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!