Monday, June 29, 2009

Three concerts of the 2009 "Sounding Jerusalem" Festival

The annual Sounding Jerusalem Festival (, was begun in 2006 by its artistic director – Austrian ‘cellist Erich Oskar Huetter - with the aim of bringing about a cultural dialogue between Europeans, Israelis and Palestinians. It offers the public free entry to a variety of chamber music concerts performed mostly by European musicians, with some Israeli- and Palestinian artists. The 2009 festival introduced a “mélange oriental” element, in which some works were infused with the diverse sounds of Jerusalem’s many cultural traditions.

Melange Oriental: Departure. June 13th 2009
The medieval courtyard of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City was abuzz with people, quite a mix of people, all drawn to hearing a concert on a balmy Jerusalem evening and to experiencing a musical program with a difference. Sitting in the medieval courtyard, one becomes aware of the surrounding trees, the creepers cascading down from the walls, flocks of birds wheeling above and the muezzin calling to prayer; looking up, one sees the Redeemer Church tower is lit up. Daily life is light-years away.

The concert opened with Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) String Quintet in C major D.956 performed by the Cuarteto Casals string quartet (Spain), joined by ‘cellist Erich Oskar Huetter. Composed two months before the composer’s death, its scoring for two ‘cellos gives this exuberant, youthfully energetic work power of expression and flexibility. The performance, led by the quartet’s ever-attentive and convincing first violinist – Vera Martinez Mehner – opened poetically, guiding the listener sensitively through the gamut of emotions in the Allegro ma non tanto movement. Schubert’s typical minor-major changes were effective and affective. Martinez Mehner wove the tirelessly searching opening melody of the Adagio movement gesture by gesture into an entity, to be contrasted with the intensely orchestrated turbulent and disquieting second part. In the final Allegretto, accented upbeats gave the dancelike movement energy, the players addressing imitations and using a gentle rubato to allow for flexibility. This was chamber music at its best.

The Melange Oriental work was a multimedia collage describing each of the four quarters of Jerusalem’s Old City – the Muslim Quarter, the Armenian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter and the Christian Quarter. Created by Austrian pianist and accordionist Stefan Heckel, each “picture” opened with a street recording from that specific area - street vendors, bells, birds, Armenian monks - these merging into recorded electronic sound to be used as a basis for improvisation. Placed between them we heard an Arabic piece “Zikrayati” (My Memories), “Krunk” - a sad, lyrical Armenian migrant song, “Mahshav” - a piece by the eclectic Jewish American composer John Zorn (b.1953) and “Jerusalem” from Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Paulus”. Heckel plays with sound combinations and effects. The French flute Trio d’Argent produced different colors with different flutes, virtuoso double-bass player Ahmad Eid (Palestine) was creative, adding zip and spontaneity as well as percussive effects. This was surely the spirit of “Sounding Jerusalem”.

Nomadic Winds. June 15th 2009
Jerusalem’s Confederation House nestles in a verdant haven of sanity. As you approach the entrance, the olive tree is holding court, while the pomegranate displays its new, tiny star-shaped fruit.

“Nomadic Winds” included a slide show of the work of Amy Lyne (USA/France), a study of poverty, with pictures of people from Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The Trio d’Argent (France), founded in 1984, devotes its time to teaching flute performance practice and in presenting concerts of an unconventional kind that reflect the players’ own personal aesthetic experiences and their travels. The players have a wide repertoire and play on various kinds of flutes.

We heard three pieces by F.Daudin Clavaud (b.1959), a member of the trio, the first being “Tahara, girafe d’Egypte” (Tahara, the Egyptian giraffe). At the beginning of the 19th century, Tahara was brought to France, landed in Marseille and was walked to Paris. What a colorful scene! The piece, involving some recorded sound, is performed on Senegalese flutes, involving breathy effects, physical swaying and some frenzied outbursts; but the general mood is one of “eternity of time” perhaps a desert scene. “Le Souffle d’Hermes” (Inspired by – or Breeze of, Hermes), a recent piece, describes a nomadic wind; the composer suggests we are all nomads. A mesmerizing kind of piece, interesting repetitive rhythmic patterns weave themselves around melodies and dynamic developments. Seated on cushions on the floor, the trio performed “Shadow Blues”, a piece written for theatre. Inspired by Japanese culture, the piece is exotic and mysterious, addressing the senses.

The trio presented some Classical fare: Haydn’s Trio in G major, Mozart’s “Pieces for Flutes” and Beethoven’s Variations on the theme “La ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. The Beethoven Variations were a fine vehicle for Trio d’Argent’s lively technique, strategic timing and humour.

Gualtiero Dazzi (b.1960) has lived in Italy, London and Mexico City and now lives in France. His music bears an eclectic stamp and his projects embrace theatre, film, video and sculpture. Dedicated to Trio D’Argent, “Augenblick” – German, meaning a “moment” or the “blink of an eye” – composed in 1996, refers to Hindu cosmogony in which great periods are delimited by time between two blinks of Brahma’s eyes. Scored for three bass flutes, the work evolves from a breathy screen effect to a collage of pitches, vibrato- and flatterzunge textures, soaring into a richly layered kaleidoscope.

Taking a chance and leaving conventional concert programs aside, the listener was taken to far-away places and invited to explore the hidden and exotic corners of his own mind. Trio d’Argent is daring, energetic and polished.

Dreams and Prayer. June 22nd 2009
Members of the Artis Quartet – 1st violinist Peter Schuhmayer, 2nd violinist Johannes Meissl, violist Herbert Kefer and Othmar Mueller – are not new to the Jerusalem concert scene. The illustrious quartet was formed in Vienna in 1980, performs widely and records and has been the recipient of many awards.

Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) “Sun” Quartets, opus 20, composed in 1772, represent an important stage in the classical string quartet, with Haydn now dividing musical interest more equally between the players than in his earlier chamber works. The Artis Quartet opened its program with the fourth of the opus 20 group, the D major String Quartet. The first movement, given a contrasted, articulate reading, its terse chords certainly not underplayed, was followed by attention devoted to the various melodic solos of the theme and four variations of the second movement, the players communicating closely on every gesture. The Menuet all zingarese reflected Haydn’s interest in folk music. The Artis Quartet’s work is detailed and note-perfect, keeping a safe distance from sentimentality.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed his String Quartet no. 2 in A minor opus 13 at the age of 18. In the opening Adagio he quotes his own song “Ist es wahr?” (Is it true?) but the composer also shows Beethoven’s powerful influence in development sections and counterpoint used, with a quote from Beethoven’s String Quartet opus 130 in the slow movement. The third movement was played with lyrical charm, with the players reminding the audience once again, by the fourth movement, that Mendelssohn had Beethoven in mind when composing the quartet. The Artis Quartet guided the listener through the complex structures and recurring motifs running through and unifying the work.

Osvaldo Golijov was born in Argentina in 1960. The music he grew up with – chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, as well as the tangos of Piazzolla - leave their imprint on his oeuvre. Golijov spent three years in Israel, emigrating to the USA in 1986. In 1997 he composed “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” for string quartet and clarinet. Isaac the Blind (Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor c.1160-1235) was a famous writer on Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism.) French clarinetist, teacher and researcher Michel Lethiec took on the highly demanding clarinet role, not that the string parts were less demanding! A highly emotional work, steeped in Jewish High Holyday prayer and klezmer music, the work’s theatrical aspect must be viewed, not just heard. A myriad of string effects form a basis for the dense scoring, with Lethiec changing mid-movement from the higher clarinets to bass clarinet, the work expressing the drama of the Jewish soul in its spiritual, joyful and tragic moments. A feat of brilliant writing and musicianship, all the players were totally immersed in the musical and personal message of the work. Professor Lethiec’s playing leaves his audience speechless. This was surely one of the most memorable moments of the 2009 “Sounding Jerusalem” concerts.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Carmel Quartet at the Jerusalem Music Centre - Sounds of Spain

“Strings and More” is a series of concerts with explanations presented by the Carmel Quartet. Founded in 1999, the quartet - violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman – has performed internationally and is the recipient of prizes in the 2004 Aviv Competitions and the Prague-Vienna-Budapest Competition, making its Carnegie Hall debut in 2004. In “Sounds of Spain”, guitarist Hanan Feinstein joined the quartet at the Jerusalem Music Centre June 17th 2009.

Musicologist Yoel Greenberg begins to talk about 18th century Spain. Its status in Europe had become problematic due to the mix of cultures and the barbarous behaviour it was known for in other countries. Voltaire had claimed that Spain was like Africa. In an effort to become more European in character, Spanish musicians were sent to study in other countries (Arriaga was sent to study in Paris) and foreign composers were a welcome import, among them, the Italian composer and virtuoso ‘cellist Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) who arrived in Spain in 1769, remaining there till his death. Employed by Don Luis, King Charles’ younger brother, he felt somewhat superior to the Spaniards and felt the need to “tame” the savage Spanish musician. (Due to his Classical style of writing, he had been spoken of as “Haydn’s wife”.) Boccherini wrote some 250 quintets, with ‘cello parts often moving into the higher register of the instrument. Greenberg mentions that Boccherini’s works, boasting less counterpoint and drama than those of Beethoven and Mozart, have been lost in history and that they should be understood in terms of Boccherini’s own musical language.

The Carmel Quintet and guitarist Hanan Feinstein performed Boccherini’s Guitar Quintet no. 4 in D major - “Fandango”. Finished in 1798, the work borrows all its movements from two of the composer’s previous quintets. The opening Pastorale is lyrical and flowing, its dynamics moving between piano and pianissimo; the Carmel Quartet gives voice to its nature sounds – bird calls, breezes and murmuring brooks. Feinstein’s large, expressive sound and choice of colour has presence and elegance. The Allegro maestoso movement bears the grand, distinctive Boccherini ‘cello sound and was given a forthright reading. Following the Grave assai, the work launches into the spirited Fandango movement – so Spanish in its demands on the guitar, its heavy steps, typical descending scale motifs and relentless movement and energy. Performed by all with verve and excitement, the ‘cello converses with the guitar in humorous glissandi, Feinstein uses some drumming effects and Waterman completes the scene with a few moments played on castanets. For Europeans, the fandango had been a symbol of Spain’s lack of finesse, representing the cultural distance between Spain and central Europe. Its countless repetitions rendered it “trance music”, it was considered a “wild, sexual and immoral dance”. But, it had, however, also become “exotic”. Boccherini’s Fandango quintet sheds its European guise to offer the listener a carefree Spanish celebration and the artists gave it their all.

Juan Crisostomo Arriaga’s (1806-1826) life story is a fascinating one, ending too soon with his death in Paris at age 19. He was born in Bilbao Spain on what would have been the day of Mozart’s 50th birthday. He actually saw himself as a reincarnation of Mozart, his oeuvre related to the latter’s style, beginning all his quartets in the Mozartean manner – a bold statement answered by a gentle one. (He has been referred to as the “Spanish Mozart”.) But his music also bears the stamp of his own originality. An assistant professor by the age of eighteen, he had already composed three string quartets, the only works to be published (1824) during his lifetime.

The Carmel Quartet performed Arriaga’s Quartet no. 1 in D minor. The Allegro opening movement begins in defined, dark unison strains, the second theme, introduced by the first violin, being Spanish in character. The players present Arriaga’s flair for melody-writing and brilliant string scoring with alacrity, bringing out the joy and restlessness of youth inherent in the music. Following the sad , vehement second movement, we hear an intense, moody minuet, its trio demanding the strumming of instruments to evoke a Spanish dance with guitars. Opening with a short Haydenesque Adagio introduction, the fourth movement breaks into a siciliano, returning to the adagio transformed at the end of the movement, demonstrating the composer’s grasp of form and his ability to flex it for his own use.

The Carmel Quartet’s fresh sound and attention to detail make for exhilarating performance and active listening, the individual musical personalities of each player not overlooked in the ensemble texture. Yoel Greenberg is articulate, informative and organized in his explanations which he presents informally, in fine British English and with humour. (Each concert is also presented with Hebrew explanations.) Other members of the quartet join him in illustrating musical points, in small vignettes and readings. The Carmel Quartet has much to offer in its programming, performance and the format of its concerts.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Jewish cabaret music at Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai

For the poster of “The Jewish Cabaret” Ofer Shelly, the Atar Trio’s founder, arranger and pianist, used a photo of his grandmother who had taken refuge in Milan after escaping Romania from the Nazis. “The Jewish Cabaret”, presenting chamber music and cabaret songs from the 1920’s and the 1930’s, struck a personal note with all present.

We were assembled seven stories underground on June 8th 2009 at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. The tiny hall is an intimate, informal venue, well suited to cabaret music. The Atar Trio, which performs mainly classical repertoire as well as concerts on specific themes, was established in 1996 by pianist and arranger Ofer Shelley; other members are violinist Tanya Beltser and ‘cellist Marina Kats. They were joined by singers Valeria Ventura and Odelia Dahan.

The program opened with American Jewish composer and pianist Paul Schoenfield’s (b.1947) instrumental piece “Café Music”. Infused with jazzy rhythms, chromatics and dance rhythms of the early 20th century, it set the scene for an evening of Jewish culture, of joy and nostalgia.

This was followed by three Kurt Weill (1900-1950) songs, performed by Italian-born Valeria Ventura; Ventura had stood in at the last minute for Ye’ela Avital, who was ill. The “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” (1943,words Berthold Brecht) depicts the musings of the wife whose husband is away. What gifts would he send her from Amsterdam, Prague, Brussels and Paris? What he finally sends her from Russia is a widow’s veil. In the Brecht song “Nanna’s Song” a woman talks of the bitter lessons of love. “I Don’t Love You” (lyrics, Maurice Magre) in French, is less ironic but very sentimental, more into the style of French cabaret tradition of the time. Ventura uses her palette of different vocal colors to outline tender love, heartbreak and anger.

Ventura’s pleasing performance of Menachem Wiesenberg’s beautiful arrangement of “Raisins and Almonds” by the prominent Yiddish poet and playwright, Itzik Manger, had several people in the audience humming along.

The Swiss-born composer Ernst Bloch (1880-1959) composed “From Jewish Life” for ‘cello and piano in 1924, “Prayer” being the first of the three pieces. Marina Kats gave a brilliant, introspective performance of this work, giving expression to Bloch’s personal utterance, bringing out the Jewish, declamatory character of his melodic lines. Lithuanian-born violinist and composer Joseph Achron (1886-1943) became preoccupied with developing a “Jewish” harmonic and contrapuntal idiom. His first Jewish-flavored work “Hebrew Melody” (1911) was an instant success, at the hands of violinist Jascha Heifitz. It is based on a melody the composer had heard in a Warsaw synagogue in his youth. Tanya Beltser and Shelley performed this and Achron’s “Hebrew Dance” (1936), both highly melodious, complex and demanding pieces, both sketching a picture of European Jewish life with its celebrations and its ever-present, underlying sadness.

Jerusalemite Odelia Dahan is known for her performance of Ladino songs. Her alto register is pleasing and highly colored, more so than her higher register. A convincing performer, she presented this repertoire from the Balkan countries with charm and humour, showing the twist in a suitor’s story, bringing out the dance-like rhythms of “Avram Avinu” (Our Forefather Abraham) and lilting the well-loved Ladino song “Morenica” (Dark Girl).
‘Dark girl
So very beautiful,
In your eyes a burning fire.
My heart is all yours.’
These songs were creatively arranged by Shelley, allowing for spontaneity, instrumental solos and addressing the oriental aspect of Sephardic music.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"War and Peace" - Music in the wake of the Thirty Years War

An astounding outcome of the 1618-1648 Thirty Years War was the intense musical creativity in a divided and war-torn Germany of the time and in the decades to follow. To perform some of these marvelous works, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, under its founder and conductor Maestro David Shemer, was joined by the PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble, with its founder and musical director Myrna Herzog, and the Oratorio Chamber Choir (conductor-Ronen Borshevsky.) Singing in small ensembles were sopranos Naomi Engel and Carmit Natan, countertenor Doron Schleifer, tenor David Nortman and baritones Assif Am-David and Yair Polishook. The concert, June 6th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem YMCA, was the sixth in the JBO’s 2009-2009 series.

Organist Heinrich Schutz (1585-1672), Germany’s greatest 17th century composer, had spent time in Venice, returning to Germany with the musical techniques practised there he had studied. His “Symphoniae Sacrae” show the influence of Monteverdi in dramatic solo singing and of Gabrieli in his use of instrumental color and vocal sonority. He exploited the Italian concertato idiom to the full, engaging choirs of voices or instruments in dialogue with each other. We heard two works from Schutz’ third book of Symphoniae Sacrae (1650), “Seid barmherzig, wie auch euer Vater barmherzig ist” (Be merciful, as is your Father), (Luke 6) and “Herr, wie lang willst du mein so gar vergessen” (Lord, how long will you forget me) (Psalm 13). Thrilling music for the concert hall, they boast a lavish and richly layered canvas, the small vocal ensemble and its brief solos shining brightly through the textures. Recorder players Drora Bruck and Adi Silberberg interacted with the other instruments and with themselves.

Organist and teacher Johann Rosenmuller (1619-1694) had also spent time in Venice and was also instrumental in the transmission of Italian styles to northern Europe. We heard two of his Sinfonias, each consisting of an opening movement, followed by a series of dances. Shemer addressed the unexpected rests, unconventional accents, comments and mood changes peppered through these works. Bari Moskovitch’s competent theorbo playing added delicacy to the rich ensemble sound. Violinists Lilia Slavin and Yasuko Hirata, somewhat hidden from view, delighted the audience with a very fine and attentive performance.

Franz Tunder’s (1614-1667) importance lies in the fact that he was a link between the early German Baroque style (based on Viennese models) and the later Baroque style culminating in J.S.Bach. He was also important in the development of the chorale cantata. As organist at the Lubeck Marienkirche, he instituted the “Abendmusiken” (evening concerts), the first series of public concerts in Germany; his seventeen vocal concertos were composed to be performed at these concerts. “Nisi Dominus” (Except the Lord build the house) (Psalm 127) is relaxed and not overly grandiose. Shemer, in his program notes, talks about the dark, soft quality of sound produced by Tunder’s liking for the blend of violins and viols. It seems the composer had fine bass singers at hand, as several of the vocal concertos make great demands on bass singers. Yair Polishook took on board these demands, engaging the listeners with his delicately ornamented lines, pleasing them with the timbre of his voice.
The concert ended with Dietrich Buxtehude’s (1637-1707) church cantata ”Gott hilf mir”(Lord help me) (Psalm 69). In this highly emotional work, Buxtehude indulges in descriptive instrumentation and word painting in order to convey despair and, eventually, hope. The bass solo represents the psalmist into whose troubled soul the waters have entered. Polishook was impressive, addressing his audience, his fine diction conveying the German text. The Oratorio Chamber Choir, in the role of the Lord, was soothing and mellifluous, well blended, yet held its own with the orchestra. The aria for two sopranos and bass “Ach ja, mein Gott hilf mir” (O yes, God help me) was, indeed, one of the highlights of the work, with the recorders commenting lyrically between phrases.

Dr. David Shemer, with the JBO, PHOENIX and the Oratorio Chamber Choir, together with excellent, young Israeli solo singers, presented an concert of interest and excellence. The audience was more than enthusiastic.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Paths to Bach" - Cantus Colln, Konrad Junghanel at 2009 Israel Festival

“For so many music-lovers, music begins with J.S.Bach. Till fifty years ago we knew very little about his predecessors” Konrad Junghanel claimed in his pre-concert talk. Cantus Colln’s concert, June 7th in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre, was a highlight of the 2009 Israel Festival.

Cantus Colln is a small, very highly-acclaimed German vocal ensemble of soloists directed by its founder, lutenist Konrad Junghanel; the group’s repertoire focuses mostly on German- and Italian vocal literature of the Renaissance and Baroque. At the time the ensemble was formed in 1987, Junghanel felt much was known about Baroque German instrumental music but not enough about the choral music of the time. With the help of musicologists, his curiosity has led him to look at activity in mid- and northern Germany. “Paths to Bach”, a concert of sacred vocal works, represents musical creativity that led up to or influenced J.S.Bach’s composition. We know that Bach walked 250 miles to Luebeck to meet with and hear the great organist Dietrich Buxtehude; most of Bach’s great organ works were written in the following years. As to the other composers on the concert program, Bach knew their works only.

Joining the singers were a small ensemble of string players, with Torsten Johann at the organ. The evening began with two of the 12 surviving vocal works of Nikolaus Bruhns (1665-1697), a composer, organist , violinist and viol player who had been a pupil of Buxtehude. “Die Zeit meines Abschieds ist vorhanden” (The Time of my Departure is at Hand) (2 Timothy 4), a funeral cantata was followed by “Ich liege und schlafe” (I Lie Down and Sleep in Peace)(Psalm 4), the latter being the composer’s only concerto aria cantata. In the latter, soprano Mechthild Bach and bass Wolf Matthias Friedrich sing solo arias, punctuated with tutti sections and string ritornellos.

Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707) is remembered as having been a very great organist, a composer of music for organ, harpsichord and of some chamber music. It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that his choral music was rediscovered. Cantus Colln presented two of his( more than 120) cantatas. In them, Buxtehude shows a masterful command of the many styles characterizing the sacred cantata in Germany of the 17th century. Both began with an instrumental section, the sung text being interspersed with instrumental responses. In “Gott hilf mir” (Save me, o God), Friedrich is gripping and dramatic in the alarming description of the flood:
‘I sink in deep mire,
Where there is no standing;
I am come into deep waters
Where the floods overflow me…’
In “Herzlich lieb hab ich Dich, o Herr” (Most dearly do I love Thee, O Lord), a work rich in color and forms, soprano Johanna Koslowsky is commanding in her performance. A florid, contrapuntal Amen ends the work.

Composer, trombonist and organist Johann Rosenmuller (c.1619-1684), educated in Leipzig, spent many years in Venice, where he composed sacred music for use in Catholic Vespers. Cantus Colln has reconstructed a complete cycle of his Venetian Vespers; the practice in these was to include sonatas of which Rosenmuller’s Sonata in D minor is one. Interesting string playing and well etched phrases made for a fine interpretation of this sonata, a piece constructed of small contrasting sections in the Italian manner.

The north German composer Matthias Weckmann (1619-1674) studied the organ and singing with Schutz and was influenced by Schutz’ knowledge of Italian styles. From the time he took up work at the St. Jacobi Church in Hamburg in 1655, he composed prolifically, among his oeuvre choral works such as “Wie liegt die Stadt so wueste;” (How desolate lies the city). Performed at this concert, it is one of a number of sacred concertos written in 1663 on the subject of the plague that had hit Hamburg. The text used in this work is from the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Weckmann, a composer of great dramatic skills, wrote that the soprano singer – witnessing the fall of the city – and the bass – the prophet – should be placed away from each other on the stage. With Koslowsky and Friedrich as soloists, the audience was drawn into the despair expressed in the text, into the tragic dialogue, the strands of which eventually were intertwined, the play of light- and dark timbres of the two voices set off by articulate and virtuosic singing. It was a moving performance.

Konrad Junghanel, musicologists and his musicians have thrown new light on certain aspects of the history and development of Baroque music in central- and northern Germany. Very excellent program notes were helpful in guiding the listener through the “Paths to Bach”; the ensemble’s musicianship is unrivalled.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Mendelssohn's Elijah, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, Yishai Steckler-conductor

Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah”, with a contingent of almost 400 performers, premiered in 1846 at England’s Birmingham Festival. The composer enjoyed an almost cultish following in Victorian England and the first performance of this major work was a roaring success. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra will be performing Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” opus 70 at the Leipzig Bach Festival (June 2009). Prior to this, the JBO, together with soloists and the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir, gave two performances of the oratorio in Israel. Israeli conductor Yishai Steckler took over direction of the performances at short notice, replacing Leon Botstein.

“Elijah” remains Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) last completed work of this scope. Its religious content, the composer’s reference- and devotion to J.S.Bach and the work’s dramatic style attracted a large audience to the Henry Crown Symphony Hall June 3rd, 2009. The conductor raises his baton. The scene is set in menacing tones, with the prophet Elijah declaring a drought to plague the people of Israel. Steckler, who conducts leading Israeli orchestras and is chorus master of the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Adi Choir, took up the intense plot form its very first note, breathing energy and excitement into its detail and pacing dramatic moments effectively.

Polish-born baritone Marcin Bronikowski made his debut with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in this fine portrayal of Elijah. His voice is stable and rich in colors, his convincing dramatic presence thrilling the audience. His sense of tragedy, together with gorgeous vocal color, made the darkly-scored aria “It is enough” a true highlight of the performance.

The role of Obadjah was played by tenor Felix Livshitz, an immigrant to Israel from the Ukraine. His vocal quality is warm and pleasing. Mezzo-soprano Shira Raz has presence, musicality and dramatic presence. Soprano Rinat Goldmann’s performance was impressive, though somewhat understated at the opening of “Hear ye, Israel”. Ayala Zimbler has fine diction, playing the Queen with anger and vehemence. Young Shira Patshornik, a student of the Thelma Yellin School for the Arts, gave a competent, well-articulated reading as the Youth, addressing and connecting with Elijah.

Members of the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir (directed by Leonti Wolf) dealt in detail and competently with Mendelssohn’s fugal textures and four-part chorales (here, the composer is paying his respects to Bach). Their large choral sound, however, sometimes lacked flexibility. The tempest and its abating (Chorus 34) were given front stage:
‘And after the earthquake there came a fire: but yet the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire there came a small voice; and in that still voice, onward came the Lord.’ 1 Kings xix 12.

Fretwork and Clare Wilkinson in concert, Israel Festival 2009

A special treat in the 2009 Israel Festival was a concert performed by Fretwork, the illustrious British viol sextet specializing in the interpretation of English Renaissance and Baroque music as well as contemporary repertoire. Joining Fretwork was mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson, in a program of works by J.S.Bach (1685-1750) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695). 2009 celebrates the 350th anniversary of Purcell’s birth.

The consort played a number of Bach organ works. His Piece d’Orgue BWV 572, written before 1712, is organ music at its most idiomatic, no less the mighty C minor Passacaglia BWV 582. “Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu Dir” (Out of the depths I cry to Thee), a powerful large-scale chorale motet setting in the stile antico, is the only organ piece Bach wrote in six parts with double pedal. Transcribed and presented articulately by Fretwork, I found the intimate timbre of viols not evocative enough of this organ music, with its pedals, varied registers, colors and extroverted character. Interesting and pleasing were a Prelude and Fugue from Book 1 of the Well-Tempered Clavier; in a Ricercar from “The Musical Offering” BWV 1079, strands were crystal clear and expressive.

Very interesting pieces for viols (and, in my opinion not heard often enough in the concert hall) are Purcell’s rather somber Fantazias of c.1680. Composed when viol consorts were already less fashionable than the violin family, the young composer refers back to two centuries of Fantazias and ahead, with crunching dissonances, to a newer musical language. His Fantazia ‘upon one note’, whereby an alto part sustains a “c” for the duration of the piece, is one of Purcell’s most creative and daring pieces, with dense imitative writing contrasted by slower, chordal sections. Fretwork’s detailed and meaningful working of these pieces was thought-provoking and much enjoyed by the audience.

English mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson is a Renaissance- and Baroque specialist, performing widely in groups and as a soloist. She presented a number of Purcell songs. In “Music For a While”, from “Oedipus” (c.1692), Wilkinson uses dynamics effectively, painting an evocative picture of Alecto, one of the Furies, with the snakes dropping one by one from her head. “Sweeter Than Roses”, composed for Richard Norton’s play “Pausanius, Betrayer of his Country”, is not as innocent as it may sound and Wilkinson uses the “first trembling” to stir up emotions and reveal Pandora’s seductive intentions. In “O Solitude”, to a plucked ground bass, the singer uses her fine diction and articulacy to weave the delicate and bittersweet ambivalence of the text, with stanzas alternating between singer and ensemble. Wilkinson’s performance never oversteps good taste and she never fails to move her audience.

The program ended with a seven-part Purcell “In Nomine”, with Wilkinson singing the cantus firmus part. For their encore, players and singer performed Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the English folk song “O, Waly, Waly”, Britten’s heavy, disturbing and strangely-tinted chords contrasting with Wilkinson’s gentle tones.
‘O love is handsome and love is fine
And love’s a jewel when it is new
But love grows old and waxes cold
And fades away like morning dew.’

Monday, June 1, 2009

Hanoch Rosenne returns to the stage

The scene is a cemetery. The artist hauls his dusty, stiff self out of a grave, slowly revives himself and goes off to look for a hall and a stage. Thus begins mime artist Hanoch Rosenne’s comeback to performing after ten years of directing. “Speaks for Himself”, his one-man show, premiered in the 2009 Israel Festival on the stage of the Rebecca Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre, May 30th and 31st.

Rosenne (b. 1959, London) and in Israel from the age of 4 months, studied mime with Marcel Marceau’s wife Ella, with Etienne Decroux (Marceau’s teacher) and with Yoram Boker. A verbal man, he has taught mime and spent years directing big productions such as musicals and children’s song contests. With his new show, Rosenne is back to being his “inner self” and to his big love – mime – to expressing himself without words. Different from his early performances is the inclusion of video and visuals, not without loud music and sound effects, and his use of them is brilliant in his timing and in his creation of illusion. Unchanged, however, are his amazing physical stamina and lightness, his ability to hold the audience in the palm of his hand and his warmth and kindness. And, as he shows humanity in its absurdities and weaknesses, he assures you he is right in there together with you. He includes audience members in some of the items.

An interestingly-designed feature was one showing a silent movie, with Rosenne moving in and out of it. In another, a street performer wishing to be in the limelight learns how menacing it can be. The contemporary, neurotic pill-popping person is shown in another scene.

Rosenne’s father, a radio man and interpreter, died ten years ago. One piece shows Rosenne visiting an elderly person, each visit disturbed by the mobile ‘phone ringing, taking the artist away till, on a final visit, he finds the old man is no longer there. Rosenne takes the old man’s jacket, hat and stick to a park bench, where we witness a sad and touching meeting between the two, brilliantly played and very poignant.

Hanoch Rosenne is one of those wonderful human beings who has not let go of his childlike naivete. His artistry is superb but his great strength is in his ability to make people happy. After the show, he stood in the foyer to, yet again, be with his audience.