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.