Saturday, November 26, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

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

Camille Saint-Saens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

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

Ernesto Molinari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

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

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

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

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

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