Saturday, June 9, 2012

Liszt's oratorio "Christus" performed at the 2012 Israel Festival

The Israeli premiere of Franz Liszt’s oratorio “Christus” took place June 5th in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. With the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoca (supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute, Tel Aviv), the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA and soloists under the baton of Meir Minsky, it was one of the more prominent events of the 2012 Israel Festival.

Considered by most a composer of piano music, Franz Liszt (1811-1886) possessed genius that extended well beyond the piano: his oeuvre of 1000 works covered most genres. Prior to his composing “Christus”, he composed “The Legend of St. Elisabeth” around 1854. “Christus”, however, has remained his most important sacred work. Despite his roller-coaster personal life, Franz Liszt was a deeply religious man, joining the Franciscan order in 1865, taking the name Abbé Liszt. He composed “Christus” between 1859 and 1863 to a libretto drawn from the Bible, Catholic liturgy and various medieval hymns. Except for brief passages in “Das Wunder” (The Wonder) and “Tristis est anima mea” (Sad is My Soul), where the soloist portrays the figure of Christ, the soloists do not represent individuals. There are also no recitatives. Not performed frequently enough, the work displays the composer’s fine orchestral- and choral writing and constitutes a major Romantic sacred work. A massive three-part celebration of the life and works of Christ, the oratorio, calling for large forces, is as distinctive in its orchestral movements as it is as a choral work. Even by 19th century standards, the forces required for “Christus” are exceptional: double winds with cor anglais, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tubular bells, harp and harmonium.

“Christus” comprises symphonic-type movements (until “Christus”, no oratorio had contained whole instrumental movements), large choral/orchestral movements, a cappella movements and more intimate, prayerful sections accompanied by organ. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra gave a splendid performance, its wind sections excelling collectively and in solos, the Transylvania State Philharmonia Choir of Cluj-Napoca as compelling in its precise, dramatic expression as in the sensitive singing of meditative sections – such as the “Pater Noster”. The four splendid vocal soloists, all opera singers performing widely in Europe, proved well suited to the musical demands of the work and its orchestral dimensions. For the first half of the performance, soloists soprano Talia Or (Israel), tenor George Oniani (Georgia) and bass-baritone Roman Trekel (Germany) sang from the balcony, moving down to the stage and joined by mezzo-soprano Iris Vermillion (Israel) after intermission.

Not your mainstream oratorio, and not familiar to many of the festival-goers attending the Jerusalem concert, the listener needed to allow the work to transport him into the pace of its musical language and rhetoric; once achieved, the rewards were then numerous. There being no “story”, the sequence of aural images invited the listener to create his own “tableaux” of the story.

There were many high moments in the Israel Festival performance…too many to mention here. Roman Trekel’s performance, for example, of the chromatic (at times atonal) “Tristis est anima mea” was convincing and soul-searching. The final chorus, the fugal “Resurrexit” also had the audience sitting at the edge of its seats, with the Cluj singers and orchestra ringing out triumphant. But the performance was no less effective in movements of pared-down textures, these punctuating the work’s grandness to reveal Liszt’s more personal message of the divinity of love. Writing “Christus” in Rome, Liszt, having “solved the greater part of the Symphony problem”, was now involved in solving the “Oratorio problem…to which I must sacrifice everything else”. The composer, aware of the shifts of the cultural climate of his time, wrote “When and where [Christus] will ever be heard is of no importance to me.” The critics did indeed reject the work, Liszt’s aesthetic and his vision of the future. Perhaps “Christus” can now claim the place in concert repertoire denied it for much too long. The Jerusalem performance would certainly justify that.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoka at the 2012 Israel Festival

As one of the events of the 2012 Israel Festival, the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoca, supported by the Romanian Cultural Institute Tel Aviv, performed a concert of a cappella music June 2nd at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. The Cluj Philharmonic Choir, founded in 1972, no newcomer to Israeli concert halls, has been directed by Maestro Cornel Groza since 1986.

The choir, numbering some 50 singers, performed a variety of short works, ranging from Baroque repertoire to contemporary music. Of the secular pieces, we heard Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “In These Delightful Pleasant Groves” from “The Libertine”, not as light-of-foot and crisp as might suit the English madrigal style. Moving comfortably into the realm of sacred music, the choir captured the smooth, dramatic expression of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s (1714-1787) “De Profundis” (Psalm 129), then performing the passionate “Rejoice, O Virgin” from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers” opus 37 (1915), the latter sung in church Slavonic, its wide dynamic-, harmonic- and vocal range (low bass notes, in particular) creating the uplifting grandeur of homophonic Russian Orthodox singing. Hungarian composer Lajos Bárdos (1899-1986) was a pupil of Zoltán Kodály; influenced by Kodály, Bárdos was instrumental in the development of choral singing in Hungary, the singing of folk songs and publishing of Hungarian choral music. In Bárdos’ setting of “Libera me” (Deliver me) from his Requiem (1935), the Cluj Choir gave close attention to the work’s layering, contrasts and accents, its dissonances and glissandos to depict fear of the Day of Judgment:
‘…I am made to tremble and I fear
Till the judgment be upon us and the coming wrath:
When the heavens and earth shall be shaken…’
The mood changes, becoming more soothing, the music more harmonious in the final words:
‘…let light perpetual shine upon them.’
In Felix Mendelssohn’s eight-part (single choir) German setting of Psalm 43 “Richte mich Gott” (Judge Me O God), one of Mendelssohn’s group of three unaccompanied Psalm settings, the stern words sung by the men are contrasted with gentle harmonies sung by the women, then moving into the more optimistic realm of F major, preparing the listener for the final chorale. The Cluj singers drew on their palette of lush, Romantic timbres, giving their singing a warm, glowing color. No less convincing was Groza’s reading of American composer Randall Thompson’s “Ye Shall Have a Song” from “The Peaceable Kingdom” of 1935 (inspired by the early American preacher and painter Edward Hicks), its imitation and word-painting, its smoothness and haunting, chordal elements and melodic lines weaving scintillating and subtle reverence throughout.

Works of Romanian composers were of particular interest, most of which were unfamiliar to local audiences. From the Cluj-Napoca region, Sigismund Toduţă (1908-1991) refers to Gregorian- and Byzantine musical elements in his music. The melismatic “Archaisme” (Archaisms) (1942), to a text by Mihai Celarianu narrating the artist’s dialogue with God, bristles with perfect intervals, gentle clusters, insistent ostinatos, jagged utterances and the clear outlining of key words. One of Romania’s most prominent modern composers, Vasile Herman (1929-2010), was a member of faculty of the Cluj Conservatory. We heard numbers 1 and 3 of his “Verses of Longing” (1971), the fabric of which comprises a mix of definite- and indefinite pitches, “falling” clusters, effects – instrumental, speech and otherwise – declamation and imitation. The Cluj Choir’s performance of the work was articulate and well crafted. Another composer important for his synthesis of concert music with folk-traditional music and village ritual is Tudor Jarda (1922-2007), whose “Bride’s Song and Dance” displayed an interesting use of choral textures, the choir using word sounds as a textural, percussive device. Also excellently performed – a colorful canvas of Romanian songs – was Dariu Pop’s (1887-1965) "Choral Suite from Tara Oaşului" (a northern region of Romania), presenting a number of songs and dance rhythms in regional modes, using folk lyrics, whimsical instrumental effects and some touching, nostalgic solos. Gheorghe Dango’s (1905-1959) music focuses largely on that of the Prahova County. “Sârba pe loc”, representing the Eastern European Sârba dance, was peppered with the agility of fast-flowing syllables. György Orbán (b.1947) is a Hungarian of Romanian origin. Picturing the devil’s temptations, “Daemon Irrepit Callidus”, to a text by an anonymous 17th century poet, the composer makes unique use of syllables and other textural devices to create a feisty chromatic, sometimes jazzy soundscape:
‘The devil sneaks expertly amid praise, song and dance…
Poor, passionate, undisciplined, frustrated devil.’

The program included sensitively performed arrangements of two Afro-American spirituals - Jester Hairston’s (1901-2000) “Elijah Rock” and William L. Dawson’s (1899-1980) “Soon Ah Will Be Done”. The choir also sang two Hebrew songs: Adrian Pop’s skilful and harmonically fragrant arrangements of Joseph Jacobson’s “And Judea shall be inhabited forever” (Joel 4:20) and Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”.

Following the concert, I had the opportunity of exchanging a few words with Maestro Cornel Groza, many of whose concerts over the last 26 years of his direction of the Transylvania State Philharmonic Choir of Cluj-Napoka have been performed in Israel. Maestro Groza appreciates Israeli concert audiences and stresses the choir’s great pleasure to be singing in Israel. He also spoke of the difficulties of putting together a program for an audience of such a different culture; for this reason, he chooses to “mixes cultures” , as in the above-discussed concert, which included works by German-, American-, English-, Israeli- and Romanian composers. In Groza’s words “We try to cover different areas and kinds of music”. Another aim of the choir is to present some of the jewels of Romanian choral repertoire (and not necessarily the better-known works) placing emphasis on the rich tradition of Romanian folklore. All the singers in the choir are professional, most of them long-standing members. Rehearsals run for three to four hours Monday to Friday. Many of the members also work as music teachers. There is much to learn from the excellence and professionalism of the Cluj Choir. Their singing, blended, confident and fresh, inspired and delighted Israel Festival audiences.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Kuhn Choir of Prague sings Czech music in the 2012 Israel Festival

Antonin Dvorak

Following its participation in “The Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” the previous evening, the Kühn Choir of Prague (director: Marek Vorliček) performed a concert of Czech music June 1st 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. With the support of the Czech government and the Prague Municipality, the Kühn Choir is one of the groups participating in the “Days of Prague” events of the 2012 Israel Festival. The choir was established in 1958 by Pavel Kühn (1938-2003) and is known for its a cappella performances of Romantic music, oratorio- and cantata repertoire; the choir also collaborates with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. Other of the choir’s projects have been with the Nederlands Dans Theater, in opera, film score recordings and many CD recordings. The Kühn Choir places importance on the singing of contemporary works, several of which have been written for the ensemble.

Before entering the Henry Crown Auditorium, festival-goers paused to enjoy a photographic exhibition of Prague Panorama (photographers Ondej Polak, Jan Vrabec) in the balcony lobby of the theatre complex sponsored by the Prague Municipality. The photos gave viewers a sense the atmosphere of Prague, showing the city and its architectural landmarks from a number of vantage points, as well as its alleyways and bridges, its towers and roofs.

The concert opened with six of Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Moravian Duets. Based on Czech folk poetry, the songs we heard were those transcribed by Leos Janacek (a Moravian) from the original two voices with piano to four-voiced mixed choir and piano. In a series of musical pieces evoking characteristic folk dances, richly-colored nature scenes, rustic life, love and disappointed love, Vorliček’s singers presented the audience with pictures of rustic life and folk; they performed them singing with precision, a warm, well-coordinated sound and the kind of dynamic variety which shapes the smallest of gestures.
‘If the scythe were sharpened
Keen will be the edge of yonder scythe blade
When arrives the harvest time;
Swiftly shall I cut the crimson clover,
Throwing out a scent divine.

Ye finest, finest blooms I shall not spare thee;
And my dearest lassie, malice shall I bear thee;
What art thou to me now,
Since another hast thou wed!’
Pianist Lenka Navratilova’s delicate, tasteful playing of the accompaniments was an integral, involved part of the fabric of the songs.

For Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) clarity, simplicity and directness make up his directness of expression. The almost “primitive” harmonic structures and fluid, transparent counterpoint he chooses do not culminate in a poverty of expression, of feeling or intellect. For his a cappella “Four Songs of Mary” for mixed chorus H.235 (1934) the composer chose parallel voices and homophony of the Middle Ages, basing the four Marian songs on Czech poetry. The Kühn Choir’s superbly balanced singing of these gave expression to their modality and their range of moods, their mystical moments giving rise to exuberance.

The concert ended with the performance of Czech composer Zdenĕk Lukáš’ (1928-2007) “Requiem” opus 252, now one of the focal a cappella works of modern Czech sacred repertoire. Writing much vocal music, the composer was strongly influenced by folk music and avant-garde techniques. The perfect vehicle for Maestro Vorliček and his singers’ musicianship, we heard the work performed with an astonishing variety of vocal timbres, from the uncompromising, vehemently intense cries of the Dies Irae to the velvety, caressing reading of the Lacrymosa, to the compassion of the Hostias. Phrases were finely chiseled and articulate. The excellence of the Kühn Choir’s balance, control and rich choral sound has been the source of much pleasure in the 2012 Israel Festival and “Days of Prague”. The two concerts performed by the Kühn Choir of Prague have left Israeli audiences with a lasting impression of fine Czech choral tradition.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Defiant Requiem:Verdi at Terezin in the 2012 Israel Festival

“The Defiant Requiem – Verdi at Terezin” performed at the International Convention Center Jerusalem May 31st 2012, was a pivotal event of the 2012 Israel Festival and of “Days of Prague”, the latter project bringing several events from Czechoslovakia to this year’s Israel Festival. The evening’s multi-media event was created by distinguished American conductor Murry Sidlin, who also conducted the Jerusalem performance; under Sidlin’s baton were the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Kühn Choir of Prague (director: Marek Vorliček), soprano Ira Bertman, mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol, tenor Yotam Cohen and bass-baritone Assaf Levitin. Actress Yona Elian and actor Sasson Gabai read from the writings of Terezin prisoners. In its present form, “The Defiant Requiem” has had several performances in the USA and one at the site of the Theresienstadt Camp itself. The project had its beginnings one day when Sidlin, at the time on the faculty of the School of Music at the University of Minnesota, passing by a bookstore in Minneapolis, saw a copy of “Music at Terezin” on an outside bookshelf. Perusing its pages, he began to read about Rafael Schächter.

“The Defiant Requiem – Verdi at Terezin” is a tribute to young choral conductor, opera coach and pianist Rafael Schächter, himself a prisoner there, who, in 1943 and 1944, organized and produced 16 performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Requiem” at Terezin, a camp populated by many artists and intellectuals. With only one piano-vocal score at hand, he trained all the singers, rehearsing the hungry, overworked inmates in a dank basement in the evenings. After singers were deported to extermination camps, Schächter tirelessly trained new singers until he, himself, was sent to Auschwitz on October 16th 1944, perishing there at age 39.

Prior to the Jerusalem performance, two large screens, standing either side of the stage, showed the entrance to the Theresienstadt Ghetto/Camp, displaying the slogan used by the Nazis “Arbeit macht frei” (Labor Brings Freedom). Surtitles provided translation of spoken texts into English or Hebrew. Interspersed between movements of the music, we saw and heard survivors who had taken part as singers in Terezin talking about the role the Requiem had played in their lives and their survival there. Rafael Schächter took his role as musical director seriously, lecturing, planning and making high demands on his singers (at times, the choir comprised up to 150 singers), his training infusing in them dedication, courage and bravery. He made a point of explaining the composer’s intentions as well as his own interpretation. Sidlin spoke of Schächter as a man with a “magnetic personality”, with a sunny personality; however, when working with his singers on Verdi’s “Requiem”, he was as a “crazed man on a mission”. During rehearsals, nobody was allowed to talk, let alone whisper. The rehearsals gave prisoners time to forget their immediate predicament and the fear of tomorrow; the daily training provided them with respite and the opportunity to be emotionally fortified. One woman talked of the work at rehearsals as being so powerful that they (the inmates) “became the music”, the rehearsals making it possible to survive “as a human being”. She said that Rafael Schächter was the person to first use the term “defiance” in connection with music. It seems the Nazis did not grasp that the performance of this work – at once sacred, operatic, political and demanding - was an act of defiance; for the captors, musical activity served to showcase the “positive cultural life” of the ghetto to the outside world, to camouflage the hunger, rampant disease, lack of medical attention, bone-chilling winter cold and non-stop terror in the camp. We saw a little of a Nazi propaganda film, in which every frame was, in Sidlin’s words, a” sadistic lie”. The only truth was in the depiction of the arts and lectures, this collective, creative life force of the prisoners being exploited to reinforce Nazi lies.

Murry Sidlin spoke of there being a “remarkable, incongruous cacophony” of sounds emanating from many improvised performance centers in Terezin; these provided an artistic outlet for those who refused to allow their captors to dehumanize them. Through music, these prisoners found compassion, a mission, a capacity to inspire hope, courage and dignity. There had been much discussion in the camp as to whether Verdi’s “Requiem” was the right work for Jews to be performing; some prisoners suggested performing more Jewish works. One of the survivors on film, however, spoke of Rafael Schächter's reading of the Requiem as “our battle of good against evil” as “music against violence” as “declaring survival”, another as “absolute joy”. In this way, with members of the Nazi command sitting in the front row at performances, the inmates would sing what they could not say to the Nazis and not to the visiting inspectors of the compliant International Red Cross. In fact, many of the performers sang right up to their final moments, each singing of his personal tragedy, turning the depths of despair into the most elevated of musical experiences. The performers were inspired by the Latin text of the Requiem, travelling, in their minds, from the legless ghetto piano to the full orchestra, imagining the performance to be taking place in Prague, the city a mere hour away.

The Jerusalem event was charged with meaning and energy. Verdi’s “Requiem” demands very large solo voices. Soprano Ira Bertman’s powerful, rich, creamy voice and articulacy had an advantage here, as did tenor Yotam Cohen’s compelling and distinctive voice. Assaf Levitin’s expressiveness made for some moving moments; Bracha Kol’s voice is interesting, its registers, however, differing very much in color and texture. The quartet’s a cappella sections sometimes lacked clean intonation. The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra gave a fine performance, doing justice to Verdi’s score, the brass section providing some outstanding moments. The Kühn Choir of Prague’s performance was uplifting and impressive in its accuracy and fine musicianship.

Several effects added to Sidlin’s depiction of the situation in Terezin – train whistles, pictures of Jews lining up at railway stations, a moment from the Chaconne of Bach’s Solo Violin Partita no.2, another moment of a Schubert Lied…and then there was the piano. With the stage dimly lit, some movements of the Requiem would begin with the piano alone accompanying singers; these moments “in Terezin” would seamlessly merge back into the orchestral scoring, with the stage lighting up again. The performance was powerful and uncompromising in spirit – in its joy, compassion and devotion. The message in Murry Sidlin’s initiative, his energetic direction, and his own well-spoken texts was clear to all.

Murry Sidlin is convinced that the Verdi Requiem had never been more inspiring, more humanly important, more personally moving or more completely understood by performers anywhere than by those at Terezin. He suspects that Rafael Schächter and his chorus were less focused on the exact meaning of such movements as the “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) as the Mass intended, but were singing in memory of all who had suffered and perished at the hands of “unauthorized beasts”. For Schächter, his hundreds of singers and their vast prisoner audiences, this music was affirmation of their determination to go on under unthinkable conditions. Murry Sidlin concluded that it is now for us to recall- and treasure the lessons of Terezin. Following the end of the performance, lights were dimmed in the hall and the audience stood in silence to honor the memory of Rafael Schächter – his initiative and dedication. Maestro Murry Sidlin's project is more than admirable. For all of us present, Verdi’s “Requiem” has taken on extra meaning.