Monday, December 27, 2010

"The Peasant in the Palace" - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs works of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann

“The Peasant in the Palace” is the title given to the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third concert of the 2010-2011 season; it took place December 21st at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA and in Tel Aviv. Conducted from the harpsichord by David Shemer, founder and director of the JBO, the program focused on works of J.S.Bach and G.P.Telemann.

It is thought that in 1719, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), on a mission to Berlin to approve and bring a very fine harpsichord back to Cothen, played for the Margrave of Brandenburg. The Margrave requested from Bach a score to add to his extensive music library. It seems Bach sent him the “Six Concerts Avec Plusieurs Instruments” as an application for a new job. Bach was refused the job and the six Brandenburg Concertos may never have been performed during his lifetime. The manuscript passed through private hands, ending up in a library. Brandenburg Concerto no.5, possibly the last of the set of six concertos to be written, is scored for flute, violin and harpsichord, with violin, viola and basso continuo support. Demonstrating the possibilities offered by the high quality harpsichord Bach brought back in 1719, it is the first chamber work in which the keyboard player is the “star”, the status of the harpsichord being raised from continuo instrument to soloist. Soloists in the JBO performance of this work were Laura Pontecorvo (Italy)-traverso (Baroque flute), Boris Begelman-violin and David Shemer performing on his Martin Skowroneck harpsichord. From the outset of the opening Allegro, the ensemble wove gossamer-fine melodic lines around each other in a pleasing blend of sound, with Begelman and Pontecorvo striking a fine balance. In the first draft of the first movement, Bach had written a cadenza of eighteen bars for harpsichord, later expanding it to sixty five. Shemer’s handling of the mammoth cadenza was brilliant in execution, clean, exciting and articulate in its silvery cascades of glittering sounds, ending with a breathtaking chromatic passage before handing over to the ensemble to wind up the movement. In the Affetuoso movement, with the scoring pared down to the soloists, the artists created a sensitive and sensuously fragile texture, Pontecorvo and Begelman selective and careful in their ornamenting. The final gigue-like Allegro, delicate yet energetic, opened with flute and violin conversing, the harpsichord, indulging in dense 16th-note passagework and trilling, assuming a major role once more. Pontecorvo gives life and shape to each phrase; Begelman is listening, attentive and careful never to override in volume, his playing always inspiring. A rare treat.

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) spent the greater part of his musical life (1721-1767) in Hamburg, where he worked with tireless energy. In 1732 a posting in one of the Hamburg newspapers read “Music lovers can expect in the following year a great instrumental work called Musique de Table, penned by Telemann….Subscriptions are accepted every quarter..” Almost 250 people (including Handel) subscribed from many countries in Europe and from England – people from the bourgeoisie, magistrates, ministers, clergy, kapellmeisters as well as professional- and amateur musicians. The “Tafelmusik” consists of three volumes, referred to by Telemann as “productions”, each of them sharing the same design and boasting a wealth of invention, melodic richness and variety of styles. The Concerto for flute, violin, ‘cello, strings and continuo in A major (Tafelmusik 1/3) is a true chef d’oeuvre. Soloists in the JBO performance of it were Laura Pontecorvo, Boris Begelman and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi; they played singly, in pairs and as a trio. Their performance – chamber music at its most communicative – created constant interest. Their playing of the intimate Grazioso movement was flattering and elegant, short phrases and fragments pieced together with perfection. The final Allegro was a display of youthful energy, humor and virtuosity, with Messer-Jacobi’s soloing brilliant, joyful and in good taste. In a letter to a friend, Telemann wrote “I do hope the work will one day contribute to my fame”. The importance and depth of the “Tafelmusik” have certainly reached far beyond the function of “dinner music”.

The “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212 “Mer hahn en neue Oberkeet” (We have a new lord of the manor) (1742) shows the formal, intellectual and deeply religious J.S.Bach in a very different light. To celebrate the 36th birthday and appointment of Heinrich von Dieskau as Provost of the vicinity of Leipzig, where Bach was based, Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) and Bach joined forces to create this secular cantata “en burlesque”. (A long-standing partnership, the two had collaborated on writing the St. Matthew Passion, the St. Mark Passion and a number of sacred- and secular cantatas.) Picander, a government official responsible for collecting liquor taxes in the region, had his reasons for writing the libretto, probably wishing to ingratiate himself with his new employer. The setting is Klein-Zschocher - an estate southwest of Leipzig, consisting then of 90 houses, brickworks, sheep, a shepherd’s house, a rectory, a church and a school - the two characters in the cantata being a peasant girl Mieke (soprano Revital Raviv) and her nameless suitor (baritone Yair Polishook). The story is as simple as its rustic characters: “he” makes a “suggestion” to Mieke; Mieke shows disdain for such vulgarity. Talk then centers round praise of the new squire and good, earthy entertainment. The libretto is in the dialect of local country folk, with Bach’s music less complex than was his convention: he quotes from popular songs and country dances of the day and borrows from other works – from his Goldberg Variations and from the “La Folia” harmonic ground bass. Instrumental soloists were Dafna Ravid-violin, Daniel Tanchelson-viola and Orit-Messer-Jacobi-‘cello. The cantata opens with a Sinfonia bristling with popular tunes and good humor, setting the scene. And so into the light-headed patter of gossip, whimsical vulgarity, discussion of taxes, money, the chamberlain and his wife, the songs of sophisticated people versus those of peasant folk and, of course, talk of drinking and reveling. Soprano Revital Raviv is a coquettish and flirtatious Mieke. She assumes her role with ease, uses facial expression and body language, reacts to Polishook’s texts, her pearly voice and vocal ease delighting the audience. In the following aria - an expression of sincerity and goodwill - she is joined by Pontecorvo’s brilliant and tasteful flute obbligato, surely a high point of the performance.
‘Klein-Zschocher ever
Be sweet and tender
As purest almonds to taste.
Within our goodly parish
Nought else today should flourish
But blessings rich and chaste.’

Baritone Yair Polishook, his large, natural, richly-colored voice stable and fetching, seemed, at times, a little too gentlemanly for the role a brazen country bumpkin. But in the following aria, rife with double entendres, performed with Ravid, Messer-Jacobi and Shemer, Polishook is freer, hearty and jovial, laughing together with Ravid’s violin.
‘Thine increase be steady and laugh with delight!
Thine own bosom’s virtue fair
Doth for thee thy fields prepare
In which shall bloom thy might.’

Performing a fine choice of works, the JBO’s superb solo-work, subtle playing and silken, finely-blended sound characterized the evening.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jonathan Zak and Yossi Gutmann perform at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center Tel Aviv

Pianist Jonathan Zak and violist Yossi Gutmann gave a recital December 18th 2010 at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center, Tel Aviv.

Jonathan Zak, born in Israel and a graduate of the Julliard School of Music (New York) has performed as soloist with all Israel’s major orchestras and as an instrumental- and vocal accompanist in Israel, the USA, Europe and South America. He was one of the founders of the renowned “Yuval” Trio, performs regularly with pianist Irena Friedland, has recorded extensively and serves on the jury of international competitions. Professor Zak teaches chamber music and vocal accompaniment at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv).

Born in Tel Aviv, Yossi Gutmann was brought to Europe by Yehudi Menuhin and studied there with Nadia Boulanger, Tibor Varga and Sergiu Celibidache. Former principal violist of the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Bayreuther Festspiele, the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra and the Amati Ensemble, Gutmann is presently focusing on solo performance. Gutmann made his American debut at the Orensanz Foundation concert 11th September 2010, where Tzvi Avni’s “Phoenix” had its USA premiere. The concert was cited by ArtForum as one of the top New York musical events of 2010. Gutmann is also involved in contemporary- and experimental music and in multimedia performances.

The program opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Sonata in D major for viola da gamba and harpsichord BWV 1028. Bach’s three sonatas for viola da gamba and keyboard (BWV 1027-1029) have sometimes been attributed to Bach’s time in Cothen, where, as Kapellmeister, he had a small, outstanding ensemble of musicians at hand, but were more likely to have been composed in the Leipzig period in the early 1740’s, when he was occupied with the Collegium Musicum. The D major sonata, of the sonata da chiesa kind, is the most demanding of the three. Today, with much emphasis placed on authentic performance, with so many artists performing the work on viol and harpsichord today, I was interested to hear Gutmann and Zak’s reading of it on piano and viola. From the opening Adagio, with the arioso melody passed from one instrument to the other, via the ornamented Allegro, varied in its textures, through the peaceful and introspective Andante, leading into the joyful Allegro, the artists never overstepped the boundaries of good taste, so much a part of Baroque music. Zak kept melodic lines crisp and pedal-free, with Gutmann using textures for contrast. The artists at no stage overloaded the sound; neither did they endeavor to imitate the timbre of historical instruments. The result was a balanced, elegant and convincingly enjoyable interpretation.

Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Maerchenbilder (Fairytale Pictures) for viola and piano opus 113 (1851), a relatively late work, comprising of four pieces, take the listener back to the composer’s earlier fantasy pieces and miniatures. Zak and Gutmann focus on the character and mood of each moment, coloring each vignette with Schumann’s paintbrush of lush color and rich textures, with sweeping melodic phrases of yearning, urgency, melancholy, pomp and lyricism, Schumann’s last chance to escape into the welcoming world of imagination in the wake of oncoming madness. The artists’ playing of these true gems was varied, descriptive and richly colored, yet carefully paced and objective.

Tzvi Avni (b.1927, Germany), one of Israel’s foremost composers and the recipient of several awards, among them the Israel Prize, composed “Phoenix” (2001) for solo viola as an expression of his personal shock and horror of the September 11th terror attacks. He had the idea of dedicating the work to Rudolph Giuliani, then the mayor of New York,whose actions, in the wake of the tragedy, were those of a great and optimistic leader. The phoenix, a legendary bird that can be reborn any number of times, is the symbol of hope in Avni's work. Avni and Gutmann met a year ago after many years during which their paths had not crossed. Tzvi Avni felt Gutmann had “the right kind of soul” to perform the work as he had intended it and presented him with the score. Gutmann played its USA premiere. Constructed of two short movements, the piece’s textures are terse and compelling. The first movement, moving in single- and double lines, stating phrases separated by rests,expresses sorrow and pain. In the second movement, still intense, at times energetic, at others, soul-searching, Avni’s message of optimism is present, his hope in a better world coming from positive energies and actions. Gutmann’s performance of this sensitive and personal work was profound and detailed, its tragic tableau carefully and caringly spelled out.

By the time Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano D821 (1824) was published in 1871, the instrument for which it had been written – the arpeggione, a fretted instrument held between the knees, in effect, a large, bowed guitar with a warm sound quality – had descended into obscurity. Possibly the only significant work written for the instrument, Schubert made good use of its arpeggiating ability and extensive range; his dynamic markings in the score rarely reach higher than “piano”. To avoid an excess of leger lines and changes of clef, Schubert wrote the arpeggione part almost exclusively in the treble clef, demanding the player read it down an octave. Nowadays performed on a variety of instruments, the Arpeggione lends itself especially well to the tonality of the viola. Following the wistful opening Allegro moderato, we were treated to a cantabile, pensive Adagio, in which the artists made use of the most delicate of pianissimo tonings, the final Allegro, reminding us that Schubert was Austrian, creating a sense of well-being. Gutmann and Zak give Schubert’s score first consideration; their playing of it, not ignoring its virtuosic quality, is fine, noble and unmannered and (thankfully) free of the extravagances of license taken by too many performers of the work.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

An evening of Yiddish and European Jewish music at Hebrew Union College Jerusalem

The third event of the 2010-2011 season of “Music at the College with the Atar Trio”, a series of concerts and cultural encounters at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, under the direction of Ofer Shelley, was a concert of Yiddish songs and works by European Jewish composers on December 9th 2010. Performing were musicologist and cantor Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, pianist Aya Schleifer, soprano Michal Okon, violinist Tanya Beltser and pianist Ofer Shelley. Ofer Shelley has produced several programs focusing on Jewish music.

In the spirit of Chanukah (Feast of Lights) Eli and Aya Schleifer opened with some well-known Chanukah songs sung in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Russian composer Alexander Krein (1883-1951) was a member of the National Jewish Movement, a group of writers, artists and musicians seeking to preserve and revive Jewish culture during the Soviet regime. Michal Okon, accompanied by Ofer Shelley, performed two of Krein’s Yiddish Songs for voice and piano opus 49 (1937). The harmonies and sad melodies pervading these arrangements of traditional Jewish folk songs create the atmosphere of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.

Shelley and Beltser performed composer and violinist Joseph Achron’s Dance Improvisations on a Hebrew Folksong opus 37 (1914). Born in 1886, Achron, in contact with the Jewish Folk Art Society, composed some 100 works, most of which are based on Jewish folklore. He spent World War I in Russia and immigrated to the USA in 1925, composing music for Yiddish theatre in New York. His compositions are now housed at Tel Aviv University. The artists gave a spirited reading of this entertaining piece which quotes melodic fragments of the song “O Chanukah, o Chanukah”, rhythmic displacement, uses the full ranges of the instruments, overtones on the violin, etc. The two artists performed Achron’s “Hebrew Melody” for violin and piano opus 35 (1911), also based on traditional Jewish melodies, a piece that was much performed by Jascha Heifitz. Somber and reflective, the work suggests sighs and weeping, later becoming more optimistic, frenzied and virtuosic in the middle section. Beltser and Shelley perform it convincingly, its imaginative piano part effective against the songful, haunting melodies.

The Atar Trio wrote the arrangements of three Kurt Weill (1900-1950) songs performed by Okon, Beltser and Shelley, beginning with the haunting, bitter reminder of war in the “Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” (1942) to German lyrics of Berthold Brecht. The song tells of what the soldier has sent his wife from different cities he has been in – three pairs of high-heeled shoes from Prague, a fur collar from Oslo, a hat from Amsterdam, lace from Brussels, a silk gown from Paris, an embroidered shirt from Bucharest and a widow’s veil from Russia. Having fled from Nazi German, Weill composed some cabaret songs in Paris. Okon communicated the anger, heartbreak, sorrow and ambivalence of the situation of “Je ne t’aime pas” (1934) (text: Maurice Magre), the tempo of the song tempered by the range of emotions of the text. Kurt Weill composed “Youkali: Tango Habanera” (Havana-style tango) in 1934 as incidental music for the play “Marie Galante”. Lyrics were added in 1946 by Roger Fernay. Youkali is an idyllic island, a place of happiness that will never exist. Okon, often heard performing music from South America, is at home with the rich tango rhythms, Beltser’s violin part adding color and an element of nostalgia.

Eli and Aya Schleifer then performed three songs in Yiddish. The first, “Lomir alle Zingen” (Let us all sing) based on a Sabbath song, is a dialogue in which a child asks about various foods. The father’s answers explain the difference between the rich and the poor according to their diet. Schleifer plays the two characters sympathetically, the father’s final answer being that poor people eat “gehakte tzores” (chopped troubles). Moshe Michael Milner (1886-1953) was a member of the St Petersburg Jewish Folk Music Society. His song “In Cheder” is a vignette in which a teacher in a cheder (elementary school for orthodox boys) endeavors to teach the alphabet to a small child who is slow to grasp. The teacher, initially very patient, finally gives up, claiming it is anyway more important to study Torah. A fine piece for both singer and pianist, it is a reminder that these Yiddish songs include a strong theatrical element. “A Chassene in Birobidzan” (A Birobidzan Wedding) (lyrics Itzik Feffer, music Lev Yampolsky) paints a musical picture of a wedding in Russia at a time when Jewish culture still flourished there. A rich verbal and musical canvas, it includes Chasidic wedding dance melodies. The audience enjoyed these vivid musical scenes of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, with Eli Schleifer’s humor and articulacy and Aya Schleifer’s fine accompanying enriching each work.

Michal Okon performed three Yiddish song arrangements by Ofer Shelley. In “Unter Deine Weisse Stern” (Under your white star) (lyrics Abraham Sutskever, music Abraham Brodna) Shelley’s minimal, evocative accompaniment provides a nostalgic backing for the song. In the lullaby “Rozhinkes mit Mandeln” (Sultanas with almonds) Tanya Beltser’s expressive playing adds much to Okon’s dynamically varied and detailed performance. Yiddish humor creeps back into “The Violin”: Michal Okon plays the role of the proud mother of a young beginning violin pupil, with Tanya Beltser as the child whose playing is far from brilliant. A whimsical performance!

Leibu Levin (1914-1983), the Czernowitz-born Yiddish actor, singer and composer, was a true troubadour of Yiddish literature. He wrote the words and music to “Main Haylike kamee” (My sacred cameo). Eli and Aya Schleifer performed a beautiful arrangement of this sad song. “Mein Shtetele Belz” (My Little Town Belz), to words by Jacob Jacobs, was composed in 1932 by Alexander Olshanetsky (1892-1946) for the play “Song of the Ghetto”. This is another emotional Yiddish song, fraught with nostalgic memories. Eli Schleifer gave a moving performance of it. It reminisces about Belz, in Bessarabia:

‘Tell me old man; tell me quickly because I want to know everything now! How does the little house look which used to sparkle with lights? Does the little tree grow which I planted long ago? Belz, my little town! The little house where I spent my childhood! The poor little room where I used to laugh with other children! Every Shabbos I would run to the riverbank to play with other children under a little green tree….Belz, where I had so many beautiful dreams…’

Aharon Lebedeff (1873-1960), one of the most exuberant, versatile and original personalities in Yiddish musical comedy, was known for his improvisations, his clowning and dancing. His singing was a combination of gorgeous, flowing, lyrical lines, dizzying facility and rapidity of diction. “Roumania, Roumania”, typical of Yiddish theatre of the time, which thrived on tales of traditional life based more on romance than on reality, tells of the once “sweet and fine” country Romania, its wines and food delicacies. Eli Schleifer presents the piece in all its culinary detail and joy, its rhythmic nonsense syllables adding to the song’s joyousness. Michal Okon and Eli Schleifer performed “What Will Happen When the Messiah Arrives, the Great Banquet”, a Yiddish folk song arranged by Leon Zeitlin and Ossip Proktor (members of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music). A pleasingly balanced duet and blend of voices and musical gestures, the singers present the menu and the guest list of all the “who’s who” from biblical times. The descriptive piano accompaniment contributes effects and detail to the scene.

Due to the strong theatrical elements of the songs, the works presented throughout the evening lent themselves especially well to live performance. The artists presented an interesting program, involving the audience in the inevitable mix of joy and melancholy inherent in European Jewish music of the first half of the 20th century.

Concert no.4 of “Music at the College with the Atar Trio”
“A Simple Story” – the story of S.Y.Agnon in collaboration with Beit Agnon
An original musical theater performance for chamber ensemble and actor
The Atar Trio with actor Benny Hendel
At 20:00, January 6th 2011, Hebrew Union College
13 King David St. Jerusalem
Tickets (02) 6203333

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Genevieve Blanchard and Jochewed Schwarz perform music by J.S.Bach and four of his sons on flute, harpsichord and clavichord

We were gathered in the musical salon of pianist Jonathan Zak and his wife Adi Etzion-Zak in their Tel Aviv home on December 4th 2010 to hear a concert in the “Sounds and Words from the Baroque” early music concert series played on authentic instruments. “Bach, the Real Thing – Johann Sebastian Bach and his Four Sons” featured Canadian-born Baroque flautist Genevieve Blanchard and Jochewed Schwarz (harpsichord and clavichord). Informal, informative explanations as to the Bach family composers, their styles and the instruments the artists were playing added much to the evening’s enjoyment.

The soiree opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Aria BWV 988 (the theme of the Goldberg Variations) from the Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. (Anna Magdalena Bach, the composer’s second wife, copied and transcribed reams of music for her husband when he was Cantor of Leipzig. Bach showed his appreciation by dedicating the Little Notebook to her; there are two volumes –1722 and 1725). Not often heard on these two instruments, the artists played a version in which the flute played the melody, with the harpsichord functioning as basso continuo. Blanchard was playing a traverse Baroque flute built by Boaz Berney and Schwarz’s harpsichord is a copy of a 1679 Couchet harpsichord built by Reinhard von Nagel. Performing in a smaller space than a concert hall meant that we were to hear the rich mellifluousness of Blanchard’s tone and the real presence and forthright sound of the harpsichord. Both artists graced the piece with an array of ornaments.

In addition to the Clavier-Buechlein for Anna Magdalena, Bach also compiled a “notebook” in 1720 (its haphazard collection referred to by some as a “scrapbook”) for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Written in Cothen, when Bach was in the employ of Prince Leopold, it was aimed at instructing 10-year-old Wilhelm Friedemann in the rudiments of keyboard technique, clefs etc., and includes valuable information on ornamental practice of the time. Schwarz spoke of learning much about J.S.Bach and his pedagogical methods from the collection. “Applicatio and Air Italian” were performed by Schwarz on a “Bundfrei” clavichord. After one’s ears have taken a few seconds to adjust to the tiny, intimate sound of the instrument, one begins to hear the dynamic variation the clavichord offers, as well as the possibility of using finger vibrato for expression. Schwarz spoke of en 18th century attitude of defining people as “clavichord people” (quiet, introverted) and “harpsichord people” (more outspoken). In 1753 C.P.E.Bach claimed that “a good clavichordist makes an accomplished harpsichordist, but not so the reverse”.

As to Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-1784) himself, a gifted organist and improviser, much of his oeuvre was not published during his lifetime. His early sonatas, being technically very difficult, had met with disapproval among players. The Twelve Polonaises, composed between 1754 and 1765, might have been written with the intention of winning him more public favour: keyboard Polonaises were fashionable at the time. Friedemann’s Polonaises are stylized (as are those of Chopin), technically demanding and musically varied, encouraging the player to ornament creatively. Schwarz performed the F minor Polonaise, a piece upholstered with heavy textures and plenty of dissonances. The Eight Fugues, dedicated to the counterpoint-loving Princess Amalie of Prussia (a noted composer in her own right) each fall into in three parts and are a curious mix of old and new, reflecting the composer’s eccentricities in their capricious changes of subject and style. Schwarz played the F minor fugue (c.1778) which harks way back to the music of Sweelinck.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Bach’s second son, was one of the best-known keyboard players in Europe, his compositional output including some thirty sonatas and other pieces for keyboard. His clavier sonatas, known to and highly respected by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, were a turning point in musical form, issuing in the Classical style. Blanchard and Schwarz’s performance of his Sonata for Flute and Harpsichord in E major Wq 84 (1747) was responsive to the composer’s lucid style, Blanchard’s tone warmly colored, her phrase ends sensitive, with Schwarz’s performance ever aware of Bach’s expressive idiom and the play between the two instruments. The opening Allegretto played off harpsichord and flute, the right hand of the keyboard in constant dialogue with the flute. The second movement - Adagio di molto – its cantabile character not ignoring the dissonant underlay, was followed by an energetic, witty game of hide-and-seek in the final Allegro assai.

Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) was J.S.Bach’s 11th and youngest son. His teachers were his father and his half-brother C.P.E.Bach. He spent time as organist of Milan Cathedral and in 1762 moved to London to take up an appointment as music master to Queen Charlotte Sophia, wife of George III. He was a friend and mentor to the young Mozart. Referred to as the “London Bach”, he wrote cantatas, a number of operas and instrumental music and made history in 1768 by being the first person to give a solo piano performance in London. His Sonata opus 2 no.5 for flute and harpsichord (1770), boasts fluid melodies, his German musical background combined with Italian grace.

Jochewed Schwarz referred to Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach (1732-1795), J.S.Bach’s ninth son, as “the forgotten Bach” and spoke of his music as forming a bridge between J.S.Bach and Beethoven. Despite his having studied Law, J.C.F.Bach took the job of chamber musician to Count Wilhelm at Bueckenburg in 1750, remaining in his employ till his death. Schwarz performed his Polonaise and Allegro in F.

Taught initially by their father, J.S.Bach’s sons each found their own individual style of expression in a musical milieu that was gradually merging into the Classical era. The evening’s program offered a fine opportunity to consider and compare the music and personalities of members of this great musical family. It was fitting that the recital finish with another work of J.S.Bach – his Sonata after Trio Sonata in D minor BWV 527 for organ (c.1727), transcribed, as was common in the Baroque for other instruments, in this case, for flute and harpsichord. Opening with an Andante movement, the artists addressed each motif, indulged in much ornamenting, giving expression to its noble character. Following the carefully crafted reading of the Adagio e dolce movement, the audience delighted in the virtuosic treatment of the contrapuntal intricacies of the final Vivace.

Jochewed Schwarz and Genevieve Blanchard offer their audiences performance that is well researched and well presented, involving those gathered in the art of authentic Baroque performance.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Emeritus Chamber Orchestra, an orchestra of retirees, rehearses in Tel Aviv and performs five concerts each season

Some years ago, Sam Zebba founded the Emeritus Chamber Orchestra with the idea of creating a platform for retired orchestral musicians. Consisting of about 40 musicians - retirees from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, plus a few other players, the orchestra performs four or five programs each season. On May 21 2008, the orchestra, conducted by Sam Zebba, performed works by Gluck, Haydn and Beethoven at the opening concert of the Bellapais Festival in northern Cyprus.

“ECO rehearsals are in our Ramat Aviv apartment” Sam Zebba tells me. “ It’s a bit of a squeeze, with the first violin section spilling out into the kitchen. Luckily, the neighbors do not object to our music-making! The ECO meets on consecutive Friday mornings to rehearse for an approaching concert. Following each concert (or concerts) we take a break of two or three weeks. We are then always overjoyed to meet up again to rehearse the next program.” The ECO plays music of the classical period. It has a full complement of wind instruments plus a timpanist, but is not a large enough orchestra to play Romantic symphonic music. Zebba conducts most concerts but, occasionally, he invites a guest conductor. Some guest soloists are established artists; many are young, gifted musicians at the start of their careers. The ECO performs a series in the Einav Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv, at the Chess Centre in Ramat Aviv and has performed in Nazareth and Keshet Eylon. The ECO has no financial support; indeed, players come to make music for the enjoyment of it.

Sam Zebba came to Israel as a child from Latvia and did not make his living from music. He had played the piano from a young age and began studying conducting in his 50’s, taking courses in Europe and at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. “ I formed a community orchestra and worked with it for twenty years, deriving much experience there as a conductor. We performed in South America, Korea and India. It was amazing to see the growing interest the developing world had in classical music. The Emeritus Chamber Orchestra, however, is my crowning project”.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

An evening of Dada readings, poetry and music at the Jerusalem Music Centre

Entering the auditorium of the Jerusalem Music Centre on November 25th 2010, the audience was puzzled to find chairs scattered around higgledy-piggledy, facing all directions. (This, of course, did not prevent some conscientious audience members from looking to find their correct rows and seat numbers.) The occasion was the “DADA Evening”, an evening of Dada music, readings, song and poetry and one of the two events of the “Absurdada Week” held at the JMC, the other event being Israel Sharon’s opera setting of Eugene Ionesco’s “The Lesson”. A Kaprizma production, the initiative to present an evening of Dada was that of pianist and composer Israel Sharon, who co-directed it together with Dory Engel and Assif Am-David.

The Dada movement, began simultaneously in Europe and America in 1916 as a revolt against the culture and values that had supported the carnage of the First World War, rapidly developed into an anarchistic type of avant-garde art that resorted to outrageous tactics designed to shock the establishment and the general public. The term Dada (meaning “yes, yes” in Russian, “there-there” in German and “hobbyhorse” in French) is essentially a nonsense word selected at random from a German-French dictionary by the poet Richard Huelsenbeck and painter-musician Hugo Ball. The movement centred around the visual arts, literature (much poetry), art manifestoes, art theory, theatre and graphic design.

‘What are you doing here, planted on your backsides like a load of serious mugs…
…you serious people, you smell worse than cow dung
DADA, as for it, it smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing
It is like your hopes: nothing
like your heaven: nothing…
like your politicians: nothing…
like your artists: nothing…’ “Cannibal Manifesto”, Francis Picabia

Actress and mezzo-soprano Noa Bizansky (b. Haifa, 1979) issued the evening in with Satie’s “Bonjour, Biqui, bonjour” a song of three words which ends, quite surprisingly, almost before it has begun. Possessing a fine command of the French language, Bizansky performed Satie’s “Trois Melodies” and joined Am-David and Israel Sharon in the first part of the composer’s “Messe des pauvres” (Mass for the Poor). The latter work, written in 1895, both strange and enigmatically beautiful, composed originally for organ and unison voices, takes its inspiration from medieval plainchant, repeated melodic motifs and lush harmonies. The audience enjoyed Bizansky’s vocal flexibility and color as well as her stage comfort.

We heard Ariel Halevi and Netanel Fastman performing Francis Poulenc’s Capriccio for Two Pianos (after Le Bal Masque) (1952), a whimsical piece spiced with carnival rhythms, humor and joviality contrasted by a melancholy middle section; music to make one smile, but, nevertheless, fine writing for two pianos.

Actor Dory Engel’s reading of representative Dada manifestos, nonsense poems and sound poetry of Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Francis Picabia was articulate and polished; his poker-faced performance invites the audience to shake off preconceptions and pretensions and to dare to grapple with the texts.
…‘The cheese is cousin to the marmalade.
The horse is cousin to the cock.
The hen lays eggs.
The egg is cousin to the cheese and butter,
The son and daughter of the milk.
Isn’t it strange?
It is.’ “Perhaps Strange”, Kurt Schwitters

Assif Am-David (b.Tel Aviv, 1981) is a highly versatile young artist. Actor, singer and harpsichord player, he is frequently heard and seen as a soloist in Baroque- and other vocal works. The Dada evening saw him in a variety of roles: joining Israel Sharon at the piano where the two performed pieces by Erik Satie for four hands, he read Dada poems in perfect German, in excellent English, sang mellifluously in French and displayed a fine sense of wit and enjoyment of the absurd.

Small touches added to production’s lighthearted atmosphere – the full use of the space of the auditorium, movement within it, microphone effects and little dress effects - such as artists wearing two different shoes. A worthwhile evening of high quality performance, its content provided the audience with entertainment and enrichment. Israel Sharon’s productions are a valuable contribution to the JMC’s intentions of stepping aside from purely mainstream performances of music.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Myrna Herzog in a solo viola da gamba recital

Dr. Myrna Herzog, born in Brazil and living in Israel for the last 18 years, is a researcher, teacher, instrumentalist and the founder and director of the prestigious PHOENIX Ensemble. She is, however, first and foremost, a viol player. Her solo recital “Heart to Heart”, which took place at the Eden-Tamir Music Center Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) November 27th 2010, was, as the name implies, representative of Herzog’s most personal connection with the viola da gamba and its repertoire. Herzog was playing on a 7-stringed bass viol (using gut strings) made by Andrea Castagneri (Paris,1744). She dedicated the recital to her teachers - Judith Davidoff, Wieland Kuijken and the late Ibere Gomes Grosso.

The program opened with two ricercars by Italian Renaissance composers, examples of the earliest ricercars written by composers who were, themselves, virtuoso players or teachers. The first was “Recechar terzo” by Sylvestro Ganassi (1492-mid-16th century). Ganassi wrote a treatise on viol-playing, guiding the player both technically and in the affects of musical style. Giovanni Bassano (1558-1617) was also a pedagogue, writing on methods of decorating the contrapuntal line. Herzog’s playing of the two ornate, monophonic pieces highlighted the improvisatory character written into the text, but with her own sense of spontaneity.

Moving to the French Baroque, Herzog played a “Fantasie” by Nicolas Hotman (1614-1663); born in Germany or Belgium, Hotman lived in Paris for most of his life, was a court musician and known to be a fine lute-, theorbo- and viol player. Hotman’s “Fantasie” is expressive and singing, making use of the richness and beauty of the color and temperament of the viol. M. de Sainte-Colombe (possibly Jean sieur de Sainte-Colombe, c.1630-c.1700), whose teacher was Hotman, was the first of a number of French composers who brought the viol considerable prestige. Little is known about him besides the fact that he was a great master and teacher of the instrument and that he is thought to have initiated extending the viol range downward by the addition of the seventh string, enabling stronger contrasts, range, timbre and richness in the bass range. Herzog’s playing of Sainte-Colombe’s “La Vielle” (hurdy-gurdy) reflected the rough edges of the hurdy-gurdy sound together with its folksy, joyful and insistent character. She ends the piece with a gradual diminuendo, suggesting the hurdy-gurdy- player’s walking off into the distance. Sainte-Colombe’s son, Sainte-Colombe le fils (c.1660-c.1720), a composer and instrumentalist in his own right, composed many solo works for the viol. In Herzog’s finely embellished reading of his “Fantaisie en Rondeau”, the audience was moved by the tenderness, melodiousness and emotion, pain and eloquence of the composer’s writing.

Remaining in the French Baroque, Herzog ties more family links. Court musician Antoine Forqueray’s playing rivaled that of Marain Marais (1671- 1745); A.Forqueray (1671-1745) was the more flamboyant, his taste leading him to perform much Italian music. The sinuous, descriptively circular motion of his “La Girouette” (The Weather Vane) was punctuated by sections implying different moods, Herzog suggesting that the latter represent a change of mind or mood. She then performed “La Eynaud”, a piece by Antoine Forqueray’s son, Jean-Baptiste Forqueray, a leading proponent of the viol and tutor to Louis XV’s daughter. Who the subject of this harmonically and technically demanding musical portrait is in a piece written in the specific idiom of 18th century French viol music, is an enigma. The humorous main subject of the piece, played in thirds in the lower register of the instrument, might describe the strutting of a formal, authoritative, self-important man sporting a monocle, the episodes perhaps describing other of Monsieur Eynaud’s character traits. Marain Marais (1656-1728), a pupil of Antoine Forqueray, and composer in royal service, who devoted his energies to viol music, paid his mentor the highest musical tribute among French composers in his “Tombeau pour Monsieur Ste Colombe” (Tomb= In memory of Monsieur Sainte-Colombe) . Herzog, however, chose to play his lighter, bagpipe-inspired dances “Musettes I et II”, the two contrasted gently in tempo. Roland Marais (c.1685-c.1750) was Marain Marais’s best known son. His “Le Noeud d’Amour” (The Love Knot) was performed with gentle, earnest grace.

The viola da gamba was popular both in France and in England. Tobias Hume (c.1569-1645), a British soldier by profession, served as a mercenary in the Swedish and Russian armies, among others. With the lute enjoying more popularity in England, Hume made it clear that he gave preference to the viol - “the statefull instrument”. His music reflects his eccentricity and sense of humor, his illusions, his travels and his international military career. (His piece “An Invention for Two to Play upone One Viol” calls for two players, two bows and one viol, with one player sitting on the other’s knee!) He, himself, was a very fine player; he may have been the first to use the bow con legno (played on the wood) We heard three of Hume’s pieces: “Adue Sweete Love” (as a mercenary it seems he frequented brothels and pubs), “A Pollish Jigge” and “Jigge”. Herzog’s sensitive, singing and ornamented playing of the pieces reminds us that Hume’s music is imbued with a wide range of dynamics, full-blown sonority and wonderful, cantabile melodic lines and that his music is unmistakably original.

Myrna Herzog talked of coming from a musical family. Her maternal grandfather, Nikolaus Schaak, made a transcription for zither of J.S.Bach’s “Gavotte en Rondeau” from the Partita in E major BWV 1006. As had her grandfather, Herzog used both the lute- and violin version in creating her version for the bass viol.

Herzog spoke of German composer and viola da gamba player Karl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787) as being the last famous player of the instrument. He was probably a member of J.S.Bach’s Collegium Musicum in Leipzig, also studying with him. Abel moved to London, where he performed together with Johann Christian Bach. (Sometimes referred to as the “London Bach”, Johann Christian was J.S.Bach’s eleventh- and youngest son.) Together they established the Bach-Abel concert series, in which the two were the main performers. By this time, the viol was rarely played, but Abel’s performances revived interest in the instrument in London, his practice of “Sensibility” – the articulating of direct or strong emotions - suiting the approach in the arts at the time. His friends spoke of Abel as improvising at home in front of the fire “when he took flight into fine airs, double stops and arpeggios”. We heard four of Abel’s pieces, all written around 1770, in which Herzog expressed the sincerity and intimate quality of this viol music. Abel’s use of the whole instrument and its dynamics is nevertheless melodious and demure, his pieces set in an uncluttered soundscape.

Israeli educator, trumpeter and composer Aharon Shefi’s (b.1928) “Known Direction” was originally composed for violin and transcribed for the viol in 2010 by the composer for Myrna Herzog. The work is inspired by the story of his uncle, Bernard Spitzen, a noted violinist, who, when deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, played Jewish melodies on his violin to create a few moments of joy for the other deportees in the face of fate. Herzog’s performance of it reflected the heavy, contemplative atmosphere pervading the work, its motifs and melodies painting a picture of Jewish life in eastern Europe.

Three world premieres were included in the program. Dina Smorgonskaya (b.1947) emigrated to Israel from Belarus in 1990. Her oeuvre consists of solo-, choral, orchestral and chamber compositions, light opera, cinema- and theatre music and music for children. “Elegy” (2010), based on a song fraught with searching and sadness, offers an interesting collage of musical ideas, from a melody over a drone, to pizzicato passages, to spiccato, etc., the variety of textures and timbres creating a canvas suggesting different voices or instruments.

American composer David Loeb (b.1939) has composed extensively for traditional Japanese and Chinese instruments as well as for early instruments, in particular the viola da gamba. His “Lyric Pieces Composed in Chinese Scales” (2007) present three descriptive pieces to delight the senses, creating images in the listener’s mind. From the sweeping phrases in lower register of “Windsong” to the “Moon Gate” (a gate found in many Chinese gardens, placed there to frame a view) to “The Long Road Home”, a thought-provoking, carefully paced piece, these miniatures are, indeed, exquisite.

It was fitting that Myrna Herzog should sign off with Brazilian composer Luiz Otavio Braga’s (b.1953) two-part “Nordestina” (for Myrna), composed in 2010, a daring work bristling with sinewy, outspoken melodies, Brazilian modes and harmonies, rhythmic interest and the intermittent plucking sound of the guitar. A challenging work for player and audience, it presents the mix of color, earthy styles and temperament of Brazilian life and music.

Myrna Herzog’s recital spoke much of family relationships – those of composers and those of her own. Taking the listener on a comprehensive and fascinating journey of viol works from the Renaissance through to the 21st century, this concert was surely a landmark in the artist’s career, reflecting her taste, knowledge and the personal relationship she strikes up with each work. Charles Burney commented on Karl Friedrich Abel’s ability to “breathe” the notes as he played them. Myrna Herzog breathes each phrase.