Monday, December 29, 2008

From Bethlehem to Jerusalem - Concert for Life and Peace

The Concert for Life and Peace is a yearly event that takes place both in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Initiated and produced by Rino Maenza, under the auspices of the Association for Life and Peace, the project began in Christmas of 2001 and is a gesture of friendship, solidarity and hope to the people of Palestine and Israel by the President of the Italian Republic, the Italian Senate, several Italian regional authorities as well as private companies. This year’s concert featured the Capella della Pieta de’ Turchini Orchestra. Formed in Naples in 1987 by its present conductor Antonio Florio, the ensemble is made up of instrumentalists and singers who specialize in the performance of Neapolitan music from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and places importance on performing works of little-known composers. This concert included much Christmas content.

Following words of greeting in Italian, Hebrew and English and the lighting of candles for the first night of Chanukah (the Feast of Lights), the orchestra opened its concert with Angelo Ragazzi’s (c.1680-1750) “Sonata Pastorale” for violin solo and strings. This was followed by Oratio Giaccio’s “Peccatori Su Su”. Giaccio was born in Aversa towards the end of the sixteenth century, composing only secular music before his ordination as a monk in 1620, after which he composed mostly sacred music till his death in Naples towards 1660. The audience enjoyed this attractive pastoral chaconne, scored for strings, harpsichord, Baroque guitar, recorders and percussion, with its folksy, lilting, dance-like refrain, the artists performing without their conductor. Florio gave it a delicate reading. Tenor Giusseppe de Vittorio, remembered for his entertaining and theatrical performance with “Accordone” in the 2008 Israel Festival, is most suited, both vocally and in his freedom on the stage, to music of the folk genre and his Italian good nature lights up the concert hall. He was joined by Rosario Totaro; Totaro’s voice is more of the opera timbre, yet their voices blended well, their sense of timing balancing a sense of spontaneity. The orchestra was again joined by the two tenors in Bonaventura Cerronio’s “Gaudiamus Omnes” (Let Us Rejoice in the Lord), a mosaic of small sections with instrumental ritornelli.

Composer, violinist and organist, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1720-1736) was born in Jesi but moved to Naples in 1725, where he spent his working life in the service of aristocratic patrons, dying of tuberculosis at the tender age of 26. Maria Ercolano was the soloist in Pergolesi’s “Salve Regina” in A minor for soprano and strings. Composed in Latin during the Middle Ages, the verbal text is predominantly used in the Catholic church.
“Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
Our life, our sweetness and our hope
To you we cry, the children of Eve,
To you we send up our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this land of exile….”
Considering the fact that this is a Baroque work, Ercolano, an opera singer trained in Naples, uses much vibrato, but she has much presence, her voice has color and depth, she is convincing both in tragic and in joyful moments and her phrases are well crafted. Her performance of the work was detailed, profound and devotional.

Composer Emanuele Barbella (1717-1777) was born in Naples, working there as a violinist and teacher. Florio gave his lullaby, “Ninna Nonna” for strings and guitar, a dynamic reading characterized by dynamics sometimes ranging from piano to pianissimo, giving it real delicacy. Another Neapolitan composer, Nicola Fago (1677-1745), spent his life directing church music. His oeuvre includes operas, secular cantatas and arias and much sacred music. “Quid hic statis pastores” (There Were Shepherds Standing Here) is a Christmas motet scored for soprano, alto and instrumental ensemble, consisting of recitatives, duets and arias. Taking part in this joyful work was soprano Enas Massalha . Massalha, born in Nazareth, studied in Israel and performs widely in Europe. Those of us who heard her in the 2007 Concert for Life and Peace were interested and delighted to hear her once again this year. In the “Gloria” from Pietro Antonio Gallo’s “Messa in pastorale”, Florio, once more, made use of his palette of dynamic color.

Composer, musicologist, playwright and director Roberto De Simone, born in Naples in 1933, broke off a promising career as a concert pianist to study Anthropology and Ethnomusicology, researching shepherding and farming culture in Campania. In his version of the traditional “La Santa Allegrezza”, we are hard put to stay seated with this spirited, foot-tapping, strophic piece sung by both tenors and bass Sergio Petrarca, with recorders, pizzicato in ‘cello and double bass and the joviality of a tambourine to add to the dance-like quality. The concert ended with a tarantella from Cristofero Caresana’s (c.1640-1709) “Per la Nascita del Verbo”, a piece illustrating the vivacity and liveliness of Neapolitan music of the time, in particular, at Christmas. Opening with an ostinato on guitar and bass instruments, we begin to hear sections sung by tenors and bass, sections sung by the women, as well as a variety of little vocal solos, lovely recorder-playing and the joy of music-making so typical of Italian singers and players. The piece ended as it began, with just the few strand.

The annual Concert for Life and Peace is always a lively, festive affair. Antonio Florio guides his players with precision and understatement. His instrumentalists (and singers) blend well rather than taking on the character of an “orchestra of soloists”. A program of Neapolitan music, performed by a Neapolitan ensemble, has much to interest the concert audience. Fuller program notes, including texts of vocal works, would have been welcome, considering the number of little-known composers represented in the concert and the fact that Neapolitan Italian has its own expressions and nuances not always clear to all who understand basic Italian..

“From Bethlehem to Jerusalem” – Concert for Life and Peace
Capella della Pieta de’Turchini Orchestra
Antonio Florio-conductor
Maria Ercolano, Enas Massalha-sopranos
Alexandra Chebat-mezzo-soprano
Guiseppe De Vittorio, Rosario Totaro-tenors
Sergio Petrarca-bass
The Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre
December 21 2008.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

La Serva Padrona - Pergolesi and Paisiello

Have you ever seen two operas by two composers using the same libretto performed as one performance in one evening and on one stage? This was precisely the case on Sunday December 14 2008 at the Hirsch Theater of Mercaz Shimshon in Jerusalem. The concept was that of Ilya Plotkin, conductor and musical director of the Musica Aeterna Choir and Opera Aeterna.

Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736) had his opera buffa “La Serva Padrona” – The Servant Mistress - (libretto by G. A. Federico, after a play by A. Nelli) premiered in 1733. It served as an intermezzo, a comic operatic interlude, inserted between acts or scenes of an opera seria, in this case, of “Il Prigioner Superbo” – The Proud Prisoner - also composed by Pergolesi. In the meantime, La Serva Padrona has been performed much as a separate and popular opera.

Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), also Italian, was a successful and influential opera composer, writing 94 operas, of which we know. In 1776, Paisiello was invited by Empress Catherine II of Russia to St Petersburg, where he remained for eight years. It was there that he composed his “La Serva Padrona” in 1781.

The story is that of a chambermaid, Serpina, deceiving her master into marriage and is presented in a combination of pantomime, music and comedy of deception, thus fulfilling the function of the “intermezzo”, which was to provide light entertainment and relief from the more serious opera. The characters are Uberto (bass) a bachelor, Serpina (soprano) his maid, and Vespone, Uberto’s valet, who plays a silent role. In the Plotkin concept, there is an extra character – Cupid, the god of love.

The curtain goes up. Ilya Plotkin and his ensemble of string players from the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and two keyboard players are seated at the back of the stage. The stage is eye-catching and tasteful in its sumptuous fabrics and is divided into two symmetrical sides - one side furnished in gold, one side in black. On each bed, an Uberto sprawls out in deep slumber. The enigma of how the two operas can be combined begins to unravel. On the Paisiello side of the stage, Shirelle Dashevsky will play Serpina and Alexei Kanunikov, Uberto; on the the Pergolesi side of the stage, Ekaterina Chepelev with play Serpina and Andrei Trifonov will be Pergolesi’s Uberto. Following the overture, we begin to hear the same text of each aria performed as both Pergolesi and Paisiello composed it. Only at the end do both couples sing together. You could call it seeing double, or, should I say, seeing and hearing double.

Itzhak Pekar, as Vespone, is cast as a mute, but in our performance, he ungags himself in order to be the narrator in a whimsical flow of Hebrew patter, with a word of Italian thrown in here and there. In addition to his articulate speech, Pekar is a fine opera buffa style clown, holding the whole doubled up plot together. Tenor Dmitry Seminov as Cupid, wearing a pastel-colored dress and blond wig, delighted us with his musical renditions of some well-loved arias, of those sung frequently by voice students. Cupid here belongs to both operas, leaving him free to dance with both servant girls.

Reveling in the many lovely solos and duets, both couples (servant and master) brought the libretto text alive in the finest of operatic singing. The singers are all Russian-trained. Shirelle Dashevsky shone with her coquetish sweetness and delightful stage presence. The instrumental ensemble provided fine support for the singers, with the keyboard in the harpsichord register for some pieces, creating a Baroque effect. Costumes were nicely designed and colorful. Opera Aeterna’s yearly performance is a festive event to which the Jerusalem audience looks forward. This was especially enjoyable, joyful, different, surprising, and new in concept. The audience was enthusiastic. Another excellent performance, Aeterna; let’s have more opera in Jerusalem!

“La Serva Padrona”
Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Giovanni Paisiello
Opera Aeterna
Ilya Plotkin-musical director and conductor
Irena Tkachenko-stage design and production
Julia Plakhin-assistant director
Andrei Trifonov, Alexei Kanunikov-Uberto
Ekaterina Chepelov, Shirelle Dashevsky-Serpina
Itzhak Pekar-Vespone
Dmitry Semenov-Cupid
Hirsch Theatre, Mercaz Shimshon, Jerusalem
December 14, 2008

Friday, December 12, 2008

"Raving Winds" - Haydn's Scottish Songs and early keyboard trios

It was December 3, 2008 and we were at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, to hear “Raving Winds” – with Soloists of the PHOENIX Ensemble performing some of Haydn’s Scottish song arrangements and two of his keyboard trios. Soprano Tamar Kleinberger was joined by Yasuko Hirata (Baroque violin), Michael Borgstede (harpsichord) and Phoenix’s musical director Dr. Myrna Herzog (Baroque ‘cello.)

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) first became acquainted with Scottish songs when in London from 1791 to 1792, where he had arranged a few of them as a favor to a publisher friend, William Napier, who was in financial straits. Between 1791 and 1805 Haydn wrote arrangements of almost 400 Scottish songs, most of them for voice and trio, for other publishers, 214 of them, however, commissioned by the Edinburgh publisher George Thomson, who included Pleyel, Kozeluch, Hummel, Weber and Beethoven in his project to collect, edit and publish Scottish, Irish and Welsh folksongs; Thomson’s aim was both to preserve them and provide performance material suitable for amateur musicians, now that there was much music-making in private homes. Haydn’s arrangements, therefore, are a marriage of the gamut of Scottish folk tradition and superb instrumental writing. In addition to traditional folk poems, they include texts by Robert Burns, Alexander Boswell, Anne Grant, Joanna Baillie and Walter Scott. The songs offer some whimsical home truths, they also tell of love, (idyllic and less so), honor and pride, happiness and heartbreak and, in keeping with Scotland’s history, of war. We heard them as scored by Haydn.

“Raving winds around her blowing,
Yellow leaves the woodlands strowing,
By a river hoarsely roaring,
Isabella stray’d deploring –
‘Farewell hours that late did measure
Sunshine days of joy and pleasure!
Hail, thou gloomy night of sorrow-
Cheerless night that knows no morrow!” Robert Burns

Thus began the concert, with Kleinberger’s robust, direct performance of this typically Scottish pentatonic melody, cushioned in instrumental textures no less engaging, taking the audience into the freshness and directness of these songs, which are true gems. Follow the words and the gentle, tongue-in-cheek Scottish humor in so many of them will easily become apparent. In “The Shepherd’s Son”, where the young man sees a lady swimming in a brook and urges her to spend her time in a more suitable manner – sewing, we hear the grinding action of the sewing machine in the accompaniment. On a more serious note, “The White Cockade” (Robert Burns), referring to the Jacobite troops who had no uniform besides the emblem of a white cockade (rosette) on a blue bonnet, tells of a young woman whose love has gone off to war; she is willing to leave everything behind and follow him. Kleinberger’s strong background in theatre as well as the English language made for a performance of convincing directness. She has a large, powerful voice but, unfortunately, with the acoustic of the Scottish Church tending to blur words, both spoken and sung, much of the verbal text was indistinct. The printed program was, therefore, necessary and valuable in its information on each of the songs.

The instrumental trio played two early Haydn trios. The early piano trios were composed in mid- to end of 1750’s, when Haydn was musical director to Count Ferdinand Maximilian Franz Morzin. Reflecting characteristics of the Baroque trio sonata, Haydn gives the two trios – that in F major, Hoboken XV: 40 (1760) and that in G major, Hoboken XV: 41 –the title of “Partita” and “Divertimento” respectively, and we hear the ‘cello in its baroque capacity. With harpsichords still widely in use around 1800, it stands to reason that these early trios might well have been performed using the harpsichord. Michael Borgstede’s playing was articulate, ornamented and brilliant, well matched in character to the definite, strongly-profiled style of Yasuko Hirata, enriched and firmly grounded with Myrna Herzog’s secure and highly expressive ‘cello playing. The performance brought out much Haydnesque happiness, sensitive timing and crafted phrase endings; it was a balance between individual expression and the interaction of fine chamber musicians. What was clear to the audience was the sheer joy experienced by the players in performing these works.

Herzog’s creative programs take the audience on a variety of musical adventures. This program provided a rare opportunity to hear these marvelous Haydn Scottish song arrangements and it was an opportunity not to be missed at the hands of such fine musicians. I, myself am looking forward to hearing another performance of the same concert but in a hall with better acoustics; as a lover of lyrics, I would like to follow them word by word!

Joseph Haydn: Scottish Songs and Keyboard Trios
Soloists of Ensemble PHOENIX
Tamar Kleinberger-soprano
Yasuko Hirata-Baroque violin
Myrna Herzog-Baroque ‘cello
Michael Borgstede-harpsichord
St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem
December 3, 2008.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

J.S.Bach, Mass in B minor BWV 232

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem opened its “Voices and Instruments” series of the 2008-2009 season with J.S.Bach’s Mass in B minor BWV 232, conducted by the orchestra’s musical director, Avner Biron. Soloists were Israeli artists - soprano Aviv Weinberg, alto Noa Frenkel, tenor Eitan Drori and British bass Jonathan Gunthorpe. The choir was the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble, directed by Yuval Ben-Ozer.

In 1733, Bach dedicated a “Kyrie” and “Crucifixus” to Friedrich Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, who had converted to Catholicism, hoping to become king of Poland. During the following fifteen years, Bach expanded this Missa Brevis, borrowing from his German cantatas and other existing works, both sacred and secular, producing a compendium of all the styles he had used in writing arias and choruses throughout his life; his use of elements from Gregorian chant and stile antico writing to an almost galant idiom gives the work a sense of timelessness. It is a remarkable feat that Bach shaped a coherent sequence of movements from all the different pieces, at the same time building the finished work’s general structure in keeping with his concern for symmetry. As a deeply religious man, the composer utilized the most emotional means at his disposal for the Credo – the centerpiece of both the work and his own conviction. The Mass in B minor, as we know it today, was assembled a year or two before the composer’s death. Bach was never to hear this monumental work performed during his lifetime; in fact, Bach scholars believe the work was only first performed in its entirety in 1859 in Leipzig, possibly due to the fact that there had been no complete edition of it till 1845.

Biron, with excellent instrumentalists and a very fine choir at hand, presented a performance which emphasized the contrasts, textures and emotional content of the work. The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble, under the guidance of Yuval Ben-Ozer, produced a wonderful choral blend of textures, fine legato singing and a gamut of emotions – from compassion, to tranquility, as in the “Kyrie”, to the joy of the “Gloria”, to the tragic message of “Qui tollis” - controlled, mysterious and understated, with attention to each dissonance and tension. The choir’s singing was bright and accurate in the “Cum sancto” with articulate, brilliantly executed melismatic lines. The “Et incarnatus” was a magical, moving movement, with Biron changing the dynamics with each harmonic change. The “Confiteor”, beginning quite fast, suddenly plunges the listener into the mysterious Adagio section of harmonic tension fraught with diminished chords which bristle with tritones, moving back to a Vivace e Allegro, alive with brassy pomp.

Alto Noa Frenkel performs opera and repertoire from Renaissance- to contemporary music. Her rich vocal color and sensitive reading of the work delighted the audience, from the well-phrased, expressive “Laudamus te”, to the clearly defined “Qui sedes”, the latter involving superb playing of the obbligato oboe on the part of Muki Zohar.

Tenor Eitan Drori (b.1985) is heard performing much early music. He handled his “Benedictus” aria with competence, imbuing it with feeling and color; the flute obbligato in this aria was a treat.

Not to be ignored was the much fine instrumental playing, here and there a little too loud for the singers, but adding excitement and interest in Biron’s interpretation of this much-loved work. The printed program is attractive and informative; translation of the Latin text of the Mass into Hebrew was not always accurate. It was no wonder that the Henry Crown Symphony Hall was packed to capacity. It was an uplifting evening and a fine beginning to the “Voices and Instruments” series.

Johann Sebastien Bach – Mass in B minor, BWV 232
The Israel Camerata Jerusalem
Avner Biron-musical director, conductor
Aviv Weinberg-soprano
Noa Frenkel-alto
Eitan Drori-tenor
Jonathan Gunthorpe-bass
The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble, Yuval Ben-Ozer-musical director
The Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre
December 1, 2008