Sunday, January 8, 2012

Inauguration of the Young Symphonic Orchestra Weimar Jerusalem

Although the orchestra has already performed some concerts in Germany and Israel, the official inauguration of the Young Symphonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar was December 27th 2011 at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, YMCA Jerusalem. In his dedication address of the Jerusalem YMCA On April 18th 1933, Field Marshal Edmund Lord Allenby referred to the building as “a place whose atmosphere is peace and religious jealousies can be forgotten, and international unity fostered and developed”. This was surely the right venue for the event.

The Young Symphonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar brings together young musicians from Israel and Germany – students from the Jerusalem Academy of Dance and Music and The Liszt School Weimar, as well as outstanding players from their respective high schools. All play together in one orchestra; they rehearse, perform concerts, discuss and celebrate together. The young orchestral members are learning to understand the past, at the same time experiencing human encounter and understanding through music. One mission of the YSOJW is to perform works of European Jewish composers, including those of composers who perished in the Holocaust. The orchestra’s first concert opened the Weimar Kunstfest (Weimar Arts Festival) in a program dedicated to the memory of victims who had perished in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Professor Ilan Schul, President of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, spoke of the concert as a meaningful and historical occasion and mentioned Michael Miro, Director of The Voice of Israel (Israel Broadcasting Authority), Adv. Yair Green and Professor Michael Wolpe (JAMD) as some of the Israelis instrumental in the project. Professor Schul welcomed colleagues from Germany and Mrs. Christine Lieberknecht, Prime Minister of the Free State of Thuringia, whose determination was responsible for making this dream a reality.

Chargé D’Affaires of the German Embassy in Israel, Mr. Peter Prügel, referred to the cultural, historical and political meaning of the orchestra, claiming that the complex background of the project joined Weimar – a city associated with Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Liszt and Brahms, with Bauhaus art and with the Holocaust – and Jerusalem – a city of conflict, but also a symbol of hope and fraternity.

The last speaker was Mrs. Christine Lieberknecht herself, who referred to the Nazi era as a time when a wild barbarian spirit was endeavoring to put an end to the spirit of science and culture, the latter led by such prominent Jewish artists as Arnold Schönberg, Viktor Ullmann, Max Reinhardt and Else Lasker Schüler. She emphasized that, even today, we must fight for mutual respect and that the YSOJW will symbolize the linking of people, adding that she is happy to see new horizons and grateful that the young players can exploit their own freedom for making music.

The first work on the program was Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) “Tragic” Overture in D minor opus 81. Composed in the summer of 1880, it does not appear to refer to any specific tragic event. Whether or not inspired by the composer’s interest in the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare is not clear; the work probably represents a melancholic streak in the composer’s personality, Brahms preferring solemnity, majesty and drama to frivolity and joy. At its premiere, the work had received a cool reception and continues to be played less than other Brahms works. A concise and dramatic piece, making innovative use of sonata form, it is scored for a larger orchestra than any of the four symphonies, instrumentation including piccolo and tuba. Conductor Alexander Merzyn (b.1983, Germany, recently appointed chief conductor of the Harvestehuder Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg) gave a reading of the work that was both flexible, powerful and delicate, constituting a rich kaleidoscope of orchestra color.

We then heard Piano Concert no.5 in F minor of Henri Herz (1803-1888) conducted by Alexander Merzyn, with Mariam Batsashvili (b.1993, Tbilisi, Georgia) as soloist. Born Heinrich Herz into a Jewish family in Vienna, he moved to Paris where he enjoyed huge success as a piano virtuoso, composer, teacher, inventor and piano manufacturer. Batsashvili followed Merzyn all the way through; her natural ease in dealing with much challenging passagework was impressive. Her playing was both melodic and unmannered. For an encore, she played Liszt’s 1838 etude “La Campanella” (Little Bell), its theme borrowed from Paganini’s Piano Concerto no.2. Batsashvili’s agility, lightness and brightness of touch allowed the music to speak for itself, her playing of the work detailed and never showy.

Hungarian-born Carl (Karl) Goldmark (1830-1915) was the son of a synagogue cantor. He made his living as an orchestral player and a music journalist. His Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.28 (1877), influenced by Hungarian folk idiom, the writing of Mendelssohn, Dvorak and somewhat by Wagner’s harmonic language, enjoyed great popularity till it was labeled “decadent art” by the Nazi regime and banned, as were other works of his. Under the baton of Israeli conductor Karin Ben-Josef, we heard Roi Shiloah (b.1970, Israel) as soloist; Shiloah navigated the natural, felicitous and complex score with composure, meaning and natural musicality, weaving its lyrical melodiousness throughout the work’s fabric. Adding to the richness of timbre and the audience’s enjoyment was Goldmark’s plenteous scoring of wind instruments.

Conducted by Karin Ben-Josef, the festive concert ended with the fifth movement of Czech composer Viktor Ullmann’s Piano Sonata no.7, as orchestrated by Israeli composer Michael Wolpe; Wolpe is presently Head of the Faculty of Theory, Composition and Conducting at the JAMD. Wolpe orchestrated the movement in 2007, but has since edited and re-orchestrated it especially for the Weimar-Jerusalem project. Ullmann (1898-1944) was among the most talented composers of his time till his life was cut short when he perished in the Auschwitz Death Camp at age 46. Written on scraps of lined paper, Sonata no.7 was dedicated to his children. The sonata is full of musical quotations, from Mahler to operetta, from Wagner and the Slovak National Anthem. The fifth movement of Sonata no.7 (composed in Theresienstadt and the composer’s final opus) consists of a set of variations and a concluding fugue on a melody by Yehuda Sharett. It seems Ullmann wanted to leave the work’s message as a gift or force; he wrote “Silently there is still hope (in me) for a late return”. The climax of the sonata is, indeed, the Theme, Variations and Fugue on Yehuda Sharett’s Zionist song “Song of Rachel” (a setting of a poem of the poet Rachel Blobstein), composed in Berlin in 1932. In the poem, the poet sees herself as the namesake of the biblical matriarch:
‘Behold her blood flows in my blood,
Her voice sings in mine –
Rachel, who tends Laban’s flock,
Rachel, mother of all mothers.’

The work is decidedly Jewish in flavor, the fugue ending majestically in the key of D major. Wolpe’s intention in setting the work for chamber orchestra was to give as many ensembles as possible the opportunity of performing it. A richly colorful and varied canvas of orchestration, the work constituted a fitting end to the event.

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