Saturday, December 31, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

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

Naomi Faran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Soprano Cilla Grossmeyer-Abileah has died

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble performs the Zapotec Mass

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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