Thursday, April 30, 2009

Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra Independence Day Concert, 2009

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of its house conductor, Leon Botstein, issued in the 61st Israeli Independence Day celebrations on April 28, 2009 with a festive concert in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. Playing to a full house, the JSO delighted the audience with a program of interest and variety.

What more fitting opening to the evening could there be than Paul Ben Haim’s (1897-1984) “Fanfare for Israel”, composed in 1950. Emigrating to Israel from Germany in 1933, Ben Haim actually took Israeli citizenship in 1948 and was one of the visionaries of that pioneering period of Israeli music. ”Fanfare for Israel” is a short, modal work, spelled out in a colorfully orchestrated idiom, with melody and harmony balanced in a smoothly crafted style.

We then heard Francis Poulenc’s (1899-1963) Concerto in D minor for Two Pianos. Soloists were duo pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony; the two artists perform extensively, record and are the recipients of several prestigious awards. They also established the Israeli International Piano Duo Festival, with Admony as its artistic director. From the very first notes of the concerto, Kanazawa and Admony take on board the mix of eclectic, witty, percussive and lyrical style, spiced by Balinese gamelan music, jazz, music in the style of that played for the silent films and the French music hall, all these elements having been tossed into the cauldron of Poulenc’s own musical idiom. The duo’s energetic and articulate approach of the feisty first movement transforms to a delicate and flowing, Romantic texture in the second. Botstein addresses the many instrumental solos and effects in detail. The audience enjoyed the brilliance and joy of this performance.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) began his Symphony No. 5 in C minor, opus 67 in 1804, completing it in 1808. A year and a half after its premiering, composer and author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote: “Radiant beams shoot through the deep night of this region, and we become aware of gigantic shadows which, rocking back and forth, close in on us and destroy all within us except the pain of endless longing…” Much has since been written about the symphony, in particular, about the opening four-note motif and whether it symbolizes “fate knocking at the door”. Whether it does or not, the symphony remains one of the greatest works of orchestral repertoire, its emotional message, however it is understood in the mind of the listener, is a powerful one. Botstein’s tempi were fast; his emphasis was on strong melodic profile, contrast, and on a spirited, fresh orchestral sound. Brass and ‘cello sections were especially pleasing.

The concert ended with four Israeli songs arranged for orchestra and instrumental soloists by conductor, arranger, composer and pianist, Shimon Cohen (b.1937, Israel). Cohen’s songs and arrangements have become staples of the Israeli music scene.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"Letters Weeping in Fire" - Songs to Poetry by Jacob Barzilai - Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Day, 2009

Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Day was commemorated in the Hebrew Union College concert series on April 21, 2009 with “Letters Weeping in Fire”, an evening of songs by three Israeli composers to poetry of Jacob Barzilai (b.1933). A Holocaust survivor himself, Barzilai divides his time between writing, lecturing and reading his poetry, much of which has been set to music, at public concerts. Shimrit Carmi-soprano and Hadas Gur-mezzo-soprano were accompanied on the piano by Monica Fallon and Anastasia Sobolev.

The concert opened with Anastasia Sobolev’s reflective and delicately paced playing of a piece from Paul Ben-Haim’s (1897-1984) “Music for Piano, 1967”. Sobolev, a graduate of the Kemerovo College of Music and the Novosibirsk Glinka Conservatory, immigrated to Israel in 1998, continuing her studies at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music. She performs as a soloist and in chamber ensembles.

Barzilai preceded each new group of songs with his own thought-provoking reading of the poems, giving the audience time to peruse the words (provided with English translation) before hearing the songs.

The first set of songs was composed by Yoram Meyuchas (b.1967, Israel), with texts taken from Barzilai’s book titled “Not All Is Black and Not Always”. Meyuchas has written much vocal music, is first violist in the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, teaches viola, lectures on music repertoire and coaches young chamber music players. Performed by soprano Shimrit Carmi and Monica Fallon (piano), the song cycle uses contemporary melodic lines and textures to depict the moving in and out of memory.
‘I have grown tired
Of day to day struggling
In the space separating
Remembrance from forgetfulness
Bluntness from transparency,
Even though I do try
To remember that one must not forget.’ (English translation: Elisheva Gal.)
Carmi, a pianist and accompanist, is especially interested in the German Lied. Her voice is delicate but she is convincing and convinced, the text in her hands is visual and personal, conveying the poetry’s powerful and bleak message. Meyuchas’ writing for the piano provides Fallon with a rich canvas and she handles it well. Fallon performs chamber music, accompanies and coaches cantorial students at Hebrew Union College and lectures in Israeli art music. She runs the Hebrew Union College concert series.

The second group of songs was from Barzilai’s book “Letters Weeping in Fire”, set by Aharon Harlap (b.1941. Canada). Pianist, conductor and composer, Harlap has written works for choir, chamber ensembles and orchestra. We heard mezzo-soprano Hadas Gur and Anastasia Sobolev in the performance of these songs. Behind the song cycle lies a quotation from a play of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856): “They who start by burning books will end up burning men”. We are presented with a vivid and uncompromising set of scenes and thoughts, almost visual, as in the cynical victory march in “Fire in the Town Square”, the drunken march in “Brave Soldier” and the innocence of children’s games as presented by the piano in “Forbidden Games”. Hadas Gur fills the scene with dramatic depth, her voice changing with each gesture and she singles out and colors certain words of the text. The piano part is highly demanding and descriptive; Sobolev spells out small recurring motifs and joins Gur in painting each picture. Gur is a Baroque specialist, singing in the “Gaechinger Kantorei” under Helmuth Rilling. She also premieres contemporary Israeli works.

The concert ended with two songs from “Longing for my Father”, performed by Carmi and Fallon. The music composed to this is by Rami Bar-Niv (b.1951, Israel.) Niv, a highly acclaimed pianist, has performed widely and is the recipient of several prizes. Barzilai was eleven years old when he lost his father; Bar-Niv cushions these his poems in a lush, tonal, Romantic and cantabile style, the music combining Jewish motifs with interesting harmonic ideas, the texts combining past and present.
‘When I faced the rock of the lost in Jerusalem,
Inquiring about my loss,
I was not answered.’ (Translation: Rami Bar-Niv.)

This was an interesting and meaningful event for Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Memorial Day, a concert of fine performance by artists who had clearly delved deeply into the subject matter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The "Rubato Appassionato" trio performs 18th century Spanish music at the Hebrew University

The Hebrew University’s Monday noon concert on April 20th 2009 featured “Rubato Appassionato”. This trio was founded in 2000 at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, where all members were students; it consists of Antonia Tajeda–recorders, Eyal Streett-Baroque bassoon and Sasha Agranov-Baroque ‘cello. With the ‘cello taking the role of basso continuo, the group performs Baroque music from Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, England and Spain, researches forgotten and little-known works and uses musical fantasy to create variations on works based on aesthetics of the Baroque period.

This particular program focused on anonymous 18th century Spanish music found in libraries and archives. The first part of the program included two sets of dances, to which “Rubato Appassionato” has added variations and, in some cases, a bass line. Sympathetically arranged, with the ‘cello often plucked rather than bowed, melodies moving from recorder to bassoon, the dances were presented appealingly with luxuriant color and verve together with performance that was the epitome of good blending and accuracy. Nice touches used with taste and charm were the use of leg bells, a few dance steps here and there and the occasional use of a drum, as well as other effects, such as “flatterzunge” (a birdlike warbling effect produced in the throat) by Tajeda on the recorder.

The trio’s performance of an anonymous bagpipe piece included a drone moving from ‘cello to bassoon, with much conversation between instruments. A whimsical effect was a rising glissando of the bagpipes filling with air at the outset and the gentle falling of pitch at the end, as the bagpipe sack emptied.

The concert ended with Variations on “La Folia”, a veritable tour-de-force mostly for the recorder but also for the other instruments, each variation presenting different textures, various levels of excitement or tranquility and much energetic, virtuosic playing…and never at the expense of good taste.

All members of “Rubato Appassionato” are making careers in Europe and each artist has an interesting personality; I would go as far as to say there is an underlying theatrical dimension within the trio, providing an element which is fresh and youthful. This, coupled with well researched work and highly competent playing, makes for interesting performance and hearty enjoyment.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Smiles,Pranks and Coughs at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra"

“Smiles, Pranks and Coughs at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra” (ISBN 965-90982-0-0, Rotem Publishing Ltd.) is a book of amusing anecdotes compiled by Yaacov Mishori; Mishori, now retired, served as principal horn player of the IPO, as IPO spokesman and was a member of the management. Mishori has written other books and today teaches at the Buchmann-Mehta High School and presents a weekly radio program.

Beginning with Mishori’s early musical experiences and his joining the IPO, the book presents a wealth of hilarious stories about the orchestra, its players and conductors, its audiences and its performances in Israel and abroad. The book gives one a glimpse with a difference into the colorful history of the IPO since its founding in 1936. Imagine Maestro Zubin Mehta changing a concerto scheduled for a concert, but without letting the soloist, violinist Uri Pianka, in on the prank! This really happened at a concert one year around Purim. All ended well when Pianka, somewhat surprised, managed to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto by heart instead of that of Tchaikovsky. At a concert performed on a naval barge to an audience of soldiers, tourists and Bedouin at Sharm-El-Sheikh in 1973, Mishori recounts how a strong wind began to blow just as the orchestra was performing Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony, causing the players’ music to fly off into the sea or in the direction of the audience.

However, there is more to this book than stories of eccentric conductors and the suggestion of a “Symphony for Orchestra and Coughing Audience” to be composed for and performed by the IPO. Mishori nostalgically takes us back to the Tel Aviv of many years ago. Illustrated by Amnon Katz, the book has been translated into English from the original Hebrew version by Tal Rockman. I have read better translations than this one but musicians and music-lovers alike will, nevertheless, laugh and enjoy reading this collection of stories. The English translation of “Smiles, Pranks and Coughs at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra” can be ordered by calling Rotem Publishing Ltd. at 077-3330775.

Friday, April 3, 2009

J.S.Bach St. Matthew Passion, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra

J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) St. Matthew Passion BWV 244 was composed in Leipzig in 1727. The composer’s longest work, it calls for vocal- and instrumental soloists, two choirs and two orchestras, and reflects Bach’s deeply religious conviction. In addition to texts from chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel According to St. Matthew, there are lyrical, soul-searching sections written by Bach’s friend Christian Friedrich Henrici (1700-1764) (“Picander” was his pseudonym) and these add to the devotional aspect of the work. Since Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, its rich canvas and personal expression have attracted the concert-going public to experience its beauty and emotional impact again and again; the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s performance of it, conducted by its home conductor Leon Botstein, April 1 in Jerusalem, was no exception, with the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre packed to capacity. People were genuinely curious to hear Botstein’s reading of this monumental work.

Following his informal, informative pre-concert discussion of the work, Leon Botstein conducted and coordinated his large group of musicians in a performance of precision and lush musical soundscape. A labor of love, I watched Botstein mouthing almost every word as he conducted (not using a baton.) In the hands of a classical orchestra, this was not a Bach performance on historical instruments; however, there were just a few Baroque-oriented timbres: the inclusion, for example, of the viola da gamba (Amit Tiefenbrunn) in the strings and in obbligato roles was effective and poignant. The work, altogether, has many beautiful instrumental solos and duets and these, always coming down to a more intimate form of expression, were handled sensitively by orchestra members. The two choirs taking part – the New Vocal Ensemble and the Kibbutz Artzi Choir, both trained by Yuval Ben-Ozer - added performance that was competent and clean, their diction good and their phrasing finely chiseled. Their superbly blended choral sound was a feast to the ears, whether in the comforting message of the chorales or in the vehement outbursts of the angry mob. Small solos, sung by choir members, were of a high quality.

Israeli mezzo-soprano, Rachel Frenkel, has fine vocal technique and interesting depth to her voice. Claire Meghnagi showed taste, color and vocal ease; she seemed to grow into the work as it progressed. German-born tenor Christian Baumgaertel was powerful and involved. Israeli baritone Gabriel Lowenheim’s singing is warm, full and rich; he was communicative and very much a part of the immediacy of the dramatic moment. Estonian bass Uku Joller was well cast as Jesus, his presence commanding, his voice large and stable with a fine mix of depth and lights; and he sang with conviction. German tenor Immo Schroeder, as the Evangelist, was brilliant in his narration. Using the whole spectrum of his voice, he was convincing and articulate; his dramatic timing, his well-sculpted phrases, his depth of emotion, his humility and the manner in which he addressed each and every nuance of the written text were moving, indeed, memorable.