Thursday, January 6, 2011

Harpsichordist Gideon Meir, Baroque flautist Genevieve Blanchard and flamenco dancer Dana Arnon in an evening of Baroque music and dance in Tel Aviv

December 27th 2010 was a balmy evening in Tel Aviv. Passing people leisurely seated at pavement cafes, I made my way to The Felicja Blumenthal Music Center to attend a concert titled “Baroque and Flamenco”. Taking my seat in the auditorium, I was curious but still unsure as to how the evening would unfold. The idea for this concert had come from harpsichordist Gideon Meir, a musician fascinated by the close ties between Baroque music and dance. Meir has studied Renaissance- and Baroque dance with Carol Teton (San Francisco Conservatory of Music) and is currently studying flamenco dance with Sonia Garcia. Meir especially loves Domenico Scarlatti’s music, in which the connection between folklore and dance is very strong. (Scarlatti, an Italian, lived in Portugal for some years, moving to Spain in 1729 with his patron, where he was much influenced by Spanish guitar music and dance.) Meir opened the evening with a few words about how great the Spanish influence was in European courts, with, for example, two powerful rulers - Louis XIV of France and Austrian emperor Leopold - both having a Spanish Habsburg princess mother and a Spanish Habsburg princess as a wife. During the course of the evening, Meir was joined by Baroque flautist Genevieve Blanchard and flamenco dancer Dana Arnon.

Gideon Meir studied piano with Malka Mevorach. Harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg had heard his playing at a master class at the Jerusalem Music Centre and invited him to study with her and serve as her teaching assistant at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Meir took studies in harpsichord with Lisa Crawford. He studied the organ with David Bow and Arin Maysky. For the last twenty years Gidi has been playing solo harpsichord recitals in the USA, Argentina, Canada, Germany and Israel. He teaches private lessons in Tel Aviv.

Born in Canada, Genevieve Blanchard, a graduate of the Paris National Conservatory of Music, has studied at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Freiburg (Germany) and at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, where she specialized in Baroque flute and Baroque performance practice with Wilbert Hazelzet. For many years she served as assistant-principal flautist of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and was a member of the Musick Masters, a Vancouver-based Baroque ensemble. In Israel she performs in Baroque concerts, directs concert series and teaches at the Israel Conservatory of Music. Blanchard was playing a replica of a flute from the Naust workshop (Paris, 1720’s) built two years ago by Israeli flute-builder Boaz Berney.

Flamenco dancer Dana Arnon spent six years in Spain studying under some of the greatest flamenco dancers – Alicia Marquez, Maria Marquez and Pilar Ortega. Since her return to Israel, she has been performing in various venues throughout the country and teaches flamenco dancing in the central region of Israel. On her return to Israel, Arnon received the 2008 Dancer of Distinction award from the Ministry of Absorption.

The concert began with Gidi Meir performing a Prelude and Sarabande from two different suites, both in A minor of J.Ph.Rameau (1683-1764). A theoretician and composer issuing in new techniques, Rameau composed music that was certainly revolutionary and more intellectual than that of his predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully, but he used musical forms that were familiar to his public. Meir wove the fabric of the Prelude with a sense of spontaneity, ornamenting richly, moving into the exhilarating second section with a fresh, forthright sound. His playing of the Sarabande was majestic: allowing time to lead the listener through the text plan. Meir takes time for harmonic spreads, allowing the music to breathe. He was playing on a replica of a Flemish Ruckers harpsichord (c.1640) built in 1978 by Sender Fontwit (USA).

Jean Forqueray’s (1671-1745) reworking of a viola da gamba piece “La Portugaise”, bristling with carefree energy and associations of guitar dance music rife with dissonances of the Spanish regions, was performed with Meir at the harpsichord and dancer Dana Arnon. Arnon wielded and whirled a large pink, tasseled shawl to create effective shapes and movement. The shawl, called a "Manton de Manila", forms part of the Spanish traditional dress, has been used in Spanish dance for centuries, the movements and grstures with it being traditional and symbolic.

Composer, harpsichordist and organist Francois Couperin (1668-1733), referred to as “Le Grand”, one of the most important figures in the Couperin lineage, was organist to Louis XIV. He was full of enthusiasm for the newly discovered Italian instrumental style. In his “Nouveaux Concerts” (published 1724), a collection of chamber compositions for unspecified instruments, he integrates Italian and French styles (hence the alternate title “Les Gouts reunis” – merged tastes). Meir and Blanchard performed F.Couperin’s Nouveau Concert no.7 in G minor. Following the delightfully lyrical “Gravement et gracieusement” (serious and gracious) movement, the artists pace each dance, creating nuances in noble style and elegantly shaped detail. Bringing out the rich variety of styles and boundless imagination of the composer, the artists’ delicate approach reminds us that the piece is, nevertheless, the work of a French composer.

Genevieve Blanchard played J. Hotteterre’s (1674-1763) Variations on “L’autre jour ma Cloris” (The other day my Cloris), based on an anonymous 17th century melody from the composer’s “Airs et Brunettes” (c.1723) and ornamented by the composer. Hotteterre was a composer and flautist, a member of a family of wind instrument makers and performers. His “L’Art de preluder sur la flute traversiere” (The Art of Preluding on the Tansverse Flute), published in 1719, is a reliable source on the subject of ornamentation and improvisational practice of the time. A dialogue between a shepherd and shepherdess, Blanchard presents this small “air de cour” and its variations in the languishing, tender style of French flute-playing of the time in France, playing the theme in a narrative fashion, with each variation songful and unrushed, the piece’s innate simplicity never marred by the variety of ornate embellishments. A tasty morsel!

Leaving French music, we then heard three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). The Sonata in D minor (K9) appears in the composer’s first volume of keyboard sonatas (1738). Gidi Meir’s playing of this tranquil, serene piece, punctuated with the occasionally playful motif, imbued it with a sense of well-being, his superb timing ever evident. From the same collection, Sonata in F (K6) has more of a Spanish feel about it. A more vigorous piece, its fabric is a spontaneous-sounding mix of ideas, from airy broken chords played in parallel octaves, to moments of dense chords in the left hand, to breathlessly virtuosic right hand passagework. Dana Arnon joined Meir in Sonata in F major (K107), her choreography and musicality totally attuned to the vivacious movement and phrasing of the piece, the castanets adding excitement. Both artists celebrated its folksy ebullience, its Spanish-type twirling figures and Iberian rhythms. Meir’s love of these Scarlatti miniatures brings their richness of ideas to life, their joie-de-vivre and their intense keyboard interest.

J.S.Bach’s Keyboard Partitas were published in 1731. His first published works, they were, in fact, the last keyboard works he composed. Keyboard Partita no.6 in e minor BWV 830, the last of the set of six, opens with a lengthy Toccata. Gidi Meir ‘s performance of the first part of the Toccata was free, vital and spontaneous, his presentation of the ensuing fugal section intense, articulate, precise and clear in direction. Dana Arnon joined him in the Corrente of Partita no.6, her movements reflecting the nimble dance’s motifs, her face expressive.

Following J.J.Quantz’s technical improvements of the transverse flute and his performances on it throughout Europe in the early 1720’s, J.S.Bach composed his flute and harpsichord sonatas between the 1720’s and 1741, making them a fine outlet for the instrument’s new expressive and technical qualities. In the first three (BWV 1030-1032), each written in three movements, Bach wrote out the right hand keyboard part, whereas the next three (BWV 1033-1035) are continuo sonatas in four movements. In Blanchard and Meir’s performance of the Sonata in A major for flute and harpsichord BWV 1032 (1736), the artists presented the intimate rhetoric of Bach’s phrasing; hearing it played on authentic instruments recreates the Baroque aesthetic of this noble, intimate chamber music for today’s listener. The artists’ reading of the work was poignant and balanced, the final Allegro movement, though energetic, agile and technically demanding, never showy.

Signing out with a pertinent reminder of the theme of the concert, all three artists performed an anonymous 18th century Portuguese Toccata (originally written for keyboard only) and with all the trimmings. Arnon danced the earthy, energetic piece with the percussive use of castanets, her flame-colored, multi-flounced dress as fiery as the piece itself!

Gideon Meir’s initiative, placing the conservative concertgoer’s taste for mainstream concert fare to one side, has created an evening rich in its choice of repertoire, of in-depth preparation and performance, of lively visual interest and of close collaboration among the artists. The auditorium of the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center is well suited to an evening of this kind. The result was sheer delight.

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