Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ensemble Canzona, Musica Aeterna at Scottish Church in Jerusalem

A concert at the Scottish Church March 18 2009 featured works for women’s voices performed by two different choirs.

Ensemble Canzona, a choir of 15 women, affiliated with the Mevasseret Zion Conservatory, was founded by its present conductor Tatiana Mirsky in 1999. The singers are amateurs, but all have vocal experience; they perform liturgical- and contemporary music as well as Israeli works. In the summer of 2009, the choir will be taking part in “The Singing World International Festival” in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Ensemble Canzona opened the evening with short works by three French composers, beginning with Camille Saint-Saens’ (1835-1924) “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail, True Body) (1860) for women’s voices and organ. This was followed by Francis Poulenc’s (1899-1963) exquisite last motet using the same text, quite demanding in its crossing voice parts and dissonances, after which we heard his expressive “Ave Maria” (Hail Mary). Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) composed at least two motet settings to the “Tantum Ergo” (Therefore we, before Him bending) by Thomas Aquinas. Accompanied on the organ by the ensemble’s pianist, Bracha Einav, who is also a member of the choir, the ensemble gave expression to the lush, French Romantic harmonies of the piece. Singers and conductor were at a disadvantage, with the organ and Einav at the back of the church, the distraction of which affected intonation.

Ensemble Canzona ended their part of the concert with Antonio Lotti’s (1667-1740) a cappella Mass in A minor, a major undertaking, competently performed by them. Soloist was alto Nurit Nirel, whose many interpolations presented contrast and interest with her unique vocal color. Mirsky’s direction was energetic and contrasted, the choir’s intonation and diction pleasing.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Giovanni Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) “Stabat Mater”, performed by women members of Musica Aeterna. Musica Aeterna was founded in 1996 by Ilya Plotkin, it performs a wide repertoire and has contributed much to the Israeli concert scene by introducing Russian music not previously heard here. In 2003, Plotkin founded Opera Aeterna, which, to date, has produced four operas and with great success.

Composed in 1736, this “Stabat Mater” is thought to have been Pergolesi’s last composition. Comprising of twelve sections, it boasts many moving melodies and has, indeed, been criticized for being too cheerful, considering it is a work describing the last breaths of Jesus. At the time he composed it, Pergolesi, himself was dying, probably of tuberculosis. The evening’s performance was one to delight the senses, Aeterna’s choral texture being rich and flexible, spiced with color and dynamic variety, voice-play and excitement. Soloists were Inessa Spak, Hilma Digilov, Anna Malania-Feder, Anna Yoffe, Helena Plotkin, Ekaterina Chepelev and Tatiana Mirsky, and they were outstanding. I felt the presence of a harpsichord, rather than the electronic keyboard used, would have done more justice to the singers and to Nataly Rotenberg’s attentive playing. Plotkin’s conducting and musical direction make for articulate and richly interesting musical performance.

St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem
March 18 2009

Saturday, March 21, 2009

J.S.Bach - St John Passion. Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s fourth concert for the 2008-2009 season presented J.S.Bach’s “St. John Passion”. It was conducted by Andrew Parrott, the honorary conductor of the JBO. In his book “The Essential Bach Choir” (2000) Parrott writes that, in Bach’s choral compositions, there were few singers – often one to a part – and in the JBO’s performance, there were, indeed, only two vocal quartets.

J.S.Bach (1685-1750) composed some of the music for this work when in Weimar (1708-1717) but the bulk of the composition was probably written at the beginning of 1724 and first performed April 7 (Good Friday) of that year. Bach made subsequent changes to it but in his last version, in 1749, we see Bach returning to most of his earlier ideas. Bach has added commentary and sacred poems by contemporary writers into the text, the content of which can lead to much discussion. The work itself is highly emotional and theatrical in its approach, with many much-loved Lutheran chorales throughout.

From the initial turbulent strains introducing the first chorale, the drama of the Passion is set before us. New York-based tenor Marc Molomot, as the Evangelist, the major solo role in this work, his voice transparent and engaging, was a brilliant narrator, weighing each word and gesture, setting all sides of the dilemma before the audience, presenting each emotional nuance with personal expression. His performance of the following aria (no.20), for example, accompanied by bass instruments and two viola d’amores, was delicate and mellifluous, pensive and moving:
‘Ponder well how his back, bloodstained all over, is like the sky
Where, after the deluge from our flood of sins has abated,
There appears the most beautiful rainbow as a sign of God’s mercy!’

Israeli alto Noa Frenkel is a singer to watch, her reedy, richly-colored alto timbre commanding as she holds the listener within the tension of the moment. German-born bass Christian Immler, no newcomer to Israeli audiences, pleased the audience with his warmth and presence. Young Israeli bass Assif Am-David was highly commendable and convincing in the role of Pontius Pilate. The two vocal quartets, positioned separately, were outstanding in the verbal and musical detail addressed , in their vocal quality, shaping and expressiveness. Not to be ignored is the fine core of JBO instrumentalists.

Parrott’s conducting of the Johannespassion was every bit as detailed and emotional as the work itself. I later talked to David Shemer, the JBO’s musical director, who told me that he and his players find Parrott’s unconventional, almost dancelike style of conducting very articulate. Shemer’s program notes were interesting and thought-provoking. The performance, itself, was deeply moving.

J.S.Bach – St John Passion
Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra
Andrew Parrott(UK) – conductor
David Shemer- musical director
Emily van Evera (UK), Ayala Sicron – sopranos
Noa Frenkel (Holland-Israel), Avital Dery – altos
Marc Molomot (USA), David Nortman – tenors
Christian Immler (UK-Germany), Assif Am-David – basses
The Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, YMCA Jerusalem
March 10, 2009

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Salomone Rossi Choral and Instrumental Works and more...

The Barrocade Ensemble’s 3rd concert of the 2008-2009 season, “The Songs of Solomon”, focused mostly on the Jewish music of Venice and Mantua at the period ending the Renaissance- and beginning the Baroque period. Joining members of the Barrocade Ensemble in this festive concert was the “Profeti della Quinta” vocal quintet – countertenors Doron Schleifer and David Feldman, tenors Eitan Drori and David Nortman and bass Elam Rotem. Begun in 2003 by harpsichordist Elam Rotem, this quintet specializes in Renaissance polyphonic works, many of which are written for this very combination of voices. They have performed in Europe and Israel and have recorded a disc of works by Salomone Rossi.

Salomone Rossi (c.1570-1630), a Jewish composer and violinist, was born in Mantua and lived there for all of his life. In the early 17th century, there were some 23,000 Jews living in Mantua,; it is known that in 1630 there were nine synagogues there, most of them belonging to the “Italiani” Jews who followed the Roman rite. Rossi’s strong connections with the ruling Gonzaga family stood him in good stead; he enjoyed privileges not granted to most Jews and received some payment from the ducal court but he was also employed by the local Jewish theatrical group. In 1622, he published his “Shirim Asher l’Shlomo” - 33 songs, 20 of which are drawn from Psalms, all in Hebrew. However, none of the texts are from the “Song of Songs”, the word “Shlomo” alluding to Rossi himself. This collection was the first time Hebrew had been set in print and was produced as separate part-books rather than as a complete score. Most significantly, Rossi was the first Jew to compose, perform and publish polyphonic settings of synagogue liturgy for mixed choir. The “Profeti della Quinta” presented a number of these settings, opening with a lush, highly-colored and joyful reading of “For the chief musician of the gitit” (Psalm 8). The group’s profound performance of “By the rivers of Babylon” was imbued with the yearning and fearfulness of Psalm 137. “To whom would I desire” , a wedding ode probably sung in the house of the bride or groom, is written in the Venetian antiphonal style. With Doron Schleifer singing on stage and the other singers placed in the gallery, the audience enjoyed a dynamic and ornamented performance of this wedding ode. The Profeti’s timbre is young, bright, supple and rich, their voices blend superbly, their diction is outstanding and their phrasing well crafted. And what could be more suitable than hearing these gems sung by Hebrew speakers!

Rossi also made significant contributions to instrumental music; his four books of instrumental works include 116 pieces. The Barrocade Ensemble’s concert opened with Rossi’s “Canzon per sonar a 4”, structured from lively, small sections, played attacca.. In the “Sonata a 6” and , the ensemble delighted the audience with melodic interest moving back and forward from the two violins (Shlomit Sivan and Yasuko Hirata) to the two recorders (Katia Polin and Ayelet Karni) – four very fine musicians - as in the final Sinfonia, where we heard much fine ornamentation over the basis of a plucked sound. The program provided an extra attraction to lovers of recorder playing.

Two of Giovanni Gabrieli’s (1554/5-1612) antiphonal madrigals, written for two choirs of four singers each, “Lieto godea” (My Heart is Filled With Joy) and “O, che felice giorno” (Oh, What a Joyful Day) were played by Barrocade instrumentalists. “Lieto godea”, Gabrieli’s most famous madrigal, was also used by Schuetz and Banchieri and its repeated notes suggest it may have been instrumentally conceived. At any rate, the two mixed “choirs” produced a pleasing effect.

Italian composer and church organist, Carlo Grossi (c.1634-1688) was commissioned to write his “Cantata ebraica in diologo” by a Venetian Jewish organization called the “Shomrim la-Boker”, (Morning Watchmen). Tenor Eitan Drori was soloist, with the other singers forming the chorus; the dialogue, in the style of Monteverdi, is between a passer-by (Drori) in the form of recitatives and morning watchmen, in ritornelli. Drori’s performance in this colorful work was engaging.

Tenor David Nortman sang three unaccompanied “Piyutim” (Jewish liturgical poems) originating in Italian tradition. He opened with the beautiful Italian “Maoz Tzur” (Rock of Ages) which is sung during Chanukah (Feast of Lights), he continued with “Ya, Shema Evyonecha” (Lord, Hear the Misery of Your People) (text:Yehuda Halevi), sung during the days leading up to the Day of Atonement and “Tzur Mishelo Achalnu”, (Lord, Who Provides us with Sustenance) an early text, poet unknown, sung after a meal. Nortman, with a background in both church- and Jewish music, was outstanding in his performance; he has a golden tenor timbre, his singing glowing with excellent intonation, comfortable stage presence, fluency, directness and joy in the message of each piyut.

And another treat lay in store for the audience: arranged for ensemble and voices by Amit Tiefenbrunn in the Barrocade “folk Baroque” style, we heard the Judeo-Italian melody of the Aramaic Passover song “ One Kid Goat”. The soloist was Doron Schleifer, who took the audience all the way with him in his brilliant, foot-tappingly rhythmical and humorous performance of the cumulative story. Schleifer’s countertenor range is rich in color and stability and he has much stage personality.

Kudos to harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon for his creative and daring programming and to Barrocade and the Profeti della Quinta for polished performance of the kind that goes straight to the audience’s heart.

“The Songs of Solomon”

Barrocade Ensemble:
Katia Polin, Ayelet Karni-recorders
Shlomit Sivan, Yasuko Hirata-violins
Alexandra Polin-‘cello
Amit Tiefenbrunn-violone
Alon Portal-double bass
Michael Eli-colascione
Eitan Hoffer-theorbo
Yizhar Karshon-harpsichord

Profeti della Quinta:
Elam Rotem-artistic director, bass, harpsichord.
Doron Schleifer, David Feldman-countertenors
Eitan Drori, David Nortman-tenors

The Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship,
YMCA Jerusalem
March 4, 2009