Monday, December 21, 2009

Russian Jewish music of the early 20th century performed in Jerusalem

“From Forgotten Jewish Music of the 20th Century” was the title given to a recital presented by soprano Shirelle Dashevsky and pianist Zinaida Gladun at the Jerusalem Harmony (Cultures Centre) Hall, December 17th 2009. The program focused on four Jewish composers, also including Jewish folk songs as well as some well-loved Israeli songs.

Coloratura soprano Shirelle Dashevsky, born in the Ukraine, made her home in Jerusalem in 2000. A member of the Musica Aeterna Choir and Opera Aeterna, she divides her time between performing opera, Baroque- and chamber music, collaborating with Israeli composers and artists and her teaching career. Pianist Zinaida Gladun, also from the Ukraine, has been in Israel since 1990. In addition to her work accompanying singers, choirs, instrumentalists and dancers, Gladun sings jazz and pop, conducts choirs and writes vocal arrangements.

Dashevsky, introducing the program, mentioned the Society for Jewish Folk Music, licensed by Czarist authorities in 1908. They had used the term “folk” in their refusal in recognizing “serious” Jewish music. Composers involved in the organization, writing quality music in the late Romantic idiom, were mostly linked to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the four represented at this concert having been pupils of Rimsky Korsakov.

Setting the scene, the artists opened the evening with a medley of Yiddish folk songs. The songs spoke of poverty, of sadness and joy, Dashevsky convincingly depicting the reality of Jewish life at the time.

Alexander Krejn (1883-1951, the son of a well-known klezmer violinist and folk poet), was one of the leading modernist composers of the Soviet Union, playing a major role in the emerging school of Jewish national music. In two pieces from his “Ornamente”, Songs Without Words for Voice and Piano opus 42, he incorporates the modes, pathos and motifs of sacred- and secular Jewish music; Dashevsky uses a musical language of shapes, delicate dynamic shading and mood changes to sing vocalizations void of words. Krejn’s songs express yearning. In “Lullaby”, a mother tells her child that his father works hard, that they have no money and that she hopes the child will remember her later in life for the love with which she had raised him.

Lazare Saminsky (1882-1959), a co-founder of the St Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music and researcher of Jewish music of the Caucasus (1913), was one of the group of Russian intellectuals who, during the first decade of the 20th century, endeavored to establish a new form of Jewish art music based on ethnic and religious material. His Hebrew Lullaby was tender and sad, whereas “Esterke’s Song” (1940), to lyrics by Samuel Jacob Imber, was dramatic and moving, offering both artists the stage, both Dashevsky and Gladun using well-paced timing to bring life to the text.

Moshe Milner (1886-1953), affiliated with the Society for Jewish Folk Music, conducted the premiere of his “Die himlen brenen” (The Heavens are Burning) in 1923, this being the first Yiddish opera in Russia. He was, altogether, involved in much theatre music. The duo performed his song “Unter di grininke beymelekh (Under the Green Trees) to words by Ch.N.Bialik.
‘Under the green trees by the way,
Little Moshes and Shlomos play,
Gabardines, fringes, earlocks, new-
Hatched from the egg, each baby Jew.
Light as down their bodies – puff,
The gentlest breeze will carry them off,
And the little birds flying by,
Snatch them up and lift them high.
But one thing they have – eyes that are bright
Flashing, flaming points of light,
That glow and sparkle and burn and gleam,
And wonderful and prophetic seem.
They stand looking upward, open-eyed,
Rapt, ecstatic, beatified.
Ah, I would give my Paradise
For such clear and holy eyes..’
Dashevsky and Galdon presented a lyrical reading of the song, its text laden with layers of meaning, the piano richly accompanying with flowing arpeggiated chords.

We heard songs of the prolific Lithuanian-born violinist and composer Joseph Achron (1886-1943), another of the founders of the Society of Jewish Folk Music. Better known here for his instrumental works, Achron composed more than 20 songs, of which the artists performed two. Both to Hebrew texts, the first - “Each day I go to Your House” (words: Yaacov Fichman) - a love song, was dedicated to his wife Marie, a singer. A work of underlying seriousness and sophistication, Achron’s piano parts are richly orchestral, chromatic and boast highly colored chords. The second song – “A Dove Flew Past Me” - with its bittersweet melody, gives a beautiful, imaginative and visual picture of spring, complete with birdcalls (heard on the piano.) Gladun’s reading of it was delightful and involving, her articulate playing and use of the sustaining pedal adding to the scintillating effect of the song.

Another medley of attractive arrangements of Yiddish folk songs focused on discussion between folk and their rabbi. Dashevsky communicates the personal human message, the humor and joy of these songs.

The concert closed with five familiar Israeli songs, the artists choosing to end on a pensive and nostalgic note with “Sad Song” composed to words of the poet Rachel (Bluwstein) (1890-1931).

This thought-provoking concert brought to light the importance of works by Russian-Jewish composers of the beginning of the 20th century. Shirelle Dashevsky’s communicative portrayals of each character and idea were alive with meaning, dynamic shape and emotion. Her vocal ability is superb, as is the sheer beauty of her voice. Taking on board the complexities and interest of the piano roles of the songs presented, Zinaida Gladun weaves fine pianistic ability, musicality, detail and delicacy into the performance, addressing each musical gesture in depth.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Songs of Solomon and David - music of the Jews of northern Italy - S.Rossi and B.Marcello

A lecture-concert at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai December 12th 2009 focused on the subject of “The Songs of Solomon and David”, music of the Golden Age of north Italian Jewry. Professor Michael Melzer discussed and presented works inspired by the harmonious synagogue music of Venice and Mantua of the 17th and 18th centuries. Performing with him were soprano Yeela Avital, countertenor David Feldman, tenor Ya’acov Halperin and bass Yair Polishook; Yael Melzer and Michael Melzer played recorders, Amit Tiefenbrunn viol and Yizhar Karshon played spinet and organ.

The program consisted of instrumental- and vocal works by the Mantuan Jewish violinist, singer and composer Salamone Rossi Hebreo (c.1570-1630) and the Venetian composer Benedetto Marcello (1686-1739). Strange bedfellows? Well, not as strange as one might think. Melzer drew parallels and contrasts between the music of the two composers in a juxtaposition that offered a stimulating and enjoyable evening of music and ideas.

Marcello was born in Venice to a noble family. He combined a career in law and public service with music. The fact that he was financially secure meant that he felt no obligation to compose music that would prove “popular” to Venetian audiences. His oeuvre is diverse – church music, oratorios, hundreds of solo cantatas, duets, sonatas, concertos and sinfonias. He was, however, best known, during his lifetime and after his death, for his settings (using somewhat free Italian paraphrases by G.A.Guistiniani) of the first fifty Psalms, the work he called “Estro poetico-armonico” (Venice 1724-1727); the Psalms are scored for one to four solo voices with figured bass, with some pieces including solo instruments. In this collection, his last and most ambitious work, he used motifs from Venetian Jewish liturgy of his time, having heard music sung in the synagogues there. The texts are dominant, but the works themselves have much to offer to performers and listeners in a mix of sophisticated harmonies and counterpoint, melismas, modulations and dissonances. With his mission of reviving the “true” music of the Ancient World, Marcello advised that performance of the Psalms be “precise and without arbitrary ornament, particularly in the solo parts, keeping in mind that we are singing to God”… The performance at Beit Avi Chai, Melzer commented, would be the first of Marcello’s “Estro poetico-armonico” in Israel.

Serving at the court of the Gonzagas from 1587 to 1628, Rossi’s output includes sonatas and dances for string ensemble, madrigals, canzonettas, music for dramatic productions at Mantua and Psalms to the Hebrew texts. Rossi has been referred to as the “father of the trio sonata”. Despite his being a court composer, (he was exempted by his Christian patrons from wearing the badge of “shame”) Rossi lived in the Jewish ghetto of Mantua, as did his sister, a successful singer known as “Madame Europa”. An innovator in his instrumental music, Rossi was the first Jew to compose, perform and publish polyphonic settings of synagogue liturgy for mixed choir.

The concert opened with a Sinfonia and Galiarda by Rossi, performed on recorders, with basso continuo. In Rossi’s Sonata sopra la Bergamesca (the Bergamesca was a popular repeated bass line in Europe), the artists colored the variations with ornaments and differing textures. In his Sonata sopra l’aria di Ruggiero (the Ruggiero ground bass, in a major scale, consists of four short phrases) the players entertained the audience well, addressing the virtuosic nature of Rossi’s instrumental writing. Melzer, introducing another pair of court dances on the program, mentioned that some of the dances (despite their being composed for the entertainment at the Gonzago court) had been named after certain people in the Jewish ghetto of Mantua. The pleasing performance of these lilting galliards was supported by elegant and attentive continuo playing on the part of Tiefenbrunn and Karshon.

Rossi’s “Ha-shirim asher le-Shlomo” (The Songs of Solomon) were published in 1623. The 33 motets, set for from three to eight voices, include Psalms, hymns and prayers for Sabbath and holyday services as well as one wedding ode. The pieces, though reverential, are predominantly homophonic, polyphonic, decidedly early Baroque-style works, lacking in any association to traditional synagogue music, save the Hebrew texts. In publishing this work, Rossi relied on the spiritual support of his friend Rabbi Leone Modena (1571-1648), who issued a responsum in 1605, approving polyphonic singing in the synagogue. The “Ha-Shirim asher le-Shlomo” collection does not, in fact, include any texts from the biblical “Song of Solomon”, leading musicians to suppose that the title is actually a play on words referring to Rossi’s first name. We heard Keter (Kedusha) and Psalm 67 performed by the vocal quartet. (It is supposed that the songs were first performed by four singers only.) We heard fine choral singing, a combination of articulate, expressive melodic strands combined with rich, unaffected harmonies.

One hundred years after Rossi, Marcello’s Psalm settings present an entirely different musical approach. Melzer pointed out Marcello’s late Baroque less harmonioustendencies, his inclusion of dissonances and of unconventional harmonic turns. This non-conservative approach can be seen in Marcello’s choice of problematic verbal texts. Take, for example, Psalm 42, an expression of spiritual depression. Yair Polishook, in his solo performance of it, utilized his rich palette of vocal colors and agility to present a convincing reading of this theatrical piece, with its drama and mood changes. Marcello’s instrumental interludes added interest.

Most of Psalm 22 expresses David’s agony and suffering.
.. ‘Roaring lions tearing their prey
Open their mouths wide against me.

I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
It has melted away within me….’

With orchestration changing from one small section to the next, Marcello does not shy away from strange instrumental writing. The final melody of this miniature drama comes from Ashkenazi synagogue liturgy. The work was sung by countertenor David Feldman. His voice is mellifluous and pleasing. In this personal and vehement outpouring of the soul, however, he holds back, somewhat too unflustered by what he is expressing.

Psalm 37 compares the fate of godless people to that of the righteous. The vocal quartet performed with organ accompaniment, the singers’ articulate phrasing and expressiveness drawing out the polyphonic dimensions of the piece. Yeela Avital’s bell-like timbre and sense of the authentic quality of Baroque music never fails to delight her audience. A new face was young tenor Ya’acov Halperin, a student of the vocal faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music.

Michael Melzer’s lecture-concerts are highly enjoyable, well presented, informal yet well researched and accessible to audiences. A printed program would be still an advantage to those present.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs J.S.Bach's Christmas Oratorio

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of four cantatas of J.S.Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248, heard by this writer December 7th 2009 at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, was the first of a number of different performances of the work to take place in Israel during December 2009. Conducting the IPO was Peter Schreier, well known to Israeli audiences from his concert appearances here as a solo tenor singer. Joining the Prague Philharmonic Choir (musical director Lukas Vasilek) were soprano Talia Or, mezzo-soprano Britta Schwarz, tenor Daniel Johannsen and baritone Andreas Scheibner.

Originally written in German, the Christmas Oratorio, with a third of its music borrowed from earlier Bach works, takes its texts from the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew, from words of church hymns as well as from madrigalesque works. Composed in 1734, the first performances took place from December 24th 1734 to January 6th 1735, the six cantatas having different instrumentation and being performed on different feast days. Musicologists differ in their claims as to whether Bach saw this “cantata cycle” as six separate works or as one brilliantly structured work of six sections consisting of 64 musical pieces. After Bach’s death, the work fell into oblivion and only performed again in 1857 in Berlin.

In this concert we heard Cantatas I, II, III and VI. The Prague Philharmonic Choir took on board the technical and musical demands of the work. A large choir of large voices, it tends to be soprano-heavy, with lower voices, at times, less evident. German mezzo-soprano Britta Schwarz, a singer performing much Baroque music, gave a highly detailed and sensitive reading of the texts, her phrases shaped and well chiseled. In his first guest appearance with the IPO, baritone Andreas Scheibner pleased the audience with his rich and stable vocal lines and his articulate, meaningful performance. The richness and fruity color of Jerusalem-born Talia Or’s soprano voice is matched with her forthright personality and gregarious musicality. In the duet for soprano and bass “Lord, Thy mercy, Thy forgiveness”, Or and Scheibner blended, contrasted and wove their vocal lines around each other, with IPO woodwinds gracing one of the loveliest moments of the performance.

Tenor Daniel Johannsen (b.Austria 1978), no newcomer to the IPO, gave a truly brilliant performance as the Evangelist. Giving expression to each idea and gesture, he addresses and involves his audience. His singing is articulate and flexible, his vocal agility set off by a sense of the dramatic moment and the bright, rich timbre of his voice.

Peter Schreier’s reading of the work, though at times pedestrian, shone in the delicate blending and interaction of instruments and solo voices in obbligato arias. These were moments to savour.

Rachel Daliot's program notes were interesting and informative.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"And the Rat Laughed" - Nava Semel and Ella Milch-Sheriff

“And the Rat Laughed”, an opera in Hebrew composed by Ella Milch-Sheriff , with a libretto created by Nava Semel together with Milch-Sheriff based on Semel’s book of the same name (published 2001), was premiered April 9th 2005. It has been performed widely in Israel, Romania, Warsaw and, most recently, in Toronto. This writer attended a performance as part of the Isra-Drama Symposium at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv December 3rd 2009. It was directed by Oded Kotler, Ori Leshman conducted the Israel Chamber Orchestra, featuring solo singers and the Moran Intermediate Children’s Choir (musical director Naomi Faran.) Surtitles were in Hebrew and Russian.

Nava Semel’s book deals with Holocaust memory, with each section of the book taking a different approach – from that of legend, poetry, futuristic fantasy and the diary of a small girl hidden in a potato cellar in a Polish village, her only source of company being a rat. Semel and Sheriff took the decision of presenting past, present and future on the stage, constantly moving backwards and forwards through time, indeed typical of the broken sequence of human memory. For, indeed, the subject of the book and the opera is memory – both the remembering and the importance of preserving memory, issues tying in with the background, emotional involvement and mission of the “second generation”; Semel and Milch-Sheriff are both daughters of Holocaust survivors.

The stage (Adrian Vaux – stage and costume design) gives space to the entire dramatic situation, with the orchestra and Maestro Leshman placed on the left (there is no orchestra pit in the hall), a video screen in the centre, a round, elevated platform to its right and, to further to the right, two chairs to seat Lima Energely – an anthropologist in the year 2099 and her partner Stash (who bears the same name as the rat) – who sit there when not involved in the action…or are they observers? Sixty years after the horrific events, the victim, now a grandmother seated in a wheelchair, endeavors to piece together the sequence of events for her 12-year-old granddaughter.

The opera opens with a contemporary-style overture. Conductor Ori Leshman’s conducting is crisp and accurate. Mouthing the words, he presents every last detail of the musical text. The ICO’s performance is clean and rich, with some fine woodwind playing. Ella Milch-Sheriff’s score is a constantly interesting musical kaleidoscope, moving from atonal- to tonal music, from dancelike pieces to Jewish motifs, to sacred Catholic music. Her choral writing is profound, inviting her young choir to savor its every harmony. Milch-Sheriff is a brilliant orchestrator; her instrumental writing, brimming with interest and color, no less inviting than her vocal text.

The opera itself begins with Lima and Stash appearing on the screen and emerging. As of the very first moment, the audience is actively involved in the multi-faceted presentation, a witness not only to the story of the child and the grandmother’s shards of memory but to the very pertinent questions as to the importance and durability of Holocaust memory as posed by Semel. Another dimension is that of religious belief, with the priest’s own religious conviction shaken and thrown into doubt resulting from the horrific facts he had faced when saving the child.. It is an opera spanning much time, from so many angles, all, however, presented in one act, with the stage showing all aspects. It never lags.

Soloists were well cast. May Israeli, in her role as Lima, enchanted the audience with the wink of an eye and much vocal versatility. Gabriel Loewenheim’s voice is rich and pleasing; singing the role of Stash he poses the question of why we need to broach the subject of the Holocaust. Or Ben-Nathan - the farmer - and Anat Iny, as his wife, clearly brought home the behavior and attitude of Polish peasants during the Holocaust. Bavat Marom, as the pathetic grandmother, was convincing and articulate, summing up each fragmented memory with “I loved and lost”. Yael Levita played her granddaughter. Baritone Alexey Kanunikof ‘s large and highly seasoned voice was a match to the challenging emotional message of the priest – Father Stanislaw - bringing to a head the subject of religious belief with the spine-chilling Mass performed by him and the girls’ choir. The girls of the Moran Choir, dressed as Polish schoolgirls and, later, as nuns, gave a first class choral performance, one of utter stage competence and musical excellence; Naomi Faran’s work with her young singers does not compromise onstandards. Einat Aronstein, playing the part of the abused and hungry child groveling in the potato cellar, gave an outstanding, heart-wrenching and profound performance; her involvement in the tragic role defies her young age, as does her vocal ability.

“And the Rat Laughed” is a unique work, original and daring. The Cameri Theatre production has done it and the two admirable women who created it justice. Opera repertoire is much the richer for its existence.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Soprano Baroque Magic - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra

The second concert of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2009-2010 season November 4th 2009 at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem YMCA, centred around the role of the soprano singer in Baroque music, hence “Soprano Baroque Magic”. Conducted by its founder and musical director Dr. David Shemer, the JBO hosted Israeli soprano Sharon Rostorf-Zamir.

The subject of women singing in Baroque performance is an interesting one. David Shemer, in his program notes, gives an informative account of the place of women singers at the time, pointing out that the main repertoire offered to them lay in the large body of chamber works performed in private homes for social entertainment, namely chamber cantatas to be performed by aristocratic ladies whose education had often included singing lessons.

The evening opened with A.Corelli’s (1653-1713) Concerto Grosso opus 6, no. 9 in F major. A dance suite with a slow introduction of French-style dotted rhythms, we were nevertheless reminded throughout the work that Corelli is Italian.

The program included two of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) more than 140 concertos commissioned for performance of the young female students at the orphanage and music conservatory of the Pio Ospidale della Pieta in Venice. The cantatas were composed between 1723 and 1729, with Vivaldi’s duties including supplying the young performers with some two concerti per month. The Concerto for Strings in D minor “Madrigalesco” differs from most of the other concerti in that it has four movements, not the standard three, and that it carries the title “Madrigalesco”, this referring to its vocal-type melodies. A work of miniature proportions, it indeed borrows melodies from sacred works of the composer, assuming a more emotional and vocal approach than other concerti, the opening Adagio, for example, suggesting an overture to a dramatic choral work. Shemer takes his players and audience through the moods and harmonic twists of the work, bringing out its moments of languishing as well as its energetic intricacies.

Georg Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was the only non-Italian composer represented on the program but he had spent time in Italy in his youth and had written several operas using libretti in the Italian language, also using Italian in his chamber cantatas. “Crudel tiranno Amor” HWV 97a (The Cruel Tyranny of Love) (c.1721), a cantata for soprano and strings, probably the last work of Handel’s cantata period, sees the composer moving out of the private salon and onto the public stage. Rostorf-Zamir, a singer with a busy opera career both in Israel and Europe, explored the expressive text of the work, using her temperament to convey tenderness moving into despair. Singing with more vibrato than some Baroque artists we hear, she sees herself as part of the whole ensemble, watching both her conductor and her fellow players; she ornaments skillfully and with daring born of competence. Shemer’s use of rests timed well with the dramatic process.

Giovanni Battista Bononcini (1670-1747)’s “Ecco Dorinda il giorno” (See Dorinda the Day) for Soprano, 2 Violins and Basso Continuo was the first cantata in a 1721 edition dedicated to George I.. The cantata centres around the emotions of a young lover leaving his Dorinda. Rostorf-Zamirsang with velvety tenderness, displaying vocal ease and flexibility of range in the virtuosic central aria. Leaning into dissonances, the ensemble gave support to the text, with much communication between individual players.

Michael Talbot, in his book “The Chamber Cantatas of Antonio Vivaldi” (2006), writes of the neglect of Vivaldi’s 37 chamber cantatas, referring to them as the “least researched, least discussed, least performed, least familiar” works of Vivaldi’s oeuvre. He surmises that from Vivaldi’s death in 1741 and till the 1940’s, they were probably never heard. One of David Shemer’s aims with the JBO is to present less-known works to his listening public. Vivaldi’s cantata “In furore justissime irae” (When Justice Rages) was the only non-secular work on the JBO program, its text not liturgical but, as Shemer’s program notes read, “a personal and emotional prayer that ends with a jolly and vigorous Halleluiah”. A demanding and exciting work of great beauty, the audience enjoyed Vivaldi’s lively use of orchestration, the solo vocal role also written in an instrumental style. Not phased by this, Rostorf-Zamir showed agility in melismatic passages, excelling in bold ornamentation in da capo sections. Following the delicate, shaped and moving Recitativo, the work ended with the unleashed joy and energy of the Alleluja.

Certainly interesting in its focus, the concert, in its content and performance, delighted the audience Having the printed texts of the vocal works to follow would have been an advantage.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"The Bald Soprano", a chamber opera, plays at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Israel Sharon’s chamber opera “The Bald Soprano” played at the Jerusalem Music Centre November 23rd, 24th and 25th, 2009. It is based on Eugene Ionesco’s (1909-1994) first play of that name (also known as “The Bald Prima Donna”) which premiered in Paris in 1950. Originally titled “English Without Pain”, Ionesco wrote it in Romanian, then translating it into French. Ada Ben-Nachum translated the play into Hebrew from the French;Sharon’s opera, the libretto created from Ben-Nachum’s translation,premiered in Tel Aviv in 2008. Ionesco’s script is the result of the disturbing effect of his attempt to learn English from a primer, whereby the clich├ęs and truisms of the various language drills lose meaning and deteriorate into meaningless chatter. Not well received initially, Ionesco’s play eventually became an important seminal work of the theatre of the absurd.

Israel Sharon (b.1966) completed music studies at the Tel Aviv Buchmann-Mehta Academy of Music and at Rice University, Houston, Texas. He has been a member of the Kaprisma Ensemble since 1992 in the capacity of composer, pianist and conductor. The ensemble, founded in 1991, aims to free modern music from its isolation from classical repertoire and to give it rights equal to those of other performed music. Kaprisma places importance on promoting Israeli works, on performance of works of young Israeli composers and makes a point of employing young Israeli performers. The ensemble has premiered more than 200 works of Israeli- and other composers and invests much energy in working in education, with the aim of introducing young listeners to classical- and, in particular,to modern classical music.

The auditorium of the JMC was set up as the Smiths’ living room – the props were minimal but tasteful. The six Kaprisma Ensemble players, with Sharon conducting, were placed to the left. The intimacy of the space makes for maximal audience involvement, as does the fine acoustic of the JMC. The Smiths, a London couple, have invited another couple – the Martins – to visit. They are joined by Mary, the Smiths’ maid, and the local fire chief, who is Mary’s lover. The two families engage in meaningless banter, the Martins conversing as if they were strangers, with the text eventually becoming a series of non sequiturs. Conversations prove to be non-communicative and banal. Ionesco had intended the play to be in the form of a “loop”: the playwright gave stage instructions for the play to start over again, but with the Martins taking the Smiths’ former role and vice-versa.

The Smiths were played by Yair Polishook and Karin Shifrin, the Martins were Assif Am-David and Zohar Agmon, Mary was played by Leanne Aharoni and the fire chief was Eitan Drori. All singers contended well with the largely atonal musical score, all were convincing, their performance boasted accuracy and diction was good; they somehow managed to make the libretto sound humorously British, despite its being in Hebrew. Shifrin’s fine voice and stage presence are outstanding and Polishook carried off the stick-in-the-mud Englishman well. Drori was articulate and Aharoni was coquettish and appealing. Am-David, navigated around the stage by the doting (or controlling) Mrs. Martin (Agmon), is familiar to many of us from his roles in Baroque music; in this role, however, he proved to be every bit of a comedian and at home in a very different genre.

Israel Sharon’s music is sophisticated and witty; his ensemble writing is transparent and crisp, as is his conducting. On occasions, the instruments were a little too strong for the singers, whose very word was important. The score is peppered with pleasing and quirky effects and colors, Sharon, however, never overstepping the limits of good taste. His fine, young players bring the score to life, contributing to the general excellence of the performance. Whether Ionesco had intended writing a serious play or a parody has never been clear. What is clear is that “The Bald Soprano” offers food for thought. We were very well entertained.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra opens 2009-2010 Liturgical Series with Haydn and Rossini

Concert no. 1 in the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s Liturgical Series consisted of two works – Haydn’s Arianna a Nasso and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. Conducting the JSO was Doron Salomon, with soloists soprano Ira Bertman, mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel, tenor Yotam Cohen and baritone Noah Briger. The Israeli Opera Choir (conductor: Yishai Steckler) sang in the Rossini Stabat Mater.

Composed during the period when the composer was musical director and composer-in-residence on the estate of the Esterhazy family, Franz Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) cantata “Arianna a Nasso (1789-1790), exploring the mythological abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus, was a high point in his vocal writing. It was originally scored for voice and harpsichord/piano and orchestrated at a later stage. Haydn had accompanied the Italian countertenor Gasparo Pacchiarotti on the piano in a London recital. Contending well with the orchestra, mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel took the audience through the emotional stages of this somewhat operatic piece – from Ariadne’s initial bewilderment to despair. Frenkel has fine dramatic presence, a bold mix of chest- and head voice, vocal ease and an intensity of sound and focus that kept the audience anchored in the pathos of the text. Israeli-born Frenkel has performed solo roles from Baroque to music of the 21st century with several Israeli orchestras. Today she is a member of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Berlin Opera Studio, Germany.

Details of the creative process of Giocchino Rossini’s (1792-1868) Stabat Mater are rather in keeping with the composer’s erratic life. The Stabat Mater and his Petite Messe Solonelle were composed 39 years after Rossini had ceased writing opera, successful as his opera period had been. The fully completed version of the Stabat Mater was premiered in Paris in 1842. Donizetti (who conducted the first Italian performance) wrote “ The enthusiasm is impossible to describe. Even at the first rehearsal, which Rossini attended, in the middle of the day, he was accompanied to his home to the shouting of more than 500 persons.” There has been much discussion as to whether Rossini’s rousing Stabat Mater – the text describes Mary’s sorrow at seeing Jesus dead on the cross – describes the tragic text or whether it is sacred music or not! Rossini, himself had his doubts, being “born for opera buffa, as you know”. Heine, on hearing the work, wrote that the theatre had become a “vestibule of heaven”. Michael Ajzenstadt, in his program notes, mentions that, apart from the opening- and closing movements, the work lacks formal coherence. Yet all the above-mentioned arguments have not prevented this work from being a much-loved piece of concert repertoire, choral and solo lines intertwining, gorgeous melodies, moving a capella sections and uplifting orchestration. Israeli-born conductor Doron Salomon, today musical director and principal conductor of the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva, did not disappoint his audience. From the opening “Stabat mater”, a veritable tour-de-force for choir and soloists, Salomon presented a canvas of crisp-, warm- and expressive orchestral sound, the JSO’s wind sections offering some very fine playing. The florid and richly polyphonic Amen sent the audience home with a firm sense of the uplifting strength of the work..

Salomon chose strong voices to suit the “operatic” style and textures at hand; the many challenging moments for choir and singers alike were surmounted with alacrity. The Israeli Opera Choir is a force to be reckoned with – a large choir of full-bodied voices – confident singers; experienced, they boast a rich palette of colors and are certainly suited to the Rossini work. Yotam Cohen’s strident tenor timbre and forthrightness contrasted with Noah Briger’s more understated performance. The audience enjoyed Ira Bertman’s (b. Latvia, in Israel since 1992) stable, attractive voice and vocal ease and Rachel Frenkel’s compelling reading of the text.

The fact that there was no intermission in the concert allowed for uninterrupted concentration. The JSO’s program notes are interesting and informative (the English could be spruced up). Salomon’s energy and musicianship are infectious and draw together instrumentalists, singers and audience.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Orchester Jakobsplatz Munchen opens the JMC's 2009-2010 Chamber Music Series

The Jerusalem Music Centre, in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Jerusalem, hosted the Orchester Jakobsplatz Munchen November 11th 2009 as the opening concert of its 2009-2010 Chamber Music Concert Series at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, YMCA Jerusalem. The Orchester Jakobsplatz Munchen was founded in 2005 by its current artistic director and conductor Daniel Grossmann, together with young members of the Jewish community of Upper Bavaria. Coinciding with the construction of Munich’s Jakobsplatz Jewish Centre, its goal has been to create a dialogue between young Jewish- and non-Jewish musicians, eventually attracting players from 23 countries. Daniel Grossmann (b.1978) studied piano, ‘cello and viol and is having an illustrious conducting career. The OJM also provides a stage for his interest in the works of forgotten and persecuted Jewish composers, in music of the 20th- and 21st centuries as well as for newly commissioned works.

Following a few words of welcome by the JMC’s executive director Hed Sella, the concert opened with French-born, Jewish composer Darius Milhaud’s (1892-1974) “Jeux de Printemps” opus 243 (1944), ballet music for chamber orchestra (it was choreographed by Martha Graham.) In this work of light, whimsical colors and textures colored with jazzy- and Latin American touches, Grossmann creates a delicate string- and wind collage in six short movements, each instrumental solo a delight, each movement a sketch rich in understatement. In the final clustery chord, Milhaud leaves us 20th century.

Milhaud’s Concert de Chambers for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (wind quintet and string quintet) opus 389, composed in 1961, presented a very different soundscape. Grossmann placed his strings on the left of the stage, woodwinds and brass on the right and the piano in the centre, but to the back of the stage, adding a visual dimension to Milhaud’s scoring. More atonal in approach, this later work in three movements, is a tight series of mood pieces. Articulate and accurate in performance, Grossmann’s reading of it allowed for much play of textures and color.

The concert included two works by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), the first being his Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra in C major, Hob. VIIb:1. Composed for Joseph Weigl, a gifted ‘cellist of the Esterhazy orchestra, the score, presumed lost, was only found again in 1961 in the National Museum in Prague. Soloist with the OJM was Adrian Brendel (b.1976, London). Doubling as orchestral player cum soloist, Brendel went for musical depth rather than a showy approach. His wide experience as a chamber music artist has groomed him well for the delicate balance needed for soloing with such a small ensemble. Following the Haydnesque joy and freshness of the Moderato movement, Brendel’s expressiveness in the Adagio, the absence of wind instruments contributing to its intimate atmosphere, showed that understatement can be meaningful and wistfully subtle. In the joyful Finale, with Grossmann’s contrasts ever present, the virtuosic ‘cello part was alive with articulate gestures.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 44 in E minor Hob.1:44 (Mourning) brought the concert to a close. Composed in 1771, all four movements are in E minor. (Later in his life, Haydn requested that the slow movement be played at his funeral.) The Allegro con brio was well nuanced, its motifs clearly chiseled, with fine and sensitive brass playing. In the Menuetto, the interest and playful aspect of the canon were played in mellow shades with clear dynamic changes. Following the richly flowing eloquence of the Adagio, the Finale, opening with unison urgency, was infused with young energy. Grossmann’s reading of Haydn’s music is rich in Classical color, placing emphasis on directness and human spirit.

Listening to the Orchestra Jakobsplatz Munchen, I felt that a chamber orchestra of this size and quality invites its audience to listen more actively to each instrument than does a large orchestra; its players retain their individuality and initiative, with Grossmann addressing each of them personally at given moments. The orchestra also boasts fine players – kudos to the wind players for creating such a delicate blend. Grossmann’s good taste shows in stylistic fine detail and elegance.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Carmel Quartet at the Jerusalem Music Centre

The Carmel Quartet – violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman – opened its third season of narrated concerts - Strings and More - with “A Night at the Opera”. This writer joined the many people attending the evening narrated in English October 28th at the Jerusalem Music Centre. The subject of discussion centred around attitudes to vocal- versus chamber music, with W.A.Mozart’s Quartet in D minor, K.421 and G.Verdi’s Quartet in E minor on the program.

Yoel Greenberg opened his talk by reminding the audience of how Mozart had taken the galant style and turned it into a sophisticated language, not that all audiences of his time liked this complexity. W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) Six Quartets Dedicated to Haydn (published 1785), each constructed of four movements, are, indeed, formed according to Haydn’s new approach – that all instruments have much to say individually, not being subservient to the first violin. At a party in February 1785, Haydn spoke of Mozart as having “taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Greenberg quoted J.J.Mattheson in his treatise “Der Vollkommene Kapellmeister”(1739) as having referred to vocal music as representing the “mother” guiding her “daughter” (instrumental music); he also mentioned J.G.Sulzer’s (1720-1779) writings on aesthetics referring to the powers of vocal music. Mozart arrived in Vienna in 1781, composing operas (and in need of the money they brought him) but he, nevertheless, devoted four years to writing instrumental music, heralding, in Greenberg’s words, the radical aesthetic shift viewed in the 19th century as confirmed in E.T.A.Hoffmann’s (1776-1822) writings. The listening public was to change its listening approach from seeking to “personify” each movement to listening to music bearing no programmatic content.

The Carmel Quartet then presented a performance of Mozart’s Quartet in D minor, K.421. The opening movement – Allegro moderato – with its falling octave motif was a canvas of well-defined singing melodic lines, vehemence and drama and a wealth of phrases boasting different characters. The Andante movement, its subject peppered with constant-, often harsh “interruptions”, was carefully paced, its dancelike gestures elegantly non legato; Rachel Ringelstein’s solo was expressive. The third movement, referred to by Greenberg as suggesting the vindictive world of Don Giovanni, was forthright and sinewy, contrasted well by the sweetness of the middle section spelled out freely. The subject of the fourth movement – Allegro ma non troppo - is a beautiful, lilting Siciliano, with the following variations a fine vehicle for the Carmel Quartet’s gamut of emotions and gestures. We were witness to several facets of Mozart’s personality – the elegant, humane and the daring, to name but a few.

Talking about 19th century Europe, Greenberg referred to the Germans (excepting Wagner) as writing few operas, with the Italians writing a great many works in the genre. (Donizetti had called his quartets “exercises”.) The quartet had now risen to the status of being the ultimate test in composing. However, Italians living under Austrian rule had an aversion to anything Viennese: for them, opera could express what instrumental music was incapable of doing. To transport the audience at the JMC to 19th century Italy Rachel Ringelstein sang a “La seduzione” -The Seduction - (text Luigi Balestra) , an early Giuseppe Verdi(1813-1901) art song with a verbal text more melodramatic than its music belies. Her performance of it was most pleasing.

By 1870, with Italy no longer ruled by Austria, Verdi felt free to write a quartet, his only surviving chamber work. It was written in Naples in 1873, when rehearsals of Aida were delayed due to the illness of one of the singers. Verdi, furtively feeling his way into this genre, initially as a private diversion, later agreed to have the quartet published and even arranged it for string orchestra. It is a substantial work in the chamber music repertoire, interesting in musical invention and structure. The Carmel Quartet’s reading of the work produced a rich and exciting performance of it, the opening movement’s nostalgic fragrance setting the scene. The quartet’s timing in the second movement – Andante – allowed for expression of its nostalgic, bittersweet and harmonically adventurous character. Tami Waterman’s playing of a singing, folk-like theme in the Prestissimo movement made for contrast in the middle section. Appreciating Verdi’s brilliant fugal writing of the final movement, the players emphasized the humorous and entertaining moments threaded through its complexity.

The Carmel Quartet’s four outstanding players read deeply into works they perform. Their stirring playing invariably involves their listeners, with the fine acoustics of the JMC auditorium encouraging each musical gesture. Yoel Greenberg is articulate, the quartet’s narrated concerts are well researched, informative and entertainingly presented.

Monday, October 26, 2009

G.F.Handel's "Alexander's Feast" at the Jerusalem YMCA

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 2009-2010 season October 20th at the Jerusalem YMCA’s Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship with G.F.Handel’s “Alexander’s Feast” in an all-Israeli production. The performance was conducted by Dr. David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and musical director. Soloists were soprano Claire Meghnagi, tenor Eitan Drori and baritone Yair Polishook. They were joined by the Collegium Singers (conductor and musical director – Avner Itai.)

“Alexander’s Feast” or “The Power of Music” (the libretto, based on the poem by John Dryden, was by Newburgh Hamilton), an ode celebrating the patroness of music St. Cecilia (St. Cecilia’s Day has been celebrated November 22nd in England since early Restoration times) was premiered in London’s Covent Garden in 1736. Handel’s first great effort to write for English taste, the work was a success from the outset, being performed another 30 times during his lifetime, then gaining popularity in Europe after the composer’s death. Shemer, in his concert notes, talks of this performance of “Alexander’s Feast” as marking the 250th anniversary Handel’s death.

The two-part work consists of an overture, recitatives, ariosos, arias, trios and choruses. A formal, elegant overture followed by courtly dances are Shemer’s invitation to his audience to enter the festive banquet hall, where Alexander the Great and his beautiful Thais are seated to celebrate the conquest of Persepolis. Tenor Eitan Drori’s opening recitative:
‘ ‘Twas at the royal feast, for Persia won
By Philip’s warlike son:
Aloft, in awful state,
The godlike hero sate
On his imperial throne.
His valiant peers were placed around;
Their brows with roses and myrtles bound:
(So should desert in arms be crowned).
The lovely Thais, by his side,
Sate like a blooming eastern bride,
In flower of youth and beauty’s pride.’
This is to be no ordinary banquet ,for the legendary singer Timotheus is present and his magical powers (those of his music and of music itself) on Alexander’s emotions provide the work with one of its most fascinating dimensions; the comparison between Timotheus and Cecilia brings the work to its climax. Despite little dramatic development, Dryden’s imagery had inspired Handel to write a work of wonderful color and variety.

We were presented with a rich performance, its energy and interest never wavering. In the nine wonderful choral movements, the Collegium Singers gave attention to accents, shape and diction as well as to key words; their collective choral sound is anchored and velvety. Tenor Eitan Drori lives the written text word for word, taking inspiration from all dramatic turns of the text, which he communicates in detail to his audience. With a voice boasting much strength, climactic moments were vehement, occasionally over-accented, sometimes lacking in subtlety. Yair Polishook is expressive, his fine rhythmic sense and musicality matched with rich and pleasing vocal color. Soprano Claire Meghnagi’s performance was outstanding. Her gorgeous, pearly voice is consistent in all registers, she weaves emotional meaning into melodic lines, gliding easily and leaning comfortably into ornaments. The audience was moved by the brilliance, the beauty and the poignancy of her performance.

Shemer’s conducting rouses his players and singers into performance that is precise and fired by his love for the genre, its elegance and language. Violinist Dafna Ravid added charm and energy to the soprano aria “War, he sung, is toil and trouble”. In “Your voices tune and raise them on high”, the audience enjoyed recorder players Katya Polin and Shai Kribus engaging in conversation with Drori.

David Shemer has dedicated much thought and planning to bringing worthwhile (and rare) Baroque works to Israeli audiences. His decision to introduce “Alexander’s Feast”, a work more familiar to British and European audiences than to Israeli concert-goers, to the local concert scene is to be applauded. Shemer’s program notes are always interesting and insightful. Perhaps Chorus 18 sums up the work that opened the JBO’s promising 2009-2010 season with a flourish:
‘The many rend the skies with loud applause;
So Love was crowned, but Music won the cause.’

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mediterranean Love - Abu Gosh Festival October 2009

The 2009 Succoth Abu Gosh Vocal Festival opened at the Kiryat Yearim Church with “Mediterranean Love”, a noon concert of choral- and solo works performed by the Moran Ensemble and conducted by Naomi Faran, its founder and musical director. Established in 1998 as a professional representative choir of singers aged 18 to 30, the ensemble has sung works of contemporary Israeli composers, performed extensively in Israel and abroad and is the recipient of several awards. Accompanying the choir were Shmuel Elbaz and Jacob Reuven-mandolins, Alon Sariel-mandola, Lev Haimovich-mandocello, Avner Yifat-double-bass, Einat Niv-percussion and Eyal Bat-organ and piano.

The major work in the program was Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Dixit Dominus, RV 594 in D major. Composed around 1730, it is the second of three settings Vivaldi made of the text (Psalm 109/110). Invariably the first Psalm sung at Vespers, it follows the formula of one movement per verse. We were presented with an uplifting performance packed with rich choral sound, presence, energy and detail. Soloists were focused and competent. Instrumental playing was shaped and delicate, adding Baroque elegance.

Mikis Theodorakis completed his Gypsy Romancero in 1967. It was recorded in 1970 in Paris on Theodorakis’ release from house arrest. For him, the F.G.Lorca texts drew parallels between the Spanish and Greek experience. We heard each of three songs sung by a different soloist – Hagar Sharvit, Efrat Raz and Rafael Zanzori - with the choir joining in. Following “The Embittered Man”, we heard the two songs describing the arrest and heroic death of Antonio Torres Heredia. The plucked instrument timbre provided an effective backdrop to the drama, the choir singing in unison, evoking a crowd scene in the second Antonio Heredia song. Having the words of the three songs in the printed program would have enhanced the audience’s understanding of these powerful works.

In a lighter vein, we were well entertained with a selection of songs from Mediterranean countries. We heard Hadas Faran-Asia performing “El Vito” from Canciones Clasicas Espanolas” set by F.J.Obradors (1897-1945). A “vito” is a fiery dance performed on a table in a tavern to an audience of bullfighters. Faran-Asia is a versatile musician with a large voice and her reading of the song was suitably saucy and feisty, Eyal Bat’s fine accompanying suggesting the plucking of guitars.

Tenor Liran Kopel sang Augustin Lara’s “Granada”. Lara (1897-1970), considered one of Mexico’s finest song-writers, had never set foot in Granada; he was, however, able to capture the sights and sounds of the city in this song. Kopel’s singing is effortless, the timbre of his voice warm and he communicates well with his audience. In the traditional Neapolitan song “Santa Lucia”, transcribed by Teodoro Cottrau (1827-1879), Kopel was joined by baritone Tom Karni, their voices and pace producing a fine blend. The lyrics describe Naples’ waterfront district, with a boatman inviting one to join him to appreciate the cool evening on the water.

Einat Aronstein performed Ernest Chausson’s (1855-1899) love-song “Le Colibri” (1882) set to a poem by Leconte de Lisle about a humming-bird. The audience enjoyed the singer’s nuanced reading and delicate, controlled piano moments.

The concert ended with Eyal Bat’s arrangements of three Israeli songs for choir – N.Nardi’s “Between Euphrates and Tigris” (Bialik), M.Zeira’s “Two Roses” (Orland) and A.Argov’s “Go to the Desert” (Hefer). Bat’s compositions have been performed widely, he accompanies choirs and some of his work is dedicated to children. The arrangements we heard were skillfully written, gregarious and creative, poignant and tasteful, surely some of the most beautiful arrangements of Israeli songs to be heard. Percussionist Einat Niv added delicate touches of glitter and atmosphere to the songs.

The Moran Ensemble singers are superbly trained and competent; their vocal sound is fruity and rich. Kudos to Naomi Faran for a program of high quality performance, a concert offering Abu Gosh Festival-goers interest, enjoyment and variety. The program will be presented again November 28th at the Felicja Blumental Music Centre.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ensemble Nobile at the Mormon University

The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University) hosted Ensemble Nobile at a concert October 11th in the Sunday Evening Series. Performing chamber works of the 17th- and 18th centuries, Nobile’s members - soprano Yeela Avital, violinist Shlomit Sivan, viol player Amit Tiefenbrunn and harpsichord player Yizhar Karshon - are well known to early music concert enthusiasts.

The ensemble opened its program with dances from the Andre Philidor manuscripts, the largest surviving body of dance manuscripts from the French Ballets of c.1575-1690. In Girolomo Frescobaldi’s (1583-1643) “Se l’aura spira” , Avital’s vocal ease and control conveyed the freshness and pastoral appeal of the words, with Sivan and Tiefenbrunn taking up the melody at different points.
‘If the breezes blow ever charming,
The budding roses will show their laughing faces,
And the shady emerald hedge
Need not fear the summer heat.
To the dance, to the dance, merrily come,
Pleasing nymphs, flower of beauty.’

Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Si dolce e il tormento” (So sweet is the torment) composed in 1624, depicts suffering and sadness effectively with falling seconds, lowered sixth degrees and extended phrases. Nobile’s reading of it was delicate and sensitive, Tiefenbrunn resorting to plucking the gamba, with Karshon’s light tenor voice joining Avital in the final verse.

The traditional English ballad “Greensleeves”, in existence since 1580, and quoted twice by Shakespeare, began with instrumental variations, these being followed by the sung version in Avital’s bell-like upper register. Amit Tiefenbrunn created the Greensleeves arrangement. Remaining in Britain, we heard “Music for a While” (c.1692) from Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) incidental music to “Oedipus”. In this miniature masterpiece, Tiefenbrunn and Karshon wove the mesmerizing arpeggiated ground bass against the text in which Avital presented the beguiling and disturbing description of Alecto, one of the Furies freeing the dead “Till the snakes drop from her head.” Although sometimes falling short of crisp diction, Avital always takes the audience with her into the meaning of texts, her phrase-endings artfully crafted.

In Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Sonata for Violin no.2 in A major, opus 2, originally one of 12 sonatas written for violin and ‘cello in 1708, the ‘cello part is no less thematically important than that of the violin. Set against the latter, Shlomit Sivan’s energetic, clean playing brought out the lyricism, passion and virtuosity of the work.

Yizhar Karshon chose to play a Toccata by Michelangelo Rossi (1602-1656), well suited to the bright, highly defined character of the auditorium’s Marcussan organ. Karshon’s playing was forthright and interesting, presenting Rossi’s contrapuntal “distortions” and chromatic practice in all their surprises; contrasted timbres giving expression to each section.

Of Marin Marais’s (1656-1728) more than 700 works, most of which were written for the viola da gamba, his “Les Folies d’Espagne” for viola de gamba and continuo in D major, remained more popular after his death than a host of his other works. Published in 1701 in his second book of pieces for the gamba, the work was only one of many sets of variations based on La Folia by European composers. Covering the gamut writing for the viol, of which Marain Marais himself was a great master, Tiefenbrunn guided his listeners through the 32 harmonic and contrapuntal variations in broad, mellow melodic lines, in stormy, energetic variations, in tranquil, cantabile moments, in variations leading him from high through the low registers of the instrument. No easy feat, but very well handled. Karshon’s playing added interest and elegance.

Providing Jewish content to the program, the ensemble performed three pieces by
Mantuan court composer Salomone Rossi (1587-1628), whose unique motets, employing all the current vocal trends of his day, are in the Hebrew language. Following a Sinfonia, we heard “Shir Hama’alot” (Psalm 128) , typically Italian in style, with its word painting and contrasted sections. The third verse, depicting harmonious family life, becomes a joyful “tripla”. The homophonic piece “Barechu” (We bless the Lord who is blessed) was given a delicate reading.

Ensemble Nobile’s strengths lie in its fine musicianship and varied repertoire. Some of the arrangements are by Amit Tiefenbrunn, but most are the result of a cooperative effort. The group's music-making provides high class entertainment and speaks for itself.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sun and Stars - Feast and Devotion in Baroque Peru - Abu Gosh Festival October 2009

Dr. Myrna Herzog’s program of Peruvian music “Sun and Stars: Feast and Devotion in Baroque Peru” was premiered at the Kyriat Yearim Church October 7th 2009, the opening day of the 36th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. His Excellency, the Peruvian ambassador to Israel, was among the honored guests. The PHOENIX Ensemble, performing on historical instruments, was conducted by Herzog, the group’s founder and musical director. Joining them was the Oratorio Chamber Choir (Ronen Borshevsky-musical director.) Soloists were sopranos Michal Okon and Anat Edri, countertenor Alon Harari and baritone Assif Am-David.

The program consisted of music from cathedrals and Jesuit missions – the music of Indians, Blacks, Spaniards and Creoles – and it included a Mass, Peruvian folk songs and a Salve Regina. We heard a Magnificat by Tomas de Torrejon y Velasco (1644-1728), a Spanish composer and organist who spent most of his life in Peru. Herzog, working together with Uri Dror, who transcribed the manuscript into a score, created a modern edition of Velasco’s work, basing the score on the original 15 vocal parts. This was the Israeli premiere of the Magnificat. The program ended with “Release the Little Black Bull”, a colorful musical depiction of a bullfight by Spanish composer Diego de Salazar (1660-1709). The concert was a moving kaleidoscope of choral, instrumental and solo textures, with soloists sometimes singing alone, at others, as a quartet, the choir mostly interpolating and producing antiphonal effects.

With the choir lined along both sides of the hall, the scene was set with the haunting, devotional sounds of the anonymous processional “Hanacpachap Cussicuinin” (1631).
‘O tree bearing thrice-blessed fruit,
Heaven’s joy!
A thousand times shall we praise you.
O hope of humankind,
Helper of the weak,
Hear our prayer.’

Rhythms were mostly triple, lilting and dance-like. Much interest was created by the mix of instrumention: in Velasco’s “A este sol peregrino”, a bailete (a sacred dance for the Feast of St. Peter), the combination of plucked instruments (Omer Schonberger) and maracas (Rony Iwryn) was magical. In “Tonada del Chimo”, a sacred Peruvian song in the Mochika language, we were exposed to the bare, powerful texture of Herzog bowing a drone on the rabel together with the dull thud of a drum, setting off Am-David’s singing and the unison interpolations of the choir (the congregation.).

Yizhar Karshon’s organ solo – Valencian composer and organist Juan Baptista Cabanilles’ (1644-1712) quite startling “Ligaduras de tercero tono para la Elevacion” - provided contrast to the program’s choral works. Karshon’s forthright, secure playing was clean and thought-provoking, the harmonic- and melodic twists and turns peculiar to Cabanilles not camouflaged by an over-abundance of ornaments.

At another moment, the almost visual scene of an expansive, bare South American landscape was created by the combination of rabel (Herzog), harpsichord (Karshon) and violone (Dara Bloom) joined by recorder (Adi Silberberg) and drum (Rony Iwryn). Iwryn is a brilliant artist, his playing delicate and tasteful. Providing a firm basis to the ensemble was the double-reed band, led by Alexander Fine. Shai Kribus played a shawm, while Fine, Barbara Schmutzler and Daniel Nester were playing dulcians built for Fine by Laurent Verjat (Paris.) Well worth a mention is the Baroque charango (a small South American stringed instrument of the lute family) built in Brazil especially for the Peruvian program and played by Omer Schonberger.

Myrna Herzog’s selection of artists constitutes an important element of preparing PHOENIX performances. Veteran PHOENIX players were joined by younger, inspired up-and-coming musicians. Members of the Oratorio Chamber Choir contributed much to the detail and fluency of the works in hand. Their signature sound is bright. The soloists sang well as a quartet, their phrasing pleasing. Soprano Michal Okon’s musicianship is totally solid: her voice is silvery and resonant, ringing through the hall with clarity. A convincing artist, Assif Am-David utilizes the warmth of his voice to always go that bit further in order to communicate the text’s message and emotion to his audience. Countertenor Alon Harari’s (b.1982) solos were superb – he flows with the tempo, his vocal color is velvety and reliable, his phrases crafted and he ornaments with ease.

Brazilian-born Myrna Herzog has introduced Israeli audiences to various kinds of South American music, to its flavors, its instruments and to its all-out exuberance. “Sun and Stars” was stirring and moving, bringing together a host of good artists in a fine performance.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Budapest Klezmer Band at the Jerusalem Theatre

Brought to Israel by Levie Kanes, the Budapest Klezmer Band, here once again, performed concerts in five different venues throughout the 2009 Succoth Festival week. This writer attended the October 5th performance in the Sherover Theatre of the Jerusalem Theatre. Pianist, composer, collector and arranger Ferenc Javori (Jakubovics) is the band’s musical director. Founded in 1990, its members include violinist Bence Gazda, clarinetist Istvan Kohan, trombonist Gabor Tamas, accordionist Anna Nagy, double bass player Gabor Kiss and percussionist Balasz Vegh. Javori, a classically-trained musician, grew up in the Hungarian-Jewish community of Munkacs, where he heard and researched klezmer music and Yiddish songs.

Presenting a variety of songs and dances, the band took the audience in and out of the Jewish wedding hall, its joy, verve and festivity knowing no bounds. Javori’s imaginative arrangements boast color and energy; they provide opportunities for spontaneity and invite his musicians to present their different personalities and display virtuosity. Gazda, Kohan and Nagy, in particular, were brilliant and gave of their all. Klezmer music offers variety and rhythmic surprises and the nostalgically beautiful klezmer scales (shteygers) create its specific soundscape. There were a few delicate and poignant moments – intimate, sad moments reminding us of the tragedies encountered by Jews of eastern Europe. However, these were always swept away with a burst of humor or frenzied dance music – the story of Jewish survival. We also heard simple folk dances, well-known Yiddish songs and items from "Fiddler on the Roof". Following klezmer music to America in the early 20th century, the players donned hats and dark glasses to present the “Yiddishe Blues”.

Joining the Budapest Klezmer Band as guest singers were cantor and operatic tenor Tzudik Greenwald and 11-year-old Orad Katz. Greenwald’s performance of “Mamele” was convincing. His timing was flexed and his silvery voice well suited to the song. The BKB’s accompaniments to all the songs were delicate and sensitive. Young Orad Katz has real stage presence and a fine voice. The audience loved his singing of the Yiddish song “Oifn Pripetchik”:

‘On the hearth a little fire is burning,
And it is hot in the house,
And the rebbe is teaching the little children
The Aleph Bet…..

When you get older, children,
You will understand that this alphabet
Contains the tears and weeping of our people.’

Both guest singers tended to outsing, straining their voices, and this seemed a pity. The beauty and timbre of both their voices would be enhanced by a more understated approach and less use of the microphone. In a hall as well-balanced acoustically as the Sherover Theatre, it seems unnecessary to amplify music to such a high volume. However, the audience enjoyed the music, the atmosphere was warm and we were all well entertained. It was an evening of fine performance and of music steeped in Jewish tradition, music to move the soul. Let’s hear more of the Budapest Klezmer Band in Israel!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival 2009,final concert

The 2009 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Concert’s closing concert took place Saturday September 12th with a program of Romantic music at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship in the Jerusalem YMCA. It was the last of 13 concerts involving artists from several countries; the festival is under the musical direction of Elena Bashkirova.

Th3 2009 festival included a number of Mendelssohn’s works, 2009 being the bicentennial year of his birth. The closing concert opened with eight of Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) “Songs Without Words” arranged for 8 string- and woodwind instruments by high school students of the Israel Arts and Science Academy. These piano gems were a fine choice for the project. We were presented with non-pianoforte timbres - at times lush, at times richly layered in energetic, virtuosic, contrapuntal movement - charming imitations, grandeur and richness slowed down to allow one to savor instrumental hues, simplicity presented in color, wooded nature scenes, a fleeting moment of emotion. The pieces were expertly handled by violinists Alina Ibragimova and Micaela Martin, violist Amichai Grosz, ‘cellist Nicolas Altstaedt, double-bass player Nabil Shehata, oboist Ramon Ortega Quero, clarinetist Tibi Cziger and bassoonist Mauricio Paez.

Dorothea Roschmann (b.1967,Germany) is a soprano with a wide range of repertoire ranging from early music to opera. In this concert, we were witness to another dimension of her art - the intimate world of the German Lied, in which she performed Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) song cycle “Frauenliebe und -leben” Opus 42 (1840) with Elena Bashkirova at the piano. Taking the audience with her through Chamisso’s study of a woman’s inner world, Roschmann’s tempi are paced. Her phrases are well chiseled, her timing (not always met by Bashkirova) flexed to express the moment at hand, her fast, agile dynamic changes highly effective yet smooth, her piani set off by consonants, vehement and poignant. Her voice is stable and rich throughout its range. The audience, moved by the performance, fittingly rewarded this great artist with a few seconds of silence before applauding.

This was followed by Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor, opus 49(1839) with Nicolai Demidenko-piano, Daishin Kashimoto-violin and Frans Helmerson-‘cello. The artists gave a spirited reading of this much-loved chamber work, the first movement intense in color, emotion and energy, followed by a bittersweet, singing and meditative Andante con moto tranquillo. The Scherzo frolicked joyfully, its brilliance taking on a lightness of touch. Demidenko’s performance was overshadowed by that of the string players.

Carl Maria von Weber’s (1786-1826) Andante Ungarese in C minor, opus 35 (1809) was performed by violist Gerard Causse, with Ohad Ben-Ari at the piano. Causse’s fine, flowing technique and joie-de-vivre pleased and entertained the audience in Weber’s performance-oriented piece. Ben-Ari’s forte sections made a point but sometimes lacked shape.

Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat major, opus 20, for Strings (1825) brought the 2009 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival to a memorable close. Violinists Alina Ibragimova, Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler and Daishin Kashimoto, violists Gerard Causse and Amichai Grosz and ‘cellists Frans Helmerson and Kyril Zlotnikov took on board this brilliantly innovative and Romantically expressive work in all its youthful spontaneity (Mendelssohn was sixteen when he composed it!) With Ibragimova leading, there was much eye contact among the players, a masterful collaboration of individual expression and mutual involvement in the musical meaning of the work. The third movement, Scherzo, gave relief to the intensity of the other movements with light, lilting, flirtatious understatement, recreating a moment of Mendelssohn’s imaginary, magic world of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the players visibly showing their enjoyment. The octet was an inspiring and uplifting end to the 2009 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival.

East Meets West at the Jerusalem Music Centre

“East Meets West”, a concert in honor of Mr. Aleksander Gudzowaty and the guests of the Annual Interfaith Tolerance Symposium, took place at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim Tuesday September 15th 2009.

Hed Sella, the JMC’s executive director, welcomed those present. He emphasized the appropriateness in concluding an interesting day of discussion on interfaith tolerance with music, that music promoted tolerance, with the convergence of voices, each independent but together forming harmony. Sella talked of the task of putting together a musical program of interfaith- and intercultural content in which we were to hear the music of Felix Mendelssohn, a 19th century European composer, followed by Arabic classical music performed by Jewish- and Arabic musicians playing together.

Mrs. Ruth Cheshin, president of the Jerusalem Foundation and a member of the board of directors of the JMC, welcomed Polish businessman Mr. Aleksander Gudzowaty and proceeded to talk about the importance of such a meeting for the city of Jerusalem and the fact that the JMC was a cultural bridge of understanding. She went on to say that the Jerusalem Foundation honored the values and ideals taken upon participants of the symposium, that these values constitute our common dream.

The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) String Quartet in F minor opus 80, performed by the illustrious Carmel Quartet – violinists Lia Raikhlin and Rachel Ringelstein, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman. Established in 1999, the quartet performs widely and is the recipient of prestigious prizes. The Carmel Quartet presents a yearly series of explained concerts at the JMC. The F minor String Quartet, composed in 1847, is, indeed, Mendelssohn’s last major work. Different in character to the genial atmosphere of many of the composer’s previous works, it reflects the “most intense emptiness and barrenness in the mind and heart” on the death of his sister, Fanny. The Carmel Quartet gave expression to this emotional angst from the outset, where tremolos set the bleak scene. Playing was articulate, with jagged entries introducing clean melodic strands. In the second movement – Allegro assai – fraught with syncopations, the artists demonstrated the uncompromising nature and darkness of textures in tense and mysterious moments. The third movement shed a more lyrical, positive light, with the players using dynamic change with daring to create contrast and moments of poetic beauty. In the virtuosic fourth movement, the quartet presented the richly textured and layered canvas with each gesture addressed articulately, the second subject suggesting charm and hope. This was a profound and detailed performance and a treat to those who appreciate fine chamber music.

Ensemble Mactub – Hillel Amsallem-percussion, Jacob Reuven-mandolin, Elias Wakileh-oud and Hagai Bilitzky-double bass – performed a number of classical Arabic and Middle-eastern pieces in different maqams (the melodic modes used in Arabic music.) Opening with a Longa in the Nahawind maqam, the pieces evoked the inebriating fragrances of the Middle East. Played with precision, flexibility, understatement and delicacy, each one was thoroughly worked, yet leaving room for spontaneity. All four artists are outstanding, they watch each other and communicate, they entertain with intricate, virtuosic solos, expressing the joy of music-making, never overstepping the bounds of good taste…and the audience loved it.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Atar Trio accompanies the Manes Sperber exhibition from Jerusalem, to Vienna and Bratislava

The Atar Trio – pianist Ofer Shelley, violinist Tanya Beltser and ‘cellist Marina Kats – a Jerusalem ensemble - played a concert at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family in Jerusalem’s Old City August 23rd 2009. The occasion was the closing of an exhibition of the life and work of Manes Sperber. The trio is accompanying the exhibition and will perform at the Jewish Museum of Vienna October 22nd and, finally, at the Jewish Community Center in Bratislava October 24th. Manes Sperber (1905-1984) was a Jewish Austro-French novelist, essayist and psychologist who lived through the threats of both world wars.

The Austrian Hospice, situated on the Via Dolorosa, was opened in 1863. In 1939, it was confiscated by the British who claimed it was “German property” and the house was used as an internment camp for Austrian, German and Italian clergy. After British withdrawal from Palestine, the Jordanian government converted it into a civilian hospital. In 1985 it was returned to its rightful owners and officially reopened in 1988, welcoming pilgrims and other guests to its guesthouse. We were seated in the salon, an ornate room, the side walls of which were painted by Austrian painters F.Eichele and J.Kaltenbach. The ceiling ,depicting four biblical scenes, was painted by an unknown traveling artist. Markus Bugnyar, the hospice’s rector, welcomed the audience and spoke of the importance of preserving Austrian Jewish culture and of the Austrian Hospice’s role in creating a bridge between cultures, countries and religious identities.

The program began with James Oswald’s (1710-1769) Scottish Sonata. Oswald, a Scots composer, gatherer of Scottish works and music publisher, became chamber composer to George III. In 1761. Listening to this small Rococo-style work, one understood how his music, gently infused with Scottish reels, would have appealed to the English public.

Despite their being composed for gifted amateurs, Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) late piano trios (H. XV) present a great challenge to the pianist, with the ‘cello role more subordinated. Composed during Haydn’s second visit to London (1794-5) and dedicated to Theresa Janson (a gifted pupil of Clementi whom Haydn had befriended), the Trio in C major H.XV no.27 was given a fresh, spirited reading by the Atar Trio. Shelley’s playing was clean and elegant, keeping his use of the sustaining pedal to a minimum. The artists addressed the harmonic tensions and mood contrasts of the work, the Haydnesque joy of the final Presto rendered somewhat ragged towards the end.

Switzerland and France were the last two stops in Manes Sperber’s life, hence the choice of a work by Frank Martin (1890-1974). Composed in 1925, Martin’s “Trio on Popular Irish Melodies” represents Martin’s fascination with Greek- and Bulgarian rhythms and those of the Far East. This early work, a brilliant, multi-layered collage of old Irish melodies, constructed in three movements, is set against constantly changing experimental textures and polyrhythms. The Atar players take on board the individual character and workings of each role, the complexities and mood changes; they take join this “game” of diversity set out by the composer, from ominous, mysterious piano gestures, to wistful, well-crafted ‘cello melodies, to the sound of the Irish fiddle. The final “Gigue” is, in fact, an Irish “Jig”. The audience enthused over this colorful, energetic concert piece.

Born in Lithuania, Joseph Achron (1886-1943) became a violin prodigy. Involved in the Jewish Folk Art Society, he was intent on promoting the cause for traditional Jewish folk music in the concert hall. His Lullaby opus 35, no. 2, abounding in eastern European Jewish motifs, was performed by Beltser and Shelley. The artists gave this short work an intense and convincing performance.

The program ended with Spanish composer Joaquin Turina’s (1882-1949) “Circulo” opus 91. The work, a tone painting in three movements, takes the listener through the course of a day. Beginning with early morning ‘s gentle awakening, sketched in lush seventh-chord harmonies with a smattering of bird calls, the work blossoms into daylight to a larger, major scene peppered with pizzicati, jazzy moments lending brightness and a sense of well-being, The work ends sounds of muted strings suggesting the tranquility of dusk. The Atar Trio’s reading of the work was evocative, the players’ use of colors and fantasy realized by fine playing.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

Portuguese sacred music performed at the Queen's College, Oxford UK

The Coro de Santa Maria de Belem, Lisbon, Portugal, a mixed choir of 40 singers, was established in 1990 in order to take part in the weekly Solemn Mass of the Church of Jeronimos. Under its founder and conductor Fernando Pinto, the choir’s mission is to perform, teach and keep alive the immense musical heritage of the place in which it was created. The Coro de Santa Maria de Belem was in England for a summer concert tour of five concerts and performed a program Portuguese music in the chapel of the Queen’s College Oxford on August 2nd, 2009. The exquisite chapel, noted for its excellent Frobenius organ, was consecrated by the Archbishop of York in 1719 and has stood virtually unchanged since being built.

The program opened with Missa Veni Sponsa Christi and Nos Autem Gloriari Oportat by Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650), most of whose career was spent as resident composer and organist at the Carmelite Convento do Carmo in Lisbon. In these works, both a cappella in the Palestrinian polyphonic style, sections were dynamically contrasted, sometimes by the thinning out of forces, with energy invested in articulate contrapuntal textures, clean vowel- and consonant changes. The choir’s luxuriant sound, unmarred by vibrato, rang into the building’s structure. These pieces were followed by a moving and spiritual performance of the Spanish-Portuguese composer Estevao Lopes Morago’s (c.1575-1630) motet “Oculi mei”, in which the composer’s expressiveness is formed by dissonance and harmonic audacity. Also representing the golden age of Portuguese polyphony, Duarte Lobo (c.1565-1646) was the most famous composer of his time in Portugal. The choir performed his “Pater peccavi”, a motet which quotes the soggetto ostinato (a brief melodic unit reiterated persistently in the same voice) from Josquin’s “Miserere mei Deus” as a fourfold ostinato in the superius.

In the 1600’s, Lisbon and Evera were places of musical excellence. Don Joao IV, himself a composer, nurtured the arts, protected and promoted his musicians encouraging them to develop their originality. Among them was Diogo Duas Melgaz (1638-1700). The choir performed his “Popule meus”. Joao Rodrigues Esteves (1700-c.1751) was a key practitioner of Latin sacred composition in Lisbon, the majority of his writing in the stile antico style. The choir gave his “Regina Caeli” an articulate and joyful reading. Composer and organist Francisco Antonio de Almeida flourished from 1722 to 1752. Like Esteves, he may have perished in the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon. A composer of vocal music, he composed the first Italian-style opera in Portugal. In “Miserere quatuor vocibus” the chant was presented pleasingly by a tenor member of choir, the overall effect of the work uplifting.

We heard three organ solos played by Sergio Silva, teacher and titular organist of the Basilica of Estrela and at the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus at Telhal. Elements of virtuosity of style and use of dissonance were present in the forthright “Obra de Primeiro tom sobre a Salve Regina” by Pedro de Araujo (1662-1705). Silva also performed Carlos Seixas’ (1704-1742) Organ Sonata in G major, showing the main interest to be in its melodic lines. In a very different vein, we heard “Choral” by composer, teacher, musicologist and critic Luis de Freitas Branco (1890-1955), a leading figure in Portuguese musical life who had introduced Impressionism and Expressionism into his country’s music. He also researched Portuguese Baroque composers, publishing a book on the musical works of King John IV of Portugal (referred to above as Don Joao IV.) An expressive piece, its somber opening leads into a number of sections – some bold and brassy, others veiled, bluesy and autumnal. Making fine use of the organ’s different timbres, this mood piece boasts an interesting duality; Silva infused it with color and life.

Remaining in the 20th century, we heard two of “Three Songs Without Words”(1998) by Eurico Carrapatoso (b.1962). Written for 4-part mixed choir, the first explored sounds of resonant humming, with closed- and later open mouths. The second was a joyful play of vowels, undisturbed by words. Back in the realm of sacred music, the concert ended with Manuel Faria’s (1916-1983) introspective “Sangue de Cristo”, a motet woven of a lush harmonic language peppered with dissonances, expressive and spiritual. This was surely a celebration of the human voice.

Conductor and organist Fernando Pinto, a native of Lisbon, has specialized in the performance of sacred music, his professional life revolving around the Coro de Santa Maria, with which he has worked since 1990. The choir has a large repertoire, has performed widely and has made recordings. Pinto’s work is profound and detailed, his singers showing a deep understanding of both the musical- and verbal text. Their performance was superb.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Nicholas Clapton, Jonathan Watts and Jenny Ward Clarke perform at Dartingon Hall,Devon,UK

Works by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Henry Purcell (1659-1695) were performed by countertenor Nicholas Clapton, Jonathan Watts (harpsichord) and Jenny Ward Clarke (Baroque ‘cello) in the Great Hall, Dartington Hall, Devon (UK) July 26, 2009.

Nicholas Clapton was born in Worcester, UK, and has pursued an international career in opera, oratorio and recital. His repertoire includes the heroic castrato repertoire, contemporary music and he has long been a pioneer in the performance of Romantic music for the countertenor. A professor at the Royal College of Music and at the Budapest Academy of Music, Clapton is one of today’s finest and most wide-ranging countertenors.

Welsh-born Jonathan Watts has studied early keyboard techniques but he is equally at home with classical piano works, organ- and harpsichord music. Trained at both Cardiff and Oxford Universities, Watts accompanies singers, instrumentalists and choirs and directs musical theatre.

Jenny Ward Clarke has been a pioneer in the exploration of historical performance practice in England. Also being active in contemporary performance, she was a founding member of The Fires of London and the London Sinfonietta. She has taught at the Menuhin School, Trinity College, the Royal College and the Royal Academy of Music in London.

A fitting opening to the concert was “’Tis Nature’s Voice” from Purcell’s “Hail, Bright Cecilia”, a work set to a poem by the Reverend Nicholas Brady, in which he praises St. Cecilia, music and the instruments of music. “’Tis Nature’s Voice” tells of the affects of music: to move the heart, to “strike the ear”, to garner the emotions and to “captivate the mind”. This was followed by Purcell’s ground bass masterpiece “O Solitude, My Sweetest Choice” (c.1687) translated from a French text by the English poetess Katherine Philips. Purcell’s melody is fashioned over some surprising harmonic changes that color the melodic line and connect it to the text. Clapton’s performance, set against the mesmerizing and mellifluously unrelenting ostinato, draws his listeners into the introverted, sweet sadness and word-painting of the song.

The artists performed two of A. Scarlatti’s secular cantatas – “Clori vezzosa e bella” (Charming, beautiful Chloris) and “Mi ha diviso il cor dal core” (Our hearts are rent asunder) – both works focusing on the anguish of love. Although his reputation rests on his operas, A.Scarlatti’s (some 500 solo voice) cantatas were held in high value by cognoscenti of the time, secular cantatas at that time being more popular in Italy than sacred cantatas, the intimacies of the cantata enabling these erudite listeners to pick up the subtleties present in them. In his program notes, Clapton mentions that most of the A.Scarlatti cantatas would have been sung by castrati “whose inimitably high chest voice would have produced a clarion timbre far more powerful than any falsettist”. Here was a fine opportunity to hear these not-often-enough performed chamber works. Against the descending chromatic scales that spell despair, Clapton is compelling, with the basso continuo adding their melodic line to his expressiveness.

Jonathan Watts played Henry Purcell’s Suite no. 8 in F major Z 669. These eight harpsichord suites were published posthumously in 1696 by Purcell’s widow and Henry Playford and dedicated to Princess Anne of Denmark. The volume includes a table of graces and ornaments used at the time. The four short movements of Suite no. 8 form a suite of simple style and some use “style brise” (“broken style”, an arpeggiated texture in keyboard music suggesting lute figuration.) The final movement, a humble Minuet (taken from the composer’s incidental music to “The Double Dealer” of 1693), gives the top line the melody throughout. Watts’ delicate and articulate reading of the work provided a welcome relief from the heartrending outpourings of most of the vocal works on the program.

The program ended with Henry Purcell’s highly tragic soprano solo “Incassum, Lesbia, rogas” (The Queen’s Epicedium) published in 1695 by Henry Playford as one of “Three Elegies upon the Much Lamented Loss of our Late Most Gracious Queen Mary”. The text is by “Mr. Herbert” (possibly Robert Herbert) but the author of the Latin version is not known. Queen Mary II had been greatly loved by her subjects.
‘The Queen, alas, the Queen of Arcady is dead!
O loss inexpressible!
Not by sighs nor groans,
Nor even the plaintive unquiet sobbing of the heart.
Poor Arcadians, so much you mourn!
The joy of your eyes is torn from your sight,
Never, oh never to return.
Her fixed star shines beyond the heavens.’
Clapton guides his listener through the ornate and passionate declamatory of this epicedium (funeral lament.) The vocal part includes wide leaps and a large range, large both vocally and emotionally. Purcell’s writing is innovative: it is daringly dissonant and he gives the poetic text accessibility through rhythmic shifts. Clapton’s dynamic range and palette of vocal colors give life to both the pastoral imagery as well as to the anger and despair expressed in the work; his pianissimo moments are as moving and dramatic as the fortissimo parts.

As an encore, Purcell’s “An Evening Hymn” on a ground (text William Fuller) provided a tranquil and poignant end to the program.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Melzer Recorder Consort in a Program of Laments at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem

On July 20th 2009, the Melzer Recorder Consort performed a concert at Jerusalem’s Beit Avi Chai. A family affair, the ensemble consists of Michael Melzer, his wife Yael Shimshoni-Melzer and Michael’s brother, Ezer Melzer. In the days preceding the fast day of the 9th of Av, the Hebrew date commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples of Jerusalem, Jews observe mourning. The theme of the concert was that of mourning - “There we sat and wept” (Psalm 137).

The scene was set with the introspective Chaconne from Henry Purcell’s “Dioclesian” (1690). We then heard an arrangement of the J.S.Bach’s keyboard piece “Capriccio on the Departure of his Dearly Beloved Brother” BWV 992 (c.1705). Bach’s brother, Jacob, was leaving to join the Swedish Guard. The piece itself includes the descending minor tetrachord ostinato in the bass line, a motif symbolizing lament. This was the young J.S.Bach’s attempt to write a program work, and, in fact, the composer described details of the minor drama in words on the manuscript itself. The work was performed on soprano- and bass recorders.

The Italian composer and violinist Salamone Rossi of Mantua was a member of the illustrious Italian-Jewish “de Rossi” family, a family which included the controversial Bible scholar Azariah de Rossi and several fine musicians. Rossi’s ancestry can be traced back to their exile from Jerusalem. Rossi is known for his innovative writing of synagogue music; however, the Melzer Consort began by playing a group of his miniature Sinfonias for three recorders. Fine fare for recorder-players, the pieces were presented articulately and were skillfully ornamented. From the composer’s “HaShirim Asher liShlomo” (Songs of Solomon) published in 1623 using the original Hebrew texts, we heard Rossi’s “Kaddish”, composed in the style of the balletto – the most popular vocal form in 17th century Italy. Performing it on soprano-, alto- and tenor recorders, the trio gave expression to its typically Italian mood changes, from serious duple passages to the more joyful triple meter sections. For their instrumental version of Psalm 137 on two alto recorders, tenor and bass, young Shaked Engelberg joined the ensemble in this cantabile, flowing piece which depicts the suffering of exiled Jews and their longing for Jerusalem. Rossi’s dissonances were woven delicately into the cantabile texture, as was the finely crafted end of the piece.
‘By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked us for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion”.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’

English lutenist and composer John Dowland’s (c.1563-1626) “Lachrimae” (Tears) cycle of pavans, composed in a variety of scorings, is a personal, emotional and spiritual journey, presenting some of the greatest music of Dowland’s time. It also represents the cult of melancholy running through 16th century art, literature and music, and the works quote his song “Flow my Tears”, the beginning of each sounding the four-note descending “tear motif” mentioned above. The work’s importance is also reflected in its use as the basis for works by several other composers. We heard Michael Melzer playing Jacob van Eyck’s variations on Dowland’s Lachrimae. Van Eyck (c.1589-1657) a blind nobleman, was a scientist, carillonneur, a recorder virtuoso and composer from Utrecht. His collection of “Der Fluyten Lust-hof (The Recorder’s Pleasure Garden) contains variations on secular and sacred tunes familiar at the time and offers a rare insight into late Renaissance and early Baroque variation techniques. It is clear that the variations were the results of Van Eyck’s own brilliant improvisations and they are, indeed, more than challenging to perform. We heard Michael Melzer performing van Eyck’s Variations on Dowland’s “Lachrimae” (published 1644) on a Renaissance recorder. He draws his listeners into meaning of the melodic line, giving it time to breathe, then moving on to the increasing intricacies of each variation, never allowing the virtuosic nature of the work to camouflage the musical line. With the unadorned melody returning at the end, Melzer once again reminds us of Dowland’s lament and the theme of the evening.

The cosmopolitan German Baroque composer, organist and keyboard virtuoso Johann Jakob Froberger (1616-1667) is known for his highly idiomatic and personal harpsichord pieces, these being considered early examples of program music. Such was his “Lamento sopra la dolorosa perdita della Real Maesta di Ferdinando IV Re de Romani”. As the first movement of his Partita no 12 (1656), this allemande mourns the death of the eldest of the Emperor’s sons, who was later to have ruled Austria. The movement, scored for soprano-, tenor- and bass recorders, is slow in tempo – a veritable lament - offering Michael Melzer on soprano recorder much scope for expression. It ends with a rising C major scale, possibly symbolizing the 21-year-old’s ascent to heaven.

An interesting item on the program was a Bach duet (Michael and Yael Melzer) followed by a transitional section leading the audience away from the High German Baroque into the oriental fragrances of Ladino song. “Nani,nani” is a Ladino lullaby telling of a wife whose unfaithful husband comes home from visiting his lover. Michael Melzer’s arrangement of this beautiful melody is masterful in its rich array of ideas, his varied use of recorders (and voice) and its attention to style and to exotic effects. The artists’ performance of the work was polished and alluring.

Composer, ‘cellist and teacher Joachim Stutshewsky (1891-1982) was born in the Ukraine to a family of klezmer musicians. He immigrated to Israel in 1938. His “Romance” for solo flute (1956) is an example of the synthesis he endeavored to create of his own musical background with the Yemenite, Ladino and Arabic musical style he was hearing in Israel. Professor Michael Melzer, himself fascinated by the wealth of musical styles from different ethnic groups in Israel, has reworked the piece for three alto recorders, yet carefully preserving the composer’s concept of a single melodic line. This melodic line is passed from one player to the next, to be punctuated by an occasional cluster which rapidly dissipates, restoring the texture to the single thread. The overall effect was poignant, one of sadness but also of hope.

The program included two trio sonatas – one transcribed from J.S.Bach’s organ sonata in D minor BWV 527, the concert ending with a trio sonata by Salamone Rossi Hebreo. The Melzer Consort’s program was thought-provoking, its quality of performance reflecting profound reading into works and a high standard of recorder-playing .

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The PHOENIX Ensemble - In the Green Fields of Scotland

The evening of July 12th 2009 was balmy. Through the large arched windows of the auditorium of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University), manicured gardens meet the eye; the background is the Old City of Jerusalem, spread out before us, with its countless square, stone buildings, small towers dotted here and there and the wall surrounding it. The gold on the Dome of the Rock Mosque sparkles in the last rays of daylight as the sky slowly turns from beige to indigo blue.

The PHOENIX Ensemble was presenting “In the Green Fields of Scotland” in the Brigham Young’s series of Sunday Evening Classics. Those performing were Brazilian-born researcher and teacher Myrna Herzog, the ensemble’s founder and musical director on treble and bass viols, Marina Minkin - harpsichord and organ - and soprano Tamar Kleinberger.

‘High in the misty Highlands,
Out by the purple islands,
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies.
Wild are the winds to meet you,
Staunch are the friends that greet you,
Kind as the love that shines from fair maiden’s eyes.’

The above verse is taken from “Scotland the Brave”, one of the traditional bagpipe tunes played by Herzog on the treble viol. Herzog’s performance of them was evocative and true to bagpipe style, with the artist adorning the beautiful melodies with a wistful touch of the characteristic drone. Her reading of “Amazing Grace” was moving.

Israeli soprano Tamar Kleinberger has a wide repertoire and has performed widely in Israel, England and Europe. Her years of study in Britain and fine command of British English make her well suited to singing Scottish songs. She uses her stable, silvery voice to convey the gestures of each song, never overstepping the bounds of good taste. The 16th century songs she performed speak of May - the season of love, of fidelity, of parting and of unreciprocated love. Andro Blackhall (c.1535-1609) was the most important of the first generation of post-Reformation Scottish composers. His jolly “Adieu, o desie of delyt” is in the form of a letter from a man to his lady. The anonymous “Let not, I say, the sluggish sleep” has religious content, its words suggesting that one’s soul should be examined before drifting into sleep at night. In this song, Herzog takes the melody of one stanza into the high register of the bass viol, creating an interesting timbre. Her arrangements of all these strophic songs delight the senses, offer instrumental solos and allow for a little ornamentation; she has the bass viol double the melody or add an extra melodic line to the song. Minkin’s fineness of taste and elegant harpsichord technique give the songs an air of delicacy. Unfortunately, not all the words came across clearly. Whether an issue of diction or balance, or both, it would have been helpful to have words of the songs printed on the program.

A pleasing combination was of the cantabile 17th century Scottish song “Tweedside” sung by Kleinberger, followed by Italian composer and violinist Francesco Maria Veracini’s (1690-1768) Scottish Sonata upon Tweedside for viola da gamba and continuo. Veracini was never in Scotland but spent time in London, where Scottish songs were all the craze. Herzog and Minkin gave a contrasted performance of this sonata, starting with its gentle first movement and moving into the abrasive introduction of the second, in which the song is then quoted. The resulting Scozzesse is a clever fusion of Scottish and Italian styles, with the following expressive Largo changing the mood once again. The work, itself, offers both artists opportunities for individual expression and was much enjoyed by the audience.

For a change of atmosphere, Marina Minkin, born in the Ukraine and in Israel since 1981, played an “In Nomine” by the English composer, keyboard player and organ builder John Bull (c.1562-1628). An organ piece of gradual harmonic and contrapuntal development, Minkin’s leisurely pace showed the listener through the text of the “In Nomine”. This work was well suited to the organ of the auditorium.

The concert ended with a group of Scottish folk songs, including the much discussed “Loch Lomond”. The style of Herzog’s settings reflects the fact these songs are “early music”. Her poignant setting of “I’m owre young to marry yet” for voice and viol was a treat.

In this momentary journey, the PHOENIX Ensemble placed before us the fresh greenness of Scotland’s scenery, its history and its poetry, in a concert beautifully presented and worked in fine detail.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Barrocade's "Alla Neapolitana" at the Jerusalem YMCA

Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, brought its second concert season to a close July 2nd 2009, at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem YMCA with “Neapolitan Sounds”. The ensemble plays without a conductor, all members contributing ideas as to how each work is to be performed.

Neapolitan composers of the early 18th century were famous for their operas. The works heard in this concert, however, remind one of the wonderful instrumental writing of the time. The concert opened with Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) Sinfonia in F major, scored for strings and continuo. A fitting, Italian-style aperitif, it was played with grace and humor.

Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), one of the most successful and influential opera composers of his time, had a colorful life. Educated in Naples, his professional life took him to Vienna, Paris and Russia, but he returned to Naples. He composed more than 80 operas, 40 masses and some instrumental music. Jacob Reuven was the soloist in Paisiello’s Mandolin Concerto in E flat major. (Actually, there is some doubt as to whether this concerto was really composed by Paisiello.) A work of delicacy, the first movement – Allegro maestoso – features several duet passages involving mandolin (Reuven) and violin (Shlomit Sivan), in which both artists collaborated very closely, the violin never overpowering the gentle mandolin. In the second movement - Larghetto grazioso – the ensemble’s bass instruments were a little too heavy for Reuven’s cantabile passages. His tiny cadenza was a pleasing treat. In the final dancelike allegretto, Reuven frolics and glides through the movement with ease and charm.

Pergolesi, himself, was a brilliant violinist. His gift for vocal writing shines through in his forceful yet elegant Violin Concerto in B flat major. Soloist was Israeli violinist and violist Nitai Zori. From the very first notes of the opening Allegro, Zori is commanding in his energy and forthright approach. Playing with virtuosity and temperament, he breathes life into the score, watching his fellow players all the way, using small rests for dramatic effect. In the Largo, Zori, shapes and colors the Siciliano-type line; he follows this with an articulate and brilliant performance of the final Allegro. This was Zori’s first performance on Baroque violin, and a gripping performance it was, too.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was the only outsider in the concert, visiting from Venice. His Concerto for Two Mandolins, Strings and Continuo in G major, RV 532, composed some time before 1732, was probably intended for the mandolino, a 6-stringed instrument popular in Venice at the time. Soloists were seasoned performers - Alon Sariel and Jacob Reuven. In the opening Allegro in ritornello form, soloists Sariel and Reuven interact, joining the carefree, lightly crisp tempo. In the Andante movement, in D minor, with the mandolins backed only by pizzicato violins and violas, Sariel and Reuven weave melodic lines, overlap and imitate, their finely coordinated and ornamented phrases crafted with exquisite delicacy. The last movement, also in ritornello form, returns us to the earlier driving rhythms, the two soloists dealing with its intricacies with ease and youthful joy.

After intermission, the concert audience was transported from the Jerusalem YMCA hall to a small venue in Naples, perhaps a restaurant by the port. The lighting may have been turned low and we could have been seated around heavy wooden tables, with handsome Italian waiters pouring us glasses of wine from carafes. We were to hear a selection of Neapolitan songs performed by opera singer - soprano Amalia Ishak. Born in Israel, Ishak has spent time in Italy, studying at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence. She invites her audience to emote with her, to shed its concert hall formality and join her in the extravagancies of Italian song. She opens with Vincenzo D’Annibale’s “O paese d’o sole” (O Land of Sun.), and, with the nostalgic strains of mandolins suggesting a Mediterranean summer’s day, we join Ishak in her flamboyant presentation of Italian joy, here and there tainted by bitterly disappointed love.
‘Today I am so happy
That I feel like crying.
Is it true, can it be,
Have I returned to Naples?
Am I here?
The train was still in the station
When I heard the first songs of the mandolins.”

Ishak has a large voice, she uses the space of her stage and indulges in the sentiments the songs depict as if her own. Salvatore Cardillo (1874-1947) composed the beautiful Neapolitan song “Core ‘ngrato” (Ungrateful Heart) in 1911 for Enrico Caruso. Ishak’s performance of it is melodramatic but she shows fine control of piano passages.

The ensemble played a vibrant and spirited arrangement of G. Rossini’s (1792-1868) tarantella “La Danza”, much to the enjoyment of the audience. The Barrocade Ensemble had put a lot of time and hard work into the instrumental arrangements of song accompaniments, some of which were adapted from poorly handwritten copies. Some were even played from chord schemes, with the players improvising around them. The end result was most effective.