Saturday, July 12, 2008

Music from the Lively Court of Dresden

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s final concert for the 2007-2008 season was “Music from the Lively Court of Dresden”, a program of music by Antonio Lotti and Jan (or Johann) Dismas Zelenka. The concert was conducted by Andrew Parrott, the JBO’s honorary conductor. At the harpsichord was Dr. David Shemer, the orchestra’s musical director. For the last 18 years, the JBO has been performing Baroque music on period instruments according to historical performance practice, putting Israel on the map in Baroque orchestral playing of the highest standard.

In the 18th century, Dresden, the capital of the Saxon Electorate, also referred to as “Florence on the Elbe”, was one of the most vibrant cultural centers of Europe. Saxony enjoyed its “Augustan” Golden Age under the reign of Frederick Augustus I (Augustus the Strong) and his son, Frederick Augustus II. The Dresden royal orchestra, the “Hofkapelle”, was known far and wide, performing church music, opera and works written for events at court. Vivaldi and J.S.Bach, in particular, both had connections with the court and its orchestra.

Antonio Lotti (1776/7-1740) was born in Venice and made his name as a musician at St Mark’s Basilica as an alto singer and organist, and he was a renowned teacher; in 1736 he became maestro di cappella, a post he held till his death. In 1717, the Crown Prince of Saxony was in Venice with specific instructions from his father, the king, to secure the services of singers for the court opera and church in preparation for his wedding in 1719. Lotti was given leave to go to Dresden and he left Venice with his wife, a librettist and a number of singers. In Dresden, he composed three operas. In October 1719, Lotti and his wife– the singer Santa Stella- left Dresden to return to Venice. As a souvenir of his visit, he was able to keep the carriage and horses given him for his return trip to Venice.

Lotti composed 24 operas in all, but only eight have survived. “Alessandro Severo”, premiered in 1716, was one of Lotti’s final operas for the city of Venice before he left for Dresden. Apostolo Zeno, a member of the Arcadian Academy, wrote the libretto; he was one of the first to define the “opera seria” as a return to “classical” drama. The JBO’s concert opened with the Sinfonia to the opera. Scored for strings and harpsichord, in three sections, it was given a crisp rendition. Sandwiched between two lively movements, the slower middle section was furtive and singing, with dissonances producing harmonic tensions.

Lotti’s “Missa Sapientiae” is among his most important religious works. Around 1730, J.D. Zelenka, having given the mass its name, added to its instrumentation. Handel copied out sections, using them in some of his oratorios and Bach owned a copy of it. For this performance, the JBO was joined by the Collegium Singers, a first class ensemble of twenty-five young, professional singers, founded by Avner Itai, its conductor, in 1997. Most of the soloists of the evening are members of the choir. Scored for strings, organ, harpsichord, oboes and bassoon, the work is a remarkable collage of pieces, of solos, groups of soloists, choruses, and so on. Different textures contrasting one another make this work interesting. Soprano Efrat Carmoush was impressive and competent; I also enjoyed hearing baritone Assif Am-David. The “Qui tollis” was especially moving, with a small two-note motif dominating the first half, repeated and imitated by upper and lower strings. In the “suscipe deprecationem nostrum” (Receive our prayer) the words were not only distinct but shaped beautifully into the musical phrase. The final movement, “Cum sancto spirito”, was rich in color and contrapuntal strands, exuberant and convincing.

Born in Ludovice, Bohemia in 1679, Jan Dismas Zelenka moved to Dresden in 1710, playing violone (a very large viol) in the court orchestra and receiving the title of “Court composer of church music” due to the numerous sacred works he had composed for the Dresden Catholic church. He died there in 1745. In 1715, he left for Vienna to study counterpoint under Johann Joseph Fux (whose book “Gradus ad Parnassum”, whereby the rules of counterpoint are set down, is still read by students of counterpoint.) On traveling to Venice in 1716, he met Lotti and may have studied with him; this meeting laid the basis for their friendship that would continue into the period they would be together in Dresden. Zelenka returned to Dresden in 1719 and the sophisticated counterpoint of his works written thereafter show results of his time studying with Fux. Zelenka composed the “Ouverture Hipocondrie” in 1723 for the crowning ceremony of Charles VI of Bohemia. The name given to this work is somewhat of an enigma but people in Zelenka’s circle of the time have mentioned that he suffered from bouts of hypochondria. Scored for strings, oboes, bassoon, and harpsichord, the work opens with a movement in dotted rhythms, the oboes playing in parallel rhythms. The second movement gives opportunities for quite demanding instrumental solos, punctuated by short homophonic octave sections.

In his motet “In Exitu Israel de Aegypto” Zelenka takes his text from Psalms 113 and 114 but adds the doxology. In this rich and varied work, solos weave in and out of choral sections, with soloists also singing in ensembles; words and music are well wed. Moving through fugual movements, elaborate textures and dissonances, the motet ends with a joyful and richly exhilarating Amen.

British musicologist and conductor Andrew Parrott coordinated orchestra, choir and soloists in a performance that was, indeed, pleasing and interesting, inspiring the audience to listen to music of Baroque composers not familiar to everybody. Looking back on the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2007-2008 season, I feel we are privileged to enjoy programs offering a rich variety of Baroque repertoire together with excellent performance. Shemer’s program notes (only in Hebrew) are always well worth reading. As of this season, Benny Hendel has been presenting a few words about works and composers in the concerts, adding interest, background information and humor.

“Music from the Lively Court of Dresden”
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra
David Shemer-musical director
Andrew Parrott-conductor
The Collegium Singers
Avner Itai-director
Benny Hendel-concert presentation
Efrat Carmoush-soprano
Orly Hoominer-soprano
Goni Bar-Sela-alto
Oded Amir-tenor
Assif Am-David-baritone
Peter Simpson-baritone

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sounding Jerusalem

“Sounding Jerusalem” is a festival taking place for the third year. Under the artistic direction of Austrian ‘cellist, Erich Oskar Huetter, this unique festival constitutes a meeting of people of different cultures and religions and offers three weeks of high quality chamber concerts taking place in beautiful venues around Jerusalem as well as in Abu Gosh, Jericho, Ramallah and Palestinian villages. There is no charge for entrance. In addition to the concerts, Maria Tupay Duque, a freelance artist from Upper Austria, ran workshops for children and young people, whereby some of the musicians played for them, inspiring children and youth to express themselves in color. Some of the paintings were displayed at the various concerts. Huetter’s aim is to present concerts free of charge to all communities in the region. Most of the artists performing in this year’s festival are Europeans, some are Israeli, an orchestra of young Palestinians, a few Japanese players and one Australian.

On a balmy, Jerusalem summer evening, the Artis String Quartet (Austria) was performing a concert titled “Sweet Viennese Dreams” in the historical courtyard of the 12th century cloisters of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City. With daylight fading, we took our seats in the serene courtyard, which boasts trees and greenery and timelessness. The Artis Quartet was founded in 1988 in Vienna, where all members nowadays reside. The quartet has a busy performance schedule; a highlight of their 2006-2007 concert season was their performance in Vienna of all the Mozart string quartets. Violinists and violist perform standing rather than sitting: standing, they explained, allows them to feel less restricted and more communicative.

The program opened with W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) Serenade no. 13 in G major, KV 525, “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, composed in 1787 for chamber ensemble (with optional double bass.) A much loved and accessible work, the opening Allegro was forthright and clean, defined and melodic. The second movement – Romanze: Andante – was not taken too slowly, avoiding the pitfalls of over-sentimentality. With the fine acoustic of the courtyard projecting each note, the audience enjoyed the exuberance of the final movement – Rondo: Allegro.

The String Quartet in F major opus 50 “The Dream” is the fifth of Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) “Prussian” Quartets (1787) and was dedicated to his ‘cello-playing patron King Friedrich Wilhem II of Prussia. Written two years after Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets, Haydn returns the homage by supplying a more Mozartian sound world than in former quartets. As of the initial sounds of the first movement – Allegro moderato- the players entertained the audience, bringing out Haydn’s humorous dissonances. The flowing second movement – Poco Adagio – is luminous and shifts mysteriously, hence its name “The Dream”. The Minuet and Trio were nuanced and shaped, with the intensity of the Finale: Vivace, exciting.

Listening to Mozart’s String Quartet in A major, KV 464, one is unable to imagine the troubles, changes and struggles Mozart encountered in its composition. In fact, it became Beethoven’s favorite of the “Haydn” set, published 1785. An anonymous reviewer, writing in Cramer’s Magazin der Muzik in 1789, wrote ‘Mozart’s six quartets for violins, viola and bass dedicated to Haydn confirm…that he has a decided leaning towards the difficult and the unusual. But then, what great and elevated ideas he has too, testifying to a bold spirit’. The Artis Quartet presented and contrasted both the grace and power of the opening Allegro movement. Their performance of the variations in the third movement – Andante- was delightful in its color and variety. The final Allegro non troppo was rich in counterpoint and textures, ending poignantly.

“Sweet Viennese Dreams”
The Artis Quartet (Austria)
Peter Schumayer-1st violin
Johannes Meissl-2nd violin
Herbert Kefer-viola
Othmar Mueller-cello
The Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Old City of Jerusalem
June 28, 2008

The Artis Quartet’s second concert in Sounding Jerusalem was “Vienna Calling” and took place at the Jerusalem Music Centre. W.A. Mozart’s String Quartet in E flat major, KV 428 (1783) is the third of the “Haydn” Quartets, all composed in Vienna between1782 and 1785. These quartets set new standards for this medium – in richness of invention, density of thought, length and melodic appeal, making more demands on player and listener. They are structured in the fashion Haydn had introduced in his quartets – mainly, that each instrument has its own voice and none are subservient to the first violin. The E flat Major quartet begins boldly with a highly chromatic Allegro non troppo. The artists gave much attention to fullness of sound, tensions and mood changes. The second movement, Andante con moto, is a rich, flowing tapestry of swelling sonorities, dissonances and accents. The third movement – Allegretto (not referred to as a “Minuet”) is characterized by heavy accents and a pedal in the bass, giving it a rustic effect. The fourth movement is virtuosic and varied, with underlying humor.

Alban Berg (1885-1935) was born in Vienna and was a member of the Second Viennese School together with Schoenberg and Webern. Berg’s String Quartet opus 3 was the first of two string quartets and was composed in 1910, though not published until 1920. Berg dedicated it to his wife, Helene, whom he married in 1911.This was the work to establish Berg’s individual style. It is contrapuntal, motivic rather than melodic and wholly atonal. Written in sonata-form, the first movement – Langsam (slowly) – is dark in its statement and highly layered in textures, contrapuntal sections contrasting with a more orchestral approach. It ends contemplatively. The second movement, no more joyful than the first, is outspoken as well as expressive and intimate. Berg uses effects such as flagolettes. With rich sonorities called for, the Artis Quartet gave the audience an intense and moving reading of the piece, taking themselves and their audience to a different region of the soul.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was born in Hamburg but settled in Vienna in 1863. His String Quartet in a minor opus 51 no.2 was composed in 1873. Melancholy and lyric, this quartet was dedicated to his friend, the Viennese surgeon and amateur violinist, Theodor Billroth. The intense opening motif of the first movement – A, F,A, E – was expressive and contrasted effectively with the more relaxed, graceful major second theme. The three-part Andante Moderato movement was given a delicate reading. The open fifth drone in the more homophonic Minuet, a strange element, gave the performance the atmosphere of an ancient tale. The graceful Finale is energetic, and with its hemiolas, produces a dancelike, perhaps gypsy effect, together with fluid melodic lines. The Artis Quartet presented us with a richly varied and profound Brahms canvas.

All hints of Brahmsian tension and brooding were instantly whisked away with a typically whimsical, off-center Shostakovich polka performed playfully as an encore.

The Artis Quartet’s concerts were well programmed and inspiring: chamber music and string playing at its best. The JMC is indeed a superb venue for chamber music.

“Vienna Calling”
The Artis Quartet (Austria)
The Jerusalem Music Center, Yemin Moshe
June 30, 2008

“Spirit of Europe” took place at the Jerusalem YMCA and, as well as being one of the “Sounding Jerusalem” events, was a benefit concert for Physicians for Human Rights –Israel. Here in Israel for the second time, the Spirit of Europe Orchestra, under the baton of Israeli-born Ronen Nissan, was established in 2004, with the expansion of the EU, and is based in the city of Melk, on the Danube. The players, most of whom are young, come from Hungary, the Slovak- and Czech Republics and from Austria. Their concert schedule takes them to EU countries as well as out of Europe as part of the “Dialogue of Cultures” program organized by the Provincial Capital of Lower Austria.

The evening opened with Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Symphony no.44 in e minor “Trauer” (Mourning), composed in 1772. Haydn’s wish was that the Adagio movement be played at his own funeral, hence the title. At the time, Haydn was in the service of the Esterhazy family and it was during those years that he wrote most of his symphonies; there he presided over an orchestra of some twenty players, an ensemble that became one of the best in Europe. The symphony is homotonal, all movements having the same tonic. It begins with an Allegro con brio in sonata form. The orchestra gave it a fresh, crisp and dimensional reading, with plenty of contrast and shape. The oboist added color and lyricism. The Minuetto is in canon form. It was performed with feeling and charm. The third movement, Adagio, was expressive and luxuriant, with delicate piani in muted strings and well-crafted phrase endings. The contrapuntal Finale, opening with a decisive unison statement, is again in sonata form. Nissan gave it exhilarating energy and its excitement was infectious.

We then had the privilege of being present at the Israeli premiere of Benjamin Yusupov’s (b.1962) Con Moto for Marimba and String Orchestra. Pianist, conductor and composer, Yusupov was born in Tajikistan and emigrated to Israel in 1990. His musical language draws from many sources, including the ethnic music of his native Tajikistan. Soloist in this work was the virtuosic Israeli percussionist Chen Zimbalista. The scene was set with a drone and a Slavonic-type melody sounding in the lower strings. Yusupov always creates a landscape. Both modal and tonal, there is mellow tension throughout the movement, which is dramatic and melancholy in character. Zimbalista’s solo had the audience spellbound. The second movement started with Zimbalista on drums and cymbals. The piece developed into a frenzied dance of assymetrical shapes and jagged accents, an unapologetic expression of colors, shapes and timbres and brilliance, all held together by fine ensemble playing. Zimbalista takes your breath away, but at the same time he is blending, watching the conductor and listening to his fellow players.

Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1898, Viktor Ullmann was educated in Vienna where studied form, counterpoint and orchestration under Arnold Schoenberg. He was a journalist and also a fine pianist. In September 1942 he was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he remained active musically. In October 1944, however, he was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where he was killed. His Piano Sonata no. 7, one of his last works, written on scraps of lined paper and dedicated to his children, was composed in Theresienstadt in August 1944. Guided by the composer’s own suggestions on the score, Nissan has orchestrated three of the five movements of the piece, choosing the medium of string orchestra in order to preserve the intimate character of the piano. The opening Allegro, surprisingly under the circumstances, has a feel of well-being, is very European, using bitter-sweet harmonies, jazzy motifs and gentle dissonances. Beginning with a violin solo, the second movement (the third movement of the complete sonata), Adagio ma con moto, is more dissonant and less tonal than the first. The last movement, titled “Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folksong”, opens with the folksong played on the violin, this followed by a set of variations - each a different mood but, in their Yiddishkeit, evoking Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

W.A.Mozart (1756-1791) composed his Symphony no. 29 in A Major KV 201 in 1774. Scored like many previous symphonies for strings, oboes and horns, this symphony is, however, less Italian in style, but with a broader variety of moods, pointing towards the diversity that would characterize his later works. Unusual for Mozart symphonies, the first movement – Allegro moderato- begins with a quiet introduction. The movement was performed in true Mozartian singing manner, with lightness of texture. The Andante, using dotted rhythms and played on muted strings, was elegant and touching in its directness of expression. The Minuet was conversational, nervous and energetic, with the trio being more graceful. The Allegro, con spirito complete with hunting horn calls, was a spirited finale to the performance. Nissan’s attention to fine details and contrasts combines well with the scope of expression and nuances in the orchestra’s palette.

The Spirit of Europe Orchestra is a small, select group of players. Conductor Ronen Nissan is articulate and his players’ performance is lively and dynamic. For their encore, we heard a bold, attractive and gregarious orchestration of “The Purple Dress”, an Israeli song (lyrics-Sasha Argov, music-Matti Caspi.) Not a Viennese waltz, it was, nevertheless, a waltz to be danced.

“Spirit of Europe”
The Spirit of Europe Orchestra
Ronen Nissan-conductor
The Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem YMCA
July 3, 2008

“Sounding Jerusalem” ended with 30 or so brass players sounding from various rooftops in the Old City in a daring performance conceived and directed by German trumpeter Rainer Auerbach. This was a fitting musical message to end the festival.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Les Arts Florissants,Israel Festival 2008

The final concert of the 2008 Israel Festival was an evening of Baroque music performed by Les Arts Florissants (France). Les Arts Florissants, performing for the first time in Israel, is a Baroque ensemble including instrumentalists on original instruments as well as singers. It takes its name (The Flourishing Arts) from a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and is responsible for unearthing and performing a number of neglected, seldom-performed works of the 17th and 18th centuries. It was founded by William Christie in 1979. In 2007, countertenor Paul Agnew took over conducting the group. The concert on June 22 was part of “Harmony 60”, celebrating 60 years of the State of Israel with three months of cultural exchange between France and Israel.

The evening opened with G.F.Handel’s (1685-1759) Zadok the Priest (HWV 258), one of four coronation anthems Handel composed using the English text, for the coronation of George II of Great Britain in 1727; it has since been sung at every subsequent British coronation service. It is thought that Handel himself made the paraphrase from 1 Kings 1:39-40:

‘Zadok the Priest and Nathan, the Prophet anointed Solomon King.
And all the people rejoic’d, and said:
“God save the King, long live the King, may the King live for ever!
Amen, Hallelujah!”’

The orchestral introduction builds up the drama in preparation of the choir’s entry. The middle section “And all the people rejoic’d” certainly rejoices in a triple dance-like section. The festive final section returns to duple time, with Amens threaded in and out of the texture, ending in the Hallelujah, an ornate Baroque cadence. The choir’s English was excellent, as is their diction. Trumpeters, playing on natural trumpets (no valves) added brilliance and excitement to the performance.

French composer and violinist, Jean-Joseph de Mondonville (1711-1772) enjoyed great success in his lifetime. He was well known for his harpsichord music and in 1738 wrote the first manual on playing violin harmonics. Between 1734 and 1755 he composed 17 grand motets, nine of which have survived. These intense and dramatic motets, in the style of the late French Baroque, became dominant in the music of the Chapelle Royale before the Revolution. They consist of arias, duets, trios, choral sections and ritornelli as well as instrumental sinfonias. The last of the motets, “In exitu Israel” (Psalm 114 and not Psalm 113, as was written in the program notes), was composed in 1753 and first performed at the annual Mass in honor of the king. Depicting the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, it includes verbal and musical descriptions of the parting of the waters, of the Egyptians following the Israelites, with Mondonville using word-painting and tempo changes for dramatic use. British tenor Ed Lyon was very expressive, ornamenting with vibrati and other techniques. Baritone Marc Mauillon (France) has a powerful voice and showed superb control, performing runs and ornaments with ease. Soprano Sophie Daneman (U.K.) showed delicacy; her voice, however, was not full enough to always be heard in this setting.

Handel’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”, composed in 1739, happens to be his second setting of the same poem by John Dryden. The main theme of the text is the Pythagorean theory of “harmonia mundi”, presenting music as a central force in the earth’s creation. St. Cecilia was considered the patron saint of musicians. Premiered at the Theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, Handel drew material not only from his own Concerto Grosso no. 5 but also from Austrian composer and organist Gottlieb Muffat’s “Componimenti musicali”, a collection of keyboard pieces. With the dazzling and original result he achieved in a very different kind of Handel oratorio, I suppose the composer is to be pardoned for “borrowing” from another. Consisting of recitatives, choral sections, instrumental sections and soprano- and tenor arias, the work falls into two parts, with a march dividing between them, each part ending with an elaborate choral piece. Discussing the merits of various instruments in an appealing manner, the work presents much word painting and some outstanding solo playing by members of the orchestra – the ‘cello, for example, joining the soprano aria in section 5 and fine interaction between trumpeter and tenor on section 6:
‘The trumpet’s loud clangor
Excites us to arms
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.’
Section 8 was delicate and poignant, with solo flautist and Daneman discussing the “soft complaining flute” against the gentle accompaniment of theorbo and strings. Daneman and Lyon breathed color and meaning into arias and the choir was expressive, perfectly coordinated and polished.

“Les Arts Florissants” has an outstanding choir of soloists working with first class instrumentalists. The audience was excited by their performance as by Paul Agnew’s direction. The 2008 Israel Festival went out with a flourish of brilliance.

“Les Arts Florissants”
Sacred Music by Handel and Mondonville
Paul Agnew-conductor
Sophie Daneman-soprano
Ed Lyon-tenor
Marc Mauillon-baritone
The Jerusalem International Convention Center
June 22, 2008