Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Between Mozart and Pushkin - the Carmel Quartet hosts the Malenki Theatre (Tel Aviv) and Italian pianist Pietro Bonfilio

Photo: Yoel Levy

The Carmel Quartet (music director: Dr. Yoel Greenberg) opened the 2019-2020 Strings & More series on quite a different note. Directed by Michael Teplitsky, the audience was presented with Alexander Pushkin’s “little tragedy” “Mozart & Salieri” (translation: Roy Chen), with Rodie Kozlovsky playing Salieri and Dudu Niv, Mozart. The character of the blind violinist was missing from this performance, but, instead, each of the two acts was peppered with short works meticulously performed by Carmel Quartet members Rachel Ringelstein - violin/viola, Tali Goldberg - violin, Tami Waterman - ‘cello and visiting pianist Pietro Bonfilio (b.1990, Italy). This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, on November 6th 2019. In this, the English-language concert; the two Israeli actors played in Hebrew, but concert-goers were able to follow the text in an English translation projected onto a screen.


It was in 1830, in the wake of Tsar Nicholas I’s execution of the Decembrists, with Pushkin  seeing Russia as a lone pestilential tree to which “no bird flies towards, no tiger goes near”, that the great Russian poet, playwright and novelist wrote “Mozart and Salieri”. Pushkin’s verse-play presents a small but effective portrayal of genius and of envy.  Salieri is a man completely devoted to music, hailed as a brilliant musician and composer, happy with his music and his life until Mozart appears on the scene. Enter Mozart, who has been composing his "Requiem". On stage we meet Salieri, who is too grave for his own good, totally self-abnegating to his art, and Mozart, the family man and jolly prankster who is in love with life.  Salieri decides to poison Mozart. A mere two scenes - ten pages of text - separate Salieri’s declaration of envy from Mozart’s despatch. Compact as it is, the play is astonishingly rich in dramatic potential; Kozlovsky and Niv, convincing in their portrayals of each character, are quick to draw the audience into the work’s content, substantiating it vividly. Among the musical works threaded through Act 1 were the Larghetto from Salieri’s Concerto in C major, with Bonfilio’s playing of the solo role exquisitely fragile and beautifully ornamented and joined by delicate string comments and occasional tutti; we heard Rachel Ringelstein in sympathetic singing of  “Voi Che Sapete” (Mozart - “Marriage of Figaro”); Bonfilio and Ringelstein gave a filigree-fine performance of the Tempo di Minuetto from Mozart’s Sonata for piano and violin in E minor K.304, to be followed by the Andante from the String Trio in E flat major. The latter premiered in Dresden in 1789, with Mozart playing the viola part; it is the composer’s only completed string trio. The Carmel Quartet’s string players’ presentation of the themes and each intricate variation emerged articulate, inspired and personal, their delivery ranging from the wistful to the dramatic.


Act 2: Vienna, 1791. The scene is set with the buoyant, folksy but light-of-foot sounds of Beethoven’s Ländler No.1 WoO15, performed by the strings.  Mozart, worried about his Requiem, tells Salieri how haunted he is by the figure of the mysterious stranger in black who had requested the Requiem. Salieri hands him the pewter wine cup that contains wine mixed with poison. Mozart drinks to them both. We then hear Bonfilio in a haunting, reflective and subtly dramatic performance of Liszt’s arrangement of the Lacrimosa from the Mozart Requiem, a befitting choice of repertoire: Mozart was Liszt’s illustrious role model, both were pioneers of progress, both enduring pain, both suffering in order to accomplish their goals. The murder is followed by Salieri’s premise that, through his act of murder and vilifying himself, villainy and genius cannot exist together. In Pushkin’s play it is in fact Salieri who is the main character, taking his revenge on God by extinguishing his chosen voice - Mozart’s beautiful music. The performance concluded with all four musicians in a poetic, introspective rendition of Mozart’s final piece - "Ave verum Corpus".


Following the intermission, Bonfilio and the string players performed Mozart’s Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor K.478. As evident in his Symphonies No.25 and 40, G minor is a key that Mozart reserved for his more intense musical ideas. In the opening Allegro, with Mozart’s forthright utterances juxtaposed with more lyrical material, Bonfilio displayed sparkling clarity and agile fingerwork, his playing faithful to the Classical concept. Partnered with the string players’ warm, stirring sound, his playing was, at times, a little too reserved. Tali Goldberg led securely, offering a touch of rubato to flex the incessantly flowing sixteenth notes of the Andante movement. In the playful G major Rondo, Bonfilio presented the subject in springy, non-legato textures, light and of good cheer; there was much lively conversation between strings and piano. Mozart adds variety to this final movement by visiting minor keys in a few places, but the music does not dwell on them for long, as the artists negotiated the movement with delightful playing free of the Sturm und Drang gestures that dominated the first movement.


Beautifully presented, this was a unique and exhilarating event to see in the new season!

Pietro Bonfilio (Courtesy P.Bonfilio)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

"The Brandenburgs" - hosting Lina Tur Bonet (Spain) and Dani Espasa (Spain), the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2019-2020 season with instrumental works of J.S.Bach and Handel

Idit Shemer, Dani Espasa, Lina Tur Bonet © Yoel Levy
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 31st subscription season with a concert devoted to instrumental music of Bach and Handel. Soloists in “The Brandenburgs” were Lina Tur Bonet (Spain) - conductor/solo violin, Dani Espasa (Spain) - harpsichord, Doret Florentin, Inbar Solomon - recorders and Idit Shemer - flute. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 4th 2019. Prof. David Shemer, JBO founder and musical director, offered words of welcome to the audience and spoke of the artists and programs awaiting the audience in the new season’s concerts. 


As its title implies, most of the program was devoted to J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; there was also one work of G.F.Handel. Over the years, a number of inaccurate and bizarre stories have circulated concerning the Brandenburg Concertos. What remains clear is that Bach, no longer feeling secure in his position of Kapellmeister at the Calvinist court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, was looking for employment elsewhere. In 1718 the composer was sent to Berlin by Prince Leopold to commission a harpsichord from the workshop of Michael Mietke, returning there in 1719 to collect it. In Berlin, Bach had occasion to play for Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, who was so taken with his music that he asked him to send some of his compositions for his library. Bach dedicated a volume of six “concerts avec plusieurs instruments” (concertos for various instruments) to Christian Ludwig, sending it to the nobleman in 1721 in the hope of being offered employment by him. There is no record of a reply from the Margrave, and Bach eventually accepted a lucrative combination of posts in Leipzig, where he then lived for the rest of his life. There is also no evidence of the Brandenburgs being performed in Bach’s lifetime. The concertos were finally rediscovered and published in 1849, nearly 130 years after their composition. In his program notes, David Shemer discusses the beginnings of the genre of orchestral music in Europe and of the development of the concerto grosso form in particular. Indeed, the Brandenburg Concertos give us a glimpse into the evolution of modern orchestral composition. In them Bach brought together the widest possible combination of instruments (different for each concerto), combining them in daring partnerships. Orchestral music would never be the same again once the world had heard Bach’s colourful and texture-filled Brandenburg Concertos. 


Leading the evening’s program was Lina Tur Bonet, no new face to JBO audiences. On this visit, she was accompanied by harpsichordist Dani Espasa, with whom she has worked extensively. Brandenburg Concerto No.3 BWV 1048 in G major is scored for three violins, three violas, three ‘cellos, bass, and harpsichord. The nine upper strings serve as both concertino (soloists) and ripieno (accompanists), fluidly transitioning between roles throughout the piece. Concert-goers are familiar with these pieces, but Tur Bonet was showing the listener that a concerto is not necessarily a flamboyant, virtuoso solo showpiece as we tend to think of it today. With ample low-register instruments, the evening’s general ensemble timbre (especially here, with three ‘cellos and double bass) was well-anchored, mellow and integrated. Even in the ebullient (final) Allegro, following the intimacy and cantabile fragility of the miniature second movement, Tur Bonet kept well clear of muscular, garish playing in favour of the beauty of the music itself.


The solo instruments in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 BWV 1050 in D major are flute, violin and harpsichord, the latter also included as a featured instrument, originally to show off the new instrument Bach had brought back from Berlin. As the first movement opened with a vigorous tutti theme for the orchestra, Tur Bonet led her players with subtlety, her solos expressive, at times delightfully weightless, as she occasionally took the dynamics down to pianississimo delicacy. As the movement progressed, Espasa gave the harpsichord solo a sense of humility and stability, growing more elaborate but never overdone, its sparkling cascades of unaccompanied melody and figuration in the closing sections presented with gentle rubato. In the tender Affettuoso movement, with the texture pared down to just the concertino, Tur Bonet and Idit Shemer -  in the honeyed tones of the Baroque flute - collaborated in poignant dialogue, with Espasa engaging in some inégal playing. With the entire ensemble joining the soloists for the finale, again with much dialogue, Tur Bonet and her players indulged in Bach's joie-de-vivre, contrapuntal ingenuity and rhythmic vivacity, however, with kindly profusion.


If Brandenburg Concerto No.4 BWV 1049 in D major had got off to a very brisk start, it was not at the expense of Tur Bonet’s melodic shaping or of the collaboration of Florentin and Solomon on recorders. The violin part in this concerto is extremely virtuosic in the first and third movements. Who the main soloists are in the opening movement is never quite clear, but that was not important as the artists’ mastery and a well-rounded ensemble sound of finely delineated melodic strands strode hand-in-hand and Tur Bonet’s facial expressions communicated with her players, with the movement’s final chord coloured by a spicy dissonance leaning into its solution. In the second movement, the violin bows down to its recorder partners and provides the bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied, with Florentin and Solomon entertaining the listener with thoughtful variety to each joint recorder response. In the finale, a combination of concerto style and formal fugue, there was a sense of balance among all as Tur Bonet negotiated the shimmering passages of arpeggiated bowings on alternating strings. 


G.F.Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi are widely considered as definitive examples of the concerto grosso form. The fact that they were intended for playing during performances of his oratorios and odes does not detract from their quality.  Inspired by the more veteran concerto da chiesa and concerto da camera of Arcangelo Corelli, the creative lavishness of structure and the diversity of styles that Handel exhibits in these Twelve Grand Concertos, coloured by a surprising palette of musical expression, is unique, often resulting in this collection as being considered alongside Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as one of the great monuments of Baroque instrumental music. Lina Tur Bonet sets the scene for Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.6 HWV 324 in G minor with a sombre, ponderous, regal, almost spiritual reading of the  opening Larghetto e affettuoso movement. Following the brief chromatic, angular fugue, the serene mood was recalled in the elegant Musette, a movement offering dialogue between low and high registers, with Tur Bonet’s solos soaring plangently above the ensemble, its outer sections punctuated by a brighter interlude. Tur Bonet offered some flexing to her solo in the first Allegro. As to the second Allegro, tripping along delightfully in triple time with all the violins playing in unison, the work drew to a close with the players bowing out in graceful gestures.


Throughout the evening, Lina Tur Bonet, taking the audience into the world of small gestures, Baroque elegance and timbral transparency, created the ambience of fine house music. We might have been  hearing these works played in the drawing room of some noble family in Central Europe. 

© Yoel Levy

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem opens the 2019-2020 concert season with a Bach Missa brevis, the Mozart Requiem and a new work by Josef Bardanashvili

Photo: Shirley Burdick
The Israel Camerata Jerusalem opened its 2019-2020 InstruVocal Series with works of Bach and Mozart and the world premiere of an Israeli work. Conducted by the Camerata’s musical director Avner Biron, soloists were soprano Daniela Skorka, mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon, tenor Daniel Johannsen (Austria) and baritone Felix Kemp (UK). Guest choir was the Jauna Muzika Choir, Lithuania (conductor: Vaclovas Augustinas). This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on November 2nd 2019.


Josef Bardanashvili composed “Image” for chamber orchestra in memory of Ben (Benzi) Shira (1952-2018), who was the Camerata’s general manager from 2008 to 2017. Bardanashvili, who served as the orchestra’s house composer for some years, introduced the piece by talking of his working relationship and friendship with Shira, adding that the piece written in his memory should not sound sad; rather, it should be a lullaby. A kind of rondo, with two episodes, “Image” is based on the notes b-flat and e, as represented in Benzi Shira’s first name, the dissonant tritone interval expressing the composer’s anger at Shira’s passing. Bardanashvili writes of the music’s tension as never finding a solution, referring to the piece as a “romantic-nostalgic homage/image”, his respect paid to a person who left this world too early. Opening with a pensive clarinet melody, the piece proceeds to swing between tranquillity and vehemence, semplice melodiousness and dissonance, tonal and atonal writing, intimate solos and tutti. As its conclusion approaches, we hear a plangeant violin solo, with the work ending on a tranquil major chord. This is finely-crafted instrumental writing, performed with transparency and attention to detail, the inclusion of harpsichord (Marina Minkin) adding poignancy to the ensemble sound. Born in Georgia (1948), Josef Bardanashvili emigrated to Israel in 1995. A prolific composer, he is also active in the plastic arts, having exhibited paintings in his country of birth and also in Israel.


J.S.Bach’s Lutheran Masses remain somewhat of an enigma. Bach was a Lutheran church musician devoted to the composition of sacred music in German, having written more than 200 cantatas for the liturgy. His four Lutheran Masses, written in the 1730s to Latin texts, feature almost no Lutheran material. Like its counterparts, Bach’s Lutheran Mass in G minor BWV 235 consists of only a Kyrie and Gloria; a “parody” Mass, it is compiled from material of three of the composer’s cantatas, but with some changes.  Bach’s own choice of some of his finest cantata movements attests to the high quality of the G minor Mass. The small, varied work offered the audience an opportunity to hear three of the vocal soloists - baritone Felix Kemp’s bright baritone timbre in an articulate presentation of the “Gratias agimus Tibi”, Daniel Johannsen’s detailed. highly expressive and ornamented singing of the “Qui tollis”, with its beauteous oboe obbligato, and Nitzan Alon’s clear, stable, rich alto sound in her competent and profound performance of the “Domine fili”. Free of heavy vibrato, the Jauna Muzika Choir’s singing was finely detailed, objective and unmannered, its sections amalgamated into a smooth blend, with Biron striking a delicate and refined balance between choir and orchestra.  While often overshadowed by the more famous Mass in B minor, the beauty, splendid choruses and deeply moving arias of Bach’s Lutheran Masses should not be overlooked and they make for fine concert fare.


W.A.Mozart spent most of 1791 in good health, writing, performing frequently and enjoying an active social life. A prolific year, he honoured his annual commission to compose dance tunes for the court balls held each January and February, completed Piano Concerto No. 27, two operas - “The Magic Flute” and “La Clemenza di Tito” - and his last major instrumental work, the Clarinet Concerto in A. In November, he became ill, never to recover. Heavily in debt, he took on a portentous commission to write a Requiem Mass, finally struggling to complete the Requiem that he gradually came to see as his own. Surrounded by legends and left unfinished due to his death at age 35, it was completed by two former students - Joseph Eybler and Franz Xaver Süssmayr - who added to their master’s writing a stylistic fusion of influences from Schubert to Bruckner, Beethoven to Busoni. Scoring the Requiem for four vocal soloists, choir and orchestra, Mozart wished to exclude all wind instruments considered too joyful, only keep to the muted sound of the basset horn. Maestro Biron led singers and instrumentalists in a captivating performance, presenting the work’s arcane counterpoint and its evocation of a strange liturgical archaism and reading into all the details and nuances that comprise a work resembling death itself - pathetic and terrifying, calm and terrible - as it swings between harsh accents and soft, soothing and melancholic melodies. With Daniela Skorka’s clean, substantial voice present at the opening and closing the Requiem, all solos emerged meaningful and gratifying; the vocal quartets were affecting, as in the intimacy and tenderness of the “Recordare”. But it is the choir that takes on the lion’s share of the Mozart Requiem, and Jauna Muzika did not disappoint, engaging with dedication in the work’s strong emotions, as in the massive, fiery storm of the “Dies Irae”, but also with compassionate grace in the work’s flowing, velvety and caressing moments. And the Camerata’s elegant and refined signature sound was present throughout, endorsing the strong emotions and sublime beauty of Mozart’s last composition.


A festive and exhilarating event to launch the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s 36th concert season.



Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Soprano Niva Eshed Frenkel in the Israeli premiere of Hamuchtar's one-woman opera "Null Sterne Hotel"

Niva Eshed Frenkel (photo:Boaz Arad)
“Null Sterne Hotel” (No Star Hotel), a contemporary operatic theatre piece combining text, singing, experimental electronic music and video art, was created and produced by Gilad Philip Ben-David, also known as Hamuchtar. Translated by Miri Kämpfer, it features opera singer and dancer Niva Eshed Frenkel. It was premiered in Berlin in 2016, where it received enthusiastic reviews. This writer attended the Israeli debut of “No Star Hotel” at the Enav Cultural Center (Tel Aviv) on October 31st 2019. It was performed in German with Hebrew surtitles.

Actually, such a place does exist. The Null Stern Hotel, a former nuclear bunker converted into a hotel, opened in Teufen, Appenzellerland, Switzerland on June 5, 2009. It operated as a hotel for only one year, before being turned into a museum devoted to itself in June 2010. (“No Star” refers not to the hotel classification, but to the fact that “the only star is you”.)

The one-woman opera performance opens with the person (Eshed) waking up in a shady hotel after a night of bad dreams. From the text, bristling with questions about the state of a man returning, we might be expecting some kind of love story or perhaps one of a soldier returning from war. The show, however, proceeds as a series of meditations on different situations or topics - art, monkeys, syphilis, industrial design, beauty, banning entry to a house and photosynthesis, with Eshed reflecting on each, playing against the vibrant video action projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. Are we witnessing disconnected scenes or are they, in fact, telling of her suicidal thoughts due to her past life and to one woman’s yearning for beauty and to be loved? Following her struggle, the opera concludes on an optimistic note, with the woman finding inner strength to go on. This performance is not for the faint-hearted: it constantly challenges the audience to think, listen, observe and be inside the issues that present life in the raw, as Eshed invests emotion in each situation. A soprano with a fine sense of drama and movement, she carries off the performance impressively, her strong, flexible voice dealing admirably with the complex, atonal musical score, the German text, an artist as aware of her audience as she is of the existential issues at hand.

This is a daring, gripping and insightful pageant of life, its hardships but also its beauty - the beauty of art and nature. Gilad Philip Ben-David (Hamuchtar) b. 1971, is a singer and cabaret artist who began his career in Tel Aviv in the late 1980s. He has played in various films, most notably “Amazing Grace” by the late director Amos Guttman, as well as directing his own films and theatre plays.

A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Israeli-born Niva Eshed Frenkel has been a member of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble and has soloed in Israeli opera productions. A member of the 3FOR1 Trinity Concerts (Germany), she sang the role of Christine in their production of “Phantom of the Opera”. She performs recitals and in a-cappella choral music throughout Germany, teaches voice, piano and music theory.

Photo © Yoel Levy

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Celebrating 250 years of Beethoven's birth - Symphonies No.2 and No.3 performed in chamber music settings at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
With 2020 commemorating the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, concerts worldwide will be saluting the great composer born in Bonn, who lived and died in Vienna. To celebrate the legacy of the world’s most performed composer, the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, is also running a Beethoven series. The first concert  - “Beethoven in Disguise” - took place on October 26th 2019. Artists taking part in the event were Matan Dagan (violin), Lotem Beider (viola), Yoni Gotlibovich (‘cello) and Dror Semmel (piano). 


The concert comprised chamber music arrangements of two Beethoven symphonies - Nos. 2 and 3. Possibly a new listening experience for most of the audience gathered at the Eden-Tamir Center, this phenomenon was by no means rare in the composer’s time. In fact, from the late Classical period and into the early 20th century, it was quite common for composers to arrange their own symphonic works for smaller ensembles. These arrangements, many for piano 4-hands, were primarily for domestic consumption; they resounded from the music rooms of private homes in the days before radio and recordings and where concerts were not accessible to all. Not all the Beethoven arrangements were necessarily transcribed by him and, in fact, not even necessarily by two of his most famous assistants and copyists - Czerny and Ries, although the latter two certainly did make arrangements of their teacher’s music. With house music all the rage, publishers often unscrupulously commissioned other musicians to arrange Beethoven symphonic works.  Arrangements were sometimes made illegally in other countries, and most of the time, without Beethoven's knowledge. However, not to be underestimated, this repertoire opens new perspectives not only on the arrangements themselves, but also as to contemporary attitudes towards these works.


Introducing the works, Dr. Dror Semmel spoke of Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 in D major Op.36 as having been composed at a time when the composer was in a bad state, both physically and emotionally. Depressed, almost deaf and unable to hide his increasing infirmity, Beethoven  wrote from Heiligenstadt in 1802…“yes that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured...I must wholly abandon; as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered, so hope has been blighted, almost as I came - I go away…” It was while working through this period of crisis that Beethoven completed Symphony No.2. Semmel notes that the D major Symphony, enigmatically, does not reflect the composer’s despondency; cheerful and outgoing, it even includes some humorous moments. The composer wrote his own trio arrangement of Symphony No.2 three years following the original symphonic setting. With much musical responsibility taken on by each of the players, Dagan, Gotlibovich and Semmel gave a dedicated performance of the work, drawing the listener into it via its slow, powerful, pensive introduction, moving into a full soundscape, their probing and play of motifs of the first movement’s development section arousing the listener’s curiosity. The Larghetto movement emerged lyrical but not insubstantial (for the piano trio setting, the composer had added the marking of “quasi andante” to keep it lively), the division of labour making for effective dialogue, its middle section minor-tinted and wistful. Also conversational was the compact, playful and sunny Beethoven-style Scherzo, its Trio a miniature performance with several “characters” on stage, this to be followed by the feisty, uninhibited, full canvas of the Allegro molto, its rhythmic play, small stops and surprises all presented with fine contrasting by the players. Beethoven's symphonies are painted on a huge canvas, and their scale is heroic. His contemporaries applauded his Second as a noteworthy piece full of power and depth, but they commonly referred to his music of that time as bizarre. In the piano trio setting, many of the tutti effects are created on the piano by fast "tremolo" of chords or arpeggios. Beethoven probably composed this symphony at the piano; he certainly played it on the piano when working out metronome markings.


As of Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 “Eroica” Beethoven enters a new compositional phase, with the Eroica rightfully claiming its status as one of the great turning points in western music. One might be tempted to ask how reasonable it was to provide small-ensemble arrangements for something as large-scale and glorious as Beethoven's Eroica Symphony; for some listeners, the lesser orchestration and variety of orchestral colour could make for quite disconcerting listening.  Ferdinand Ries was, of course, well regarded in his time as a pianist (his public debut was in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3) and also the distinguished composer of a large body of chamber music with and without piano. As it turns out, he did a superb job in keeping the spirit of the Eroica alive, rich and full in this highly reduced arrangement, his paring down of proportions carried out with impeccable compositional craftsmanship, skilfully dividing the roles among each of the four performers and actually clarifying some of the inner workings of the symphony, in particular, its contrapuntal writing. Here, his writing for piano is challenging and virtuosic, assigning it to take on the body of the original score, yet without relegating the strings into submissiveness. At the Ein Kerem concert, the artists created a convincingly full and well-defined timbral scene, the opening Allegro con brio’s melodious utterances emerging from intense sections, in playing that was both gripping and tender. The Marcia funebre, with Semmel establishing its natural and ceremonious pacing, was deeply felt as it moved from theme to beautifully-formed variations. Any notion of heroic- or tragic feeling was then swiftly whisked away by the Scherzo, the artists’ perky - at times lightweight, at others, demonic - reading of it, with its off-beat jokes and the Trio’s hunting-horn associations, all so convincing in the quartet scoring!  The artists' playing of the Finale gave expression to the breadth of Beethoven's original thoughts in its melange of intensity and lyricism, sealing the performance in a richly-coloured tour-de-force.


So, was the audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Center hearing Beethoven “in disguise” or not? Do these arrangements ask too much of the players or do they, in fact, give them freedom to read their own interpretations into the score more so than possible when playing under a conductor? Were we listening to orchestral music, to chamber music or, perhaps, to a third medium? The listener was left to grapple with these questions as the concert ended.



Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Love songs for voice and electric guitar: Tal Ganor and Yuval Vilner wind up the 56th Abu Gosh Festival with a different kind of concert

Photo: Maya Aruch

“Electric Guitar Named Love - from Purcell to Queen” - works of love arranged for voice and electric guitar - took place on October 21st 2019 in the Crypt of the medieval Benedictine Monastery of Abu Gosh.This was the closing event of the 56th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. Featuring soprano Tal Ganor and guitarist Yuval Vilner, the crossover concert appealed to festival-goers of all ages.


Over the last 400 years, lute songs from John Dowland’s First Booke of Songs or Ayres have been heard in a limited number of settings. Showing the perfect marriage of music and poetry of two - “Can she excuse my wrongs” and “Come again” - through a new prism, Tal Ganor and Yuval Vilner invited some of the purists among us to rethink our ideas on English Renaissance performance practice. Ganor’s light, creamy singing and emotional range are well suited to the intimacy, the somewhat whimsical confiding, the melancholy and sensuous double entendres of these small jewels. Vilner’s accompaniments, original utterances and occasional ornamenting were sensitive, tasteful and, indeed, informed. Unrequited love was also the theme of “Ojos, pues me desdeñáis” a “tonos humanos” of 17-century Spanish harpist/guitarist/composer José Marín. Ganor’s dramatic presentation was indicative of the song’s agenda of anger and heartbreak in a splendid arrangement highlighting Marin’s unexpected use of harmonic twists, his highly expressive vocal lines and rich word-painting. And how interesting it was to hear Vilner place a 19th-century Spanish instrumental piece as a prelude and postlude to Elvis Presley’s gently flowing, romantic and silken “Can’t help falling in love”, here spiced with some exotic harmonies. 


Who would have imagined that we would then be hearing the caressing sounds of the “Pie Jesu” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem as Vilner and Ganor collaborated seamlessly to evoke its tranquillity and awe and its personal utterance of loss and hope, with Ganor showing fine control and precise intonation, concluding the piece in smooth pianissimo tonings. Vilner then amalgamated a Baroque ensemble score into one guitar role to tastefully accompany Ganor in her impressive, well-shaped singing of the ostinato aria “Addio Corindo”, one of the high points of Antonio Cesti’s 1656 opera “Orontea”. For his solo, Vilner chose to extemporize on “When You Wish Upon a Star”. His presentation of it was free, breezy and appealing, adding a dimension of subtlety and sophistication to the 1940 song written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington for Walt Disney’s movie “Pinocchio”.


Such an event would surely be incomplete without an Israeli song or two. The audience hummed along with the nostalgia created by the artists in their caressing, articulate rendition of Naomi Shemer’s “Endless Encounter” (lyrics: Nathan Alterman) and enjoyed the delicacy, sincerity and floating melismas produced in Yair Rosenblum’s “Song of a Weekday” (lyrics: Rachel Shapira). 


The whirlwind musical trip landed us back in England, with Ganor and Vilner’s performance of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”, the final aria delivered by Dido, Queen of Carthage, dying of a broken heart on learning that her fiancé, Trojan warrior Aeneas, plans to abandon her. Carefully paced and detailed, the artists delivered the aria’s content, preserving its timeless beauty, however, adding some touches of their own - some spontaneity, some unconventional ornaments and a sprinkling of 7th chords. And, as Ganor soared effortlessly up to the “Remember me” refrains that never fail to break one’s heart, one felt the aria was indeed present, unmarred by a few blue notes, still exquisite, still  gripping, but given the personal stamp of two outstanding young artists who dare to step outside the box. 


This was certainly fine festival fare, rich in variety and very well presented. For their encore, Tal Ganor and Yuval Vilner gave an expressive, honeyed and indulgently sentimental performance of Freddie Mercury’s 1975 ballad “Love of my Life” (originally performed by the British rock band Queen). 




Saturday, October 26, 2019

Ensemble PHOENIX hosts Gio Sthel (Brazil/Germany), Francesco Tomasi (Italy) and vocal students of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in a program of Italian Baroque music at the October 2019 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

© Yoel Levy

Drawing its audiences from all over Israel to four days of festive events, the 56th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (October 18th to 21st, 2019) was an opportunity for people to attend a variety of indoor- and outdoor concerts, to meet, relax and enjoy the last of the warm weather. As usual, the grassy area surrounding the Kiryat Yearim Church, with its stalls, was a hub of activity. 


Taking place at Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church, Kiryat Yearim on October 21st 2019, “Neapolitan Surprise” performed by the PHOENIX Ensemble (musical director: Dr. Myrna Herzog) presented both instrumental- and choral works of the Italian Baroque. Visiting artists were violine player Gio Sthel (Brazil/Germany) and Francesco Tomasi (Italy) on theorbo and Baroque guitar. All the singers taking part are Vocal Department students of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv (Head of Dept: Prof. Sharon Rostorf-Zamir). The audience was presented with some beautifully-crafted instrumental music - Giovanni Battista Vitali’s Sinfonia à 6, with its variety of small, contrasting sections and haunting drum ostinato (Dor Fisher), was followed by the charm, beauty, mesmerizing rhythms and ample dialogue between ensemble and violins (Ya'akov Rubinstein, Noam Gal) of a 1669 Ciaconna from the “Varii e Diversi Capricci per camera e per chiesa” by prolific composer and renowned maestro di cappella Maurizio Cazzati. Pietro Andrea Ziani succeeded Cazzati as maestro di cappella at Santa Maria Maggiore, Bergamo, in 1657. Ziani’s Sonata Op.VII No.17, performed here on strings and organ, is an outstanding work. The PHOENIX performance gave eloquent and incisive expression to its fugal elements, recurring motifs and its underlying solemnity, punctuating the second movement with dramatic pauses prior to a richly ornamented conclusion in a major mode. Myrna Herzog’s transcription of Bernardo Storace’s keyboard “Ballo della Battaglia” for ensemble wove much sparkle and timbral colour into the text’s jaunty dance rhythms, creating lively banter between violins and cornetto with recorder (Alma Mayer, Inbar Solomon), its “battaglia” energy endorsed by spirited playing on the part of Tomasi (Baroque guitar) and Fisher (percussion).


And to the Neapolitan connection: Pietro Andrea Ziani died in Naples. An early representative of the Neapolitan operatic school, organist and tenor Cristofaro Caresana had studied under Ziani in Venice before moving to Naples in his late teens, where he joined the theatre company of Febi Armonici. The Abu Gosh performance brought to life the rich canvas of Caresana’s cantata “La Vittoria del Infante” (Victory of the Child), a quasi-theatrical Nativity cantata, merging sacred and profane, comedy, drama, even references to the Spanish, and evoking the energy and sparkling musical style and sentiments characteristic of the Neapolitan Baroque. Under Herzog’s supervision, the young singers took on board the demands of this music, revelling in its vibrancy and directness of gesture. Baritone Hagai Berenson (Lucifero) was sonorous, communicative and compelling, with alto Shir Ordo ((San Michele) displaying a lustrous alto timbre and musicality. The choral ensembles were alive with the young singers' rich, fresh timbres and involvement. The recorders (Mayer, Solomon) accompanying the choir of angels added pastoral delight to the rich tableau vivant.


Francesco Rossi’s oratorio “La Caduta dell’Angeli” depicts the rebellion of angels led by Lucifer, their defeat by the archangel Michael and his army of good angels, and their fall into the abyss, a story of arrogance, rebellion, obstinance, evil and justice that inspired librettist Salvatore Scaglione and organist/maestro di cappella Francesco Rossi to produce a work of unbridled Italian emotion. Communicative and confident, soprano soloists Shira Miriam Cohen (Lucifer) and Sharon Tadmor (San Michele) presented the text’s meaning, addressing its gestures to the audience.  Articulate, expressive and communicative, tenor Daniel Portnoy (God) displayed good taste and empathy. An interesting effect of characterization is Rossi’s casting of Lucifer following his fall from grace as a bass-baritone; Yoav Ayalon was imposing and authoritative in this role. Engaging with the singers, the instrumentalists’ attentive and judiciously-balanced playing emerged in elegant, subtle and alluring timbres. Richly-coloured ensemble-singing drew the audience’s attention to key words, as the singers joined forces with the instrumental ensemble in choruses that emoted, endorsed gestures, wove song into courtly dances and interpreted the course of events in terms of light and darkness. Under the scrupulous guidance of Dr. Myrna Herzog, twelve budding opera singers courageously stepped outside of their standard repertoire to learn and experience the performance practice of this decidedly specific Baroque style. An auspicious event in this country, the results were exciting and rewarding to both performers and audience. 

Francesco Tomasi,Myrna Herzog,Gio Sthel (P.Hickman)