Saturday, December 31, 2011

The "Israel Early Music Project" at the Jerusalem Music Centre

“The Israeli Early Music Project” was established in 2006 by a group of early music students of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, with the idea of promoting historical performance of music composed before 1850. The artists play on period instruments and perform to many different kinds of audiences in Israel and abroad, also presenting educational programs for children of disadvantaged backgrounds. The ensemble has twice won prizes in the JAMD’s Chamber Music Competition and performs in major venues and festivals in Israel, Germany, the UK and Belgium. Although some of its members are currently studying in Europe, the artists meet to rehearse and perform a few times a year. Mandolin-player, lutenist and conductor Alon Sariel(currently in Germany) is the group’s musical director.

The IEMP artists were guests of the Jerusalem Music Centre in the second concert of the 23rd season of “Youth at the Centre”, which took place December 27th 2011; the series is recorded for the “Voice of Music” classical music radio station (Israeli Broadcasting Authority). The IEMP program included European music from the Middle Ages to that of the Baroque, opening with Shir Shemesh (medieval fiddle), Nadav Rogel (percussion) and Alon Sariel playing a lively Saltarello from a manuscript in the British Museum (Additional 29987) of secular Italian pieces from the 14th century. The saltarello’s distinctive hopping step made its presence in the performance, Rogel’s use of percussion delicate and understated. Using the same instrumentation (Shir Shemesh also moving from fiddle to recorder) we heard a bass dance from the Codex Faenza (in a library in the small town of Faenza, near Ravenna, Italy) a collection including much French and Italian instrumental music and instructions on diminution; copied between 1400 and 1420, it is written in the Italian six-line notation. The artists infused the rich flow of dance music with plenty of dynamic development.

An interesting work we heard was by Johannes Cuvelier (fl.1372-1387) a refined cosmopolitan man, successful poet, composer and statesman. His surviving musical works are found in a manuscript called the Chantilly Codex. Soprano Anat Edri (currently studying in Leipzig, Germany) sang a text typical of writings in literature of the Middle Ages - about a man in love with a woman of a higher social class than he. A work, written in the intricate, rhythmically complicated “ars subtilior” (mannered) style, in which each role functions independently, Edri, Sariel and Shemesh dealt admirably with the challenges of this complex style.

And to the world of Baroque music, to the “Ciaccona” for violin and continuo by Italian composer Thomaso Vitali (some scholars doubt it was written by him) made famous in a 19th century edition by German violinist Ferdinand David. It was performed by Sivan Maayani Zelikoff (violin), the basso continuo being played by Sariel on archlute and Talia Erdal (viola da gamba). Whether by Vitali or not, the piece keeps the audience on its toes with some strange tonal twists for Baroque music, suddenly modulating to unrelated keys. Maayani Zelikoff flexed lines delicately, weaving interesting embellishments into the text, reminding us all the way that music is there to please the senses. Sariel’s ornamenting of the ostinato (recurring bass) added to the work’s expressiveness.

“La Monica” was a popular tune in Italy, France, the Low Countries, Germany and England from the 16th- to 18th century; it was originally a song from Italy, “Madre non mi far monaca”, and tells the story of a girl forced to become a nun (a theme common in literature of the Middle Ages and Renaissance). Biagio Marini (c.1597-1665), a violinist under Monteverdi at St. Mark’s Venice, court musician in Parma and church choirmaster in Milan, used the melody in his sophisticated “Sonata sopra la Monica” (1626), written for two violins and basso continuo; it was given a virtuosic and dynamic reading by Maayani Zelikoff and Shir Shemesh (recorder) playing the violin parts, with Sariel and Erdal providing the basso continuo. Using the same theme, court composer, bassoonist, organist and voice teacher from Alsace, Philipp Friedrich Bödecker (1607-1683) composed his “Sonata sopra La Monica” for bassoon in the form of a passacaglia. Erdal, with Sariel on archlute, chose to play the bassoon part on the modern ‘cello. Both artists addressed melodic- and expressive detail and each other; Erdal’s use of textures, fine technique and range of emotions giving the work freshness and interest.

Violinist and composer Giuseppe Tartini’s (1692-1770) nomadic life and highly original works are clouded in myth and obscurity. Most of his works remain in manuscript, unpublished. The story surrounding “Il trillo del Diavolo” (The Devil’s Trill), a sonata in G minor, is no less enigmatic: in a dream one night in 1713, the composer makes a pact with the devil (who also happens to be a violinist virtuoso). Maayani Zelikoff, with Sariel and Erdal, was convincing in her feisty, richly colored playing of this unique and interesting work

Giulio Caccini (1551-1618) was a tenor singer employed by the Medici family and was renowned for singing and accompanying himself on the archlute. Edri performed two songs from his “Le nuove musiche” (1601, 1614). Her clean, direct and uncluttered singing of “Amarilli, mia bella” (a song too often made dramatic and too often over-embellished) reflected the persuasive and reassuring character of the piece and tied in with the composer’s clear purpose of creating a kind of musical expression that was as clear as speech. In “Sfogava con le Stelle”, to a sonnet of Rinunccini, one could not but appreciate Edri’s finely crafted phrasing and natural competence in melismatic passages:
‘Under the night sky,
With the stars an inferno of love,
He vented his grief, saying to them:
“O lovely images of my adored one,
Just as you reveal to me her rare beauty by shining so brightly,
Show her my burning love…’

Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677), outspoken, witty and beautiful, an outstanding singer and composer of secular works, referred to by composer Nicolo Fontei as “La Virtuosissimo Cantatrice” (the most virtuosic singer), was also the subject of gossip and satirical poems due to her public performances and involvement and active participation in musical life of Venice, these not yet the domain of women. With cantatas becoming popular in the mid-1600s, Strozzi both developed and popularized the genre; her cantatas were intended as chamber music to be performed at small gatherings. Her cantata “Lagrime mei” (Tears of Mine) is a typical example of the solo cantata; the text represents a man speaking – a tormented poet sings of his lost love - despite the fact that the work is written for soprano voice (possibly to be sung by a castrato). Opening with a vehemently dramatic lament, the poet’s pain depicted in daring dissonances, Anat Edri handles the challenging piece with understanding and good taste, giving credit to Strozzi’s personal form of expression, Erdal and Sariel’s playing underlining the melancholy of the work.

Following a Ciaccona by Tarquinio Merula (c.1594-1665), in which we heard all instrumentalists improvising on the ostinato bass form with an abundance of creative ideas, rhythmic play and musical conversations, the concert concluded with a performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Quel sguardo sdegnosetto” (That scornful little glance) one of the three “Scherzi musicali” of 1632. The song deals with the joys and dangers of physical love. In this piece, typically Baroque in its focus on virtuosity and emotion, Edri displayed vocal control and flexibility, weaving the vocal line above a solid bass line peppered with some free ideas on the part of the instrumentalists, creating the effect of spontaneity.

Performances of The Israel Early Music Project are based on interesting programming, sound knowledge of early music styles and of historic performance practice. Alon Sariel and his fellow musicians never fail to please audiences with high quality playing.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An evening for friends of the Moran Choirs at the Tel Aviv Museum

Naomi Faran

Friends of the Moran Choirs were treated to a delightful evening of music and words in the new Herta and Paul Amir Wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art December 12th 2011. There was an air of excitement and expectation as guests arrived at the reception to enjoy a glass of wine, meet old friends and talk to Naomi Faran, the founder, musical director and conductor of the Moran Choirs (Emek Hefer). The evening – “Beyond the Voices” – was a celebration of 25 years of tireless activity and devoted work with singers of the Moran Choirs, their ages ranging from 5 to 25 years of age.

With the audience seated in the auditorium, the Moran Singers Ensemble opened with a lively performance of Naomi Shemer’s “Serenade” (arrangement by pianist and composer Eyal Bat). Conducting was a Moran graduate, baritone Guy Pelc. The Moran Singers Ensemble comprises young singers and graduates of Moran choirs, IDF soldiers of the Outstanding Musicians Program and students of music academies. Pelc’s richly-colored singing of the “Libera Me” from Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem, (singing the chorus was the Moran Choir 12- to 17-year-olds, conductors Naomi Faran, Carmit Amit Antopolsky, pianist Oleg Yakerevich) was moving. The Moran Singers Ensemble’s very fine singing of one movement of Israeli composer Daniel Akiva’s “Out of the Depths” (Psalm 130) included four soloists.

Naomi Faran then addressed the gathering, talking of her philosophy of choral singing – to instill a love of singing together, acceptance of the other, excellence and professionalism, to build confidence and discipline, to encourage listening and to nurture the ability to be expressive. She mentioned upcoming overseas concert tours. Moran singers also visit and sing with young cancer patients at the Schneider Children’s Medical Center. Naomi Faran concluded with her credo that singing can sometimes overcome life’s obstacles and produce undreamed-of results.

Chairman of the executive committee Shmuel Ben Dror reminded us that the evening we were attending represented many years of work and Naomi Faran’s vision of bringing people together.

For more than ten years, the Moran Choir has worked with the Tokayer Boarding School. Nira Peled, the school’s principal, spoke of the fact that there are people who can change, encourage and influence others and that singing together with the Moran Choir has presented a challenge to her students to adopt the appropriate behavior to participate in such activities; its rewards are many – higher self-esteem, acceptance into normative (in fact, an elite!) groups, as well as the joys of music-making. Peled hopes the Education Ministry will establish more projects of this kind.

Conducted by Sharon Ram, we then heard the Moran Youth Choir (ages 8-11), joined by boys from the Tokayer Boarding School for at-risk children (Kibbutz Bachan) in an arrangement by Rani Golan of Shmulik Kraus’s ever-popular and catchy “You Can Not Go Just Like That” (lyrics: Yoram Taharlev). A drum quartet of boys from the Tokayer School added to the snappy and lively performance of this favorite. Yoram Taharlev, himself, took to the stage to present a concise and witty review of the history of the modern Israeli song and its language, after which the two groups performed another of Taharlev’s songs; the soloist was a boy from the Tokayer School.
‘A song from the heart is simple
And it is so easy to remember.
It chooses words that will soothe pain
And will bring you light’.

Another Moran Choir graduate is soprano Yael Levita; a former member of the Israeli Opera Studio, she is currently based in Berlin. Her choice of “Adele’s Audition Aria” from Johann Strauss’s “Fledermaus” (The Bat) delighted the audience, not only because she chose to sing it in Hebrew: Levita’s vocal ease and flexibility, together with her bright timbre, were matched with fine stage presence - humor, use of facial expression, movement and a general sense of fun.

Opera singer, soprano Sivan Rotem has been a vocal coach with the Moran Singers Ensemble for some four years. Born in Buenos Aires, she started her musical training as a violinist. Today her singing performance schedule takes her all over the world. Joined by the Moran Singers Ensemble, she entertained the audience well with her performance of “Grenada” (music and lyrics: A.Lara, arrangement E.Bat). Rotem’s expansive voice, her dramatic flair and ease of movement conjured up the temperament and vitality of Spain and Spanish music and dance.

The Nitzan Onim Center was established in 1988 by the National Insurance Company to provide a framework for the population of adults with learning-, functional- and adaptive disabilities. Today, 90% of the young people there hold jobs and live independently. Rachel Rand, director of Nitzan Onim, spoke of Moran’s productive five years of work with the Nitzan people. With aims set at serious musical training and general excellence, their choir works with Rani Golan, with Sivan Rotem working on voice training. The young people are serious in their approach to their music education; their singing with the Moran Singers gives them a sense of equality and pride. We heard them together with the Moran Singers Ensemble in a delightful rendering of Eyal Bat’s arrangement of David Broza’s song “Homeland Visit” (lyrics: Y.Gefen), with Li’oz Gutman as soloist. One could not but be impressed with the fine blend of beautiful voices and polished performance…by any standards!

Arriving on stage, holding colorful umbrellas, the Moran Youth Choir presented a particularly charming performance of Rani Golan’s arrangement of “The Rain Song” (Lyrics:L.Goldberg, music Y.Welbe). Most of the evening’s song performances included movements, some a little stilted in style. The Moran Youth Choir’s movements, however, were natural and flowing. A number of creative ideas added touches that enhanced certain numbers: the 12- to 18-year-old singers of the Moran Choir donned glittery masks to perform Welsh composer Karl Jenkins’ (b.1944) unusual piece “Adiemus”, a work in which voices function as musical instruments, with the vocals not real words but syllabic fragments of the word “Adiemus” (Latin: We will draw near). A combination of singing, movement and drumming, the performance was spirited, original and, actually, quite inebriating!

And on the subject of the human voice as an instrument, MK Isaac Herzog, present at the event, spoke of the voice as a rare instrument, of singing as uplifting to us humans and of the Moran choirs as being musically-, socially- and communally exemplary - a “rare voice from Emek Hefer”.

Mo’adon Dana (Givat Haim) caters to children with special needs. Members of the Dana Club are excited about choral singing and about their warm connection with members of the Moran Choir. Together they performed Shmulik Kraus’s “It Happens”. Rani Golan has dedicated his arrangement of it to the friendship between the choirs. And friendship there certainly was, with the children singing so musically with their arms around each other and Nomi Faran moving around the stage, as if to address each child. What a beautiful moment that was!

It was no coincidence that the next song was “Giving” (music: Boaz Sharabi, lyrics: Chamutal Ben Ze’ev). Gil Aldema arranged the song, seeing it as symbolic of the giving, tolerance and sensitiveness which form the values behind the dynamic of the Moran choirs. In a poignant and tasteful reading of the song, we heard renowned soloist Hadas Faran-Asia's creamy, silvery singing and girls of the Moran Choir.
‘To give of the soul and the heart,
To give,
To give when you love.
And however one finds the difference
Between receiving and giving
You will learn to give, to give.’

Soprano Hadas Faran-Asia, another Moran graduate, performs widely and is a vocal coach with the Moran Choir. She and soprano Merav Barnea (a former Moran coach, now performing on the opera stage internationally) performed “Memories” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” (lyrics: T.S.Eliot).

The event ended with the young singers joining together in song, some little girls dressed in white holding long-stemmed roses. Many devoted people had worked hard to stage this memorable evening….too many to mention here. The audience had enjoyed the warmth and informality of the evening, the suitable repertoire for such an event and excellent choral singing, with all the young participants well rehearsed. Naomi Faran is quiet and understated in her manner; however, her energy and vision are changing young lives and society for the better.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Soprano Cilla Grossmeyer-Abileah has died

The renowned Israeli soprano Cilla Grossmeyer-Abileah died on December 18th 2011 after a long illness. Born in Germany, she and her mother were incarcerated in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, later escaping to Holland before making their home in Israel. Cilla served in the Israeli army and then trained as an X-ray technician. She worked at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center for many years.

Cilla’s great love was singing; she took voice lessons at the Rubin Academy of Music with Juliette Medioni and participated in master classes under Hilda Zadek and Jennie Tourel. Encouraged by her husband ‘cellist Rudi Abileah to leave her hospital job, she eventually decided to devote all her time and energy to performing and teaching. Cilla’s concert performances included singing with several Israeli orchestras under such conductors as Zubin Mehta, Mendi Rodin, Gary Bertini and Lucas Foss. She performed solo recitals, in chamber ensembles - mostly with the David Trio – and sang church music, Lieder, songs in Yiddish and Ladino and much Israeli music, both in Israel and on her many European concert tours. Many of her performances were with guitarist Yehuda Shryer, recorder-player Shlomo Tidhar, pianist Marina Bondarenko and oboist Eliyahu Torner. She performed and recorded much with her close friend – organist Elisabeth Roloff. Zvi Semel has been her piano accompanist over recent years.

Cilla Grossmeyer has taught some of Israel’s finest singers of today, was a vocal coach at the Hebrew Union College Cantorial School and trained young soloists of the Ankor Choir (children aged 11 to 18) of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

Cilla’s rich, unmannered style of singing, her humor and her generosity will be remembered by very many of us. May her memory be for a blessing.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Israeli Bach Soloists perform Bach Motets at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem

The Israeli Bach Soloists performed “Sing a New Song” December 8th 2011 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem. The program consisted of Motets of J.S.Bach. The Israeli Bach Soloists, a vocal- and instrumental ensemble directed by Sharon Rosner, sets its targets at performing J.S.Bach’s liturgical works and those of other Baroque composers in a manner consistent with Bach’s style and performance. Founded in 2008 by Sharon Rosner and Zohar Shefi, the IBS bases its performance on historical research, placing emphasis on all aspects of the verbal text - diction, pronunciation and intonation. Rosner prefers to rely on Bach’s original texts, at the same time allowing his performers individual musical expression based on a common consensus as to the reading of each work.

The motet has enjoyed an uninterrupted history from the beginning of the 12th century. Its status has always been lofty in the realm of polyphonic musical artistry. During the 18th century, in the Leipzig churches of St. Thomas and St. Nicholas, where J.S.Bach worked from 1723 till his death, the motet constituted a fixed element in the service, being sung by boys and men following the introductory organ prelude. It seems Bach composed motets throughout his career; however, six survive: all are settings of sacred texts in German for choir and basso continuo and most are thought to be from his time in Leipzig. As Bach allowed the text to dictate musical form, each is differently structured and the motets bear no standardized form. Thought by some scholars to be funeral music, they are complex and original, demanding deep aesthetic study and technical virtuosity on the part of the singers. So why are these masterpieces performed so seldom?

The Israeli Bach Soloists performers were placed as two choirs – on one side Joel Sivan (bass), Oshri Segev(tenor), Sharon Rosner (alto and direction) and Shimrit Carmi (soprano), with Zohar Shefi (organ) and Ira Givol (violoncello) in the centre; on the other side - Hadas Faran Asia (Soprano, Avital Deri (alto), David Nortman (tenor) and Guy Pelc (bass).

The program opened with “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied” (Sing a new song to the Lord) BWV 225, probably composed in 1727. Using texts from Psalms 149 and 150 and an adaptation of a Lutheran hymn by Johann Gramann, the motet falls into four clear sections. The ensemble’s exuberant performance of the piece highlighted Bach’s word-painting, his distinctive, independent writing for each choir, complex layering and contrapuntal play. The singers’ fine diction and well-pronounced German added to the articulacy of the performance.

In “Ich lasse dich nicht” (I will not let You Go) Anh.159, Bach’s earliest known motet, had, for many years, been attributed to the Eisenach composer Johann Christoph Bach, who was J.S.Bach’s second cousin. It was later re-ascribed to J.S.Bach. Rosner and his singers availed themselves of word-shapes to form phrases and employed Bach’s economical use of strongly tonal and chordal musical material to inspire a compassionate, devotional and moving reading of the work.

“Fürchte dich nicht” (Be not afraid) takes its texts from Isaiah 41 and 43 and two verses from a chorale of Paul Gerhardt. The singers presented Bach’s strategic placing of texts carefully, moving from “weiche nicht” (Be not dismayed) to the powerful statement of “Ich bin dein Gott” (I am your God). “Ich starke dich” (I strengthen you) begins each time as a solo. Following the fugue, “Fürchte dich nicht” is completed by “du bist mein” (You are mine), a reminder of Bach’s deep religious conviction.

“Komm, Jesu, komm” (Come, Jesu, come) is a setting of a hymn by Paul Thymich that appeared in the Leipzig Hymnbook of 1697. The IBS singers painted the vivid imagery of the piece, from the effective separations of the repeated opening “Komm” (Come), uncompromising in its vehemence, to the expression of vulnerability via the symbolic thinning out of textures, introducing the plaintive “Die Kraft verschwindt je mehr and mehr” (My strength deserts me more and more), to a more bitter moment in the jagged melodic profile of “Der saure Weg” (The bitter journey), to the gently lilting and comforting 6/8 time “Du bist de rechte Weg” (Thou art the sure way).

“Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit” BWV 226 (The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness), composed in 1729 for the funeral of J.H.Ernesti, headmaster of the Thomasschule, draws on a text from Romans 8 and a hymn by Martin Luther. (It is the only Bach motet for which complete orchestral scores survive – with strings doubling the first choir and reeds doubling the second.) The Israel Bach Soloists utilized consonants to bring out key words in the text and showed mood changes of contrasting sections:
‘The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness
We do not even know how to pray
As we should pray,
But through our inarticulate groans
The Spirit himself is pleading for us…’
The chorale ended the work with a sense of well-being.

The concert ended on an optimistic note with one of the three verses Bach set of Johann Gramann’s chorale “Nun lob, mein Seel, den Herren” (Now praise, my soul, the Lord) BWV 28/2.

It was clear the singers and instrumentalists alike were properly familiar with the German texts and the fact that Bach was a deeply religious man. The evening’s repertoire combined outstanding solo moments, high quality ensemble work, with the individuality of voices and personal expression of each artist adding much interest and drawing attention to Bach’s unique treatment of each vocal line. Performing were some of Israel’s finest Baroque singers. Zohar Shefi (organ) and Ira Givol (‘cello) provided a substantial instrumental basis; with much to say, they were never too prominent. Ira Givol’s innate musicality and involvement in every gesture of the music are ever present. Hearing these works - some of the finest and most profound Baroque sacred music - performed on such a high level was, indeed, both an uplifting- and humbling experience.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble performs the Zapotec Mass

The PHOENIX Ensemble is once again performing “The Zapotec Mass”, a Mexican Baroque work; the first modern performance of the work was presented by PHOENIX in the Israel Festival of 2006. A recent performance took place November 28th 2011 at Our Lady of Peace Chapel at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center. The imposing building, overlooking the New Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, was completed in 1984; it suffered heavy damage in 1948 and was restored to its original status as a pilgrim centre in 1973.

In the course of her research on Latin American Baroque music, PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog met American musicologist Dr. Mark Brill after having read his article “Stylistic Evolution in the Oaxaca Cathedral:1600-1800”. Brill, who had discovered the Zapotec Mass at Tulane University, New Orleans, sent Herzog a score of the work, which he had edited. Having later heard Herzog’s performance of it, Brill was thrilled with the PHOENIX rendition, claiming that her “festive approach” was “exactly what this kind of music needs”. A four-voiced work with some stylistic traits of native Mexican composers, Herzog worked much on deciphering its tempi and rhythm changes and, aware of the fact that the Mexicans like the Mass performed with instruments – chrimias (shawms), recorders, sackbuts, dulcians, rebec, etc. - she needed to find suitable instruments and the people to play them! In the Jerusalem performance, the VOCE PHOENIX Vocal Ensemble made its official debut. Formed by Herzog, this new group consists of seven solo singers – sopranos Einat Aronstein and Michal Okon, altos Avital Deri and Alon Harari (countertenor), tenor Yaacov Halperin, baritone Zachariah Kariithi and bass Assaf Benrath.

The Zapotec Mass was written by an Indian of the Zapotec tribe. Dr. Herzog has put together a “spectacle”, which includes the Mass as well as songs and dances of a number of Mexican Baroque sacred music composers, in what she refers to as a “time-space-culture trip”, the music representing various local populations: Indians, black slaves and Europeans of different origins. The Kyrie-Gloria, Credo, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei include pieces of various composers, each section ending with the relevant movement from the Zapotec Mass. The pieces accompanying the Mass were chosen by Herzog in an attempt to create an imaginary trip to Mexico. In fact, she recently visited the region of the Zapotec Indian tribe, the capital of which is Oaxaca, and was impressed by the area and its pyramids.

With gentle bird call effects issuing in the evening’s music, we are immediately transported far away from our own urban reality to the colors and rhythms of Mexico’s natural surroundings. The different styles represented here work well together - from gentle, lilting Mexican dance rhythms, to contrapuntal sacred music, to joyful celebratory pieces; this is due to careful, sensitive and tasteful approach to detail, shaping and balance of timbres. Singers were heard as soloists, duos, in small groups and as an ensemble. Kenyan baritone Zachariah Kariithi’s rich, easeful and natural singing was convincing and uplifting; countertenor Alon Harari’s vocal presence and articulate diction, Avital Deri’s well-profiled, mellow singing, Einat Aronstein’s delightfully pure sound and Assaf Benraf’s anchoring bass voice were joined by Michal Okon’s clean, tasteful and well-projected singing. Okon is clearly at home in the Spanish language and with this genre.

No less pleasing was the instrumental ensemble, outstanding in its attention to each individual mood and color, the blending of instruments and to the quality and textural diversity of the various solos. Herzog mostly conducted, infusing the music with its innate joy and infectious rhythms; at other times she joined as an instrumentalist.
The players were Shira Ben Yehoshua (shawm), Adi Silberberg (recorders, colascione), Raphael Isaac Landzbaum (alto bajón, recorders), Liron Rinot (sackbut), Alexander Fine (bass bajón), Omer Schonberger (charango, vilhuela, Baroque guitar), Dara Bloom (violone). Among the solos, there was some very impressive recorder-playing. Alexander Fine’s leading of the wind band, Rony Iwryn’s awareness of style and sensitive percussion playing and Yizhar Karshon’s (harpsichord, organ) attention to harmonic structure and to all his fellow players made for the integrating of all the musical strands.

Drawing all the threads of the program matter together to end the concert, we heard a Juguete (carol) & Guaracha (a genre of popular Cuban music of rapid tempo and with lyrics) by Juan Garcia de Zéspedes (c.1619-1678). Born in Puebla, Mexico, he sang as a choirboy under chapel master Juan Gutiérrez de Padilla (we heard a piece of Padilla in the Credo section of the program), eventually succeeding him in the post. Zéspedes composed both sacred and secular compositions in many styles – from that of Palestrina to the folkloric. “Convidando está la noche” (The night is inviting)begins as a tender lullaby, or perhaps something between a chorale and a sarabande; then, graced by vocal solos, the music changes and the Christ child is celebrated by an exuberant guaracha, Iwryn’s percussion solo lending spontaneity to the piece.
'The night is inviting here
With various pieces of music;
To the newborn infant
Let's sing tender songs of adoration...
Oh, in the guaracha, let's celebrate him
While the infant surrenders to dreams...
May they play and dance
Because we have fire in the snow, snow in the fire...' Translation:Myrna Herzog

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Carmel Quartet opens its 2011-2012 season with "Bohemian Rhapsody"

The Carmel Quartet opened its 2011-2012 season, the fifth of the commentated concert series “Strings and More”, with “Bohemian Rhapsody”. This writer attended the English language concert-lecture on November 23rd 2011at the Jerusalem Music Centre. Established in 1999, the Carmel Quartet is among Israel’s leading string quartets, has won prestigious prizes and performs in Israel and abroad. The quartet’s Carnegie Hall debut received an enthusiastic review in The New York Times. The Carmel Quartet has performed together with many renowned musicians. Members of the quartet are violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Rakhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and ‘cellist Tami Waterman.

The evening’s program began quite unconventionally: Rachel Ringelstein entered wearing a butchers’ apron, complete with a rubber chicken hanging off it, and read out a document publicly attesting to Anton Dvořak’s completion of a butcher’s apprenticeship. Musicologist Yoel Greenberg proceeded by informing the audience that that the butcher’s document was false, but that it was positive for the composer’s image in society! Anton Dvořak (1841-1904) was not from the upper echelons of society; his father, in fact, was a butcher. Greenberg then discussed the complications of being a Czech composer at a time when Czech music was considered “cheap”: Czech music was played in the streets of Vienna, in Europe the Czechs were considered “savage”; the German musicologist Hugo Riemann referred to the Czechs as “partially civilized” and George Bernard Shaw (who was also a music critic) felt he could not accept Czech music as serious! Dvořak, due to his social status, was no typical Romantic composer, and was referred to as a “wonder”. The truth is that audiences liked the “rustic charm” of his Moravian dances and the composer played along with this image, writing in a letter “…I still remain just what I was – a simple Czech musician…” Dvořak’s music was popular in Europe. Greenberg reminds us that conveying simplicity can sometimes be complicated!

The first violinist of the Florentine Quartet (Italy) had asked Dvořak to write a “Slavonic” quartet for the ensemble, the result being the Quartet in A major, opus 51 (1878-1879). Greenberg refers to the idea as an oxymoron, for the composer had come up with a sophisticated work in four movements. The folk elements include polkas (1st movement), a Dumka (2nd movement), a country “scene” (3rd movement), with the 4th movement – Allegro assai – representing a leaping dance. The Carmel Quartet’s performance brought out the work’s youthful fervor and warmth, clothing it in melodiousness and richness of sound - from soothing, mellifluous moments to the humor of the wink of an eye and to the hearty unbridled joy of a rustic celebration. Their playing, nevertheless, gave careful attention to detail, the variety of textures and melodic lines.

Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), conversely, was born to a family of musicians. He had actually been recognized as a child prodigy by Dvořak. A compulsive innovator, his music has mostly fallen into obscurity. Contrary to Dvořak, Schulhoff had no identity, or, according to Greenberg, he had a multiplicity of identities, this being evident in his compositional style, in which he mixed styles irreverently. A friend of German artist George Grosz, Schulhoff became associated with the Dada movement. Inspired by the latter style, the middle movement of his “In Futurum” is written exclusively as rests and marked “with feeling”. The audience at the JMC was able to see the score on a screen. (Greenberg reminded us that John Cage’s “4’33” was composed 30 years later.) Schulhoff toured Germany, France and England as a piano virtuoso. In the 1930’s, he and his works were blacklisted due to his radical politics and the fact that he was Jewish, his music being declared “degenerate” by the Nazi regime. He became a Russian communist, even writing a cantata based on the Communist Manifesto, was arrested as a “Russian” before he had the chance to leave Czechoslovakia and he died of tuberculosis in a concentration camp in Bavaria.

Schulhoff’s Quartet no.1, composed in 1924, expresses the composer’s rejection of Romantic tradition, favoring a more direct approach. It is fiery and dramatic, its sense of urgency dominant from the beginning. The Carmel Quartet’s brilliant, well-chiseled performance created the vivid canvas of earthy, rustic elements, boisterous utterances, jaunty modern dance rhythms, grotesque humor and mimicry, catchy melodies and Slovak folk-type melodies. Especially bewitching was the final movement, unconventionally an Andante, with its ghostly high ‘cello melody, veiled static effects evoked by harmonics, etc. The artists’ crisp, energetic reading of the quartet threw light on the composer’s own very individual direction among the 1920 modernists, offering the audience the opportunity to experience and understand this very unique work and its background. Greenberg and his fellow musicians possess the knack of drawing their audiences into the endlessly rich world of music.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

French Baroque composer Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre - a modern professional woman composer by all standards

Élisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre was born in Paris in 1665 and died there in 1729. Her father, Claude Jacquet, from whom she received her first musical instruction, was a harpsichord builder and the organist of the Église Saint-Louis-en-Île in Paris, her great uncle was an instrument-maker, her brothers Pierre and Nicolas were both organists and her elder sister, Anne, was a protégé of the Princess of Guise. Her mother, Anne de le Touche, had connections with the Daquin family; Élisabeth, herself, was eventually to become godmother to Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772, organist, harpsichordist and composer in the Baroque- and Galant styles.)

At the age of 5, Élisabeth-Claude performed for King Louis XIV. The Sun King and his court were so impressed by her ability on the keyboard, as well as by her beautiful voice, that the king took “la petite merveille” (the “small wonder”, as she was affectionately known), under his wing, supporting her financially. She spent several years in the court at Versailles. She was a favourite of Louis XIV’s mistress of the time – Madame de Montespan, who supervised her education – and became a member of her entourage for three or four years. In 1677, a commentator for the French gazette and literary magazine “Mercure gallant” wrote of the twelve- or thirteen-year-old Élisabeth: “She sings at sight the most difficult music. She accompanies herself and accompanies others who wish to sing, at the harpsichord, which she plays in a manner which cannot be imitated. She composes pieces, and plays them in all the keys asked of her.”

In 1684, Jacquet married Marin de la Guerre, organist of the Saint Séverin Church, thus obliging the couple to return to Paris. He was the son of Michel de la Guerre, also an organist, the elder de la Guerre being involved in theatre and in early attempts at opera. By the time she returned to Paris, Élisabeth-Claude had established herself as a composer and harpsichordist, and her reputation was to become only greater in Paris, where connoisseurs of music flocked to hear her perform on the harpsichord. She was an expert improviser, following improvisations and fantasias with songs, her playing displaying taste, her palette of harmonies rich, daring and varied.

By 1680, Jacquet had begun composing seriously; these very early works are lost. The first collection she published was Book I of the “Pièces de Clavessin” in 1687. Thought to be lost, a copy of it (possibly the only existing one) was found by scholar Carol Henry Bates in a library in Venice. There is also only one known copy of the Second Book of Harpsichord Pieces (1707). No ornament table can be found in either volume; the performer, however, can study ornamentation in other works by Jacquet and observe her use of ornament symbols.

In 1691, Jacquet de la Guerre wrote a ballet “Les jeux à l’honneur de la victoire” (Games in Honour of Victory) a typical French ballet of the time, staging dramatic action, singing and dance. The musical score to this has also been lost, but the libretto exists and is dedicated to the Sun King. Jacquet was the first French woman to write an opera: her five-act, opera “Céphale et Procris”, opening with an allegorical prologue celebrating the glory of Louis XIV, was completed by1694. The libretto, by Joseph-François Duché de Vancy, takes its inspiration from the myth as told in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”. Of the “tragédie en musique” or “tragédie lyrique” genres, it bears the influence of Lully, as may be expected, but it also bears the stamp of Elisabeth-Claude’s own original ideas. Premiered in Paris the same year it was composed and performed in Strasbourg in 1698, the opera was not well received and enjoyed a total of five performances at the time. (The king, it seems, had lost interest in opera and the opera genre had come under attack by Catholic religious authorities, who considered it too “sensuous” a form of entertainment.) Jacquet made no further attempt at writing opera, turning her attention to other forms.

Sébastien de Brossard (1655-1730), a clergyman and cathedral choirmaster living in Strasbourg, was an admirer of La Guerre. An autodidact, pedagogue and enthusiastic collector of music, he was the author of the first dictionary of music. He had a predilection for the Italian style, which was becoming all the rage in France at the time. At that time, Jacquet produced her first set of sonatas, among the earliest examples of this form, her interest also lying in the Italienate style of writing. In 1695, she sent de Brossard a copy of her “Sonnata della signora de la guerre”, a volume consisting of four trio sonatas and two sonatas for violin and basso continuo. Brossard was impressed by Jacquet’s liberal approach, in which she, for example, occasionally allowed the viol part to take leave of the bass line of the harpsichord. Two suites of harpsichord pieces, also suited to performance on the violin, as well as a series of violin sonatas, followed in 1707. In the years 1708 and 1711, she published a set of twelve cantatas loosely based on dramatic Old Testament stories set to French texts; consisting of alternating recitatives and airs, with no choruses, they were the only published cantatas in France in that period. In 1715, Jacquet wrote three secular cantatas, all scored for soprano (or tenor), with obbligato instruments joining the continuo forces. The latter cantatas were dedicated to Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria, a great music lover and amateur viol player, then living in France due to the defeat of his army during Spain’s War of Succession. (All her previous works had been dedicated to King Louis XIV.)

Élisabeth-Claude’s oeuvre includes contributions to collective anthologies of airs and drinking songs, as published by the Ballard family. She also composed music for the Théâtre de la Foire (a travelling theatre of actors, dancers, musicians, acrobats, animal trainers and puppeteers that visited the annual fairs in Paris.)

Jacquet de la Guerre’s last composition was a “Te Deum” (1721), a motet for full chorus, composed as a thanksgiving for King Louis XV’s recovery from small pox. The work, her only religious work in Latin, was performed in the Chapel of the Louvre. Unfortunately, the score has been lost.

Jacquet de la Guerre’s life was beset by two tragedies: her only son, a gifted child who was already performing and accompanying on the harpsichord from a tender age, died in 1695, in his tenth year. Her husband died in 1704. Now less in the public eye, but no less active in composing and playing, she gave private tuition and hosted concerts in the salon of her home, playing her own compositions and improvising on the three harpsichords she owned. Her private recital series drew many listeners, her public appearances becoming progressively more sporadic until her retirement in 1717.

Jacquet de la Guerre’s music is in the “style brisé” (this term was coined, it seems, in the 20th century!), a style which transferred the gracefully “broken”, arpeggiated style of 17th century lutenists to the harpsichord, steering clear of thick chords and fully-realized counterpoint, and allowing her the freedom to colour harmonies with “foreign” notes. She developed the unmeasured prelude (originating as a “tuning” prelude played by lutenists) into pieces fired with emotion, drama and virtuosic challenges. These preludes have neither bar lines nor metre, this meaning that note values are not absolute, thus encouraging performers to give personal expression and spontaneity to their reading and to vary each performance, creating an improvisatory approach to each work. The keys in which they are composed, each considered different in character according to Baroque musical thought, also have bearing on the performer’s interpretation of character and mood. Jacquet was in the habit if mixing stylistic ideas: she might begin a work with an unmeasured section, follow it with short measured sections as in the Italian toccata, then concluding it with an unmeasured section. Her approach was fresh: she addressed the styles of court dances and other forms common at the time, however, layering them with her own individuality, her enterprising use of dissonance and ornaments ready to surprise and entertain performer and listener.

Following Jacquet de la Guerre’s death in1729, a medallion was issued in her honour, with her portrait on it; the inscription on it read “Aux grands musiciens, j’ai disputé le Prix” (With the great musicians I competed for the prize”). Mademoiselle de la Guerre, as she was known, had also become recognized outside the borders of France. In the “Musikalisches Lexikon” published in 1732, J.S.Bach’s cousin and friend Johann Gottfried Walther wrote of her career and oeuvre in much detail. Then, in 1776, Sir John Hawkins, in his “General History of the Science and Practice of Music”, referred to her as one of the greatest musicians France had produced, writing “So rich and exquisite a flow of harmony has captivated all that heard her.” One of the most renowned and prolific of the Baroque women composers, the impressive body of her works displays her compositional mastery in both vocal and instrumental idioms, her extraordinary gifts as a performer, her sensitivity and her flair. Her sonatas form a fundamental step in the development of French chamber music, her open-mindedness promoting the bridging of French and Italian musical styles. Her music takes the listener into the “Grand Siècle” in France, and, at the same time, to the inner world of invention and imagination. A woman of outstanding creative ability, strong character and initiative, she led the life of a professional musician, supporting herself, performing, composing and publishing much of her oeuvre during her lifetime.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, soloists and The Collegium Singers celebrate St. Cecilia's Day

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and a Baroque music buff, I was drawn to hearing the JBO’s second concert of the current season - “Hallelujah, Santa Cecilia” – on November 27th 2011 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert was conducted by Dr. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the JBO; his program notes provided plenty of interesting information as to Saint Cecilia – the acclaimed patron saint of music and church music, of musicians, composers, instrument-makers and poets - and about the works performed annually on St. Cecilia’s Day. A thousand years after she was condemned to death (she survived suffocation and beheading before dying of loss of blood) her following flourished; songs and poetry were written in her name, she was painted by Raphael and Rubens and commemorated by Chaucer. The JBO’s Santa Cecilia concert did, in fact, take place close to her traditional feast day, celebrated in the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches on November 22nd.

George Frideric Händel (1685-1759) composed his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day HWV 76 in 1739 to a poem by John Dryden of 1697. It is a true ode, having no plot, and, although often overshadowed by “Alexander’s Feast” (also celebrating St. Cecilia), it is Händel’s writing at its best. We heard the Overture to the Ode, paradoxically, not in the least evocative of purity, martyrdom or Cecilia’s grisly end, but rather, a text of lively, splendidly scored and effusive music to flatter Händel’s patrons and entertain his London audiences. Opening with a dotted French overture, leading to a fugal section and a Minuet, the work draws, to some extent, on Gottlieb Muffat’s “Componimenti Musicali per il Cembalo” (Händel was an inveterate recycler) but reworked and transformed by Händel. Shemer’s reading of the overture was crisp and bristling with vitality, its pacing, overall shape and radiant timbres whetting the audience’s appetite to hear the complete Ode.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) composed “Hail! Bright Cecilia”, also known as the “Ode to St. Cecilia”, the last and greatest of the composer’s four Odes to St. Cecilia, to a text based on Dryden’s poem by Anglo-Irish poet and clergyman Nicholas Brady in 1692. “Hail, Bright Cecilia” is the largest of the four Odes, with orchestra, six-part choir and six vocal soloists; it depicts a competition between various musical instruments, with the organ winning. The first performance took place at the Stationers’ Hall (which still exists) in November 22nd. According to P.A.Motteux, who attended the premiere, it met with “universal applause” and had to be repeated!

Shemer and his musicians presented the rich, many-faceted scope of Purcell’s writing in a performance of constant interest and aesthetic pleasure. Oded Reich’s performance in solo, duet and trio was exemplary in depth, musicality and richness of vocal color. Mezzo-soprano Avital Dery (singing the role frequently performed by a counter tenor) was attentive to detail, her vocal ease, timbre and range impressive, her awareness of the text colored by its emotions. (Unfortunately, the muffled acoustic of the Henry Crown Hall is not conducive to projecting the darker voice!) Her handling of the melismatic, heavily ornamented aria “’Tis Nature’s Voice” was, indeed, competent. Tenor David Nortman’s voice and musicality are well suited to this style: he excels in the delicate shaping of phrases, his uncluttered singing and his sensitive approach and fine British diction.

The bright, articulate and silvery signature sound of the Collegium Singers (musical director Avner Itai, prepared for this concert by Eduardo Abramson) was especially well suited to the work and Purcell’s contrapuntal choruses. We heard two sopranos from the choir in solo- and ensemble roles.

With the text of the work rife with references to musical instruments (Dryden was the first to suggest that Cecilia invented, rather than just played, the organ) the score calls for much obbligato playing and the JBO players did not disappoint. We heard delightful recorder-playing (Drora Bruck, Katharine Abrahams) in the sarabande “Hark, each tree” and in the expressive alto and tenor duet set to a passacaglia bass “In vain the Am’rous Flute”; oboes (AmirBakman, Shira Ben Yehoshua) and bassoon (Alexander Fine) in “Thou tun’st the world” and joining Oded Reich in the compelling “Wondrous machine”. Playing on natural trumpets, Yuval Shapira and Richard Berlin added sparkle and pizzazz to the energy and overall timbre of the ensemble.

A celebratory work, comprising of masterful instrumental sections, majestic choruses and various solos, duets and trios, the work’s unparalleled invention and richness is as fresh and inspiring today to performers and audiences alike as it was when composed. Seventeenth century audiences appear to have been less taken up with verbal texts than today’s concert-goers, with Purcell’s captivating music making up for some of the lesser quality texts he chose; his word- and text painting is a brilliant feature of his writing and not to be ignored.

As fate would have it, Purcell died on the eve of St. Cecilia’s Day of 1695, probably of pneumonia. He was only 36 years old.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Ludwig van Beethoven visits the Hadassah Medical Center, Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) in the hope for a better diagnosis

The subject was the life and death of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) as seen through the eyes of four doctors and researchers of the Hadassah Medical Center Jerusalem. It was 1:00 on November 23rd and the auditorium of the Ein Kerem hospital was more than crowded with medical staff interested in the case history of a great composer. The event began with the opening bars of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in A flat major opus 26 played by Dr. Ayelet Shower (Cardiology). Dr. Shower then proceeded to sketch in details of Beethoven’s life – that his father was an alcoholic and that he had lost three siblings, that he was single and alone and that his hearing had begun to deteriorate at age 26. She spoke of the many hearing devices Beethoven himself and his friend Maelzel (inventor of the metronome) had built in order to hear sound vibrations better, of his suicide wish at one stage, his liking of women and drink and of his many health issues. The long list of medical problems was compiled from his doctors’ reports and his own writings; to name some - headaches, fever, rheumatism, gout, back pain, eye problems and liver problems. He seems to have spent much of his 50’s in bed. Close to his death, Beethoven's appetite much diminished but suffering from constant thirst, his doctor prescribed a cocktail in an attempt to save him, but to no avail.

Next to talk was Professor Yaakov Naparstek, chairman of Hadassah University Hospital and professor of Medicine at the Hebrew University Hadassah School of Medicine (Internal Medicine, Clinical Immunology, Allergy). Professor Naparstek based his diagnosis on the writings of Beethoven’s last doctor, on Beethoven’s conversation books (used for communication), the Heiligenstadt Testament, etc. He spoke of the composer’s deafness and despair: “What humiliation when anyone beside me heard a flute in the far distance, and I heard nothing.” We viewed a picture of Beethoven bent over his piano, his ear actually resting on the wood! By 1801, Beethoven no longer heard high notes, yet he could not tolerate shouting. Naparstek mentioned the “Beethoven gene” and talked about research done on the composer’s skull. He rules out the possibility of Beethoven having suffered from Paget’s disease (a chronic bone condition) but not Cogan’s Syndrome (a rare rheumatic condition characterized by inflammation of ears and eyes).

Dr. Shower’s playing the opening of the “Moonlight” Sonata opus 27 no.2 provided some welcome relief prior to Professor Naparstek’s launching into a detailed discussion of Beethoven’s internal problems. He talked about research based on examination of Beethoven’s bones and hair and corrected some of the misinformation concerning the composer: Beethoven did not have syphilis; neither did he suffer from rheumatism (this Naparstek saw from pictures of the composer’s hands). Beethoven liked to drink, but he was not necessarily an alcoholic. He had intestinal problems. Did the composer suffer from lead poisoning as the result of his drinking from a goblet made partially from lead? Professor Naparstek claims that what is absolutely clear is that Beethoven died of liver malfunction.

Ear, Nose and Throat specialist Dr. Michal Kaufman-Yeheskeli imagined Beethoven navigating the corridors of the Hadassah Medical Center, carrying a bag with his various hearing aids. She diagnosed him as having inner ear problems and as suffering from tinnitus, driven mad by “rushing and roaring sounds” in his head. Today the Hadassah specialists would be able to improve the state of his hearing with a cochlear implant. Beethoven was obliged to leave the world of performing because of his deafness, investing his energy in composing.

Pathologist Dr. Karen Meir reinforced what had sadly become clear to all of us present – that Beethoven had suffered a lot. Lying on his deathbed, the composer requested the doctors carry out an autopsy on his body; Dr. Johann Wagner and Karl von Rokitansky performed it in Beethoven’s house and a detailed report was written. Dr. Meir suggests Beethoven might have suffered from a multi-system disease from a young age, but she emphasized that microscopic examinations were not carried out and that these would have produced clearer findings.

In a letter to his brothers, to be opened only after his death, Beethoven wrote:” Oh ye, who think or declare me to be hostile, morose or misanthropical, how unjust you are, and how little you know the secret cause of what appears to you….six years ago I was attacked by an incurable malady, aggravated by unskillful physicians, deluded from year to year, too, by the hope of relief, and, at length, forced to the conviction of a lasting affliction”. Poor Beethoven! His music has given so much interest, inspiration and joy to the world yet he, himself, was lonely and ill. On his deathbed he uttered “Applaud, my friends. The comedy is over…”

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Andrew Parrott conducts The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble in a program of French sacred music

Camille Saint-Saens

“Sun over Paradise” was the title of the concert that opened the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s 2011-2012 concert season. Andrew Parrott (UK) conducted the concerts, which comprised of sacred works of Saint-Saëns and Fauré. This writer attended the concert November 17th 2011 at the Jerusalem Khan.

The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble, formed in 1993 by its musical director Yuval Ben Ozer, is a professional chamber choir performing widely in concerts and festivals in Israel and further afield. The ensemble’s varied repertoire spans from music of the Middle Ages to contemporary music, singing both a cappella works and others, performing under the direction of Ben Ozer and other internationally-renowned conductors. The NIVE has also premiered several Israeli works.

Scholar and conductor Andrew Parrott, associated with his work with the Taverner Choir, Consort and Players, one of today’s foremost groups performing Renaissance- and Baroque music, is a specialist in authentic performance of 16th-, 17th – and 18th century vocal music, but is no less at home conducting works of later eras. Maestro Parrott is a familiar figure of the Israeli concert scene.

One tends to associate the music of Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) with certain popular works – such as his operas, the 3rd Symphony or “Carnival of the Animals”. The fact remains that, towards the end of his long life, the composer took to composing sacred works. His Oratorio de Noël opus 12 is, however, an early work, written when the composer was 23 years old. It is more a cantata than oratorio in length, was composed in less than two weeks and completed shortly before its first performance on Christmas of 1858. Actually, only a small part of the text tells the Christmas story, the rest being made up of largely of Psalms. Somewhat evocative of the sacred music of Mendelssohn, the work is graced with shapely vocal lines and elegant contrapuntal choral writing and is typical of historicism, an approach common in church music of the time.

In the performance we heard, the many solos were sung by members of the NIVE, some solos engaging, others pedestrian. Parrott had his singers pronouncing the Latin text in the French manner. The Benedictus – duet for soprano and baritone, harp and organ – was given a lively, pleasing reading by soprano Carmit Natan and baritone Guy Pelc. Seated on one side of the stage, the instrumental ensemble, though small, provided some illuminating tone painting of the texts, from the dramatic storm scene of
‘Why do the nations conspire
And the peoples plot in vain?’ (Psalm 2,1)
to the ethereal tranquility of the following “Gloria Patri”.
In general, the vocal ensembles provided plenty of musicality and interest in a performance that did not always manage to sweep the audience into the warm Romantic transcendency of the work. There is no doubt that the dry, uncompromising acoustic of the Khan theatre worked against the sparkle usually generated by the work, plus the fact that an electronic organ is no substitute for the timbre and character of the pipe organ.

It was Saint-Saëns, Fauré’s teacher at the Niedemeyer School for Church Musicians, who initially encouraged the young Fauré to compose. Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) began to compose his Requiem opus 48 in 1887, making a point of deviating from the overloaded, sentimental and bombastic operatic writing of his day. His use of texts for a Requiem also deviated from what was conventional. Despite Fauré’s being an agnostic, one can not ignore the powerful spirituality evident throughout the work, its harmonic language based on plainchant and modal writing.

A larger ensemble accompanied the NIVE in this performance of Fauré’s Requiem. The opening Kyrie, dramatic and fateful, ‘cellos and double bass creating a dark backdrop for this movement, set the scene for Parrott’s reading of the work, for his emphasis of the play of light and dark, with tempestuousness transforming into delicately reflective, spiritual moments of consolation. Parrott’s interpretation of the work was not one of conservative restraint. The audience enjoyed the choir’s rich mix of timbres together with Fauré’s palette of instrumental color, as in the shimmering Sanctus (Holy, Holy), glistening with violin and harp. Baritone Guy Pelc carried the lion’s share of solos convincingly, his voice luxuriant, his performance imbued with feeling. He was joined by the choir in an involving performance of the “Libera me” (Free me, Lord), in which Fauré paints a fearful and personal vision of “Judgement Day”. The “Pie Jesu” (Merciful Jesus) with its cradle-like rocking lilt, was performed neither by a boy soprano nor by a countertenor: soprano Carmit Natan performed the simple, childlike prayer with melodious tranquility. Parrott conveyed the work’s message, quoted by the composer himself as being “dominated…by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest”. Fauré, the organist of the Madeleine in Paris, threads the haunting, sublime sounds of the organ through the entire work. Once again, the absence of the sonority and presence of a pipe organ was a disadvantage.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Trio Nota Bene (Switzerland) performs Mendelssohn, Martin and Tchaikovsky at the Jerusalem Music Centre

The Jerusalem Music Centre, in collaboration with Culture Scapes- the Swiss Season in Israel – hosted Trio Nota Bene in a concert at the JMC November 11th, 2011. All three members of the trio – pianist Lionel Monnet, violinist Julien Zufferey and ‘cellist Xavier Pignat – come from the Canton of Valais (Switzerland), receiving diplomas in chamber music from the Lausanne Conservatory in 2000. Trio Nota Bene performs widely in Europe, collaborates with other players and ensembles, records and takes part in festivals. The trio premieres new chamber works and is the recipient of a number of prizes and awards.

Following words of welcome from Hed Sella, executive director of the Jerusalem Music Centre, the concert opened with Felix .Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) Piano Trio no.2 in C minor, opus 66. In the 1844-1845 season, Mendelssohn had taken a year off from his accumulating performing- and conducting obligations in Leipzig, where he served as the first musical director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra; by the beginning of 1945, Mendelssohn was free to devote more time to composition, composing, among other works, the opus 66 C minor Trio. It was dedicated to the renowned conductor, composer and violinist Louis Spohr, who was known to have played through the work with Mendelssohn at least once. Opening with the Allegro energico e con fuoco, Trio Nota Bene’s playing of the work was communicative, controlled and clean, Mendelssohn’s powerful utterance of this movement never sounding over-sentimental, Monnet’s use of the sustaining pedal never washing away clear melodic lines. If we were reminded of the “Songs Without Words in the Andante, the third movement – Scherzo - conjured up the charm, lightness and fantasy of the setting of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, its dreamlike timbres eventually dissolving into minimal vaporous strands . The Finale, a rondo, began with a vivacious, sharp-profiled melody in the ‘cello, but then we hear the piano quoting “Vor Deinem Thron” (Before Thy Throne), a chorale from the Geneva Psalter of 1551, an unexpected element in chamber music, although Mendelssohn had used chorales several times in other instrumental compositions.

The Swiss content of the program consisted mostly of Frank Martin’s (1890-1974) Piano "Trio on Popular Irish Folk Tunes" (1925), a work commissioned by a wealthy Irish-American business man. Living in Paris at the time, Martin found the ancient Irish melodies in books in the Bibliothèque Nationale (National Library) of Paris and used them as melodic- and rhythmic raw material for the three movements of the work. The work begins with a drone to set off the first Irish melody, setting the scene for a work based on folk music. The Nota Bene players certainly got into the spirit of energy and exuberance of Irish music, emphasizing the work’s spicy, asymmetric phrases, sudden changes of melody and textures, Martin’s skilful use of thematic variation, syncopations and wild dance rhythms. Zufferey’s playing was certainly evocative of the fiddle. The players gave the Gigue (Irish Jig) their all, with plenty of intensity and give-and-take.

When Nadezhda von Meck (Tchaikovsky’s patron and confidante) wrote to the composer asking why he had never written a trio, the composer answered that, in this sonority, the instruments formed an unnatural combination and that “any kind of trio or sonata with piano or ‘cello is absolute torture for me”. P.I.Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) did then write one piano trio – Piano Trio in A minor opus 50 “In Memory of a Great Artist”(1882) – the artist being pianist Nikolai Rubinstein, founder of the Moscow Conservatory of Music, who died at age 45. Rubinstein was a colleague and close friend of the composer and had premiered many of Tchaikovsky’s piano works; yet he was also a severe critic of Tchaikovsky and his music. The A minor Piano Trio consists of two movements – an introductory elegy and a vast theme and variations, the last variation constituting an independent finale. Tchaikovsky purposely gave the piano much prominence. The trio is a mammoth work both in length and in its technical demands; in the past, chamber music players have been known to shorten sections…an unorthodox practice! Trio Nota Bene took on board the technical and emotional aspects of the work, opening with sonorous weaving of melodies and gestures, its funereal, darker moments punctuating more intensive sections. The movement ended with a thoughtful rendering of the original theme in a fragmented form. The players presented a range of emotions, styles, associations and references in the Theme and Variations (Tchaikovsky wrote that the variations represented scenes and events of Rubinstein’s life) – from dark foreboding, heavy gestures, to feather-light moments, to Viennese-type dance associations, to a Chopinesque Mazurka, from highly orchestrated variations to ghostly arpeggiated textures, finally referring back to the doleful opening theme of the first movement. It was a moving performance. Trio Nota Bene exercises restraint and good taste, avoiding mannerisms and taking troule to illuminate the musical text. Their playing is direct, focused and sincere.

For an encore, the trio chose the second of Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch’s “Three Nocturnes for Piano Trio” (1924), its serene, lyrical theme expressed in long phrases.

Subscribers to the JMC’s 2011-2012 Chamber Music Series were invited to attend the festive concert as guests of the Centre, later enjoying a reception and the chance to chat with the artists.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Israel Contemporary Players open their 2011-2012 season with works by Avni, Ferneyhough and Adams

Ernesto Molinari

The Israel Contemporary Players, conducted by Zsolt Nagy, opened their 2011-2012 season with a program of music by Israeli-, American- and English composers. The program was one of the events in conjunction with Culture Scapes (Switzerland) with Swiss clarinetist Ernesto Molinari as guest artist. Introducing the Israel Contemporary Players’ 21st concert season, Zmira Lutzky (Voice of Music, Israel Radio) mentioned that the evening’s program would include works of “New Complexity”, “New Simplicity” and styles that exist between them, a program of ensemble works and solo performance. This writer attended the concert on November 6th 2011 at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

Born in 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland, Ernesto Molinari studied clarinet in Basel and bass clarinet in Amsterdam. He performs as soloist and chamber musician throughout Europe, performing Classical, Romantic and contemporary music. He has premiered many works, some of which were composed for him. Molinari is also a jazz musician. He presently teaches at the Conservatory in Bern.

Hungarian conductor Zsolt Nagy (b.1957) is one of today’s most sought-after conductors of contemporary music. A graduate of the Ferenc Liszt Academy (Budapest), Nagy conducts and holds master classes in Europe and further afield. He has premiered over 500 new compositions. He has been conductor and artistic director of the ICP since 1999 and has received a special award for excellence in the performing of Israeli music.

The program opened with Israeli composer Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927) “Five Pantomimes” for eight instruments, a collection of miniatures composed in 1968, each inspired by a different famous painting. Tzvi Avni was present at the concert in Jerusalem and talked briefly about “Five Pantomimes”. He opened by saying that he had seen each of the original paintings, the resulting five pieces describing his emotional reactions to them rather than the paintings themselves. The audience was able to view the paintings on a screen. Stark, uncompromisingly foreboding sonorities, siren-like sounds, the eerie knell of the gong and static moments were expressed in Avni’s piece based on Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937), a painting representing the bombing of Guernica by Italian and German airplanes during the Spanish Civil War. Following the arid, sadly humorous canvas evoking Marc Chagall’s “I and the Village” (1911), in which we heard a plaintive Yiddish melody (viola) and bells, the atmosphere lightened to show Wassily Kandinsky’s joyful “La petite emouvante” on the screen. Avni’s music describes its two main sections and other smaller details, opening with a lilting double bass melody, the ensemble bringing out the whimsical aspect of the work with an entertaining kaleidoscope of detail and instrumental color. Inspired by Salvador Dali’s surrealistic “The Persistence of Memory” (1931), with its melting, soft watches placed in the painter’s own landscape, the piece invites the listener to indulge in the irrational and the disquieting to the ticking of time. For Tzvi Avni, Paul Klee’s “17 Astray” (1923) describes the temperament and drama in the mind of a 17-year-old. In this whimsical collage of hints and associations, we hear a little Viennese-type waltz, whistles, small mood changes and even a Dies Irae. (Klee was quoted as saying “Art does not produce the visible; rather, it makes visible”.) “Five Pantomimes” is a richly expressive and representative work, using a combination of modernist techniques and reflects the composer’s deep connection with the plastic arts.

Also inspired by painting, the program included British composer Brian Ferneyhough’s (b.1843) “La Chute d’Icare” (The Fall of Icarus). In this case, the work was inspired by Pieter Brueghel’s painting of 1558, where the individual is dwarfed by the landscape around him, as well as W.H.Auden’s poem about the same painting. In Ferneyhough’s score, the role of Icarus is played by the clarinet (Ernesto Molinari). The score, for mixed septet and solo clarinet, is one of complicated substructure (New Complexity), into which relatively free musical material is placed. The composer sees these overlapping rhythmic- and formal layers as “prisons in which the music lives”. In an intense, many-faceted texture, the disquieting music spirals into a clarinet cadenza (representing the downfall of Icarus) in which Molinari’s playing presents anguish in sounds evocative of the human voice. This is a kind of mini clarinet concerto in which the seven other instruments appear to have their own agenda but they pick up on the clarinet‘s energy. Ferneyhough’s complex and technically challenging writing is known to take players out of their comfort zone; not so the Israel Contemporary players and the unruffled Molinari. Zsolt Nagy took his players through the work with clear and emphatic direction.

Brian Ferneyhough’s solo pieces from the mid-70’s – Unity Capsule for Flute, Time and Motion Study I and II for bass clarinet and ‘cello, respectively – all deal with transcendence. The composer said that “these compositions emerged from the moment of explosive confluence of a large array of concerns, many of them not directly or obviously ‘musical’ in nature…..what place music can realistically claim in the task of critically observing the world around us.” Ferneyhough began “ Time and Motion Study I” in 1970, returning to it in 1977, the various fragments coming together in a “network of procedures, transformed into structural energy”. Ernesto Molinari presented the work’s polyphonic aspect – each voice as a different personality - on a monophonic instrument, the work’s fabric composed of a contrast of registers, intensities, moods and emotions. Outspoken gestures are juxtaposed by veiled moments. Disjointed- and conjoined gestures come together as the result of the player’s strategic timing between motifs. It was a deeply moving performance. So strong was the human message of Molinari’s performance that it seems superfluous here to mention the piece’s innate virtuosity.

John Adams’ (b. USA, 1947) “Son of the Chamber Symphony” (2007) was commissioned by Stanford University, Carnegie Hall and the San Francisco Ballet. A homage to Schönberg’s chamber symphonies, it is scored for flute (also playing piccolo), oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, piano (also playing celesta), two percussionists, two violins, viola, ‘cello and double bass. This large chamber ensemble, or small orchestra, means that all players get to be soloists, giving Adams “an opportunity to do the kind of challenging virtuoso writing that I would never attempt with a large orchestra”. Referring to the spirit and style of his previous works – his approach a far cry from the academic modernism of many of his contemporaries - Adams lures us into his world of orchestral colors and witty propulsion. “Son of the Chamber Symphony” opens with jouncing, stop-start rhythms and a jazzy urgency and is rife with jagged, dance-like rhythms that make staying seated in a concert hall a somewhat challenging task. The second movement soothes the audience with sonorous, nostalgic melody lines of fluidity and tranquility before twisting itself into a more agitated state, with strings and horns moving together at a frantic pace. The third movement sweeps listeners back to vibrant timbres and forceful rhythms, the bass drum insisting throughout. Adams’ score actually calls for trash can lids for the work’s gentler, hazier parting sounds.

Zsolt Nagy’s approach is of depth, lucidity and articulate musical expression; he and the sharp-witted young instrumentalists of the Israel Contemporary Players communicate directly, providing an evening of fine music, much interest and outstanding performance.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2011-2012 season with "The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was curious to hear the ensemble’s opening concert for the 2011-2012 season - “The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan” - in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre November 1st, 2011. This all-Bach program was the JBO’s first concert in this venue. The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra was founded by Maestro David Shemer in 1989 and continues to be directed by him.

The program opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Ouverture-Suite no.3 in D major BWV 1068, one of four Orchestral Suites (also referred to as “Ouvertures”) probably composed in Leipzig in the 1720’s and possibly first performed by the Collegium Musicum – an association of musicians and music enthusiasts, of which Bach was a member. In his program notes, Shemer talks of the Collegium Musicum concerts as being one of the first concert series in Europe. With Bach and his contemporaries constantly “borrowing” from themselves, these suites may well be arrangements from previously composed works. In the D major Suite, orchestration varies from movement to movement; the instrumentation – which includes three trumpets, timpani, two oboes, strings and continuo - suggests that it may have been written for performance outdoors. The oboes rarely play independently of the violins, with the trumpets and drums adding color and emphasis. Bach chose the bright, open key of D major for this suite, which is based on French dance movements. Opening with a dotted, decidedly grand French overture the JBO presented each dance and mood, leaning into dissonances, the rich scoring supporting the more exuberant movements. Violinist Boris Begelman leads articulately, etching phrases with elegance and shape. In the well-loved second movement – Air – Begelman’s cantabile (but, happily, not over-sentimental) playing of this much-loved solo melody delighted the audience, his tasteful and sparing use of vibrato ornamenting longer- and key notes.

The JBO’s performance of Bach’s secular cantata “The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan” BWV 201 was a groundbreaker, being the first performance of this wonderful work on period instruments and by an Israeli ensemble. To a libretto by Picander (after Ovid), it is unique in that it was neither commissioned nor dedicated to a patron, thus giving the composer the liberty to express his own opinions on aesthetic- and other matters. The opening chorus, with its rich, swirling instrumentation, sets the scene for Bach’s prescribing of a few home truths, these clothed in a frivolous storyline. Take, for example, the wisdom of Momus (god of satire, mockery, censure, writers and poets) in an aria performed by young soprano Anat Edri. Edri’s voice is excellent for Baroque music, her technique light and agile.
‘My lord, this is just wind –
When someone brags and has no cash,
When someone thinks the truth
Only what is in front of his eyes,
When fools are clever,
When fortune itself is blind –
My lord, this is just wind.’

Mezzo-soprano Inbal Hever’s reedy, strong voice has presence and a rich mix of vocal color. As Mercurius (god of trade, abundance and commercial success) it is she (he, actually) who suggests that Pan and Phoebus should each choose a judge and that they hold a context. In her final aria “Puffed up passion”, in which Mercurius warns those who know nothing not to judge, flautists Geneviève Blanchard and Idit Shemer join forces, gracing the aria in a superb obbligato duet. It seems this aria carries a word of advice to music critics….

Phoebus was played by bass Assif Am-David. His understanding of Baroque style, excellent German, humor and natural stage ability were matched by mellifluous singing of melismatic passages and delicate ornamentation in “With longing I press your tender cheeks”. Bach’s lighter instrumentation creates the mood, also expressed elegantly by Blanchard on flute.

Tenor David Nortman, sang the role of Tmolus - a mountain god, judge of the musical contest between Phoebus and Pan. In his pleasing presentation of the aria “Phoebus, your melody was born of charm itself”, he is joined by the warm and caressing sounds of the Baroque bassoon (Alexander Fine) in dialogue with superb playing on the part of German oboist Inge Brendler, who, at the last minute, more-than-competently took over the reins from the first oboist who was taken ill.

Adding a lighter vocal timbre was Jake White (UK) who played Mydas, the wealthy but foolish king of Phrygia, whose golden touch did not prevent him from being awarded a pair of asses’ ears (we hear the braying in Bach’s score) for his poor judgement in preferring the music of the pipe. Setting off the vocal line was the articulate and artfully-phrased playing of double bass player Dara Blum
‘Ah! Do not torment me so much.
That is the way I heard it.
How badly this appointment
Has turned out for me.’

Audiences are currently enjoying bass-baritone Oded Reich’s lustrous, stable voice and musicality in many local performances. Outstanding in his expressive performance of sacred music, he, indeed, entered into the whimsical spirit of this cantata in the role of Pan. Both facially expressive and light of foot in the following aria, he also created a nice contrast in the serious content of middle section.
‘In dancing and leaping my heart shakes.
When music sounds too laborious
And the voice sings under control,
Then it arouses no fun”.

The soloists also formed the chorus, as in the manner of Bach’s own performances of his choral works. Unfortunately, the changed acoustic of the recently-refurbished stage of the Henry Crown Auditorium seemed to somewhat intercept the JBO’s brightness and articulacy of sound before it reached the ears of the audience. There were also some intonation problems with the Baroque trumpets; nevertheless, it was a treat hearing these natural instruments in a Bach cantata, problematic as they are, and let’s hear more of them!

“The Contest Between Phoebus and Pan” is a fine work, worthy of more airing. The audience followed the text with interest and left the concert smiling and well entertained. This reviewer, however, is not taking Picander’s text and Bach’s message with a grain of salt!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Chiri Jazz Trio performs a mix of jazz and traditional Korean music at the Enav Center (Tel Aviv)

Australian Ambassador Andrea Faulkner and Korean Ambassador Kim Il Soo hosted a unique musical event October 29th 2011 at the Enav Cultural Centre, Tel Aviv. On arriving, guests were offered an opportunity to taste Korean food and Australian wines as they circulated, chatting with invitees and members of the Chiri Jazz Trio – percussionist Simon Barker (Australia), trumpeter Scott Tinkler (Australia) and Korean pansori singer Bae Il-Dong (Korea). The Chiri Trio is on a concert tour hosted by Australian embassies in Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus, Jordan, Turkey and Israel, the tour ending with a performance in Washington D.C.

Ambassador Andrea Faulkner welcomed newly appointed Ambassador Kim and guests, mentioning that this special evening was also a celebration of 50 years of bilateral relations between Australia and Korea. She spoke of the event bringing together the excellence of standards of music in Australia, the fact that cultural exchange creates new genres and of the sophisticated music scene in Israel. Ambassador Kim, thanking Ms. Faulkner for this opportunity, spoke of the meeting of east and west, about the fact that Korea wishes to reach out to the world through its art forms and that Korean artists are open to experimenting.

Scott Tinkler spoke of the two Australians’ deep, long-standing involvement in Korea and the essence of its music. We were shown a few minutes of Australian singer Emma Franz’s documentary “Intangible Asset No. 82”, a film telling of Simon Barker’s search for Korean shaman (intercessor between gods and humans) Kim Seok-Chul, a man he believes to be one of the world’s greatest improvisers. The film, set in the wild, unspoiled nature of mountain regions in Korea, shows how pansori singers spend many hours a day undergoing vocal training by waterfalls. (Pansori – often referred to as Korean opera – is a type of traditional music-theatre performed by a singer and drummer.) From the film, we learn that Bae Il-Dong spent seven years living alone by waterfalls, learning to sing. “Chiri” is a mountain in the southern Sobaek range of Korea where Il-Dong camped during those years. The singer recalls: “Looking back now, I don’t know how I lived like that. But I believe in reincarnation and I believe I was born with this destiny”.

The first half of the program at the Enav Center consisted of a series of improvised pieces. Tinkler began the first as a trumpet solo, soon to be joined by Barker. From the outset, the audience quickly became aware that we were, indeed, hearing two outstanding jazz musicians. Bae-Il-Dong, dressed in traditional Korean clothes and holding a fan, then joined, singing long, monosyllabic notes, his powerful singing using a variety of different vocal effects. Each mood piece, fresh with spontaneously inspired improvisations, constituted musical expression of tireless energy and deep communication. Bae was not static on the stage, often approaching the player with whom he was connecting. All musicians communicated with face and eyes.

The second half of the program presented content of a more programmatic nature - two epic poems. The first “The Scent of Spring Fragrance”- telling the story of a beautiful young married woman thrown into prison because of refusing the advances of an official – opens with an evocative gong solo. As the drama develops, Bae adds meaning with hand- and body movements, approaching one instrumentalist or the other. There were many tender moments in this piece.

In the second epic poem, we were in for more emotional action in the story of a young woman who sacrifices herself in the sea to a dragon lord in order to restore her blind father’s sight. The Banquet Scene is one of powerful drama, using speech mixed with song, an extraordinary display of circular breathing on the part of Tinkler….in short, total involvement on the part of all three artists. It is a piece of vehement, intense outpouring. Barker and Tinkler play it out in their own musical language and Dong in his. This mix of styles retains its separateness, coming together in the artists’ oneness of spirit. Dong is an artist to be reckoned with: his uncompromising, gritty, instinctual vocal style comes from the gut – his is the expression of deep pain and ecstatic joy. Tinkler talked of the ensemble’s work as based on trust, relationships and ongoing work. The audience was impressed and moved.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem, together with soloists and the Basler Madrigalisten, performs Handel's "Messiah"

Having recently opened its 28th concert season, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem performed G.F.Händel’s “Messiah” on October 25th 2011, filling the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert was also one of the events of Culture Scapes – the Swiss Cultural Season in Israel. Under the baton of its founder, director and conductor Maestro Avner Biron, the orchestra was joined by the Basler Madrigalisten (Basel Madrigalists) and soloists – soprano Ruby Hughes (UK), countertenor James Laing (UK), tenor James Oxley (UK) and bass-baritone Markus Flaig (Germany).

The writing of Händel’s “Messiah” HWV 56 (1741) was actually requested by Charles Jennens, Händel’s librettist. The composer obliged, writing the entire work (he composed 26 oratorios in London) in 24 days, the oratorio having its first performance in Dublin in 1742. So great was the demand for tickets to the premiere that a request was sent out asking “the favour of the Ladies not to come with hoops” and the gentlemen “to come without their swords”. The oratorio’s initial years of airing in London, however, came up against opposition of different kinds: the English claimed it had no story, that there were too few solos and too many choral movements. Jennens, himself, was disappointed and wrote “I shall put no more sacred works into his hands”. Various religious groups were opposed to Händel’s use of biblical texts in the theatre, “prostituting sacred things to the perverse humour of a Set of obstinate people”. (Most of the texts are taken from the Old Testament, specifically from the Book of Isaiah, the New Testament texts coming from a number of different scriptures.) Those objecting were surely unaware of the fact that the duet-choruses in “Messiah” were actually reworkings of love-duets Händel had written previously, these providing balance with the larger choruses, interaction between individual singers and moments of intimacy to the work. Actually intended as an Easter oratorio, “Messiah” is much performed around Christmas. Twenty five years following its premiering, however, “Messiah” had become so popular in London that there were almost riots amongst those wishing to attend performances at Westminster Abbey. The work has remained one of the most frequently performed oratorios.

The Basler Madrigalisten (musical director Fritz Näf), an ensemble of up to 24 singers (depending on repertoire), founded in 1978 at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, addressed each choral section with the choir’s bright timbre hallmark, superbly articulate diction and use of consonantal textures and separations to draw attention to key words. Their choral sound is one of a rich mix of individual colors, all sections well balanced, the two countertenors adding interest to the alto section. Soprano Ruby Hughes sang with radiant purity of sound on one hand, her performance enhanced by her sense of drama, on the other. Tenor James Oxley was commanding, gripping and intense in his detailed presentation of the texts. Bass-baritone Markus Flaig’s work on the oratorio genre spans from the Renaissance to contemporary works. His solos in this performance illuminated the meaning of the text. His reverent and expressive singing of “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” (Isaiah 40/60) evoked, almost visually, the play of light and darkness in the words. Charismatic young British countertenor James Laing addressed and involved the audience all the way, his voice, powerful and moving, delivering the text with emotional depth, his lines tastefully ornamented. His fluid singing of “He was despised” (Isaiah 50/53) was imbued with both suffering and resentment.

The orchestra’s playing was effective, clean and delicate, Biron never missing an opportunity to create a mood, to flex very gently in the name of expression and to draw out contrasts. His brass players also delighted the audience in their exuberant, precise gesturing. Spiraling into an exciting Hallelujah Chorus (the audience did not rise), the performance then swept us with the optimism and exuberance of the “Hymn for the Final Overthrow of Death” to the final, many-faceted and grand fugal “Amen”. There have been many performances of “Messiah” in Israel over recent years. The Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s performance of “Messiah” was, however, truly memorable.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Basel Madrigalists perform at the October 2011 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The Basler Madrigalisten (Basel Madrigalists) are an ensemble founded at the Basel Schola Cantorum in 1978. Focusing largely on early- and contemporary music, the choir has toured much of Europe, Australia, the United States, Lebanon and the Far East. The Basler Madrigalisten drew a large audience at a concert in the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, October 21st 2011 in the Kiryat Yearim Church in the Judean Hills. The Basler Madrigalisten were in Israel as part of the "Culturescapes" Season of Swiss Culture.

Having founded the Basler Madrigalisten, performing tenor, teacher and orchestral- and choral conductor Fritz Näf (b.Switzerland, 1943) has been full-time artistic director and conductor of the ensemble since 2000.

Pianist Paul Suits (b.California) (piano and organ) has concertized in the Far East, Canada, throughout Europe and the United States. He has held positions in opera houses and music academies in Switzerland. Paul Suits has also composed operas, choral works and songs.

Opening the program with a joyous rendering of Heinrich Schütz’ jubilant motet “Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes”, Psalm 19 (The heavens are telling of God in glory) (1648) for mixed choir, one of 29 motets of the opus 11 “Geistliche Chormusik” collection (Spiritual Choral Music). In his preface to these works, the composer writes that instrumental forces may be used together with voices (we heard it with organ). From the very first notes of the work, it was clear that we were to hear a vocal group in which each word and phrase is shaped and chiseled. J.S.Bach’s motet “Komm, Jesu komm!” for eight voices BWV 229, probably composed during Bach’s Leipzig years, makes an unusual combination of a funeral hymn by Paul Thymich and biblical texts. The Basler Madrigalisten bring out the contrasts between contrapuntal- and imitative choral passages and mood changes. Small separations between key words and the use of strongly articulate consonants fire each phrase; constant, heavy accents on each tactus sometimes worked against smooth singing of phrases.

Moving into the 19th century, we heard Anton Bruckner’s (1824-1896) “Locus iste” for four voices (1869), one of some 30 motets written by Bruckner, who was a devout Roman Catholic. Näf’s reading of it moved from the dramatic to the intimate, with much emphasis on the word “irreprehensibilis” (without reproof) in the middle imitative section.
‘This place was made by God,
A priceless mystery,
It is beyond reproach’.

Swiss composer Daniel Glaus (b. 1957) is a church musician and organist in Biel and teaches in music schools in Zurich and Berne. He is involved in questions concerning the building of organs and, in addition to music, engages in the study of philosophy, the Bible, art, butterflies and trees and political-economic-ecological-ethical issues to do with the environment. We heard “Teschuvah” (1989), a section of his oratorio “Sunt lacrimae rerum” (There are tears for things) with the composer’s life focus on religion, mysticism and the human voice coming together. With some of the singers placed at the back of the church and others either side of the stage, the audience was gently enveloped in sound, from that of one strand, of long held notes, to clusters, to a layering of vocal timbres, to a lavish polychoral effect; an atonal work, musically demanding of each singer, it retained ethereal lucidity throughout.

Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) composed his Mass for Double Choir during 1922 and1926, but the work remained out of sight (and out of hearing) for almost 40 years; the composer, a religious Calvinist, only released it for performance and publication in 1963. Martin wrote “I did not want it to be performed…I consider it…as being a matter between God and myself…that an expression of religious feelings should remain secret and removed from public opinion.” A work of lushness and scintillating beauty, it bears the influence of Austro-German discipline blended with the sensual sonorities of French music – that of Debussy, Ravel and Roussel. The Basler Madrigalisten performed three movements of the Mass, starting with an expressive and compassionate reading of the Kyrie, its long phrases woven in and out of the two choir groups, the Kyrie ending on the Picardian third. In the Gloria, the singers use their rich palette of gestures and the rhythm of words to build up power and intensity. In the Agnus Dei, added in 1926, Martin gives each choir a very different role – one sings in constant rhythmic movement, the other more polyphonic, with both uniting in the reverent “Dona nobis pacem”.

Franz Schubert composed the “Rosemunde” incidental music for a melodramatic play by Helmina von Chézy, “Rosemunde, Princess of Cyprus”, scored for soprano, chorus and orchestra. It was premiered in 1823, the play was a failure, the text was lost and what remains of this play with ballet and music are some much loved pieces of music. The Basler Madrigalisten, together with Paul Suits at the piano, gave the three choruses of the work a performance abounding in freshness, warmth and joie-de-vivre, with the second chorus “Geisterchor” (Chorus of Spirits) “In the Deep Dwells the Light” leading us, via a carefully blended choral sound, into the darker, more arcane world of characters who are brewing poisonous ink.

Also suiting the character of the Madrigalisten, we heard Johannes Brahms’ “Zigeunerlieder” (Gypsy Songs) opus 103 (1887). This collection of miniatures, its choral writing representing a straightforward approach to life’s issues, makes great demands on the pianist. Näf, the choir and Suits, working in close collaboration, created each vignette of gypsy life – its connections with nature, its wild characteristics, tender songs, longing, innocent moments, highly colored textures and intimacy – achieved by way of large dynamic contrasts and an in-depth understanding of the texts themselves.

This choir exudes energy and brightness of color, each voice section well-balanced, its performance forthright and polished. The choice of G.Rossini’s “La Passeggiata” as an encore was somewhat out of keeping with the evening’s program. The Basler Madrigalisten signed out with a jolly a cappella medley of Swiss folk songs (complete with the call of the cuckoo!)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs "French Delight - Songs of Wine and Love" at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival celebrated its 20th anniversary with a wide choice of concerts performed in the two Abu Gosh churches. Festival-goers came from far and wide to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the concerts, small outdoor musical events under the expansive trees, the craft stalls and a picnic in the natural surroundings of the Judean Hills in autumn. The Crypt below the Crusader Church, with its lively acoustics, is the venue for a host of chamber concerts. The church’s leafy, well-tended garden, with its flowers and mature palm trees, offers the visitor tranquility.

Four members of the PHOENIX Ensemble – Assif Am-David (baritone), Yasuko Hirata (Baroque violin), Marina Minkin (spinet) and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog (viol and recorder) performed “French Delight – Songs of Wine and Love” in the Crypt October 20th, 2011. The artists opened with a an anonymous 12th century Jongleur song “A l’entrada del temps clar” (When the clear days come) a jolly song celebrating spring, dance, love and fertility, sung in Occitan (a vernacular local to southern France and Spain and areas of Italy) with all the musicians joining in singing of the chorus.

Marina Minkin takes us into the realm of elegant French court music with the third prelude of François Couperin’s “L’Art de Toucher le Clavecin” (The Art of Playing the Harpsichord) - actually an 18th century instruction book containing information on technique, fingering, phrasing, ornamentation and keyboard performance style. Minkin’s performance of it is pensive, carefully paced and gently swayed. Couperin’s Concerts Royaux (Royal Concerts)were composed for the ailing Louis XIV and to be performed at the Sunday concerts at Versailles by renowned court musicians, including the composer himself. We heard a sympathetic reading of two movements from the Second Concert Royal, the Prelude played on bass viol and spinet, with Yasuko Hirata sculpting each musical gesture in the more Italienate Air Contrefugué.

In “Le Tombeau de Couperin” (1919), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) wished to celebrate “Le Grand” as a founder of the French school of keyboard music in a set of piano pieces written in the instrumental forms of Couperin’s time. In the Menuet (dedicated to the memory of Jean Dreyfus, one of the fallen of the First World War) Herzog plays the opening melody on recorder, later moving to the bass viol. Minkin’s abundant use of spreads adds a plucked texture and intensity to the melancholy character of the piece. A small tasty morsel was Francis Poulenc’s (1988-1963) Villanelle for pipeau (a French folk flute, chosen by the composer to lend an authentic aspect to the villanelle, a peasant song) and piano (1934). The piccolo role was played on recorder by Herzog in this miniature of French transparency and harmonic richness.

The program offered much variety of French vocal music. When Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683-1764) opera “Dardenus” (libretto: Charles-Antoine le Clerc) was premiered in 1739, the critics accused Rameau of creating an opera with no coherent plot; they claimed that the inclusion of the sea monster violated the French operatic convention of having a clear purpose for encounters with supernatural beings. Rameau eventually rewrote the tragédie en musique leaving out some of the supernatural elements. But, for those of us with a penchant for the fantastic and the bizarre, the “Monstre affreux” (Hideous Monster) number was a treat, its introduction already warning us that we were in for some full-on drama. Baritone Assif Am-David is convincing, dramatic and expressive, the piece’s range bringing out the pleasing mix of vocal color in Am-David’s high register.
‘Dread monster, fearsome monster,
Ah! How kind fate would be to me
If he exposed me only to no blows but yours!
Dread monster, fearsome monster
Ah! Love is much more terrible than you.’

This was followed by Rameau’s early cantata “Thétis” (c.1715), a work borrowing elements of French opera. Thétis is a very beautiful sea-goddess. The cantata tells of her being courted by both Zeus (Jupiter) god of the sky and weather (thunder included) and Poseidon (Neptune) ruler of the waves, both of whom demonstrate their power in a terrifying fashion. Thétis chooses to marry a mortal – Peleus - bearing him a son, Achilles. Herzog referred to this cantata as a feminist work.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) used a poem of 16th century poet Clément Marot for his song “D’Anne jouent de l’espinette” (To Anne Who Plays the Spinet) of 1896. In this pre-World War I song, Am-David’s descriptive approach and fine French enunciation is coupled with Minkin’s strategically timed and refined playing, Ravel’s whimsical keyboard writing suggesting the young Anne at the spinet practicing. (Marina Minkin was playing on a triangular spinet, built in 1992 for Herzog in San Paulo, Brazil, by Abel Vargas.)
‘When I watch the pretty young brunette, and hear her voice and her fingers making a sweet sound on the keyboard, both my eyes and ears feel a greater pleasure than the saints in their immortal glory – and I become as glorious as they are when I think that she might love me a little.’

In keeping with all things French, the concert ended with four songs on the subject of food and wine, beginning, on a sad note, with Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) “Tristesse” (Sadness) opus 6/2, composed originally for voice and piano. The text is from Gautier’s “La Comédie de la Mort” (The comedy of Death) (1838). This song, with its Parisian emphasis on the first, rather than second syllable and melodramatic refrain, takes the listener on an interesting and not-always-predictable melodic journey, with the violin adding bitter-sweet comments. Am-David weaves in the melodic line sensitively, also speaking some of the words…giving it a very French flavor.

It is fitting that Ravel’s last completed work, his song cycle for voice and orchestra “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” (Don Quixote to Dulcinea) (1932-33) to texts by Paul Morand, should refer back to his Spanish roots, both musically and in subject matter. The audience delighted in Am-David’s exuberant performance of the Drinking Song, a jaunty, sassy jota (Spanish song-dance form), enhanced by Minkin’s Spanish guitar effects on the spinet. Following J-B de Bousset’s (1662-1727) tamer drinking song, the concert ended with Gabriel Bataille’s (1575-1630) strophic courtly air “Qui veut chasser une migraine” (Whoever wants to chase away a migraine headache). Rife with dance rhythms, the lascivious text, peppered with the graphic details of rustic “courtship”, offers a dubious cure for the affliction – drink!
‘Water does nothing but rot the lungs,
Drink, drink, drink, friends!
Let’s empty this glass and fill it up again…’

Myrna Herzog does not hesitate to mix secular French works of the 17th- to 20th century in one program, and in no specific chronological order; and this works well! The PHOENIX arrangements, created partly by her and partly evolving from discussion among the players themselves, are pleasing and colorful and allow for individual expression. The intimate Crypt, with the festival audience seated on three sides of the stage, offers a very lively acoustic to players and singers and to the joy of listeners. The intermingling of church bells and the muezzin calling to prayer provide a meaningful background to the Abu Gosh events.