Thursday, October 19, 2017

Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace" performed at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem

Photo: Frank.D. Roemer
The first Jerusalem performance of Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace” took place on October 16th 2017 at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem. Under the direction of Dr. Helmut Föller, the work was performed by a joint choir made up of the Collegium Vocale Bad Homburg, Germany (director Helmut Föller), the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem) and Schmidt’s Girls College Choir, Jerusalem (director: Erwin Meyer). The instrumental ensemble comprised German- and local players. Soprano Hayat Chaoui sang the solos. Helmut Föller and Erwin Meyer shared the conducting.

Opening the event, Pater Nikodemus Schnabel, pastor of the Dormition Abbey, spoke of the complicated question of performing a piece that includes content from India, the Far East and Muslim liturgical material in a church on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Could this be considered scandalous? Or a loss of identity? The overriding issue he concluded is that of human beings killing each other, that this is what should shock us. Fr. Nikodemus invited audience members to open their hearts to the challenge of the music, to its intellectual dialogue and to have the courage to be changed by it..

Welsh oboist and composer Karl Jenkins (b.1944), whose oeuvre ranges from pop, to symphonic music, spiritual chorus, ethnic music and to film music, composed the “The Armed Man” in 1999, at the time of the Kosovo conflict. It was premiered in April 2000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall and has since been much performed and recorded. Jenkins explains that “The Armed Man” was inspired by the "L'Homme armé" Masses that were prevalent in the 16th century, and he makes this reference clear with movements based on Renaissance polyphony. The work also includes writing in earlier and later styles. In the masterful weaving of disparate sources into a coherent and compelling whole, “The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace” manages to  combine parts of the Ordinary of the Mass  with other texts pertaining to war and its horrors -  a Japanese poem about the firestorms that followed the atomic bombs, an apocalyptic passage from India's Mahabharata and more.

A crossover work of this variety poses many challenges to performers, yet this group - a mix of amateurs and professionals - gave poignant expression to the many styles and gestures used by Jenkins. Bookended by two different treatments of the 15th century melody, the work’s contents emerged as moving and shocking, its  emphasis on the dehumanisation of war as strong as its humanistic statement. In meticulously coordinated and precise performance, the three percussionists gave credence to the work’s stark, arresting message, as did the very fine brass players. Oboist Stefan Gleitsman’s solos were exquisitely performed. Altogether, the instrumental ensemble contributed high-quality and engaging performance.

The conductors’ dedicated work amalgamated  choral singers of different ages and backgrounds into a splendidly blended choral ensemble, attentive to detail and colour. Their singing pleased with its pure, unforced and unmannered quality, whether engaging in the haunting tones of the “Sanctus”, the calming, velvety textures of the “Agnus Dei” and the “Benedictus” or in the clamorous tutti sections describing war scenes:
‘The earth is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions—
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!’       Rudyard Kipling “Hymn before Action”

German-born soprano Hayat Chaoui’s stable, crystal-toned voice and her fine diction gave expression to solo sections in singing that was at the same time objective, moving and subtle. In “Now the Guns have Stopped”, against the pale otherworldly sounds of high strings, she presents the feelings of personal guilt and sadness weighing on a survivor returning from World War I; the text is by Guy Wilson (b.1950, curator of the United Kingdom’s national museum for arms and armour from 1988 to 2002:)
‘Silent, so silent now,
Now the guns have stopped.
I have survived all,
I who knew I would not.
But now you are not here.
I shall go home alone;
And must try to live life as before
And hide my grief.
For you, my dearest friend,
who should be with me now,
Not cold too soon,
And in your grave,

As “Better is Peace”, the work’s 13th and final section, concluded with a serene chorale, its tranquil harmonies became infused with the sounds of church bells ringing outside, a poignant reminder of where we were.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Stuttgart Chamber Choir, conducted by Frieder Bernius, opens the 52nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Photo: David Goland
Of the three visiting choirs to the October 2017 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, the Stuttgart Chamber Choir (Kammerchor Stuttgart), under its founder and musical director Frieder Bernius (no new face to the Israeli concert stage) performed a program of works of Bach and Romantic composers at the festival’s opening concert in the Kiryat Yearim Church on October 11th. Founded in 1968, the ensemble today comprises mostly young professional singers and is renowned for its high musical standards and stylistic flexibility.


The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s imposing “Te Deum” in D-major written for double choir, soloists and eight soloists. Written in 1826 for the opening of Berlin’s Singakademie building in 1827, Mendelssohn, a newly-baptised Christian, composed his first liturgical work. Although only 17 years old at the time, his complete mastery over every aspect of choral writing is  evident throughout the work. In twelve movements and using Baroque continuo concept, the work relies heavily on the musical language and scoring of the 17th and 18th centuries, producing an eclectic mix of styles. Bernius and his singers’ articulacy of musical expression and diction presented the work’s variety of colour, texture and dynamics. One highlight was the “Te aeternum patrem” (All the world doth worship thee) in which, one by one, each of the soloists commented on the text in ascending/descending patterns. The “Dignare, Domine” (Vouchsafe, O Lord), spiralling into a web of 16-part counterpoint, was also especially moving.


Then, to two solo songs of Gustav Mahler, arranged for a-cappella choir by German composer, conductor and musicologist Clytus Gottwald (b.1925). In “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight) (Rückert) the singers created the haunting mood of the piece (reflecting the composer’s inner conflict in his moment of collapse some months previously), their melodic lines melting seamlessly into each other, here and there meeting in urgency and dissonance, Mahler’s message, though finally positive, tinged with the disturbing death knell. This was followed by “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”  from “Songs of a Wayfarer”, with Gottwald’s brilliant “orchestration” of the voices presented poignantly in subdued tones. Mahler’s moments of happiness are tinged with longing and sadness. Following the Mahler songs, we heard the Stuttgart Chamber Choir in another of Gottwald’s skillfully created arrangements - “Solveijg’s Song” (Peer Gynt), easily the most popular of Edvard Grieg’s 180 songs. The singers gave delicate contrast to the song’s two alternating melodies - the wistful, more nostalgic mood and the gently lilting folk dance-type refrain.


The concert concluded with “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesu, My Joy) BWV 227, J.S.Bach’s longest and most complex motet, written some time between 1723 and 1727 for St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, where Bach was director of music. It uses as its basis the eponymous chorale by Johann Crüger (words by Johann Franck), but includes passages from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. One fascinating aspect of the a-cappella work is its virtually palindromic form, Bach’s experimenting with structure and balance tying in with how the composer augments the four-part chorale settings with movements of both five and three voices and with its message. What characterized this performance was the choir’s means of displaying the work’s stark contrasts - heaven and hell, joy and suffering - achieved in the more vehement, anguished sections through the abrasive use of consonants and detached textures. And, in contrast, for example, how tender and lyrical the 6th section was, the work’s centrepiece double fugue, finally taken to its confident conclusion. The keyword to Bernius’ reading of the work was “clarity”, offering the audience the opportunity to follow all melodic lines, even in the densest contrapuntal moments. A work with a large dramatic range, it is the final chorale, in its directness, returning to simplicity of setting following its copious transfigurations, that leaves the audience humbled and moved.


For its encores, the choir performed two Israeli songs, much to the delight of the audience.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka's recording of three of Dittersdorf's 'Ovid' Sonatas on fortepiano

Michael Tsalka (photo:Timothy K. Hamilton)
James Tibbles (Courtesy:J. Tibbles)
Austrian composer and violin virtuoso Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) was a versatile and highly popular court composer of his time. In fact, at the height of his career, Dittersdorf was considered an eminent Austrian composer and one of the leading figures of the Viennese music scene. His popularity was said to have rivalled that of Haydn, Gluck and Mozart.  Although his music was performed all over Europe, he had never managed to find a source of stable patronage as had Haydn. Sadly, his compositions are infrequently performed today, and publications of his music are hard to come by.  Born Karl Ditters, he was an enormously prolific composer; with his oeuvre including 120 symphonies, 45 operas, sacred vocal music, chamber music and keyboard music. In the mid-1780s, several of his compositions were performed in prestigious circumstances, with the palace of Emperor Joseph II becoming the venue for performances of six of his 12 ‘Ovid’ Symphonies. Today, his most familiar works are his symphonies, of which his programmatic symphonies rank high; those based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” remain his best known. Dittersdorf began writing these symphonies in the early 1780s. He had planned to write a set of fifteen, but only composed twelve. Of these, six survive, those corresponding to the first six stories from Ovid’s work. From his youth, the composer had been enchanted by the beauty of Ovid’s poetry, first writing a series of orchestral movements inspired by “Metamorphoses”, then deciding to integrate them to becoming symphonies of the standard late 18th century four-movement form, with a third movement minuet and fast tempo finale. The symphonies were premiered in 1786. James Tibbles and Michael Tsalka’s world premiere recording “Three ‘Ovid’ Sonatas for Fortepiano, four Hands” brings to light the fact that Dittersdorf himself had arranged them for four hands; the three sonatas on this recording are the only known remaining versions of the six missing symphonies. (A four-hand arrangement of one of the surviving symphonies was recently found, suggesting that the composer might have arranged all twelve.)

Fortunately, the synopses and composer’s own program notes for each sonata appear in the disc’s liner notes. In addition to Dittersdorf’s inclusion of detailed programmatic outlines in the original publication, his intention had been to print the fifteen works with newly commissioned engravings, one to precede each movement -  altogether a mammoth undertaking, aimed at producing an opulent collector’s edition. That, however, was never to be. The sonatas on this recording are as follows: “Ajax and Ulysses” (Book XIII), “Hercules Changed to a God” (Book IX) and “Jason Wins the Golden Fleece” (Book VII). In order to comprehend the composer’s multi-faceted pieces, the listener would be advised to equip himself by reading both the composer’s own notes and the three fables themselves, texts bristling with Ovid’s revisionary mythmaking and disregard of authority. However, on my listening to Tibbles and Tsalka’s performance of the three works, some of the narrative seemed to melt away as I found myself captured by the artists’ presentation of the music’s myriad of shapes and juxtaposition of textures, its daring contrasts, its tenderness and its unconventional outbursts. And yet, of course, it is program music, clearly apparent in such movements as the Recitativo and Arioso of “Ajax et Ulysse”, where Ulysses’ oration is so lifelike, so speech-like, or the poignant and sensitive Adagio of “Hercule changé en Dieu”, conveying Deianira’s melancholy so convincingly, or the majestic arrival, pomp and charisma of Jason, as depicted in the opening movement of “Jason, qui emporte la toison d’or”.

Tsalka and Tibbles’ playing is fetching. Flawlessly coordinated, fresh and clean, bold, dazzling and inspired, their reading of the works strikes a happy balance between their own spontaneity and the inbuilt composure of Classical keyboard style. Splendid passagework and contrapuntal clarity make for engrossing listening, as does Dittersdorf’s concept of “orchestrating” the keyboard. Under Tsalka and Tibbles’ fingers, the Metamorphoses’ many moods and textures emerge with articulacy on Paul Downie’s replica of an 1801 fortepiano, its true, unadulterated sound proving to be an extraordinarily fine vehicle for communicating the composer’s rich and often unconventional world of ideas, colours, textures and moods.  Recorded in Auckland, New Zealand in 2014 for the Naxos label, the sound quality of this disc is consistently good. An enterprising project, “Three ‘Ovid’ Sonatas for Fortepiano, four Hands” makes for engaging listening.

One of New Zealand’s leading players of historic keyboards, James Tibbles has an active international performing and recording career, is deputy head of the Early Music Department of the University of Auckland and serves as organist/director of music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Auckland. He founded and directed “Cantus Firmus”, a Renaissance chamber choir and, till recently, was deputy music director of the New Zealand Youth Choir.

A versatile artist playing both early keyboards and piano, Michael Tsalka maintains a busy international performing schedule and has held more than 100 masterclasses. He is currently serving as artistic director of the Geelvinck Fortepiano Festival (Holland) and, together with Dr. Angélica Minero Escobar, is completing a critical edition of Daniel Gottlob Türk’s keyboard sonatas for Artaria Editions.



Friday, September 22, 2017

The upcoming Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival - October 2017

The Benedictine Crusader Church (photo:Berthold Werner)

The 52nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will take place from October 11th to 14th 2017.
Singer and conductor Hanna Tzur has been the festival’s musical director since 1995. Concerts are held in the spacious Church of the Ark of the Covenant gracing the Kiryat Yearim hilltop and in the intimate Crypt of the 12
th century Benedictine Crusader Church, which nestles in a peaceful, exotic garden. People from all over Israel attend the festival, taking time out from the bustle of everyday life to immerse themselves in good music, enjoy the views over the Judean Hills, to picnic with friends, visit the outdoor performances and browse the craft stalls.

In response to a special request by festival-goers who attended the unforgettable performance of Sicilian Baroque composer Michelangelo Falvetti’s “Il Diluvio Universale”  at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival of October 2016, and indeed  for those who missed the experience, Ensemble PHOENIX, directed by Myrna Herzog, will be presenting the work once again at the upcoming festival (Concert no.8). Joining Ensemble PHOENIX, playing on period instruments, will be sopranos Tal Ganor and Yuval Oren, countertenor David Feldman, tenor Oshri Segev and baritone Yair Polishook. Choirs are always a major attraction of this festival. The 2017 Sukkoth festival will host three overseas choirs: the renowned Stuttgart Chamber Choir conducted by its founder and musical director Frieder Bernius (Concerts 1, 12), the Little Singers of Armenia with their founder, artistic director and principal conductor Tigran Hekekyan (Concert no.7) and a joint concert (Concert no.9) of the Simvol Very Men’’s Choir (Russia) - conductor:Seraphim Dubanov - and the Naama Women’s Choir - founder and conductor: Pnina Inbar.

Other ensembles will be performing in the Kiryat Yearim Church: the Barocameri Ensemble, with soprano Sarah Even-Haim and under the baton of Avner Itai, will perform music of Schubert, Haydn, Bach and Zeira/Orland (Concert no.4); “Stabat Mater” (Concert no.3) will feature soloists, the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra; harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon will direct a line-up of Israel’s finest Baroque singers and instrumentalists in “The Madrigalists Are Back” (Concert No.10); the Vocal Eight Ensemble, with percussionist Erez Munk, will host Yair Dalal in a musical mélange of east and west (Concert no.6).

Wander down to the Benedictine Monastery, where a local man will serve you coffee with cardamom, tea  and rich, sweet pastries under the trees of the exotic, tranquil garden. Then take your seat in the cool, ancient Crypt, where the festival’s more intimate concerts take place. Many of these concerts will offer a crossover musical experience: soprano Tali Ketzef and pianist, conductor and arranger Eran Zehavi will offer a selection of opera, operetta, numbers from musicals and film music in Concert no.12; oud player/violinist Yair Dalal with singer Lenka Lichtenberg will present lullabies in several languages (Concert no.11); in “From London with Inspiration”, soprano Ayelet Cohen and guitarist Uri Yaacov will perform works from Dowland to Adele to Irish songs (Concert no.13); alto Silvia Kigel, pianist Itay Abramovich and violinist Pavel Levin will have you tapping your feet to a rich choice of tangos (Concert no.14); Yair Polishook, one of Israel’s finest and most versatile baritones will be joined by guitarist Eyal Leber in a concert of “Bob Dylan’s Greatest” (Concert no.16); gipsy music will be the theme of Concert no.15, with soprano Shiri Hershkovitz, violinist Saida Bar-Lev and pianist Irit Rob.

Accordion music, an established Abu Gosh Festival tradition, will constitute  the opening event of the 52nd festival, taking the form of performances by a host of excellent accordionists in and around the Church of St. Joseph, Kiryat Yearim, from 12:00 to 16:00 on October 10th.


Saturday, September 9, 2017

"Unbounded Liberty" - German cabaret songs at the 20th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

Soprano Angela Denoke (photo:© Johan Persson)
“Unbounded Liberty - Cabaret Songs between the Two World Wars”, a unique and outstanding event of the 20th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival (director: Elena Bashkirova)   took place on September 8th at the Jerusalem International YMCA. The program is a project of Jerusalem-born pianist and arranger Tal Balshai, today living in Berlin, and German soprano Angela Denoke. In the Jerusalem concert, Denoke was accompanied by Balshai (who offered some words on the works, composers and their times), Israeli-born clarinettist Shirley Brill and ‘cellist Tim Park (USA).

The program started with a tribute to Berlin - Kurt Weill’s “Berlin in Lights” (celebrating the wonders of electric lighting) and the breezy “Under the Linden Trees” (music: Walter Kollo, lyrics: Rudolph Schanzer), the latter speaking of the delightful town and some of its people. This was a kindly, caressing opening to an evening presenting the troubled mood hovering above Germany between World War I and the rise of Hitler, as expressed in songs of a formula mixing poison and saccharine and performed in the cabarets around Berlin. Germany was now a democracy, meaning that art forms no longer suffered from censorship. Sometimes written in the simplest forms of popular music, these often-witty or acerbic songs describe the state of society of the time, venting political dissatisfaction and the mood of decadence, disappointment and despair. And, of course, there are some love songs. Most of the cabaret composers were classically trained, many Jewish, many in exile. Promoting the genre were the original voices of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, whose songs formed a substantial part of the program. Taking a somewhat naive form, “To the Little Radio” (Hanns Eisler, Brecht) tells of a Jewish man fleeing from the Nazis with his little radio. It comes from Eisler’s “Hollywood Songbook”, compiled when the composer was in exile in the USA. From the same collection, we heard “On Suicide”, sensitively performed by the artists, Denoke’s use of her uniquely-timbred yet unforced low register adding to the song’s eerie agenda.  From Kurt Weill’s “Berlin Requiem” (1920), the “Ballad of the Drowned Girl”, one of Brecht’s most potent masterpieces, Balshai’s minimal setting gives the grisly details of the text centre stage, as Denoke relates  the tragic story of 20-year-old Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s rotting body drifting down the Landwehr Canal...“it so happened that she had slipped from God’s thoughts”.

Friedrich Hollaender (1896-1976) was one of the most prolific composers and lyricists of cabaret song literature in Berlin between 1918 and 1933, writing over 200 songs, demonstrating his ability to adapt to the swiftly evolving tastes and expectations of cabaret audiences during the tumultuous Weimar Era, addressing political and social issues and adapting folktales. His repertoire spans playful character pieces to defiant antimilitarist statements and poignant illustrations of poverty and hardship, and via an economy of musical means. Hollaender’s songs  were well represented at the JICMF concert. In one of the ensemble’s many encores, “Peter, Peter, come back to me”, associated with the voice of Marlene Dietrich, Angela Denoke (addressing Tim Park!) expresses the woman’s misgivings at having been unfaithful to her best fellow, Peter. In “Chuck all the men out of the Reichstag”, Denoke gives zest to the text and its message: women are letting us know they have found their voice and are ready to stand together for a new feminist movement and for professional equality.

On an evening in the late 1920's or early 1930's, Berlin night crawlers might have slipped into the celebrated Tingel-Tangel club, which was run by  Hollaender, or  one could visit Kurt Robischek's Cabaret of Comedians (‘Kabarett der Komiker’, popularly called ‘Kadeko’) where the music of Mischa Spoliansky reigned. The advent of sound films ushered in a second career for Mischa Spoliansky, as a cinema composer. In the film “Love No More”, released in 1931,  Margo Lion gave a raucous rendering of Spoliansky’s “You can’t Live without Love”,  (lyrics: Robert Gilbert).  Spoliansky himself appeared in the film, billed as ‘Piano Man’. Denoke’s performance of the song, however, was mellifluous and colored with dynamic variation. Her singing of Spoliansky’s “The Lavender Song” carried a sense of urgency, with the refrain spelling out the song’s message with the greatest of articulacy. Written in 1920 under the pseudonym of Arno Billing  (lyrics: Kurt Schwabach) this song was dedicated to the German-Jewish physician and sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and is considered one of the first gay anthems:
‘Why the torment
to impose
morals of others on us?

We, listen to this,
are what we are,
even if they want to hang us.
But who thinks,
that we are going to be hanged
for that one we would have to feel sorry
but soon, listen up,
all of a sudden
our sun will be shining too…’

Werner Richard Heymann was the most famous film composer in Germany and France until 1933. His music was heard  from the orchestra pits of the great theatre stages and on the battered pianos of tiny cabaret cellars. A serious classical composer, Heymann once confessed that he had never intended to write popular songs, but it seems he learned to enjoy writing them. One of the most spine-chilling moments of the Jerusalem event was Denoke’s performance of Heymann’s “The Cold”; her portrayal of the poor and homeless was haunting, the chill almost palpable in both the arrangement and especially in Denoke’s singing.

Tal Balshai has made a deep enquiry into the genre of German cabaret songs. His reworkings of the piano accompaniments for trio are artistic and elegant, offering each player possibilities for  personal expression and involvement in each verbal text; the instrumental roles reflect the emotional complexity of the repertoire. All three instrumentalists took up the challenge, adding much aesthetic pleasure to the evening. Balshai and Angela Denoke read each other well: they have been working together for 11 years. Angel Denoke is an extraordinary artist: she is comfortable on stage, charming, natural and unmannered, as she communicates with her audience and players. She enlists her fresh, rich and flexible voice in each item, appealing directly to the listener’s emotions. A real treat for the German speakers amongst us, it was the kind of concert you did not want to end!


The Leipzig University Choir, directed by David Timm, performs sacred German and Austrian music at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Fr. Nicodemus addressing the audience, the Leipzig University Choir, conductor David Timm, on the right. (Photo:Dr. Michael Borchard)
The Leipzig University Choir, under the direction of David Timm, gave a concert of largely a-cappella works at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, on September 4th 2017. Opening the event, Fr. Nicodemus Schnabel, pastor of the church, spoke of September 4th as being the Feast Day of St. Moses and made reference to Moses’ speech defect and communication difficulties. To highlight this point, Arnold Schoenberg, in his opera “Moses and Aaron” gives Moses a spoken role, while Aaron “translates” Moses’ words in the sung tenor role. Fr. Nicodemus referred to art as a form of translation, of music as actualization and that a choir has the ability of “translation”.

The program commenced with the spirited singing of the opening movement of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s setting of Psalm 98 “Sing to the Lord a new song),  composed in 1843/44 and designed as an Introit psalm. Singing it in Hebrew, the choir members brought out its strong sacred fervour, using consonants to add to the work’s energy. Of the program’s works spanning the 16th to 21st centuries, some were written to texts of Martin Luther’s hymns:  a suavely shaped reading of  Mendelssohn’s setting of Luther’s text “Verleih uns Frieden” (Grant Us Peace) and also “Mitten wir im Leben sind” (In the very midst of life) a motet by Johann Walter (1496-1570), who was a younger contemporary of Luther. An outspoken musical spokesman for Lutherans, Walter edited the first Protestant hymnal. David Timm led his singers with articulacy through the silken lines of its polyphony, highlighting the piece’s introspection. We also heard Timm’s own setting of a prominent Luther text from 1523 - “Nun freut Euch, lieben Christen g’mein” (Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice), its rich verbal and musical canvas coloured with jazzy rhythms, the percussive effects of finger-snapping and the stamping of feet, some very clear vocal lines rising from the texture, clusters and evocative chordal comments on the organ played by Timm as he conducted the work. The singers took on board the challenging musical techniques evoking the work’s dramatic message of the struggle and triumph of belief over sin.


In another setting of "Verleih uns Frieden”  from Heinrich Schütz’ “Geistliche Chormusik” collection of 1648, the composer links Luther’s plea for peace to the mood in war-torn Germany, following the horrific Thirty Years War. In fact, vivid artillery-like note repetitions  feature prominently in the music, with warlike fanfares (often led by the tenors) present. This Leipzig University Choir singers gave expression to the variety, subtlety and sophistication of this five-part texture.

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” BWV 225, J.S.Bach’s motet setting of Psalms 149 and 150 and of a hymn of Johann Gramann, may also have some connection to Martin Luther. Possibly written in 1727 for the Leipzig city and university festival celebrating the birthday of King August (following his recovery from a grave illness), it has, however, also been suggested that the double-chorus work may have been composed for the memorial service of Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, titular Queen of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who had been unwilling to renounce Lutheranism for Roman Catholicism. Whatever its genesis, this is one of Bach’s most complex and ambitious motets, demanding instrumental virtuosity of the singers. I think those attending the concert would agree that the work is both musically- and visually interesting. The choir’s Abbey performance of it allowed for the audience to follow its word-painting, its play of motifs, the curious order of entries in the enormous fugue of the first section, the two choirs’ engagement in spirited antiphonal communication in the third section, how Bach weaves an aria so ingeniously through the chorale and  then the mighty four-voiced fugue of the final section.

Anton Bruckner’s “Locus iste” (This place) (1869) was composed for the dedication of the votive chapel of Linz Cathedral, where he had been church organist. Majestic, dramatic and rich in contrasts and chromatic at times, David Timm utilized small pauses to allow for the play of echo in the church’s acoustic.

Towards the conclusion of the evening, we heard two homophonic, chorale-like pieces from Max Reger’s “Acht geistliche Gesange” (Eight Sacred Songs) op.138, composed in Meiningen in 1914. This collection, based on short texts from the German Psalter, shows Reger’s mastery of straightforward setting, referred to as the “new simplicity”. Works not frequently enough performed, the choir’s articulacy and precision were matched with much dynamic interest.

And for a different and special item: playing the Dormition Abbey’s large Oberlinger organ, David Timm presented his own Romantic-style improvisation on the “Agnus Dei” from J.S.Bach’s Mass in B-minor, his playing  brimming with warmth, musical ideas, personal expression and reflection.

Felix Mendelssohn had been quoted as saying: “The most natural music of all occurs when four people go out together in the woods or in a boat, and carry the music with them and inside them." For an encore, the choir sang Mendelssohn’s “Abschied vom Walde”, sending the audience home with with a strong endorsement of Mendelssohn’s ideal of the rewards of the singing of part songs.The Leipzig University Choir, under Maestro David Timm’s direction, is an ensemble engaging in performance that is varied, informed, disciplined and polished.



Friday, September 1, 2017

The "Sounding Jerusalem" Festival 2017 - concert at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

Photo: Dr. Michael Borchard
Established in 2006, the “Sounding Jerusalem” Festival was back again after a hiatus of six years, presenting concerts in Jerusalem’s Old City and one in Jericho. Founded, developed and led by Austrian ‘cellist Erich Oskar Huetter, the festival has always aimed to offer musical experiences to people living in Jerusalem and the surroundings, irrespective of their ethnic-, social - or religious affiliations, its musical agenda of classical and innovative chamber music constituting a dialogue between European- and Middle-Eastern musicians. “About Possibilities” is the theme of the 2017 festival, inviting the listener to reflect on life’s perspectives, options and opportunities. This writer attended “Icons of Chamber Music” at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, on August 28th, 2017.

Welcoming guests to the concert, pastor of the abbey Fr. Nicodemus reminded those assembled that August 28th was the feast day of St. Augustine. Nicodemus drew parallels between the many spheres St. Augustine touched and the diversity of emotions in the music of Franz Schubert, whose String Quintet in C-major D.956 would be performed at the concert. Fr. Nicodemus recommended we listen to it “with emotional ears”.

The program opened with a seldom-heard and curious work - G.F.Händel’s Suite in D for trumpet and strings (or organ?) HWV 341. Referred to as “Mr. Händel’s Celebrated Water Piece”, the work is actually an anonymous hybrid arrangement of dances, incorporating some bits of Händel’s music. It was probably written in 1715, prior to the grander Water Music Suite of 1717. In its chamber arrangement (minus timpani), we heard violinists Eszter Haffner (Austria) and Suyeon Kang (Australia), violist Vicki Powell (USA) and ‘cellist Paolo Bonomini (Italy), with  Rainer Auerbach (Germany) in the solo trumpet role. As to the sections representing Händel’s writing, the Overture comes straight from his Water Music, with the stately March, the Suite’s final movement, taken from “Partenope”, one of the composer’s more obscure operas.The event’s highly international ensemble gave the work a fresh, buoyant and festive reading, its up-front agenda presented with articulacy. Auerbach’s splendid playing was characterized by dynamic variety and his rich timbre, and enhanced by some tasteful Baroque-style ornaments.

The core work of the concert was Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C-major D.956, referred to by Huetter as “living a whole life”. Composed in September 1828, two months prior to Schubert’s death, it perhaps represents the composer’s summing up of his all-too-short life. What is unique to his final instrumental composition is its configuration for two ‘cellos, whether to cater to the particular string players present at his brother Ferdinand’s house or to add a sense of intensity and mellowness to the work’s gestures. From the very opening chords of the first movement, the players transported the listener into the work’s profound world of contemplation and emotions, its melodiousness, its delight and delicacy, its urgency and its kaleidoscope of moods, as the artists engaged in the uncompromising,  bold shaping of phrases. In the Adagio, its plaintive, otherworldly opening was highlighted by first violinist Eszter Haffner’s heart-rending gestures, the movement’s mood then abruptly becoming a frenetic scene of dramatic action. The artists conveyed the return of the introspective section, its dialogue between first violin and second ‘cello so human, with even more poignancy than in its original statement. Issued in with a fanfare, the boisterous, high-spirited Scherzo, whisking away any memory of the soul-searching Adagio, never fails to surprise and confound many listeners, but, for the Trio, the artists colored it with melancholy as a reminder of the profoundly sad feeling never far away in the quintet, with the Scherzo’s return reestablishing the work’s life-affirming statement, as does the final Allegretto, which was performed with charm, presenting its appealing Hungarian dance music and perhaps making reference to the lively Viennese cafe scene. The artists’ performance of the work gave expression to Schubert’s daring and revolutionary “orchestral” approach to writing for the small string ensemble, as they recreated its vast contrasts of light and color as well as Schubert’s serenity, eloquence and poetry, still enigmatically a vital element of the style of the dying composer now plagued by ill health and disappointment.

For their encore, Huetter decided that Austrian composer Joseph Lanner’s “Styrian Dances” opus 165 would tie in with the dances of the last movement of the Schubert Quintet. Joseph Lanner (1801-1843) and Johann Strauss Sr. were the original “waltz kings”. Sadly today, outside of Vienna, Lanner’s music is now forgotten. Dating from 1841, the “Styrian Dances” are based on folk melodies from the province of Steyermark (southwest of Vienna) and constitute one of Lanner’s most popular compositions. Once again, Eszter Haffner led the players with consummate skill, steering the sweetly sentimental music with rubato, variety, surprises and with the wink of an eye!


Monday, August 7, 2017

Festive concerts and two operas performed by participants in the 2017 International Masterclasses of Vocal Arts & Žamboki Awards

Cast of Viva la Mamma (Courtesy Jessie Fong Chung Tse)
From July 26th to August 6th 2017, the International Masterclasses of Vocal Arts & Žamboki Awards, Jerusalem, took place for the third consecutive year. From its modest start in 2015, the project has grown into a multi-faceted program, enriching its students from many countries with high-quality tuition, offering them a fulfilling experience on both artistic and personal levels and, for those at the outset of a career, providing a springboard into the opera world. The project been made possible through the generosity of Ruth and Josef Žamboki. Serbian-born engineer Josef Žamboki.and his sister were the only survivors of their family after World War II. In building musical ties between aspiring- and established musicians, the project celebrates the memory of the man who saved Josef in the Holocaust . Since its inception, sought-after international singer and vocal arts teacher Rona Israel-Kolatt has directed the summer course. In her words of welcome, Ms. Israel Kolatt writes: “We place emphasis on performance of works of contemporary composers. This year, we are presenting two premieres. Once again, we are  hosting some of the world’s the finest teachers and performers and are privileged to receive the generous support of the Goethe Cultural Institute and the Anni Eisler-Lehmann Foundation (Mainz, Germany), the latter working to further careers of Jewish singers in Germany.”

The IMVAJ’s Festive Orchestral Gala took place at the Israeli Center for Excellence through Education (Jerusalem) on July 30th, 2017. Under the baton of Maestro Barak Tal, the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra accompanied the many and various vocal solos, duets and ensembles, setting the scene for the opening section of Mozart opera numbers with a performance of the Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro”.  Israeli and overseas soloists Roi Sarouk, Marco Ostojic, Ognjen Milivojsa, Yarden Kiperman, Shai Terry, Christian Wagner, Esther Alayev Kopel, Jessie Fong Chung Tse, Iris Brill and Yael Sayag conjured up the magic and drama of  opera repertoire from Handel to Puccini in outstanding solo performances. Duets and ensembles were presented with brio and competence. To mention just a few of the evening’s highlights - baritone Marco Ostojic’s intense, dramatic performance of “Tutto è disposto...Aprite un po'quegli occhi” (“Marriage of Figaro”, Mozart), baritone Ognjen Milovojsa’s informed, free and theatrical singing of “Madamina, il catalogo è questo(“Don Giovanni”, Mozart), soprano Yarden Kiperman’s fine vocal control and intense emotion in “Svegliatevi nel core" (“Giulio Cesare”, Handel), Shai Terry as an evocative, bold Carmen in “Les tringles des sistres tintaient” (“Carmen”, Bizet), soprano Esther Allayev Kopel’s powerful and dynamic reading of "Otchego eto prezhde ne znala" (Iolanta, Tchaikovsky), the fresh, honeyed voice, superb technique and musicality of soprano Jessica Tse in “Caro nome” (“Rigoletto”, Verdi), mezzo-soprano Iris Brill’s gripping and tragic singing of “O don fatale” (“Don Carlos”, Verdi) and soprano Yael Sayag’s fine acting and despair in “Tu, tu piccolo Iddio” (“Madama Butterfly”, Puccini). The high quality performance of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra added elegance and colour to the festive evening.

In “Sonorities Round the World”, taking place in the Ran Baron Hall of the Israeli Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on August 1st, we heard the IMVAJ participants who had been working on Lieder and opera arias under the guidance of Prof. Claudia Eder (Germany). Singers taking part  in the concert ranged from high school students to experienced, established artists. Of the fine line-up of artists, baritone (pianist and conductor) Stefan Zekic’s singing  radiated impactful presence and feeling. Russian-born tenor Sasha Rozbizev performed pieces of both A.Scarlatti and Mahler, delving convincingly into the emotional agenda of each. Mezzo-soprano Iphigenie Worbes displayed vivacity, flexibility and good stage presence. Another young mezzo-soprano, Anna Tetruashvili, presents a large focused sound; her singing of Handel was delicately ornamented, her reading of Marc Lavry’s “Dark am I”, meaningful. Jerusalem Academy of Music student Maya Golan’s performance of Paul Ben-Haim’s setting of a poem of the poetess Rachel was profound and poignant. Her fellow student, Tal Malkinson, a soprano with fine vocal control and communicative skills, gave a moving rendition of Mordechai Zeira’s “Those Were Nights” (Lyrics: Yaakov Orland).Of the two youngest members of the class, Shir Ben Meir is showing musical versatility; high school graduate soprano Shira Ziv’s singing reveals confidence, ease and agility. American Laura Snyderman is a soprano with a “strong, heroic voice”, excellent control and technique. She chose to sing her countryman John Duke’s (1899-1984) “The Bird”. Seeing the evening out was soprano Shirelle Dashevsky’s masterful and engrossing  performance of “Leah’s Aria” from Yaakov Weinberg’s opera “The Pioneers” (1924), the first folk opera in Hebrew. The intimate, wood-panelled Ran Baron Hall was the perfect venue for such an event.  Adding to the event’s level of excellence were Chaim Tukachinsky’s artistic piano accompaniments.

August 2nd saw the Israeli premiere of Gaetano Donizetti’s two-act dramma giocoso  “Le convenienze ed inconvenienze teatrali” (Conventions and Inconveniences of the Stage) or “Viva La Mamma” (libretto: Domenico Gilardoni). The performance took place at the Israeli Center for Excellence through Education (Jerusalem). Serbian-born Aleksander Nikolić took on both stage direction and design, conductor was Israeli-born Jonathan Spandorf, pianist - Tohar Gil, lighting - Sasha Sorin and costumes - Varda Rubinstein and Nikolić. Donizetti’s farce revolves around the “convenienze” of  any 19th century opera house -  the ranking of singers, number of scenes, arias, etc. A  third-rate opera company is rehearsing “Romulus and Ersilia”, the prima donna (Jessie Fong Chung Tse) is refusing to take direction, the other principals are not much better and the lead tenor (Marc Shaimer) does not have the ability to sing his part. Mamma Agata (Ognjen Milivoja) the mother of the second donna appears on the scene, demanding that her daughter (Marianna Blinova) be given an aria; the company loses half its cast, leaving the way open for Donna II to make her debut alongside the prima donna’s husband (Christian Wagner). With the production becoming a fiasco and no money to pay back the investors, the troupe solves all these problems by fleeing the town at night. “Viva la Mamma” is a laugh a minute! First performed in 1827, the opera has a female baritone role - Donna Agata - quite rare for the genre. Milojovsa carries it off well and the costume designers make capital of the cross-dressing role, especially in his/her second somewhat risqué outfit. Jessie Fong Chung Tse plays the drama queen with relish, Marc Sheimer proves that he can be a hopeless tenor if necessary and all hell breaks loose. Iris Brill (the impresario) in a role that demands more speech than singing, does a very nice job of updating Hebrew-speaking audience members on the increasingly chaotic situation. And there are many whimsical touches: with a multilingual cast on stage, we hear jocular snatches of speech in different languages. The stage is alive with movement, much of it comical and, to the surprise of all who have come to hear a Donizetti opera, there is the versatile Shirelle Dashevsky (Dorothea) suddenly singing a jazzy piece (no text), partnered by the pianist!  With its timeless theme of jealousy and one-upmanship in the theatre, “Viva la Mamma” is one of Donizetti’s more obscure works, yet, despite the anarchy on stage, the music still works out, and it actually includes several very challenging passages for the chorus. Considering the minimal time available for preparation and rehearsals, the IMVAJ team and singers gave of their all, delighting in the opera’s boisterous fun and pulling out all the plugs. And, as the audience shifted from a chuckle to a belly laugh and back again, there were constant reminders of the fact that that Donizetti can write a good melody!.

Another significant event of the workshop was the world- and Israeli premiere of “Albert”, a one-act opera composed by Moshe Zorman to a Hebrew libretto by Oded Liphshitz (b.1981). Sivan Handelsman undertook the stage direction, stage design and costumes, Dor Magen was  conductor, with Elisha Krawets at the piano. This writer attended the performance at Tzavta, Tel Aviv on August 6th.

The libretto for “Albert” was adapted from Liphshitz’ play of the same name, a work that won the playwright the Bernstein Prize for Literature in 2012. Middle-aged Albert is is diagnosed as having an enlarged libido for a man of his age and an uncontrolled passion for women. After visiting his doctor, he attempts to find a solution to his burning desires. Albert’s search leads him to the library, to the world of Zen in the Far East and to other places. Every pursuit  leads to a new even more challenging problem. When all fails, the doctor turns to more desperate measures. Albert cries out to God,  the devil appears and Albert looks on as faces from the past appear. In the role of Albert, baritone Roi Sarouk’s finely timbred voice and musicality did justice to the highly melodious score, his clarity of diction faultless. Albert was not portrayed as a flirtatious, confident macho man but as a somewhat pathetic figure, dependent on the dominant figure of the doctor (Yarden Kiperman in a pants role) to help him solve his problem. Shai Terry, as Albert’s sister Mika, made for an empathic, supportive character. Dressed in white, the “four girls” (Inbar Livne,Yael Manor Danler, Anna Tetruashvili, Dalia Bespozvany) formed a kind of all-purpose Greek chorus, dancing, singing, moving props, setting the scene visually and musically for each situation and location. The props themselves consisted largely of hospital screens, there to remind the audience that Albert’s state is indeed a clinical problem. Zorman’s music, attractive, articulate, never overloaded and gently poised on the border between tonal- and atonal writing, reflects Albert’s dejected state. The is much melody for the singers. Elisha Krawets (also dressed in a surgical coat) played the piano score, one utilizing motifs and occasional quotes, with good taste and refinement. Of his oeuvre of some 100 works, Israeli composer, conductor and pianist Moshe Zorman (b. 1952) has composed ten operas to date. His music defies any one specific style, his writing comfortably blurring the borders between classical- and light music, and with a touch of whimsy.

Kudos to Rona Israel Kolatt and her team for the inspiration and energy they invested in making the workshop one of value and excellence.  

Rona Israel Kolatt (photo:Michal Harduf  Raz)