Monday, April 23, 2012

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA honors Holocaust Remembrance Day

Pianist Daniel Gortler

Concert no.8 of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA’s Classical Series took place April 19th 2012 – Holocaust Remembrance Day - in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. Guy Feder was conductor, with pianist Daniel Gortler as soloist.

The concert opened with Franz Josef Haydn’s (1732-1809) Symphony no. 26 in D minor, Hob.1:26, “Lamentatione”. Apparently written in 1768, it is scored for the typically Esterhazy orchestral forces noted for pairs of oboes and French horns, bassoon, strings and harpsichord. The possibly of performing it in conjunction with church services at Easter would explain its somber moments and Haydn’s use of plainsong as melodic material. Charged with the emotion and mannerisms of the “Sturm und Drang” (Storm and Stress) movement, the symphony belongs to Haydn’s middle period. In the JSO’s performance of it, the harpsichord was mostly inaudible; the orchestral sound, however, was fresh and direct, not always shaped, but with some beautiful wind-playing. Concertmaster Jenny Hünigen’s solo violin “comments”, sometimes joined by those of the viola, added charm to the trio of the Minuet (final movement!)

Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) Concerto no.2 for Piano in B flat major, opus 83, following twenty years after his first piano concerto, was dedicated to one of his piano teachers – Eduard Marxsen. It was premiered in 1881, with Brahms himself at the piano. The concerto, in Brahms’ hands, had now not only expanded into a four-movement form, but also comprised lengthy movements. Israeli pianist and teacher Daniel Gortler took on board the piece’s challenges, reading deeply into its text, addressing its power, drama and contrasts, as well as its lyricism. He allowed the piano to intertwine with the orchestra, using the work’s virtuosity to match the orchestra’s power and textures rather than as a means to showy playing; and he took part in instrumental dialogue in all its guises, sharing in Brahms’ delectable instrumental colors – marvelous use of horn, ‘cello, etc. Feder, Gortler and the orchestra collaborated to produce a constantly changing collage, one gesture flowing into another. Gortler flexed and shaped the cadenza of the third movement – Andante – weaving its course pensively and with spontaneity. Known for his sensitive performance of Romantic piano pieces, in particular for his profound study of the music of Schumann, Gortler chose to play one of Schumann’s “Études Symphoniques” as an encore, delighting the audience with filigree melodic lines and a glimpse into real Schumann sensibility.

Honoring the memory of those who suffered and those who perished in the Holocaust, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra performed Viktor Ullmann’s Symphony no.2 in D major (arr. Bernhard Wulff). In recent years, there has been much interest in this composer’s music. Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944), born in Bohemia was a composition student of Arnold Schönberg, later becoming Alexander von Zemlinsky’s assistant at the German Theatre in Prague. One senses the influence of both the above-mentioned composers in his style, a style which also used a very free tonal language, polytonality and some atonality. Ullmann’s anthropsophical beliefs took him to Stuttgart but the rise of the Third Reich forced him to move back to Prague in 1933. On being sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, he left all his scores behind, choosing to take with him blank music paper. He was an important musical voice there, one of Theresienstadt’s most gifted composers. Paradoxically, his internment became a highly prolific period for him, in which he composed, conducted, wrote and taught, working together with Pavel Haas and Hans Krasa in intensive musical activity and producing concerts, the Nazis showcasing Theresienstadt as a “model ghetto” in an effort to deceive International Red Cross inspectors and the world. (All the same, Ullmann’s music had come under the category of “degenerate music” according to the German authorities; this theory was based on the writings of physicians who claimed that these composers must be mentally or physically sick to write such music). After over two years on Theresienstadt, Ullmann was transferred to Auschwitz, perishing in the gas chambers within two days of arriving there. Before leaving for the extermination camp, he entrusted all his scores to a friend. These scores have all survived, whereas earlier scores have not. Ullmann’s Piano Sonatas 5 and 7 bear many indications of plans for orchestration, suggesting that they might have even started out as Symphony numbers 1 and 2; the composer then probably chose the smaller scoring, realizing that it might be impossible to achieve a good symphonic performance in the ghetto. The two works have been orchestrated by pianist, percussionist, conductor and composer Bernhard Wullf (b.1948, Germany).

Piano Sonata no.7 was Ullmann’s last composition prior to being deported to Auschwitz. A work in five movements, Wullf’s scoring includes support by the harpsichord. Here Wullf takes his cue for this from instrumentation in Ullmann’s opera “Der Kaisar von Atlantis” (The Emperor of Atlantis) opus 49, composed in Theresienstadt (whose premiere cancelled by camp authorities, who realized the main character represented Hitler in a thinly disguised form). The stage of the Henry Crown Auditorium was now crowded with the many players taking part in the work. The first movement – Allegro – is optimistic and whimsical, its many fragments contrasted. The woodwinds were prominently scored, but there was also a variety of solo passages. The second movement – Alla Marcia, ben misurato – begins with a Mahler-type march. Feder’s reading of it infuses cynical, humoristic and nostalgic gestures proceeding until interrupted by dark, foreboding trumpet sounds quoting a theme from Ullmann’s 1935 opera “The Fall of the Antichrist”, a clear message symbolizing Hitler’s presence in Europe. Sweeping, legato string melodies characterize the Adagio ma non tanto movement, its cantabile soundscape balancing precariously on the edge of tonality. Feder strikes a nice balance between his woodwind section, the brass and solo violin as he communicates the underlying sadness of this third movement. The Scherzo: Allegretto grazioso is a dancelike movement of feather-light textures; graced by small motifs, numerous small solos and complex rhythms, it was, indeed, a feast of orchestral color. The fifth movement “Variation and Fugue on a Hebrew Folk Tune” is drastically different to the four preceding movements. The variation theme is Yehuda Sharett’s arrangement of a poem by the poetess Rachel; the movement quotes from several musical sources, including Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”, a Protestant chorale by Crüger and the Slovak national anthem. The lyrical and nostalgically Jewish theme and variations were performed by the JSO with delicacy and sensitiveness, Wulff’s use of clarinet a clear association with Jewish (Klezmer) music. The movement ends with a triumphant fugue. It is thought that Ullmann’s parents were born Jewish but converted to Catholicism prior to his birth. Ullmann himself had little interest or background in Judaism. Even so, he perished as a Jew in Auschwitz. A fitting end to Holocaust Remembrance Day, Viktor Ullmann’s Symphony no.2 represents the resilience of the human spirit.

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