Friday, August 9, 2019

Italian pianist Tullia Melandri records Robert Schumann's Op.4 Intermezzi and Sonata No.1 Op.11 on fortepiano

Photo: © renska I media-weavers
Italian pianist Tullia Melandri has recorded Robert Schumann’s Intermezzi Op.4 and Piano Sonata in F sharp minor Op.11 on a Joseph Simon fortepiano (Vienna, c.1830), an instrument built at the time Schumann was composing the works on this recording. This particular instrument was restored at the Laboratorio di Restauro del Fortepiano in Florence. 

Schumann referred to the Opus 4 Intermezzi, composed from April to July 1832 and published in 1833 as “longer Papillons”, but the Intermezzi are different to the Op.2 “Papillons” in that they include almost no literary allusions. Only in Intermezzo No.2 is there any extra-musical reference, with the marking above the slower middle section reading as “Meine Ruh’ ist his…” (My peace of mind has vanished, spoken by Gretchen in Goethe’s “Faust”, Part 1.)  In his diary the 22-year-old composer wrote: “The Intermezzi are going to be something special – each note is going to be weighed up carefully”. Probing his musical world in depth and the influences feeding into it is not within the capability of every pianist. French literary theorist, philosopher and critic Roland Barthes referred to Schumann as “the musician of solitary images … an amorous and imprisoned soul that speaks to himself”; in 1846, German music critic Eduard Hanslick dismissed Schumann’s music as too “interior and strange” to have a future. Tullia Melandri’s performance of the Op.4 Intermezzi is quick to involve the listener, as she conjures up the pieces with her generous, unfettered, quick-change artistry - their sense of spontaneity, of urgency, of whimsy, their forays into magical worlds, their lyricism and tenderness, here and there, tinged with just a hint of melancholy. Her technical savoir faire gives expression to Schumann’s profuse pianistic textures and his preoccupation with counterpoint at the time. (The composer claimed that he had learned more about counterpoint by reading Jean Paul than he did by taking counterpoint classes.) Melandri wields the Simon fortepiano with mastery and pizzazz, its untamed timbre lending immediacy to the work’s unprompted gestures and clarity to its densest textures.


Piano Sonata No.1 in f-sharp minor, Op. 11 showcases the complex inter-relationship between Schumann's music and his life; his compositional style is wrought of many influences - the writings of Romantic authors Jean Paul Richter and E. T. A. Hoffmann and the music of Beethoven, Schubert, and J.S.Bach. No less relevant to the background of the work is, however, that it was begun when the 23-year-old Schumann was engaged to marry Ernestine von Fricken and finished when he became enamoured with the 15-year-old virtuoso pianist Clara Wieck, who would become his wife in 1840. Completed in August 1835 and published anonymously, the sonata was dedicated to Clara under the names Florestan and Eusebius, contrasting characters (from Jean Paul’s novel “Flegeljahre” -The Awkward Age), representing the eternal Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy and, most pertinently, the two contrasting sides of Schumann’s own personality - the turbulent and the reflective. As to his approach to the sonata construction, Schumann reshapes it to serve his personal narrative, interpolating previous works into its weave. Melandri sets the work’s immense soundscape before the listener. Its moments of forceful turbulence and insistence never emerge as unchecked or coarse. Her treatment of the second movement - Aria - (based on “To Anna”, a song he composed in 1828) is wistful and luminous, its melodic strands beautifully delineated. As to the enigmatic Scherzo with its polonaise-like Intermezzo and puzzling recitative, Melandri navigates its multipartite agenda with some elasticity, then to entice the listener into the fantasy and new sound world of each episode of the Finale, to conclude with consummate bravura. 


It is the piano pieces created by Schumann in the 1830s that are exceptionally emotional and intense. Tullia Melandri examines their multiplicity, engaging the Joseph Simon fortepiano’s darker, slightly gritty but crystalline timbre and reliable mechanical reaction to give both actuality and emotional depth to these works. Recorded for the Dynamic label, the disc’s sound quality is buoyant and vigorous. This CD is a must for those of us interested in how historic keyboards and the works originally played on them converge. 


Born in Faenza, Italy, in 1976, Tullia Melandri’s piano studies took place in Rovigo, Siena, Imola and Livorno. In 2002, she graduated from the University of Bologna in Culture and Heritage Conservation, with a major in music, presenting a thesis on music philology. Her interest in historically informed performance has taken her to the Netherlands, where she studied fortepiano with Bart van Oort. An award winner of several piano and chamber music competitions, Melandri performs widely.


Saturday, August 3, 2019

The 2019 Vocal Fantasy Festival, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, signs out with G.F.Handel's "Esther" sung in Hebrew

Photo: Yoel Levy
Taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on July 27th, the event concluding the 2019 Vocal Fantasy Festival, was a unique performance of G.F.Handel’s oratorio “Esther”. Joining the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra were the Collegium Choro Musici Riga (director: Māris Kupčs, organ), soloists from the Collegium Choro Riga and bass Nerijus Masevičius (Lithuania). Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra founder and musical director David Shemer conducted from the harpsichord.


Handel began composing the music for what would become the first English oratorio when serving as resident composer for James Brydges, Duke of Chandos from 1717 to 1818 at Cannons, the duke’s estate north of London. It was a pivotal stepping stone in Handel’s development as a composer and a compelling drama in its own right. Based on the Old Testament and Jean Racine’s 1689 play, the oratorio tells of Esther, a Jewish orphan who has become wife to the Persian king Ahasverus.  Haman, a kind of court minister, feels wronged when Mordecai, a relative of Esther, does not bow to him. As revenge, Haman orders the death of all Jews in the kingdom.  As to the unique performance at the Vocal Fantasy Festival, Handel actually made two settings of “Esther”. These oratorios claimed the attention of the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, which commissioned poet Rabbi Jacob Raphael Saraval to translate the oratorio’s text into Hebrew. Saraval chose sections from both oratorios. Israeli conductor and harpsichordist Shalev Ad-El came up with the idea of integrating Saraval’s text with Händel’s music, constructing a new form of the oratorio using the two original versions with Saraval’s translation. How justified was this? It is known that Händel was unrivalled in his liberalism and tolerance and known for his supportive attitude to Jews.  Ad-El performed the “new” version in New York in the early 2000s and with great success. In his Vocal Fantasy Festival program notes, Maestro David Shemer writes: “Some years ago, the cantor of a Jewish community in Riga asked for suggestions for the program of the Mikhail Alexandrovich Jewish Music Festival, to be more specific, for a concert within the festival that would be dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Jewish-Latvian composer and musicologist Max Goldin. When I was a student in Riga in the 1970s, I was privileged to be among Prof. Goldin’s students and the above-mentioned proposition moved me deeply. For the occasion, I suggested performing Handel’s oratorio “Esther” in Hebrew. My colleague Shalev Ad-El was generous in putting material from his New York performance at my disposal. Fifteen years had passed since that performance, and I was sure that if Shalev himself were to return to the score now, he would introduce some changes. So it became my mission to continue the editing process, which, of course, was based massively on the work Ad-El had done on it earlier. A group of young gifted singers took part at the Riga performance in September 2017, as well as the choir and Baroque Orchestra of Collegium Musicum Riga under the artistic direction of Māris Kupčs, a central figure of early music in Latvia…”


So once again, Collegium Choro Musici soloists and choir were singing the work in Hebrew, no mean task for non-Hebrew speakers. As the Israelite woman, Tereze Gretere’s singing was at times delicate and honeyed, at others forthright, with Ansis Betins, in the role of Ahasverus, displaying fine tenor vocal colour. As Esther, Monta Martinsone gave a precise, compelling performance, her singing crystal clear and tastefully ornamented. Impressive, convincing and empathic, alto Sniedze Kanepe, possessing a large, natural voice and innate musicality, gave credence to the role of Mordecai, as she embellished key notes with some vibrato. Nerijus Masevičius made for an authoritative, intense - at times, dramatic - and sensitive Haman, his warm bass voice reaching all corners of the YMCA auditorium. The Collegium Choro Musici singers gave meaning and finely shaped expression to the choruses, the lush blend of the fine selection of voices indeed pleasing. The ensemble of just 15 instrumentalists and the chamber choir might have been similar in size to what Handel had at his disposal at Cannons, giving the performance intimacy and immediacy, with some splendid solo- and collaborative instrumental playing. Shemer’s conducting brought all together in subtle eloquence. A memorable event, the oratorio concluded with a substantial, uplifting chorus energized by triumphant brass and Sniedze and Masevičius’ voices threaded through the weave. 

“The Lord our enemy has slain, Alleluja!

Ye sons of Jacob, sing a cheerful strain!

Sing songs of praise, bow down the knee.

The worship of our God is free!

For ever bless'd be thy holy name,

Let Heav'n and earth his praise proclaim.”

Photo: Yoel Levy



Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The 2019 Vocal Fantasy Festival opens with two chamber concerts at the Jerusalem International YMCA

Māris Kupčs (courtesy Latvian Academy of Music)
Under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, and directed by the JBO’s musical director David Shemer, the second Vocal Fantasy Festival was a sparkling summer event, offering three  days of musical events taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from July 25th to 27th 2019. The Vocal Fantasy Festival gives centre stage to the human voice and to vocal music in general. This year’s program presented music from the 12th century to that of today. Guest artists hailed from Latvia, Lithuania and Switzerland. 


Two chamber concerts opened the festival. In “Schütz’ German Requiem” (Concert No.2), the Collegium Choro Musici Riga, under its chorus master Māris Kupčs (accompanying on organ), and joined by Israeli viola da gamba player Tal Arbel, gave festival-goers the rare opportunity of hearing sacred chamber works of Heinrich Schütz, seldom heard on these shores. Maestro Kupčs offered some interesting information on the works performed. Schütz published two volumes of “Kleine geistliche Konzerte” (Small Sacred Concertos) in the 1630s; the pieces  are mostly solos, duets and trios, the use of the word "concerto" here simply implies that the music is designed for a small group of vocal performers with only basso continuo accompaniment, thus drawing attention to the rhetoric of the texts and highlighting  Schütz’ fine setting of the German language. In the intimate scoring of these sacred works, sopranos Ilze Grevele-Skaraine and Tereze Gretere and tenor Ansis Betins displayed the fine interweaving of voices of these small gems. This was followed by another (little known) masterpiece - Schütz’ “Musikalische Exequien” (1636) - a Lutheran funeral Mass to German texts, written for the funeral of Prince Heinrich Posthumus Reuss, a member of the ruling family of the region in which Schütz was born. Considered to be the first German requiem, it was written for six to eight voices plus ripieno singers (a six-voice choir) with basso continuo accompaniment on the organ. Among the most inspired of all his works, Schütz himself thought highly enough of the Exequien. A complex work, it falls into three parts, its profound theological meaning based on scriptural passages alternating with hymn verses. With the choral sections firmly based on German choral tradition, the work offered a fine opportunity to hear several of the singers either solo or duetting, these moments often florid, written in the Italian manner. For the third section, Kupcs placed one group of singers at the end of the hall, this movement for double choir recalling Schütz’ studies in antiphonal writing with the earlier Venetian composers. The singers’ well-defined German enunciation indicated genuine understanding of the texts.


In the other chamber concert, “Nisi Dominus” (Concert No.1), Israeli artists Noam Schuss (violin), Orit Messer Jacobi (‘cello) and Aviad Stier (harpsichord) were joined by Lithuanian bass Nerijus Masevič a program of mostly European Baroque music. The instrumental section of the program gave the stage to each of the players, the one Renaissance work being William Byrd’s Fantasia in a-minor, played by Aviad Stier on a single-manual Italian harpsichord. Consisting of an unbroken continuum of small sections, its diversity demonstrating the unlimited scope of Byrd’s imagination, Stier negotiated the work’s intricate rhythms, surprise modulations and changing textures, employing impressive dexterous the dazzling finale. Relaxing the pace of the occasional section might have created more contrast of mood. Prior to her performance of ‘cello virtuoso Domenico Gabrielli’s Ricercar No.7 for ‘cello and keyboard; Orit Messer Jacobi spoke of the ‘cello, with its impressive range and wide variety of tonal colours, as supplanting the viol and coming into its own as a solo instrument in the 17th century. Messer Jacobi’s playing was finely chiselled, both forthright and personal, as she gave expression to the work's virtuosic demands, its rapid passagework and double-stopping, addressing the importance of its dissonances and the resonant qualities of the instrument. Moving on a generation, Noam Schuss and Aviad Stier illuminated the equal roles of J.S.Bach’s obbligato writing in Sonata for violin and harpsichord in E major BWV 1016,  the opening Adagio of this sonata da chiesa Italianate in the style of its ornamental melodic writing; this and the give-and-take of the third movement (a  passacaglia, untypical in its changing keys) were played with exquisite detail, to be  punctuated by movements of intense and vivid three-way conversation and imitation. 


Nerijus Masevičius and the instrumentalists performed an aria from “Ich will den Kreuzweg gerne gehen” (I wish to follow in the way of the cross) a Passion cantata from one of G.P.Telemann’s more than 1400 surviving cantatas (text: Erdmann Neumeister). Masevičius’ rich, stable timbre, the violin’s substantial part in the conveying of the text, also some fine solo moments for ‘cello, made for rewarding listening. Masevičius singing of Heinrich Biber’s “Nisi Dominus” (Psalm 127) was warm, judiciously nuanced, definite in gestures and alive with word-painting, with Schuss’ playing heightening the meaning of the text. J.S.Bach’s “So oft ich meine Tobackspfeife” (Enlightening Thoughts of a Tobacco Smoker) in D minor, BWV 515 for bass voice, violin and basso continuo, a song discussing the metaphysics of pipe-smoking, draws our attention to the frequent, lively musical get-togethers at the Bach home. The aria, whose verbal text was probably written by Bach himself, appears in the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach (1725). Eyeing the audience, Masevičius entertained us with the song’s good cheer, whimsy and its dancelike rhythm; the lyrics also have an austere side to them, comparing man's transitory existence to that of a clay pipe

“Each time I take my pipe ’n tobacco 
With goodly wad filled to the brim 
For fun and passing time with pleasure, 
It brings to me a thought so grim 
And adds as well this doctrine fair: 
That I’m to it quite similar…”    English Translation © Z. Philip Ambrose
Nerijus Masevičius (courtesy Canto Fiorito)

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Handel's "Acis and Galatea", one of the events of the 2019 Summer International Opera Workshop (Tel Aviv)

Nils Nilsen, Mayan Goldenfeld (photo: Maxim Reider)
Under the auspices of the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, the 33rd Summer International Opera Workshop (SIOW), taking place at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv from July 8th to 27th, 2019, was a veritable beehive of activity. The Israel Vocal Arts Institute was founded in 1987 by former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat and Joan Dornemann of the Metropolitan Opera, New York. This year’s faculty included renowned vocal experts Kevin Murphy, Dan Ettinger, Chen Reiss and Michael Schade. In addition to performances of  “Acis and Galatea” (Handel), “Don Giovanni” (Mozart) and two one-act pieces by Puccini - “Suor Angelica” and “Gianni Schicchi” - there was a gala concert at the Tel Aviv Museum, one of  Broadway favourites and an “It’s Your Choice” concert, as well as five programs for children at the Tel Aviv Port. 


This writer attended the performance of G.F.Handel’s “Acis and Galatea”, played to a full auditorium at the Israel Conservatory of Music on July 24th. Directed by Michael Shell (USA) and conducted by Chris Crans (USA), Tania Lohkina (USA) played a piano reduction of the orchestral score. Appropriately referred to by the composer as “A Serenata; or Pastoral Entertainment”, “Acis and Galatea”, Handel’s first dramatic work in the English language, was commissioned in 1718 by James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon, at whose stately home in Middlesex the earl kept a group of musicians for his chapel and entertainments. The libretto, based on Dryden’s translation of an episode from Ovid's Metamorphoses, was written by John Gay, John Arbuthnot, John Hughes and Alexander Pope and  tells of the love between the mortal Acis and the Nereid (sea-nymph) Galatea; when the jealous cyclops Polyphemus kills Acis, Galatea transforms her lover into an immortal river spirit, as she performs one of the most gorgeous arias in the music of Handel - “Heart, the seat of soft delight”. 


Opening the pastoral opera with a colourfully dramatic recitative, Italian-Israeli soprano Mayan Goldenfeld, in the mammoth role of Galatea, gave a competent, polished performance, her richly-coloured soprano range and theatrical know-how portraying the nymph as both sweet and charmed by innocent, idyllic love but also as strong and clear in intent. Young Norwegian singer Nils Nilsen gave credence to the character of the naive and starry-eyed shepherd boy Acis, his large, reliable tenor voice fresh, lyrical and intense. With his towering physique and fine authoritative vocal presence, Israeli baritone Eitan Mechtinger was well cast as the one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus, the “thund’ring Gyant” consumed with seeking the love of Galatea, dealing well with the role’s technical challenges. (His English pronunciation still needs some work.) And then there is the philosophic Damon, offering words of wisdom to both Acis and Polyphemus, to be ignored by both, played by tenor Anton Trotoush Elrom, a student at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv; he gave a sympathetic, convincing and musical depiction  of the well-meaning shepherd. Solos by other members of the cast were indeed commendable; the excellent ensemble singing, highlighting the rich timbres and musicality of excellent voices, also provided much pleasure. 


With the participants’ singing, acting and emotional involvement of prime importance, the production’s staging and costumes were minimal, but the young artists, light of foot, flitting up and down the aisles of the auditorium, created the atmosphere of an  idyllic pastoral setting inhabited by carefree shepherds and nymphs celebrating the perpetual joys of nature as the opera began, its first half including a few humorous touches. Then, with the safety of the rural landscape destroyed in the opening of Act 2, the ground trembles under the cyclops’ footsteps, and the semiquavers which previously represented soft water now become earthquakes and avalanches.  Actor Joshua Sutton, also fleet of foot, gave charm and whimsy to the character of Cupid. Kudos to Tania Lohkina, whose articulate, sensitive and stylistically informed accompaniment substituted splendidly for Handel’s outstanding instrumental score, no mean feat, and to Maestro Chris Crans for drawing the musical threads together in tasteful, carefully balanced musical eloquence. 


“Acis and Galatea” is indeed a perfect work; it has been performed continually since its first publication and its popularity is amply deserved. The masque displays Handel’s music at its finest, with his rich palette of effects, affects and word-painting; the Tel Aviv audience might have benefited more from the latter if supplied with the verbal text. Still, the young artists’ dedicated performance kept the audience both well entertained and involved; as Acis’ death scene concludes with the chorus singing “Mourn all ye muses”, in the form of a solemn saraband, we are once again reminded that Handel’s “Acis and Galatea”, however entertaining, also deals in human emotions and psychology.
“Mourn, all ye muses! Weep, all ye swains!
Tune, tune your reeds to doleful strains!
Groans, cries and howlings fill the neighb'ring shore:
Ah, the gentle Acis is no more!”

Eitan Mechtinger (photo: Maxim Reider)

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"In memoriam: Commemoration Motets of the Renaissance" recorded by The Lacock Scholars (UK), director: Greg Skidmore

“In memoriam: Commemoration Motets of the Renaissance” is the second disc of The Lacock Scholars, a London-based consort of young singers (originally from Andrew van der Beek’s Lacock courses) who are dedicated to small-ensemble a-cappella singing of Renaissance music and plainsong. Greg Skidmore is the ensemble’s music director. Forming the connecting thread throughout this recording is the fact that each of the motets was written by one composer in memory of another.


The text of Johannes Ockeghem’s motet-chanson “Mort tu as navré”, a lamentation probably written in 1460 on the death of Burgundian chanson composer Gilles Binchois, suggests Ockeghem’s personal acquaintance with Binchois. Whether or not Binchois had been his teacher is not known: Ockeghem’s motet, however, supplies some biographical detail on Binchois - that he had been a soldier, later choosing to serve the church. In this heartfelt tribute, its sophisticated writing offering the upper voice in French with the tenor singing a sequence from the Missa pro defunctis in Latin, the piece’s musical language bears reference to Binchois’ own chanson style. The Lacock Scholars create the appropriate mood, with each refrain emerging increasingly more moving in its message as the tenor sings "Pie Jesu, Domine, dona ei requiem." ("Blessed Lord Jesus, grant him peace.") Josquin des Prez, who probably studied with Ockeghem in his youth, mourns the master in “Nymphes des bois / La déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem” to a text by Jean Molinet; it alludes to Ockeghem in puns, assonance, and alliteration, infusing some of the stylistic hallmarks of his teacher’s style (as did Ockeghem in his memorial piece to Binchois) and even listing some mourners by name. The singers give expression to the work’s Phrygian mode colouring, weaving melodic lines unadulterated by vibrato into the piece’s reverence and tension. Completing this thread is the six-voice motet “Musae Jovis” composed by Nicolas Gombert in memory of Josquin des Prez, with whom he had probably studied. Gombert’s mention of the divine muses as the source of artistic inspiration leads him to write a unique, otherworldly piece, its seamless course enlisting daring dissonances as an expressive effect. The Lacock Scholars master the work’s unusual texture, the soprano voice floating symbolically in silvery weightlessness way above the other voices which are engaged in dark-hued contrapuntal writing, all this making for beguiling listening and a poignant expression of grief. Remaining in the Low Countries, we hear “Continuo lacrimas” a six-voice motet by Jacobus Vaet, written in memory of Jacobus Clemens non Papa, the latter having been one of the most famous representatives of the Franco-Flemish school; he died in 1555 or 1556. The singers handle the complexities of this veritable jewel with crystalline articulacy, their intonation and brightness of timbre indeed creating an effect of fluid, magical simplicity. 


Then, to great English composers of the Renaissance, the recording includes “Ye sacred muses”, William Byrd’s haunting lament on the death of his mentor, colleague (and business partner) Thomas Tallis. Not a motet but a secular consort song, the singers re-create its poignant solemnity and growing anguish, its rich, madrigalian harmonies and passing dissonances, with smooth melodiousness and exquisitely vibrant timbres, culminating in the extended repetition of the final phrase: “Tallis is dead and music dies.” Thomas Weelkes composed “Death hath deprived me” in 1608 in memory of his friend and colleague Thomas Morley, who died in 1602. A striking example of Weelkes’ weightier, more Italianate style, his daring use of harmony and strongly-depicted words and phrases, for me, the performance of this piece is a highlight of the disc, presenting the Lacock Scholars’ superb teamwork, sense of drama and glowing intensity of sound.


The disc’s central work is by Duarte Lôbo (c.1565-1646), one of the leading exponents of the Portuguese polyphonic style. His six-voice “Missa pro defunctis” (1639) takes Victoria's famous six-voice Requiem as a model, setting the traditional chant melodies in long notes in one of the soprano parts, accompanied by richly-hued chords rather than imitative counterpoint. One of the composer’s later works, its writing nevertheless harks back to the sonorous and contrapuntal idiom of his earlier years. The Requiem abounds in soft modal colours, its tender colouring (influenced by the choice of C(S)AATTB voices) producing funeral music that is reflective but certainly not dour. The Lacock Scholars’ performance of it takes the listener into the verbal- and musical texts with superbly shaped melodic lines soaring high and melting away, into the beauty of a single melodic line, the lushness of its harmonies and the meaning of its dissonances, all brought together with superbly clean intonation and strategic pacing. With the timeless effect of the pared-down four-voice Responsory Memento mei, the singers present a carefully-paced conclusion to the work, the church’s acoustic endorsing its devout message. On this recording, the movements of Lobo's piece are punctuated by the other above-mentioned single-movement memorial works. 


When it comes to creativity and musings, nothing has been more inspiring than death, promoting some of the most beautiful and personal human artistic expression. Performed by this outstanding ensemble of young, hand-picked singers, “In memoriam: Commemoration Motets of the Renaissance” is no exception. Recorded in January 2018 at All Hallows’ Gospel Oak, London, UK (producer: William Whitehead, engineer: David Hinitt), the disc’s sound quality is lively and pristine. Canadian-born baritone Greg Skidmore, one of the UK's leading consort singers, is regularly heard with such groups as The Tallis Scholars, I Fagiolini, The Gabrieli Consort and Alamire. Having studied for a DPhil at Oxford before pursuing full-time professional singing and conducting work in London, his interest in the history and complexity of Christian liturgy has been enriched by his own singing with the choir of The London Oratory. Greg Skidmore has held workshops on Renaissance polyphonic repertoire in the UK, France, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Maestro Greg Skidmore (photo: Jamie Wright)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Maestro Christian Lindberg conducts the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra's final concert of the 2018-2019 season. Guest artists: members of the Israeli Opera's Meitar Opera Studio

Photo: Avi Koren
In recent years, the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra has been winding up its annual concert season with the audience having its say, “When the Public Decides”. The 48th season was no exception. Under the direction of Christian Lindberg (Sweden), the NKO’s principal conductor ( house conductor: Shmuel Elbaz) subscribers were invited to vote for one out of four symphonies to be performed at the final concert; the majority of votes went to Schubert’s Symphony No.5. The rest of the program took listeners into the unbounded world of opera, with young singers of the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio joining the orchestra to present opera numbers by Mozart and Rossini. This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 13th, 2019.


Franz Schubert’s Symphony No.5, written at age 19, the finest of his early symphonies, radiates youthful optimism. Scored for chamber orchestra, it shows the influence of Mozart, for whose music Schubert seemed to have felt a special affinity  A few months before completing Symphony No.5, on October 3, 1816, Schubert wrote in his diary that “the magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me...which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence…”  After its premiere - one private performance soon after its completion – the symphony was subsequently forgotten for 50 years. Lindberg’s own love of the work was reflected in his exuberant reading of it - in his performance of the brisk, sunny opening movement, the lyrical, songful yet gently reflective Andante con moto movement with just the occasional touch of unease, a somewhat forthright presentation of the Minuet, contrasted by the sweet freshness of its trio, then to move on to the carefree caper of the finale. This is delightful concert fare, its beauty enhanced by the NKO’s consistent and fine woodwind playing.


Gioachino Rossini reused the overture from his opera “Aurelia in Palmyra” for “The Barber of Seville” (or “The Useless Precaution”), which actually did not matter, since Rossini did not use themes from the relevant opera in any of his overtures. The NKO’s rendition of the overture, to what Rossini (in all modesty!) referred to as ”the most beautiful opera buffa there is”, bristled with gorgeous melodies, some exciting tutti and several lovely solos. Performing a scene from Rossini’s opera “La Cenerentola”, sopranos Veronika Brook and Efrat Hacohen-Bram, mezzo-soprano Maya Bakstansky and bass Pnini Leon Grubner displayed fine bel canto technique and playful Italian theatricality, setting the scene for what is, in fact, the story of Cinderella. The singers, all graduates of music academies presently receiving intensive opera training at the Meitar Opera Studio (director: David Sebba) before joining opera companies as soloists in Israel and overseas, had audience (and conductor) well entertained with their communicative, dedicated singing of pieces selected from Mozart operas, some humorous, some dramatic and even the Magic Flute’s “Queen of the Night” aria  (Veronika Brook).


Maestro Christian Lindberg is a renowned trombonist and composer. When he conducts NKO concerts, he talks to the audience in an informal, friendly way, providing information on the works performed and making for a sense of community.



Sunday, July 14, 2019

Stephen Storace's comic opera "The Pirates", a joint project of the Meitar Opera Studio of the Israeli Opera and Ensemble PHOENIX

Photo: Eliahu Feldman

British composer Stephen Storace (1762-1796) lived and wrote at a time when Londoners loved their entertainment. His comic operas were highly popular in 18th-century England. The son of an Italian double-bass player/composer and an English mother, the composer's youth was spent entirely in the company of musicians, since his father was musical director of Vauxhall Gardens, one of the leading venues for public entertainment in London from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. The Gardens drew enormous crowds, with its romantic paths, tightrope walkers, hot-air balloon ascents, concerts and fireworks; the Rococo "Turkish tent" became one of the Gardens' structures, the interior of the Rotunda became one of Vauxhall's most viewed attractions, and the “chinoiserie” style was a feature of several buildings. This was the climate from which Storace’s comic opera “The Pirates” emerged.  Premiered on November 21, 1792 at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, the opera created quite a stir, being performed 23 times in the 1792-93 season and mounted for King George III in 1794.


As to the young Storace’s musical education, in around 1776, he went to Naples in order to study the violin and, after some years back in London, he then went to Vienna in 1784, where, it is believed, he studied with Mozart, whom he had met through his sister. Returning to London, he spent the rest of his life writing comic operas for Drury Lane. Storace also published chamber music, songs, and an anthology - “Storace’s Collection of Original Harpsichord Music” (1787–89) - which included music he brought back from Vienna. His operas show the influence of the Italianate style as well as that of Mozart. His sister, Anna Selina (Nancy) Storace (1765–1817), was a noted soprano who sang her first leading role in Florence at age 15. She also created the role of Susanna in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” (1786) after singing the role of Rosina in the Viennese production of Giovanni Paisiello's “Barber of Seville” in 1783.


The Israeli premiere of “The Pirates” (libretto: James Cobb) was a collaboration between Ensemble PHOENIX (music director: Myrna Herzog) and the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio (music director: David Sebba), with support from the Felicja Blumental Music Centre and the Israeli Ministry of Culture. Stage director was Shirit Lee Weiss. The singers, guided in the appropriate Classical style of sound production and tuning by Herzog herself, were all young music academy graduates, their Meitar Studio training preparing them for future opera careers in Israel and abroad. Dr. Myrna Herzog conducted the PHOENIX musicians playing on Classical period instruments. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA on July 11th 2019. In her program notes, Herzog explains that “The Pirates” and Storace’s other London operas were no longer performed after 1809, when a fire at Drury Lane Theatre destroyed the orchestral scores. What remained of “The Pirates” score was a vocal score, with a rough piano reduction of the orchestral score. David Sebba stepped in to reconstruct the orchestral score. 


Together with his servant, Blazio, Don Altador  sets out to rescue his love Donna Aurora from her guardian, the wicked Don Gaspero, who wants her to marry his nephew, Guillermo. The daring duo try all they can to rescue Donna Aurora, but with Don Gaspero always one step ahead of the game, things do not go to plan. Shirit Lee Weiss’s production consisted of a play within a play. Costumes and props were all on stage, with singers donning clothing items and effects over black clothes. Translation of the text into Hebrew appeared on screens. That, however, was where any correlation between the libretto and what was happening on stage ended, even for Hebrew speakers, it seems. With none of the original saucy text to follow, we English-speakers missed out big time. The constant action on stage amounted to slapstick hi-jinx unrelated to Cobb’s libretto or to any form of authentic British drollery, sophistication or stage magic as would have been experienced at the sumptuously decorated Theatre Royal, a venue featuring the latest stage- and scenic technology and boasting pitch-perfect acoustics, a place to see and be seen, no matter what your social class! But all was not lost: the Jerusalem audience delighted in dedicated, polished performance on the part of the Meitar Studio members - Efrat HaCohen Bram, Liat Lidor, Veronika Brook, Pnini Leon Grubner, Shaked Stroll, Tom Ben Ishai, Yuli Rorman - their splendid voices and natural musicality reflecting understanding of 18th century voice production and offering much to enjoy from the arias, duets and choruses. Neither did the PHOENIX Ensemble players (concertmaster: Yaakov Rubinstein), conducted on stage by Herzog, disappoint the audience, as they presented us with suave, informed and carefully balanced ensemble playing of genuine beauty and lushness. So, the hero of the evening was indeed Storace’s music - graceful and melodious - inviting the listener to indulge in its refinement and allure.