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.