Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pianist Amir Katz performs Bach and Chopin in Tel Aviv recital

Israeli pianist Amir Katz performed a solo recital at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv, on March 21st 2015. Born in Israel in 1973, Amir Katz lives in Berlin today, running a busy international performing schedule of solo recitals, chamber music and performance with orchestras. Since 2010, he has been accompanying Slovakian-born tenor Pavol Breslik. Their outstanding CD of Schubert’s “Schöne Müllerin” for the ORFEO label was recently released. In fact, Amir Katz’s recordings have won him great acclaim. In November 2014, he performed in the world premiere of a concerto by Chinese composer Xiaogang Ye with the German Radio Philharmonic Orchestra in Munich.

Of late, Amir Katz has focused much on Romantic repertoire in both recitals and recordings. The Tel Aviv recital brought together works of J.S.Bach and Chopin. Strange bedfellows? Well, no, surprisingly not. Katz has managed to juxtapose works of the two composers in a masterful and relevant fashion. The concert opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s English Suite No.3 in g minor BWV 808. The six English Suites (unsuitably named English for reasons not clear till today) are his earliest keyboard suites, now thought to have been composed around 1715 during Bach’s employ at the Weimar court. Katz opened with a forthright reading of the Prelude, his approach to the hearty chordal writing of the smaller and larger “instrumental groups” of its concerto grosso-type form including much voice play. As to the dances that follow, Katz goes straight to the heart of the music, presenting the character of each dance together with the beauty and intimacy of the music, from the personal utterance of the Allemande, to the daring Sarabande with its florid, ornamented repeats, from the playful, unabashedly semplice Gavotte, to the energy Katz releases in his clear analysis and precise playing of the complex counterpoint of the Gigue Bach composed in the form of a three-part fugue. In his performance of English Suite No.3, Katz played off the elegance of French court dances with Bach’s German intellect. With some ornaments emerging a little heavy at times, his playing presented fine detail and articulate melodic lines.

This was followed by the artist’s performance of Frédéric Chopin’s 12 Etudes opus 10. Making for a smooth connection, could one perhaps surmise that Etude no.1 was inspired by Prelude no.1 of Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in form, harmonically and in the arpeggiation woven throughout? We are reminded that Chopin’s Opus 10 marks the beginning of the modern school of piano playing, with each study clearly focusing on a specific technical aspect and addressing the new tonal potential of the piano. Amir Katz, however, sees the work’s technical originality and challenges as a means to presenting the intellectual and emotional dimensions of these superb pieces (the first work to display Chopin’s fully formed genius) and of highlighting the contrasts between them. Katz does this via a technique that is crystal clear and eloquent touch. His playing of Etude no.6, for example, offered a mysterious element, its richly chromatic middle voice subtle, its melodic lines legato and personal. I especially enjoyed Etude no.9 with its minor “narrative”, its drama and rapid modulations and fast changing dynamics, with the pianist divulging a second subdued melodic line hidden among the left hand arpeggios. Katz presents his audience with the composer’s score and intentions, staying well clear of the over-pedalled and ego-centred performances of Chopin so often heard in concert halls in the name of “Romantic music”.

Following the intermission, Amir Katz took the listener back to Bach, this time playing the Prelude in e-flat minor and its enharmonic partner, the Fugue in d-sharp minor from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The Prelude has a spontaneous, improvised character, Bach having written in the key of e-flat minor in only one other instance (Minuet no.2 of the E-flat major Harpsichord Suite), its minor orientation and slow harmonic development giving the piece a unique, floating, star-struck feel. Katz allowed each motif and gesture to dictate the manner of its presentation. He carried the mysterious ethos and perhaps Bach’s divine inspiration into the large d-sharp minor Fugue, showing the listener through the many expositions, augmentation and varied use of stretto with humility.

Chopin’s second set of Etudes – opus 25 – appeared in 1837, with a dedication to Countess Marie d’Agoult (Liszt’s mistress). Of these pieces, British pianist and Chopin and Liszt authority Robert Collet wrote that the Opus 25 Etudes are “the most universal of his works”, that they “transcend barriers of time and nationality…” Katz fashioned an almost seamless and totally acceptable transition from the Bach Fugue into the first Etude, the “Aeolian Harp”, of which Clara Schumann had said that it “embodied the playing of Chopin himself.” Light, clean and delicate, his playing spelled out the piece’s evocative melody above a maze of pastel filigree lines. Through his own insight and superb technique, Katz proceeded to bring to life the fusion of Chopin’s musical imagination and writing of opulence unparalleled in the composer’s oeuvre. He added a touch of humor to the fast repetitive rhythms and strong accents of Etude no.3 (F major) and whimsy to no.5’s melodies sweeping up and down the keyboard. And how very poetic Etude no.6 sounded, with its play of chromatics manipulated in 3rds! Katz took the audience through the meditative course of No.7 with its sumptuous left hand melody, his playing profound and meaningful. In the whole of the piano repertoire, there are few works as difficult (punishing!) in technical demands as in the outer sections of Etude no.10 (b minor), with its stormy, triplet-driven intensity, relieved only temporarily by its lyrical middle section, and how dramatically satisfying this was to the listener! Following it was “The Winter Wind” (no.11), a true storm scene, whether a descriptive or emotional storm, leading into Amir Katz’s inspiring and soul-searching recreating of the ebullient canvas of the final Etude - no.12 (c minor), the “Ocean” Etude, a piece that includes many elements of other Opus 25 etudes, and, of course, a 4-voiced contrapuntal line, its harmony and melody a reminder of Chopin’s love of and familiarity with Bach’s music. So had we come the full circle? It seems we had.

This was indeed a memorable evening.

Monday, March 23, 2015

PHOENIX Ensemble "In Search of the Chaconne"

Ensemble PHOENIX’s latest program “In Search of the Chaconne” presents many approaches to the chaconne and asks a number of questions about this early form. This writer attended the concert at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on March 17th 2015. PHOENIX is a broad, multi-faceted ensemble specializing in early music. PHOENIX's repertoire ranges from music from the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and Baroque to early Romantic music, all played on period instruments. Herzog, however, does not limit herself when it comes to the presenting of a very broad repertoire, introducing audiences to works rarely performed and, in fact, to new music. Such was the case in this concert. Artists taking part in the program were Tali Goldberg and Cordelia Hagmann (Baroque violin), Miriam Manasherov (Baroque viola), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba).

There is reason to understand that the chaconne, originally a fiery, suggestive dance that appeared in Spain around 1600, may have originated in Mexico. Apparently danced with castanets by a couple or a woman alone, it spread to Italy, where it was considered as disreputable as it was in Spain! Viewed as obscene because of the indecent costumes worn to dance it or because of the vulgar body language it entailed, some people have even attributed the dance’s invention to the devil! In the 17th century, a more subdued, stately and slower version of the chaconne entered the French court, where it also appeared in the stage works of Lully. Usually in triple time, the music is characterized by variations over a recurring bass or harmonic pattern. As to the difference between the chaconne and passacaglia, some theorists have defined the chaconne as a set of variations over a harmonic progression, as opposed to the passacaglia variation form being written over a melodic bass pattern. However, one can find the reverse theory; so attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded.

The PHOENIX program opened with Passacaglia in g minor Op.22 by one of Italy’s first virtuoso violinists Biagio Marini (1587-1663). Indulging in the lush affects of this beguilingly tragic piece, the artists rode on the piece’s dissonances, with ornamenting that was personal and inspired by the moment. There were other “mainstream” chaconnes, too. Issued in by the ostinato subject played pizzicato on the viol, the two violinists took on the musical play, complexities and virtuosity of Tarquino Merula’s (c.1594-1665) Ciaccona with fine assuredness and clear interaction between them. The piece also offers the viol a lively, intricate solo. Then, to the poetic expressiveness of the Chaconne in D-major, taken from the first volume of Marain Marais’ “Pièces de Viole”. Herzog and Minkin’s performance of this was anchored on a delicate sense of balance, bringing out the flow of new ideas and highlighting its French elegance and understatement. Although a solo viol piece by Marin Marais (1656-1728) to whom German music theorist, organist and composer Johann G. Walther referred to as “an incomparable French violist da gamba, whose works are known in the whole of Europe”, one was also constantly reminded of the interest and sophistication of the harpsichord role. Written for dance at court or in the theatre, the chaconne of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) Pavan and Chacony (“Chacony” seems to be Purcell’s own term) in g-minor, an early work dating from around 1680, is based on a freely descending tetrachord. It was given its own authentic string expressiveness and “narrative” by the artists, who presented the composer’s mastery of writing variations which grow in power and magic as they proceed through a series of harmonic adventures. One of many chaconnes by G.F.Händel, we heard the chaconne from “Terpsichore”, the ballet-prologue the composer wrote in 1734 for his third version of “Il Pastor Fido”. Here was a chaconne to be danced, written for performance of the French dancer and choreographer Marie Sallé, who performed in this and other Händel operas from 1734-1736, when she was in London.
There were some Baroque composers, to name two, G.Frescobaldi and François Couperin, who enjoyed the play of ambiguity in composition, as they used genre characteristics in a tongue-in-cheek manner. A curious departure from the chaconne was heard In Couperin’s rondeau-chaconne “La Favorite”, written in duple time, rather than triple, yet linked to the dance form by its stately character and its cyclic form. Its recurring bass line is a chromatic scale with figurations. Bristling with interest, Marina Minkin’s reading of this ”Chaconne à deux temps” presented Couperin’s picturesque harpsichord expression, unfailing interest and variety, as she juxtaposed the color of registers and used creative ornamentation to intensify and, sometimes, to relax the music’s course. Minkin also performed a 20th century work inspired by the same form – Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) “Passacaglia Ungherese”. One of only two harpsichord pieces Ligeti had written, it is based on eight intervals slowly spiraling downward through invertible counterpoint; the composer’s instructions were that it be performed on an instrument tuned to mean-tone temperament, producing eight completely pure intervals. The total effect has a curious otherworldly effect and makes for a beguiling mood piece, a dialogue in a non-tonal musical language with a few somewhat tonal progressions. Add to this some elegant melodies, growing rhythmic intricacy and intensifying, blatant fraught dissonances. Minkin, known for her performance of modern music, juggled the many elements of this piece with great skill and insight.

Another very different take on the dance form at hand was British composer Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) Chaconne from Suite No.1 in E-flat opus 28 (1909), written for wind band. (Holst was a trombonist). The Chaconne (first movement) is based on a 14-note melody that moves from instrument to instrument, with much weaving of varied lines in and through the ground. In this concert, the work was played on strings only, and period instruments at that! But the instrumentalists recreated the articulacy, atmosphere and sound world of early 20th century British music very successfully, reminding one of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ description of Holst’s music as “uncompromisingly direct (it) reaches into the unknown but never loses touch with humanity”.

The event also included world premieres of two chaconnes, both composed for PHOENIX and for the program. Of his Chaconne, violinist, violist and composer Jonathan Keren wrote: “Treating a melody or a recurring bass have always fascinated me, so I was happy when Myrna Herzog asked me to write a chaconne for the PHOENIX Ensemble…The recurring bass I used in my work is a series of ten notes (a 12-tone row minus two notes.) This row makes writing in the early style difficult as it does not comprise a typical (chaconne) course, being almost atonal in character…” This being the case, the piece opened in a tonal manner. However, with the ground always obvious, it proceeded to touch the ear’s associations of both tonal- and atonal music as the individual lines became more complex and sometimes less so. So the listener finds himself straddling both tonal- and atonal sound worlds quite comfortably, without giving up on either. Jonathan Keren’s Chaconne is both accessible and rewarding to hear.

Moscow-born pianist, arranger and composer Uri Brener is an artist who performs and writes music of many styles and genres, from music for piano, chamber music, vocal-, choral- and symphonic music, electro-acoustic- and crossover music. “In Search of the Chaconne”, a vibrant, eclectic work, from which the concert took its name, reflected Brener’s use of a wide range of styles. His musical agenda included oriental touches, dance music, the bourdon, clusters and driving rhythms in what built up to relentless, full-on energy. This energy spent, we were presented with a tranquil, homophonic chorale-like section, the piece finally winding down to the minimal strand of pizzicato notes on the viol. Brener is a master orchestrator with much to say in the chamber music medium. Writing for specific artists meant including vigorous, challenging solos of strongly individual character – for violin, viola as well as some electrifying material for harpsichord.

Once again, PHOENIX has presented its listeners with a unique, thought-provoking program, taking the courtly Baroque chaconne as its point of reference and examining works inspired by it right up to today. There was a sense of in-depth enquiry, inventiveness, involvement as well as enormous vivacity in the playing of all five artists, inviting the listener to immerse himself fully in each item on the program.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Andrew Parrott and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in Stradella's "San Giovanni Battista"

Alessamdro Stradella
For its sixth subscription concert of the 2014-2015 season, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (founder/director David Shemer) chose to take its audiences into the complexities of the story and values of Alessandro Stradella’s (1639-1682) “San Giovanni Battista” (St. John the Baptist). Directing and conducting the work from the positif organ was the JBO’s honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK). Vocal soloists were Hadas Faran-Asia, Alon Harari, Yair Polishook, Shira Agmon and Antonio Orsini (Italy); those making up the chorus were Lucie Bloch, Shira Agmon, Antonio Orsini and Yoav Weiss. This writer attended the performance in the Mary Natheniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on March 9th, 2015.

While San Giovanni Battista is categorized as an oratorio, with its biblical theme and static staging of the soloists, it departs from the oratorio form in other ways: firstly, it is sung in Italian and not Latin and the course of its plot spirals in a way more characteristic of opera than of the oratorio. Here is a mixed-genre theatrical work, offering duets, 5-voiced madrigals and dialogue-arias. The librettist, a Sicilian priest Girardo Ansaldi, did away with having a narrator, his focus rather being on exchanges between Herod and John the Baptist. It is possible that Corelli might have been one of the violinists in the work’s first performance in 1657. A native of Rome, Alessandro Stradella’s reputation rested largely on his pioneering role in the development of the concerto grosso, but he composed operas and other stage works, oratorios and other church music, hundreds of cantatas and 27 instrumental works. His personal life, however, took a scandalous course, with an attempt to embezzle money from the church in 1669, affairs he engaged in with noble ladies, an unsuccessful attempt on his life, a later attempt finally doing the job, as he met his death by a hired assassin on the Piazza Bianchi in Genoa. Interestingly, considering Stradella’s personal reputation, when Pope Clement X declared 1675 as a Holy Year, Stradella was chosen to compose one of the 14 oratorios for the year. It goes without saying that such a composer’s taste for a plot would not be for the faint-hearted. Although some sources clain that Stradella’s music was never performed, at least two popular novels and three operas were composed around the story of his notorious life.

The biblical story Stradella uses takes some strange turns from the original. Text sheets in Italian and English were distributed to the audience, albeit bristling with typographical errors. The work opened with arias and recitatives, in which Giovanni (countertenor Alon Harari), addressing the audience in a relaxed manner, articulately took his leave from the “friendly woods…of tranquil peace”. Emerging pleasingly bright in timbre, the role at times seemed placed slightly too low for Harari. Opera tenor and ensemble singer Antonio Orsini, performing in Israel for the first time, is a true find. As the king’s counselor, he skillfully wound his lush, silky voice around the texts, bringing each gesture to life, also blending superbly with Hadas Faran-Asia and Yair Polishook. One just wanted to drink in each lush, mellifluous sound.
‘Let it never happen that such sweet servitude should disperse
Nor that the heart should turn elsewhere and my king no longer love.’

A new local face was mezzo soprano Shira Agmon, in the minor role of the Mother, a young singer of fresh, unmannered expression. And then there is the wily Salome. Soprano Hadas Faran-Asia presents her initially as cold and calculating. As the work progresses, she launches into more intense emotional expression, ever sweetly and winningly feminine, engaging in the florid singing of the role of the manipulative woman. As to baritone Yair Polishook’s performance, the role of Herod was just made for him: authoritative, powerful, imposing, wicked and revengeful, this fine baritone singer negotiated the whole large vocal range with alacrity, as he presented Herod’s rising ego, lust and weakness. Polishook and Faran-Asia’s final duet, with its conflicting agendas, all occurring together, is intelligent writing on Stradella’s part, the work ending with an unresolved chord.

Stradella had considered “San Giovanni Battista” his best work. It was the composer’s first work to be performed in the 20th century (with Maria Callas playing Salome). Musically the work offers new ideas, such as little contrast between recitatives and arias, with several recitatives accompanied by the orchestra, in addition to the concerto grosso effect, not to speak of the composer’s unconventional use of chromatics (representing happiness!) Maestro Andrew Parrott brought out the strange and wonderful musical elements of this work and the interesting partnering of text and music, leading the JBO players in fresh, vital and crisp performance. Here was a different, less familiar and wonderful work to appear on the local Baroque concert scene and how lively and rewarding an experience it was!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, directed by Andres Mustonen, in "With You, Armenia", a concert commemorating the centennial of the Armenian Genocide

Maestro Andres Mustonen
Taking place on March 5th 2015 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre, “With you, Armenia”, a special concert performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA under the direction of Andres Mustonen (Estonia), was the first of many concerts worldwide commemorating the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. Featuring works by three Armenian composers, followed by Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 “Eroica”, the event took place in collaboration with the Perspectives Music Festival, Yerevan, Armenia. Soloists were Moscow-born Armenian pianist Artur Avanesov and Mustonen himself (violin).

Addressing the UN General Assembly on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israeli President Mr. Reuven Rivlin made mention of the 1915 Armenian Genocide: “In 1915, when members of the Armenian nation were being massacred, here in the Land of Israel no one denied the massacre that had taken place. The residents of Jerusalem, my parents and members of my family, saw the Armenian refugees arriving by the thousands – starving, piteous survivors of calamity. In Jerusalem they found shelter and their descendents continue to live there to this day…”

Following words of introduction and welcome and of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s director General Yair Stern, the Patriarch of Jerusalem Nourhan Manougian and Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian both spoke about genocide in history. Filling the Henry Crown Hall to capacity, members of local and overseas Armenian communities as well as representatives of other churches were present at the event.

The program opened with the Adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s (1903-1978) ballet “Spartacus”. Winning the composer the Lenin Prize in 1954, it was premiered in what is now the Mariinsky Theatre two years later. The Adagio appears at a high point of the plot in Act II, when Spartacus manages to free his wife Phrygia. A piece colored by exoticism and glowing sensuality, Andres Mustonen, conducting without a baton, imbued the Adagio with tender lyricism, highlighting its gorgeous melodiousness. This is fine orchestral fare; it was enhanced by fine small solos on the part of the JSO’s woodwind players and a final plangent violin solo.

Especially poignant were two fragments from traditional Armenian monodic singing arranged by Komitas (1869-1935) for violin and orchestra. A monk and church scholar, Komitas was a singer, flautist and teacher; referred to as the musical voice of Armenia, his major achievements lie in his expertise in Armenian national music, his collecting and writing down of folk songs, his study of church music and the connection he forged between the two genres. He also carried out research on Armenian “khazes” (symbols used in early Armenian notation). Sharing in the fate of his compatriots in the 1915 Armenian Genocide, Komitas’ mental condition deteriorated and he spent his final 20 years in a psychiatric hospital in Paris. At the Jerusalem concert, the two sacred vocal monadic pieces performed by Mustonen (violin) to minimal, filigree-fine bourdon-type orchestral accompaniments were “Horsham” – an anonymous burial, repentant piece – and “Havun-Havun”, written by 10th century Armenian poet, musician, philosopher and theologian Saint Grigor Narekatsi. Mustonen’s treatment of these melodies was intensely personal, superbly shaped and spiritual. His playing brought out the raw, delicate beauty of these pieces and their powerfully vibrant expression. For Armenians, music is memory; these pieces were indeed apt to the event.

The final Armenian work on the program, forming a link between contemporary Armenian music, between east and west, Christian ritual and traditional monody, was Stepan Rostomyan’s (b.1956) Symphony No.4. One of the key figures of the musical scene in Armenia today, he has written chamber music, symphonic works, a mono opera, vocal- and instrumental pieces, film- and theatre music. A former director of the Yerevan State Academic Theatre of Drama and founding member and president of the “Yerevan Perspectives” International Music Festival, Rostomyan established the Electronic Music Department at the Yerevan State Conservatory, where he has served as professor of Composition since 1988. Symphony No.4, a highly spiritual piece steeped in devout Christian belief, has a clear (extra-musical) program, tracing the human being from birth and innocence through to adulthood and then to man’s struggle in a world of sin. Via the richly atonal orchestral language of both individual and agglomerate timbral colors and textures, from the opening eerie, otherworldly moments, building up to the composer’s unmistakable depiction of chaos (both worldly and that of the soul), eventually to the calm and tranquility of a temple and heaven, we were shown through the work’s program in finely articulate direction and playing, enriched by recorded music sounding the singing of angels and, at the end of the piece, a long, meditative recorded bass saxophone solo, first highly amplified and then gradually becoming softer and dissipating. The challenging piano part was undertaken by Artur Avanesov, a composer and renowned performer of contemporary music, who had studied under Rostomyan. This was a rewarding performance. The composer was present at the concert.

Following the intermission the JSO performed L.van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) Symphony No.3 in E-flat major opus 55, “Eroica”. The first sketches for the work date from 1802, with the symphony being completed in 1804. Dedicated to Prince Franz Joseph von Lobkowitz, a great music-lover, it was premiered in private performances at Lobkowitz’s palace in Vienna in 1804, the first public performance taking place at the Theater an der Wien (Vienna) in 1805, with the composer conducting. Beethoven’s Symphony No.3 marked a dramatic advance beyond the symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, moving the art of the symphony into a new stage from which there was no turning back. When criticized for having written the longest symphony ever, Beethoven retorted with “If I write a symphony an hour long, it will be found short enough”. Mustonen’s treatment of the work was fastidious, detailed and articulate, full-blooded and intense. In his unconventional conducting language, each gesture was addressed, as the work moved from tension to release and back again. Especially beautiful were the wind solos. In the fugal section of the second movement, each entry offered a new musical message. Andres Mustonen’s musical language is a kaleidoscope of dynamic interest; this work was a fine vehicle for his approach.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Andres Mustonen directs Barrocade and soloists in Vivaldi's "la Senna Festeggiante"

Antonio Vivaldi
In its latest concert, “Vivaldi in Paris”, directed by violinist-conductor Andres Mustonen (Estonia), no new face to Israeli audiences, the Barrocade Ensemble offered its audiences the opportunity to hear a work of a different genre, probably a work unknown to most local concert-goers. This writer attended the production at the Kyriat Ye’arim Church, Abu Gosh, on February 28th 2015. Antonio Vivaldi’s “La Senna Festeggiante” (Seine Celebrations), one of the composer’s more obscure works, is a full length “serenata”, this genre being a cross between a cantata and an opera. Serenatas (or evening operas) are shorter, smaller-scaled operatic compositions intended for festivities and celebrations. This libretto for this work was probably written by Domenico Lalli, a librettist in great demand and a dominant force on the Venetian operatic scene. So why did Vivaldi write a work set in Paris, flavoring it so generously with French musical practice? Nobody is absolutely sure of all the details, but it seems to have been composed for an event in France to celebrate the restoring of amicable diplomatic relations between Italy and France after a 14-year break. Another suggestion is that it was written for the name day of Louis XV. There are, however, references to Versailles and King Louis XIV in the text. Exactly when “La Senna Festeggiante” was composed and even whether it was performed remains unclear.

Typical of this kind of work, La Senna Festeggiante has but a slight storyline: the Golden Era and Virtue are looking for true happiness. They find it on the banks of the Seine with the god of the river, La Senna. It follows the usual serenata form, in which the allegorical characters are introduced gradually, first l’Età ldell’Oro (The Golden Age) - Einat Aronstein, then La Virtù (Virtue) - Alon Harari and, finally, La Senna (The Seine, the river god) –Guy Pelc. Hallmarks of the French style to be heard in this work are the French-type ouverture, the use of many wind instruments, the fact that most recitatives are accompanied by strings and – most representative of French entertainment of the upper echelons – a grand selection of French dances. Some of the costumes were brought from Basel.

Of great interest was the singers’ use of early theatrical gestures. Barrocade brought Sharon Weller (Basel, Switzerland) to Israel to instruct the three singers in this specific theatrical “language”, a tradition of symbolic movements stemming from the Middle Ages and still to be seen in the old silent movies. American-born Sharon Weller is a singer, teacher and stage director, whose specialty is historical staging. The singers showed varying degrees of skill in this expressive use of the hands, face and eyes, with moments of eyes looking heavenwards (appropriate to these non-earthly characters) and occasional frozen stances. In addition to its purpose of entertaining members of the nobility, this work is virtuosic and staging it depends on the choice of singers of high ability. The young Israeli singers in the Barrocade production did not fall short, capturing the spirit of the allegorical and fluvial characters. Soprano Einat Aronstein, dressed in a flowing gold gown, gave an engaging performance, brimming with emotion, agility and rich sonority, of effortless soaring into the higher register of her voice, shaping phrases, ornamenting deftly and teasing the audience with dissonant notes held just that bit overtime at the ends of sections. Dressed in green and gold, his head crowned with a garland of gold leaves, countertenor Alon Harari made for an authoritative Virtue. The serenata genre fits him like a glove, his warm, ample voice giving as much life to recitatives as arias, as he delighted in the fantasy, joy and humor of the work, communicating with the audience with the wink of an eye. In Harari and Aronstein’s duets, the voices blended superbly as they interacted. The bass role, however, is perhaps the most demanding and virtuosic. It is certainly the most dramatic. Here Guy Pelc handled it well, with its fast tempi to be contended with in the lower register; his first aria “Qui nel profondo” described the Seine’s depth and rapid flow. A highlight of the performance was Pelc’s tender and compassionate singing of “Pietà, dolcessa”. And how advantageous it was to have singers knowing the work well, performing it without the encumbrance of holding scores!

Historian Alon Klibanov, dressed in traditional Venetian costume – red suit, black cloak, a gold-trimmed three-cornered hat and, of course, the white mask – provided the audience with information on life and culture in Venice at the time as well as on the very unique presentation we were witnessing.

Andres Mustonen’s interpretation of Baroque music goes for color and excitement. In his personal, unconventional style of conducting, the maestro wrung every gesture and emotion out of the instrumental score, producing much timbral variety in playing that was involved and full of sparkling freshness and poetry, with moments of magic. Much is to be said for the substantial presence of wind instruments, their reedy richness setting off the singers’ voices congenially. Yizhar Karshon’s harpsichord transitions and utterances at transparent points proved that eloquence and delicacy do not necessarily rule out spontaneity, imagination and daring. As to the variety of dances threaded through the score, we were presented with a broad range, from elegant court dances to the earthiest of country dances.

On its various levels, this exuberant and polished production was surely one of the highlights of the 2014-2015 concert season.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Notes from the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival (4) Julian Marshall's "Out of the Darkness"

A unique work performed in the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival, all the events of which took place in the halls of the attractive Dan Eilat Hotel, was Julian Marshall’s “Out of the Darkness” (February 6th). A graduate of the Royal College of Music, Julian Marshall (UK) has spent many years teaching, performing and writing light music, working in recording and as an improviser and solo jazz musician, also writing music for theatre. However, with composition becoming his consuming passion, Marshall has written a Missa Brevis, many jazz compositions for his own bands, songs, a film score for “Old Enough” and “The Clock of the Long Now”, a millennium commission written for the Plymouth Symphony Orchestra and several school choirs. His cantata “Out of the Darkness”, premiered on Winchester and London in 2009, written for mezzo soprano, choir and two ‘cellos, was inspired by a poem of the same name by Gertrud Kolmar (1894-1943), a German-Jewish poet who perished in the Holocaust. Writer and poet Jacob Picard has referred to her as one of the most important woman poets in the whole of German literature. “In 2008” writes Marshall “I stumbled across the poetry and letters of Gertrud Kolmar and was at once struck by what a remarkable woman and poet she was…Her writings suggest that even in the darkest of circumstances she was able to meet her fate with a stoic equanimity.” Her poem” Aus dem Dunkel” (Out of the Darkness) , written in 1937, evokes “powerful, dreamlike images of crumbling and decay – serving as an eerie foretelling of the imminent tidal wave of horror about to hit the world…” In the compositional process, Marshall looked for a musical language that would meet the darkness in the poem, but different influences came to him, a mix of styles, such as tango, bossa nova and more abstract ideas. The chamber cantata falls into seven sections, the sixth – “River” - being the only section not from Kolmar’s poem, but from two Sephardic ballads. Of this Marshall writes: “I have allowed myself this poetic license as River allows brief time for reflection away from the journey of the main text”. The work’s texts are in German, English and Spanish.

Performing the work, we heard ‘cellists François Salque (France) and Hillel Zori (Israel) with the Kölner Vokalsolisten (Germany) and Danish-born soprano Rosemarie Danziger (Israel); conducting was baritone Ansgar Eimann (Germany), a founding member of the Kölner Vokalsolisten. The vocal ensemble opened with low, held notes.
‘Out of the darkness I come, a woman,
I carry a child, but no longer know whose;
Once I knew it…’
Presenting its rich choral soundscape, the Cologne singers dealt well with the challenges of the choral text, its tonal and atonal moments (tuning forks used) and gentle clusters, its jazzy rhythms and harmonies, its drama and effects, always remaining focused on the text’s meaning within Marshall’s changing, multi-genre compositional style. Rosemarie Danziger’s lush, creamy vocal timbre gave beauty and expression to the dejected mood of the text, whether in solo singing or threaded through the rich musical collage, the ‘cellos (Salque, Zori) adding vehemence, intensity and resonance – both emotional and sonorous – to Kolmar’s richly varied depictions of what she passes on this sole journey. Spiraling to forte sounds, the work concludes with:
‘A cave awaits,
Its deepest chasm a shelter for the metal-green raven who has no name.
There I shall enter,
Under the aegis of those huge, shadowing wings
I shall crouch down and rest.
Somnolent, I shall listen to my child’s mute, growing word
And sleep, my face turned toward the East, until sunrise.’

When asked whether “Out of the Darkness” would fit into the category of a “Holocaust piece”, Julian Marshall answered thus: “My answer is both yes and no. It is, in as much as the text is, of course, deeply embedded historically in European and Jewish social context. It is also, however, for me, important to approach the piece in a broader context: as an enquiry into the critical issues of freedom and constraint that have relevance for so many today.”

A thought-provoking work within the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival’s musical fare, here was a collaboration between Israeli and overseas artists and the chance to hear a contemporary and very different work.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Notes from the 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival (3) Accordone (Italy)

The 2015 Eilat Chamber Music Festival, taking place in two halls of the welcoming Dan Eilat Hotel, featured two concerts of the Accordone ensemble. Founded in 1984 by Guido Morini and Marco Beasley, Accordone performs repertoire written before Bach and on period instruments. Inspired by the values, poetics and skills of early musicianship, Accordone is known for its new musicological approach to questions of interpretation, mostly performing works for voice and basso continuo from the 16th and 17th centuries. But the ensemble also brings together the interpretation of early music with new music, merging the cultural legacy of the Renaissance and Baroque with that of today. Placing emphasis on the theatrical aspect of this repertoire, Accordone’s performances are known for the remarkable voice and personality of tenor Marco Beasley and for its outstanding instrumental playing under the guidance of harpsichordist, organist and composer Guido Morini. “Accordone” means a “large chord”, the group’s name symbolizing both its well-coordinated and forthright sound and the cooperation of its musicians.

A sympathetic blend of traditional, composed and original music, “Storie di Napoli” (Stories of Naples) (February 4th) presented the distinctive character of Neapolitan music throughout the ages with scenes from everyday life and a picture of the Neapolitan people themselves, whose lives centre around love, the sea and the fatalistic trait of their existence. “To Gaol with Bakers” (anonymous), performed by Beasley and percussionist Mauro Durante, tells of the bakers’ strike of 1570, the bakers demanding a higher price for their bread. Joining the ensemble and Beasley in “Cicerenella”, an earthy, anonymous patter song hinting at the spirit of the commedia dell’arte, was dancer Silvia Durante. Durante danced to Guido Morini’s lively, instrumental “Rustic Tarantella. Morini’s forlorn and richly melodic love song “Serenade” was given a highly emotional rendering by Beasley, the concluding lines sung sotto voce and unaccompanied.
‘While you, my beauty, lie sweetly sleeping,
This sad and wretched heart bids you farewell,’
In another love song, with Morini choosing to accompany with the more modern association of the piano (rather than on harpsichord) the well-known “Dicitencello a ‘sta” (Tell It to Her) by R.Falvo and E.Fusco (1930), Beasley, seated, seemed to be confiding in the audience as friends of passion, recounting the unfortunate situation of a man’s heartbreak and how he is unable to tell the woman that he loves her. Comic relief was provided by Adriano Willaert’s (1491-1672) lighthearted Neapolitan villanelle “Vecchie Letrose” (Lazy Old Women), a vindictive and hilarious tirade addressed to the gossiping women of the town square and presented in pulsating, spirited rhythms. Also depicting different town figures was “Canzona alla Montemaranese” (Song in the Style of Montemarano). Describing the lives and thoughts of the sailor, the moneylender, the slave, the prisoner, the pilgrim and the galley slave from this village, the song mentions that all “walk with death”. Marco Beasley’s argument is that, if this is the case with each of us, why not dance rather than walk! A very different genre was singer-songwriter Lucio Dalla’s song “Caruso” (1986). Dedicated to Italian Naples-born tenor Enrico Caruso, the song, given an emotional and dynamic rendering by Beasley, tells of the pain and longings of a man about to die, looking into the eyes of a girl who was very dear to him. Italian composer and writer Vincenzo Valente (1855-1921) was known for his Neapolitan songs and operettas. “Tiempe Belle” (Good Times Past) (1916) is his most famous composition. Accordone’s arrangement of the slow, triple time song, with its small interludes, gave the song added class and charm, with Beasley singing and then waltzing with Perrone.

Several works on the program were based on the tarantella, the iconic popular dance of southern Italy. The term itself may refer to the dance or just to the music. Guido Morini’s lively “Tarantella Tapanella” (Rustic Tarantella) was danced by Silvia Perrone. Dressed in white and wielding a long scarf, she also joined Mauro Durante’s virtuosic solo tambourine performance of his own “Taranta Grecanica”. (The frenetic taranta [spider] dance, originally played on the tambourine, accompanied a woman dancer who would crawl, dance and finally collapse.)

Marco Beasley’s own “Tarantella I, II and III” opened with a stirring, vehement appeal for help for the suffering from love, with dancer Silvia Perrone, now dressed in red, appealing and feminine in movement. The second tarantella expressed even more despair:
‘Now that door, which I respect so,
I’ll smash it into a hundred pieces and goodnight!
Fair maiden, with those curls upon your brow,
Make me die, me, poor lover:
Cloud the brightness of the morning sun
And of the moon, when it rises in the east…’

With the Neapolitan’s heart worn constantly on his sleeve, and too frequently bleeding, old and new musical works proceeded hand in hand in this wonderfully rich and superbly crafted musical picture of Naples.

Created by Guido Morini, “La Bella Noeva” (Good News) (February 5th) was a different kind of program, offering a soundscape of early 17th century Italian music devoted to sacred, secular and traditional music. Here, Accordone combined informed early music performance with its signature articulacy and lively approach to text content. The program opened with works by Giulio Caccini (1550-1618), Beasley’s singing reflecting Caccini’s approach to monody that followed the intonations of speech. The last of this group of love songs was the greatly loved “Amarilli, mia Bella” (Amaryllis, my lovely one) in a fresh-sounding arrangement consisting of Beasley’s velvety singing to the intimate sounds of the lute (Gabriele Palomba), followed by an instrumental setting offering violin elaborations on the piece (Rossella Croce, Esther Crozzolara). Then three more love songs from the Italian Baroque’s large hoard – a personal reading of Biagio Marini’s (1587-1663) “Amante Lontano Della sua donna” (A Lover Away from his Lady) a song of abandonment and suffering, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) masterfully economic but touching “Si dolce è’l tormento” (So Sweet is the Torment) and, finally, a happier love song - Giovanni Steffani’s “Amante Felice” (A Happy Lover). Of the program’s sacred works, two were original or with new additions: we heard Guido Morini’s instrumental “Concerto spiritual” and his addition of violin parts and a concerted ‘cello part to Venetian composer Alessandro Grandi’s “O quam tu pulchra es” (O How Fair you are). These were followed by a joyful, celebratory rendering of Monteverdi’s motet “Laudate Dominum”, its arioso style bristling in vocal and instrumental interest.

Guido Morini writes that they first heard “La Bella Noeva”, a wedding song from Liguria in northern Italy, performed by a local traditional group in a square in Genoa. Accordone performed its soothing, gently dissonanced marriage proposal setting to the delight of the audience. Concluding the traditional section and the concert itself was the ensemble’s performance of “Lo Guarracino” (The Pomfret). Marco Beasley is a born storyteller and his recounting of the story of the fish who decides he would like to marry, his courtship of the sardine, the resulting attack on him by her former lover the haddock and the battle that ensues was hearty. Beasley, the quick-change theatrical artist, pulls out all the plugs, playing all roles and singing the witty text at hell-for-leather speed, changing from lady’s voice to the gruff voice of the fish thug in delightful buffoonery and skilful satire.
‘Relatives and friends came out,
Some with clubs and knives,
Some with swords, daggers, rapiers;
One had an iron bar, another a pike;
Some came with almonds, others with hazelnuts,
This one with pincers, that one with a hammer,
And brought nougat and sesame cake...’

“La Bella Noeva” is a program rich in content and so representative of Italian life in its love songs and tenderness, its religious content, its spontaneity, its wholeheartedness, humor and warmth. In another exhilarating and thought-provoking performance, we were reminded that Accordone does not cut corners when it comes to high quality musicianship.