Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir sings at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, conducted by its musical director Ronen Borshevsky, performed a concert titled “Let Everything That Has Breath Praise the Lord” on January 20th 2011 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem prior to its concert tour of Geneva. The Geneva tour included three concerts, one at the United Nations Office at Geneva, another in a church, with a third concert to be performed for the Geneva Jewish Community. Among works on the programs were a number of pieces to biblical texts by Israeli composer Yitzchak Tavior.

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, a large choral enterprise, was founded in 1987 and consists of a number of small- and medium-sized vocal ensembles. The individual choirs perform chamber concerts, also joining to take part in large choral and orchestral projects. The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, Oratorio’s representative group consisting of 25 singers, is led by Ronen Borshevsky.

Ronen Borshevsky (b.1971), the main conductor and musical director of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir won the 1997 Tokyo International Music Competition for Conducting and the 1998 International Conductors Competition in Denmark, was a recipient of the Koussevitzky Scholarship, has conducted all major Israeli orchestras and has conducted in the United States, in Japan, Germany and Denmark. Maestro Borshevsky is considered one of Israel’s foremost choral conductors.

The evening’s program consisted mostly of a cappella works. The setting for “Adon Olam” (The Lord of all) by the Amsterdam rabbi, author and musician David Aaron de Sola (1796-1860) is used in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic synagogues, especially in English-speaking communities. Borshevsky’s delicate phrasing, coupled with the tranquil beauty of this piece, made for a sensitive performance. Soloists were Naomi Brill Engel and Simone Kessler. The Chamber Choir’s singing of Italian Jewish composer Salomone Rossi’s (1570-1630) 5-part motet “Shir Hama’alot” Psalm 121 (I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills) reflected the composer’s reading into the text and its contrasts, with different vocal combinations producing a variety of textures.

The concert included several works of Israeli composers. Yehezkel Braun’s (b.1922) oeuvre consists of choral- and orchestral works, chamber music, Lieder and music for theatre, film and dance. His interest in liturgical chant and Jewish folk music is reflected in the two works we heard: A Psalm of David (Psalm 29), the Jerusalem version, and his setting of the oriental piyut (religious poem) D’ror Yikra (He will proclaim freedom) by Dunash HaLevi ben Labrat. In the latter, choir member Amit Pal’s darbuka (goblet drum) accompaniment of the spirited Sephardic songs - a kaleidoscope of vocal lines void of western harmonies - was deft and attentive. Hungarian-born Oedoen Partos (1907-1977) made a study of Israeli folk material, especially of that of the Sephardic Jews. Influence of the latter was present in the continuously interesting “Hamavdil” (Who distinguishes) (2004). Borshevsky achieves a fine choral blend characterized by velvety yet transparent textures and fast dynamic changes.

The singers performed arrangements of songs of various Jewish traditions. Their rendition of “La Rosa”, a Ladino love-song song, from Six Sephardic Folksongs” (1971) arranged by Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984), brought out the wealth of Ben Haim’s late Romantic harmonies and temperament. They also sang Gil Aldema’s arrangement of “Unter di Curves” (Under the ruins of Poland) to words in Yiddish of Itzik Manger and to a melody by Shaul Berezovsky. In this nostalgic and moving performance of a song that mourns the destruction of the Polish Jewish community, we heard Shmuel Karsh as soloist.
‘A large bird of mourning
Flies above the ruins
Carries in her wings
The song of grief
Over the ruins of Poland.’

Hannah Senesh (1921-1944) was executed by the Germans in Hungary where she was on a mission to save Jewish lives. She is known for both her heroism and her poetry. “Eli,Eli”, also known as “Walk to Caesarea”, arranged for choir by Gil Aldema, was moving in its melodiousness and sincerity, with soloist Shlomo Tirosh interacting with the audience.

In a very different mood, “Sapari Tama Tamima” (Where are you, my soul?), a Yemenite song to words by the 17th century poet Se’adia Ben-Amran; the text is found in the “Diwan” – the Jewish Yemenite poetry book – and tells of the poet addressing his own soul on finding his way to God. Arranged for choir by Zvi Sherf, the song, based on traditional Yemenite dance rhythms, is an outburst of joy and strength. Soloist Elia Reznik’s personality and reedy voice are well suited tothis music, Pal’s darbuka playing adding fire to the performance.

One of Israel’s foremost composers Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927) “Mizmorei Tehilim” (Psalm Songs) for mixed choir (1967) opens with compelling, forthright textures and parallel, strident octave passages in “Clap your hands, all you nations” (Psalm 47). Psalm 48 “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” begins in a gentler vein but builds up massive crescendos bristling with parallel fourths. Borshevsky’s reading off it is, nevertheless, sensitive. Psalm 150 “Hallelujah” is a celebration of the text and its word rhythms, once again, using octave passages versus large chunks of harmonies and a myriad of daring choral textures. The concert takes its name from this colorful and joyfully spiritual text:
….’Praise Him with the sounding of the trumpet,
Praise Him with the harp and lyre,
Praise Him with timbrel and dancing,
Praise Him with the strings and pipe,
Praise him with the clash of cymbals,
Praise him with resounding cymbals.

Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.’

Leaving Jewish composers, we heard two settings of “O Vos Omnes” (O all ye that pass by the way) from Lamentations 1:2. Within the Roman Catholic rite, this text is sung during Holy Week (Easter); in this context, the speaker is assumed to be Christ on the cross, asking all who pass on the road to judge whether any sorrow can compare to his. The first version was by the Spanish Jesuit composer Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), its pathos infused with chromaticism, dissonance and the “tear motif” (descending seconds within a tetrachord). The choir’s performance of it was smooth, sensitive and, indeed, spiritual. The second setting was that of the great Spanish Catalan ‘cellist, Pablo Casals (1876-1973). Composed in 1932, this somber motet, rich in harmonic complexity, reflects Casals’ deep sense of the divine in music. Borshevsky’s reading of it emphasizes the startling effect of contrast in pitch in a soundscape tinted with bitter-sweet seventh chords.

The concert ended on a joyous note, with two Afro-American spirituals. In “I Been in de Storm So Long”, arranged by Jewel Thompson for soprano, mixed choir and piano, soloist Naomi Brill Engel engaged her audience in telling the story and contended well with the choir and accompaniment. A fine singer, Brill Engel would do well to enlist more support in her higher register. In Undine S. Moore’s arrangement of “Daniel, Daniel, Servant of the Lord”, soloist Elia Reznik’s use of her sturdy lower register gave the song a folksy, earthy touch.

In response to the audience’s enthusiasm, Borshevsky and his singers had a few encore pieces up their musical sleeve. In Ben Haim’s lovely, soothing “Hitrag’ut” (Tranquility) we heard Rommy Albert in the solo. Michael Sullivan’s solo in “Yesterday” (somewhat unsuited to the mood of the program, but, lovely nevertheless) proved that singing with true simplicity can warm the cockles of sophisticated audience’s heart.

A concert of many styles of music, it was an evening full of interest and variety; the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir’s singing emanates superb musicianship, much fine vocal blending, expressiveness and versatility, all the result of in-depth work..

Friday, January 21, 2011

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs Mozart's Church Sonatas in Jerusalem

The venue was The Wine Press (Beit Hagat), a house hidden away in a lane of the leafy, magical suburb of Ein Kerem, Jerusalem. Built in 1870, the house was once a flour mill and olive press for the adjacent Sisters of Zion convent. An imposing olive press, complete with crushing stone and palm Ekel olive baskets, is situated in the centre of the large room where we were gathered. Today, the Wine Press offers various activities for the promotion of understanding between people of different religions as well as cultural events. The PHOENIX Ensemble performed “Mozart: The Church Sonatas” there on January 13th, 2011. Those performing were Yasuko Hirata and Dafna Ravid (Baroque violins), PHOENIX founder and musical director Dr. Myrna Herzog (Baroque ‘cello) and Yizhar Karshon (organ).

Instrumental music was a part of 18th century church services. W.A.Mozart (1756-1791) composed the seventeen “Church Sonatas”, also referred to as “Epistle Sonatas” or “Organ Sonatas”, to be played between the Gloria and the Credo of Solemn Mass at Salzburg Cathedral, where Mozart took up the appointment of Concertmaster in 1772. The Church Sonatas were composed between 1772 and 1780.

Formally, they are all single-movement sonata-allegro movements with an abbreviated development section and all in major keys. Most of the church sonatas are scored for two violins and bass (organo e basso) with three of the later sonatas scored for larger ensembles, including oboes, horns, trumpet and timpani. The number of instruments playing each part was not specified by Mozart. Herzog chose to have one player on each part in the manner of the Italian sonata da chiesa. The continuo style of the bass suggests it would have been played on one of the smaller organs in the cathedral; some of the organ parts are notated as figured bass, whereas others are written out in full. Karshon played the pieces on a positif organ built by Israeli organ builder Gideon Shamir; its timbre was more than pleasing!

Certainly not sacred music in character, the Church Sonatas are truly joyful pieces for both players and audience. The PHOENIX players’ sense of color, fine balance and collaboration brought out the beauty of these chamber music jewels, their sound full and sensuous, the acoustic of The Wine Press, with its vaulted ceiling, welcoming and gracious. Yasuka and Ravid were each heard in the role of first violin.

The organ takes on a progressively greater role as the series progresses. Church Sonata no.15 in C major K.336 features delightful obbligato organ solos; Karshon wrote his own cadenza sparkling with originality and motifs from the piece.

In 1783, after Mozart had left Salzburg for Vienna, Archbishop Hieronymus of Salzburg decreed that the Church Sonatas be replaced by vocal Gradualia, with new works taking the place of the Church Sonatas.

Although Mozart had referred to the organ as “the king of instruments”, The Church Sonatas and his pieces for mechanical organ are the sum total of the composer’s organ works. The Andante for mechanical organ in F major K.616, one of three composed by Mozart in the final year of his life, was requested by Count Joseph Deym von Strzitez, an eccentric Viennese aristocrat who owned several curious mechanical organs that were powered by clockwork. Karshon’s performance of this little piece evoked the timbre and character of a mechanical organ; using tactical pauses before forging into a new section, he played it with aplomb and the wink of an eye.

Another interesting item was a piece from eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus’ “London Sketchbook” (1764-1765). The Mozart family took a three-year tour of Western Europe from 1763 to 1766, finally traveling to London from Calais. During their sojourn in London, Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl gave a number of concerts, some at Buckingham Palace for George III and his wife Charlotte; there they met some of the best-known composers of the time there, including Johann Christian Bach. Then Wolfgang’s father Leopold became very ill and the family relocated to Chelsea. There, the children were forbidden to play music as the house was to be kept quiet. Mozart filled his sketchbook with pieces - beginning with miniature keyboard pieces and moving to more ambitious works, already paving the way to sonatas and symphonies. It was there that Mozart composed his first two symphonies. The developing, imaginative potential of young Mozart’s mind and his background in the works of J.S.Bach are heard in the pieces here. Although the sketches leave the work of filling out to the player, the child’s melodic and harmonic invention are present as in this “Allegro non tanto” (Gigue) KV15z that Yizhar Karshon performed.

Myrna Herzog is an artist with many ideas for creative programming. With “Mozart: The Church Sonatas” she, once again, brings seldom-performed works to the concert platform. The audience enjoyed these early Mozart works and, no less, the PHOENIX Ensemble’s high quality performance of them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

English music of the 16th- and 17th centuries at a concert at Yad Hashmona

On a crisp, sun-drenched winter’s day, the village of Yad Hashmona, tranquilly perched on one of the Jerusalem Hills, beckons one to forget the pressures of today’s world, to feast one’s eyes on the pastoral surroundings, breathe in the pristine air and enjoy a noon concert. It was January 7th 2011 and we were assembled in one of the small halls to hear a concert of English music of the 16th- and 17th centuries “From Dowland to Purcell”. Those performing were viola da gamba player Roberto Gini (Italy), soprano Ayala Sicron, Drora Bruck (recorders) and Bari Moscovich (lute and theorbo).

The artists embarked on their presentation of love in English poetry and music, or, rather, of its entanglements and problems, with poet, composer and physician Thomas Campion’s (1567-1620) “Harke all you ladies that do sleep” scored for voice, bass viol and lute. The song, from “A Booke of Ayres” (1601), was written in collaboration with Philip Rosseter, a lutenist at the court of King James. Ayala Sicron’s vocal timbre is clear and bright, as is her diction and her British accent is well attuned to the content of the songs. In Robert Jones (c.1577-1617) “Farewell, dear love”, from the “First Booke of Songes or Ayres” (1600) Sicron sings the laments of disappointed love. In a letter to Queen Anne, to whom Tobias Hume (c.1569-1645) had dedicated his collection “Captain Hume’s Poeticall Musicke” (1607), the composer refers to his current unfortunate situation, stating that his “Fortune is out of tune”. Sicron and Gini, in a powerful and vehement reading of Hume’s “What greater grief”, communicate the melancholy and grief of the song.

John Dowland’s (1563-1626) “Can she excuse my wrongs” from his “First Booke of Songes” (1597) tells of a courtier’s disappointment at being denied his lady’s favors. Based on dance rhythms, like so many of Dowland’s songs, this is a galliard. Moscovich and Sicron coordinate elegantly in the alternating 3/4 and 6/8 rhythms, with the minor/major shifts symbolic of the ambivalent situation described.

Robert Johnson (c.1580-1634), lutenist to James I and, later, to Charles I, was the only composer to have written music for Shakespeare’s plays. “Have You Seen but a White Lily Grow?” (1616), a positive love-song for a change, was composed for Ben Jonson’s play “The Devil is an Ass” and expresses the infatuation of a man for his true love in daring and sensuously lush language that is rich in nature imagery. Actually a lute song, it was performed by Sicron, Moscovich and Gini. Sicron’s performance of it, graced with ornamental melismas, was rich in shape yet always vocally controlled.

The Restoration “mad song” is a genre arising from a morbid interest in madness on the part of English poets, playwrights and the nobility. The “mad song” is a miniature theatrical piece constructed of short sections of arioso punctuated by recitative, its erratic, Italienate form representing the instability and mood shifts of a woman become deranged through lovesick grief. Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) “Bess of Bedlam”, from his fourth volume of “Choice Ayres and Songs to Sing to the Theorbo-lute or Bass-viol” (1683), one of the finest examples of the mad song, combines an existing melody – “Gray’s Inne Masque” – with elements of “Tom of Bedlam”, a popular ballad. (“Bedlam”, meaning chaos, actually a medieval variant of “Bethlehem”, was the name of London’s public mental asylum. For the price of one penny, a person could tour the corridors of the hospital. Tipping the warden enabled the more curious to interact with the inmates. The hospital still exists today.) Sicron’s presentation of the piece was detailed, theatrical and convincing. Her connection with the text never wavers as she skillfully moves focus from observer to subject, her depiction of Bess’s delusions convincing and colorful. For Bess, the hospital grounds have become an idyllic country setting, complete with gods and fairies. Having come to grieve her departed lover, Bess hopes to die there as well, with the animals of the enchanted wood providing her eulogy. Bess’s hallucinations sometimes give way to more lucid memories and thoughts, as when she advises women to beware of men; her wisdom, therefore, is finally likened to that “of a king”.

‘From silent shades and Elysian groves
Where sad departed spirits mourn their loves
From crystal streams and from that country where
Jove crowns the fields with flowers all the year,
Poor senseless Bess, cloth’d in her rags and folly,
Is come to cure her lovesick melancholy……

Did you not see my love as he pass’d by you?
His two flaming eyes, if he comes nigh you,
They will scorch up your hearts: Ladies, beware ye,
Lest he should dart a glance that may ensnare ye!.....

Cold and hungry am I grown.
Ambrosia will I feed upon,
Drink nectar still and sing.
Who is content,
Does all sorrow prevent?
And Bess in her straw,
Whilst free from the law,
In her thoughts is as great, great as a king.’

The final song in the program was Purcell’s “The Plaint” from Act 5 of “The Fairy Queen” (1692). Often heard with oboe, the score actually calls for violin obbligato. We heard it performed with recorder; Bruck’s playing of it worked especially well with Sicron’s delightful performance in which key words bring out the tragic (or pseudo-tragic) character of the piece, the small “comments” from the recorder adding charm. All the vocal pieces we heard were enhanced by sensitive, detailed and attentive playing on the part of the instrumentalists.

Certain melodies were prevalent in Europe and England. The concert featured several instrumental pieces, some connected melodically to the songs on the program. Dutch composer and nobleman Jacob van Eyck (c.1590-1657), blind from birth, was an organist, carilloneur (carillons are bells played by means of a keyboard) and an expert in bell-casting and bell-tuning. He was also a virtuoso recorder player and improviser; his volume “Der Fluyten Lust-hof” (The Flute’s Garden of Delights) contains 144 sets of variations, the themes taken from folk songs and dances, sacred works, Calvinist psalms and art songs known and performed in England and Europe at that time. The largest collection for a solo wind instrument, “Der Fluyten Lust-hof’s” interest lies in its use of variation techniques of the late Renaissance and early Baroque and in the fact that improvisation and composition can exist together. Drora Bruck played three sets of Van Eyck’s variations on soprano recorder: “O slaep, o zoete slaep” (O sleep, o sweet sleep), sharing the melody of Robert Jones’ “Farewell, dear love”, “Excusemoy”, sharing that of John Dowland’s “Can she excuse my wrongs” and “Come again”, also on a Dowland song of the same name. Bruck’s articulate reading of the pieces, however virtuosic, does not ignore their original use as simple and modest entertainment (for the people strolling in the Jankerkhof, where Van Eyck sat and played them); she shows the freedom, ambiguity and flexibility of Van Eyck’s compositional approach.

Bari Moscovich’s melodic yet spontaneous-sounding performance of Dowland’s “Prelude for Lute” was at times reflective, at others, rife with ornamental passagework.

Roberto Gini’s playing of Tobias Hume’s “Captaine Humes Pavan” (1605) was ornamented, wistful and soul-searching in its careful pacing, his varied bow strokes bringing out the music’s dignified character. “Beccus an Hungarian Lord his delight” is a descriptive piece, a picture of a certain Hungarian aristocrat seen through the eyes of Hume.

Henry Butler was known best as a virtuoso viol player in the chordal style of viol playing that developed in Jacobean England; thirteen or so sets of divisions make up the majority of his oeuvre. Moscovich, playing the harmonic scheme, joined Gini to perform a set of “Divisions for the Bass Viol upon a Ground” by Butler. Despite interesting figurations and the increasingly complex and ornate quality of the variations, the artists spell out the music in melodic shapes and beautiful phrasing.

Leaving art music and the woes of love behind, the ensemble performed a merry, carefree quodlibet of old English country dances, the first being “The Woods so Wilde”, from John Playford’s (1623-c.1686) “The English Dancing Master”.

English music of the 16th- and 17th centuries boasts much repertoire in many genres and styles. Hearing some of the less performed pieces in this concert was most pleasurable; in the hands of this first class ensemble, it was a treat.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Viola da gamba player Roberto Gini in a solo recital at the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Jerusalem

The hall of the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) was plunged into darkness. Roberto Gini, viola da gamba in hand, entered the stage, sat down and lit an old-fashioned standing lamp, shedding light on his music stand. Thus began “Les delices de la solitude” (The Delights of Solitude), a solo viol recital by the great Italian exponent of the instrument, Roberto Gini, on January 1st 2011. In a highly informative article written by Gini, the artist penned his thoughts on compiling such a program of works relatively little-known to the concert-going public. For music for the viol was, at least till the 18th century, “an introspective instrument that expresses itself in poetic and musical language, intimate and solitary”. Considering the problems of choosing suitable pieces for the program, Gini made it his aim to present listeners with “the soul and expressive potential of the instrument”. Roberto Gini performed the recital on a bass viola da gamba built by Pierre Bohr (Milan) in 1991 after an instrument by Michel Colichon (c.1666-1693).

The recital opened with some ricercars from “Regola Rubertina” (Venice, 1542) and from “Lettione Seconda della pratica di sonare il violone” (1543), treatises by recorder- and viol teacher Silvestro Ganassi dal Fontego, both important sources in the understanding of technical and expressive approaches to the gamba and instrumental music of the period. Gini’s playing of these pieces was subtle and richly colored, the ornate, melodic “searching out” quality of the ricercar form expressing itself in a spontaneous fashion. Spanish composer and theorist Diego Ortiz (1510-c.1570) published the first ornamentation manual for bowed instruments. Gini played Ortiz’ Fantasia terza. In the intimate space of the Eden-Tamir Music Center the listener becomes acutely aware of the shapes, moods and affects of these superbly crafted vignettes.

Scottish-born composer Tobias Hume (1569-1645), one of the most eccentric and enigmatic composers on record, was a soldier by profession. He was an amateur viol player, his “idleness addicted to Musicke”, however, clearly a virtuoso musician. His pieces treat the newly-popular gamba as an independent solo instrument, orchestrated with melody and harmony. Gini performed a group of pieces from Hume’s “Musicall Humors” (a pun on the composer’s name) (1605), written mainly in tablature, this being the first publication dedicated to the lyra viol – a style of playing that treated the instrument polyphonically, as the lute. An “outsider” in all respects, Hume wrote music that was often too abrasive in style to be played at court and too difficult to be played by amateurs. In the descriptive and tender “Captaine Humes Pavin”, Gini’s superbly paced reading of it is both singing and varied in textures, his mastery of liberty allowing time for the melodies and feelings intrinsic to the work to unfold. The pieces in this collection are peppered with memories of the soldier and mercenary’s experiences, travels and acquaintances – a dignified description of “Beccus an Hungarian Lord”, the earthy “Duke John of Polland his Galiard”, the saucy “Touch me Lightly” (Hume was a frequenter of brothels and pubs) and the hearty, carefree, rollicking “A Souldiers Galiard” (Captain Hume was known to carry the viol with him even when encamped in a field!) Gini’s imagination and daring use of textures allow him to read into the brazenly honest, witty, affecting and poignant character of these unique pieces.

Little is known about le Sieur de Sainte Colombe (c.1630-c.1700); he was a fine amateur player, was Marin Marais’ teacher. Never a court musician, he was known to have organized chamber music concerts in his private salon. He is known to have extended the viol range downwards with the addition of a seventh string, and instituted the use of silver-spun strings in France, thus allowing for greater contrast of range and timbre and a richer, more strongly anchored sound. From the time his volume of “65 Concerts a deux violes egales” was discovered in 1966 in Alfred Cortot’s music library, there has been much interest in the composer and his oeuvre. Roberto Gini performed one of Sainte-Colombe’s solo bass viol suites from the collection of some 144 pieces in the Tournus Manuscript (Burgundy). A work composed in the 17th century tradition of solo unaccompanied viol music, it is a highly intimate work, a world of sound connecting the player to his inner self. Gini remarks on how “similar the colors and movements of sound are to the colors , gestures and expressions of the paintings of Alexandre-Francois Desportes, Hyacinthe Rigaud or Jean-Marc Nattier…” Gini’s performance of the Prelude is detailed in its elegant play of voices, its detailed gestures, in its air of spontaneity and eloquence. In the Allemande, Sainte-Colombe’s use of the whole range of the instrument is evident, including the use of solid bass textures. Following the Courante, the Sarabande was expressed in a pensive, personal language, Gini spreading the musical map in front of the listener gesture by gesture. In the final richly detailed Chaconne, Gini reminds his audience of how creative and profound the process the reading such a text can be.

Taking the listener to the last era of the viola da gamba, we heard G.Ph.Telemann’s (1681-1767) Sonata a Viola di Gamba senza Cembalo in D major TWV 40:1 (1728-1729). Telemann first printed the work in his music magazine - the first of its kind in Germany – “Der getreue Music-Meister”. In its four movements, the sonata takes the listener on a whirlwind European tour. Gini plays the English-sounding Andante in poetic simplicity, his phrase endings finely chiseled. The Vivace, an Italian kind of virtuosic string piece, is followed by the German styled Recitatif, Gini’s presentation of each phrase articulate, each strategically positioned, the different voices poignant in conversation. The final Vivace is in the French gamba style, Gini’s treatment of its melodic shapes never overshadowed by technical bravura.

German-born Carl Friedrich Abel (1723-1787), composer of orchestral- and chamber music, was well-known for his lively collaboration with J.C.Bach in producing subscription concert series in London, where he spent the latter 20 years of his life. Abel was, however an expressive and technically virtuosic player of the outdated viol and was known as a master improviser (even when drunk). The Drexel Manuscript, belonging to the musical archives of painter Thomas Gainsborough, contains 29 pieces written by Abel for the viola da gamba. A product of the Classical period, the pieces do not classify as Baroque suites, neither were they written for performance in court: they are freely-composed, personal pieces for the composer to play for himself or in company at a time when much music was being played in the private homes of the wealthy middle class. Yet, as we heard in Gini’s performance of the pieces, the demands of dexterity, fingering and bowing on the part of the player hark back to those in earlier French viol works. Roberto Gini played four of Abel’s pieces, showing their delicacy, the emotion created by harmonic development, their melodiousness and embellishments. The last of the four pieces, hearty and bristling with voices and ideas, shows the viola da gamba as a truly virtuoso instrument; yet Gini manages to present its complexities in his touchingly straightforward and sincere fashion.

Roberto Gini’s program was as representative of the repertoire for solo bass viol as it was of his art and his profoundly personal connection with the instrument. The audience was deeply moved by his artistry and his humility.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Harpsichordist Gideon Meir, Baroque flautist Genevieve Blanchard and flamenco dancer Dana Arnon in an evening of Baroque music and dance in Tel Aviv

December 27th 2010 was a balmy evening in Tel Aviv. Passing people leisurely seated at pavement cafes, I made my way to The Felicja Blumenthal Music Center to attend a concert titled “Baroque and Flamenco”. Taking my seat in the auditorium, I was curious but still unsure as to how the evening would unfold. The idea for this concert had come from harpsichordist Gideon Meir, a musician fascinated by the close ties between Baroque music and dance. Meir has studied Renaissance- and Baroque dance with Carol Teton (San Francisco Conservatory of Music) and is currently studying flamenco dance with Sonia Garcia. Meir especially loves Domenico Scarlatti’s music, in which the connection between folklore and dance is very strong. (Scarlatti, an Italian, lived in Portugal for some years, moving to Spain in 1729 with his patron, where he was much influenced by Spanish guitar music and dance.) Meir opened the evening with a few words about how great the Spanish influence was in European courts, with, for example, two powerful rulers - Louis XIV of France and Austrian emperor Leopold - both having a Spanish Habsburg princess mother and a Spanish Habsburg princess as a wife. During the course of the evening, Meir was joined by Baroque flautist Genevieve Blanchard and flamenco dancer Dana Arnon.

Gideon Meir studied piano with Malka Mevorach. Harpsichordist Laurette Goldberg had heard his playing at a master class at the Jerusalem Music Centre and invited him to study with her and serve as her teaching assistant at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. At the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Meir took studies in harpsichord with Lisa Crawford. He studied the organ with David Bow and Arin Maysky. For the last twenty years Gidi has been playing solo harpsichord recitals in the USA, Argentina, Canada, Germany and Israel. He teaches private lessons in Tel Aviv.

Born in Canada, Genevieve Blanchard, a graduate of the Paris National Conservatory of Music, has studied at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Freiburg (Germany) and at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, where she specialized in Baroque flute and Baroque performance practice with Wilbert Hazelzet. For many years she served as assistant-principal flautist of the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and was a member of the Musick Masters, a Vancouver-based Baroque ensemble. In Israel she performs in Baroque concerts, directs concert series and teaches at the Israel Conservatory of Music. Blanchard was playing a replica of a flute from the Naust workshop (Paris, 1720’s) built two years ago by Israeli flute-builder Boaz Berney.

Flamenco dancer Dana Arnon spent six years in Spain studying under some of the greatest flamenco dancers – Alicia Marquez, Maria Marquez and Pilar Ortega. Since her return to Israel, she has been performing in various venues throughout the country and teaches flamenco dancing in the central region of Israel. On her return to Israel, Arnon received the 2008 Dancer of Distinction award from the Ministry of Absorption.

The concert began with Gidi Meir performing a Prelude and Sarabande from two different suites, both in A minor of J.Ph.Rameau (1683-1764). A theoretician and composer issuing in new techniques, Rameau composed music that was certainly revolutionary and more intellectual than that of his predecessor Jean-Baptiste Lully, but he used musical forms that were familiar to his public. Meir wove the fabric of the Prelude with a sense of spontaneity, ornamenting richly, moving into the exhilarating second section with a fresh, forthright sound. His playing of the Sarabande was majestic: allowing time to lead the listener through the text plan. Meir takes time for harmonic spreads, allowing the music to breathe. He was playing on a replica of a Flemish Ruckers harpsichord (c.1640) built in 1978 by Sender Fontwit (USA).

Jean Forqueray’s (1671-1745) reworking of a viola da gamba piece “La Portugaise”, bristling with carefree energy and associations of guitar dance music rife with dissonances of the Spanish regions, was performed with Meir at the harpsichord and dancer Dana Arnon. Arnon wielded and whirled a large pink, tasseled shawl to create effective shapes and movement. The shawl, called a "Manton de Manila", forms part of the Spanish traditional dress, has been used in Spanish dance for centuries, the movements and grstures with it being traditional and symbolic.

Composer, harpsichordist and organist Francois Couperin (1668-1733), referred to as “Le Grand”, one of the most important figures in the Couperin lineage, was organist to Louis XIV. He was full of enthusiasm for the newly discovered Italian instrumental style. In his “Nouveaux Concerts” (published 1724), a collection of chamber compositions for unspecified instruments, he integrates Italian and French styles (hence the alternate title “Les Gouts reunis” – merged tastes). Meir and Blanchard performed F.Couperin’s Nouveau Concert no.7 in G minor. Following the delightfully lyrical “Gravement et gracieusement” (serious and gracious) movement, the artists pace each dance, creating nuances in noble style and elegantly shaped detail. Bringing out the rich variety of styles and boundless imagination of the composer, the artists’ delicate approach reminds us that the piece is, nevertheless, the work of a French composer.

Genevieve Blanchard played J. Hotteterre’s (1674-1763) Variations on “L’autre jour ma Cloris” (The other day my Cloris), based on an anonymous 17th century melody from the composer’s “Airs et Brunettes” (c.1723) and ornamented by the composer. Hotteterre was a composer and flautist, a member of a family of wind instrument makers and performers. His “L’Art de preluder sur la flute traversiere” (The Art of Preluding on the Tansverse Flute), published in 1719, is a reliable source on the subject of ornamentation and improvisational practice of the time. A dialogue between a shepherd and shepherdess, Blanchard presents this small “air de cour” and its variations in the languishing, tender style of French flute-playing of the time in France, playing the theme in a narrative fashion, with each variation songful and unrushed, the piece’s innate simplicity never marred by the variety of ornate embellishments. A tasty morsel!

Leaving French music, we then heard three sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). The Sonata in D minor (K9) appears in the composer’s first volume of keyboard sonatas (1738). Gidi Meir’s playing of this tranquil, serene piece, punctuated with the occasionally playful motif, imbued it with a sense of well-being, his superb timing ever evident. From the same collection, Sonata in F (K6) has more of a Spanish feel about it. A more vigorous piece, its fabric is a spontaneous-sounding mix of ideas, from airy broken chords played in parallel octaves, to moments of dense chords in the left hand, to breathlessly virtuosic right hand passagework. Dana Arnon joined Meir in Sonata in F major (K107), her choreography and musicality totally attuned to the vivacious movement and phrasing of the piece, the castanets adding excitement. Both artists celebrated its folksy ebullience, its Spanish-type twirling figures and Iberian rhythms. Meir’s love of these Scarlatti miniatures brings their richness of ideas to life, their joie-de-vivre and their intense keyboard interest.

J.S.Bach’s Keyboard Partitas were published in 1731. His first published works, they were, in fact, the last keyboard works he composed. Keyboard Partita no.6 in e minor BWV 830, the last of the set of six, opens with a lengthy Toccata. Gidi Meir ‘s performance of the first part of the Toccata was free, vital and spontaneous, his presentation of the ensuing fugal section intense, articulate, precise and clear in direction. Dana Arnon joined him in the Corrente of Partita no.6, her movements reflecting the nimble dance’s motifs, her face expressive.

Following J.J.Quantz’s technical improvements of the transverse flute and his performances on it throughout Europe in the early 1720’s, J.S.Bach composed his flute and harpsichord sonatas between the 1720’s and 1741, making them a fine outlet for the instrument’s new expressive and technical qualities. In the first three (BWV 1030-1032), each written in three movements, Bach wrote out the right hand keyboard part, whereas the next three (BWV 1033-1035) are continuo sonatas in four movements. In Blanchard and Meir’s performance of the Sonata in A major for flute and harpsichord BWV 1032 (1736), the artists presented the intimate rhetoric of Bach’s phrasing; hearing it played on authentic instruments recreates the Baroque aesthetic of this noble, intimate chamber music for today’s listener. The artists’ reading of the work was poignant and balanced, the final Allegro movement, though energetic, agile and technically demanding, never showy.

Signing out with a pertinent reminder of the theme of the concert, all three artists performed an anonymous 18th century Portuguese Toccata (originally written for keyboard only) and with all the trimmings. Arnon danced the earthy, energetic piece with the percussive use of castanets, her flame-colored, multi-flounced dress as fiery as the piece itself!

Gideon Meir’s initiative, placing the conservative concertgoer’s taste for mainstream concert fare to one side, has created an evening rich in its choice of repertoire, of in-depth preparation and performance, of lively visual interest and of close collaboration among the artists. The auditorium of the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center is well suited to an evening of this kind. The result was sheer delight.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Soprano Enas Massalha and pianist Yael Kareth in a recital at the Austrian Hospice in Jerusalem

Soprano Enas Massalha and pianist Yael Kareth presented a program titled “Sing a Prayer for Me” on December 26th 2010 in the salon of the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Born in Israel, Enas Massalha, a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, was a member of the Opera Studio-Young Artist program of the Israeli Opera and has worked with the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden. She has performed with the Israel Philharmonic Opera and the Rishon LeZion Symphony Orchestra, with Il Solisti Veneti and the Capella della Pieta de’Turchini. She has performed and recorded Aharon Harlap’s “Psalms and sang with members of the IPO and with Arab musicians in Carnegie Hall (New York).

Jerusalem-born Yael Kareth studied music performance at Tel Aviv University and has been tutored by Murray Perahia in London and Israel. Moving to Berlin, she studied with Daniel Barenboim and Professor Dimitry Bashkirov. She has performed with the IPO, the Tel Aviv Soloists, the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra and other orchestras. Ms. Kareth is a keen chamber musician, has taken part in several chamber music festivals and has broadcast on Israeli radio.

Enas Massalha has spent much time thinking about the prayer theme for a concert. She speaks of prayer as a mood, as personal emotion, as a means of communicating with oneself and one’s life, as a spiritual way of connecting people from different places and of different origins and religions with each other. For this concert, her aim was to choose lesser-known repertoire, to present prayers touching different aspects of life – joy, gratitude, marriage, illness, death, etc.

Following words of welcome by Rector of the Austrian Hospice, Markus Stephan Bugnyar, the event began with Massalha reading prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic as she entered the salon. The musical program opened with “Prayer” by the Swedish pianist, teacher and composer Gunnar de Frumerie (1908-1987). This was followed by the “Quia respexit” (For He hath regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden) from J.S.Bach’s “Magnificat” (c.1731), a plangent melody in a minor key, characterized by downward leaps, the musical style chosen by Bach for the aria symbolizing the Virgin Mary’s humility. The artists’ performance of it was somewhat heavy, the texture poorer for the lack of Bach’s beautiful oboe d’amore obbligato part. Massalha’s singing of Gabriel Faure’s “En Priere” (In Prayer) (1890) was intimate, subtle and pleasingly French in its transparency of texture.

Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish” (actually the Chatzi Kaddish prayer text), composed in 1914, includes traditional Jewish prayer modes and other liturgical themes. A highly challenging work to perform, Massalha and Kareth’s reading of it was deep, prayerful and powerfully moving, its minimal accompaniment lending tension and attention to the Aramaic/Hebrew text.

Opus 8 was Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second collection of songs, all the songs of poets having been translated into Russian by Alexei Plesheyev. In “Prayer” (1893), using a text by Goethe, the last song of the set, a young girl asks forgiveness for rejecting the love of a worthy young man who later dies. Massalha brings out the dramatic aspect of the work, both artists giving shape and contour to phrases and gestures.

Johannes Brahms had referred to his three Intermezzi opus 117, late works composed in 1892, as “lullabies to my sorrows”. (His sister Elise and another close friend had died that year.) Inspiration for the pieces came from a Scottish poem from Herder’s “Volkslieder”. It serves as the preface:
‘Balou my boy, lye still and sleep,
It grieves me sore to hear thee weep’
Yael Kareth performed Johannes Brahms’ Intermezzo no.1 in E flat major of opus 117. In the outer sections, she created the typically late Brahmsian atmosphere in which the composer indulges in mellow dreaminess, introspection and melancholy. The middle section is darker and more troubled. Kareth’s playing is tasteful, controlled and understated, at no time becoming over-dramatic or sentimental.

And to the world of opera: “Porgi amor” (Grant, love, some comfort) opens the second act of W.A.Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” (1786), with Countess Almaviva in her boudoir lamenting her husband’s infidelity. Massalha is convincing in her wistful performance of the aria, evoking the countess’s despair. The “Ave Maria” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” (1887), sung by Desdemona in her final hour, is a prayer for peace from a world turned chaotic by her jealous lover, Otello. Massalha uses her rich palette of dynamics to weave despair into tension. Her creamy legato sound and fine control give the aria a lyrical quality. Kareth’s accompaniment is effective and rich, its bell-like motifs coming to the fore at the end of the aria.

Heartbreak and tragedy are swept away with Samuel Barber’s whimsical “The Monk and his Cat: Pangur, White Pangur” from “Hermit Songs” opus 29 no.8 (1953) to words of W.H.Auden. This jovial, relaxed song compares the daily lives, the eyes and the joys of the two. A charming vignette, the audience delighted in Kareth’s accompaniment in its representation of catlike movements and gestures coupled with Massalha’s humor and lively, feline depiction of the text.

Nouhad Wadi Haddad, better known as Fairouz (b. 1935), a Lebanese singer, is one of the most renowned singers of Arabic music. “Ya Maryam”, a strophic Christmas song from Fairouz’s repertoire, extols Mary’s beauty and greatness, claiming that the light she emanates is stronger than that of both the sun and the moon. Arranged with a western, harmonic accompaniment, Massalha’s singing of it is emotional and involved as she communicates with her audience, her lush low register pleasing.

We heard arrangements of three spirituals. “Sometimes I feel Like a Motherless Child”, its piano accompaniment a tastefully seasoned with blues chords, was followed by an exuberant rendering of “Ride On, King Jesus”, with Massalha sailing into her high tessitura with ease, power and fine diction. In “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand” she engaged the audience to join her in song.

The concert ended on a calm note with Hugo Wolf’s “Gebet” (Prayer) (1888) to a text of Eduard Moerike. The artists created a sense of calm intimacy, taking the listener into the realm of inner thoughts, of uncomplicated faith. The piano part, harmonized with economy, added countermelodies to support and second the supplicant’s request for “the middle way”.
‘Send what You will, my Lord,
May it be love or sorrows!
I am content that both
From Thy dear hands do pour….’

Enas Massalha and Yael Kareth presented a superb and varied evening of music rich in ideas and styles at a venue known for its many artworks and musical events, the Austrian Hospice characterized by its interest in dialogue between cultures and religions.