Sunday, December 30, 2012

PHOENIX performs French Christmas music

Ensemble PHOENIX and VOCE PHOENIX (founder and musical director - Myrna Herzog) performed an evening of French Christmas music December 28th 2012 at the Cathedral of St. George the Martyr, Jerusalem. In the thirteen years of its existence, PHOENIX has been performing the gamut of art- and traditional musical repertoire of the years 1200 to 1800 on period instruments as well as new arrangements for early instruments.  The newest addition to Ensemble PHOENIX is VOCE PHOENIX, an ensemble of up to seven singers. As well as directing PHOENIX’s many concerts and her own solo career, Brazilian-born researcher and viol player Dr. Myrna Herzog has established the playing of viols in Israel, teaching and nurturing the first generation of young Israeli viola da gamba players.

 St. George’s Cathedral is the Anglican (Episcopal) centre in Jerusalem and the Middle East and the seat of the Bishop of Jerusalem. Building began in 1891. Dedicated to the early Christian martyr St. George of Lydda, the imposing Cathedral is a whitewashed neo-Gothic edifice resembling Oxford’s New College, with its typical collegiate quadrangle, and is located a few blocks from the Damascus Gate.  It was here, in the Bishop’s residence, that the Turkish governor surrendered to British General Allenby in 1918.

The PHOENIX concert opened with Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s (1634-1704) “In Nativitatem Nostri Jesu Christi Canticum” (Song for the Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ) H.314, scored for SATB choir, soloists, keyboard, two violins, basso continuo and optional ‘cello.  Among the French Baroque’s hidden masters, Charpentier was one of the composers whose pursuit of personal prestige was hampered by Jean-Baptiste Lully’s royal monopoly on the production of opera in Paris under Louis IV. Indeed, on his return to Paris from studying with Carissimi in Italy, Charpentier found himself in the paradoxical situation of being a Frenchman using Carissimi’s Italian liturgical style in Paris, the largely secular environment of Lully, who was, himself, originally Italian!  Long forgotten and then hailed in the 20th century as a great composer, Charpentier was a master of harmonic- and melodic invention, a Catholic composer skillfully merging the morally problematic combination of beauty and devotion into a seamless whole. He was particularly drawn to writing Christmas music. The earliest of the composer’s Christmas dialogue motets, “In Navitatem” relates the angels’ annunciation to the Judean shepherds of Christ’s birth. Aiming for clarity, Herzog uses the vocal quartet – soprano Hadas Faran-Asia, alto Ella Wilhelm, tenor Eliav Lavi and bass Guy Pelc – as both ensemble- and solo singers. The instrumental ensemble consisted of Jonathan Keren and Katya Polin– Baroque violins, Adi Silberberg– recorders, Shira Ben Yehoshua– Baroque oboe, recorder, Eliav Lavi-lute, Sonia Navot-tenor viol, Myrna Herzog-bass viol, Inbar Navot-Baroque bassoon, Adiel Shmit-Baroque ‘cello and Marina Minkin-harpsichord.  The ensemble displayed fine balance, executing the dance-based pieces with lively elegance, with Herzog abandoning the viol for drum and tambourine in some sections. Coloristic- and scoring effects moved the spotlight around the ensemble as, for example, when instrumental pairs – recorders (Silberberg and Ben Yehoshua) and violins (Keren and Polin) - alternated in the “Marche”. The velvety, buoyant texture of the vocal quartet evoked French timbre and “bon goût” throughout the concert, Faran-Asia paring down her large operatic voice to suit Baroque style. Alto Ella Wilhelm’s sound, richly honeyed and unforced, has much beauty in the lower register, Lavi juggles his double role of player and singer with admirable lightness; Pelc’s fine diction as well as the mix of depth and brightness in his vocal palette are rewarding. The work concluded with some delightful, meaningful violin-playing colored with gently-colored dissonances.

Prolific composer, organist, author of many musical textbooks and publisher Michel Corrette (1707-1795) had the ill-fortune to be writing Baroque music after its time;  he was still using Baroque musical language when it was considered outdated by 1760.  From the sale of his books, he had become relatively wealthy, arousing jealousy from his contemporaries, who sometimes made sure his music received mediocre reviews. Christmas carols – “noëls” in French – were popular in France and mostly played on the organ. Corrette used many in his “Six Symphonies des Noëls”, and, looking further afield, he included noëls from countries such as Poland, Germany and America. He builds the structures from short, binary popular tunes. Colorful and programmatic as they are, it may sometimes be difficult to define why they represent music typical of one country or another, but Corrette’s range of instrumental ideas is pleasing and entertaining. We heard Symphonies nos. 2 and 4; the title of each movement provides information as to its source.  Symphonie no.2 in D major is a short work focusing on the beauty of instrumental timbres, on their contrasts and  ability to please; their unadulterated expression of joy and peace were clear in the artists’ enjoyment – in the exuberance of the first movement, in witty harpsichord (Minkin) comments (this music apparently held an element of humor at the time it was composed), in the gentle second movement and in the fine solo- and duet work in the third (Keren-violin, Polin and Silberberg-recorders).  Symphonie no.4 in d minor also presents contrasts of mood from movement to movement, these peppered with charming solos, foot-tapping dance tunes and with a measure of percussion (Herzog). Cantabile playing on Baroque oboe (Ben Yehoshua) gracing the work, with some attractive ornamenting, was a feature of the performance. Were we listening to light music of the 18th century? Perhaps; but this does not rule out its appeal, beauty and color, its bright timbres and sparkling Christmas joy.

The concert ended with Charpentier’s “Messe de minuit pour la nuit de Noël” (Christmas Midnight Mass) which dates from around 1690 and was probably composed for the great Jesuit Church of St. Louis in Paris, where the composer held the post of maître de musique. Although the use of Christmas folksongs had filtered into French church music, even into some sophisticated instrumental arrangements, Charpentier’s idea of basing a whole Mass on them was, nevertheless, enterprising. The use of music of profane origin, such as Christmas carols, together with sacred texts puts the “Messe de minuit” into the category of the “Parody Mass”. In the work, Charpentier employs eleven noëls, worked in typically Italianate counterpoint, the dancelike character of some another clear reminder of their secular origins, all these skillfully held together by originally composed material. The noëls performed by Minkin on harpsichord between the Kyrie movements would have been performed on the organ. Lilting and joyful, this is no “light” music; rather a volley of inspirational variations on traditional French carols, music that is quintessentially French Baroque in its transparency, dotted rhythms, homophonic textures and crystal clear counterpoint.  Within each movement, sections alternate between solo- and choral forces, with Charpentier’s instrumental setting being of great subtlety, his use of woodwind instruments lending both festivity to the work and preserving the spirit of the folk tunes.  The PHOENIX performance was uncluttered and clean, the instrumental mix rich and variously colored in timbres, the singers – both solo and in ensemble – blending smoothly with the instruments. There was fine teamwork. Herzog’s reading of the work encouraged suave dynamic changes, embellishments, coquettishly swayed rhythms, gentle dissonances and florid endings, offering her singers and players opportunities for personal expression. There is much to be said for one-to-a-part playing and singing: when performed well, no gesture is lost in this ideal, transparent setting. Such was the case in PHOENIX’s delightful concert. In the two vocal works, the artists were performing from hitherto unpublished scholarly editions  – the score of the Midnight Mass was prepared by Prof. David Schildkret of Arizona State University and that of “In Nativitatem” by Dr. John Powell of the University of Tulsa.

A new face on the local Baroque music scene is that of classical ‘cellist Adiel Shmit, here making his debut on the Baroque ‘cello; he carried it out with true excellence, playing with expression, sensitivity and fine intonation.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pianist Amir Katz performs Beethoven in Tel Aviv

On December 22nd 2012, the Israeli-born pianist Amir Katz held a recital to a packed hall of the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv. The recital is part of the artist’s current concert series of Beethoven sonatas he is performing all over Germany.

Born in Ramat Gan in 1973, Amir Katz began piano studies at age 11, winning prizes in national competitions only four years later. The recipient of European scholarships, he studied at the International Piano Foundation at Lake Como, there taking lessons with Leon Fleisher, Karl Ulrich Schnabel and Murray Perahia. He completed his studies in Munich with Elisso Wirssaladse and Michael Schäfer. Katz is the  prize-winner of several international competitions. Amir Katz is now living in Berlin, Germany.

Amir Katz chose to open with the Op.2 sonatas, three sonatas Beethoven dedicated to Haydn, with whom he had studied composition in the first two years of his living in Vienna. The sonatas, composed between 1793 and 1795, were premiered in 1795 at the home of Prince Carl Lichnowsky, with Haydn in attendance. They were published in 1796. Beethoven, only 25 when he composed them, was, however, already a master of the late Classical style, his writing in the four-movement form constituting evidence of his viewing the piano sonata with the same seriousness as he did his chamber- and symphonic works.

Amir Katz opened with Sonata no.1 in f minor opus 2, with playing that was fresh, intimate, muscular and flexible. Never over-pedaled, Katz goes for clean lines, allowing the musical phrase to dictate timing. In the decorative second movement – Adagio - his lightness of touch displayed presence, his careful pacing making for a sympathetic reading of the text, yet direct and free of tiresome sentimentality. Following the elegant Minuet, the Finale was both decisive and sensitive, its melodies and counter-melodies finding a fine sense of balance, the pianist’s virtuosity never only a means to itself.

Sonata no.3 in C major, opus 2, is a moodier piece. Katz deals well with the opening movement’s rapid changes of temperament, his masterful pianistic touch collecting the composer’s flow of ideas into an integrated whole. In the second movement, Katz draws our attention to Beethoven’s references to the first movement. Then, following wistfully magical moments, we are suddenly a witness to Beethoven’s tortured soul in the form of angry outbursts, all these gestures, with their myriad of fine details, once again, woven into one well-controlled whole. Katz presents us with Beethoven’s soul, with his vulnerability. The agile, light Scherzo provided dramatic relief, another angry contrast raising its head in the Trio, all followed by the energetic rondo of the Finale.

In Sonata no.2 in A major, opus 2, Katz challenges his listener to follow him in beautifully crafted playing through the complex-, quirky- and often intense musical maze of the opening movement. His playing of the Largo creates a sense of well-being, to be punctuated by a disturbing, forceful outburst, the end of the movement then crafted with great sensibility. Following Katz’ playing of the Scherzo’s light, charming gestures, tempered by the occasional dark, Beethovenian cloud, we find ourselves in the final Rondo, with the artist’s gracious, spider-web fine lines propelled by lithe, easeful passagework. Once again, however, Beethoven launches headfirst into an intense, disturbing moment before allowing the work to end tranquilly.

Twelve years and many important works later, Beethoven, now almost deaf, wrote his Piano Sonata no.23 in f minor opus 57, “Appassionata”. Written in the summer of 1804 in Baden, where the composer was holidaying following at the advice of his doctor, it was this sonata Beethoven was said to have liked best. Published in 1807, the name “Appassionata” was added by the publisher. When someone asked Beethoven to explain the meaning of this sonata, he is said to have retorted: “Read Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’”… Dedicating the work to Count Franz von Brunswick, Beethoven was actually in love with the count’s two sisters; this may possibly account partially for the work’s raging moods and duality. How does Amir Katz approach this epic work, a work we have heard performed by so many pianists, its score, however, divulging few clues as to exactly how Beethoven would have played it? For Katz, timing is everything. In his hands, the sonata’s capriciousness swings from veiled, mysterious passages to full-on, unbridled drama, from dark introversion to weightlessness and from magically, lyrical meditative moments on to the torrential finale. At no time does Katz, in his virtuosity, spontaneity and freshness of sound, overstep the boundary of good taste; at no time is his playing marred by opaque density, excessiveness, affected mannerisms or egoism. His playing rides high on articulacy. Taking a step back, Katz presents his audience with Beethoven the composer and the experimenter, Beethoven the human being and with intelligent enquiry into the intriguing potential of the musical text itself. 

Amir Katz played two encores – Franz Liszt’s devilish Mephisto Waltz no.1, then a nostalgic, touching performance of Chopin’s Waltz opus 64, no.2.         

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Elam Rotem's "Joseph and His Brothers"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was more than curious to hear the orchestra and guest artists performing a newly-composed work in the style of early Baroque opera. It is rare in life to attend a musical event, leaving speechless with emotion and filled with a sense of awe at having experienced rare artistry of the highest level. Such was my feeling on having attended the Israeli premiere of Elam Rotem’s “Rapprasentatione di Giuseppe e i Suoi Fratelli” (Joseph and His Brethren) December 21st, 2012 in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre.

Israeli composer, harpsichordist and bass singer Elam Rotem is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance,  where he studied harpsichord under Dr. David Shemer; he then furthered his studies in early musical style and performance practice at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, Switzerland, and is presently researching early Italian opera in a collaboratory PhD program of the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis with the University of Würzburg (Germany). Taking the original biblical Hebrew text, Rotem has composed a work in the musical language and spirit of the very early operas written in Florence, Rome and Mantua of around 1600. Composers who inspired Rotem in this project are Cavalieri, Caccini, Peri and Monteverdi. Rotem was also guided by the pioneering Jewish composer Salomone Rossi from Mantua - the first Baroque composer to have used Hebrew texts for choral art music. In keeping with the practice of the time, Rotem also reminds us that the composer was very often one of the performers of his work.

In the Henry Crown Hall, the stage was arranged thus: to the left was the positive organ, played by JBO founder and musical director David Shemer, in the centre were chittarone-player Ori Harmelin and lirone-player Elizabeth Rumsey (Australia), and, to their right there was a separate instrumental ensemble – violinists Katya Polin (leader) and Timothée Weiss, viol players Tal Arbel and Myrna Herzog, violone player Alberto Fernández, Bari Moscovich on theorbo and Elam Rotem himself on harpsichord. As the first overture was being played, members of the prestigious male vocal quintet “Profeti della Quinta” filed onto the stage – countertenors Doron Schleifer and David Feldman, tenors Dino Lüthy (Switzerland) and Dan Dunkelblum and bass Elam Rotem. The “Profeti della Quinta” ensemble was established in Israel but is now located in Basel, where all members have undertaken early music studies. The group researches and performs hitherto neglected repertoire and has also sung much of Rossi’s music.

And so begins the story of Joseph and his brothers. In the hands of countertenor Doron Schleifer as narrator, the story and its universality spring to life before us event by event. Schleifer is a storyteller, he is theatrical, his language is clear and his mellifluous voice never fails to express a mood and interest the listener in the many nuances and twists of the story. Singing the lion’s share of the work, Schleifer’s addressing of the more emotional parts of the story became more intense, more ornamented, ever convincing. David Feldman, interacting well with Schleifer, displayed fine stage presence, delighting the audience with his expressiveness, his vocal timbre and a temperament well suited to early opera. Other members soloed and sang beautifully coordinated duets and trios, each of these hand-picked singers coloring a different aspect of the plot, each displaying individual vocal timbre. The ensemble's exciting signature sound is essentially bright, with countertenors and tenors juxtaposed to Elam Rotem's bass voice. And with every new utterance of Elam Rotem, singing the role of Joseph, the story’s dark canvas was enriched in both detail and in emotion, his voice assured and well endowed. As an ensemble, the “Profeti della Quinta” is richly colored, expressive and polished, bearing the stamp of artists whose musicality is now entwined.

Shemer, Harmelin and Rumsey mostly accompanied the singing. The ensemble at the right of the stage mostly performed instrumental pieces – overtures, courtly dances and ritornelli. Here was an opportunity to hear early instruments at their most elegant, their silvery beauty of timbre and tasteful performance presenting the above-mentioned instrumental forms to please the most discerning of listeners! Katya Polin (also playing recorder) led confidently and articulately.

Elam Rotem has created a work brilliantly convincing in 1600 Italian idiom. In his suave and subtle use of this musical language, its finely-threaded counterpoint and logistic dissonances, he has staged the story of Joseph in all its dramatic possibilities, with both vocal- and instrumental sections throwing light not just on the sequence of events but also on its changes of atmosphere and how the latter will affect us so deeply as audience. The psychology of a dramatic piece is all present. Addressing its moods, Rotem’s fine musical details also relate to the smallest nuances. The composer, for example, suddenly graces the following dream passage with triplet rhythms:
‘And Joseph said unto him: “This is the interpretation of it. The three branches are three days. Yet within three days shall Pharaoh lift up thine head and restore thee unto thy place…’ His instrumental sections threaded throughout present sophisticated entertainment as royal as that of early Baroque Italian opera, also providing dramatic relief to the enormous tensions of the story.

Kudos to Maestro David Shemer for his initiative in introducing Israeli audiences to a new work and for his sensitive work with the ensemble as a whole, drawing all the various threads together.  To those of us present, experiencing a work of such beauty, high quality and superior musicianship has been a humbling and enriching experience.

Israeli Vocal Ensemble sings Brahms' Requiem

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s first concert of the 2012-2013 “Vocal Experience” series was a performance of Brahms’ “German Requiem”. This writer attended the performance at the Tel Aviv Museum December 15th 2012. The concert was conducted by the ensemble’s musical director Yuval Benozer; soloists were soprano Hadas Faran-Asia and baritone Yair Polishook. Replacing the orchestra, we heard duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony playing a version for two pianos as arranged by August Grüters, a contemporary of Brahms.

Having considered the concept for a time, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) began work on the Requiem at age 33, completing it the following year with the exception of the fifth movement, which he added later in order to create complete balance in the work’s structure. The incomplete version was first performed in Bremen Cathedral in Easter of 1868. The complete version was heard a year later in Leipzig. Many scholars have spoken of the German Requiem as being a work in memory of the composer’s mother, who died in 1865.  By the same token, it might have been composed following the insanity and eventual death of Brahms’ great friend Robert Schumann. In any case, Brahms himself gave no indication as to whether the work was dedicated to the memory of any specific person or not. Having little to do with the Roman Catholic Mass, Brahms used the Lutheran Bible – from the Old- and New Testaments and the Apocrypha (Christian texts of uncertain authenticity). Much has been discussed (and argued) about the Brahms Requiem, with some even doubting its claim to being a Requiem. Brahms explained his omitting of both the Last Judgement and the conventional plea for mercy for the souls of the dead by insisting that the aim of the work was to comfort the living. The work is a paradigm of construction and balance, with the similar opening and closing movements enclosing the work, the lyrical fourth movement “How lovely are thy dwellings” the centerpiece, the solemnity of the first three movements balanced by the comfort of the last three, etc. Any intermission in a performance of the work would be disastrous to the effect of this structure as well as to the work’s emotional process.

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble was established by Yuval Benozer in 1993 and comprises professional singers. It has enjoyed glowing reviews, performing widely in Israel and further afield, also with other groups, with orchestras and guest conductors. The IVE performs the gamut of vocal works, from medieval repertoire through contemporary.  Its signature “sound” combines careful blending with focus on individual timbres, this fruity mix being especially well suited to the Romantic, rich coloring of Brahms’ music.

From the opening verse of the Requiem, the artists spelled out the work’s message in lush, flexible but serene tonings, with emphasis returning again and again to the words “selig” (blessed) and getröstet (comforted):
‘Blessed are they that mourn; for they shall be comforted.’ (Matthew 5:4)
Benozer produced the range of the Requiem’s moods in strong gestures and contrasts as in  the disturbingly stark  b minor funeral march of the second movement, the dramatic, powerful  of the sixth movement with its majestic fugue in which Brahms evokes a musical image of Jacob’s ladder, contrasted by the sublime, pastoral fourth movement in which brightness and goodness prevail.

Yair Polishook’s singing of the third movement brought out the profound, personal and contemplative meaning of a text that ponders the transience of human existence. Joined by the choir in the sixth movement, he did not soft-pedal on its drama and impact. Polishook’s vocal timbre has developed into a luxuriant mix of depth and brightness. His articulate reading into the text was  gripping and convincing, his German enunciation excellent.

Contrasting the third movement’s message of grief and doubt, soprano Hadas Faran-Asia’s solo of the fifth movement offered maternal consolation, her expansive voice confident, calm and dependable, her tranquil melodic line progressing slowly and with fine vocal color over the fast figurations of the pianos and delicately balanced with the choir.

Benozer’s direction of the work never lagged, his use of dynamic change never merely for the sake of color:  stronger colors, not just in dramatic moments, supported the work’s basis of belief as well as depicting Brahms’ joyful moments - a Brahmsian version of joy, where dark clouds seem never far away. Choir members were clearly well aware of the various aspects of the text and its key words; their German was clear and well pronounced. Contrapuntal sections were crisp and succinct, and there were moments where the IVE’s sound floated weightlessly through melodic lines to give expression to the Requiem’s sacred meaning and preoccupation with death.

For those audience members willing to free themselves from the timbres of Brahms’ woodwinds, horns, muted violins and percussion, the two-piano setting was more than rewarding. Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony worked hand-in-glove with Benozer and the singers, fashioning each fragile musical gesture with the utmost of sensitivity and preserving the work’s spiritual character.

The concert was a feast for the senses and to all who appreciate sacred music performed as intended.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra - all-Bach concert

Being a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra had little to do with this writer’s fascination by the JBO’s recent concert “When Bach Met Vivaldi” December 8th 2012 in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. The truth is that J.S.Bach never did meet Vivaldi, but he did study his works closely, copying them, learning his compositional techniques and making keyboard arrangements of several of Vivaldi’s violin concertos.

This was a concert of works by J.S.Bach; although it would probably not have been referred to by Bach as a “harpsichord concert” it featured the harpsichord in a big way, but not just. Four harpsichords, tail-to-tail, graced the right side of the stage, with the JBO string players seated to the left. The concert opened with Bach’s Concerto in d minor for three harpsichords, BWV 1063, the harpsichord roles played by Noam Krieger (Israel/Holland), Yizhar Karshon and David Shemer - founder and musical director of the JBO. As to the work, scholars are not sure whether the original form, presumably scored for three violins, should be attributed to Bach or to an unknown composer. It is presumed that Bach wanted to give his two eldest sons – Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel - the opportunity to join him in playing the harpsichord parts in concert before they left home. The JBO’s performance was articulate in presenting the work’s rich chromatics and intensifying processes. In the second movement – a Siciliana –interest created by violinist Dafna Ravid’s solo, Noam Schuss’s ornate violin section and ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi’s poetic playing added to the movement’s huge variety of tonalities, thus providing an unusually wide vista of sound. The third movement’s energy was highlighted by precision and articulacy, this in no way ruling out a sense of improvisational fantasy on the part of the harpsichordists.

In J.S.Bach’s Concerto in a minor for flute, violin, harpsichord and strings, BWV 1044 (c.1730), the first and third movements are transcriptions of Bach’s harpsichord Prelude and Fugue in a minor, BWV 894, with the middle movement taken from his Trio Sonata no.3 for organ, BWV 527, both reworkings showing a fair amount of freedom.  Soloists in the triple concerto were flautist Idit G. Shemer, violinist Noam Schuss and David Shemer. David Shemer’s light and playful treatment of the demanding harpsichord role was balanced and contrasted by Noam Schuss’s pleasing, compelling and musically convincing performance of the violin solo together with the glow and subtle beauty of the Baroque flute at the hands of Idit Shemer. This was followed by the Concerto in d minor for two violins BWV 1043, presumably written originally to be played by the two principal violinists of the orchestra of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, where Bach served as Kapellmeister. Soloists at the JBO concert were Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid, whose buoyant-, flexible- and exciting playing presented the work in idiomatic, violinistic terms while staying well clear of showcase acrobatics and madcap tempi. In the poignant second movement – Largo ma non tanto – they overlapped and imitated with eloquence and a measure of intensity, delighting with a touch of inégalité, their communication with each other clearly that of artists of long collaboration.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.5, BWV 1050 is scored for flute, solo violin, obbligato harpsichord and strings; the harpsichord, no longer in the supportive role of a continuo instrument, provides the unifying timbre. Possibly the first time as soloist, the harpsichordist is, indeed, a virtuoso soloist. Soloists were Idit Shemer, Dafna Ravid and Maestro David Shemer. Opening with a burst of energy, the first movement (the longest of all movements of the Brandenburg Concertos) offered well-delineated, fresh playing, Bach’s mysterious harmonic progressions coming to the fore; Ravid and Idit  Shemer provided a finely woven musical dialogue, with the harpsichord gradually taking over, spinning into a 65-bar cadenza: building up over a long pedal point, Bach opens his textbook of keyboard figurations, large leaps and what keyboard technique it might offer the player on a two-manual harpsichord. In the Affetuoso movement, David Shemer, Dafna Ravid and Idit Shemer gave expression to Bach at his most personal, the movement’s tender, intimate mood spiced with dissonances, some pleasing ornaments and varied textures.  The JBO players were light-of-foot in the Allegro (Gigue), their tempo giving a sense of well-being.

Some 20 years following Bach’s organ transcriptions of Vivaldi’s opus 3 violin concertos of 1711 “L’Estro armonico” (The Harmonic Whim), Bach returned to this collection of Vivaldi, in a faithful transcription, converting Vivaldi’s Concerto in b minor for four violins, strings and continuo opus 3/10, RV 580 into his own Concerto in a minor for four harpsichords and strings, BWV 1065. It would have been created to be played by Bach himself with his three eldest sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Gottfried Bernhard, performing to the coffee-drinking, tobacco-smoking clientele at the weekly Collegium Musicum concert at Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig. Harpsichordists Marina Minkin, Noam Krieger, Yizhar Karshon and David Shemer joined to celebrate Bach’s homage to Vivaldi – one of the greatest rule-givers of the concerto - who had served as a model and inspiration for his own development as a composer. It goes without saying that presenting this unique work in today’s concert halls never fails to make a splash! The four soloists, in constant eye (and smile) contact with each other, provided lively interaction with the string ritornelli of the outer movements. The middle movement – Largo – took the listener through a lengthy harmonic development, its heavy dotted rhythms crisply played, each harpsichord then producing a different kind of arpeggio. (Was Bach checking to see if the Zimmermann café-sitters were listening attentively?) What is so exciting about the work is that whirling storm of harpsichord timbres, so rich in auditory fibre and daringly forward-looking in its suggestion of clusters . The JBO concert’s keyboard players, however, together in coordination between solo parts, each displayed enough of a sense of freedom to create their own embellishments – trills, runs and other solistic devices – keeping the personal element and the experience of the concerto grosso.

This was a concert of highlights - certainly no mean feat. Kudos to Maestro Shemer for pulling all the threads together and for negotiating the lion's share of harpsichord solos.

Friday, December 14, 2012

La Ritirata performs in Tel Aviv

Following a workshop at the Lynn and Ted Arison Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, “La Ritirata” performed an evening of early music December 1st 2012 at the same venue. The program focused on music of Spanish composers of the late Renaissance- and early Baroque periods, as well as music written by Italian composers having some connection with Spain. “La Ritirata”, a historically informed ensemble, is based in Madrid, Spain. Founded by ‘cellist Josetxu Obregón, the ensemble takes its name from the last movement of Luigi Boccherini’s “La Musica Notturna della strade di Madrid” (Night Music of the Streets of Madrid). The group performs regularly at prestigious concert venues and festivals and has recorded for the Verso, Arsis and Columna Música labels, receiving excellent revues. Ensemble members Tamar Lalo-recorders, Daniel Zapico-theorbo and Baroque guitar and Josetxu Obregón-‘cello were joined by harpsichordist Noam Krieger (Israel/Holland).  “Hispaniae Musica – In the Service of Kings and Noblemen” was an event under the auspices of the Spanish Embassy (Tel Aviv), the Israeli Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport and the National Institute of Performing Arts and Music (Spain).

The program opened with Venetian composer and chamber musician Dario Castello’s (c.1590-1630) Sonata no.1, a work of originality, of progressive- and free style; this was well reflected in Tamar Lalo’s spontaneous, flexed playing and ornamented lines. A player of fine technique and much temperament, Israeli-born Lalo takes her cue from each gesture and phrase, moving through playful tempo changes, to color the work with novel and fresh performance.

Naples, under direct Spanish rule during the 17th- and 18th centuries,  was the seat of power to the Spanish Viceroy, cultivating a hybrid Italian-Spanish musical aesthetic. An important contributor to this trend was Andrea Falconieri (1585-1656), who served as lutenist to the royal chapel and, from 1647 till his death, as maestro di capella. He traveled much, also spending time in Spain. Each of his many instrumental works bears a dedication to a member of the Spanish nobility living in Naples at the time. "La Ritirata" performed a number of these stylized dances - among them, courantes and allemandes as well as free compositions. The ensemble’s playing reflected the many-sided current influences of the time, the improvisory character of his works, their demands for instrumental virtuosity and the new monodic style now in vogue. La Ritirata’s bold performance of the pieces was entertaining, well punctuated and whimsical, reminding us that Falconieri was a free-spirited, outgoing and colorful character over whose pieces members of the court enthused. Lalo and Zapico’s (theorbo) poignant performance of Falconieri’s “La Suave Melodia” was true magic.

Another composer in the employ of the Spanish Viceroy in Naples was Diego Ortiz (1510-c.1570), who, in addition to his status as a leading Renaissance composer, wrote the first instruction book on ornamentation for string orchestras – a valuable source of information for today's players on performance practice of the time. Tamar Lalo and Daniel Zapico performed Ortiz’ “Recercadas sobre la canción Doulce Memoire”, based on a chanson (Sweet Memory) by French Renaissance composer Pierre Regnault Sandrin. The artists presented the work’s rhythmic sparkle and subtle patterning, with its delightfully agile recorder articulations, its fragments and scales; nevertheless, the underlying languorous mood of the piece was never far away. With Ortiz the mastermind behind the concept of elaboration on madrigals – often in the form of the ricercar – the “Ricercadas sobre tenores italianos” played by the quartet, indeed, “searched out” the melodic- and harmonic implications behind the basic tenor line in a variety of colors, textures and gestures. With Lalo on soprano recorder, the quartet also performed Bartolomé de Selma y Salaverde’s (c.1580-1640) Canzona III – a kaleidoscope of sparkling, virtuosic stylistic devices placed in contrasting sections.

For several years, Gaspar Sanz (1640-1710) was organist to the Spanish Viceroy in Naples, a city whose popular dances were to eventually inspire some of his guitar works. A true highlight of the concert was Zapico’s poetic theorbo performance of Sanz’ “Españoletas”, one of Spain’s most beautiful melodies, set in variation form; Zapico's playing displayed the height of delicacy and musical shaping, producing music of the senses that thrilled the audience.

Domenico Gabrielli (1659-1690), a virtuoso ‘cellist, composed nine operas as well as instrumental- and vocal church music, but he is best remembered for having composed among the first works for solo ‘cello, freeing it from its role as an undifferentiated bass instrument. In the last two years of his life, he composed seven solo ricercari. Playing on an original Sebastian Klotz ‘cello dating from 1740, Josetxu Obregón, the artistic director of the group, performed Gabrielli’s Ricercari nos. I and V. His reading of them went far beyond the score's inclusion of multiple stopping and florid passagework, large leaps and surprise modulations. Using rubato for expressive purposes, hand in glove with his emotional signature style, he takes the listener on a musical adventure rich in sonority and colors, through the intricacies of music which utilizes from one single melodic strand to multiple layers. Another Bologna composer, Giuseppe Maria Jacchini (1667-1727) had been a violoncello student of  Domenico Gabrielli, then becoming an instrumentalist in the “capella musicale” of the San Petronio Basilica, gaining fame as a ‘cellist. His works brought prominence to the ‘cello as a solo instrument. His opus 1 consists of two ‘cello sonatas, these being the earliest original compositions for ‘cello with basso continuo accompaniment. We heard a beautifully crafted performance of Sonata per Camera opus 1 no. 8 in a minor (c.1692) played by Obregón and Zapico (on theorbo).  
In 16th- and 17th century Italy, the use of solo bass instruments was now becoming ever more popular; particularly favored, chaconnes, passacaglias, ruggieros and bergamescas were considered to be hypnotic and seductive music. Of these works, we heard Bologna-born singer and ‘cellist Giovanni Battista Vitali’s (1632-1692) “Toccata y Bergamesca per la lettera B”, one of a selection of early, refined works for ‘cello (and violin) from the prestigious Este court in Modena. Obregón and Zapico (the latter now on Baroque guitar) highlighted the variety of ideas possible in works built over an ostinato – from intensive, driving moments to poignant, fragile utterances.
Spanish composer and organist of Valencia Cathedral, Juan Bautista José Cabanilles (1644-1712), considered by some to be the greatest Spanish Baroque composer, indeed, the most prolific, has at times been referred to as the “Spanish Bach”. Harpsichordist Noam Krieger performed Cabanilles’ “Corrente Italiana”, a work displaying the composer’s penchant for contrapuntal complexity, expressive dissonances, florid ornamentation and virtuosic writing. Krieger’s articulate presentation gave the audience a glimpse into the composer’s taste for foreign elements together with tradition and novelty.

A work on the program using a theme familiar to the audience was Peter Phillips’ (1560-1628) “Amarilli di Julio Romano”, based on Caccini’s well-known love song, and, clearly part of Phillips’ oeuvre composed before he took his vows as a priest. Phillips transformed the song and its elaboration into the highly detailed and ornamented language of the keyboard, with Krieger spinning its notes into runs, trills and arpeggios throughout the piece’s intricate structure, also creating mood shifts, with the bitter-sweet Amaryllis love song  ever present.
The music of German-Italian virtuoso Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (c.1580-1651), a composer devoted to the systematic avoidance of clichés, focused on the invention of new techniques.  Within a short time, Kapsberger, writing for the newly developed theorbo, managed to create an innovative, virtuosic solo style inspired by the instrument’s possibilities. We heard Daniel Zapico in a well profiled, dynamic and truly bewitching performance of Kapsberger’s Chaconne in d minor, performed on the theorbo.  

Comprising of a number of short works mostly unfamiliar to local concert audiences, the program offered the listener a variety of pieces ranging from the elegant to the earthy, and at the hands of very fine early music specialists.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Saxophonist Joel Frahm plays with Israeli jazz artists

The stage backdrop of the Leo Model Hall in the Gerard Behar Performance Centre, Jerusalem, shows a black jazz band. The hall was a fitting venue an evening of jazz that took place there December 3rd, 2012. Guest artist American saxophonist Joel Frahm was joined by Israeli artists – saxophonist Amit Friedman, pianist Hod Moshonov, bass-player Gilad Abro and Shay Zelman on percussion.

Born in Racine Wisconsin in 1969, Joel Frahm attended the Mason Gross School for the Arts, earning B.A. in jazz performance from the Manhattan School of Music. Over the last 20 years, Frahm has been performing and recording with many legendary jazz masters and was selected in DownBeat Magazine’s Critics Poll as a Rising Star in the category of tenor saxophone.

The evening was a tribute to American jazz tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader “Sonny” Rollins. Born in 1930 in New York, Theodore Walter Rollins composed a number of compositions – among them “St. Thomas”, “Oleo”, “Doxy” and “Airegin” - that have become jazz standards.

Among the music played at the event was much based on Sonny Rollins’ pieces -  “A Blues Fantasy”, “Pent-Up House”, “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise”, “There Is no Greater Love” – and Amit Friedman’s own “Optimism” which he has dedicated to Rollins. The evening brought together musicians of the highest order, taking each item of musical raw material and fashioning it into a full-blown work in a collaboration of artistry using listening, invention and mutual respect as its basis. There was much conversation and communication between the two saxophonists, each, throughout the evening, however, playing with his own unique form of musical expression. Friedman is a sophisticated artist; he spins intricate textures using his palette of colors that boasts many influences – that of traditional jazz, rock, world music and Middle Eastern music. “Optimism” combines energy with dissonance, here, coupled with some whimsical moments. Frahm’s repertoire seems boundless: each melody promotes an avalanche of ideas and emotions, taking the audience via mellifluous sounds, a variety of timbres and rhythm games into his creative world. In “There is No Greater Love”, Frahm and his co-players create a mood of tranquility, weaving velvety, caressing lines into unabashed sentimentality.

Percussionist Shay Zelman’s playing was sensitive and tasteful, his solos dynamic and inspired. Hod Moshonov is an interesting artist; he uses his piano as a vehicle for creating interesting otherworldly, fragile timbres.  South African-born bassist Gilad Abro juxtaposes fine technical control with unleashed freedom of expression, originality and huge physical energy.

The players, totally immersed in the music yet communicative with the listener, provided the audience with artistic performance that at no point overstepped the boundaries of good taste.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Carmel Quartet in "Shall We Dance?"

The Carmel Quartet opened its 2012-2013 “Strings and More” commented concert series with “Shall We Dance?”  The concert-lectures are performed in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem, with one of the Jerusalem events given in English, to the delight of the English-speaking concert audience in the capital. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem Music Centre, November 28th 2012. Members of the quartet are violinists Rachel Ringelstein and Lia Raikhlin, violist Yoel Greenberg and 'cellist Tami Waterman. ‘Cellist Ira was standing in for Tami Waterman, who is on maternity leave.

The artists entered playing an early folk dance. We heard a brief account of early dance music, from that of the early Greeks to the status of the dance in instrumental music of the Classical period. With some historical pictures of dance on the screen, the quartet played some Renaissance dances in a convincing and stylistically pleasing manner, temporarily abandoning their extensive training in vibrato playing for the pure, straight sounds of early music. Throughout the evening, violist Yoel Greenberg, who gave the talk, helped here and there by the other artists, referred to Richard Wagner’s adoption of the Darwinist model as present in his essays of 1859 to 1861, the exact time Darwin first published the “Origin of Species”, applying it to his own understanding of the history of music. Wagner’s wish to realize his destined place in evolution might be regarded as an excuse to plug his own music, Greenberg suggested. Greenberg did liken Darwin’s discussion of the gradual disappearance of the tail on the development of man to the dance in music no longer danced, to be used as instrumental forms only. Having Givol play a few bars of an Allemande from one of Bach’s solo ‘cello suites provided enough proof that here was a dance to which one could no longer dance.  Moving to the Classical period, and to Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) String Quartet opus 20 no.2, Greenberg reminded us that this was no longer a suite, the titles of three of its movements (the third is a Minuetto) making no reference to dances forms. However, Greenberg and his colleagues demonstrated how similar to the Allemande the first movement is in rhythm and pace and that the character and rhythm of the last movement’s theme is reminiscent of the Gigue, a dance commonly concluding the Baroque suite. Greenberg then asked how and what the reasons were for moving from the suite to the string quartet. At the time Haydn wrote the opus 20 quartets (1772-1773), he was in the service of Prince Nicolaus of Esterházy. Haydn, himself the son of a wheelwright, having grown up in an Austrian village, was brought up with rustic music. However, singing in a church choir, he was also familiar with the church modes. This “dowry” of Haydn’s shows its presence in the quartet, a work also needing to answer to the demands of the prince. However, with the composer also being a shrewd businessman, he wanted these works bought and played by the rising middle classes. So the music needed to be both sophisticated and communicative. Greenberg referred to the second movement as a Capriccio – a free form of expression – and Haydn is radical in freedom of expression in this movement, allowing the ‘cello’s lament-like melody to be rudely interrupted. Greenberg mentioned Haydn and Nicolaus’ passion for puppet theatre (Haydn had composed a number of operas for puppet theatre) and suggested the middle section of the second movement would fit the bill for this genre. The Minuet follows on without a break; here, Haydn returns to his rustic origins, his Minuet no aristocratic dance with its reference to the musette – the French bagpipes – with its constant drone. The ‘cello melody of the trio of the second movement harks back to church music. By composing the fourth movement as a fugue with four themes, Haydn proves his knowledge of music history, music theory and his ability to use complex musical forms. Greenberg points out that, almost to the end, the movement is played sotto voce (very quietly), perhaps suggesting that it is a “voice from the past” and reminding the listener of the fact that early instruments have less volume. Haydn’s String Quartet opus 20 no.2, in which case, presents past and present, nature versus artifice and elements of rustic music together with those of church music.
The Carmel Quartet’s choice of this Haydn work was more than interesting. Haydn’s opus 20 quartets, sometimes referred to as the “Great Quartets”, take him into a style of more emotional intensity, more complex polyphonic textures and energy.  The Carmel Quartet players gave clean, unmannered expression to its moments of simplicity, to its naïveté but also to its severity at times, complexity, capriciousness and unpredictability. Tonal and harmonic changes were all addressed as well as the smallest fine details – such as first violinist Rachel Ringelstein’s small pauses between fragments in the second movement. The quartet certainly emphasized the unusual character of the final movement, creating a haunting soundscape.  The performance bristled with zest, color and sensitivity.

Referring to Wagner’s evolutionary theories once more, Yoel Greenberg emphasized that Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) was of a very different school of thought. Brahms, together with music historian and critic Friedrich Chrysander, violinist and conductor Joseph Joachim and music critic Eduard Hanslick, believed that traditional forms still had much to offer. The young Brahms, in fact, composed a dance suite and the fourth movement of his Symphony no.4 is a passacaglia, the latter musical form originating from an old Spanish dance form. Brahms composed and destroyed some twenty string quartets. Three have survived. Although we do not associate Brahms with dance music, his String Quartet opus 76 no.3 (1875) includes many dance rhythms, with three of the four movements having their roots in the folk idiom the composer loved. 

In the first movement – Vivace – in which Brahms looks back to Schumann, Liszt and Wagner, the composer moves from dance to dance, including a peasant dance. The second movement, in ternary form and devoid of dance associations, presents a lyrical strong melody spun over throbbing chords. Greenberg associated the middle section with the Baroque French Overture, which is characterized by dotted rhythms. The third movement – Agitato – a scherzo, in effect, might suggest the Austrian folk dance - the Ländler. The composer gives the viola the solo throughout, the other three instruments using mutes. Greenberg suggested the hushed sound might represent early instruments. The theme for the final movement’s set of eight variations is in the style of a folk song; the viola features in the first two variations, with the violin in the third and fourth. Material from the first movement finds its way into this Poco Allegro con variazione, bringing the work the full circle, the dance themes also connecting old music to the Romantic period. Reading into the score’s many layers, the players created the richness of Brahms’ chamber music textures, his intensity of expression. All four superb artists wove into the work’s fibre via their own emotions, playing with- and entertaining with the rubati of dances and folk-type melodies. With the viola figuring extensively in the work, Greenberg gave his solos color and presence, Ringelstein leading with compelling articulacy and with many charming touches. ‘Cellist Ira Givol’s sensitive playing registers and shapes each musical gesture; a guest of the Carmel Quartet, his communicative playing made for fine collaboration with the other players.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem plays Armenian and Georgian music

“Between Ararat and the Caucasus”, a concert in the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s “Peoples’ Voices” series, was dedicated to classical- and traditional Armenian music, with works of Georgian-born composers. It featured conductor Aram Gharabekian (Armenia/USA) and mezzo soprano Anna Mayilyan (Armenia). This writer attended the concert in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre November 13th 2012. The event was held in cooperation with the 13th Jerusalem International Oud Festival.

Born in 1955 to Armenian parents, Aram Gharabekian moved to the USA at a young age, graduating from the New England Conservatory with a Master’s degree in Composition, then taking graduate studies in Musical Phenomenology at Mainz University (Germany). He studied conducting in Italy, later taking up a fellowship to study Conducting and Composition with Jacob Druckman and Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Music Center, Massachusetts. His conducting appointments have taken him to Boston, Zagreb, the Ukraine and his native Armenia; however, he conducts many orchestras, touring widely. Gharabekian has commissioned several works by American- and other composers. Committed to promoting music of our time, Maestro Gharabekian is, in addition, enriching the international concert scene by exposing the fine repertoire of traditional- and classical Armenian music.

The music of Armenia is one of the world’s most beautiful, most ancient and most overlooked traditions. The medieval songs of Armenia had their roots in both the sacred music of the Armenian Church and in the ancient traditions of the Caucasus region. Some of the major medieval Armenian composers were Khorenatsi, Narekatsi and Shnorali. Many older Armenian works exist today thanks to the tireless work of Komitas.  Born Soghomon Soghomonyan, Vartapet Komitas (1869-1935), taking the name “Komitas” on his ordination as a priest, was born in Turkey to Armenian parents who were both singers. He became a composer, choir leader, singer, music ethnologist, musicologist and pedagogue. Despite the fact that his output was modest – 80 choral works and songs, arrangements of the Armenian Mass and some dances for piano – he singlehandedly laid the foundations for Armenia’s classical tradition. He was a collector and arranger of folksongs, traveling from village to village, acutely aware of all the social implications of the repertoire. His settings used sophisticated polyphony.  He was also interested to rediscover the original reading of the neumes (musical notation) used in Armenian chants of the early middle ages. Komitas studied composition in Berlin, moving to Paris, there attracting large audiences to folk song recitals and becoming a musical celebrity in Europe. He also founded expatriate Armenian choirs in Alexandria and Constantinople. Although regarded as the musical voice of Armenia, he was in friction with traditionalists of the Armenian Church. While in Turkey, on an oral history project of the Armenian community in Turkey, Komitas was among 291 prominent figures arrested and taken in trucks to be imprisoned in the mountains. Although eventually reprieved, with the help of the American ambassador, he became ill with paranoia, spending his remaining 20 years in an asylum.

The concert opened with a song from the Komitas collection “Thou Stranger”. Performing the sensuous text, we heard Anna Mayliyan’s evocative and compelling voice, a reedy, mysteriously beautiful mix of chest- and head voice, above a most minimal use of percussion. From the Komitas collection, she also performed four songs by Khorenatsi, arranged by Ruben Altunian (b.1939, Yerevan), a composer with a deep knowledge of Armenian folk music, also an accomplished performer and educator. Referring to the songs as small gems would be no exaggeration. Mayliyan’s performance of each song was different; she incorporated hand movements as well as facial- and body language to convey meaning and to create each setting. In the dancelike “Shogher Jan”, she was coquettish and gregarious:
…‘Snow is beginning to appear beneath the clouds, dear Shogher
My heart is on fire,
Dear Shogher,
Sleep escapes from my eyes,
Dear Shogher,
Move with the wind, dance with the wind
Dear Shogher,
Snow is beginning to appear beneath the clouds,
Dear Shogher.’
In bell-like tones, Mayilyan holds her audience in the palm of her hand, her voice mellifluous and stable; her presentation is intense, theatrical, fired and endearing. Music and movement become one. We are transported to Armenia, to its landscape and to the soul of the people themselves:
‘Mount Alagyaz is shrouded in clouds,
Vay le, le, le, le, le, le. Le,
Rain has soaked the ground
Ah, my dear, sweet mother…’ (Komitas/Shnorhali/Muadian)

With “Surev Em Ter” (You Are the Holy Lord), a hymn of life and death, Mayliyan’s performance became intimate and devout, the orchestral setting not over-chordal. Anna Mayilyan, a professor in the classical vocal faculty of the Komitas State Conservatory, Yerevan, performs widely, focusing much on the music of her native Armenia. 

And to Komitas’ instrumental music - “Four Armenian Miniatures”, transcribed for orchestra by Sergei Aslamazian. These small pieces, wistful and hypnotic, at times lending themselves to distant reveries, at others, tinged with a hint of aching sadness, one piece free in spirit, light-hearted and exuberant, were given a polished performance. Maestro Aram Gharabekian’s conducting is elegant, expressive and unmannered. As a conductor, his total command of the orchestra is matched by his distinctive knowledge of- and immersion in Armenian music. One observes how comfortable he is working with the Camerata.

Maestro Gharabekian requested the concert be a tribute to two great Armenian composers who had recently died – Alexander Arutiunian and Edvard Mirzoian. Armenian composer and pianist Alexander Grigoriyevich Arutiunian (1920-2012) was a professor at the Yerevan State Conservatory. His creative style is based on the musical principles of Classical and Romantic styles but also on the musical heritage of Armenia, obvious in the use he makes of Armenian folk music. His focus on “vitalism”, as the elemental principle of art, is a method of recreating the nature of folklore melodies and rhythms, together with the art of interplay. His music abounds in lyricism, nostalgia and irony. Arutiunian’s “Sinfonietta” in four movements for string orchestra, composed in 1966, is characteristic of Armenian music written in the 1960s. In the neo-Classical style, the work’ bristles with sweeping national melodies, relentless syncopated rhythms and poignant, nostalgic moments. The Finale, with the whole orchestra coming into play, is peppered with dense motor rhythms.  Gharabekian and his players brought out the work’s singing melodies, sketching in its myriad of fine detail – small solos, whimsical comments and ostinati – to present its personal aspect, intertwined with Armenian expressiveness. Fine orchestral fare, indeed!

Edvard Mirzoian (1921-2012) was born in Georgia. Composing from age eight, he was initially educated in Yerevan, furthering his art in Moscow, later to become professor of composition at the Komitas State Conservatory. In 1958, he was raised to the status of an “Honored Artist of Russia”. We heard his tone poem “Shushanik”. “Shushanik” is a century-old legend concerning the creation of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia: King Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the forest. His falcon chased a pheasant. The bird fell into water, recovered and flew away. Surprised by the miraculous healing powers of the water, Vakhtang gave orders to build a city on this sight. Mirzoian composed the lyric tableau in 1973 for the Armenian film “Chaos”, which was based on Alexander Shirvanzadze’s book of the same name. With  oriental flavor added to western, neo-classical writing, the work is meditative, its filigree-fine, melancholy, caressing sounds building to a larger orchestral canvas. Gharabekian’s moving reading of the work, colored by concertmaster Arnold Kobliansky’s soloing, made for music of the senses.

The program also included a work by Joseph Bardanashvili (b.1948, Batumi, Georgia), a composer of stage-, film-orchestral-, chamber-, choral-, vocal and piano works. Bardanashvili’s works are performed widely; he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the ACUM Prize for life Achievement (2002). In Israel since 1995, he is the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s current composer in residence. In an article published by Dr. Uri Golomb for the Israel Music Institute (2006), Golomb talks of the composer referring to himself as a “conceptual composer”, using extra-musical sources – literary and visual – for inspiration, using materials “with diverse historical, geographical and stylistic resonances”. “Migrating Birds” for string orchestra was commissioned by the Ingolstadt Georgian Chamber Orchestra (Germany) in 2010.  The work endeavors to evoke the experience of migrating – that of the players of the Ingolstadt Orchestra, of the composer himself and, indeed, the emotional upheaval involved in moving to a new country. The basis of the work also lies in Georgia’s struggle with Soviet rule and the stages its society had undergone before reaching its eventual independence. The composer uses few motifs, those being rhythmic-, melodic- and intervallic ideas and folk idiom; he also quotes melodies from Yoel Engel’s “Dybbuk”. He acieves effects by using single strands of melody, some very high, followed by pauses, by clusters with tail-end echoes, by sudden jagged utterances, glissandi, etc., the work  ending with minute birdlike sounds, all integrated to create a disturbing sense of alienation. Reaching out to the ear, the music drew the audience into its tense-, at times almost transparent, otherworldly sphere. The composer, who is also a painter, speaks of the work as demanding “inner listening to discover lost- or non-existent sounds”. Joseph Bardanashvili was present at the performance.

How inspiring it was to experience this poetic and distinctive evening of music, most of it unfamiliar to local Israeli audiences. It was a pleasure to see a greater mix of people at the Henry Crown Hall; for those members of the local Armenian community present, it was surely an especially festive event. Maestro Gharabekian’s dedication and his precise, spirited and inspiring leadership was reflected in the beauty of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s performance throughout the evening. Anna Mayilyan’s artistry and musicianship reach far beyond the musical notes.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hadassah Medical Center examines Mozart's medical file

Medical professionals took their seats in the auditorium of the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital on November 7th 2012 to attend a case history presentation, a weekly series produced by Professor Yoel Donchin. This specific clinical, historical conference was to focus on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his life, health problems and causes of death.

The conference opened with a lively, fresh and contrasted rendition of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D major for four hands KV381 (1772) performed by cardiologists Dr. Ayelet Shower and Professor Arthur Pollak. Dr. Uzi Izhar, head of the Hadassah Medical Center’s General Thoracic Surgery Unit, gave background information on the composer, starting with his birth in Salzburg in 1756. Mozart’s father, who nurtured his son’s talent throughout his childhood, had been employed as a musician to the Archbishop of Salzburg and was himself a renowned teacher. Mozart’s mother was also highly supportive and caring of the boy. From the content of his letters to her, we know she read music. Of the seven children born to them, only two survived – Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl; she was a child prodigy on the piano and harpsichord. For some three years, their father toured with them by carriage all over Europe, where the two children performed. This remunerative tour greatly improved the Mozart family’s financial situation. In England, a notice publicizing a recital the young Mozart referred to him as a “prodigy of nature”.  Wolfgang played piano and violin and had written his first work – Andante in C – at age five. He never went to school. A sketch on the screen showed the music room in the Mozart House in Salzburg.

At this point, Dr, Izhar began to describe Mozart’s illnesses from age five, beginning with recurring fevers and joint pains which temporarily prevented him from performing. In September 1765, when they were in The Hague, Nannerl became ill with a raging fever, sore throat and loss of consciousness. She was treated by Professor Thomas Schwänke, who diagnosed her as having “pox on the lungs”. Following her recovery, Wolfgang became ill with something similar. His condition deteriorated to the point that his father described him as “all skin and bones”. Within two months, the young boy had recovered and could continue performing. Altogether, Mozart’s first ten years were fraught with throat infections…probably meaning he had an abscess on his tonsils. Medications prescribed him included powders, juices and Indian tamarind water. At age 11, he came down with chicken pox and recovered. At age 16, he was ill with ephagitis. Then his mother died when he was 23. She was 58 and had suffered from chronic fever accompanied by chills, headaches, loss of consciousness, etc. At age 26, Mozart married Constanze Weber, a cousin of Carl von Weber. Wolfgang’s father was unhappy about his choice of a wife, considering his son worthy of someone of a higher social standing. Together Wolfgang and Constanze had six children, but only two reached adulthood – Karl and Franz. Karl became a pianist and composer and Franz was a clerk. Neither of the sons married or brought children into the world, thus putting an end to the Mozart line.

Mozart was described as a thin, pale, short man. Under his wig his hair was blond. He may possibly have been short-sighted. His alcohol consumption was average and he smoked a pipe. He liked pets and kept a dog and a canary. He was born with a deformity of one ear but with good hearing. At age 29, in Vienna, he premiered his Piano Concerto no.20, K466. Altogether, his late 20s in Vienna, during which time he performed and conducted his piano concertos, were Mozart’s happiest and healthiest years. His 30s were characterized by constant complaints of headaches, throat infections, toothache and stomach aches. His sister, five years older than him, was healthy. Constanze, however, was not so healthy. In addition, she and Wolfgang had financial worries. A scene we viewed from one of the Mozart films shows the ill Wolfgang taking ice baths and talking to Constanze about the family’s money problems. In May 1787, Mozart’s father died at the age of 68. In the same year, Wolfgang and Constanze lost another child. Mozart made a number of visits to Prague, completing the latest symphonies – numbers 39, 41 (Jupiter) – and two operas – “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”.

1791, Mozart’s last year, was a year of work at a frenzied pace, causing him emotional crises. In June of that year, he claimed he was in good health. In his visit to Prague in September, some two months prior to his death, he conducted the premiere of one of his most important operas - “The Magic Flute”- at this time also composing his clarinet concerto. On October 14th, in a letter written to his wife Constanze who was sojourning at the spa town of Baden, he wrote that his health was in order, in the same letter, also discussing the future of their son’s education. Only a month later, Mozart fell ill with the malady that would bring about his end. There was no medical record of this. Evidence of his final illness was written years later by Constanze’s sister, Sophie Haibel. In a letter written by Sophie to Georg Nikolaus Nissen, a Danish diplomat who penned a Mozart biography, and who was to become Constanze’s second husband in 1809, she described a chronic illness, seemingly common at the time, that manifested itself in fast developing edema of the whole body accompanied by a pungent smell, general pain, fever and, possibly, a rash. Mozart’s edema became so bad that he was finding it difficult to turn over in bed and Sophie and Constanze sewed a special night shirt to make tending to him easier. Two weeks after taking ill, Mozart’s consciousness began to ebb. Dr. Thomas Franz Closset was called in to examine him; he came by after attending a theatre performance. He bled Mozart and prescribed cold compresses for the composer’s burning forehead. Sophie writes that, shortly after that, Mozart died at home on December 5th 1791, only weeks short of his 36th birthday.  A number of years following Mozart’s death, a doctor in Vienna  - Dr. Eduard Vincent Goldhörner von Lotz - wrote that, at that time, many of the city’s inhabitants had come down with a similar fatal illness. Dr. Closett observed Mozart’s dead body and claimed it was in keeping with the illness. Having examined Mozart before his death, Dr. Closett wrote that the composer’s death had been the result of brain deposit, “deposito alla testa”. The cause of death, as announced by St. Stephan’s Church was “hitziges Frieselfieber” (miliary fever). At that time, the cause of death was not always determined by a doctor but was often decided on by the family according to an account of the person’s death. On the day following his death, Mozart was taken to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Few people were there to attend his funeral ceremony. On December 7th, he was buried in a common grave, quite an accepted practice in those days. Although his exact burial place is not known in St. Mark’s Cemetery, a monument has been erected there in the composer’s memory.

In the almost 36 years of his life, Mozart had managed to write more than 600 works, as numbered by Ludwig von Köchel. His last and uncompleted work was the Requiem K.626, a liturgical, sacred work for the dead. It was probably commissioned by one of Vienna’s well-known noblemen – Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach - a music lover, who had requested the work in memory of his late wife. Following Mozart’s death, Constanze wished to find someone to finish the incomplete Requiem. The only person willing to do this was the composer’s student Franz Süssmayr. (Not all music researchers agree on this fact.)

Pediatrician Dr. Yigal Shvil opened his talk by expressing real sorrow at the fact that the genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had left us at age 36, Dr. Shvil asking why he could he have not lived as long as J.S.Bach. There have been many theories regarding cause of death. The first is poisoning….connected to the stranger who visited Mozart constantly for a month to pay him in installments for composing the Requiem and to keep an eye on its progress. Feeling enormously pressured by the task, Mozart told Constanze that he was feeling unwell, that he was “being poisoned” and that he sensed the Requiem would be for his own death. Dr. Shvil mentioned the theory that Aqua Tofana, a substance having neither taste nor smell, used by women for cosmetic purposes, had caused Mozart’s death by poisoning. But that could not have been the case as his handwriting had remained steady. Mozart’s son Karl Thomas was also convinced his father had been poisoned due to the terrible smell emanating from Mozart before his death and, even more so, after his death. He added that, after his death, Mozart’s body did not take on rigor mortis.  Then there is the story of composer and contemporary of Mozart, Antonio Salieri, who, late in life, in a mental hospital, told Beethoven’s secretary that he had poisoned Mozart. However, closer to his own death, Salieri informed Bohemian composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles that this had not been the case at all. Dr. Shvil reminded us that Pushkin had written a play on the subject and Rimsky Korsakov, an opera, not to speak of Peter Shaffer's stage play “Amadeus”, premiered in 1979, and Milos Forman's film version of five years later. The only medical professionals in Vienna who had looked after Mozart were Dr. Thomas Franz Closett and his assistant Matthias von Sallaba, but we have no official medical account of Wofgang’s last illness. “Hitziges Frieselfieber” is not a precise medical diagnosis. And how could there be one? The stethoscope was invented by René Laennec only in 1816, and the clinical thermometer had also not existed in Mozart’s time, its accuracy only established in 1920; it then took more time again to determine the normal range of body temperature. So how could they treat Mozart? They used bleeding, cold baths and other remedies of the time. Mozart was a small man, so bleeding him must have been detrimental to his weakened state.  

What were the symptoms of the illness? His hands and feet were swollen but he did not suffer from shortness of breath. He was lucid till his death. He could not move; he suffered from vomiting and fainting. His hearing, however, had remained sensitive, so much so that he had asked that his beloved canary be removed from the room. Mozart’s was an epidemical illness, so common at the time that the doctors could predict when he would die. Could it have been syphilis, widespread in Europe at the time? This would be treated with mercury. Could Mozart have overdosed on mercury? No. He did not show symptoms of mercury poisoning. Did he perhaps suffer from his father Leopold’s complaint of severe perspiring and colitis? It seems not. Mozart complained of having the “taste of death” in his mouth; this can be caused by uremia, the result of kidney failure. Dr. Shvil then listed symptoms of several other diseases, including rheumatic fever, ruling them out one by one. But then, in 1820, at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, a student had gone to the dissection room, where there was a patient who had had tuberculosis; the student saw worm spicules in a muscle. The disease caused by this became known as “trichina spira”. This was then forgotten for some 30 years. In 1860, Friedrich Albert von Zenker, a German pathologist and physician, observed the same thing in the muscles of a German waitress from an inn who had died, realizing that others who had eaten at the very public house had also suffered the same fate. He checked the pork sausage they had eaten and found the same larvae. The course of the disease – trichinosis – was that of Mozart’s illness. 44 days before his death, Mozart had written to Constanze that he had eaten delicious pork cutlets at a public house, eating them “to your health”. It had not been to the good of his health! In 1899, there was an epidemic of it in northern Italy; by now, however, the patients could be treated and they recovered. And in 2004,  30 Thai workers in Emek Hefer, Israel, were found to be suffering from trichinosis!

For a moment of relief, a picture of a chocolate Mozart kugel appeared on the screen. Pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Irene Anteby drew the audience’s attention to the fact that the halved chocolate looked like an eye! She was to speak about Mozart’s eyes, the information for which would be taken from written accounts and from her own scrutinizing of portraits of the composer. Leopold Mozart had written to his wife that Mozart had good eyesight; Constanze also wrote that Mozart had never needed glasses. However, she also wrote that his eyes had been quite large. We then observed two paintings of the seven-year-old Mozart; Dr. Anteby found his eyes quite normal. From another portrait, painted of Mozart at age 21, some questions arise as to the white of the eye, the eyes’ slight protrusion and asymmetry, lid lag, etc. These could be symptoms of certain illnesses. Or were these signs of acute short-sightedness? Probably not. But what about thyroid problems? Hyperthyroidism was ruled out; Mozart’s hand-writing was too steady for that. In a portrait of the composer at age 27, painted by Joseph Lange, there are no signs of any systemic disease. In Doris Stock’s side on drawing of Mozart at 33, one sees a little swelling of the lower eyelid; his collar, however, hides his neck, making it impossible to see signs of thyroid problems. So Dr. Anteby’s answer to Professor Donchin is that Mozart probably suffered neither from poor eyesight nor from eye disease. One cannot rule out slight short-sightedness in one eye or a lazy eye.

Moving from eyes to ears, ear-nose-and-throat surgeon Dr. Michal Kauffman-Yechezkeli took to the platform. She opened by reminding us that Mozart had absolute hearing and more than outstanding musical aptitude. However, many people do not know that he suffered from a deformation of the left ear, causing him much grief; and he did all he could to hide this. Most of the Mozart portraits show his right side and, generally, his ears stayed tucked under his wig. In the biography written by Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, published in 1828, there is a sketch of Mozart’s left ear shown together with a sketch of a normal ear. The very rare deformation has since been termed the “Mozart ear”. Dr. Kauffman spoke of there being only been five cases recorded. The sixth case, as shown on the screen, was is that of a child seen a week ago at the Hadassah Medical Center! The phenomenon is hereditary; Mozart’s younger son suffered from the same deformation. Kauffman concluded by quoting from P.H.Gerber’s 1898 Mozart biography: “It is a peculiar irony that a person, whose inner ear has, so to speak, reached the highest level of development, has a retarded and malformed outer ear”.

Professor Donchin thanked all those who had taken part in the event. He added that Mozart’s reputation had been much harmed: the film “Amadeus” took artistic license in portraying the composer as a clown. Salieri did not write down the Requiem (as shown in the Forman film), nor did he hate Mozart. And Mozart had not been a womanizer. Professor Donchin closed the meeting with the fact that Mozart had been a composer of rare genius with an amazing musical memory and that he had been a superb improviser.

Informed, inspired and well entertained, people quickly left the auditorium to return to today’s reality.