Monday, May 6, 2013

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem in "Moon of Alabama"

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s concert “Moon of Alabama” promised a very different concert
experience. This writer attended the event in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on April 29th 2013. Conducting a program of works by Stravinsky, Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill was Israeli-born Yaniv Dinur; soloists were soprano Keren Hadar and violinist Matan Dagan.

Born in Jerusalem in 1981, Yaniv Dinur took piano lessons as a child, beginning conducting in his teens. He studied conducting with Dr. Evgeny Zirlin at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and later with Maestro Mendi Rodin, beginning his conducting career at age 19 with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. He has since conducted in Europe, Canada and the USA. He graduated with a Doctorate in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance, where he studied under Kenneth Kiesler. Dinur is a passionate lecturer and music educator. He is currently serving as director of orchestral activities at the American University, Washington DC.

Born in Neve Ne’eman, Keren Hadar studied classical singing with Nili Harpaz, later attending the Beit Zvi Academy of Performing Arts (Ramat Gan), where she focused on musical theatre. She has also been a student in the Tel Aviv Department of Musicology. From 2006 to 2007, she took opera studies in Berlin at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik. Known for her interest in many genres, Hadar’s career has been varied – performing in Israeli theatre, with orchestras in Israel and further afield, collaborating with composers and playwrights and recording. She has performed with pianist and conductor Yoni Farhi, horn player Alon Reuven and guitarist Daniel Akiva in England, Europe and China.

The Camerata concert opened with Keren Hadar and just four woodwind instruments coming on stage to perform Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) “Pastorale” (1907), a small work bearing no opus number, composed originally for vocal line and piano. The version we heard of this charming wordless “pièce de salon” – tasteful, melodic and understated in the artists’ performance - was the composer’s setting of the piece for soprano and four woodwinds of 1923. Although still influenced by neo-Classicism, Stravinsky became, however, more connected to the Second Viennese School’s thinking by the time he was composing his “Septet” (1952-1953). It was in this work that he experimented with a series for the first time, although not with the absolute strictness of the serialists. Scored for piano, violin, viola, ‘cello, horn, bassoon and clarinet, the Camerata ensemble’s playing of it displayed the work’s contrapuntal mastery, its timbral variety and sophistication, at the same time bringing out the composer’s familiar droll,  grave, bitter-sweet and elegant writing never devoid of surprises. Playing the clarinet in it was guest musician Ilan Schul.

Enter Yaniv Dinur and Keren Hadar to perform five songs of Kurt Weill (1099-1950). All the program’s Weill songs using Hebrew- or English lyrics had been orchestrated by Benny Nagari. (Born in Tel Aviv in 1950, flautist, conductor and arranger Nagari has returned to composing and orchestrating after a career in radio, television, film and recording. He has been living and working in London since 1990.)  Somewhat unexpected in a symphony concert series, Hadar was to perform these songs using a microphone! From “The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny” (Brecht) we heard “Moon of Alabama” (1927), with Hadar singing in German-tainted English, changing its moods through the use of different vocal timbres, the roughest of which depicting the prostitute leaving one town and heading for Mahagonny (a German Las Vegas), with the men of the Camerata Orchestra adding comments in the role of her gang! Bertolt Brecht songs from “The Threepenny Opera” were “Pirate Jenny”, in which Hadar uses fiery consonants to evoke Jenny fantasizing about killing all the townspeople, and “Tango Ballad” (or “Ballad of Immoral Earnings”) with Hadar moving from the role of Jenny to that of Mack – using higher and lower registers of the voice, wearing a hat when portraying Mack – a song in which they reminisce about the days when he was a procurer and she, a prostitute. Hadar portrays Jenny as angry and bitter, with Nitzan Ein Habar’s rich, cantabile saxophone sounding fruity, sleazy and, indeed, most pleasing. “Surabaya Johnny”, from “Happy End” (1929) tells of another dysfunctional relationship between criminal characters; Hadar presents all the emotional drama, the pathos and love in Lilian’s predicament, her smoky vocal timbre tender in the song’s refrains. “The Bilbao Song”, concluding “Happy End”, rings a happier note. In “The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” Hadar, sitting at a small round table covered with a dainty black lace cloth, opens a differently colored box for each of the gifts sent to the lady from her husband at the front. In his translation of the song into Hebrew, Dan Almagor has added his own verse referring to Auschwitz: a brilliant song powerfully weaving a woman’s liking of all the finery sent to her in with the horrors of war.

In Germany of 1930, Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) began his lifelong collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. The two wrote songs on the spur of the moment for workers’ rallies and political cabarets. They then worked together in Hollywood (a city they both found corrupt) and finally in East Germany in the 1950s. Pianist Yoni Farhi and Keren Hadar put Eisler’s work into historical context with “Song of the German Mother” sung in the original German, as it would have been delivered in German cabaret of the time. Farhi deals with the minimal accompaniment sensitively and with much artistry, with Hadar portraying a mother’s regret at having encouraged her son’s Nazi activities with much presence and seriousness.

The program included songs for which Brecht took lyrics from several sources: “Lost in the Stars” (1949) comes from a musical tragedy of the same name, its lyrics written by Maxwell Anderson. In the nostalgic “September Song” (Maxwell Anderson), Hadar’s velvety, tender rendering was supported sympathetically by the orchestra, with trumpets adding color to the mood. Brecht composed Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to “The Saga of Jenny” (Gershwin referred to it as a sort of “blues bordello”) for the 1941 musical “Lady in the Dark”; Hadar, riding on its chromatic, swinging rhythms, told the story of Jenny who could never make up her mind. Also in a humorous vein “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, springing from Weill’s 1943 “One Touch of Venus” collaboration with Ogden Nash, is a lascivious enquiry into the nature of love. Yaniv Dinur once again reminds us that music is entertainment, timbral colors and smiles, and that such a sleazy-jazzy song goes down well with fine directing and a good dose of saxophone sound!
‘Tell me is love
Still a popular suggestion, Or merely an obsolete art?
Forgive me for asking
This simple question;
I’m unfamiliar with this part
I am a stranger here myself…’

Providing a glimpse into a very different aspect of Kurt Weill’s writing, we heard the 3rd movement from his Concerto for violin and wind orchestra. Composed in 1924 (when he had just met Lotte Lenya) this early work was composed in his Berlin years and constitutes one of the composer’s more neglected instrumental works. Reflecting his personal musical language, it is written with careful articulacy yet, giving prominence to percussion instruments, it also creates an association with the feisty sound world of his theatre music. The middle movement is unusual in its three interlinked sections – a ghostly Nocturne, a violin cadenza and a rhythmic serenade. With the (mostly) wind ensemble and violin solo meeting as strange bedfellows in this uniquely scored violin concerto, violinist Matan Dagan gave a precise, finely crafted and competent performance. Witty, cerebral and nonchalantly ironic, here was Weill speaking in an almost atonal musical language, sophisticated and somewhat elusive. Having spent several years studying in Germany and performing in Europe, Matan Dagan has moved much of his performing career back to Israel as first violinist of the Tel Aviv Soloists, guest violinist of the “Israeli Chamber Project” and, as of 2013 and concertmaster of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem.

Hadar has immersed herself well in the style and mentality of the Kurt Weill song, an impressive feat.  Her short readings throughout the concert were pithy and interesting. Taking on their theatrical aspect with natural pizzazz, she was well versed (introducing songs in just a few words) and convincing in the characterization of the decadent, provocative and intensely human personalities voiced in the lyrics. As was Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) in the original performances of these songs, she was humorous and vulnerable; Keren Hadar also radiates poise and strength. Maestro Dinur drew all the threads together with confidence, unflagging energy and clarity, proving that singing with a microphone can work in the concert hall with careful balance. His close communication with singer and instrumentalists produced high quality performance. The evening concluded with Hadar and orchestra performing Weill/Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”, with the audience reveling in its popular melody and buoyant rhythm and…well…actually taking a liking Mack the upbeat thief, murderer, rapist and arsonist, especially the ladies!

Maestro Yaniv Dinur

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