Sunday, April 24, 2016

Vag Papian conducts the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, two Oratorio Choirs and soloists in "Song of Destiny" at the Jerusalem YMCA

Maestro Vag Papian (
“Song of Destiny” – a program of Romantic works – was performed by the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir (musical director: Kate Belshé) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Bel Canto Choir (musical director: Salome Rebello). All were conducted by Maestro Vag Papian, who serves as principal conductor of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra. The concert took place on April 19th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, the Jerusalem International YMCA.

The program opened with a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 in a-minor opus 56, “Scottish”. On his visit to Scotland in 1829, Mendelssohn, deeply impressed by the rugged ruins of Holyrood Palace (the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland) wrote “I believe I found today in the old chapel the beginning of my Scottish Symphony”. An accomplished painter, the composer returned from his trip with some 30 dated pencil drawings and pen-and-ink sketches; his musical sketches, however, were laid aside, not to be completed as a symphony till 1842. When Mendelssohn conducted its premiere, he presented the work as “absolute” music; indeed, it includes no Scottish melodies and was probably largely influenced by the spirit of the Scottish literature the composer had read as well as the Scottish landscape. Maestro Papian and the Ashdod Orchestra gave expression to the large work, from the first movement’s sombre opening “Holyrood” theme, its tension and agitation, its plaintive and stormy moments and its pictorial and poetic aspects. Following the scurrying staccato Vivace movement, with its fanfare interjections (an association of the composer’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream”), the players stressed the Adagio’s dramatic, at times reflective and sweeping intensity. In the final movement, the orchestra juxtaposed the threatening first subject with the second more wistful idea, bringing the work to a powerful and majestic close. The performance indeed captured the heavy, brooding, sometimes martial character of much of the work (punctuated by the lightness and grace of the second movement), offering some very fine wind playing throughout.

One of the four Masses written in his teen years, Franz Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G-major (1815),  a work scored for mixed choir, string orchestra and organ, was written within six days. The Jerusalem performance highlighted the work’s lyricism, moments of grandeur and innate tunefulness, the Oratorio Choirs (joined by both conductors in the soprano section) opening with velvety singing of the Kyrie, then competently weaving Schubert’s largely homophonic textures into and around the lines sung by the three soloists. Soprano Efrat Vulfsons’ substantial, richly coloured voice added emotional weight to the Christe, conveying tranquillity and the element of personal utterance in the Agnes Dei as the choir represented the collective plea. Bass Yoav Meir Weiss, his voice mellifluous and fresh, joined Vulfsons in the Gloria, as they transformed its jubilance into the more grievous Domine Deus. Ron Silberstein’s full-bodied tenor voice formed a trio with Vulfsons and Weiss in the Benedictus. In their splendid singing of the stile antico Credo, the choirs presented its simple, hymnlike melody set against the detached, moving bass line, their singing infused with eloquence and displaying a finely blended choral sound.  A drawback in the YMCA hall was having the choirs surrounding the orchestra from the back and sides; the tenors and altos were not sufficiently audible, which was unfortunate.

Johannes Brahms “Schiksalslied” (Song of Destiny) opus 54 was begun in 1868. It took three years to complete and was premiered in October 1871, with Brahms himself conducting. The poem itself appears in Friedrich Hölderlin’s novel “Hyperion” (1799), in which the title character is an 18th century Greek who fights against the Ottoman Empire and ponders the rift between the ideal perfection of unity and the destructive effects of suffering borne of personal freedom. The work is scored for 4-part mixed choir and orchestra. In contrast to the mainstream choral fare performed by many Israeli choirs,  the Oratorio choirs took on board the musical- and emotional challenges of this intensely Romantic tone poem; devoid of soloists, the choirs engaged in the contemplative, philosophical character of the text, its contrasts and its unanswered questions, performing the work in pleasingly intelligible German. No less integral to the work’s message, the orchestra contributed much to the unique work, as it opened with a slow, ominous instrumental Adagio. Still in the Adagio vein, the choirs then extol the peace of the Olympian gods, who are “free from care”. Then the tables turn, with the choir then setting before the audience the pitiful lot of man, the suffering of humanity, the choral part then fading away:

‘To us is allotted
No restful haven to find;
They falter, they perish,
Poor suffering mortals
Blindly as moment
Follows moment,
Like water from mountain
To mountain impelled.
Destined to disappearance below.’ (Translation: Edwin Evans)

Leaving the choir “wordless”, the orchestra takes over, concluding on a more positive note with the composer finally spreading a message of peace in the postlude.  Orchestra and choirs collaborated closely in conveying the work’s profound text and mood most effectively.

A graduate of the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories, Vag Papian’s international career as a conductor has covered orchestral music and opera; he also continues to perform as a pianist. Since immigrating to Israel in 1990, he has conducted- and soloed with several Israeli orchestras.  Today musical director of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, Vag Papian is also a professor at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv).  His engaging and hearty direction at the Jerusalem concert drew players, choristers and soloists into the program material with commitment.    




Monday, April 18, 2016

Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK) conducts the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and soloists in a program of music of Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell (
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s fifth concert for the 2015-2016 season was “Come Ye Sons of Arts”, a program of music of Henry Purcell (1659-1695). Joining the JBO was the Jerusalem Academy of Music Chamber Choir (director: Stanley Sperber), tenor soloist Doron Florentin, with some solos sung by members of the choir. Directing the performance was Maestro Andrew Parrott (UK), honorary conductor of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra.

Valuable information and inferences from Parrott’s decades of work and thoughts have recently appeared  in his authoritative book of essays “Composers’ Intentions? Lost Traditions of Musical Performance” (Boydell Press, 2015), focusing mostly on vocal and choral matters in performing works of Monteverdi, J.S.Bach and Henry Purcell. Directing the Taverner Choir and Taverner Players (formed by him in 1973) Parrott’s direction of two CDs of “Purcell: Music for Pleasure and Devotion”, compiled in 2003 from many different performances, presents a cross-section of Purcell’s oeuvre – incidental theatre music, instrumental pieces, songs and sacred music. Israeli audiences were privileged to hear some Purcell works of most of those categories in the JBO concerts performed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa under his direction this April. This writer attended the concert on April 14th 2016 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA.

The program opened with the Symphony to Purcell’s ode “Hail! Bright Cecilia” Z.328 (1692), the masterful overture composed in a series of short, contrasted sections, its majestic trumpet/oboe calls answered by strings, elaborate fugal writing, pensive soul-searching moments and a rich sprinkling of Purcell’s unusual and beguiling harmonic progressions, with many more of the latter to grace the rest of the program. To quote Paul McCreesh, “Hail! Bright Cecilia is probably the first substantial piece of English music to use the full orchestra…an extraordinarily forward-looking work…”  Maestro Parrott left the podium as violinists Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid and Smadar Schidlovsky engaged in the discourse of a stylish, buoyant and creative reading of Purcell’s “Fantasia: Three Parts upon a Ground” Z.731, their brilliant playing enhanced by some delicate and poetic theorbo sounds (Ophira Zakai) and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi’s ebullient solo. Purcell was about 21 when he began writing music for theatre; this body of music became a significant part of his output; with William and Mary on the throne there was vastly less music at court, encouraging Purcell to compose music to 43 plays. There is little probability that any of us will see woman playwright Aphra Behn’s “Abdelazar or the Moor’s Revenge” let alone “The Gordian Knot Unty’d” whose writer is not known and little is known of the play. With a little luck we might have the fortune to attend a performance of the composer’s last semi-opera “The Indian Queen”. Andrew Parrott offers a glimpse into the London theatrical scene of the time in his charming collection of incidental pieces taken from these works, in which we heard trumpeter Yuval Shapira’s deftly fashioned Trumpet Overture (“The Indian Queen”) and the ensemble’s performances of a Rondeau, Chaconne and Symphony and Dance that were both bold, elegant and entertaining.

Then to one of the most solemn and mournful choral pieces from the Baroque period – Purcell’s “Funeral Sentences” Z.860 (1677). Purcell was responsible for organizing the music for the funeral of young Queen Mary II on March 5th 1695. Much of the music performed was by Morley; research has revealed that only the third version of “Thou knowest Lord” as well as the March and Canzona (the latter two not performed at the JBO concert) were played at her funeral. Perhaps the “Funeral Sentences” were intended for Purcell’s teacher Matthew Locke. What is known is that the deeply melancholic and resigned anthem was soon to be performed at Purcell’s own funeral the very same year. Focusing on the transitory nature of life, fear of divine judgement and the hope for mercy, it contains some of Purcell’s most spine-chilling word painting - daring leaps, chromaticism and jarring dissonances. Parrott’s performance of it employed two separate one-to-a-voice ensembles as well as the whole choir - some beautiful voices. Somewhat disadvantaged at their being placed at the back of the YMCA stage, we seem to have missed out on some of the choir’s resonance; the singers might have given the work more compelling urgency had they been placed closer to the audience. As to the 8-voiced anthem “Hear My Prayer, O Lord” – Psalm 102 Z.15 (only a part of an incomplete work), also with a continuo of organ (David Shemer) and violone (Dara Blum) at this concert, conductor and choir gave vehement expression to the piece’s daring and powerful mix of seemingly simple vocal lines as they took on the relentless, seamless flow of the work, its build-up and soaring of tension throughout,  conveying in Purcell’s complex harmonic language the text’s anguish, to then find peace in the final understated open fifth C-minor chord.

The celebratory anthem “Jubilate Deo” Z.232 was first performed on St. Cecilia’s Day in 1694 in London. In Purcell’s fresh, lively setting of the text, in which full Baroque tutti sections interject and alternate with more reflective prayerful passages, tenor Doron Florentin exhibited involvement, warmth of sound, eloquence and vocal stamina as he conversed with the trumpet line and dueted with soprano Ayelet Kagan and with bass Asaf Benraf, the latter two also members of the Chamber Choir, all forces joining to make for a fine performance of the final contrapuntal tutti.

“Come Ye Sons of Arts” Z.323 is Purcell’s final birthday ode for Queen Mary. The opening tri-partite Symphony proved to be a fine vehicle for the JBO, and especially festive for the winds, as Parrott and the instrumentalists gave meaning to each gesture and mood change, the wistful Adagio given time to unfold naturally and to take an extra tug at the heart strings. With the opening chorus gently swayed, the instruments sounded as connected to the words as were the singers.  In lieu of two countertenors, Doron Florentin and mezzo-soprano Tamara Navot performed “Sound the Trumpet” with some nice imitation and word-play despite their being ill matched volume-wise. With the recorders (Myrna Herzog, Shai Kribus) poignant in expression and beautifully matched in spirit and tuning in the obbligato role of the ode’s centre piece “Strike the Viol”, Florentin shaped and sculpted the vocal line, energized by Purcell’s inebriating rhythmic insistence and instrumental setting. Bass Asaf Benraf’s solos were pleasing, musical and carefully handled. Soprano Yuval Oren’s communicative manner and competent singing of “Bid the Virtues” were charmingly balanced with the oboe obbligato (Ofer Frenkel), Oren joining Benraf in duo in the final movement. Ending the program with this joyful ode, a work comprising some of Baroque music’s finest “hits”, our attention was drawn by Maestro Parrott to the specific and subtle agendas of both choir and orchestra throughout.



Rudolf Lutz (Switzerland) in "The Art of Improvisation" at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Organist Rudolf Lutz (

One of the Israel International Organ Festival’s concerts (taking place in Jerusalem and Haifa) “The Art of Improvisation” was the title of a recital given by Rudolf Lutz (Switzerland) April 16th 2016 at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, just a few steps away from the Zion Gate that leads into the Old City of Jerusalem. Dedicated in 1910 by the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Dormition Abbey is home to monks of the Benedictine community and hosts theological students from Germany, Switzerland and Austria in Jerusalem on a one-year program. Father Ralph Greis is the Abbey’s permanent organist.  The Dormition Abbey’s large pipe organ, encased in white oak was made by the German Oberlinger firm to fit the exact measurements of the central gallery. The organ was inaugurated in 1980 and completely revamped in 1992.

Artist and works performed at the concert were introduced by founder and president of the Israel Organ Association Mr. Gérard Levi. The program opened with works in the style of J.S.Bach, the first inspired by “Ein feste Burg” BWV 80 (A Mighty Fortress is Our God) a well-known melody based on Martin Luther’s hymn setting of Psalm 46; Lutz’ majestic extemporization was rich in colour, finely constructed, a bonus comprising his singing and a reference to the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s “Messiah”. The artist’s enormously skilful improvisation of a two-subject fugue in the style of Bach embraced various timbres, combined and contrasted the first subject of leaps with the second of descending chromaticism, to culminate in a virtuosic fantasia. The only original Bach work on the program was “O Mensch, Gewein dein Sünde gross” (O man thy grievous sin bemoan) one of 46 chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgel-Büchlein (Little Organ Book), the artist presenting its pensive, tragic Passiontide text in veiled, mysterious and intimate timbres and highlighting its expressive character, the work’s elaborate course leading to a totally unexpected C-flat major chord via a rising chromatic bass line.  

Then to improvisations on a piece of Rudolf Lutz himself, a work inspired by birds and by the very place in which we were gathered. “Birds on Mt. Zion” consisted of three pieces: quoting the “Spring” concerto from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, “My Heart is Like a Bird in Spring” was sunny and ebullient, the artist’s use of the glockenspiel evocative of birds; not utilizing the bass register, Lutz depicted “Sad Birds in a Cage” with melancholy, his occasional small hesitations adding to the piece’s introspective mood; at times evoking the sound of a music box (or was that my subjective listening?) “A Parrot in Golden Park” was a celebration of timbres, with reedy woodwind sounds but also many magical, golden tone qualities.  Opening with grand “orchestration”, “An English Fantasy”, included allusions to the Grand Amen and to Hubert Parry’s powerful 1910 setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem”. In the course of the piece, Lutz hones the textures down to personal hymn-singing level, only to allow them to spiral once again to the imposing opulence so characteristic of the pipe organ, to be joined by his own substantial singing voice.

Using the text of Psalm 8 as his inspiration, Rudolf Lutz created the mystery and wonder of night and stars, setting its reflective melody against velvety clusters, his use of the Zimbelstern (cymbal star) stop delicately sprinkling the sky with myriads of stars.

‘When I consider your heavens,
The work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars,
Which you have set in place,
What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
Human beings that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8, 3-4)

In three pieces based on traditional songs, the first two being Israeli melodies, we heard “Dona, dona” its melody set against a jaunty, bucolic and whimsical wooden cartwheel movement-like accompaniment. In the third item of the group, a Swiss hymn-style folk song from the Bernese Alps, the artist sang verses in tenor- and then falsetto voice, introducing references to Swiss mountain music as well as some interesting harmonic strategies.

Rudolf Lutz called the final work on the program “Elijah on Mt. Horeb”. In the lush style of Romantic organ music, the five movements presented vivid musical descriptions, as in the gripping depiction of the storm in “God is not in the storm”, the frenetic, feisty portrayal of fire, its flames almost visually flaring up in “God is not in the fire”, the dramatic and menacing description of the earthquake in the fourth movement, then finally presenting a sense of tranquillity in “God is in the soft wind”, its soundscape bathed in light and caressing lyricism, its optimism and longing borrowed from Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, to conclude with the soothing sounds of Brahms’ “Lullaby”.

Conductor, organist, harpsichordist, pianist and composer, Rudolf Lutz (b.1951) studied in Switzerland and Austria. Organist of the St. Laurence Church (St. Gallen, Switzerland), he was appointed artistic director of the St. Gallen J.S.Bach Foundation, establishing its choir and orchestra for the foundation’s mission to perform J.S.Bach’s complete vocal works. A highly acclaimed teacher of historical improvisation, Lutz performs and lectures in Europe, today teaching at the Basel Schola Cantorum and the Basel University of Music. His diverse musical activities include chamber music performance, playing the dulcimer in “Alpenglühn” (the original Appenzell string ensemble) and appearances as a jazz musician! This was Maestro Lutz’ first visit to Israel.

Prior to the concert, Rudolf Lutz spoke of his language as being music, of the fact that almost all the works he was to perform would have no score, would be with the listener as they were played and then promptly vanish. Indeed, for over an hour, he had the audience at the edge of their seats. An artist of exceptional creativeness and technique, Maestro Lutz’ recital was indeed memorable.


Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Koelner Akademie (conductor: Michael Willens) and Ronald Brautigam (fortepiano) perform Mozart and Haydn at the 2016 Felicja Blumental Festival (Tel Aviv)

Maestro Michael Willens (

An event drawing a large audience to the 2016 Felicja Blumental International Music Festival (April 4th -9th, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) was “Mozart Concertos for Fortepiano” on April 6th in the Recanati Hall of the Museum. Performing in Israel for the first time, Ronald Brautigam (Holland) soloed in two Mozart concertos with the Kölner Akademie, conducted by Michael Alexander Willens. The concert was supported by the Goethe Institute.

Die Kölner Akademie (the Cologne Academy) performs repertoire from the 17th to 21st centuries and on period instruments. In order to fully realize the composer’s intentions and present historically informed performance, the ensemble plays from Urtext editions and with the appropriate number of players for each work.  Receiving wide acclaim, the ensemble performs worldwide and has recorded more than 40 CDs. The Kölner Akademie is recording all 27 Mozart piano concertos with Brautigam as soloist on fortepiano and conducted by Michael Willens.  An American conductor based in Cologne Germany, Michael Alexander Willens, musical director of the Kölner Akademie, studied at the Juilliard School of Music (New York.) He also studied with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and choral conducting with Paul Vorwerk. A conductor of international standing, Willens engages in performance of repertoire from the Baroque to today, but he is also at home in jazz and popular music.  Willens is dedicated to performing works of lesser-known contemporary American composers, premiering several of them.

The Tel Aviv program opened with W.A.Mozart’s Symphony No.29 in A-major K.201. Composed in 1774 on the 17-year-old composer’s return to Salzburg from a visit to Vienna with his father and scored for the usual Salzburg orchestra constellation - strings, two oboes and two horns – it is one of the masterpieces of Mozart’s youth. Delicate and contrasted, the Cologne orchestra’s reading of the work was accurate and dynamic, presenting the sunny disposition of the A-major tonality. The work’s inner turbulence and tenderness were initially somewhat underplayed. The instrumentalists’ playing of the impetuous final movement – Allegro non spirito – however did indeed highlight the work’s dramatic aspect, with vivid playing of the natural horns, their uniquely lyric, vocal quality pleasing throughout the evening.  Indeed, with the score’s pointed use of wind instruments, the Kölner Akademie’s very fine wind players infused rich textural content and light and shade to the playing of the symphony.

Mozart wrote Concerto in C-major K.246 in 1776 for Countess Antonia von Lützow, a niece of Mozart’s employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg; von Lützow was probably a pupil of Leopold Mozart.  What quickly became clear with this performance of the work was that Maestro Willens and Ronald Brautigam have worked much together, the small orchestra and fortepiano’s strategic- and carefully balanced timbres making for rewarding listening. In the second movement, they created a poignant mood piece prophetic of many great Mozart slow movements to come in the composer’s career. Brautigam engaged in the work’s filigree details and small gestures, his gentle flexing making for a live, spontaneous rendition. In the outer movements, the pianist’s joie-de-vivre connected with that of Mozart as he delighted the audience with much clean, agile and effortless passagework.

In a very different mood, Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.49 in F-minor “La Passione” (1768) was representative of a time in which Haydn was interested to explore his own potential for stormy or tragic expression, as influenced by the Romantic Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) literary movement, this resulting in his producing a series of exceptional symphonies in minor keys. With the title referring to the fact that the symphony was probably first performed on Good Friday, the form used is also the composer’s final reference to the earlier sonata da chiesa form. The mellow timbral quality of the kinds of instruments played by the Kölner Akademie befitted the work’s introspective aspect, its pathos (and occasional angry outbursts) making up the emotional agenda of Symphony No.49. All four movements are written in the minor mode. With its abrupt transitions, its sober Minuet and whirlwind drama of the final Presto, the only moment of repose and brightness (and appearance of the key of F-major) was provided by the happier Trio of the Minuet. The natural horns contributed much to the work’s ominous agenda.  A beautifully crafted rendition, Michael Willens and his players gave expression to the work’s austere and intense beauty.

In 1781 Mozart moved to Vienna, “the land of the piano” as he referred to Vienna in a letter to his father in June 1791, establishing his career there as a pianist. His Piano Concerto in E-flat major K.449 (1784), was dedicated to his piano/composition student Barbara Ployer, daughter of a tax collector and timber merchant, but, more importantly, the niece of court councillor Gottfried Ignaz von Ployer, the agent of the Salzburg court in Vienna. Clearly a fine pianist, she premiered it at a private concert, with the composer as soloist in its first public airing. The latter event coincided with Mozart’s realization of his own greatness as a composer; the E-flat Piano Concerto was the first work the composer entered into a thematic catalogue he was to keep until his death.  The concerto, a work of modest scale and sonority and the shortest of his mature concertos, bristles with life and surprises, and the substantial, beguiling piano role was taken on by Brautigam with zest. His agility and clean passagework in the opening Allegro vivace were threaded effectively into the general score and partnered well with the orchestra, Brautigam offering subjective expression in its cadenza. The Andante followed with moving, intimate and highly expressive songfulness, its subtle harmonies graced with lavish embellishments.  Under the fingers of Ronald Brautigam, the final Allegro non troppo, sounding precise and balanced, once more attested to the articulacy and exciting sound of the fortepiano, as Brautigam and the orchestra entertained the audience with the movement’s rigour and charm. The concert offered listeners the rare opportunity of experiencing these works as Mozart and Haydn would have heard them.

Spending six months performing on the fortepiano and six on the modern piano, Ronald Brautigam (b. 1954, Amsterdam) first studied with Dutch pianist Jan Wijn, later studying in the UK and America. One of his teachers was Rudolf Serkin. He regularly soloes with European orchestras and is a devoted player of chamber music. His many recordings include the complete works of Mozart and Haydn on the fortepiano.

Ronald Brautigam (

Monday, April 4, 2016

Pianist Marouan Benabdallah performs works of composers from the Arab world and Saint-Saens' "Africa"

Marouan Benabdallah (
“Arabesque” was the title of a recital given by pianist Marouan Benabdallah at the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, on April 1st 2016. The American Colony Hotel concert series is managed by Ms. Petra Klose of K und K Wien (Vienna). Mr. Thomas Brugnatelli, manager of the ACH, introduced the artist and welcomed guests assembled in the Pasha Room. The “Arabesque” concert series is the result of Banabdallah’s personal search for piano works written by composers from the Arab world.  In his search for this repertoire, the artist has discovered works by some 70 composers from almost all Arab countries and has selected what he considers the best of them to present to the public.  Many of the pieces have not been published or recorded; receiving permission to perform works of living composers has not always been an easy task for the artist. Common to composers of the works we heard at this recital is the fact that all come from Arab countries but have spent time in- or have relocated to Europe or the USA. What remains not common to them is their difference of background. Benabdallah says the project is “about mutual discovery”, both for listeners in Arab countries and for those in the western world and that it is “in our interest to foster better understanding and dialogue between cultures and people”.

Born 1982 in Rabat, Morocco to a Moroccan physicist father and a Hungarian musician mother (his first teacher), Marouan Benabdallah moved to Budapest at age 13 to pursue his musical studies at the Bela Bartok Conservatory and the Franz Liszt Academy. His international career began in 2003 following success in both the Hungarian Radio Piano Competition and the Andorra Grand Prize. He made his Carnegie Hal- and Kennedy Center debuts in 2011. Although describing himself as an “heir to the great Hungarian musical tradition”, Marouan Benabdallah finds himself as comfortable with music of Arab classical composers as with conventional European concert repertoire. As to the works we heard, they all formed a meeting point for music of both worlds.

The recital opened with “La nuit de destin” (Night of Destiny) by Syrian-born composer, conductor and teacher Dia Succari (1938-2010). At age 15, Succari went to study at the Paris Conservatoire (one of his composition teachers was Olivier Messiaen), where he remained, becoming a professor at three institutions. Via an effective presentation of western writing with some Impressionistic associations, then intense, playing of taksim (melodic improvisation) passages suggestive of oriental plucked instruments, the piece evoked the atmosphere of a night of prayer and spiritual illumination in timbres that were both exotic and fervent. Benabdallah drew the listener’s attention to the fact that Succari, a Maronite, had written a work celebrating the holiest night of Ramadan.

Born in Algeria in 1975, instrumentalist, composer, musicologist and teacher Salim Dada has spent time in Italy and France; his music has been referred to as a “message of peace and dialogue between the Arab-Muslim world and Europe”. Benabdallah’s performance contrasted the character of two of Dada’s “Algerian Miniatures” (2009) – the first a traditional melody existing hand-in-hand with western harmony, the second a virtuosic, fiery dance bristling with splendid piano textures. Zad Moultaka (b.1967), another member of the younger generation of composers that straddles two worlds, is both Lebanese and French, both pianist and composer, also a painter. In 1993, he terminated a prestigious piano solo career in order to focus on composition, grappling with the question of how to combine western compositional techniques with elements of Arabic music stemming from oral tradition and where to find within this his own musical “voice”. Benabdallah’s skilful performance of “Two Mouwashahs” (both an Arabic poetic form and a secular musical genre) used different effects - strumming on the piano strings, playing melodic passages on the strings, holding a damper almost down to create a muted effect – as he presented the composer’s fast flow of ideas, the ornamented octaves characteristic of Arabic music, canons etc. in a richly “orchestrated” soundscape.

One of the most sophisticated and frequently-heard voices of his generation, Mohammed Fairouz (b.1985), known for his cosmopolitanism and involvement in social issues, has spoken of himself as “obsessed with text”. His work of 2013 “El Male Rachamim” (God, full of mercy), three sections of which were played by Benabdallah, takes its name from a poem by Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and, in particular, from the Jewish funeral prayer that accompanies the ascension of the soul. The composer dedicated the work to the memory of Hungarian Jewish composer György Ligeti, who had been one of his teachers. The pianist gave poignant and profound expression to the work’s tenebrous, plangent and sometimes indignant emotional context, to evoking the cantor’s beseeching voice singing the prayer and to the piece’s prayerful intimacy; the second section’s insistence and restless mood were followed by the vigorous scoring and embellishment of the hugely demanding third movement.

Composer, arranger, pianist and teacher Boghos Gelalian (1927-2011) resided in Beirut, Lebanon. Born in Alexandrette (then Syria), he grew up in a community of survivors of the Armenian genocide, hearing Armenian and Turkish music but receiving a classical, western music education.  His music is conspicuous for his use of both Armenian and middle eastern modes and is a reminder of his familiarity with European avant-garde music, but it also reveals his personal signature style. Gelalian received recognition for his contribution to Lebanese cultural life. Marouan Benabdallah performed Gelalian’s “Canzona e Toccata”, taking his listeners into the brooding mood of the Canzona, with its coherent, soul-searching coupling of modal and atonal elements, to be followed by the intense, mesmerizing and almost frenzied Toccata, the pianist’s forging of its spiralling, relentless chromatic strands never concealing the piece’s melodic content.

Moroccan composer and musicologist Nabil Benabdeljalil (b.1972) studied composition with Ivan Fedele at the Strasbourg Conservatory. His doctoral dissertation there (2007) was on heterophony in music of the 20th century. Marouan Benabdallah’s reading of two Nocturnes of Benabdeljalil highlighted the strong influence of Chopin’s piano music on the composer as he embraced their nostalgic, oriental-tinted melodies played to lush, caressing and rhapsodic Chopanesque accompaniments.

The recital ended with Benabdallah’s own arrangement of Camille Saint-Saëns’ (1835-1921) most colourful concertante work, the “Africa” Fantasy opus 89 (1891), a version in which Benabdallah has combined orchestral- and piano roles (not to be confused with the composer’s own one-piano version.) Saint-Saëns’ study of North African music is apparent here (a self-fashioned cosmopolitan, he collected much indigenous music from the region) using themes of songs and dances from Egypt and Algeria; the climax of the piece is based on a Tunisian folk tune. In this rarely performed single-movement work, a flashy, virtuoso piece reflecting vistas of the orient, Benabdallah negotiated the work’s changes of mood, key and tempo, carrying it off with effortless pizzazz.

Marouan Benabdallah communicates easily with his audience. The artist’s fresh, brilliant and powerful technique, his sensitive attention to detail and rich palette of piano timbres, together with his natural curiosity, invite the listener to discover this sophisticated and unique repertoire together with him.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov performs "Preludes and Fugues" at the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Jascha Nemtsov (photo: Maxim Reider)
An auspicious event of the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival (March 17th-21st 2016) was a recital titled “Preludes and Fugues performed by pianist Jascha Nemtsov. It took place at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on March 20th.

With his program taking a cue from the music of J.S.Bach at the core of the festival, Professor Nemtsov opened his recital with pieces from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier - a contemplative, gently expansive reading of the Prelude in E major, followed by its bold partner fugue. His poetic rendering of the F-minor Prelude highlighted key notes; then, to the Fugue with its enigmatic, atonal subject, clearly highly inspirational to Nemtsov, whose poly-dimensional playing was variously and imaginatively orchestrated at each stage of the piece.

Many of us were especially drawn to the recital to hear the pianist’s first Israeli performance of a number of the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Ukraine-born composer Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891-1953), an artist systematically persecuted, excluded from Soviet musical life, exiled and twice imprisoned. Much of his music was destroyed. He did, however, compose six piano sonatas, three programmatic piano cycles, two operas, symphony- and ensemble scores and the cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. The Preludes and Fugues (1937-1938) constitute the central work of the composer’s musical legacy (there are also some literary works), having miraculously survived and made it into the hands of the composer’s son who, in the 1970s deciphered what was written in the Kilyma camp of Siberia mostly on telegram forms, copying the pieces out in full. The cycle of Zaderatsky’s Preludes and Fugues was first performed in its entirety by Nemtsov in 2015 at the 6th International Shostakovich Days (Gohrisch, Germany). 2015 also saw the publishing of the work as well as Nemtsov’s double CD recording of the complete set for the Profil label. At the Jerusalem recital, Jascha Nemtsov’s performance of this highly varied group of pieces convincingly displayed Zaderatsky’s kaleidoscope of ideas and his fine (and highly challenging) pianistic writing; beyond those qualities, Nemtsov sketched a picture of the man himself and the breadth of fantasy and emotion that may well have been what saw him through ordeals in the gulag that many do not survive. The pieces also attest to the composer’s mastery at the piano. If Bach’s C-major Prelude of the WTC I is bathed in light and tranquillity, Zaderatsky’s C-major is ghostly, intense, confrontational, sometimes atonal. The splendid A-minor Prelude, with its hectic, bright and cascading agenda, as well as its drone presence, breathes optimism, as does its richly chordal accompanying Fugue, which ends on an octave-and-fifth, pared-down Renaissance-type chord. In the G-major Prelude, with its agile, weightless “Flight-of-the-Bumblebee” texture, Nemtsov’s virtuosic performance displayed the piece’s play of colours and humour. The G-Major Fugue, however, follows by conjuring up a complex soundscape. After the atonal, floating “seascape” of the E-Minor Prelude, the E-minor Fugue, with quotes threaded through the texture, its voices shaped with individual expression, ended on three decisive minor chords. A true gem, the B-Minor Prelude’s fine gossamer melody wrought of parallel seconds took one’s breath away with its beauty; its modal/atonal partner fugue taking on a much weightier character, its texture offering a suggestion of bells. With the F-sharp minor Prelude’s shining, high melodic line and poignant bell-like textures, we were raised up to a more celestial place; its Fugue splendidly chiselled, with each phrase growing out of its predecessor. Nemtsov’s total immersion in the music and in the workings of Zaderatsky’s intellect and soul left the audience humbled and moved.

First silenced as a “degenerate” composer due to his Jewish ancestry, Czech composer Viktor Ullmann composed the “Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folk Song”, the fifth and last movement of Sonata No.7, his final work, when interned in Theresienstadt. Against all odds, Ullmann was very creative there. “Theresienstadt was and is for me a school of structure”, he wrote. “I must stress that I have bloomed in my musical work…without inhibition…” In 1944, however, shortly after completing the piece, he was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, soon perishing in the gas chambers there. The Hebrew folksong on which the movement is based is a Zionist song sung by Yehuda Sharett. It sets a poem by the poet Rachel. Ullmann’s variations bear resemblance to a Slovak national anthem (banned by the Nazis) and a Hussite hymn, also quoting the Protestant hymn “Now thank we all our God”. Apparent in this final movement are, in fact, a comprehensive array of the elements making up Ullmann’s musical-, emotional- and intellectual existence (references to Bach, to Christianity versus Judaism, folk music, the fugue, tonal- versus atonal music) or might it be an utterance of defiance of his Nazi captors? Nemtsov’s free, playful and brilliant performance of the work reflected the composer’s unshakable optimism. In his introductory words, the artist referred to Ullmann’s Fugue as a “kind of vision”. With BACH motif appearing in the fugue, here was another connection to the festival itself.

When Dmitri Shostakovich went to Leipzig in 1950 for events marking 200 years of J.S.Bach’s death, he heard young virtuoso pianist Tatiana Nikolyeva performing pieces from both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Returning to Moscow, he began to sketch out his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, a work alluding to the music of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Russian folk music but also to the world of counterpoint. This diverse and imaginative collection of pieces takes the listener through the wide range of the composer’s emotional world, from bleak despair to exaltation, from the grotesque to devil-may-care jollity. It was Nikolyeva who then premiered the Shostakovich work in 1952. At his Jerusalem recital, Jascha Nemtsov played three pairs of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues opus 87, opening with the C-Major pair - autumnal, harmonically rich, gently dissonanced yet breathing a sense of C-Major purity and directness, its Fugue played with fragile beauty. Nemtsov, having mentioned that the F-Sharp-Minor prelude included motifs from Klezmer music, presented the agitated, feisty miniature with playfulness, cynicism and a touch of whimsy, then drawing the listener into the disturbing banality-cum-dissonance of the Fugue subject and its complex workings, a piece as bewitching as it is disturbing. As to the D-Minor Prelude, Nemtsov highlighted its noble character, giving a natural and free voice to the richly varied emotional agenda of the consequent Fugue. Professor Nemtsov’s playing sensitively plumbs the depths of Shostakovich’s mind, his elegant and nimble touch presenting the pieces with masterful eloquence, his deep enquiry into each revealing its truth.

Pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov was born in Magadan (Siberia), growing up in St. Petersburg and graduating with distinction from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Since 1992, he has lived in Germany, with a busy international career performing both solo- and chamber music. Nemtsov’s repertoire covers a wide range of works and styles, from Classical- and Romantic repertoire to music of the 20th- and 21st centuries, with emphasis on Russian music – Shostakovich, Zaderatsky, Weinberg and other composers. As a performer and musicologist, he has focused on Jewish art music of the early 20th century and performs works of composers who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. He has been active in salvaging forgotten works of the New Jewish School (Russia, early 20th century). Jascha Nemtsov’s many recordings have won him several prizes. He today holds the chair of History of Jewish Music at the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar and serves as academic director of the Abraham Geiger College (the Reform rabbinic/cantorial seminary attached to the University of Potsdam, Berlin.)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pianist Tamir Ben Zvi performs works of George Gershwin

George Gershwin (
On March 19th 2016, the new Yvonne Herzog Piano Series was launched with “Gershwin is Here to
Stay”, a program performed and explained by Tamir Ben Zvi. It took place at the home of viola da gamba player and researcher Dr. Myrna Herzog, her home also being the “nerve centre” of Ensemble PHOENIX. The recital was the first to be played in Israel on the 1926 Blüthner piano that Myrna Herzog’s mother, Yvonne Herzog (1923-2015) received in her native Brazil at age 18 and played for the duration of her life. She had been a piano student of the legendary Tomás Teran, a close friend of Villa-Lobos; one of Teran’s students had been Antonio Carlos Jobim. The piano has been restored by Zamir Havkin. Myrna Herzog commented that George Gershwin would have been 28 years old in 1926, making his music totally contemporary with this piano.

Setting the scene of America at the turn of the 20th century, Tamir Ben Zvi opened with an earthy performance of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899). Ben Zvi then gave a short résumé of Gershwin’s life: George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26th 1898 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Young George’s interest in music was kindled when his parents bought Ira, their older son, a piano. George started playing it and eventually began studying with noted piano teacher Charles Hambitzer, later moving on to a number of other piano teachers. At age 16 he dropped out of school, playing in New York nightclubs and working as a “song-plugger” in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. From 1916 to 1927, he recorded several piano rolls for the pianola, which was popular at the time, some recorded with overdubbing to create the effect of four hands at the piano. His works for screen and stage quickly became standards. His lyricist for nearly all of his career was his brother Ira. George Gershwin’s most ambitious undertaking was his “folk opera” “Porgy and Bess”. It was when working on a film with Fred Astaire that Gershwin’s life came to an abrupt end, when he died of a brain tumor at age 38.

Tamir Ben Zvi then played a broad selection of Gershwin’s piano music, some of the works performed in Israel for the first time. He opened with “Realto Ripples Rag” (1917), the composer’s first published instrumental piece, but a number already carrying the hallmarks of Gershwin’s own piano style. By the time he had composed “Swanee”, Gershwin was making good money from composing. Ben Zvi played the piano version of “Swanee”, followed by the (four-hand) piano roll version. The piece quotes “Oh Suzanna” and “Old Folks at Home”. Here was the son of Jewish immigrants contributing to the melting pot of American music.

Gershwin’s dream was to become a composer of classical music and to write preludes as had Bach, Debussy and Chopin.  Ben Zvi played some of Gershwin’s preludes, a group of evocative pieces: the first a bitter-sweet, pensive piece, sensitively played and flexed gently, the second sounding somewhat oriental with its melody played in parallel 4ths; then a feisty, agile jazzy piece, followed by a leisurely-paced well-known bluesy prelude, the last also influenced by jazz – a busy, humorous and raucous work.

“The Man I Love” (lyrics: Ira Gershwin) was one of George’s greatest successes. Originally “The Girl I Love” and part of the 1924 score of “Lady Be Good”, it featured throughout the 1947 film “The Man I Love”, but has since become more famous as an independent song. Ben Zvi played two versions of it - the first thoughtful and infused with beautiful sentimentality, fine writing for the piano, moving and human expression and well “orchestrated” by Ben Zvi.  The second version was the 1949 version by American virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956), a setting brimming with ideas, Ben Zvi’s playing suggestive of jazz improvisation. 

As an aside from the Gershwin story, Tamir Ben Zvi gave a touching, caressing and nostalgic reading of Léopold Godowsky’s naïve piano piece “Alt Wien” (Old Vienna), written in 1920. Godowsky (1870-1938) was a Jewish Polish-American composer and teacher and one of the most highly regarded pianists of his time.  His “Studies on Chopin’s Études” are considered to be among the most difficult works for piano.

Back to George Gershwin and “I Got Rhythm” (published 1930) its opening phrases using the pentatonic scale. It was sung by Ethel Mermen in the original Broadway production of “Girl Crazy”. Ben Zvi gave a colourful reading of the piece, followed by his own creative and original bossa nova setting of “Summertime” suavely trimmed with some “blue” (or “worried”) notes. The program concluded with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, a work requested by bandleader Paul Whiteman and composed by Gershwin within three weeks. Originally written for solo piano and jazz band, it was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times. The work was premiered by Whiteman and his band, with Gershwin at the piano, at a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music” on February 12th 1924 in Aeolian Hall, New York. The concert represented a milestone in introducing jazz and American popular music into the concert hall.  Its rich and daring canvas incorporates all of the influences present in  Gershwin’s music – Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano music, rhythmic improvisational jazz from the Harlem clubs, folk elements from Yiddish theatre and also the lush harmonies of European post-Romantic music. In a truly virtuosic and vibrant performance of “Rhapsody in Blue”, Tamir Ben Zvi chose to play a version combining both piano and orchestral roles – a genuine tour-de-force. For his encore, pianist Tamir Ben Zvi gave a graceful, fragrant and thoughtful rendering of “(Our) Love Is Here to Stay”, George Gershwin’s last completed work (lyrics: Ira Gershwin). He did not live to hear it performed:

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay;
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies,
And in time may go!

But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay.
Together we're
Going a long, long way

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
There're only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.

1926 was the golden age of the Blüthner piano, a piano known for its Romantic, mellow sound and smooth action. Yvonne Herzog’s piano is no exception. Tamir Ben Zvi’s recital gave expression to the piano’s vivid colours and to the rich pianistic world of Gershwin.

Israeli pianist Tamir Ben Zvi holds a master’s degree from the Juilliard School of Music. The recipient of several awards and prizes, he performs a wide range of repertoire.

Tamir Ben Zvi (