Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir performs works by Faure and Gounod

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, together with the Israel Chamber Orchestra, opened the 10th Jerusalem Arts Festival with a performance of Faure’s “Requiem” and Gounod’s “Messe Solonelle de Sainte Cecile” (Saint Cecilia Mass) March 29th 2011 in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert, “Vocal Liturgy with a French Aroma”, was conducted by Aharon Harlap. Soloists were soprano Enas Massalha, tenor Eitan Drori and bass-baritone Oded Reich.

Once a year, all four ensembles of the Oratorio Choir join to perform major works from the choral repertoire. Conductors of the individual choirs – Ronen Borshevsky (Oratorio Chamber Choir), Oded Shomrony (The Oratorio Singers), Noah Burstein (Bel Canto) and Flora Vinokurov (Cantabile) – work mostly on individual programs with their choirs. Maestro Ronen Borshevsky guided the singers through the lion’s share of preparation of the two large choral works for the concert, with Maestro Harlap adding the finishing touches and conducting the concert itself.

Words of welcome were spoken by Mr. Shemi Amsalem (head of the Jerusalem Municipality Arts and Culture Departments) and Mr. Yossi Heiman (General Director, Jerusalem Municipality.) They spoke of Jerusalem as an important centre of culture and of the 26 dance-, drama- and musical events of the Jerusalem Arts Festival in halls and in the open as providing a platform for local amateur performers.

Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) spoke of his best-known work, the choral-orchestral setting of the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead as “everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion” in “my Requiem, which, moreover, is dominated from beginning to end by a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest”. Composed in stages between 1887 and 1900, Faure’s “Requiem” in D minor opus 48 got off to a shaky start: following the first performance January 16th 1888 at “La Madeleine” Church in Paris, where Faure was chief organist and choirmaster, with children making up the soprano section and a boy soloist performing the “Pie Jesu” (Kind Lord Jesus), the composer was reprimanded by the vicar for presenting prayers of “dangerous novelties”. Faure, clear in his intention to stay away from the operatic “bel canto” style and “larger-than-life” statements fashionable in Paris at the time, used melodies and rhythms from Gregorian chant in a setting suggesting freedom and spontaneity. However, he is more than explicit when it comes to markings and performance instructions; Faure uses color and rich, complex harmonies to paint his soundscape rather than dramatic fortissimos (of which there are, in all, 30 bars!) Viewing death as “a happy deliverance, an aspiring towards the happiness of the hereafter, rather than as a painful passing away”, the composer omits the “Sequentia” section of the Mass text, with its apocalyptic sense of wretchedness and allusions to hell; he adds the “Pie Jesu” and “In Paradisum”, both of which speak of eternal rest. As to the verbal text, Faure had no qualms about leaving out a phrase or adding a word in order to shape the music.

From the outset of the work, Harlap and his musicians create the mysterious, introspective mood of the work, its many effective dynamic changes expressed in pastel tints. The choir was well coordinated, its choral blend pleasing, if not always transparent. The large choir moved together well, exercising restraint and good taste, gestures and phrase beginnings and endings articulate and artistically chiseled. In the “Sanctus”, the atmosphere brightens, and ethereal timbres sweep away earlier introspection, the work returning to haunting acceptance and spiritual comfort of the “In Paradisum”. Bass-baritone Oded Reich handled the “Offertoire” (Offertory – when bread and wine are brought to the altar in the Eucharist service) and the “Libera me” (Deliver me) solos expressively and with conviction, his richly-colored vocal timbre matched with musicality and poise. Soprano Enas Massalha’s singing of the pivotal “Pie Jesu” (final couplet from the “Dies Irae” text) was profound yet understated, her shaping of it taking its cues from the text itself, her vocal quality captivating. Not to be ignored is the importance of the organ part throughout, ever present in its humility and ecclesiastical association, handled competently by Tanya Schupak, whose tireless work with the choir and its members is admirable.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is appreciated by the listening public as an opera composer, but his sacred works outnumber the 13 operas from his pen. In fact, he studied theology at the Saint-Sulpice Roman Catholic Church (Paris) and spent time in the Sistine Chapel studying the works of 16th century masters; for a while he even referred to himself as “Abbe Gounod”. The challenge of composing a grand mass in honor of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was no easy one, presenting the composer with many dilemmas. After the premiering of the “Messe Solonnelle de Sainte Cecile” November 1855 (St. Cecilia’s Day) in Paris’ Sainte-Eustache Church, Saint-Saens spoke of the work as causing “a kind of shock”, that “its serene light, which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people” and that congregants were “dazzled, then charmed, then conquered”.

One of the few Romantic Masses intended specifically for the church, it is rich and lush and cushioned in an accessible, highly Romantic harmonic style. Harlap’s reading of it brings out its intimacy, joy, pomp, fine melodies and its play of instrumental and vocal color; he steers away from the sentimentality sadly present in some performances of the work. Soloists Massalha, Reich and Drori weave their vocal lines in and out of the textural fabric. In the “Sanctus”, the climax of the Mass, tenor Eitan Drori, his silvery, distinctive voice projecting with ease, contends well with the orchestra. Massalha’s soothing and prayerful performance, opening the “Benedictus”, issues in the translucent and uplifting “Osanna”, with the compassionate Agnus Dei” rondo closing the work, in which solos and choral sections alternate. The ICO supported all the way, its brass section adding vim and gloss to climactic moments.

Most members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir are amateur singers. The results of their musicality, devotion and hard work, and that of the conductors, were impressive and, indeed, pleasurable in this festive and enjoyable concert.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs J.S.Bach's "Musical Offering" at the Eden-Tamir Center, Ein Karem

In 1747, on his way to visit his daughter-in-law in Berlin (Carl Phillip Emmanuel’s wife) J.S.Bach made a stop in Potsdam at the royal place of King Frederick the Great of Prussia. (C.P.E.Bach was employed there as court harpsichordist.) Frederick, an amateur flautist and composer, invited “Old Bach” (aged 62) to play on his collection of Silbermann fortepianos, after which Bach asked the king to give him a theme on which to improvise. The subject the king had supplied Bach, that of the “Musical Offering”, hereafter referred to as the “royal theme”, was longer than usually used for a fugue subject. Unfazed, Bach responded with a complex and lengthy piece. On May 11th 1747, a Berlin newspaper reported that “Herr Bach found the theme submitted to him so exceedingly beautiful that he wishes to write out a formal fugue based upon it, to be subsequently engraved in copper”. On his return to Leipzig, Bach, with the feeling he had not yet realized the potential of the theme, developed it into a sequence of complicated contrapuntal movements – two ricercars, a trio sonata, a canonic fugue and nine canons - and, within a few months, sent the “Musical Offering”, engraved at his own expense, with a florid letter of dedication to the king in appreciation of his hospitality. Bach’s dedication was in German, but it also included the following sentence in Latin: “Regis iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resolute” (A theme and other things worked out in canon by the King’s command) an acronym for “ricercar” (precursor to the fugue) of which there are two in the work – one for three voices and one for six. There is no clear indication as to what order the pieces should assume, neither does Bach give performance- or instrumentation instructions. To further complicate matters, the canons are not written out fully in the score; they are enigmas that need to be figured out in order to be played.

Members of the PHOENIX Ensemble – Sarah Paysnick (Baroque flute), Yasuko Hirata (Baroque violin), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog - the ensemble’s founder and musical director on viola da gamba - performed J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) “Musical Offering” BWV 1079 to a full house at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Karem, Jerusalem March 19th 2011.

The concert opened with Marina Minkin playing the Ricercar a 3 on harpsichord, set out simply and nobly, if a little furtively. And then Bach begins his sophisticated, tricky games. Canon a 2, “cancrizans”, also played solo by Minkin, is a crab canon: the “royal theme” is in one voice, with another voice stating it backwards. Minkin’s life was not made easier by “Quaerendo invenietis” (Seek and ye shall find) canon a 2, a mirror canon, written as one voice in the alto clef right side up, with the other in bass clef upside down! Her fine playing did not belie the acrobatics involved in analyzing such a text. Canon a 2 “per augmentationem, contrario Motu”, played on viol and harpsichord, gently paced with some ornamentation, features rhythmic augmentation of the following voice moving in the opposite direction to the leading voice. Bach’s Latin inscription here translates as “As the notes increase, may the fortunes of the King do likewise”. Canon “perpetuus”, performed lyrically in gentle hues by all four players, is actually two canons fitted together, voices in the second half being a mirror image of those in the first. The Ricercar a 6, written at the king’s request, is the crowning piece of the collection. Herzog chooses to have it performed by all four players: unmannered and transparently articulate, all voices emerge clearly, enabling the listener to choose to which melodic line to listen at any given moment….and this is a game to be played by the listener. If vocal music represented the emotions for Bach, the ricercar (from the word to “search”) represents music of the intellect, a work that is learned and somewhat pedagogical. Herzog, Hirata, Minkin and Paysnick did an admirable job of reading and performing the pieces. Who knows if Frederick the Great understood their complexities or whether he dared penetrate the cryptic ideas of the canons; he was, after all, known to be a man of simple musical tastes.

Bach, however, did provide the king with a treat that probably felt more accessible to him – a four-movement trio sonata da chiesa, based on the fugue theme, for the King to play on flute, to be joined by C.P.E.Bach on harpsichord and possibly Franz Benda on violin. Sarah Paysnick performed the prominent flute part with elegance, her tone creamy and consistent. All four players wove melodic lines into the piece’s rich tapestry with a sense of balance that is the fine-tuning of high quality chamber musicians.

The last ten years of his life saw Bach greatly preoccupied with the technical and musical possibilities of strict fugal and canonic polyphony. Like Bach’s “Art of Fugue”, the “Musical Offering” shows the many possible ways of elaborating a single theme to produce a large, varied work composed of fugues and canons. A year ago, the PHOENIX Ensemble, under the direction of Dr. Myrna Herzog, performed Bach’s “Art of Fugue”. In Myrna Herzog’s sequence of concerts presenting her listening public with monumental works, the “Musical Offering” was in place. The Israeli concert public is privileged to hear these great works well researched and in the hands of Herzog and her group of carefully selected players.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Christoph Pregardien and Ensemble Pentaedre (Canada) with Joseph Petric perform Schubert's "Winterreise"

So much has been written and discussed about Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) D.911, the spine-chilling song cycle Schubert composed for tenor voice and piano to 24 poems of Wilhelm Muller. We have heard the “Winterreise”, sung it, read scholarly interpretations of it, analyzed it on its many fascinating levels and compared interpretations of the work; yet something about the work eludes one. Highly Romantic, yet clothed in Classical restraint, is it really a cycle and what is its message? Or is there one? I believe the enigmatic quality of the work draws listeners back to it again and again. The story of the jilted lover walking out of the town into the inclement, bleak, European winter, a landscape devoid of people (until his meeting with the hurdy-gurdy player), the man’s state of mind mirrored in nature, becomes a somewhat “static” journey. Perhaps the work is about hope or hopelessness; most would agree to say that it alludes to death. In 1827, Schubert was a torch-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral; a year later Schubert, himself, was dead. Following Byron’s death, Muller wrote the poems between 1822 and 1824; he, himself, died in 1827 at age 33, probably never having heard Schubert’s setting of his text. The “Winterreise” is Schubert’s very last work. He did, however, manage to perform the whole cycle with baritone Johann Vogl, Schubert, himself, at the piano.

Playwright Samuel Beckett, a music-lover and amateur pianist, identified with the way the song cycle unfolded, listening to it endless times, “shivering through the grim journey again”. In his final play “What Where”, he alludes to the “Winterreise”:
‘It is winter
Without journey.
Time passes.
That is all.
Make sense who may.
I switch off.’

Curiosity brought large audiences in Israel flocking to hear the chamber version of “Winterreise”, with Schubert’s piano part replaced by wind quintet and accordion, in an arrangement by Canadian oboist Normand Forget. Soloist was the German tenor Christoff Pregardien. He was joined by the superb Pentaedre Quintet (Canada)- Daniele Bourger-flute, Martin Carpentier-clarinets, Normand Porget-oboe, Mathieu Lussier-bassoon, Louis-Philippe Marsolais-horn and accordionist Joseph Petric. This writer attended the performance at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem YMCA, on March 21st, 2011. The order of songs chosen by Forget was influenced by the original order of Muller’s poems.

From the first strains of the opening song “Gute Nacht” (Good Night) the audience is drawn into a mesmerizing, lush sound world created by voice and instruments. Normand Forget paints Schubert’s piano gestures in shades of instrumental color, mixing timbres as only a master orchestrator does. Motifs and underlying messages written into the original piano score are heightened. Forget’s use of bass clarinet (Martin Carpentier) seems to evoke wistful memories, hidden in the subconscious, his delicate use of accordion (Joseph Petric) conjuring up the nostalgic and gentle as in the dream sections of “Fruhlingstraum” (Dream of Spring) , the flute (Daniele Bourget) depicting light and weightlessness, as the crow in “Die Krahe” (The Crow) soars upwards into the sky. The horn completes the picture of the mail carriage in “Die Post” (The Post) bringing hope for a letter that does not arrive. Dramatic moments are highlighted, sometimes startlingly so, but never too thickly scored to be articulate. Forget’s effective use of instrumental color is matched by economy of sound, strategic timing and sensitive dynamics.

In “Das Wirtshaus” (The Hostelry) Forget gives the accordion the soothing, gentle chordal introduction. The instrumentalists then (excepting accordion and flute) become a (vocal) choir, creating a wonderfully coordinated and dynamic choral blend of humming. Schubert’s inn is, indeed, a church, providing respite and tranquility and the idea of making this “hymn” a choral one is a stroke of brilliance on Forget’s part.

Presently a professor of the Cologne Academy of Music, Christoph Pregardien’s repertoire spans from Baroque- to contemporary music, from performing recitals, to singing with orchestras and to the opera stage. He is, however, one of today’s foremost Lied singers. His total immersion in the “Winterreise” and compelling treatment of each song ensures keeping his listeners under his spell. His warm, mellifluous voice boasts color, stability and reliability in all registers, his diction is crystal clear and he wields his theatrical sense subtly and respectfully. He takes us through the gamut of emotions of the work, his facial expression – mostly his eyes - hinting as to courage, calm, optimism, fond memories, illusion, anger and despair. In the final song “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), the accordion plays the drone evoking the stark, medieval quality of one of the eeriest moments in music. This is punctuated by “comments” on the oboe. Pregardien describes the pathetic hurdy-gurdy man with calm empathy that spirals into a sense of warm satisfaction. With this, he perhaps confirms how enigmatic the work is.

Normand Forget’s courageous “Winterreise” project is drawing audiences to concert halls to hear and “experience” this arrangement. Its strength lies in the fact that he bases it totally on Schubert’s score, thus paying homage to the picturesque richness, motifs and emotional depth of the piano part. The Pentaedre Ensemble’s excellence, attention to fine detail and good taste do justice to this fascinating project. Kudos to all the players and to accordionist Joseph Petric for his outstandingly sensitive contribution and to tenor Christoph Pregardien for a musical experience to remember!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony play a program of rhapsodies at the Felicja Blumenthal Center (Tel Aviv)

March 12th 2011 was one of those mild, idyllic sunny Tel Aviv winter’s days. The auditorium of the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center was filled to capacity with people gathered to hear a recital of the duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony. The concert was in support of the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes. Held annually for the last 20 years, and in memory of Marina Bondarenko, one of its founders and the director for ten years, the Tel-Hai workshop brings together renowned teachers with outstanding students in the inspiring environment of Sde Boker College. Yuval Admony was once a student there. Today Kanazawa and Admony are members of faculty. The concert also celebrated the release of the piano duo’s disc of “Rhapsodies for Two Pianos” (“Romeo” label) a disc presenting rhapsodies from seven countries.

In his informative and interesting program notes, Yuval Admony opens with an explanation of the term “rhapsody” – referring to it as music of a national character, based on folklore, adding that it offers the composer freedom of form, the freedom to express strong emotions and to compose in an improvisational manner.

The first work on the program was an “Armenian Rhapsody” (1950), composed by the renowned Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian (b.1920) in collaboration with fellow Armenian Arno Babadjanyian (1921-1983) and jointly performed by the composers at the time. The piece combines the influence of Russian composers of the time with aspects of Armenian music, notably, characteristic modes, embellishments and dance rhythms. Kanazawa and Admony gave life to the piece’s piano “orchestration” and moods – thoughtful, singing moments juxtaposed with virtuosic urgency in energetic dance rhythms, the latter demanding a drumming technique of thumbs. The artists set before us a “vista” rich in scenes and flavors of a culture not often experienced in the Israeli concert hall.

Not moving far afield, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1783-1873) composed his “Russian Rhapsody” at age 18 when still a student at the Moscow Conservatory. He wrote it in response to a student friend’s claim that he (Rachmaninoff) was not able to write a rhapsody. Premiered in 1891 by the composer and Josef Lhevinne, both brilliant pianists, the work is, actually, a theme and variations rather than a rhapsody, its subject a typically nostalgic Russian type of melody. Kanazawa and Admony use their vast palette of pianistic colors to bring out poignantly introspective moments, formal passages and “triumphant” sections, transcending effortlessly from one soundscape to the next. Particularly pleasing was their use of airy, light playing in contrast to thicker pianistic textures.

Composer, music critic and director of the Lyon Conservatory, Florent Schmitt (1870-1958) was one of the most interesting of the unconventional and avant-garde French composers of the first half of the 20th century, his output of 137 works embracing all genres apart from opera. (A music critic for “Le Temps”, he was known to shout out his opinions from his seat in the concert hall; Heugel, the music publisher, referred to him as an “irresponsible lunatic”.) A fine pianist himself, Schmitt’s prolific writing for the instrument is wonderfully idiomatic. His opus 53 Rhapsodies (1903-1904), each in the style of a different country, are his only works for two pianos. Kanazawa and Admony first played Schmitt’s “French Rhapsody”, rife with French chic and dreamy, Impressionistic references and sentimentality, one mood moving smoothly into the next. The duo took their cues from the text, flexing rhythms here and there.

Schmitt’s “Viennese Rhapsody” bristles with typically Viennese waltzes. Schmitt seems to be searching for them, finds many, never completing one before moving into a transitional section and finding another. The artists show their listeners through the somewhat humorous text of mannered waltzes, gently colored with dissonance, many of them charming, but, at times, allowing the dancer to be carried away in a wild, carefree fashion. Kanazawa and Admony remind us that music is fine entertainment!

George Gershwin’s (1989-1937) “Rhapsody in Blue” was conceived within three weeks. He had actually formed its ideas on his way to Boston on the train, inspired by the noises of the train ride. On returning to New York, he produced a two-piano version which was to be orchestrated by Ferde Grofe. However, it was premiered February 24th 1924 before Gershwin had had time to write out the piano part; the composer improvised the piano part at the performance. The work has been much discussed, its lack of formal structure criticized. Leonard Bernstein referred to it as “not a composition at all”, but “a string of terrific tunes stuck together with a thin paste of flower and water”. Admony and Kanazawa have made their own arrangement of the “Rhapsody in Blue”, resulting in equal division of labor rather than a concerto form. In a reading ever articulate and balanced, they present the rich, cascading collage of ideas of Gershwin’s detailed canvas. They remind us that Gershwin was a song-writer, that New York was his scene, as was the jazz around him, and they make a point of bringing out the nostalgic, sensitive, human message of the work. Their performance of it was fresh and energizing.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) wrote 19 Hungarian Rhapsodies, piano pieces (for one piano)composed 1846-1853 and 1882-1885. The concert ended with Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody no. 2 (1847). The composer dedicated the piece to Lszlo Teleki, a Hungarian writer and statesman. The artists played the Richard Kleinmichel arrangement of it for two pianos. Charming in its folk dance elements, strong eastern European colors, together with the delicacy of the timbre of plucked instruments, the latter evoked in the upper register of the piano, it deals with melody and textures, with tradition and landscapes. Liszt invites the pianist to divise his/her own cadenza. The CD includes Yuval Admony's cadenza.

Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony perform widely in Israel and overseas, record and hold master classes; they are the recipients of many prizes. Their virtuosity, however, is a means to breathing life, shape, style and color into whatever works they tackle, rather than an end in itself. Balance, good taste and strategic timing pervade their playing, offering profound enjoyment to audiences.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs J.S.Bach's Mass in B minor under Andrew Parrott

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s festive performance at the Henry Crown Auditorium, Jerusalem Theatre March 14th 2011, of J.S.Bach’s Mass in B minor was dedicated to the memory of Aharon Kidron, who had been general director of the JBO for a decade. Aharon, who passed away two weeks prior to the concert, was a source of inspiration for the musicians and for all who worked in directing the orchestra and advancing its cause.

In “The Kantor, the Kapellmeister and the Musical Scholar: Remarks on the History and Performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor” Christoff Wolff speaks of the Mass in B Minor as a kind of specimen book of Bach’s finest compositions in every kind of style, from the “stile antico” of Palestrina in the “Credo” and “Confiteor” and the expressively free writing of the “Crucifixus” and “Agnus Dei”, to the supreme counterpoint of the opening “Kyrie”, to the modern style in “galant” solos of the “Christe eleison” and “Domine Deus”. The Bach manuscript, in the Berlin State Library, is in four sections and was most likely put together by the composer at the very end of his life. It was bought in 1805 by the Zurich collector and publisher Georg Nageli, publicized by him as “the greatest musical artwork of all times and all peoples”.

In his book “The Essential Bach Choir” (2000), Andrew Parrott, one of today’s foremost Bach scholars, discusses the original performance conventions of Bach’s choral works, explaining that Bach used expert vocal quartets (or quintets) rather than large choirs to perform both choral- and solo sections. In the above-mentioned performances in Israel (also in Tel Aviv) the main quintet - sopranos Claire Meghnagi, Revital Raviv, mezzo-soprano Petra Noskaiova (Slovakia), tenor Nicholas Mulroy (UK), baritone Yair Polishook – was reinforced by a second quintet – sopranos Avigail Gurtler, Carmit Natan, alto Avital Deri, tenor David Nortman, bass-baritone Oded Reich – in certain choral movements. This performance of the Mass in B minor, the first by an Israeli ensemble on authentic instruments, boasted a resplendent line-up of players and instruments, including fine woodwinds and brass, with David Shemer, the JBO’s founder and director, playing the organ. At times, the fine details of the singers’ lines were not heard clearly enough above the orchestra, with the second quintet also placed further back. This seems to have been more of a problem (from hearsay only) in the Henry Crown Hall than in the smaller auditorium of the Enav Cultural Center in Tel Aviv. Where singers were placed across the front of the stage - as in the Sanctus and Osanna - they were more easily audible. Sopranos Claire Meghnagi and Revital Raviv, both with delightful voices, tended not to match and blend in color or strength. In “Laudamus te” (We praise you), Revital Raviv was drowned out by the orchestra..

Still, Parrott was mixing his rich and varying palette of vocal- and instrumental colors throughout, to the delight of the eager audience that occupied every seat of the Henry Crown Hall. To mention some of the highlights, the “Qui tollis peccata mundi” (Who carries the sins of the world) was haunting with the flute duo (Idit Shemer, Sarah Paysnick) soaring above. In “Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris” (Who sits at the right hand of the Father) oboist Aviad Gershoni and mezzo-soprano Petra Noskaiova collaborated in a superb and subtle blend of sounds and gestures. One of the evening’s highlights was the “Quoniam to solis sanctus” (For You alone are holy) sung by Yair Polishook, with the obbligato line played by Anneke Scott (UK) on natural horn. Scott’s alacritous and spirited playing never hints at the technical challenges and problems of intonation of that feisty valveless horn. With the flute obbligato role in the capable hands of Idit Shemer, British tenor Nicholas Mulroy performed the Benedictus (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) with compassion and humility, his warm, golden vocal timbre reaching out to move the audience. With the joyful “Osanna”, Petra Noskaiova’s devout and modest rendition of the “Agnes Dei” (Lamb of God) and the majestic “Dona nobis pacem” (Grant us peace) the work draws to a close and the audience is left deep in thought and touched by the sheer greatness and beauty of the Mass in B minor.

Not to be ignored was the fine performance of the JBO and its guest instrumentalists, led competently and sensitively by violinist Boris Begelman. Trumpeters Hans-Martin Rux (Germany), Almut Rux (Germany) and Richard Berlin added color and joy to the work. Parrott’s mammoth undertaking was received enthusiastically by Israeli audiences who opened their minds to a new approach to Bach’s choral works.

"Music in Exile" - Jewish emigre composers of the 1930's, conference, exhibition and concert

“Exiled Musicians” was the subject of a two-day international conference which took place at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem March 7th and 8th, 2011. The mission of “Music in Exile- Émigré Composers of the 1930’s” includes the research and rediscovery of hitherto unknown works and performance of some of them. The conference discussed the experiences of exiled composers, with special reference to the experiences of those in Mandate-era Palestine and the State of Israel. Short musical examples accompanied papers.

This writer attended two of the talks on March 8th. Simon Wynberg, artistic director and initiator of the project and artistic director of the ARC Ensemble of the Royal Conservatory, Canada, introduced the speakers. Professor Jehoash Hirshberg (Emeritus, Hebrew University, Jerusalem) presented a fascinating and enlightening paper on “The Trauma of Relocation: First Years in Palestine”. Paul Ben-Haim’s biographer, Hirshberg talked about the German-born composer. Born Paul Frankenburger (1897-1984) he, still a relatively unknown composer here, made his first visit to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1933 during the wave of enourmous immigration, at a time when immigrant musicians were establishing the Israeli (then, Palestinian) “school” of music. There were many German Jews among the newcomers; their cultural needs included concerts and music education for their children. We heard a recording of the poignant “Nocturno” from Ben-Haim’s 2nd Suite for piano (1936). The first work composed after his immigration, it enabled Ben-Haim to present himself as both composer and pianist. In his book on Ben-Haim, Hirshberg refers to the work as “part of a contemporary effort to synthesize eastern and western traditions.” Hirshberg spoke of immigrant musicians of that time as hovering between two poles – western music (concrete ideology) and eastern music (a “hazy dream”.) Hirshberg proceeded to talk about Ben-Haim’s long working relationship with Bracha Zefira, the noted Yemenite folklorist. We heard two songs showing the composer’s use of middle-eastern melodies. Ben-Haim arranged “My Lord is Righteous”, a traditional Persian melody learned from Zefira, also quoted in his Clarinet Quintet.

The orientalist dream saw results in Marc Lavry’s (b.Riga, 1903-1967) music. We heard “Kinneret” from Lavry’s oratorio “Song of Songs”. Hirshberg also made mention of the German-born avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe; Wolpe did much to encourage music among the settlers of kibbutzim, writing arrangements of folksongs, but his own concert music rested largely on the 12-tone model. Wolpe left Palestine in 1938.

An important milestone of the 1930’s was the establishing of the Palestine Orchestra (to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in 1936, starting with a number of experienced refugee musicians. German-born composer Erich Walter Steinberg (1891-1974) composed the first large-scale orchestral work in Palestine “The Twelve Tribes of Israel”(1938), a tonal post-Romantic piece.

Within a single decade, immigrant composers had established a vibrant music scene in Palestine, both in performance and composition.

German music critic and musicologist Dr. Albrecht Dumling’s research focuses on music banned by the Nazis, labeled by them “degenerate music”. The exhibition Dumling has put together, “Entartete Musik” (Degenerate Music), has toured over 40 cities and is now showing at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Dumling’s current research focuses on musicians and composers who fled Germany and Austria between 1933 and 1945 and who settled in Australia. At the conference, Dumling talked about Felix Werder and George Dreyfus, German refugees and leading Australian composers, both of whom eventually settled in Melbourne, Australia.

Felix Werder (b.Felix Bischofswerder, 1922, Berlin) left Germany with his family in 1933, settling in London. There he studied fine arts and architecture before being rounded up and deported to Australia on the “Dunera” in 1940. His father, Boaz Bischofswerder, a cantor, took a Bible, a tuning fork and a copy of Goethe’s “Faust” with him on the boat and conducted a small choir for the passengers. On their arrival in Australia, father and son were interned in the Hay and Tatura camps. Felix, having an excellent memory, wrote out scores of works. After leaving the Australian army, Felix moved to Melbourne, where he worked as a carpenter and music teacher. He continued to compose music, his style influenced by such composers as Schoenberg and Bartok. His was the highly expressive music of a man in exile (twice over) and he regarded Australia as a country “without music”. Scores he sent to the Australian Broadcasting Authority were returned, not to be broadcast. However, Eugene Goossens, conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra from 1947 to 1956, accepted one of Werder’s works for performance, thus encouraging him to continue composing. The Musica Viva Society also played a role in breaking the cultural isolation into which composers like Werder were thrust. In 1963, Werder was appointed music critic of the “Age”, a prominent daily newspaper. His criticism was sharp and his tongue uncurbed, but he shared much of his broad education with his readers, making reference to other arts and culture in general in his articles. In 1975, Werder was dismissed from his work at the “Age” newspaper, now feeling more in exile than ever. Never feeling totally assimilated in Australia, Werder continued to use German texts in his works. Ironically, he was, indeed, an Australian “ambassador” with his “Australia Felix” ensemble that toured Europe. (The term “Australia Felix”, a play on words in this case, was originally used by Thomas Mitchell for the lush pastures in western Victoria he explored in 1836.)

George Dreyfus (b. Germany, 1928) migrated to Australia in 1939. George bought a clarinet from money he earned from selling newspapers and was active in musical activities at Melbourne High School. He then studied the bassoon and joined the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Never having studied composition, he began writing music for a television series. His serious compositions were influenced by such composers as Stockhausen, but writing film music gave him financial security. He left the MSO to devote his time to composition. He and Werder established an organization for Australian contemporary music. Aiming to make his music accessible to- and entertain the public, Dreyfus used a motif from a commercial in a work (shocking Werder) and his music for the film “Rush” made the pop charts. His opera “The Gilt-edged Kid” was not accepted by the Australian Opera. Dreyfus’ works became progressively more autobiographical: his opera “Rathenau” (1993) was performed in Germany.

Albrecht Dumling concluded his informative and eye-opening talk by claiming that both Felix Werder and George Dreyfus had remained somewhat isolated as composers in Australia. In contrast to Werder, Dreyfus did regard himself as a “real Australian” however, eventually returning to his father’s German background for inspiration.

Drawing together the threads of the conference, members of the prestigious ARC Ensemble (Artists-in residence of the Royal Conservatory (Toronto, Canada), were joined by Israeli artists in a concert of “Internal and External Exile” at the Jerusalem Music Centre on March 8th.

The evening opened with a performance of Paul Ben-Haim’s Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, opus 31a (1941). A work blending the composer’s western musical background and his newfound interest in oriental middle-eastern music with his use of musical forms and melodic integration, the quintet opened with a clarinet melody of a Jewish mystical character. The ARC brought out the work’s intensity, its Jewish content, its moods, textures and rhythmic interest, its dancelike moments and its nostalgic, cantabile character. Clarinetist Joaquin Valdepenas’ playing was moving. Altogether, it was a compelling and profound performance.

Ben-Haim’s “Melodies from the East” (1941-1945) was one of the first works resulting from the composer’s collaboration with Bracha Zefira. Four of the five melodies are Yemenite folk melodies, one other being a Turkish Jewish melody. Ben-Haim added to them both liturgical texts and Hebrew poems by Chaim Nachman Bialik. The combination of elements used resulted in a work certainly Israeli in character, flavored with Middle Eastern temperament and exotic timbres. Mezzo-soprano Edna Prochnik took on board the folk origins of the songs, her rendering of them powerful. Her earthy use of chest voice was a little harsh at times. Pianist Revital Hachamoff’s reading of the rich piano texts (I hesitate to call them accompaniments) was exemplary in its delicacy and sensitive attention to detail and gestures.

Prochnik and Hachamoff followed the Ben-Haim songs with three Kurt Weill songs, Kurt Weill and his art having been the epitome of what all the National Socialists abhorred in the “entartete” (degenerate) composers. In “Nanna’s Lied” (1939), to a text of Brecht, a streetwalker makes sense of the hardships of her life; Prochnik combines both the tragic and the delicate in a convincing performance. “Wie lange noch” (How much Longer?) a song most pertinent to the subject at hand (its text written by fellow German émigré Walter Mehring) speaks of lost trust and betrayal. The song’s underlying meaning was surely picked up by Germans hearing it at the time. Prochnik’s German is articulate, Hachamoff’s playing indeed “orchestrated”. Together they create the theatre of life, with Weill’s bitterness and sense of fate always punctuated with a glimmer of optimism. Weill composed “Youkali” (a Havana-style tango) in 1934 as incidental music to the play “Marie Galante”. The French lyrics were added in 1946 by Roger Fernay. Youkali is a non-existent land of dreams, a place of sanctuary from Europe in turmoil. Prochnik’s nostalgic and vehement performance of it stirred the audience. Prochnik and Hachamoff work well together, delving deep into the musical- and emotional content of the songs.

Members of the ARC ended the musical evening with an impressive performance of Walter Braunfels’ (1882-1954) Quintet for Strings in F sharp minor, opus 63 (1945), this probably being its first performance in Israel. Pianist, composer and educator, Braunfels was half Jewish, converted to Catholicism and served in the First World War, remaining in Germany. However, despite these facts and his prolific composition, he suffered discrimination and artistic isolation. Late Romantic in style, the ARC’s reading of this challenging quintet set before the audience its human sincerity, its soul-searching moments, contrasted moods and its release in the form of dance music, the germ of Braunfels’ ideas growing out of the work’s opening statement.

Those attending the conference and/or concert enjoyed the advantage of reading the detailed and highly interesting booklet issued to accompany the event.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Young members of the Israel Early Music Project perform Baroque works at the Mormon University

The concert of February 27 2011 in the Sunday Evening Classics series of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies (Mormon University) presented “A Baroque Gathering”. It featured members of the Israeli Early Music Project under the direction of conductor, mandolin- and lute player Alon Sariel.

The IEMP, founded in 2006 by a group of music students from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, is dedicated to preserving historical performance of works composed before 1850 and to performing them on period instruments. The ensemble has played in Belgium, Germany and the UK and performs concerts throughout Israel, also devoting concerts to children of disadvantaged backgrounds. The IEMP won the Jerusalem Academy’s chamber music competition in both 2007 and 2008. As most members of the IEMP are presently studying in Europe, they meet in Israel two to four times each year for intensive rehearsals, subsequently to be followed by concert tours.

Jean-Fery Rebel (1666-1747), from a musical Parisian family, was a progressive composer as regards musical styles and instrumental genres and spent a long and productive career as one of Louis XIV’s favoured musicians. After his retirement from royal service, the 71-year-old composer was encouraged by Prince Carignan of Savoy to write “Les Elemens” (The Elements), a divertissement premiered in 1737, but without its opening movement “Le Cahos” (Chaos). Actually, this first movement was one of the most daring moments of music written at that time, sounding all notes of the d minor scale simultaneously, with each of the elements represented in conflict. Rebel’s full score is lost; a short score consisting of one or two treble lines, figured bass and some indications of scoring is enough to fire the musical imagination of a group such as the IEMP. Sariel and friends chose to open the concert with the suite’s Chaconne, the movement representing the element of fire.

With Alon Sariel in the role of conductor, we then heard soprano Anat Edri in two arias of Cleopatra from Act III of G.F.Handel’s (1685-1759) “Giulio Cesare” (Julius Caesar in Egypt) (1724) – “Piangere la sorte mia (I will lament my fate) and “Da tempeste il legno infranto”. Edri is in full control, yet she is adept at creating and living each change of emotion in these dramatic pieces as she sails effortlessly through melismatic passages, skillfully placing ornaments in key places. Lush, rich and sparkling, these pieces are more than demanding. Edri’s performance of “Da tempeste”, convincing in its tragic, tender and frenzied moments, was another feather in the young singer’s cap.
‘When the ship, broken by storms
Succeeds at last in making it to port,
It no longer knows what it desires.
Thus, the heart, after torments and woes,
Once it recovers its solace,
Is beside itself with bliss….’

We then heard Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Concerto “La Notte” (The Night) no. 2 from his opus 10 collection of six flute concertos published 1729-1730. In 1728, the publisher Le Cene had ordered six concertos for the flute, most of which Vivaldi was able to supply by transcribing earlier recorder concertos. ”La Notte”, the only opus 10 concerto in a minor key (G minor), is unique in a number of ways: it has six movements, two of which have descriptive titles – the second is marked “Fantasmi” (Phantoms), the fifth “Il sonno” (Sleep) - and one of his movements has no solo role. The challenges of the fourth movement probably make it the most difficult to play of opus 10. Recorder player Shir Shemesh, who also plays the medieval fiddle and is presently studying at the Schola Cantorum (Basel), soloed and led articulately, his interpretation proving that Vivaldi was not in for a night’s tranquil, uninterrupted sleep. Shemesh goes for suspense, excitement and virtuosity, his range of dynamics including tempi and rests, the nightmarish and unrelenting “Fantasmi” movement contrasted and soothed by the ethereal, cantabile Largo section, anchored to a pedal point, to which the lute’s (Alon Sariel) gentle arpeggios add sparkle, poignancy and beauty. Shemesh involves his fellow players, inviting them to be very much a part of this brilliant and daring performance.

Positioned well between two Vivaldi works, we heard G. Gabrieli’s (1554/7-1612) Canzona for Three Violins and Basso Continuo. Alon Sariel then soloed in A. Vivaldi’s Concerto for Mandolin in C major. With the ensemble well attuned to the delicacy of the mandolin, the instrument’s solo passages came through clearly and expressively, with Sariel flexing tempi in order to make a point. Sandwiched between two Allegro movements, the Largo’s scoring was even more scaled down, with harpsichord absent and string players playing pizzicato. In this minimal, fragile but crystal clear texture, the listener can enjoy Sariel’s every sensitive, filigree-fine gesture, discovering a whole world of expression within the realm of pianississimo, making for a delightful and polished performance.

The program ended with another two Handel pieces sung by Anat Edri. In Morgana’s triumphant aria “Tornami a vagheggiar” (Return to me to languish) from “Alcina”, Edri and ensemble converse and imitate, she presenting the aria in its joy, her voice blending well as part of the ensemble. In “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me weep over my cruel fate) from “Rinaldo”, Almirena, having been abducted by the sorceress Armida and imprisoned in her enchanted palace, stands in a beautiful garden lamenting her captivity. Edri delivers the aria with poise and humility.

Alon Sariel, currently studying at the Hannover Musik Hochschule, is in Israel to direct and perform a number of concerts. In the pleasant ambience of the auditorium of the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, listeners enjoyed a well-balanced program in the hands of fine young Baroque artists.