Thursday, September 6, 2012

Opening of the 2012 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

Elena Bashkirova, musical director

In its opening concert on September 1st in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of the Jerusalem International YMCA, the 2012 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival got off to a promising start. Under the artistic direction of pianist Elena Bashkirova, the festival is embarking on its 15th year of varied daily concerts, presenting many internationally known artists as well as artists newer to the concert hall stage. Concerts in this year’s JICMF each include works by Russian composers – both instrumental and vocal – including some works lesser known to local concert audiences. This year’s JICMF has also commissioned a work from Azerbaijani composer Faradj Karaev. Ringing in the festival on the balmy Jerusalem opening night, we heard Gabi Shefler performing Hebrew melodies on the YMCA‘s 35 carillon bells. Year after year, music-lovers flock to the festival concerts, enjoying the old-world ambience of the Jerusalem YMCA concert hall.

The concert began with Sergei Prokofiev’s (1891-1953) “Overture on Hebrew Themes” for clarinet, string quartet and piano, opus 34. A propitious choice for the opening of the festival, it was the composer’s earliest work that was based on folk idiom. The melodies for the piece were supposedly taken from a notebook presented to Prokofiev in 1919 by the “Zimro” Ensemble (an ensemble working under the auspices of the “Society for Jewish Folk Music”). Attracted by the tunes’ unusual phrasing and melodic twists, Prokofiev sketched out the work within two days, completing its instrumentation two weeks later. (Musicologist Claude Samuel contends that the melodies were actually composed by Prokofiev!) Performing the piece at the JICMF, we heard clarinetist Yevgeny Yehudin, Elena Bashkirova (piano) and the Jerusalem Quartet. Born in the former Soviet Union and today a member of the Israel Woodwind Quintet and teacher at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Yehudin is also principal clarinet of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. In a performance that was reflective and nostalgic, the ensemble allowed the wistful, bitter-sweet character of the music to temper its pace, gently flexing melodies into forms that breathed and sang expressively. Yehudin’s rich, generous sound was matched by his sense of color, wit and spontaneity, giving the performance of this fine concert piece buoyant freshness.

Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) “The Seasons” opus 37b were commissioned by editor Nicolai Bernard, one piece of the twelve to be published in his journal “Nuvellist” in each monthly edition for a year; the piano pieces were posted there for the first time in 1876. Israeli-born pianist and composer Ohad Ben-Ari performed “October: Autumn Song”, drawing the audience into its thoughtful mood, his light touch and clean, fragile melodic lines creating a picture touched by melancholy and magic. Leaving only “October” in its original piano format, Ohad Ben-Ari has made instrumental arrangements of all the pieces. We heard Ben-Ari joined by Swiss flautist Emmanuel Pahud in “March: Song of the Lark”, a musical vignette intense in melodic substance, Tchaikovsky’s suggestions of the twitterings of the lark and gentle pathos not disguising the fact that March is, indeed, a bleak month in Russia. The artists cooperated to produce a sensitive, thought-provoking performance. One wonders why these delicate and evocative salon pieces are heard so rarely on the concert platform.

In a rush of energy, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887) composed his String Quartet in D major in the summer of 1881. Employed as a full professor of Chemistry at the St. Petersburg Academy of Medicine, the composer referred to himself as a “Sunday composer”. The prestigious Jerusalem Quartet – violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bressler, violist Ori Kam (violist of the JQ as of 2010) and ‘cellist Kyril Zlotnikov – took on board the work’s lyrical lightness, its imaginative melodiousness and sense of well-being, their reading of it never overstepping good taste in its underlying gentle sentimentality… as in the second movement, which was inspired by an evening spent in one of the suburban pleasure gardens of St. Petersburg. After all, the work was composed to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Borodin’s first meeting with his wife. The artists’ playing of the canon of the Nocturne was yet another case of their superb communication; how interesting and entertaining these moments are in live performance! Zlotnikov’s prominent melodic role was a reminder that Borodin was, himself, a ‘cellist.

We then heard Israeli soprano Hila Baggio with pianist Kirill Gerstein performing Schubert Lieder. Baggio has been quite prominent on the Israeli opera scene of late; her performance of sacred- and other works with orchestra has also made a significant contribution to the Israeli concert stage of late. The JICMF now offered audiences an opportunity of hearing Baggio in the intimate genre of the German Lied, a selection of those by Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Opening with a song such as “Nacht und Träume” (Night and Dreams) D.827 (to two poems of Matthaus von Collin) is no mean task. Following a temporary disagreement on the initial tempo, Baggio and Gerstein took their listeners into the floated, celestial spheres of the song, its evocative harmonic moments subtly evident, Baggio’s feet never touching the ground till the final moment of the song. Proceeding to “Ganymed” D.544 (Goethe), Baggio’s singing was fresh, rich and unmannered and her diction clear; together the artists moved, section by complex section, through the song’s ever-shifting tonalities and poetical imagery to create a canvas of sensual transparence to personify nature and the divine, describing the Trojan youth’s journey and transfiguration. Showing enormous control of color and evenness of rhythm, the artists performed “Du bist die Ruh’” (You Are Repose) D.776 to a poem of Friedrich Rückert, evoking the inner peace and meditative character resulting from the poem’s oriental inspiration. Baggio and Gerstein explored the tiniest emotional- and dynamic changes as they walked the tightrope of the works intense calm. In “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (The Shepherd on the Rock) D965, composed not long before his death, Schubert leaves the conventional, intimate salon Lied form to embark on a longer piece of a more operatic style – a “vocal scene” - at the request of opera-singer Anna Milder-Hauptmann, and adding the obbligato clarinet part (Yevgeny Yehudin). Telling of lost love, wandering and hope, the three artists chose a fairly swift and vital tempo, intertwining in a performance evoking grief, light, hope and, eventually, effervescent joy refreshed by the hope that nature and spring will bring. Colored by Baggio’s silvery purity of tone and delicate melodic delivery, Yehudin’s sculpted and compelling expressiveness and Gerstein’s ever sensitive and intuitive approach, the performance was exhilarating and not “yet another ‘Shepherd on the Rock’”! Kirill Gerstein, no newcomer to the Jerusalem concert scene, born in Russia, currently teaches in the Musikhochschule in Stuttgart.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) composed “Syrinx” (1913) for flute solo as incidental music for Gabriel Mourey’s three-act symbolist poem “Psyché”, a unique piece in the fact that it actually conjoins melody with spoken words. Mourey requested that the last melody Pan – a half-goat, half man deity - plays before his death be performed from the wings of the stage. Emmanuel Pahud held the festival audience in the palm of his hand with his sophisticated, seductive and emotive playing, proving the ¾ time signature irrelevant and opting for timbral effects, languishing nuances and a performance of the kind that takes the listener far into the realms of fantasy.

The concert ended with Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Piano Trio no.2 in E minor, opus 67 (1944). Triggered by the grief of the untimely death of the composer’s close friend – musicologist and critic Ivan Sollertinsky – the work is also a comment on the grim events of Europe at the time. We heard the work played by Elena Bashkirova-piano, violinist Mikhail Simonyan (Russia) and veteran JICMF ‘cellist Frans Helmerson (Sweden). The players created the trio’s elegiac, tragic and soul-searching mood, its uncompromising, dark despair punctuated only by moments of sardonic wit. An interesting and integrated work, it is an intimate outpouring, the eerie “moonscape” violin and ‘cello harmonics introducing- and closing it very exposed.

The Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival’s audience is known to be one to express appreciation. This opening concert certainly warranted it.

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