conductor have been recipients of several international prizes. Performing classical music, Israeli music and works especially written for it, the choir frequently performs with the Israeli Opera, with orchestras and under renowned international conductors.

Accompanied by the Sapir String Quartet and organ, we heard the Ma’ayan Choir’s superbly blended singing of “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord, all nations”), Psalm 117, the 5th movement of W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791)“Vesperes solennes de confessore” K.339 (1780). Soprano Keren Hadar’s singing of solo sections was richly colored and tinged with just the right amount of sweetness, the performance nevertheless communicating the work’s power. The same forces performed F.Mendelssohn’s most popular psalm-cantata “Wie der Hirsch schreit” (As the Hart Panteth) opus 42, Psalm 42. A high point of the concert, the work’s freshness, inspiration and energy came to the fore with attentive singing on the part of the choir and with Hadar’s silvery, stable and communicative solo performance. Established in 1974 and comprising some 45 singers, the Ma’ayan Choir, under the direction of Anat Morahg, is the official choir of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality. A selective ensemble, it performs a wide variety of repertoire, performing concerts, singing at official ceremonies and festivals and working with many Israeli orchestras and ensembles. An interesting artist, with a large scope of styles and genres in her repertoire and fine stage presence, Keren Hadar has become one of Israel’s most interesting and flexible singers today, performing both in Israel and abroad.

With singers of the Bat-Kol placed in the aisles, both choirs joined to present a joyful performance of the antiphonal Christmas motet “Duo Seraphim” (Two Seraphim) by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591), aptly depicting the call and response of the heavenly beings seen by the prophet Isaiah in a mystical vision.

Moving away from sacred music, instrumentalists, choral singers and soloist joined, providing suitable festival fare with selections from W.A.Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. Here was Hadar in a more operatic vein, addressing the arias with drama, joy, sympathy, freedom and splendid vocal control.

This was indeed an outstanding event of the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, providing high quality performance, colorful programming and much enjoyment to the large audience gathered at the Kyriat Yearim Church.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sephardic music performed by Ensemble Me La Amargates Tu at the 2014 Israel Festival

A unique event of the 2014 Israel Festival was “My Heart Remembers” – Romances and Canciones from Sepharad - performed by Ensemble “Me La Amargates Tú” on June 7th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. “Me La Amargates Tú” was formed as the result of interest in- and research on Sephardic music and Spanish music of the 15th-, 16th and 17th centuries. Using the original Ladino lyrics of the former, the ensemble combines Jewish folkloric tradition with elements from the period in which Sephardic communities were living in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the expulsion of Jews by the Inquisition. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, when scholars began recording and notating them, the singing of Sephardic songs was orally preserved, being passed down from generation to generation. The traditional language of many Sephardic Jews is Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish), a language mainly derived from Old Castilian (Spanish), with words borrowed from Turkish, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and South Slavic. Depending on when and where they were composed, their melodies and rhythms were colored by Spanish, Turkish, Arabic and Balkan music. Mostly sung on social occasions, and mostly by women, the Ladino songs focus on everyday life events and sentiments, on love, sadness, loneliness, despair, happiness, etc.

With each artist hailing from a different country, the group’s members meet in The Hague, Holland. Members of the ensemble are tenor Esteban Manzano (Argentina), recorder player Doret Florentin (Greece/Israel), viol player Tulio Rondón (Venezuela/USA), Sarah Ridy (UK/Belgium) on Baroque harp and percussionist Juan Martinez (Mexico). Guest singer for the event was Israeli mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol. The ensemble takes its name from line 7 of “Adio Querida” (Goodbye, my Beloved), a song of love and loss:
‘When your mother delivered you
And brought you into the world
She did not give you a heart
To love with and be loved.

Farewell, farewell my dear,
I do not want my life.
You have embittered it for me.

Go look for another love,
Knock on other doors,
Wait for another passion,
Because for me you are dead.

Farewell, farewell, my dear.’

With the first notes of “I Will Seek You at Dawn”, sung to a liturgical poem of Ibn Gabirol (11th century) in both Hebrew and Ladino, the audience was swept into the enchanting world of Sephardic song, many of the pieces familiar to members of the audience, who occasionally joined in with gentle humming. The ensemble’s instrumental combinations and, in particular, the sensitive, delicate, evocative arrangements at the hands of the players, presented each work with a fusion of imagination, the art of understatement and delicacy. Having the texts at hand gave the audience a glimpse into the folk stories behind the songs, many of them bathed in gentle humor. One well-known song, the amiable, somewhat whimsical “El Rey de Francia” (The King of France) tells of the daughter of the King of France who dreams of love. The song opened with the harp joined by soprano viol, thus creating a dream-like mood, its dialogue sung by Bracha Kol and Esteban Manzano. As heard several times during the evening, Doret Florentin’s inspiring and enterprising recorder improvisations and ornamentation were enough to keep the listener poised at the edge of his seat. The traditional Ladino lullaby “Durme Durme” (Sleep, Sleep) , introduced by tenor recorder and harp, and graced with gently intimated percussion sounds and a viol solo, was sung by Manzano with beguiling subtlety. Altogether, Esteban Manzano’s performance throughout the evening was charismatic and moving; his voice is warm, nuanced, easeful and richly colored, his insightful delving into the music’s sentiments finding its way directly to the listener’s heart. Bracha Kol’s lusty approach to the songs gave a voice to some of the more robust and salacious texts, at times sidestepping the fragility of settings.

Another genre represented on the program was the “villancico”, as found in the “Cancionero de Palacio” manuscript (Spain, 1470-1510). The villancico was a common poetic and musical form of the Iberian Peninsula (and Latin America) sung in the vernacular. “Me La Amargates Tú” performed four of them. The instrumentalists also gave tasteful and well-informed performances of two Ricercadas of Diego Ortiz (1510-1570).

Me La Amargates Tu is a group combining serious enquiry into Sephardic Jewish music, fine performance and refreshing spontaneity. Let's hear more of this superb ensemble!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Kaleidoscope - Katharine Abrahams and Bridget Cunningham - in a program on David and Saul and the power of music

A unique concert - its Israeli premiere - on the subject of David and Saul was performed on June 5th 2014 at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center (Tel Aviv) by Kaleidoscope – Katharine Abrahams (Israel) and Bridget Cunningham (UK). Some of the music performed was based on the research of Parisian organist and composer Suzanne Haik-Vantoura (1912-2000), who devoted her enquiry to deciphering the melodies found in the Masoretic text, and on that of her American student John Wheeler. Their research focused on the ancient Jewish rite of singing the scriptures according to the once thriving musical system of the ancient Levites. The evening's program, filmed to be part of a documentary, included works from Baroque musical repertoire and earlier, a variety of readings and some Jewish prayers sung in melodies as deciphered in the thirty years of Haik-Vantoura's work.

The concert opened with a Niggun (melody) of music by Shlomo Carlebach, played by Bridget Cunningham. Harpsichordist and opera conductor, Cunningham has researched and recorded with London Early Opera. Her recent solo harpsichord CD "Hӓndel in Ireland" won her great acclaim. Throughout the evening, she performed some movements from Kuhnau's Biblical Sonata no.2. Johann Kuhnau (1660-1672), remembered as being Bach's predecessor as cantor of the Thomas School, Leipzig, published his six highly programmatic, complex and inventive keyboard (the keyboard instrument not specified) Biblical Sonatas in 1700, the second of which is titled "The Melancholy of Saul Assuaged by Means of Music". Its opening depicts Saul's melancholy in depth via chromatics and strange harmonies. Cunningham's virtuosic, easeful playing of the movements of the sonata was invigorating and picturesque, inspired and inspiring as she took the audience through "Saul's affliction and madness" to "the refreshing music of David's harp", ending with "the King more at peace". Her gently swayed reading of G.F.Hӓndel's Passacaille from Suite no.7 in g minor displayed her secure, forthright signature touch.

Katharine Abrahams, known to the Israeli concert scene as a Baroque 'cellist and recorder player, added much to the meditative atmosphere of the program with the tranquil, filigree sounds of her Celtic harp. Now on recorder, her playing of C.P.E. Bach's Sonata for transverse (Baroque) flute without bass H.562 was reflective and well delineated, breathing spontaneity. Then on 'cello, daring and personal inspiration and temperament were the basis for her reading of the Prelude and Allemande from J.S.Bach's 'cello Suite in G major BWV 1007, as she allowed the Allemande to dictate rubato and flexibility in performance that was rewarding. In A.Corelli's virtuosic "La Folia" in g minor (1702), Abrahams (recorder)and Cunningham created the variations with constant interest and in a gamut of moods; Cunningham's playing offered individual input, with Abrahams' playing rich in ornaments, textures and agility. Following the reading of writings of composer, keyboard player, singer and theorist J.Mattheson (1681-1764)in which he extols the qualities of music as "glorifying God, softening emotions, uniting and creating aversion to all vices, also having the power to cure mental- and other sicknesses", we heard the artists in a suave, melancholic reading of J.Mattheson's Air in g minor, their sound broad, generous and singing. Their fine sense of communication, coupled with the individual character of both instruments, came to the fore in a performance of D. Buxtehude's (1637/9-1707)Sonata in G major for viola da gamba.

In words on "the power of music", emphasizing the fact that the Jewish scriptures were intended to be sung, Katharine Abrahams posed the question of "what if we could really hear the sounds originally sung to the Scriptures as dictated by the te'amim (a "hidden" set of melodic signs appearing on the texts). Against the delicate sounds of the Celtic harp (and gentle humming on the part of Cunningham), she then performed the "Shema" prayer and the Aaronic Blessing, singing the melodies as deciphered by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura. Abrahams' voice, pleasing well-anchored and unforced, mixes lyrical- with smoky timbres. Her singing of the texts comes from deep conviction.

The result of much thought and interesting planning, here was a highly creative and personal program, a far cry from mainstream concert fare, in the hands of two fine artists.
Harpsichordist Bridget Cunningham
Katharine Abrahams
Katharine Abrahams and Bridget Cunningham have been performing together for 20 years, since their student days in London. In the meantime, Abrahams, who resides in Jerusalem, has been doing a lot of research on biblical music and the healing powers of music. Cunningham, who today lives in the Dordogne, France, spoke of their plans to expand the project, possibly also adding some orchestral music.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs J.S.Bach's organ Trio Sonatas in several venues around Israel

Na'ama Lion,Marina Minkin,Noam Schuss,Myrna Herzog
J.S.Bach composed the Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 for organ or pedal clavichord (an instrument the Bach household possessed, possibly for practicing works to later be played on pipe organ). They were found in an autograph dating from the composer’s first few years in Leipzig, where he lived from 1723 till his death in 1750. In his 1802 Bach biography, Johann Nikolaus Forkel writes that the works were written for Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, to give him practice in dexterity on the organ. In which case, they join other pedagogical collections of keyboard works, such as the Inventions. And we know that Wilhelm Friedemann went on to have a brilliant career as organist. The sonatas demand outstanding coordination of hands and feet, with three lines played on two keyboards and pedal. There is much variation in the registrations organists choose for these pieces. Some believe in selecting three different timbres for the three voices, allowing for every detail of the counterpoint to be heard. Others are of the opinion that the sonatas benefit from similarity of timbre in the voices. Here, Bach is offering a wide scope in how the player may concern himself with “good taste”. Even more of Bach’s flexibility is displayed by that fact that Bach was constantly reworking pieces to use them in new settings: the first movement of Trio Sonata in e minor BWV 528 began its existence as an instrumental trio for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and harpsichord in Cantata no.76, whereas the Adagio e Dolce from Sonata in d minor BWV 527 was later recast as the middle movement of the BWV 1044 Triple Concerto.

It is highly likely that Bach wrote a lot of chamber music that has been lost and there is quite a choice of arrangements of these trio sonatas for chamber ensembles. Indeed, here Bach himself was imitating a chamber genre in the three-movement Italian model. Consider the fact that these works are not the flamboyant organ toccatas and fugues, nor are they characterized by the mysticism of the organ chorale-preludes. So it is fitting that Myrna Herzog, founder and director of the PHOENIX Ensemble, should choose to play a concert of these pieces on four instruments, a true trio sonata line-up of violin–Noam Schuss, flute-Na’ama Lion (USA/Israel), harpsichord-Marina Minkin and with Herzog herself on viol. This writer attended the concert on May 31st 2014 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem.

From the very first sounds of Trio Sonata in G major BWV 525, one became acutely aware of the Scottish Church’s receptive acoustic, displaying the clarity and beauty of these period instruments. In probably the first of the six to be written, offering a fusion of sonata- and concerto styles, the players set out the musical narrative with crystal clarity and freshness. Schuss and Lion created dialogue that was joyful, bristling with interest and appealing, each retaining her- and the instrument’s individuality. However, all instruments had much to say and I found myself needing to tune in to the melodic and harmonic richness of each individually. Sonata in d minor BWV 527 was presented as a suave gamba sonata, the harpsichord part being an obbligato role. Herzog and Minkin engaged in discourse of the most mellow of coloring in a relaxed setting, their tempi carefully paced, their flexing subtle. Sixteenth notes and arpeggii were threaded into the lush text with delicacy and understatement, the artists’ message being that this was no showpiece, rather the noble music of a Lutheran church composer. Trio Sonata in D major opened with a lively soundscape, its imitative style giving flute and violin a green light to intertwine their thoughts in a texture where the flute took the upper strand, with Schuss the middle (left hand on the organ), as they played with sixteenth notes that oscillated around a fixed pedal point followed by lively eighth notes. In the Lento, the artists expressed the Siciliano movement’s profound three-voiced dialogue, careful not to over-embellish, lest they camouflage the nuances of melodic lines.

PHOENIX presented Sonata in C major BWV 530 as a flute and obbligato sonata. Together with its sparkling, virtuosic character, very much of the Vivaldian concerto style, Na’ama Lion (her well-anchored sound defying the “shrinking violet” character adopted by many Baroque flautists) chose to show the listener through the text’s course, with Marina Minkin’s rich and elegant playing highlighting prominent moments. Their playing was celebratory, intelligent and interactive. Sonata in e minor BWV 528 was performed as a violin sonata with obbligato harpsichord. Harpsichord and viol provided a solid bass through which continuum Schuss threaded the upper line. Noam Schuss’s playing is directional, secure and informed, always rewarding. As all address the serious character of the work, Schuss moves through its expansiveness and textural density, also standing back to give Minkin the stage. Dr. Myrna Herzog referred to Trio Sonata in d minor BWV 526 as “the most loaded”. Opening with graceful, buoyant playing of the Vivace, the players’ reading of it was both perceptive and introspective, the haunting Largo movement, with Minkin making use of the lute register, gentle, mellifluous and contemplative. The players had their listeners sitting on the edge of their chairs as they presented the choral-style fugue, its subject fanfared by two noble whole notes, a tour-de-force of compositional brilliance and beauty to end the concert.

This program was the result of much searching work, discussion and decisions of all four artists. To anyone not familiar with these works on organ, it might have seemed that these trio sonatas were scored for the PHOENIX quartet instrumentation. In tailored melodic lines that “sang”, at no time overloaded with showy ornaments, the players’ clarity of texture and lightness were all to the good of Bach’s ingenious counterpoint. This was playing of commitment, of beauty of melodies, of inner dialogue, of sincerity and musical persuasiveness. In an anonymous quote of 1788, some wise person (was it C.P.E. Bach?) wrote: “Bach’s trios still sound good; they will never grow old, but, on the contrary, will outlive all revolutions of fashion in music.”