Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's 2012 Independence Day concert

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s 2012 Special Independence Day Celebration concert (April 25th) in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre was conducted by Gil Shohat. The soloists were duo pianists Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg.

The program began with Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) Concerto for Two Pianos in E major. An early work – the composer was 14 years old when he wrote it – the E major concerto was Mendelssohn’s first effort at writing for a larger orchestra - including double winds, brass and percussion. It was initially performed at one of the musicales at the Mendelssohn family home in Berlin, with Felix and his sister Fanny as soloists. However, Mendelssohn then placed this concerto and the other four early concertos aside, considering them immature works; he went back to revising the E major concerto - mostly the first movement - in the early 1830s, but, following major changes to thematic material, solo- and tutti sections, the composer remained unhappy with the work and abandoned it, never performing it again, neither did he publish it. Fortunately, a pianist friend of the family – Ignaz Moscheles - had made a copy of the original in 1824 and seems to have had it performed by two of his students in 1860. The work remained in manuscript for over a century, being first published in 1961; now, with both versions in print, one is able to choose which to perform and also observe Mendelssohn’s compositional dilemmas.

The E major Concerto for Two Pianos sparkles with energy and melodic interest, as well as with a sense of freshness, joy and well-being. Silver and Garburg addressed its finest details, their passagework was articulate and unmannered, their crystal-clear lines free of vaporous overpedalling. From the opening notes of the Allegro vivace movement, they drew the audience’s attention to interaction between both pianos, balancing imitation of gestures with individual utterance. In the tranquil Adagio non troppo, both meditative and majestic, the pianists emphasized the greater contrast between their solo roles, allowing the music to unfold naturally, the JSO woodwind section adding color and charm to the movement. Moving straight into the Allegro movement, small whimsical gestures, dynamic variety and virtuosic playing provided hearty enjoyment rather than showy acrobatics. Orchestra and soloists joined with lightness of texture and collaborated well to express Mendelssohn’s youthful joie-de-vivre.

We then heard Gil Shohat’s Concerto for Piano for Four Hands, with Sivan Silver and Gil Garburg at the piano. In his program notes, Shohat mentions the fact that there are very few concertos for two players at one piano and that these existing works for four hands (one piano) demand less virtuosity than works for two pianos. Ready to prove otherwise, Maestro Shohat was thrilled when Silver and Garburg requested such a work from him, a work in which “both pairs of hands” would “require ceaseless independent virtuosity”. Shohat invites the piano to set the scene, the Andante spirituale opening in an arpeggiated autumnal, thoughtful and slightly jazzy-tinted vein, taking the listener far away into the realm of sound- and color fantasy. The movement is a marvelous combination of the mesmerizing piano part, velvety orchestration and extra color added by various instrumental solos. The Scherzo is a true scherzo in character. Its first section, the piano part intensive in rhythm and texture, is seasoned with a colorful use of percussion, humorous twists and whimsical orchestral comments. In the movement’s middle section – marked larghetto classico - Shohat pays homage to the Classical style. The movement ends on an insistent major chord. The composer has dedicated the concerto’s final movement – Allegro Barbaro – to Béla Bartók. In keeping with this, it includes energetic,changing eastern European rhythms. Weighty, uncompromising orchestral chords (à la “Rite of Spring”) are heard as is an appealing, bitter-sweet folk theme. Once again, Silver and Garburg take on board the complexities of the score; their understanding and handling of the work’s challenges are exemplary, their playing never lacking elegance or good taste. And Shohat’s orchestra has a field day: players’ individual moments make for total involvement. Referring to the work’s conclusion as “a roar, with unabashed enthusiasm, which I make no attempt at hiding”, the composer leaves his audience fulfilled and well entertained. Gil Shohat (b.1973, Israel) is, himself, a pianist, but, as a conductor and composer, one also senses his fascination with the potential of the symphony orchestra. Shohat writes an interesting score, bristling with exhilaration and color; his conducting of it was articulate, precise and joyful.

The concert ended with Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) Symphony no.4 in F minor opus 36. Written between 1877 and 1878, the most turbulent year of his life, the year he was closely associated with two women – his ex-student Antonina Miliukhova, infatuated with him and whom he married, and his patron and confidante, the wealthy widow Nadezhda von Meck (whom he never met. He and von Meck did, however, exchange over 1000 letters). With the disastrous and traumatic marriage to Antonina short-lived, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.4 was dedicated to von Meck, who supported him financially from age 38 to 49. The subject of the Symphony is Fate and this atmosphere pervades almost every bar of the work. The composer wrote much about this, reflecting his state of mind:
…‘And so all life is an unbroken alternation of harsh reality with swiftly passing dreams and visions of happiness…Drift upon that sea until it engulfs and submerges you in its depths…’

The impressive Fate fanfare stated by the brass at the outset of the work establishes the atmosphere dominant throughout. Shohat stages the work in all its gestures, whether dramatic or intimate and vulnerable and whether one chooses to see it as a program work or not. The second movement – Andantino in modo di canzone – with its touching oboe opening and sweeping melodies was nostalgic, delicate and thought-provoking. Shohat’s reading of the unique Scherzo, emphasizing how expressive and carefully shaped long pizzicato passages can be, did not detract from its urgent, fleeting and somewhat disquieting disposition. The composer himself referred to its setting as comprising ‘disparate images…having nothing to do with reality…strange, wild and disjointed.’ The final movement, once again strong in orchestral color, intensity and message, with the melody of the Russian song “In the Field Stood a Birch Tree” heard, returns to the work’s opening motif. Shohat’s taste in orchestration replete with textural and emotional content produced a performance that was gripping and uncompromising. The evening’s program was enjoyed by those of us whose choice it was to issue in Israel's Independence Day with fine orchestral fare and excellent performance by local artists.

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