Monday, December 27, 2010

"The Peasant in the Palace" - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs works of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann

“The Peasant in the Palace” is the title given to the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third concert of the 2010-2011 season; it took place December 21st at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA and in Tel Aviv. Conducted from the harpsichord by David Shemer, founder and director of the JBO, the program focused on works of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann.

It is thought that in 1719, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), on a mission to Berlin to approve and bring a very fine harpsichord back to Cothen, played for the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Margrave requested from Bach a score to add to his extensive music library. It seems Bach sent him the “Six Concerts Avec Plusieurs Instruments” as an application for a new job. Bach was refused the job and the six Brandenburg Concertos may never have been performed during his lifetime. The manuscript passed through private hands, ending up in a library. Brandenburg Concerto no.5, possibly the last of the set of six concertos to be written, is scored for flute, violin and harpsichord, with violin, viola and basso continuo support. Demonstrating the possibilities offered by the high quality harpsichord Bach brought back in 1719, it is the first chamber work in which the keyboard player is the “star”, the status of the harpsichord being raised from continuo instrument to soloist. Soloists in the JBO performance of this work were Laura Pontecorvo (Italy)-traverso (Baroque flute), Boris Begelman-violin and David Shemer performing on his Martin Skowroneck harpsichord. From the outset of the opening Allegro, the ensemble wove gossamer-fine melodic lines around each other in a pleasing blend of sound, with Begelman and Pontecorvo striking a fine balance. In the first draft of the first movement, Bach had written a cadenza of eighteen bars for harpsichord, later expanding it to sixty five. Shemer’s handling of the mammoth cadenza was brilliant in execution, clean, exciting and articulate in its silvery cascades of glittering sounds, ending with a breathtaking chromatic passage before handing over to the ensemble to wind up the movement. In the Affetuoso movement, with the scoring pared down to the soloists, the artists created a sensitive and sensuously fragile texture, Pontecorvo and Begelman selective and careful in their ornamenting. The final gigue-like Allegro, delicate yet energetic, opened with flute and violin conversing, the harpsichord, indulging in dense 16th-note passagework and trilling, assuming a major role once more. Pontecorvo gives life and shape to each phrase; Begelman is listening, attentive and careful never to override in volume, his playing always inspiring. A rare treat.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) spent the greater part of his musical life (1721-1767) in Hamburg, where he worked with tireless energy. In 1732 a posting in one of the Hamburg newspapers read “Music lovers can expect in the following year a great instrumental work called Musique de Table, penned by Telemann….Subscriptions are accepted every quarter..” Almost 250 people (including Handel) subscribed from many countries in Europe and from England – people from the bourgeoisie, magistrates, ministers, clergy, kapellmeisters as well as professional- and amateur musicians. The “Tafelmusik” consists of three volumes, referred to by Telemann as “productions”, each of them sharing the same design and boasting a wealth of invention, melodic richness and variety of styles. The Concerto for flute, violin, ‘cello, strings and continuo in A major (Tafelmusik 1/3) is a true chef d’oeuvre. Soloists in the JBO performance of it were Laura Pontecorvo, Boris Begelman and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi; they played singly, in pairs and as a trio. Their performance – chamber music at its most communicative – created constant interest. Their playing of the intimate Grazioso movement was flattering and elegant, short phrases and fragments pieced together with perfection. The final Allegro was a display of youthful energy, humor and virtuosity, with Messer-Jacobi’s soloing brilliant, joyful and in good taste. In a letter to a friend, Telemann wrote “I do hope the work will one day contribute to my fame”. The importance and depth of the “Tafelmusik” have certainly reached far beyond the function of “dinner music”.

The “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212 “Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet” (We have a new lord of the manor) (1742) shows the formal, intellectual and deeply religious J.S.Bach in a very different light. To celebrate the 36th birthday and appointment of Heinrich von Dieskau as Provost of the vicinity of Leipzig, where Bach was based, Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) and Bach joined forces to create this secular cantata “en burlesque”. (A long-standing partnership, the two had collaborated on writing the St. Matthew Passion, the St. Mark Passion and a number of sacred- and secular cantatas.) Picander, a government official responsible for collecting liquor taxes in the region, had his reasons for writing the libretto, probably wishing to ingratiate himself with his new employer. The setting is Klein-Zschocher - an estate southwest of Leipzig, consisting then of 90 houses, brickworks, sheep, a shepherd’s house, a rectory, a church and a school - the two characters in the cantata being a peasant girl Mieke (soprano Revital Raviv) and her nameless suitor (baritone Yair Polishook). The story is as simple as its rustic characters: “he” makes a “suggestion” to Mieke; Mieke shows disdain for such vulgarity. Talk then centers round praise of the new squire and good, earthy entertainment. The libretto is in the dialect of local country folk, with Bach’s music less complex than was his convention: he quotes from popular songs and country dances of the day and borrows from other works – from his Goldberg Variations and from the “La Folia” harmonic ground bass. Instrumental soloists were Dafna Ravid-violin, Daniel Tanchelson-viola and Orit-Messer-Jacobi-‘cello. The cantata opens with a Sinfonia bristling with popular tunes and good humor, setting the scene. And so into the light-headed patter of gossip, whimsical vulgarity, discussion of taxes, money, the chamberlain and his wife, the songs of sophisticated people versus those of peasant folk and, of course, talk of drinking and reveling. Soprano Revital Raviv is a coquettish and flirtatious Mieke. She assumes her role with ease, uses facial expression and body language, reacts to Polishook’s texts, her pearly voice and vocal ease delighting the audience. In the following aria - an expression of sincerity and goodwill - she is joined by Pontecorvo’s brilliant and tasteful flute obbligato, surely a high point of the performance.
‘Klein-Zschocher ever
Be sweet and tender
As purest almonds to taste.
Within our goodly parish
Nought else today should flourish
But blessings rich and chaste.’

Baritone Yair Polishook, his large, natural, richly-colored voice stable and fetching, seemed, at times, a little too gentlemanly for the role a brazen country bumpkin. But in the following aria, rife with double entendres, performed with Ravid, Messer-Jacobi and Shemer, Polishook is freer, hearty and jovial, laughing together with Ravid’s violin.
‘Thine increase be steady and laugh with delight!
Thine own bosom’s virtue fair
Doth for thee thy fields prepare
In which shall bloom thy might.’

Performing a fine choice of works, the JBO’s superb solo-work, subtle playing and silken, finely-blended sound characterized the evening.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jonathan Zak and Yossi Gutmann perform at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center Tel Aviv

Pianist Jonathan Zak and violist Yossi Gutmann gave a recital December 18th 2010 at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center, Tel Aviv.

Jonathan Zak, born in Israel and a graduate of the Julliard School of Music (New York) has performed as soloist with all Israel’s major orchestras and as an instrumental- and vocal accompanist in Israel, the USA, Europe and South America. He was one of the founders of the renowned “Yuval” Trio, performs regularly with pianist Irena Friedland, has recorded extensively and serves on the jury of international competitions. Professor Zak teaches chamber music and vocal accompaniment at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv).

Born in Tel Aviv, Yossi Gutmann was brought to Europe by Yehudi Menuhin and studied there with Nadia Boulanger, Tibor Varga and Sergiu Celibidache. Former principal violist of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Bayreuther Festspiele, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra and the Amati Ensemble, Gutmann is presently focusing on solo performance. Gutmann made his American debut at the Orensanz Foundation concert 11th September 2010, where Tzvi Avni’s “Phoenix” had its USA premiere. The concert was cited by ArtForum as one of the top New York musical events of 2010. Gutmann is also involved in contemporary- and experimental music and in multimedia performances.

The program opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Sonata in D major for viola da gamba and harpsichord BWV 1028. Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard (BWV 1027-1029) have sometimes been attributed to Bach’s time in Cothen, where, as Kapellmeister, he had a small, outstanding ensemble of musicians at hand, but were more likely to have been composed in the Leipzig period in the early 1740’s, when he was occupied with the Collegium Musicum. The D major sonata, of the sonata da chiesa kind, is the most demanding of the three. Today, with much emphasis placed on authentic performance, with so many artists performing the work on viol and harpsichord today, I was interested to hear Gutmann and Zak’s reading of it on piano and viola. From the opening Adagio, with the arioso melody passed from one instrument to the other, via the ornamented Allegro, varied in its textures, through the peaceful and introspective Andante, leading into the joyful Allegro, the artists never overstepped the boundaries of good taste, so much a part of Baroque music. Zak kept melodic lines crisp and pedal-free, with Gutmann using textures for contrast. The artists at no stage overloaded the sound; neither did they endeavor to imitate the timbre of historical instruments. The result was a balanced, elegant and convincingly enjoyable interpretation.

Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Maerchenbilder (Fairytale Pictures) for viola and piano opus 113 (1851), a relatively late work, comprising of four pieces, take the listener back to the composer’s earlier fantasy pieces and miniatures. Zak and Gutmann focus on the character and mood of each moment, coloring each vignette with Schumann’s paintbrush of lush color and rich textures, with sweeping melodic phrases of yearning, urgency, melancholy, pomp and lyricism, Schumann’s last chance to escape into the welcoming world of imagination in the wake of oncoming madness. The artists’ playing of these true gems was varied, descriptive and richly colored, yet carefully paced and objective.

Tzvi Avni (b.1927, Germany), one of Israel’s foremost composers and the recipient of several awards, among them the Israel Prize, composed “Phoenix” (2001) for solo viola as an expression of his personal shock and horror of the September 11th terror attacks. He had the idea of dedicating the work to Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor of New York,whose actions, in the wake of the tragedy, were those of a great and optimistic leader. The phoenix, a legendary bird that can be reborn any number of times, is the symbol of hope in Avni's work. Avni and Gutmann met a year ago after many years during which their paths had not crossed. Tzvi Avni felt Gutmann had “the right kind of soul” to perform the work as he had intended it and presented him with the score. Gutmann played its USA premiere. Constructed of two short movements, the piece’s textures are terse and compelling. The first movement, moving in single- and double lines, stating phrases separated by rests,expresses sorrow and pain. In the second movement, still intense, at times energetic, at others, soul-searching, Avni’s message of optimism is present, his hope in a better world coming from positive energies and actions. Gutmann’s performance of this sensitive and personal work was profound and detailed, its tragic tableau carefully and caringly spelled out.

By the time Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano D821 (1824) was published in 1871, the instrument for which it had been written – the arpeggione, a fretted instrument held between the knees, in effect, a large, bowed guitar with a warm sound quality – had descended into obscurity. Possibly the only significant work written for the instrument, Schubert made good use of its arpeggiating ability and extensive range; his dynamic markings in the score rarely reach higher than “piano”. To avoid an excess of leger lines and changes of clef, Schubert wrote the arpeggione part almost exclusively in the treble clef, demanding the player read it down an octave. Nowadays performed on a variety of instruments, the Arpeggione lends itself especially well to the tonality of the viola. Following the wistful opening Allegro moderato, we were treated to a cantabile, pensive Adagio, in which the artists made use of the most delicate of pianissimo tonings, the final Allegro, reminding us that Schubert was Austrian, creating a sense of well-being. Gutmann and Zak give Schubert’s score first consideration; their playing of it, not ignoring its virtuosic quality, is fine, noble and unmannered and (thankfully) free of the extravagances of license taken by too many performers of the work.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

An evening of Yiddish and European Jewish music at Hebrew Union College Jerusalem

The third event of the 2010-2011 season of “Music at the College with the Atar Trio”, a series of concerts and cultural encounters at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, under the direction of Ofer Shelley, was a concert of Yiddish songs and works by European Jewish composers on December 9th 2010. Performing were musicologist and cantor Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, pianist Aya Schleifer, soprano Michal Okon, violinist Tanya Beltser and pianist Ofer Shelley. Ofer Shelley has produced several programs focusing on Jewish music.

In the spirit of Chanukah (Feast of Lights) Eli and Aya Schleifer opened with some well-known Chanukah songs sung in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Russian composer Alexander Krein (1883-1951) was a member of the National Jewish Movement, a group of writers, artists and musicians seeking to preserve and revive Jewish culture during the Soviet regime. Michal Okon, accompanied by Ofer Shelley, performed two of Krein’s Yiddish Songs for voice and piano opus 49 (1937). The harmonies and sad melodies pervading these arrangements of traditional Jewish folk songs create the atmosphere of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Shelley and Beltser performed composer and violinist Joseph Achron’s Dance Improvisations on a Hebrew Folksong opus 37 (1914). Born in 1886, Achron, in contact with the Jewish Folk Art Society, composed some 100 works, most of which are based on Jewish folklore. He spent World War I in Russia and immigrated to the USA in 1925, composing music for Yiddish theatre in New York. His compositions are now housed at Tel Aviv University. The artists gave a spirited reading of this entertaining piece which quotes melodic fragments of the song “O Chanukah, o Chanukah”, rhythmic displacement, uses the full ranges of the instruments, overtones on the violin, etc. The two artists performed Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” for violin and piano opus 35 (1911), also based on traditional Jewish melodies, a piece that was much performed by Jascha Heifitz. Somber and reflective, the work suggests sighs and weeping, later becoming more optimistic, frenzied and virtuosic in the middle section. Beltser and Shelley perform it convincingly, its imaginative piano part effective against the songful, haunting melodies.

The Atar Trio wrote the arrangements of three Kurt Weill (1900-1950) songs performed by Okon, Beltser and Shelley, beginning with the haunting, bitter reminder of war in the “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” (1942) to German lyrics of Berthold Brecht. The song tells of what the soldier has sent his wife from different cities he has been in – three pairs of high-heeled shoes from Prague, a fur collar from Oslo, a hat from Amsterdam, lace from Brussels, a silk gown from Paris, an embroidered shirt from Bucharest and a widow’s veil from Russia. Having fled from Nazi German, Weill composed some cabaret songs in Paris. Okon communicated the anger, heartbreak, sorrow and ambivalence of the situation of “Je ne t’aime pas” (1934) (text: Maurice Magre), the tempo of the song tempered by the range of emotions of the text. Kurt Weill composed “Youkali: Tango Habanera” (Havana-style tango) in 1934 as incidental music for the play “Marie Galante”. Lyrics were added in 1946 by Roger Fernay. Youkali is an idyllic island, a place of happiness that will never exist. Okon, often heard performing music from South America, is at home with the rich tango rhythms, Beltser’s violin part adding color and an element of nostalgia.

Eli and Aya Schleifer then performed three songs in Yiddish. The first, “Lomir alle Zingen” (Let us all sing) based on a Sabbath song, is a dialogue in which a child asks about various foods. The father’s answers explain the difference between the rich and the poor according to their diet. Schleifer plays the two characters sympathetically, the father’s final answer being that poor people eat “gehakte tzores” (chopped troubles). Moshe Michael Milner (1886-1953) was a member of the St Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society. His song “In Cheder” is a vignette in which a teacher in a cheder (elementary school for orthodox boys) endeavors to teach the alphabet to a small child who is slow to grasp. The teacher, initially very patient, finally gives up, claiming it is anyway more important to study Torah. A fine piece for both singer and pianist, it is a reminder that these Yiddish songs include a strong theatrical element. “A Chassene in Birobidzan” (A Birobidzan Wedding) (lyrics Itzik Feffer, music Lev Yampolsky) paints a musical picture of a wedding in Russia at a time when Jewish culture still flourished there. A rich verbal and musical canvas, it includes Chasidic wedding dance melodies. The audience enjoyed these vivid musical scenes of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, with Eli Schleifer’s humor and articulacy and Aya Schleifer’s fine accompanying enriching each work.

Michal Okon performed three Yiddish song arrangements by Ofer Shelley. In “Unter Deine Weisse Stern” (Under your white star) (lyrics Abraham Sutskever, music Abraham Brodna) Shelley’s minimal, evocative accompaniment provides a nostalgic backing for the song. In the lullaby “Rozhinkes mit Mandeln” (Sultanas with almonds) Tanya Beltser’s expressive playing adds much to Okon’s dynamically varied and detailed performance. Yiddish humor creeps back into “The Violin”: Michal Okon plays the role of the proud mother of a young beginning violin pupil, with Tanya Beltser as the child whose playing is far from brilliant. A whimsical performance!

Leibu Levin (1914-1983), the Czernowitz-born Yiddish actor, singer and composer, was a true troubadour of Yiddish literature. He wrote the words and music to “Main Haylike kamee” (My sacred cameo). Eli and Aya Schleifer performed a beautiful arrangement of this sad song. “Mein Shtetele Belz” (My Little Town Belz), to words by Jacob Jacobs, was composed in 1932 by Alexander Olshanetsky (1892-1946) for the play “Song of the Ghetto”. This is another emotional Yiddish song, fraught with nostalgic memories. Eli Schleifer gave a moving performance of it. It reminisces about Belz, in Bessarabia:

‘Tell me old man; tell me quickly because I want to know everything now! How does the little house look which used to sparkle with lights? Does the little tree grow which I planted long ago? Belz, my little town! The little house where I spent my childhood! The poor little room where I used to laugh with other children! Every Shabbos I would run to the riverbank to play with other children under a little green tree….Belz, where I had so many beautiful dreams…’

Aharon Lebedeff (1873-1960), one of the most exuberant, versatile and original personalities in Yiddish musical comedy, was known for his improvisations, his clowning and dancing. His singing was a combination of gorgeous, flowing, lyrical lines, dizzying facility and rapidity of diction. “Roumania, Roumania”, typical of Yiddish theatre of the time, which thrived on tales of traditional life based more on romance than on reality, tells of the once “sweet and fine” country Romania, its wines and food delicacies. Eli Schleifer presents the piece in all its culinary detail and joy, its rhythmic nonsense syllables adding to the song’s joyousness. Michal Okon and Eli Schleifer performed “What Will Happen When the Messiah Arrives, the Great Banquet”, a Yiddish folk song arranged by Leon Zeitlin and Ossip Proktor (members of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music). A pleasingly balanced duet and blend of voices and musical gestures, the singers present the menu and the guest list of all the “who’s who” from biblical times. The descriptive piano accompaniment contributes effects and detail to the scene.

Due to the strong theatrical elements of the songs, the works presented throughout the evening lent themselves especially well to live performance. The artists presented an interesting program, involving the audience in the inevitable mix of joy and melancholy inherent in European Jewish music of the first half of the 20th century.

Concert no.4 of “Music at the College with the Atar Trio”
“A Simple Story” – the story of S.Y.Agnon in collaboration with Beit Agnon
An original musical theater performance for chamber ensemble and actor
The Atar Trio with actor Benny Hendel
At 20:00, January 6th 2011, Hebrew Union College
13 King David St. Jerusalem
Tickets (02) 6203333

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Genevieve Blanchard and Jochewed Schwarz perform music by J.S.Bach and four of his sons on flute, harpsichord and clavichord

We were gathered in the musical salon of pianist Jonathan Zak and his wife Adi Etzion-Zak in their Tel Aviv home on December 4th 2010 to hear a concert in the “Sounds and Words from the Baroque” early music concert series played on authentic instruments. “Bach, the Real Thing – Johann Sebastian Bach and his Four Sons” featured Canadian-born Baroque flautist Genevieve Blanchard and Jochewed Schwarz (harpsichord and clavichord). Informal, informative explanations as to the Bach family composers, their styles and the instruments the artists were playing added much to the evening’s enjoyment.

The soiree opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Aria BWV 988 (the theme of the Goldberg Variations) from the Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. (Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife, copied and transcribed reams of music for her husband when he was Cantor of Leipzig. Bach showed his appreciation by dedicating the Little Notebook to her; there are two volumes –1722 and 1725). Not often heard on these two instruments, the artists played a version in which the flute played the melody, with the harpsichord functioning as basso continuo. Blanchard was playing a traverse Baroque flute built by Boaz Berney and Schwarz’s harpsichord is a copy of a 1679 Couchet harpsichord built by Reinhard von Nagel. Performing in a smaller space than a concert hall meant that we were to hear the rich mellifluousness of Blanchard’s tone and the real presence and forthright sound of the harpsichord. Both artists graced the piece with an array of ornaments.

In addition to the Clavier-Buechlein for Anna Magdalena, Bach also compiled a “notebook” in 1720 (its haphazard collection referred to by some as a “scrapbook”) for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Written in Cothen, when Bach was in the employ of Prince Leopold, it was aimed at instructing 10-year-old Wilhelm Friedemann in the rudiments of keyboard technique, clefs etc., and includes valuable information on ornamental practice of the time. Schwarz spoke of learning much about J.S.Bach and his pedagogical methods from the collection. “Applicatio and Air Italian” were performed by Schwarz on a “Bundfrei” clavichord. After one’s ears have taken a few seconds to adjust to the tiny, intimate sound of the instrument, one begins to hear the dynamic variation the clavichord offers, as well as the possibility of using finger vibrato for expression. Schwarz spoke of en 18th century attitude of defining people as “clavichord people” (quiet, introverted) and “harpsichord people” (more outspoken). In 1753 C.P.E.Bach claimed that “a good clavichordist makes an accomplished harpsichordist, but not so the reverse”.

As to Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784) himself, a gifted organist and improviser, much of his oeuvre was not published during his lifetime. His early sonatas, being technically very difficult, had met with disapproval among players. The Twelve Polonaises, composed between 1754 and 1765, might have been written with the intention of winning him more public favour: keyboard Polonaises were fashionable at the time. Friedemann’s Polonaises are stylized (as are those of Chopin), technically demanding and musically varied, encouraging the player to ornament creatively. Schwarz performed the F minor Polonaise, a piece upholstered with heavy textures and plenty of dissonances. The Eight Fugues, dedicated to the counterpoint-loving Princess Amalie of Prussia (a noted composer in her own right) each fall into in three parts and are a curious mix of old and new, reflecting the composer’s eccentricities in their capricious changes of subject and style. Schwarz played the F minor fugue (c.1778) which harks way back to the music of Sweelinck.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Bach’s second son, was one of the best-known keyboard players in Europe, his compositional output including some thirty sonatas and other pieces for keyboard. His clavier sonatas, known to and highly respected by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, were a turning point in musical form, issuing in the Classical style. Blanchard and Schwarz’s performance of his Sonata for Flute and Harpsichord in E major Wq 84 (1747) was responsive to the composer’s lucid style, Blanchard’s tone warmly colored, her phrase ends sensitive, with Schwarz’s performance ever aware of Bach’s expressive idiom and the play between the two instruments. The opening Allegretto played off harpsichord and flute, the right hand of the keyboard in constant dialogue with the flute. The second movement - Adagio di molto – its cantabile character not ignoring the dissonant underlay, was followed by an energetic, witty game of hide-and-seek in the final Allegro assai.

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) was J.S.Bach’s 11th and youngest son. His teachers were his father and his half-brother C.P.E.Bach. He spent time as organist of Milan Cathedral and in 1762 moved to London to take up an appointment as music master to Queen Charlotte Sophia, wife of George III. He was a friend and mentor to the young Mozart. Referred to as the “London Bach”, he wrote cantatas, a number of operas and instrumental music and made history in 1768 by being the first person to give a solo piano performance in London. His Sonata opus 2 no.5 for flute and harpsichord (1770), boasts fluid melodies, his German musical background combined with Italian grace.

Jochewed Schwarz referred to Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795), J.S.Bach’s ninth son, as “the forgotten Bach” and spoke of his music as forming a bridge between J.S.Bach and Beethoven. Despite his having studied Law, J.C.F.Bach took the job of chamber musician to Count Wilhelm at Bueckenburg in 1750, remaining in his employ till his death. Schwarz performed his Polonaise and Allegro in F.

Taught initially by their father, J.S.Bach’s sons each found their own individual style of expression in a musical milieu that was gradually merging into the Classical era. The evening’s program offered a fine opportunity to consider and compare the music and personalities of members of this great musical family. It was fitting that the recital finish with another work of J.S.Bach – his Sonata after Trio Sonata in D minor BWV 527 for organ (c.1727), transcribed, as was common in the Baroque for other instruments, in this case, for flute and harpsichord. Opening with an Andante movement, the artists addressed each motif, indulged in much ornamenting, giving expression to its noble character. Following the carefully crafted reading of the Adagio e dolce movement, the audience delighted in the virtuosic treatment of the contrapuntal intricacies of the final Vivace.

Jochewed Schwarz and Genevieve Blanchard offer their audiences performance that is well researched and well presented, involving those gathered in the art of authentic Baroque performance.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Emeritus Chamber Orchestra, an orchestra of retirees, rehearses in Tel Aviv and performs five concerts each season

Some years ago, Sam Zebba founded the Emeritus Chamber Orchestra with the idea of creating a platform for retired orchestral musicians. Consisting of about 40 musicians - retirees from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, plus a few other players, the orchestra performs four or five programs each season. On May 21 2008, the orchestra, conducted by Sam Zebba, performed works by Gluck, Haydn and Beethoven at the opening concert of the Bellapais Festival in northern Cyprus.

“ECO rehearsals are in our Ramat Aviv apartment” Sam Zebba tells me. “ It’s a bit of a squeeze, with the first violin section spilling out into the kitchen. Luckily, the neighbors do not object to our music-making! The ECO meets on consecutive Friday mornings to rehearse for an approaching concert. Following each concert (or concerts) we take a break of two or three weeks. We are then always overjoyed to meet up again to rehearse the next program.” The ECO plays music of the classical period. It has a full complement of wind instruments plus a timpanist, but is not a large enough orchestra to play Romantic symphonic music. Zebba conducts most concerts but, occasionally, he invites a guest conductor. Some guest soloists are established artists; many are young, gifted musicians at the start of their careers. The ECO performs a series in the Einav Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv, at the Chess Centre in Ramat Aviv and has performed in Nazareth and Keshet Eylon. The ECO has no financial support; indeed, players come to make music for the enjoyment of it.

Sam Zebba came to Israel as a child from Latvia and did not make his living from music. He had played the piano from a young age and began studying conducting in his 50’s, taking courses in Europe and at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. “ I formed a community orchestra and worked with it for twenty years, deriving much experience there as a conductor. We performed in South America, Korea and India. It was amazing to see the growing interest the developing world had in classical music. The Emeritus Chamber Orchestra, however, is my crowning project”.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An evening of Dada readings, poetry and music at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Entering the auditorium of the Jerusalem Music Centre on November 25th 2010, the audience was puzzled to find chairs scattered around higgledy-piggledy, facing all directions. (This, of course, did not prevent some conscientious audience members from looking to find their correct rows and seat numbers.) The occasion was the “DADA Evening”, an evening of Dada music, readings, song and poetry and one of the two events of the “Absurdada Week” held at the JMC, the other event being Israel Sharon’s opera setting of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Lesson”. A Kaprizma production, the initiative to present an evening of Dada was that of pianist and composer Israel Sharon, who co-directed it together with Dory Engel and Assif Am-David.

The Dada movement, began simultaneously in Europe and America in 1916 as a revolt against the culture and values that had supported the carnage of the First World War, rapidly developed into an anarchistic type of avant-garde art that resorted to outrageous tactics designed to shock the establishment and the general public. The term Dada (meaning “yes, yes” in Russian, “there-there” in German and “hobbyhorse” in French) is essentially a nonsense word selected at random from a German-French dictionary by the poet Richard Huelsenbeck and painter-musician Hugo Ball. The movement centred around the visual arts, literature (much poetry), art manifestoes, art theory, theatre and graphic design.

‘What are you doing here, planted on your backsides like a load of serious mugs…
…you serious people, you smell worse than cow dung
DADA, as for it, it smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing
It is like your hopes: nothing
like your heaven: nothing…
like your politicians: nothing…
like your artists: nothing…’ “Cannibal Manifesto”, Francis Picabia

Actress and mezzo-soprano Noa Bizansky (b. Haifa, 1979) issued the evening in with Satie’s “Bonjour, Biqui, bonjour” a song of three words which ends, quite surprisingly, almost before it has begun. Possessing a fine command of the French language, Bizansky performed Satie’s “Trois Melodies” and joined Am-David and Israel Sharon in the first part of the composer’s “Messe des pauvres” (Mass for the Poor). The latter work, written in 1895, both strange and enigmatically beautiful, composed originally for organ and unison voices, takes its inspiration from medieval plainchant, repeated melodic motifs and lush harmonies. The audience enjoyed Bizansky’s vocal flexibility and color as well as her stage comfort.

We heard Ariel Halevi and Netanel Fastman performing Francis Poulenc’s Capriccio for Two Pianos (after Le Bal Masque) (1952), a whimsical piece spiced with carnival rhythms, humor and joviality contrasted by a melancholy middle section; music to make one smile, but, nevertheless, fine writing for two pianos.

Actor Dory Engel’s reading of representative Dada manifestos, nonsense poems and sound poetry of Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Francis Picabia was articulate and polished; his poker-faced performance invites the audience to shake off preconceptions and pretensions and to dare to grapple with the texts.
…‘The cheese is cousin to the marmalade.
The horse is cousin to the cock.
The hen lays eggs.
The egg is cousin to the cheese and butter,
The son and daughter of the milk.
Isn’t it strange?
It is.’ “Perhaps Strange”, Kurt Schwitters

Assif Am-David (b.Tel Aviv, 1981) is a highly versatile young artist. Actor, singer and harpsichord player, he is frequently heard and seen as a soloist in Baroque- and other vocal works. The Dada evening saw him in a variety of roles: joining Israel Sharon at the piano where the two performed pieces by Erik Satie for four hands, he read Dada poems in perfect German, in excellent English, sang mellifluously in French and displayed a fine sense of wit and enjoyment of the absurd.

Small touches added to production’s lighthearted atmosphere – the full use of the space of the auditorium, movement within it, microphone effects and little dress effects - such as artists wearing two different shoes. A worthwhile evening of high quality performance, its content provided the audience with entertainment and enrichment. Israel Sharon’s productions are a valuable contribution to the JMC’s intentions of stepping aside from purely mainstream performances of music.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Myrna Herzog in a solo viola da gamba recital

Dr. Myrna Herzog, born in Brazil and living in Israel for the last 18 years, is a researcher, teacher, instrumentalist and the founder and director of the prestigious PHOENIX Ensemble. She is, however, first and foremost, a viol player. Her solo recital “Heart to Heart”, which took place at the Eden-Tamir Music Center Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) November 27th 2010, was, as the name implies, representative of Herzog’s most personal connection with the viola da gamba and its repertoire. Herzog was playing on a 7-stringed bass viol (using gut strings) made by Andrea Castagneri (Paris,1744). She dedicated the recital to her teachers - Judith Davidoff, Wieland Kuijken and the late Ibere Gomes Grosso.

The program opened with two ricercars by Italian Renaissance composers, examples of the earliest ricercars written by composers who were, themselves, virtuoso players or teachers. The first was “Recechar terzo” by Sylvestro Ganassi (1492-mid-16th century). Ganassi wrote a treatise on viol-playing, guiding the player both technically and in the affects of musical style. Giovanni Bassano (1558-1617) was also a pedagogue, writing on methods of decorating the contrapuntal line. Herzog’s playing of the two ornate, monophonic pieces highlighted the improvisatory character written into the text, but with her own sense of spontaneity.

Moving to the French Baroque, Herzog played a “Fantasie” by Nicolas Hotman (1614-1663); born in Germany or Belgium, Hotman lived in Paris for most of his life, was a court musician and known to be a fine lute-, theorbo- and viol player. Hotman’s “Fantasie” is expressive and singing, making use of the richness and beauty of the color and temperament of the viol. M. de Sainte-Colombe (possibly Jean sieur de Sainte-Colombe, c.1630-c.1700), whose teacher was Hotman, was the first of a number of French composers who brought the viol considerable prestige. Little is known about him besides the fact that he was a great master and teacher of the instrument and that he is thought to have initiated extending the viol range downward by the addition of the seventh string, enabling stronger contrasts, range, timbre and richness in the bass range. Herzog’s playing of Sainte-Colombe’s “La Vielle” (hurdy-gurdy) reflected the rough edges of the hurdy-gurdy sound together with its folksy, joyful and insistent character. She ends the piece with a gradual diminuendo, suggesting the hurdy-gurdy- player’s walking off into the distance. Sainte-Colombe’s son, Sainte-Colombe le fils (c.1660-c.1720), a composer and instrumentalist in his own right, composed many solo works for the viol. In Herzog’s finely embellished reading of his “Fantaisie en Rondeau”, the audience was moved by the tenderness, melodiousness and emotion, pain and eloquence of the composer’s writing.

Remaining in the French Baroque, Herzog ties more family links. Court musician Antoine Forqueray’s playing rivaled that of Marain Marais (1671- 1745); A.Forqueray (1671-1745) was the more flamboyant, his taste leading him to perform much Italian music. The sinuous, descriptively circular motion of his “La Girouette” (The Weather Vane) was punctuated by sections implying different moods, Herzog suggesting that the latter represent a change of mind or mood. She then performed “La Eynaud”, a piece by Antoine Forqueray’s son, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, a leading proponent of the viol and tutor to Louis XV’s daughter. Who the subject of this harmonically and technically demanding musical portrait is in a piece written in the specific idiom of 18th century French viol music, is an enigma. The humorous main subject of the piece, played in thirds in the lower register of the instrument, might describe the strutting of a formal, authoritative, self-important man sporting a monocle, the episodes perhaps describing other of Monsieur Eynaud’s character traits. Marain Marais (1656-1728), a pupil of Antoine Forqueray, and composer in royal service, who devoted his energies to viol music, paid his mentor the highest musical tribute among French composers in his “Tombeau pour Monsieur Ste Colombe” (Tomb= In memory of Monsieur Sainte-Colombe) . Herzog, however, chose to play his lighter, bagpipe-inspired dances “Musettes I et II”, the two contrasted gently in tempo. Roland Marais (c.1685-c.1750) was Marain Marais’s best known son. His “Le Noeud d’Amour” (The Love Knot) was performed with gentle, earnest grace.

The viola da gamba was popular both in France and in England. Tobias Hume (c.1569-1645), a British soldier by profession, served as a mercenary in the Swedish and Russian armies, among others. With the lute enjoying more popularity in England, Hume made it clear that he gave preference to the viol - “the statefull instrument”. His music reflects his eccentricity and sense of humor, his illusions, his travels and his international military career. (His piece “An Invention for Two to Play upone One Viol” calls for two players, two bows and one viol, with one player sitting on the other’s knee!) He, himself, was a very fine player; he may have been the first to use the bow con legno (played on the wood) We heard three of Hume’s pieces: “Adue Sweete Love” (as a mercenary it seems he frequented brothels and pubs), “A Pollish Jigge” and “Jigge”. Herzog’s sensitive, singing and ornamented playing of the pieces reminds us that Hume’s music is imbued with a wide range of dynamics, full-blown sonority and wonderful, cantabile melodic lines and that his music is unmistakably original.

Myrna Herzog talked of coming from a musical family. Her maternal grandfather, Nikolaus Schaak, made a transcription for zither of J.S.Bach’s “Gavotte en Rondeau” from the Partita in E major BWV 1006. As had her grandfather, Herzog used both the lute- and violin version in creating her version for the bass viol.

Herzog spoke of German composer and viola da gamba player Karl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) as being the last famous player of the instrument. He was probably a member of J.S.Bach’s Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, also studying with him. Abel moved to London, where he performed together with Johann Christian Bach. (Sometimes referred to as the “London Bach”, Johann Christian was J.S.Bach’s eleventh- and youngest son.) Together they established the Bach-Abel concert series, in which the two were the main performers. By this time, the viol was rarely played, but Abel’s performances revived interest in the instrument in London, his practice of “Sensibility” – the articulating of direct or strong emotions - suiting the approach in the arts at the time. His friends spoke of Abel as improvising at home in front of the fire “when he took flight into fine airs, double stops and arpeggios”. We heard four of Abel’s pieces, all written around 1770, in which Herzog expressed the sincerity and intimate quality of this viol music. Abel’s use of the whole instrument and its dynamics is nevertheless melodious and demure, his pieces set in an uncluttered soundscape.

Israeli educator, trumpeter and composer Aharon Shefi’s (b.1928) “Known Direction” was originally composed for violin and transcribed for the viol in 2010 by the composer for Myrna Herzog. The work is inspired by the story of his uncle, Bernard Spitzen, a noted violinist, who, when deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, played Jewish melodies on his violin to create a few moments of joy for the other deportees in the face of fate. Herzog’s performance of it reflected the heavy, contemplative atmosphere pervading the work, its motifs and melodies painting a picture of Jewish life in eastern Europe.

Three world premieres were included in the program. Dina Smorgonskaya (b.1947) emigrated to Israel from Belarus in 1990. Her oeuvre consists of solo-, choral, orchestral and chamber compositions, light opera, cinema- and theatre music and music for children. “Elegy” (2010), based on a song fraught with searching and sadness, offers an interesting collage of musical ideas, from a melody over a drone, to pizzicato passages, to spiccato, etc., the variety of textures and timbres creating a canvas suggesting different voices or instruments.

American composer David Loeb (b.1939) has composed extensively for traditional Japanese and Chinese instruments as well as for early instruments, in particular the viola da gamba. His “Lyric Pieces Composed in Chinese Scales” (2007) present three descriptive pieces to delight the senses, creating images in the listener’s mind. From the sweeping phrases in lower register of “Windsong” to the “Moon Gate” (a gate found in many Chinese gardens, placed there to frame a view) to “The Long Road Home”, a thought-provoking, carefully paced piece, these miniatures are, indeed, exquisite.

It was fitting that Myrna Herzog should sign off with Brazilian composer Luiz Otavio Braga’s (b.1953) two-part “Nordestina” (for Myrna), composed in 2010, a daring work bristling with sinewy, outspoken melodies, Brazilian modes and harmonies, rhythmic interest and the intermittent plucking sound of the guitar. A challenging work for player and audience, it presents the mix of color, earthy styles and temperament of Brazilian life and music.

Myrna Herzog’s recital spoke much of family relationships – those of composers and those of her own. Taking the listener on a comprehensive and fascinating journey of viol works from the Renaissance through to the 21st century, this concert was surely a landmark in the artist’s career, reflecting her taste, knowledge and the personal relationship she strikes up with each work. Charles Burney commented on Karl Friedrich Abel’s ability to “breathe” the notes as he played them. Myrna Herzog breathes each phrase.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs Alessandro Scarlatti's "Hagar and Ishmael Exiled"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presented Alessandro Scarlatti’s (1660-1725) oratorio “Agar et Ismaele esiliati” (Hagar and Ishmael Exiled) November 23rd 2010 at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. Dr. David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and conductor, directed the performance from the harpsichord. Soloists were mezzo-soprano Inbal Hever, sopranos Ye’ela Avital, Keren Motzeri and Anat Edri and bass-baritone Christian Immler (Germany).

Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorios span the period from 1683 to 1720, reflecting the development of opera of the time. Their texts are based mostly on hagiography (biography of saints or venerated persons) and the Bible. The early oratorios, “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled” (libretto: Giuseppe de Totis) being among them, represent the type of libretto and musical style most characteristic of the late 17th century. We enter the story of Abraham, Sara, Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis, chapter 21) to witness Abraham’s wife Sara insisting that Abraham banish the slave Hagar and her son Ishmael in order to protect their son Isaac’s inheritance. Ishmael was fathered by Abraham before Isaac’s birth, when Sara was still considered barren. Abraham, torn, reluctantly agrees to banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert, where they almost die of thirst; in the end, on the point of death, they are saved by an angel. In this two-part oratorio - there are no choruses or large orchestral sections (after the overture) - Scarlatti created a compact, tightly constructed work. Many of the arias are accompanied by basso continuo only, creating intimate moments and emphasizing the verbal text. David Shemer, in his program notes, writes of “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled”, composed when Scarlatti was only 24 years old, as the product of the “amazingly profound psychological insight of such a young composer”.

Following the overture – a piece built of slow, brooding, foreboding sections giving listeners time to languish in the dissonances, breaking into energetic sections – Sara (Keren Motzeri) walks purposefully onto the stage. Motzeri’s performance is fluent, musical and technically masterful, her lively melismatic passages propelling her towards key notes and words. Exuding color, freshness and ease, she uses dynamics and melodic shape to create situations and emotions.

Inbal Hever is convincing, empathic and intense as Hagar – a woman at times resigned to her fate, at times angry - her vocal color pleasing, if a little understated at times. Accompanied by the lower stringed instruments, Hever portrays Hagar now falling into the depths of despair:
‘Here the rays of the sun
Are darts lit with death.
Ah, it seems that here heaven
Is ablaze with the fierce heat of the underworld…’

Ye’ela Avital’s portrayal of the child Ishmael was appealing and delicate, her singing floating and mellifluous. She and Hever communicate in their common fate, the tragedy of her role spiraling into the scene where Ishmael, dying of thirst in the desert, hallucinates and calls out. Avital makes use of small pauses to evoke her waning strength.
‘In these burning lands
I feel my strength succumb,
If heaven holds no relief for my torment..’

David Shemer speaks of Abraham as torn between his wife’s demands and his own feelings towards Hagar and Ishmael (his son); he considers Abraham to be the real victim of the tragedy. Christian Immler’s portrayal of Abraham is, indeed, fraught with suffering. His use of vocal color is gripping, depicting the different stages of Abraham’s complex predicament. No newcomer to the Israeli concert scene, Immler sings with conviction, his pleasing voice boasting a palette rich in colors and warmth.

Entering the hall from the back, young Israeli soprano Anat Edri’s appearance as the Angel swept the audience off its feet. Edri is expressive, competent, and confident, her creamy voice resonant and forthright, rich and effortless.

David Shemer’s vision of Alessandro Scarlatti’s oratorio “Hagar and Ishmael Exiled” is one of many dimensions. Singers enter and leave the stage, providing the effect of movement and change. One’s eyes are, naturally, focused on the singers in such a performance, but that is not to say that the listener was not constantly aware of the finest of detail and the exquisitely soave elegance of each and every phrase played by the instrumentalists. The players were clearly aware of the fragile textures and details in the score; under Shemer’s direction, the JBO provided the ideal environment for high quality singing. A superb piece of musical drama, an unforgettable performance of the JBO and a treat for lovers of Baroque music at its best.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Scenes from Giuseppe Sinico's opera "I Moschettieri" performed at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies

Giuseppe Sinico was born in Trieste in 1836 and died there in 1907. Of Jewish origin, he composed “Inno di San Giusto”, a sort of Triestine anthem. He taught voice and directed the Reyer Singing School and was choral conductor at the Trieste Synagogue and the Greek Basilica. There was some talk of his having been James Joyce’s voice teacher; at any rate, Joyce uses Sinico’s name in his book “The Dubliners”. (The character is, however, a certain Captain Sinico, the captain of a merchant ship and not a musician.) “I Moschettieri” (The Musketeers) (1859), based on Alexandre Dumas senior’s “Les Trois Mousquetaires”, was Sinico’s first opera.

Scenes from the opera were presented at a concert in the Sunday Evening Classics series at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University) November 21st, 2010. This performance was the sixth and last event of the “Non Solo Verdi” Project, in which Professor Jehoash Hirshberg (Department of Musicology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem), together with his research team – Dr. Na’ama Ramot, Sonya Mazar, Ramona Paul, and Meir Stern - had researched, edited and revived twelve forgotten Italian operas of the 213 written between 1860 and 1870, the decade of Italy’s unification. The project was supported by a research grant from the Israel Science Foundation. Pianist and vocal coach Sonya Mazar (b. Ukraine,1971) served as musical director and pianist for the project.

Professor Hirshberg, dressed as a judge, complete with a dramatic silvery wig, introduced the evening’s program. The auditorium of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies was filled to capacity with people interested to familiarize themselves with a new opera, to take time out from reality and indulge themselves in the extravagances of 19th century opera. Sonya Mazar played the overture, its foreboding atmosphere punctuated with lush cantabile melodies. The opera plot focuses on the musketeers’ struggle with the cunning aristocrat Miledi, Athos’ wife, a ruthless murderer. The fleur-de-lis tattooed on her shoulder by the hangman is a sign of her wicked past. To summarize the plot, Athos, having discovered the ill-fated fleur-de-lis tattoo (perhaps more acceptable today than 150 years ago) after marrying Miledi, throws her into the sea. The musketeer d’Artegnan (Yevgeni Nezhnets) declares his love to Miledi (yes, she survived the ordeal), under his breath asking forgiveness from his true love, Alice. Miledi demands that he kill Vades as a sign of his love to her. The love letters she thought were from Vades had actually been written by D’Artegnan. When D’Artignan sees the fleur-de-lis, he realizes that the “lady” is Athos’ wife. Furious with him for tricking her, she wants to stab him with her dagger, D’Artegnan threatens her with his sword, she faints (standard female strategy) and he escapes. In another scene, Athos, his face masked, captures Miledi in an inn, reveals his identity to her and forces her at dagger-point to surrender the royal decree that had given her freedom to act till then as she wished. Athos (Andrei Trifonov) sings a song of triumph, this leading into a richly-colored duet with Miledi (Julya Plakhina).

Things only get worse. Alice, the queen’s chambermaid and confidante (Valeria Fubini-Ventura), who is in love with D’Artegnan, receives a message to meet him before he leaves for battle. She is seen running from the palace. Miledi has poisoned Alice as a revenge to D’Artegnan. The instrumental accompaniment forewarns the listeners and evokes the mounting, stressful situation. Miledi hides in an inn; her vengeance has brought no peace to her heart and she is haunted by her victims. D’Artegnan and Athos burst into the room at the inn, preventing her escape. It is time for Miledi’s come-uppances. D’Artegnan wants to kill her but Athos stops him, ushering in the judge, who is no other than Jehoash Hirshberg himself. With a nonchalant wave of the hand, the judge agrees to the verdict, condemning Miledi to death.

Baritone Andrei Trifonov, born in Siberia, played Athos with intensity and drama. Mezzo-soprano Julya Plakhina was born in the former Soviet Union. Her portrayal of Miledi was expressive and feminine, he voice rich and expansive. Soprano Valeria Fubini-Ventura, born in Italy, has performed with “Non Solo Verdi” since its inception. Playing the role of Alice, she combines delicate, shapely melodic lines with her appealing stage presence. Tenor Yevgeni Nezhynets, played a convincing D’Artegnan. Nezhynets is a soloist with the Israeli Opera. Sonya Mazor has a fine sense of the genre. She holds the production together, her artistic and tasteful playing not only supporting her singers but creating the atmosphere of the story, warning, describing and delighting. She never oversteps the boundaries of good taste. Francoise Coriat’s attractive costuming added much to the visual enjoyment of the evening.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Leon Botstein conducts the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a concert of music from Vienna at the turn of the 20th century

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra opened its 2010-2011 Great Vocal Series and Four Musical Cities series in the Henry Crown Auditorium, Jerusalem Theatre, November 17th 2010, with a concert of music written in Vienna around the turn of the 20th century. It was directed by the JSO’s conductor laureate Leon Botstein. The concert was dedicated to the memory of violinist Shimon Mishori; Mishori, the JSO’s concertmaster for many years, passed away November 16th.

The concert opened with Anton Webern’s (1883-1945) Passacaglia, opus 1 (1908). Not by any means Webern’s first composition, his Opus 1 was the last and most ambitious work written under the guidance of Arnold Schoenberg. Although rooted in the nominal key of D minor, Webern moves into shifting, vague and sometimes vague tonalities. The work begins with a pizzicato theme on which the variations are based. Botstein directs the orchestra and his listeners through the 20-odd variations, each different in orchestration, temperament and texture, presenting the tense, compelling, late Romantic orchestral sound with the same clarity as the moments in which the orchestra takes on chamber proportions, occasionally reducing to a disquieting, introspective, single, muted melodic line. If Webern’s interest was “to recognize sounds, to experience them sensuously…” Maestro Botstein and the JSO’s lush, fresh and richly-colored reading of the work was true to the composer’s intention.

Some of Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children) were composed in 1901, others in 1904; the order in which the songs were written is not clear. The German poet Friedrich Ruckert (1788-1866) wrote over 400 Kindertotenlieder, of which Mahler chose five for his song cycle, choosing those that focus on the idea of light.

‘Now the sun will rise as brightly
As if the night had brought no cause for grief.
The grief was mine alone,
The sun shines for all alike..’

Ruckert had lost a son. Mahler lost a daughter in 1907, that is, after he had composed the song cycle, but his own childhood was clouded in the tragedy of death, with eight of his siblings having died, including his favorite brother Ernst; Ernst happened to be the name of Ruckert’s son who had died. Israeli-born mezzo-soprano Edna Prochnik, an opera singer who performs in Europe, the USA and Israel, includes the Mahler song cycles in her concert repertoire. Her deep reading into the text made for a compelling performance, one of good taste, to be enhanced by her fine diction. Prochnik’s voice boasts a varied and richly-colored lower range together with a powerful and dramatic higher register. She contends well with the orchestra, phrasing naturally, creating poignant, haunting moments and saving her vocal strength for the more emphatic and tragic climaxes. Above all, Prochnik works the verbal- and musical text together with Botstein, Botstein using his orchestral palette to color and reinforce the gesture of each moment. The storm of the fifth song gives way to that magical appearance of light, as issued in by the glockenspiel, with the childlike naivete of the flute melody, the work finding its tranquility and finality in the D major cadence. It was an impressive and moving performance.

Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) symphonies have sometimes been referred to as “cathedrals of sound”, a pertinent remark, considering the fact that the composer was from a pious Catholic family and had served as cathedral organist before leaving Linz for Vienna. In Vienna, his life became a series of controversies and strife, his symphonies, radical in scope, sometimes received with hostility. From 1889 to 1896, Bruckner worked on his 9th Symphony, but died suddenly, leaving an unfinished symphony of three complete movements, with sketches for a finale. As luck would have it, Bruckner’s 9th Symphony was greeted with mostly enthusiastic reviews when premiered posthumously in 1903. It is an elegy, a personal and religious work, a reflection on life and death. Botstein, conducting the symphony (without a baton) brings out its orchestral sonorities, the large, powerful, uncompromising expression of the brass section contrasting with lyrical, thought-provoking moments. Maestro Botstein’s performance of the work is noble and sincere, his transitions are sensitively paced,his mix of orchestral textures never defying clarity.

Well programmed, this was an interesting, inspiring and rewarding evening for those who enjoy good orchestral playing. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra pleased the audience with its vitality. The JSO’s program notes are detailed and informative and included excerpts from an article of Botstein’s on Bruckner.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Natalie Rotenberg and Alexander Rosenblatt play harpsichord music in "Fancy for Two"

One does not hear many concerts performed on two harpsichords here in Israel. In fact, pianist and director of the Eden-Tamir Center (Ein Kerem, Jerusalem) Alexander Tamir, introducing artists Natalie Rosenberg and Alexander Rosenblatt at a concert of “Fancy for Two” at the Eden-Tamir Center on November 6th 2010, claimed that this would be the first recital of its kind at the venue; the Eden-Tamir Center is now into its 42nd concert season. In this concert, we heard the harpsichord not as a member of a continuo section, but as a solo instrument, played with four hands, as a duo with equal roles in works written for two instruments and also in works adapted for the two instruments by Rotenberg and Rosenblatt.

Born in Vitebsk, Belarus, Natalie Rotenberg emigrated to Israel in 1999. A composer and arranger, she plays piano, harpsichord and positif organ, is involved with the Musica Eterna Vocal Ensemble, the Ankor Choir and the In Mixto Genere Ensemble. Natalie performs and records; she teaches harpsichord at the High School of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where she also works as a vocal coach. She regularly performs in festivals in Israel, in the Ukraine, in Belgium, etc., and is a recipient of the Keren Sharett American-Israel Foundation Cultural Foundation Scholarship.

Pianist Alexander Rosenblatt, born in Sverdlovsk (former USSR), graduated in piano performance from the Mussorgsky Music Academy, after which he taught music theory and composition and also performed. He emigrated to Israel in 1990. Having studied harpsichord maintenance and restoration in Germany and Holland and early music performance in Czechoslovakia, Alexander performs and records with various early music ensembles. He teaches harpsichord performance and is curator of early keyboard instruments at Bar Ilan University and is a member of the Fellowship of Makers and Researchers of Historical Instruments (Oxford).

The artists performed on a replica of a French double-manual harpsichord, a large instrument built by Knud Kaufmann (Brussels, 1974), to which Rosenblatt has added a transposing keyboard. This harpsichord was recently donated to the Eden-Tamir Music Center by the Rieger family in memory of Ro’i. The second instrument is a Zuckermann Flemish harpsichord, assembled by Edmond Smagge (c.1976), which Rosenblatt has completely rebuilt with parts from the harpsichord workshop of Gerrit Klop (Garderen, Holland); Rosenblatt studied harpsichord-building with Klop in 1991.

The concert opened with J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Harpsichords in C major BWV 1061a, probably written during Bach’s time in Cothen. Richly textured and displaying density, with the instruments constantly switching roles of solo and tutti, the work was given an exhilarating reading by the artists, opening with a movement rife with complexity and festive energy. The second movement - Adagio overro Largo – singing, ornamented and elegant, was followed by a well-paced and articulate fugue.

We then heard two short so works by Antoine Forqueray (1672- 1745). A court musician, Forqueray was one of the foremost viola da gamba players of his time, representing a new school of French viol-playing under the influence of Italian taste. After his death, his son, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, published some of his works. A number of his suites were transcribed from for keyboard from the original viol version, with the solo melody given to the right hand and a more highly embellished bass line to the left hand. The transcriptions, however, preserve the original range, being placed within the middle- and lower registers of the harpsichord, the titles of the pieces, having probably been added by son Jean-Baptiste. Rotenberg’s effortless playing highlighted the improvisational character and unusual textures of “La Rameau”. Rosenblatt chose to play “La Couperin”, an enigmatic piece built of weighty blocks of chords locked together with melodic fragments, evoking the intensity of heavy bowing of the viol.

“Fancy for Two to Play”, from which this concert took its title, is a work for four hands by English organist Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656), to be played either on organ or virginal. Most of Tomkins’ prolific output comes from his time as organist and master of choristers at Worcester Cathedral. This delicate “mood” piece (played on one harpsichord) is a fine example of the composer’s mastery in contrapuntal writing.

Rotenberg played D.Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major K.96 “La Chasse” (The Hunt) using the harpsichord’s lute register, its plucked effect somewhat detracting from the brightness of the brassy fanfares and galloping of horses associated with hunting. And on the subject of the lute, Rosenblatt, also utilizing the lute register of the Flemish harpsichord, performed the Sarabande from J.S.Bach’s Suite for Lute in E minor BWV 996. The E minor Suite, the composer’s earliest work for lute, written for the Baroque lute, may also have been performed on a “Lautenwerk” or lute-harpsichord, of which none of the original instruments have survived. This strange instrument was reputed to imitate the lute’s timbre and delicacy. Rosenblatt’s reading of the Sarabande was pensive and expressive, his gentle flexing the tempo lending a spontaneous quality to the beauty and fragility of the piece.

At this point in the program, Alexander Rosenblatt revealed his emotional need to be a singer, informing the audience of his intention to sing a sad song - “Lasciatemi morire” (Let me die) from Claudio Monteverdi’s pastoral tragedy “Arianna”. Natalie Rotenberg’s arrangement of it offered Rosenblatt the opportunity of singing the most heart-rending phrase wherever it appeared, with Rotenberg filling in the rest of the vocal melody instrumentally along with the harpsichord accompaniment. The audience appreciated this whimsical moment.
‘Let me die,
And who do you think can comfort me
In such harsh a fate…’

The Catalan composer and conductor Fernando J.Obradors (1897-1945) wrote many settings of Spanish folk poetry. “Con amores, la mi madre” (With love, oh mother) is a resetting of an early Baroque text by Juan de Anchieta, a composer at the court of Queen Isabella of Castile. Rotenberg’s colorful, forthright and competent singing of it, against the “plucked” guitar-type accompaniment, was in keeping with the saucy, Spanish mood of the piece.

The concert ended with Rosenblatt and Rotenberg’s arrangement of five choruses from G.F.Handel’s “Israel in Egypt”. The oratorio was penned in 1738, its premiere being in 1739. The artists’ ambitious undertaking meant arranging one of the most colorful, descriptive and dramatic works written for instrumental ensemble, double choir and soloists for two harpsichords. They did, indeed, manage to create a rich, intense and varied canvas, presenting the power of “And their cry”, depicting the horror and fear of “He sent a thick darkness”, the savage message of “He smote all the first-born”, the majesty of “He rebuked the Red Sea” and the rolling, relentless billows of the sea closing over Pharoah’s army in “But the waters overwhelmed their enemies”. A daring idea well handled !

The hall of the Eden-Tamir Center is ideal for a harpsichord recital, its acoustic projecting every musical idea and gesture, inviting the audience to be involved. This was a concert of interest, variety and excellence, offering listeners the best of repertoire for the instrument along with some new ideas.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Barrocade Ensemble opens its 2010-2011 season with a concert focusing on the viola da gamba

The Barrocade Ensemble recently opened its 2010-2011 season, its Jerusalem concert taking place at the Khan Theatre November10th, with a concert titled “Tous les matins du monde” (All the World’s Mornings). The title is that of a novel written by Pascal Quignard in 1991, with Alain Vorneau directing the screen adaptation of a film of the same name. It is the story of the French composer and viol player Sainte-Colombe, its title referring to the fact that “each day dawns once”. Jordi Savall plays the sound track of the film. Viol player and instrument builder Amit Tiefenbrunn talked of this Barrocade concert being dedicated to the viola da gamba as a solo- or accompanying instrument as well as in ensembles. The Barrocade Ensemble, composed of early music specialists, performs mostly without a conductor, with musical- and administrative issues shared equally among ensemble members.

The concert opened with four of Giovanni Gabrieli’s (c.1557-1612) “Canzone per sonare” for four viols from a collection issued by Alessandro Raverii in 1608. Attractive examples of the light polyphonic style that had developed during the 16th century from the French chanson, the Barrocade quartet’s playing of them lacked warmth of sound and was somewhat bland.

Things livened up, however, with Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern’s (1644-1704) Sonata for Trumpet and Strings in D major. A violin virtuoso, Biber composed and published extensively, being best known for his violin music and his use of scordatura (non-standard tuning of the violin) but his interest in innovative contrapuntal- and melodic invention is also evident in his works for the trumpet. Biber’s first published set of ensemble music, the “Sonatae tam aris, quam aulis servientes” (Sonatas as Much for the Alter as for the Table), contains twelve works for trumpets and strings, two of them being scored for one trumpet and strings. Yuval Shapiro, playing a Baroque trumpet, graced the string ensemble with his splendid velvety tone, playing with the entertaining metrical contrasts of the piece, soloing but also blending with the strings. He plays an American replica of a Nurenberg natural trumpet.

G.P.Telemann (1681-1767) composed six quartets for flute and continuo in 1730; the unscrupulous French publisher Le Clerc went and published them without the composer’s consent. Undaunted, the composer reworked and enriched them when visiting Paris in 1738, the result being the six “Paris” Quartets which constitute some of the finest Baroque chamber music there is. The Paris Quartet no.6 in E minor introduces French dance rhythms and beautiful melodic writing. Genevieve Blanchard (Baroque flute), Tal Arbel (viol) and Shlomit Sivan Jacobi’s (flute) performance was imbued with French delicacy, Sivan Jacobi ever careful to match, converse- and blend with Blanchard, and vice-versa. This was chamber music at its best, with virtuoso playing never overshadowing the work’s mix of temperament and elegance.

Marain Marais (1656-1728), the central figure of the French school of bass viol composers and a musician at Louis XIV’s court, was one of very many composers to have composed variations to the La Folia theme. Portuguese in origin meaning “mad” or “empty-headed”, La Folia was a fast dance until the 1670’s, adopting a slower pace after that time. Marain Marais composed his La Folia variations at age 21. His published version of “Les Folies d’Espagne” omitted some of the technically difficult variations that appear in the original manuscript, probably to encourage less virtuoso players to buy the book. Tal Arbel and Amit Tiefenbrunn playing bass viols, with Yizhar Karshon on harpsichord, gave a varied and colorful performance of the work in all its “Spanish” moods, the viol players each taking the opportunity to present the more solo role, the work’s poignant moments as thrilling as its energetic ones.

Francois Couperin, also a musician at the court of Louis XIV, wishing to cater to the fashion of Italian taste in France at the time, wrote (and performed) “La Sultane” under an Italian name, claiming the piece to be that of a musician in the service of the King of Sardinia. Somewhat of an enigma, scholars are not sure when this quartet sonata was composed or who the titular “sultaness” might have been. At any rate, despite Couperin’s intention, the work remains French in flavor, its two bass viol parts independent of the continuo bass. The players, leaning gently into its dissonances, gave the piece a sonorous and suave performance.

Giuseppe Torelli (1658-1709) was one of Bologna’s finest violinists and a composer of concertos. Bologna, being home to a number of virtuoso trumpeters, was developing a rich tradition in trumpet-playing. Around 1690, Torelli began writing works for trumpet. His Concerto in D was probably performed on feast days at the San Petronio Basilica. Barrocade’s fresh reading of the piece featured Yuval Shapiro playing the solo, the Baroque trumpet’s warm, expressive sound no indication as to its tough technical challenges!

Soprano Yeela Avital gave the aria “Hark!” from Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “The Fairy Queen” an energetic, joyful performance; although not all words were totally clear, Avital’s onomatopoeic description of the flapping of wings added charm and humor.
‘Hark! now the echoing air a triumph sings.
And all around pleas’d cupids clap their wings.’

The evening’s program ended with Yeela Avital and Barrocade performing G.F.Handel’s (1685-1733) cantata “Tra le fiamme” HWV170 (Into the Flames) (1708), one of the finest cantatas written when Handel was in Rome. These cantatas would have been performed in private homes. “Tra le fiamme” tells the allegorical story of Icarus who, with the wings made for him by Daedalus his father, flies too near the sun. Avital presents the emotions and detail of the story convincingly. She and the ensemble address its drama and urgency, building up to Aria 3 where Icarus is flying in the air, but also flying out of control. The voice (Avital) and flute (Blanchard) duet, evoking the sense of flying and weightlessness, created a superb and evocative moment.

The Barrocade Ensemble’s players have studied and performed in Europe, returning to Israel, the most recent returnee being the very outstanding viol player Tal Arbel. Mention should be made of Yizhar Karshon’s continuo playing which is always reliable, tasteful and interesting.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Carmel Quartet presents "Family Portraits" - Felix Mendelssohn and Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn) - at the Jerusalem Music Centre

The Carmel Quartet - violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg, 'cellist Tami Waterman - opened its 2010-2011 and fourth season of “Strings and More” commented concerts with “Family Portraits”, a discussion of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and his sister Fanny Hensel (Mendelssohn) (1805-1847). Presented three times in Hebrew, this writer attended the English language lecture-concert on November 3rd 2010 at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

Violist Yoel Greenberg set the scene with information about the Mendelssohn family – a family with abundant talent that had overcome racial boundaries, taking a leading part in German culture. To this end, Abraham and Leah Mendelssohn, believing that Jews should assimilate, converted to Lutheranism in 1816, together with their four children. The Mendelssohn family provided the ideal cultural environment for their children – with private tutors, education in the arts, languages and the sciences and trips to European capitals. Both Felix and Fanny were both highly educated by the age of 11. Felix, at age nine, gave his first public appearance, playing the solo of a Dussek piano concerto. Fanny, at age 13, learned to play the whole of J.S.Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier in honor of her father’s birthday. On the subject of a musical career, however, their father wrote to Fanny that for her it “can and must only be an ornament”.

Felix Mendelssohn was a phenomenon – a prolific composer, an outstanding pianist and improviser, he painted beautifully (painting scenes from his tours around Europe), showed literary talent, spoke a number of languages, translating and editing, played chess, etc. and he was endowed with a sense of humor. Greenberg stressed the fact that Felix was encouraged to make public appearances, was taken around Europe to meet important cultural figures such as Goethe, for whom he performed, whereas Fanny, as the daughter of well-to-do people, led a more private musical life. Felix, however, was proud of Fanny’s musical accomplishments, even publishing some of her works under his name, later revealing them to be hers. Fanny herself composed prolifically – some 400 works - but was always very involved in Felix’s oeuvre, revising and correcting many of his works. Fanny, however, did have exposure of her works and performance in the private ladies’ salon, the salon being quite sizable, with guests numbering up to 250.

When she was 17, Fanny met Wilhelm Hensel, a young artist of great promise. Hensel, later to become Fanny’s husband, made a sketch of the members of their circle in the form of a wheel. The spokes show members of the society; Hensel sketched himself as flying in at the top, making his way into the circle. Felix is seen as the centre of the wheel. Felix, was, indeed, the focus of the family, his brilliance and fame being proof of Germany’s acceptance of the family into the country’s cultural scene. One of the questions in Yoel Greenberg’s discussion was whether Felix’s success was a hindrance to Fanny’s musical achievement. It seems, however, that the problems of gender and social status were what kept her musical activity more secluded than Felix’s and prevented her from enjoying the right to publish her works. Felix and Fanny were very close spirits, Fanny being Felix’s muse and confidante, the ultimate authority when it came to his compositions. She was involved in the creative process of every one of his works, correcting them and offering him advice.

In the afternoon of May 14th 1847, Fanny was rehearsing Felix Mendelssohn’s cantata “The First Walpurgis Night” with her small choir when she collapsed, dying a few hours later. Her last musical activity was, symbolically, dedicated to her connection with Felix. Felix was plunged into despair at Fanny’s death. He was unable to compose for months following the tragedy; he was only able to draw. He himself was to die in a similar manner in November of the same year.

The Carmel Quartet performed two quartets, the first being Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s String Quartet in E flat major (1834). Dedicated to Beethoven, it begins unconventionally with a slow movement - a singing, personal piece - whereby Hensel, not obliged to cater to the conventions of an opening movement in sonata form, presents a fantasia whose two themes freely mix in other melodic ideas. The second movement – Allegretto – bears the Mendelssohn stamp of warmth, lightness, fantasy and well-being, its fugue constituting the middle section reminding us of her and Felix’s admiration of Bach. The third movement is a lyrical songful Romance, a piece reflecting the composer’s use of drama, lyricism and contrast. The joyful, lilting Allegro molto vivace demonstrates Hensel’s fine sense of instrumentation and layering.

Felix Mendelssohn composed his String Quartet in F minor opus 80 in July of 1847 as a Requiem to his sister Fanny. His last major work, the work is that of an anguished, changed person, a man beset with pain and grief. Greenberg referred to motifs in the first movement – Allegro vivace assai – as those of tremors and shrieks. The first theme evokes a sense of trembling, contrasted by a somber second theme, with the bleak atmosphere returning after a temporary respite. The second movement is a kind of “dance of death”, its ghostly trio peppered with jarring accents. Some of the work’s heaviness lifts in the third movement – a long, elegiac Adagio – where despair mingles with moments of happiness expressed in a lyrical, songlike melody. In the fourth movement, the composer returns to his rage and grief. This final movement is a virtuosic piece, making great demands on all players, especially on the first violin.

Musicologist Yoel Greenberg’s presentation is clear, eloquent, amusing and always interesting. His talks place emphasis on social, historical and biographical detail, leaving detailed musical analysis to other forums. Musical motifs, however, are demonstrated before the quartet performs a complete work, guiding the listener as to key melodies and ideas. Other members of the quartet read, quote and present small vignettes. Established in 1999, the illustrious Carmel Quartet reads deeply into the musical text of each work, offering its audience performance of the highest quality. “Family Portraits” was a thought-provoking lecture-concert. Greenberg’s talks are always well researched. The audience was both moved and reminded of the importance of exposing Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn’s music. The event was well attended, with English-speaking Jerusalem music lovers there to enjoy and appreciate an interesting and meaningful evening at the JMC.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble opens its 2010-2011 season with Beethoven's Scottish Songs opus 108 and the Gassenhauer Trio

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble, under its director and founder Dr. Myrna Herzog, opened the 2010-2011 concert season with “Beethoven in Scotland”, presenting Beethoven’s Scottish Lieder and his Piano Trio no. 4 in B flat major (Gassenhauer) opus 11. The Jerusalem concert took place October 30th at the Eden-Tamir Center, Ein Karem. Performing were mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin, Yasuko Hirata (violin), Myrna Herzog (‘cello) and Alex Rosenblatt playing on the recently acquired Baas fortepiano (Paris,1800) which he had, personally, restored.

Between 1809 and 1820 L.van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed settings for 179 folk song melodies, the majority of them Irish, Scottish and Welsh. Twenty Five Scottish Songs opus 108, for voices, violin, ‘cello and piano, were published in London and Edinburgh in 1818 and in Berlin in 1822. The arrangements were commissioned by the Scottish publisher and folk song collector George Thomson, whose aim was to cater to the taste of musical amateurs interested in singing and playing folk music. Thomson started out as neither publisher nor businessman; he had been a clerk of the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Literature and Manufactures in Scotland. He was forced into the publishing business by his plans to rescue the Scottish folk song, to “furnish a collection of all the fine airs, both of the plaintive and lively kind, unmixed with trifling and inferior ones…”. He had offered various composers a part in the challenge, the best known of those who had obliged being Haydn and Beethoven.

The audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Centre was offered the rare treat of hearing the songs as they would have been performed in Beethoven’s time. The Baas fortepiano, or square piano, was an instrument of a kind that would have been found in the homes of musical families. Hirata and Herzog played Baroque ‘cellos, these instruments still having been made till after the turn of the 19th century, the two string players using classical (or transitional) bows, these being copies of bows from the late 18th century.

Beethoven’s Scottish (and other folk) songs have unjustly been pushed into the background of the composer’s oeuvre. Beethoven, however, did not view them as of poorer quality, referring to them as “compositions” rather than “settings”. Thomson repeatedly requested him to rework and simplify his accompaniments, but Beethoven was unwilling to do so, claiming that “any partial change alters the character of the composition”. One song Beethoven did grudgingly consent to change was “Faithful Johnnie”, with the second version’s instrumental ensemble punctuating the change of voices with a recurring interlude. Its richly textured accompaniment cushioned Shifrin’s expressive singing of the dramatic line.

‘When will you come again, my faithful Johnnie,
When will you come again?
“When the corn is gathered
And the leaves are withered,
I will come again, my sweet bonnie,
I will come again”.

Then winter’s winds will blow, my faithful Johnnie,
Then winter’s winds will blow.
“Though the day be dark with drift,
That I cannot see the lift,
I will come again, my sweet bonnie,
I will come again”.

Then will you meet me here, my faithful Johnnie,
Then will you meet me here?
“Though the night be Halloween,
When the fearful sights are seen,
I would meet thee here, my sweet and bonnie,
I would meet thee here!”

Scottish folk songs mostly tell of war or love, often of both in the same song, and bloody wars the Scots did fight. Such a song is that which opened the concert – “The Lovely Lass of Inverness” (1816), a Highland drama to words of Robert Burns. The instrumentalists set the scene with an intense and bleak sonority. Karin Shifrin’s compelling, weighty timbre matches the bleak atmosphere and allows the story to unfold. Inspired by a visit to Culloden Moor, Burns tells the grim story of a young woman who has lost her father and three brothers there in the battle of 1746. In the strophic song “Dim, dim is my eye”(1815) to a text by William Brown (1590-1645) Shifrin’s performance of the beautiful legato Scottish melody was moving. “Bonnie laddie, Highland laddie” (1815) (Beethoven later used the melody as a theme for variations) poses questions regarding the battle of Waterloo, and he uses a drone, evocative of the Scottish bagpipes, echoing in the background.

The love songs, many telling of longing, cheating, suffering and broken hearts, were convincing and entertaining. Shifrin presents the texts with warmth and humor, her pronunciation faithful to that of Scottish airs, her facial expression hinting at messages “written” between lines of the texts. In “Farewell to the muse” (1818) to words by Sir Walter Scott, the poet bemoans his life without his “Enchantress”; the melody, in contrast, presents a jolly, leaping ditty, with Shifrin taking its characteristic large vocal leaps effortlessly. “O Mary, at thy window be!” (1817), to a poem by Robert Burns, evokes Scottish dance rhythms. In his setting of William Smyth’s “Again my lyre” (1815) Beethoven embellishes the song with a small vocal cadenza.

Then there are the Scottish songs suggesting good times and revelry, probably doused with a good shot of Scottish whisky. In “O sweet were the hours” to a poem of William Smyth, the ensemble makes capital of mood- and tempo changes, with the fortepiano suggesting the ticking of a clock. Their performance of Beethoven’s setting of Henry Carey’s “Sally in our alley” (1817) chose a rollicking, suggestive approach to the song, the mix of rhythmic ideas adding to its energy and lighthearted atmosphere. The original Sally may have been Sally Priddon, a famous courtesan and inhabitant of Mother Whyburn’s bawdy house, but there is also a possibility Carey had dedicated the poem to his own wife, Sarah. It seems PHOENIX chose the former candidate!

Beethoven’s Piano Trio no.4 in B flat major opus 11 (Gassenhauer), composed 1798, originally scored for clarinet, ‘cello and piano, was then published, with minor alterations, for violin as the treble instrument. Hearing it performed on Baroque strings with the Baas fortepiano meant challenging the audience to free itself of associations with conventional recordings and of all preconceptions of how chamber music of 1800 is played nowadays. We were invited to hear and examine new timbres and sound relationships. These instruments, having less volume, however, waste no time in reminding us that this is, indeed, chamber music, personal and intimate, but with much to say. The three players find themselves on an equal footing. The Baas instrument, interestingly, with its mix of tonal color, boasts its own gregarious, untamed sound; all three instrumentalists meet and match, with each part holding onto its individuality of expression. And here is Beethoven opening with an atypically positive, bouncy and unburdened first movement, entertaining and tricking the listener with his changes of tonality. The middle movement – Adagio – is solid and serious, with occasional gentle hints in the minor middle section, at the darker side of the composer’s moods. The third movement variations are based on a jolly and folksy melody popular at the time, quoted from Joseph Weigl’s (1777-1846) opera “The Corsair”. The PHOENIX players were as entertained by the variations as was their audience - these variations offer ideas of improvisation, caprice, a canon, a funeral march, one variation just for piano, one a duet for violin and ‘cello, with Beethoven eventually reaching the point where he dismembers the subject, pulling out all the plugs to bring the final moments to a dancing, carefree close.

Myrna Herzog has been dreaming of performing Beethoven’s Scottish songs for many years. Never afraid of deviating from mainstream musical thinking and practice, she offers her audience an enriching musical experience in this concert and the chance to hear this wonderful repertoire. A risk-taker by nature, she stands firm ground, however, when it comes to choosing her fellow musicians. Yasuko Hirata’s experience, reliability and good taste are ever evident, Herzog’s viola da gamba has been temporarily laid aside for her to celebrate Beethoven on the ‘cello and Alex Rosenblatt offers us the new soundscape of the Baas fortepiano, exploring its possibilities and daring personality with freedom, energy and musicality. The ensemble’s playing of the Scottish songs was exhilarating, rich and continuously interesting, their performing of the Gassenhauer Trio passing off its technical demands with the wink of an eye! Karin Shifrin’s profound and sincere reading into the Scottish Songs allowed for their true meaning to be enjoyed and sensed; she touched the hearts of those present. The printed program was informative.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Violinist Kati Debretzeni leads the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a concert of late Baroque music

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 2010-2011 season at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on October 12th 2010 with “Father, Son, Godfather and Gardener”, a program of late Baroque music. Baroque violinist Kati Debretzeni conducted the string orchestra (with founder and director of the JBO David Shemer at the harpsichord) and she was one of the soloists of the evening. Debretzeni, whose career in Baroque violin began in the JBO, now resides in the UK teaching and performing there and in Europe. Baroque violinists Boris Begelman, Dafna Ravid and Noam Schuss also soloed. Noam Schuss frequently leads the JBO violins, is first violinist of the Galathea String Quartet, a member of the Tel Aviv Soloists and teaches. Dafna Ravid, a principal lead violinist with the JBO, performs with the Israeli Bach Soloists and the Barrocade Ensemble. Boris Begelman (b. 1983, Moscow), one of today’s most promising Baroque violinists, is currently studying at the Palermo Conservatory, performs throughout Europe as a soloist and is concertmaster of “Il complesso barocco” and “Ensemble Antonio il Verso”, both in Italy.

The concert opened with George Frideric Handel’s (1685-1759) Concerto Grosso in G Major, opus 6 no.1, one of a series of 12 lively and elegant concerti grossi for strings. Handel, one of the most assimilated and successful foreign-born composers working in London, knew on what side his bread was buttered. The concerto grosso was a popular genre in Britain, with several English composers writing them for performance. The concerto grosso’s popularity there actually stemmed from a set of twelve composed by Arcangelo Corelli, published 1714 in Amsterdam. Corelli’s Opus 6 remained a concert staple across Britain till the end of the century and Handel would have been well aware of the financial gains of catering to British concert taste. Handel composed his Opus 6 concerti in a burst of creative energy from September to October of 1739, his Opus 6 clearly paying homage to Corelli’s Opus 6. As in all the Handel opus 6 concerti grossi, the concertino in no.1 consists of two violins, a ‘cello and a chordal continuo instrument (harpsichord), with the ripieno consisting of violins, violas, ‘cello and continuo. With Debretzeni leading articulately, the audience enjoyed the contrasts of lyrical and serious with the carefree last movements, woven together with small, clean gestures and harmonic surprises. Debretzeni and violinist Boris Begelman provided a communicative dialogue. Begelman’s playing throughout the evening was a breath of fresh air.

And talking of financial profit, Georg Philip Telemann’s “Tafelmusik” or “Musique de Table” (Table music), published in 1733, was sold by subscription, with other composers and aristocrats from eight different countries all paying good money to have their names inscribed on the first issues. Handel was one of the 206 subscribers and he took the liberty of borrowing from the material. A high quality work, representing different European styles, the Tafelmusik pieces offered much to attract and interest Telemann’s contemporaries. The volumes consist of three large sets or “Productions”, each containing an opening orchestral suite, a quartet, a concerto, a trio, a solo and an orchestral Conclusion. Each set would surely have provided a glittering evening’s entertainment for a banquet or feast. We heard Concerto in F major for Three Violins and Strings from part 2 of the Tafelmusik. In a reading bristling with diversity of expression, we heard Debretzeni, Schuss and Begelman as soloists.

C.P.E.Bach’s (1714-1788) Trio Sonata “Sanguenius und Melancholicus”, published in 1751, was one of the composer’s most programmatic chamber pieces. Kati Debretzeni explained the extra-musical plot, referring to the work as “theatre without words”. C.P.E. Bach himself wrote a long preface describing the main events of the work, outlining each mood and element: it was the composer’s aim to present a conversation between the gregarious, insistent Sangueneus (Debretzeni) and the coy, sad and reticent Melancholicus (Dafna Ravid), the two violinists expressing sentiments that would conventionally have been written into words and sung. Both artists assumed their roles convincingly and with humor, portraying the characters’ initial disagreement and gradual acceptance of each other. C.P.E. Bach’s typically improvisational-sounding score, using dramatic rests, a range of dynamics and textural variety, allows for the many effects, moods and characteristics he wishes to portray. Debretzeni and Ravid take the audience skillfully and expressively through a gamut of temperaments - from sad, complaining, questioning, pleading and bitter gestures to playful and happy sentiments. An interesting concept and well suited to the concert platform, the work was presented well and provided fine entertainment.

Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) L’Estro Armonico (Harmonic Inspiration or Harmonic Fancy) opus 3 for strings and basso continuo, published in 1711, was the collection that made Vivaldi’s reputation in Europe. Published in Amsterdam, it was one of the first sets of Italian concertos to be published outside of Italy and had much influence over musical taste, establishing the model of the 18th century concerto. Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot referred to the opus 3 concertos as “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century”. The collection, issued in eight part books, has the 12 concertos arranged in four groups of three, each group containing a solo-, double- and quadruple concerto. “L’Estro Armonico” was dedicated to Ferdinand of Tuscany. Unusually, in the four-violin concertos, the four soloists are accompanied not by an orchestra but by two violas, solo ‘cello and continuo. Vivaldi’s Concerto in D major for Four Violins and Strings opus 3 no.1 is a fine concert piece and, in this concert, gave the audience a chance to hear a line-up of four outstanding Baroque violinists, each on his/her own, in pairs and together – Kati Debretzeni, Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid and Boris Begelman. They incorporated the work’s virtuosity naturally into a sincere and energetic reading, to the enjoyment of the audience.

Composed during the composer’s time in Cothen, where he had a fine orchestra at hand, the score of J.S.Bach’s Concerto in D minor for Violin and Strings has been lost. His son, C.P.E.Bach made a somewhat simplistic arrangement of it for harpsichord in 1733 or 1744, giving the violin the part to the right hand, with the left hand doubling the orchestral bass lines. It does, however, give us a clear outline of what the original violin part must have been. This score did survive. To be performed at concerts at the Zimmermann Café in Leipzig, J.S.Bach rearranged the work (BWV 1052), this version being more challenging and sophisticated than that of C.P.Bach. (The BWV 1052 concerto, Shemer commented, is often incorrectly referred to as a “piano concerto”.) Here, the violas play an important part. (Bach himself was a violist.) Shemer also points out that the reconstructed solo incorporates some of the highly idiomatic and virtuosic harpsichord style, making it by far the most difficult Bach violin concerto to perform. Kati Debretzeni’s performance of the solo violin part and leadership of the orchestra produced a performance that was based on fine balance and sincerity; Debrtzeni placed no less emphasis on the delicacy and poetry of melodic lines and good taste than on the work’s innate virtuosity.

As to the title of the concert, father and son are, of course, J.S.Bach and his second son C.P.E.Bach. Telemann was C.P.E.Bach’s godfather. In his program notes, Shemer informs us that Handel and Telemann both had a liking for gardening; they corresponded in French on their experiences at raising rare plants and even sent each other seeds!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester (Germany) in Israel performing music from the 1920's and 1930's

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester (Orchestra) have recently completed a concert tour of Israel. Raabe (b. 1962, Germany) trained as a baritone opera singer. Moving in a very different direction, he established his Palast Orchestra in 1986, specializing in the authentic performance of German and American songs, dance- and film music of the 1920’s and 1930’s, also presenting songs of the Comedian Harmonists.

Seated in the Sherover Theatre of the Jerusalem Theatre on October 20th 2010, we were swiftly removed from the realities of the 21st century to a cabaret in Berlin of 80 years ago, to the time of the Great Depression, a time when entertainers wore well-cut tuxedos, patent leather shoes and pomade on their perfectly cut hair, to a time when naïve, melodious love songs provided a distraction from times that were, indeed, tumultuous. In “Tonight or Never”, singer and bandleader Raabe introduces the songs and instrumental numbers in a minimal, whimsical and relaxed manner, his patter infused with the same gentle, inoffensive humor as the songs he sings. (Surtitles were shown above the stage, providing the audience with Hebrew translations of all the songs.) Moving away from the spotlight, leaning on the piano, Raabe gives his polished and brilliantly coordinated orchestra “front stage” to play lively foxtrots and nostalgic band favorites. His saxophones are velvety, his brass players shine, percussion effects are elegant and tasteful. Instrumental playing of this level seems a breeze, the players’ jaunty choreographic effects as detail perfect as their playing itself. And nobody conducts. Many of the Palast Orchestra members play more than one instrument, and, as the evening wears on, we discover that all the men playing are also singers! The only female member of the orchestra is violinist Cecilia Crisafulli; her playing shines and appeals, her personality and solos delight the audience.

Max Raabe is a tongue-in-cheek personality, his baritone voice mellifluous and soothing, his high register bright, controlled and flirtatious. With the wink of an eye and a hint of disarming decadence he performs many of the German songs popular around the 1930’s – “Marie, Marie” (music Johannes Brandt, lyrics Marc Roland), “Mein Gorilla hat ‘ne Villa im Zoo” (My gorilla has a house in the zoo) (music Walter Jurmann, Bronislaw Kaper, lyrics Fritz Rotter), “Roza, reizende Roza” (Roza, charming Roza) (music Hans J. Salter, lyrics Fritz Rotter), “Dort tanzt Lulu” (There goes Lulu dancing) (music and lyrics Will Meisel), and many more. We were also presented with many of the best loved English language songs of the time: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (music Fabian Andre, Wilbur Schwandt, lyrics Gus Kahn), Cheek to Cheek (music and lyrics Irving Berlin), “Alabama Song” (music Kurt Weill, lyrics Berthold Brecht), and more. I believe Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Benny Goodman and Fred Astaire were hovering above the stage that evening.

With the evening drawing to a close, Raabe still had something up his sleeve – his players performed melodies with some perfectly synchronized handbell ringing. And a final treat - all the Palast Orchestra men sang a number in a blend of bright vocal timbres so reminiscent of that of the Comedian Harmonists. In short, the audience was swept of its feet by Max Raabe and his Palast Orchestra’s superior musicianship and joie-de-vivre. This was entertainment at its very best.