Saturday, November 16, 2013

Soprano Sivan Rotem and pianist Jonathan Zak in "Viva l'Espagna"

Autumn weather had offered some of its different moods on November 9th 2013. A light rainfall had brought freshness to the luxuriant gardens of the Eden-Tamir Music Centre, Ein Karem, Jerusalem. A vivid extravagance of cacti, cyclamen and roses, not to speak of trees heavily laden with fruit, welcomed concert-goers as they made their way up the stairs to the concert hall. The event in question was “Viva l’Espagna” or “La Maja y el Ruisenor” (The Maiden and the Nightingale), featuring soprano Sivan Rotem and pianist Jonathan Zak. The audience included a conspicuous number of Spanish speakers.

Born in Buenos Aires, Sivan Rotem began her musical training as a violinist. Having graduated from Haifa University in English and Literature, she proceeded to take a degree in singing from the Academy of Music, Tel Aviv University, then continuing her vocal studies with Ellen Faull (USA). Sivan Rotem has performed in Europe, South America and South Africa. She appears with all leading Israeli orchestras, has sung leading roles with the New Israeli Opera and has recorded for Helicon, Romeo Records and the Naxos label.

Israeli-born Jonathan Zak is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music (New York). In 1969, he, violinist Uri Pianka and ‘cellist Simca Heled established the Yuval Trio, which had a long and illustrious career in Israel and further afield. As duo pianists, he and Irina Friedland have performed in Israel and Europe. An international soloist and recitalist, Zak has recorded and done much accompanying of Israeli- and overseas artists. A professor of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv University), Jonathan Zak frequently serves as jury member in international music competitions.

The recital opened with five of the Tonadillas (1912) by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), settings of poems by Fernando Periquet, (“tonadilla” meaning a “little song”). In these delightful miniatures, the theme is the men and women of Madrid and their various attitudes to romance. In the whimsical “El tra la la”, a woman informs her man that she will continue to sing, no matter what he says or does to her. Rotem’s gestures and facial expression reinforce the message of each song, with Zak supporting the somewhat folk-like melodies with subtle harmonies and shimmering piano textures. The artists performed “The Maiden and the Nightingale” from Granados’ small opera “Goyescas” H 65 (1913-1915) based on (but with much new material) two piano suites of Granados inspired by vivid of paintings of Goya. An opera sadly neglected in opera houses outside of Spain, the vocal setting of “The Maiden and the Nightingale” has remained popular concert fare. Combining the two subjects most commonly used by Goya – nature and human form - this mood piece depicts a night scene in a garden, a lady and a rapturous bird. The nightingale actually only appears at the end, offering its comments to the woeful tale that has been told. Sivan Rotem’s lyrical, involved performance of it reveled in the piece's sweeping melodiousness and emotions. The piano part was integral, with Zak creating a lush instrumental canvas, complete with bird calls.

Manuel de Falla’s (1876-1946) “Seven Spanish Folk Songs” were composed from 1914 to 1915, at the outbreak of World War I. The songs, based on authentic folk material, come from different regions of Spain and their emotional content is as varied as are their geographic locations and styles. In close collaboration, from the very first piano utterance of the first song – “The Moorish Cloth” - the artists presented a kaleidoscope of Spanish temperament, from the lively seguidilla dance from southern Spain rendered more intense by thick, dissonant piano textures, to the thoughtful “Asturiana”, carefully paced to create some poignant moments. In the rapid Jota, a typical dance in triple time from the Aragon region, Rotem gave her all to the song’s emotional roller-coaster ride, with the piano’s harmonic surprises reflecting humorous twists of the text:
‘They say we don’t love each other because they never see us talking.
But they only have to ask both your heart and mine.
Now I bid you farewell, your house and your window too
And even…to your mother.
Farewell, my sweetheart until tomorrow.’
In their sensitive rendering of “Nana” - a lullaby that had been sung to the composer as an infant – the artists presented Ravel’s unique setting of the fragile piece, with voice and piano having separate agendas. In the seventh song, “Polo”, vehement with the pain of love, the scene is alive with fiery Flamenco music, gypsy presence, drama and intensity.

The Spanish composer Eduard Toldra (1895-1962) ranked high among Catalan composers. Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak performed six of the 71 songs Toldra composed from 1915 to 1960, 21 of which are harmonizations of popular songs. Essentially melodic, the songs communicate a sense of well-being, together with a Catalan mix of nobility, defiance, charm and wit, from the double-entendres of the playful and flirtatious “Game”, to the exotic, sensuous “Lullaby”, to the underlying dejection and magic of nature in “Farewell”. Rotem’s performance of them was appealing and warm, highlighting the composer’s strong connection of words and melody. Once again, Zak drew the audience’s attention to Toldra’s piano writing, which has life and character of its own.

Another Catalan (a, sadly, undervalued) composer and major figure in the musical world of Barcelona, Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is known for his interest in West Indian music, which was, in his words, “originally Spanish, exported overseas and re-imported….finding a place at the periphery of our traditions…”. The “Viva l’Espagna” program included the last two songs from his “Cinco Canciones Negras” (Five Black Songs) of 1945. One of several lullabies on the program, the “Cradle Song to Put a Little Negro to Sleep”, to a poem by Idefonso Pereda Valdés, begins with a description of the wide-eyed baby defying sleep; the mother then assures her child that in sleep he is no longer a slave. Rotem’s singing of the lilting vocal line was soothing and wistful, the polytonal, dissonant underlay of the piano accompaniment a subtle reminder that there was a deep message behind the words of this lullaby. Performed with great joy, with buoyant, unrelenting energy on the part of both artists, we heard “Canto Negro” (Negro Song), to words of Nicolás Guillén. Bristling with shouts of joy, the song describes blacks singing and dancing in the jungle.

Moving to Argentina, Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak performed Alberto Ginastera’s (1916-1983) “Argentinean Popular Songs” opus 10 (1943), pieces covering a breadth of emotion, textural, harmonic and coloristic devices. Each song takes its text from a different Argentinean folk tune. The artists presented each heart-on-sleeve emotion – from melancholy, delicate moments to unbridled joy – together with the release of dance and energy of traditional, native rhythms. The dazzling piano accompaniments are every bit as challenging and interesting as the songs themselves. Another Argentinean composer, Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), ranking close in importance to Ginastera, has sometimes been referred to as the “Schubert of the Pampas”. In his signature style, that blends conservative tonal with lush elements, he succeeded in blending the worlds of "música culta" and "música popular" in song, the major part of his oeuvre. Singing one of his best- known songs “La rosa y el sauce” (The Rose and the Willow), Rotem’s velvety vocal sound was colored with a hint of nostalgia.
‘As it opened, the rose embraced the willow.
The tree loved the rose so passionately!
But a coquettish youth has stolen the rose,
And the disconsolate willow weeps for it. Ah!’
In “The Map of the Plains”, of the huella song/dance style, characterized by alternating 6/8 and 3/4 meters, the artists gave articulate expression to the piece’s sentiments,its longing and intricate vocal and instrumental lines, with the piano introduction and subsequent interludes imitating guitar strumming. The Argentinean/Uruguayan singer, song-writer and actor Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), sometimes referred to as “El Zorzal Criollo” (The Creole Thrush), was the first singer to adopt the tango as a popular song; his suave appeal, his expressive, sobbing baritone, brilliant dramatic phrasing and flair for mournful ballads were well suited to the tango’s emotional language. In his well-known “El día que me quieras” (The Day That You Love Me), Rotem, speaking the words where the melody was taken over by the piano, indulged in a lavishly sentimental rendering of the song, with Zak’s lightness of touch balancing this and adding to its appeal. They then performed “Por una Cabeza” (By a Head), a tango song composed by Gardel and Alfredo le Pera. The song talks about a horse winning a race by the length of one head; the man’s addiction for horse-track gambling is likened to his attraction to women.

The program ended with pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Sebastián Piana’s (1903-1994). Milonga Sentimental, to lyrics of Homero Manzi (1931). Like the tango, the lively, playful milonga was frequently danced by embracing couples, occasionally in rhythmic counterpoint to the musical phrase. The urban milonga emerged in both instrumental- and vocal versions among tango musicians at this time. Piana is considered the father of the modern milonga. Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak delighted the audience with their performance of this saucy dance:
‘A sentimental milonga,
Just to remember you by.
Others complain by crying;
I sing so that I don’t cry.
Your love dried up for some reason,
You never told me the tale.
I comfort myself by thinking
It was a woman’s betrayal…’ (Translation: Coby Lubliner)

For an encore, the artists sent the audience off with an intense, no-holds-barred performance of Mexican composer Agustin Lara’s “Granada” (1932), ending a comprehensive concert of Spanish and Argentinean music, in which Zak offered concise explanations about the composers and works. Zak is also a master accompanist, his playing always shaped, sensitive, elegant and stylistic. The artists worked hand-in-glove all the way. Sivan Rotem’s pleasing voice, her fine intonation, her temperament and total immersion in the fabric of the pieces joined with Zak’s playing to make for a satisfying and enjoyable recital.

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