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.

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