Tuesday, April 20, 2010

An evening in Tel Aviv to remember Israeli pianist Varda Nishri

On April 7th 2010 an evening of words and music was held at the Felicja Blumental Music Center (Tel Aviv) in memory of pianist Varda Nishri, who died 15 years ago. The evening was organized by Nishri’s daughter, Natalia Paruz, herself a musician. Born in Israel, Varda Nishri began giving concerts at age eight, studying with Dinu Lipatti, Claudio Arrau and other great artists. Her studies later included the History of Renaissance Art (Florence University), Musicology (Sorbonne University) and Philosophy (Bar Ilan University). She directed the Israel Bach Center and was considered an expert on J.S.Bach, made deep studies of Mozart’s works and was an authoritative interpreter of Olivier Messiaen’s music.

The evening opened with a recording of Nishri’s playing of the first movement of Paul Ben Haim’s (1897-1984) Music for Piano - 1957, opus 53, a work composed for her.

Israeli composer and teacher Professor Tzvi Avni (b. 1927, Germany) spoke of Varda Nishri’s wide field of interests, those including the plastic arts, literature and Jewish mysticism. He referred to her seriousness and humor - the play of “light and dark” in her personality - both of which were constantly reflected in her playing. Avni spoke of Nishri’s interest in a piano piece he was composing in the 1970’s; it was she who gave it its title –“Epitaph”. “Epitaph” – Piano Sonata no. 2 (1979), a musical tribute to Reb Nachman of Bratslav, was performed in this program by Zecharia Plavin. An intimate, compelling, contemplative, atonal work bristling with interesting pianistic sonorities, Plavin brought out the pain and vehemence expressed in the piece. He paced it carefully, setting out each gesture clearly, his minimal use of the sustaining pedal never blurring the motif at hand. Above all, Plavin’s impressive performance presented the deeply personal and moving message of the work.

American composer Scott R. Munson was present at the event. “Ars longa, vita brevis” (Art is long, life is fleeting) is part of a quotation from the writings of Hippocrates. Munson composed his work of this title in memory of Varda Nishri; it was premiered at this concert. Scored for string quartet and musical saw, we heard it performed by the Israel Contemporary String Quartet – violinists Hadas Fabrikant and Andrea Helm, violist Katya Polin, ‘cellist Ira Givol – with Natalia Paruz joining the quartet with the expressive, floating timbre of the saw. Munson’s work is an atonal kaleidoscope of textures, its humorous moments contrasted by more nostalgic ones. The four string players infused the work with youthful energy, Paruz’s contrasting role sounding almost vocal in timbre.

Another of Munson’s works, “Bend”, also scored for string quartet and saw, presented a busy, syncopated Ragtime scene depicted by the strings, with the saw contrasting in a more flamboyantly melodic manner.

Composer, arranger, orchestrator and vibraphonist Scott Munson graduated from Rutgers University in composition, percussion, jazz theory and jazz improvisation. In 2000, Munson was composer in residence with the Goliard Chamber Ensemble. He has written works for ballet and was recently commissioned by the NYC Musical Saw Festival to compose two works for saw and string quartet. His works are performed in concert halls throughout the world, on radio and television and he is the recipient of several awards. Munson’s newly formed ten-piece band AmeriKlectic will begin performances in the summer of 2010.

Paruz began her music education at the age of five with recorder lessons, taking piano lessons and ear-training with her mother from age six, studying voice, theory and guitar in her teen years However, as a child, Paruz was convinced that one musician in the family was enough and she turned her focus to dance, graduating from the Bat Dor School of Dance and dancing with the Bat Sheva Two Dance Company, both in Israel. Paruz went to New York to become a trainee in the Martha Graham Dance Company, but was hit by a taxi there one day, this accident putting an end to her career in dance. On a trip to Austria with her parents, she heard a saw player performing in a show for tourists. She was fascinated by his playing and asked him to teach her. He refused, explaining that saw players must teach themselves. In her work on the saw, Paruz has developed her own technique. This, coupled with her outgoing, communicative personality, gives her performances vitality. Paruz aims at preserving the art of playing the saw and encourages contemporary composers to write works for it. To that end, she has brought the sounds of the musical saw to the concert hall, to radio and television; Paruz plays the saw in the New York subway, offering passing travelers the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the instrument. She also organizes the NYC Music Saw Festival, which is in its eighth year.

Israeli composer, arranger, pianist and educator Eyal Bat was no stranger to Varda Nishri. They met when Natalia and he won first prize in a competition for writing French songs and Nishri had then watched Bat develop his art into a fine musical career. Bat’s nostalgically emotional piece “1905 for Piano and Saw” really “sings” . (1905 refers to the year the building in which the building where Paruz lives nowadays in New York was built.)

Bat’s “Canticle of Angels” for two musical saws and piano was premiered in New York in July 2009. This charming miniature, appealing in its use of the cantabile qualities of the saw, was performed at this concert, however on saw and recorder, with Katya Polin on recorder. Polin’s fine musicianship on both viola and recorder lends versatility to her concert work. Another unusual item on the program was a duet written by Scott Munson for musical saw and music box. The music box had been a present to Nishri from a Japanese pupil of hers.

Speaking of his relationship with Varda Nishri, Bat mentioned the inspiration and support he had received from her. Three weeks before her death, he played her a new piano piece of his – “Aliya” - the title referring to the rising up of the soul, a concept taken from Jewish mysticism. Bat performed the piece at this concert. With associations to eastern European Jewish scales, the work is richly harmonic and melodic. Broken chords in the left hand give rise to a fantasy of caressing melodies in the right hand. Bat’s mellifluous phrases are long and sweeping. Bat’s musical canvases are characterized by good taste and a sense of well-being.

Nishri had lived in France and French culture became very much a part of her artistic palette. Paruz and ‘cellist Ira Givol performed a piece from the 1991 French film “Delicatessen”, in which a young woman ‘cellist plays duets with a man who plays the saw. In the concert at the Blumental Center, roles were reversed; however, both artists addressed every melodic phrase and each other in this charming and sweetly sentimental piece of musical, non-verbal wooing.

Retired director of the Givatayim Conservatory of Music, Aharon Shefi talked of Nishri’s founding of the Israel Bach Centre and Nishri’s sister spoke of Varda as a person, drawing together the threads of a varied and colorful event at the Felicja Blumental Music Center.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Leipziger Synagogalchor (Leipzig Synagogue Choir) in Israel

The Leipziger Synagogalchor (Leipzig Synagogue Choir) was founded in 1962 by Werner Sander. As of 1972, ‘cellist and opera tenor Helmut Klotz has been its musical director. Having sung in the role the Evangelist in J.S.Bach’s Passions, Klotz was now taking on the role of cantor of the Jewish synagogue. The mission of the choir is to preserve German synagogue- and Jewish music of the 19th- and 20th centuries; its repertoire also includes Yiddish- and Hebrew songs and works of contemporary Jewish composers. The choir performs in Germany and has toured Israel, South Africa, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Brazil, Sweden , Poland and the USA. The ensemble numbers some 30 members, all non- professional singers, most of whom have vocal training; they are joined by professional soloists – singers from opera houses in Leipzig, Berlin and Zurich - all members are non-Jewish. The personal commitment and idealism of Klotz and all his singers contribute to the success and uniqueness of the Leipziger Synagogalchor. In its performance of the old synagogue repertoire, the choir sings in the specific Ashkenazi pronunciation customary in German synagogues before the Holocaust. The choir has received awards and is supported by the City of Leipzig and State of Saxony.

The Leipziger Synagogalchor toured Israel in March 2010, performing in Herzliya, Tel Aviv, Kibbutz Kfar Hachoresh and Jerusalem. Informative program notes were compiled by Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, who was among those who introduced the choir and program of the concert in the synagogue of Yad Vashem (Jerusalem). Soloists were Helmut Klotz himself, alto Ulrike Helzel and baritone Egbert Junghans, with Clemens Posselt at the piano.

Typical of 19th century German synagogue music was Samuel Lampel’s (1884-1942) Ma tauwo/Ma Tovu (How goodly are your tents, O Jacob) for solo baritone, choir and piano, this work serving as the festive opening to Sabbath and holyday services. Singing the solo was baritone Egbert Junghans, an opera singer, concert soloist and Lied interpreter. Samuel Lampel was the last cantor of the Leipzig Great Synagogue before the Holocaust. He perished in Auschwitz. Samuel Naumbourg (1815-1880), born in Bavaria, began his musical life as a choirboy in the synagogue in Munich and spent much of his professional life as chief cantor and musical director of the Great Synagogue of Paris. Ez chajim/Etz chayim (The Torah is the tree of life) for choir and piano is sung as the Torah scroll is being returned to the Ark after the reading on Sabbath and holydays. Naumbourg’s work brings together traditional cantorial style, folk melody and contemporary musical style (Naumbourg knew Meyerbeer and Halevy.) A program of this music would not have been complete without a piece by Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), the most important composer of this genre of the 19th century. Born in Posen (then Poland), he emigrated to Germany at age 13. For many years he served as musical director of the New Synagogue in Berlin. The choir sang his Taurass Adaunoj/Torat Adonai (The Law of the Lord is perfect.) All the above choral works are decidedly central European in style, a reminder of how assimilated German Jewry had been in the 19th century. The Leipziger Synagogalchor’s performance of them was in keeping with their style, each vocal section well blended, the overall effect noble and balanced.

Yosef Dorfman (1940-2006) was born in Russia and immigrated to Israel in 1973. Two of his Yiddish settings – “Di Nacht” (after the melody of Aharon Domnitz, text Michael Gelbart) and “Ghetto Varsha” (after a melody of Leon Weiner, text Shmerl Katcherginski) – describe the horrors of the Holocaust. These works are more Eastern European in their musical concept and were sung in Yiddish. The choir’s rendering of “Ghetto Varsha” was heart-rending, the audience in the Yad Vashem synagogue left deep in thought on its conclusion, choosing silence rather than applause.

Professor Schleifer told the story of “Shtiler, Shtiler”, a song composed by Alexander Wolkowiski and arranged by Bonia Shur. A competition to write music had been held in the Vilna Ghetto. Eleven-year-old Alexander Wolkowiski wrote this Yiddish song, winning second prize. The song remained a hymn of the Holocaust thereafter. The composer of the song is none other than Jerusalem pianist Professor Alexander Tamir. Mezzo-soprano Ulrike Helzel’s solo above the choir was moving. Helzel, born in Magdeburg Germany, performs in opera and oratorio throughout Europe.

The Leipziger Synagogalchor is impressive in its careful working of fine voices, treatment of texts and fine musicianship, its humility and respect for Jewish tradition. Hearing the choir was, indeed, thought-provoking and uplifting.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a program of Bach and Vivaldi

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s fifth concert for the 2009-2010 season - “Vivaldi, Bach and Harpsichord” – took place March 23rd 2010 at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem YMCA. It focused on works by Vivaldi, J.S.Bach and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. In his program notes, Dr. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the JBO, speaks of Vivaldi’s profound influence “characterized by order, coherence and proportion” on J.S.Bach, this having been related by the latter’s second son, Carl Philipp Bach, to Nicolaus Forkel, the first J.S.Bach biographer.

Harpsichordist Shalev Ad-El was one of the three soloists, conducting the string orchestra from the harpsichord. Ad-El (born Israel, 1968) leads a busy international professional schedule of conducting, performing, teaching and recording.

The concert opened with C.P.E.Bach’s (1714-1788) Symphony in C major, Wq 182 No.3. One of a set of six string symphonies composed in Hamburg in 1773, Ad-El addresses the Sturm and Drang style of this music, presenting its richly cantabile melodies in juxtaposition to strong, dramatic themes and startling harmonic changes.

J.S.Bach’s Concerto in A major for Harpsichord and Strings, BWV 1055 (1738) was (as all his harpsichord concertos) a rewriting of an existing work of his, possibly a concerto for oboe d’amore, now lost. Exploring the possibilities of the harpsichord, the work entails much complex passagework, although not all of the detail sounded above the orchestra. Ad-El’s playing of expressive filigree melodies against the repetitive motif of the Larghetto movement was effectives, as were his elegantly shaped phrase endings throughout.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) composed over 500 concertos, his Opus 10, published 1729-1730 in Amsterdam, being a collection of six flute concertos. They were the first flute concertos ever published. Most of the Vivaldi Opus 10 concertos were given descriptive titles, most are based on earlier versions of concertos and all are scored for flute and strings. Unlike the modern concerto, the flute also joins in tutti sections. Vivaldi’s Concerto in G minor “La Notte” (Night) for Flute and Strings opus 10 No.2 RV 439 originally existed as a chamber concerto for flute (or violin), two violins and bassoon. Unusually, it has six movements, two bearing titles - “Fantasmi” (Phantoms) and “Il Sonno” (Sleep.) Belgian flautist Jan de Winne (b.1962) is affiliated with a number of European ensembles, serves as artistic director of the Passacaille label and also builds replicas of 18th- and 19th century traverso flutes. His performance in this somewhat mysterious Vivaldi concerto was both virtuosic and commanding, moving the spirit and working in sensitively with Ad-El’s exciting play of colors and textures.

This was followed by Vivaldi’s Sinfonia “Al Santo Sepolcro” RV 169, its title possibly referring to a so-named chapel in Verallo, Italy, which was built as a scaled-down version of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. A short piece in two movements, the work belongs to the Baroque “Passion music” style, depicting Christ’s pain and suffering, hence the use of chromaticism, sharp dissonances and harmonic instability. Ad-El gives it an emotional, flexible reading, infusing expression into its uncompromising message, making for interesting listening.

The concert ended with J.S.Bach’s Concerto in A minor for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord and Strings, BWV 1044. Joining the soloists in this work was Israeli violinist Dafna Ravid, a chamber music player and a JBO soloist as well as one of its principal violinists. The concerto, freely based on two of Bach’s keyboard pieces ( Prelude and Fugue in A minor for Harpsichord BWV 894 and Organ Sonata in D minor BWV 527), is supposed to have been composed between 1730 and 1735. Following the opening Allegro movement, in which Ad-El’s passagework boasts energy and articulate brilliance, with flute and violin commenting in melodic fragments, the second movement – Adagio, ma non tanto, e dolce – presents a new soundscape, in which the harpsichord moves to lute register, inviting flute and violin to engage in pastoral dialogue. Ravid and De Winne communicate well, creating balance colored with individuality. In the final movement, to which Bach gives the harpsichord the upper hand once more, the audience enjoyed the JBO’s warm sound and fine blend spiced with interesting melodic expression and textures.