Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Enchanted Island - The Met live at the Jerusalem Cinematheque

Entering the cinema, the screen shows people taking their seats `in an opulent opera hall, talking animatedly to each other to the background of an orchestra tuning up. The large screen immediately gives the audience a sense of involvement. We were about to enjoy one of the events of an exciting new series for opera lovers - the showing of live performances from The Metropolitan Opera at the Jerusalem Cinematheque. On January 21st 2012, “The Enchanted Island”, attracting a large audience, showed simultaneously in two of the cinemas of the complex. Not your usual contemporary opera fare, “The Enchanted Island” is a mix of pieces from Baroque works of Händel, Vivaldi, Rameau and others, with a storyline based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” (itself an amalgamation of works) and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Most sung texts had been rewritten and were performed in user-friendly English. Devised and written by Jeremy Sams, produced by Phelim McDermott and conducted by William Christie (founder of “Les Arts Florissants”), the production was unique in that the singers themselves had some say in the content of this pastiche opera, the costumes, etc. Referred to as “a work in process”, changes will be in order as the production proceeds. This kind of production may be rare today but it is certainly in keeping with the Baroque concept.

The remote island in question is the setting for sorcery, for misused magic potions, confusion, mistaken identities, love, control and manipulation, where, of course most of the problems manage to get ironed out by the end of the opera. Playing Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, we heard countertenor David Daniels. Charismatic and convincing, Daniels has natural and impressive stage presence, presenting much of the dramatic plot with depth, his rich and stable vocal timbre embracing each musical gesture. Australian-born soprano Danielle de Niese, well cast as Ariel, the servant sprite – a combination of both Puck and Tinkerbell - who manages to create havoc from his muddled use of magic, was charming and vivacious in her alacrity, her voice strong and agile, her physical movements light, easeful and, indeed, spritely.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), interviewed by dramatic soprano Deborah Voigt who was hosting this live broadcast, referred to the evening’s program as "a musical world with a lot of freedom". Her all-out wicked portrayal of the mischief-making sorceress was supported by her brilliant treatment of the vocally challenging passages. As Caliban’s mother, she changed her "tone" to display empathy and compassion in face of her son’s suffering. Caliban was played by young Venezuelan-born bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni. This was his first English language role. Depicting a mix of beast and man (he needs 45 minutes to don this costume and make-up, his dashing good looks totally disguised!) his posture, gestures and singing were wholly in character with the unfortunate Caliban. His singing is fresh, flexible and exciting; no less impressive was his deep study of the many sides to Caliban’s character – a wild, borderline-type personality with a fervent wish to be accepted and to find love, showing his vulnerability, his suffering and eventual crushing disappointment at being different and alone. An artist of facial expressions, his eyes telling all, Pisaroni’s performance punctuated the humorous and fantastical opera plot to present some sobering home truths about the human soul and society.

Plácido Domingo’s depiction of Neptune, and his message of mercy and love, was noble and commanding both musically and visually; his voice remains full and compelling, as is his stage presence. Domingo spoke of having sung much Baroque opera in his earlier years and was delighted to be singing nusic of the genre one more. There is no room here to discuss all the singers. However, I wish to mention Anthony Roth Constanzo (Ferdinand), a young countertenor with a mellifluous, stable voice, understanding of Baroque performance and great musicality, who gave a superb performance.

William Christie’s musical direction produced the fine balance, nuance and the sparkle of Baroque instrumentation. “The Enchanted Island” was also a feast for the eyes: in a combination of painted Baroque scenery, the wonders to be conjured up by modern electronics and daring Baroque-style staging techniques (flying mermaids, etc.), the audience feasted its eyes on mysterious forest sets, grey island scenes, sets of calm, idyllic, azure seas and storms at sea. Costumes (Kevin Pollard) and make-up were given no less thought: the courtly clothes of the two couples who had survived the storm at sea were in delightful, shredded disarray. The production was altogether parceled up in humor: French court dances were danced by strange creatures in grotesque steps to the leering eyes of poor Caliban. Finally, with magic spells put right, the honeymooners repaired to their original state, Ferdinand grants pardon, Neptune puts Prospero in his place, and Prospero now begs forgiveness; rejoicing can now begin to see in a new day of joy, peace and love. The cinema lights come on to call us back to reality. The Metropolitan Opera’s production of “The Enchanted Island” was opera at its finest.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir in "Wake Up Sleeping Hearts"

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, conducted by Ronen Borshevsky (deputy conductor Ofer Dalal), performed “Wake Up, Sleeping Hearts” a concert of music from the 16th- to the 21st century, most of it sacred music, most of it a cappella. This writer attended a concert on January 14th 2012, at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem.

Several of the works sung were to texts from Psalms, the earliest being motet settings of Psalms 96 “Cantate Dominum” (Sing to the Lord a New Song) and 81 “Exultate Deo” (Sing Aloud to God Our Strength) of Hans Leo Hassler (c.1564-1612). The singers gave the highly polyphonic style an articulate, joyful and dynamic reading. Characteristic of Giuseppe Ottavio Pitoni’s (1657-1743) later style, his “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord) Psalm 150 was largely homophonic, its simpler harmonies and clear word rhythms dictating a well-orchestrated sound.

Danish composer Niels La Cour’s (b.1944) oeuvre includes much instrumental music, but he is best known for his choral music. The choir performed two of the three noteworthy Mottetti Latini (1982) based on Gregorian themes. In his arrangement of the 13th century monophonic chant “Hodie Christus Natus Est” (Today Christ is Born), the composer adds meter and harmony to the chant, the changing metrical structure preserving the early character of the melody. La Cour’s music is neo-Classical in approach, with harmonies evocative of those of Maurice Duruflé, evident in his setting of Psalm 117 “Laudate Dominum Omnes Gentes” (Praise the Lord, all ye Nations). György Orbán’s (b. 1947 Rumania) tranquil “Ave Maria”, using a lush, sophisticated and basically tonal harmonic and melodic musical language, was introspective. And back to Psalm texts - we heard the “Hallelujah” (Psalm 150) from Israeli composer Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927, Germany) “Mizmorei T’hilim” (Psalm Songs), a work commissioned for the 1967 Zimriyah International Choral Festival in Israel. The Oratorio Chamber Choir’s performance, bristling with energy, joy, dance-type rhythms and Avni’s uncompromising use of strongly-profiled Mediterranean modes, was carefully shaped and nuanced, the singers’ full sound never falling into the pitfall of roughness.

Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) “Cantique de Jean Racine”, composed at age 19 in his final year at the École Niedermeyer, was the composer’s first significant work. Typical of the small-scale works the composer chose for personal and intimate expression, it was originally scored for 4-voiced choir and piano or organ, its text a devout expression of a large body of Jean Racine’s poetry:
‘Word equal to the most high, our only hope, eternal day of the earth and of the heavens,
We break the silence of the quiet night.
Divine Saviour, cast your glance upon us…’
The Oratorio singers managed well with the French text (often a problem in Israeli choirs); however, the work suffered from the inadequate, somewhat lifeless timbre of the electric piano (pianist: Tania Schupak).

American composer Morten Lauridsen’s (b.1943) “Sure on this Shining Night”, one of three songs making up “Nocturnes” (2005) is slow-moving, contemplative, declamatory, mannered and basic in harmonies, the latter colored with seconds and ninths. The many exposed single melodic lines challenge each voice to give meaning and interest to what may not innately have those qualities, save the fervent treatment of specific words, such as “shining”. Lauridsen’s choice of American author and poet James Agee’s (1909-1955) mystic poem has not produced a piece that is convincing, despite the Oratorio Ensemble’s sincere approach.
‘Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand’ring far alone
Of shadows on the stars.’

The opening text of Clément Janequin’s (1485-1558) “Le Chant des Oyseaux” (Song of the Birds) – “Reveillez vous, cueurs endormis” provided the title for this concert. Composed around 1520, this chanson remains one of Janequin’s most popular (also with instrumentalists). This complex 4-voiced piece, in five clear sections, its onomatopoeic bird call effects taking sound-sense correspondence to a programmatic extreme, makes great demands on singers. In the text, the god of love awakens dormant, wintry hearts by using birds as his messengers - the thrush, the robin, the starling, the cuckoo and the nightingale. The JOCC did not disappoint in conveying this, its polished performance entertaining the audience with light textures, well-articulated phrasing, humor and well-tuned twitterings of nature’s menagerie. I was not quite sure why this piece had found its way into a program of sacred- and mystical music, apart from the fact that Janequin himself held several church positions, composing much sacred music.

Of special interest were two works of American composer and conductor Eric Whitacre (b.1970). “Lux Aurumque” (2000) is a setting of a poem by (the enigmatic poet) Edward Esch, translated into Latin by Anthony Silvestri. The work was originally performed by a “virtual choir” – 185 (previously auditioned) singers from 12 different countries videoed themselves singing parts; Whitacre synchronized them all, producing a video film of the “choir”. The work itself is spiritual and introspective, steeped in tranquil, silken loaded chords and clusters to describe the stillness and wonder of the nativity; these are the hues of Whitacre’s palette. The Oratorio Chamber members’ performance of the piece was true to the work’s sense of wonder and humility, their choral timbre clean, silvery and well blended.
Warm and heavy as pure gold,
And the angels softly
To the newborn babe.’

Whitacre joins Weelkes, Tomkins, Robert Ramsey, Gombert and other composers in his choice of the text of David reacting to Absalom’s death – Samuel II, Chapter 18:33.
‘When David heard that Absalom was slain
He went up to his chamber above the gate and wept
My son, my son, O Absalom my son,
Would God I had died for thee.’
Whitacre sets the scene with the dark colors of the opening chords. He then takes his listeners ever deeper into the tragedy of a father’s loss, using sectional utterances, small solos, smooth segments, silences, devastating climaxes and much use of fragments, the latter mostly settings of “my son”. At times, the score calls on the singers to color the canvas with chords of 14-or-so notes. The general effect is that of time standing still, of incomparable tragedy and utter loneliness. The Oratorio members handled the work splendidly: its pitches, texture and togetherness are, indeed, a challenge to every singer. The audience was moved. A fine work with a powerful message, but perhaps overly extended – 15 minutes.

The concert ended with two energetic arrangements of Afro-American spirituals. In “I Been in De Storm” (Jewel Thompson) we heard Naomi Brill Engel singing the solo; she has a pleasant mix of vocal color, the piece, however, sitting a little too high for her natural range. We then heard Undine Smith Moore’s arrangement of “Daniel” (1952) with alto Ella Talbar Reznik as soloist. Moore (1904-1989), referred to as the “dean of black women composers” made transcriptions of songs her mother had sang, this being one of them.

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir’s work is detailed and profound, addressing musical form and style. The dedication of its conductors and members is matched with musicality and good taste.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs Haydn on period instruments

The setting was Christ Church, close to the Jaffa Gate within Jerusalem’s Old City. The oldest Protestant church in the Middle East, its imposing white structure was built from 1840 to 1849. The pleasing and serene interior of the church was decked with tens of flickering candles for the evening’s event - “Arianna a Naxos” - a concert of music of Joseph Haydn, performed by the PHOENIX Ensemble (director: Myrna Herzog) January 5th 2012. Those performing were Karen Shifrin-mezzo-soprano, Avner Geiger-Baroque flute, Alex Rosenblatt-fortepiano and Dr. Myrna Herzog-Baroque ‘cello.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote at least 45 keyboard trios, of which we were to hear two of the three specifically scored for piano, flute and ‘cello (for Hob.XV:17, Haydn suggested either flute or violin, with piano and ‘cello). All the above three trios were composed in 1790 and presented to London publisher John Bland, who had earlier visited the composer at the Esterhazy estate in western Hungary in order to commission him to write three piano trios in which the flute was to replace the violin. Keyboard trios, i.e. works for piano with a treble and bass melody instrument, were in great demand for domestic music-making. The genre had formerly been considered an extension of the keyboard sonata, but with Haydn’s concept of the medium broadening during the 1780s, he began writing works giving what had been the “accompanying” melody parts original material of their own. In the Trio in G major, Hoboken XV:15, we sense a new approach to equality of roles, with the flute free to introduce themes and add constant interest; the ‘cello, however, fairly much follows the keyboard bass line. The PHOENIX players took listeners right into the very essence of these trios, presenting the myriad of details and gestures of the score clothed in intensity, good taste, Haydnesque humor and directness of human emotions. The very distinctive timbre and character of the Baas square fortepiano takes the audience into the sound world and musical climate of London house concerts of the 1790s; under Alex Rosenblatt’s fingers, the fiery instrument was “tamed” into articulate and virtuosic expression and joyousness. Avner Geiger’s performance was well shaped, mellifluous and whole-souled, with Herzog’s playing supportive of the keyboard and flute, finding delicate balance at all times. Repeats held small surprises, enhanced by subtle hesitations issuing them in. Our ears were titillated with the very distinctive sound qualities of each of the three instruments, the players’ sensitive balance and attention to each other luring the listener into a bewitching soundscape.

Information sent by Myrna Herzog prior to the event gave prospective concert-goers some valuable background information regarding Haydn’s “Arianna a Naxos” Cantata a voce sola Hoboken XXVIb:2, composed 1789-1790 to an anonymous Italian text. Herzog explained Haydn’s use of the Italian form of the name – Arianna - as due to the fact that Haydn would have attended operas in Vienna based on the same story by composers such as Carlo Agostino Badia and Nicolo Porpora and, of course, he would have been familiar with Monteverdi’s “L’Arianna” (1608). It turns out that Porpora was a music master at the Imperial Court of Vienna from 1752-1753 where the young Haydn was employed as his valet and accompanist. Haydn’s “Arianna” took London by storm in 1791, the soloist having possibly been the castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti. At a performance of “Arianna a Naxos” for Lord Nelson at the Esterhazy palace, Haydn himself accompanied the cantata on the fortepiano. We know from Haydn’s letters that the composer saw “my favorite Arianna” as one of his finest works.

The cantata is scored for voice and keyboard. (Haydn did not carry out his original intention of orchestrating it later on.) The work consists of two alternating, highly expressive recitatives and two arias, portraying the plight of the Greek heroine who begins by singing of her absent love.
‘Theseus, my love! Where are you?
I thought you were beside me,
But it was a sweet, false dream’
As the work progresses, Arianna gradually realizes the tragic plight of her being deserted and isolated, with her final outburst taking the form of an aria in the dramatic key of F minor.
‘Poor abandoned one, no one can console me.
The one I love so much is fleeing,
Barbarous and unfaithful.’
Jerusalem-born mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin’s creamy, rich voice is stable in all registers; her general perspective of the text, its plot and musical development were reflected in her facial- and musical expression. Shifrin and Rosenblatt gave a flexible, hand-in-glove performance of the work, Rosenblatt wielding the fortepiano part strategically as the plot moved from joy, to urgency, to hope and finally to despair. Yet the artists held each mood under control, at no stage overstepping the bounds of good taste, the audience moving with them, experiencing and identifying with the hopelessness of Arianna’s predicament and with the finality of fate.

The concert ended with five of the English Canzonets Haydn set to words of the poetess Anne Hunter. The daughter of military surgeon Robert Hume, Anne Hunter (1742-1821) began publishing lyrical, nature poetry at a young age, eventually also writing melodies to some poems. After her marriage to a renowned London surgeon, she mixed with fashionable circles in London, one close friend being Haydn; her lyrics led the composer to write fourteen English salon songs, a genre to which he was partial (much of what Haydn composed in London was aimed at domestic music-making); the texts for at least nine were written by Hunter. Her poems meet the expectations of the style and bounds within which women writers were expected to express themselves in the late 18th century – propriety, modesty and understatement. The first set of Haydn’s English Canzonettas was published in 1794, the second in the following year. The American musicologist H.C.Robbins Landon, a Haydn scholar, wrote that it seemed clear that “Haydn’s intention was to compose technically easy songs which could be sung at sight by any educated music lover and played at the piano prima vista by the average lady of musical inclination.” Composed for voice and keyboard, the PHOENIX Ensemble added the flute and ‘cello to the fortepiano instrumentation, the result being a lushness of texture more than pleasing together with Karin Shifrin’s buoyant singing. Shifrin and the instrumentalists addressed the subject and spirit of each song, Shifrin’s performance of them well shaped, communicative and in keeping with their dignity. The PHOENIX artists opened with the playful, canonic “Mermaid’s Song”. In “The Wanderer”, Geiger’s introduction and subsequent ornamenting of it (later as an interlude) added beauty to the tragic undertones of the song, its gloomy intensiveness perpetuated by Haydn’s use of the lowered second step of the scale.
‘To wander alone when the moon, faintly beaming
With glimmering lustre, darts thro’ the dark shade,
Where owls seek for covert, and nightbirds complaining
Add sound to the horror that darkens the glade.’
Shifrin’s excellent English diction and slight flexing of rhythms allowed listeners to make what they wanted of the much-loved and decidedly feminine, strophic “Pastoral Song”, where the somewhat melancholy text is married to a cheerful melody. The keyboard part is lively and demanding, with only the most subtle harmonic hints as to the poem’s sadness.

“The Spirit’s Song” conveys Hunter’s Romantic concept of life after death; Haydn’s eerie introduction and imaginative keyboard writing take the listener by surprise, its message underlined by such effects as his sudden use of unison in “My spirit wanders free”. In the jolly “Sailor’s Song” (text anonymous), Shifrin uses the text’s consonants well to match Haydn’s onomatopoeic keyboard effects of bugles, cannons, rattling ropes, etc.

Hearing Haydn played on period instruments was a rare pleasure, this certainly enhanced by the fine acoustic of Christ Church. Once again, PHOENIX players offered audiences a high quality, new and enriching listening experience. People interested in historical instruments should not miss hearing the Baas fortepiano, its temperament (in more than one meaning of the word) daring and alluring. Avner Geiger, a newcomer to PHOENIX, is well suited to the ensemble’s enterprising musical approach. Karin Shifrin’s singing of these Haydn works is not to be missed.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Inauguration of the Young Symphonic Orchestra Weimar Jerusalem

Although the orchestra has already performed some concerts in Germany and Israel, the official inauguration of the Young Symphonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar was December 27th 2011 at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, YMCA Jerusalem. In his dedication address of the Jerusalem YMCA On April 18th 1933, Field Marshal Edmund Lord Allenby referred to the building as “a place whose atmosphere is peace and religious jealousies can be forgotten, and international unity fostered and developed”. This was surely the right venue for the event.

The Young Symphonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar brings together young musicians from Israel and Germany – students from the Jerusalem Academy of Dance and Music and The Liszt School Weimar, as well as outstanding players from their respective high schools. All play together in one orchestra; they rehearse, perform concerts, discuss and celebrate together. The young orchestral members are learning to understand the past, at the same time experiencing human encounter and understanding through music. One mission of the YSOJW is to perform works of European Jewish composers, including those of composers who perished in the Holocaust. The orchestra’s first concert opened the Weimar Kunstfest (Weimar Arts Festival) in a program dedicated to the memory of victims who had perished in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

Professor Ilan Schul, President of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, spoke of the concert as a meaningful and historical occasion and mentioned Michael Miro, Director of The Voice of Israel (Israel Broadcasting Authority), Adv. Yair Green and Professor Michael Wolpe (JAMD) as some of the Israelis instrumental in the project. Professor Schul welcomed colleagues from Germany and Mrs. Christine Lieberknecht, Prime Minister of the Free State of Thuringia, whose determination was responsible for making this dream a reality.

Chargé D’Affaires of the German Embassy in Israel, Mr. Peter Prügel, referred to the cultural, historical and political meaning of the orchestra, claiming that the complex background of the project joined Weimar – a city associated with Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Liszt and Brahms, with Bauhaus art and with the Holocaust – and Jerusalem – a city of conflict, but also a symbol of hope and fraternity.

The last speaker was Mrs. Christine Lieberknecht herself, who referred to the Nazi era as a time when a wild barbarian spirit was endeavoring to put an end to the spirit of science and culture, the latter led by such prominent Jewish artists as Arnold Schönberg, Viktor Ullmann, Max Reinhardt and Else Lasker Schüler. She emphasized that, even today, we must fight for mutual respect and that the YSOJW will symbolize the linking of people, adding that she is happy to see new horizons and grateful that the young players can exploit their own freedom for making music.

The first work on the program was Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) “Tragic” Overture in D minor opus 81. Composed in the summer of 1880, it does not appear to refer to any specific tragic event. Whether or not inspired by the composer’s interest in the tragedies of Sophocles and Shakespeare is not clear; the work probably represents a melancholic streak in the composer’s personality, Brahms preferring solemnity, majesty and drama to frivolity and joy. At its premiere, the work had received a cool reception and continues to be played less than other Brahms works. A concise and dramatic piece, making innovative use of sonata form, it is scored for a larger orchestra than any of the four symphonies, instrumentation including piccolo and tuba. Conductor Alexander Merzyn (b.1983, Germany, recently appointed chief conductor of the Harvestehuder Symphony Orchestra of Hamburg) gave a reading of the work that was both flexible, powerful and delicate, constituting a rich kaleidoscope of orchestra color.

We then heard Piano Concert no.5 in F minor of Henri Herz (1803-1888) conducted by Alexander Merzyn, with Mariam Batsashvili (b.1993, Tbilisi, Georgia) as soloist. Born Heinrich Herz into a Jewish family in Vienna, he moved to Paris where he enjoyed huge success as a piano virtuoso, composer, teacher, inventor and piano manufacturer. Batsashvili followed Merzyn all the way through; her natural ease in dealing with much challenging passagework was impressive. Her playing was both melodic and unmannered. For an encore, she played Liszt’s 1838 etude “La Campanella” (Little Bell), its theme borrowed from Paganini’s Piano Concerto no.2. Batsashvili’s agility, lightness and brightness of touch allowed the music to speak for itself, her playing of the work detailed and never showy.

Hungarian-born Carl (Karl) Goldmark (1830-1915) was the son of a synagogue cantor. He made his living as an orchestral player and a music journalist. His Violin Concerto in A minor, Op.28 (1877), influenced by Hungarian folk idiom, the writing of Mendelssohn, Dvorak and somewhat by Wagner’s harmonic language, enjoyed great popularity till it was labeled “decadent art” by the Nazi regime and banned, as were other works of his. Under the baton of Israeli conductor Karin Ben-Josef, we heard Roi Shiloah (b.1970, Israel) as soloist; Shiloah navigated the natural, felicitous and complex score with composure, meaning and natural musicality, weaving its lyrical melodiousness throughout the work’s fabric. Adding to the richness of timbre and the audience’s enjoyment was Goldmark’s plenteous scoring of wind instruments.

Conducted by Karin Ben-Josef, the festive concert ended with the fifth movement of Czech composer Viktor Ullmann’s Piano Sonata no.7, as orchestrated by Israeli composer Michael Wolpe; Wolpe is presently Head of the Faculty of Theory, Composition and Conducting at the JAMD. Wolpe orchestrated the movement in 2007, but has since edited and re-orchestrated it especially for the Weimar-Jerusalem project. Ullmann (1898-1944) was among the most talented composers of his time till his life was cut short when he perished in the Auschwitz Death Camp at age 46. Written on scraps of lined paper, Sonata no.7 was dedicated to his children. The sonata is full of musical quotations, from Mahler to operetta, from Wagner and the Slovak National Anthem. The fifth movement of Sonata no.7 (composed in Theresienstadt and the composer’s final opus) consists of a set of variations and a concluding fugue on a melody by Yehuda Sharett. It seems Ullmann wanted to leave the work’s message as a gift or force; he wrote “Silently there is still hope (in me) for a late return”. The climax of the sonata is, indeed, the Theme, Variations and Fugue on Yehuda Sharett’s Zionist song “Song of Rachel” (a setting of a poem of the poet Rachel Blobstein), composed in Berlin in 1932. In the poem, the poet sees herself as the namesake of the biblical matriarch:
‘Behold her blood flows in my blood,
Her voice sings in mine –
Rachel, who tends Laban’s flock,
Rachel, mother of all mothers.’

The work is decidedly Jewish in flavor, the fugue ending majestically in the key of D major. Wolpe’s intention in setting the work for chamber orchestra was to give as many ensembles as possible the opportunity of performing it. A richly colorful and varied canvas of orchestration, the work constituted a fitting end to the event.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The JBO hosts violinist Walter Reiter (UK) in "Celebrating Chanukah and Christmas"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was interested to hear the orchestra’s third concert of the 2011-2012 season at the Enav Cultural Center (Tel Aviv) December 29th 2011. Violinist Walter Reiter (UK) led and soloed in “Celebrating Chanukah & Christmas”, a program of European Baroque instrumental music. Walter Reiter, very prominent on the Baroque music scene today, is principal player in The English Concert and leader of The Sixteen. He is Professor of Baroque Violin at The Royal Conservatory of the Hague, at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music (London) and teaches in Cuba. When living in Israel over 20 years ago, Reiter taught several young Israelis who are today making fine careers as concert players.

Prior to the concert at the Enav Center, Reiter gave an informal, informative talk about works to be performed that evening.

Georg Muffat’s (1653-1704) Concerti Grossi were among the earliest German examples of the genre. His “Auserlesene Instrumental Musik” (1701) (Selected Instrumental Music) was an early collection of concerti grossi in the style developed by Corelli. The JBO performed Concerto no.5 in D of this volume, with Walter Reiter, Noam Schuss and Orit Messer-Jacobi (violins and ‘cello) forming the concertino. It was a performance richly spiced in the language of gestures, the JBO’s sympathetic orchestral timbre graced with some fine oboe-playing (Shai Kribus, Shira Ben Yehoshua). Of his merging of styles, Muffat wrote: “The notes, the strings, the sweet sounds of music give my life a sense of fulfillment, all the more because I mingle the French style with the German and Italian, without inciting a war; but, rather, holding up a mirror to the longed-for harmony and dear peace which these people so greatly desire.” With the same concertino combination we heard Arcangelo Corelli’s (1653-1713) Concerto Grosso Op.6 no.8 “Fatto per la Notte di Natale” (Made for the Night of Christmas), also referred to as the “Christmas Concerto”; it would have been played at the Christmas festivities in one of the great Roman houses of the time (these including the palaces of cardinals and the Pope) or at the Mass itself at the Vatican or at other churches. Its alternating fast/slow tempi include several joyous dances, the concluding Pastorale evoking images of shepherds in the fields, with angels hovering over Bethlehem. A superb combination of elegance, effective transitions and transparency characterized the playing of this work; Schuss and Reiter were very much on the same wavelength, with Messer-Jacobi highly articulate and expressive.

Jean-Féry Rebel (1666-1747) was only eight when he began studying violin and composition with Lully. Rebel became a court musician to Louis XIV, eventually taking the post of “batteur de mesure” (conductor) at the Royal Academy of Music. He made the “Symphonie de Danse” a form of his own, “Les Charactères de la Dance” (1715) being one of them, and providing inspiration for the ballerina Mlle. Prévost. The work is a seamless stream of dance fragments, one of the longest - a Musette - lasting about one minute, the suite ending with a stormy Sonate. It seems the charismatic Mlle. Prévost gave a spectacular performance as she was invited to do so again for Tsar Peter the Great. Despite their brevity, the many small sections each enjoyed different orchestration in the JBO reading of it (Rebel’s orchestral score did not survive) – in the Sarabande, we heard only recorder (Katharine Abrahams) and viola (Daniel Tanchelson) – providing royal entertainment that was over in the wink of an eye.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644-1704), one of the most significant composers of the early 17th century Viennese violin style, was influenced by Italian composers such as Marini and Uccellini. The “Sonatae Tam Aris, quam Aulis Servientes” (for secular- and sacred use), the composer’s earliest collection, consists of twelve short sonatas for few instruments, each single-movement work falling into a series of small, connected sections, as in the earlier Italian canzona model. We heard Sonata IX, played by strings, theorbo and harpsichord, the changes in meter and tempo giving the work captivating unpredictability. Biber’s music was the main thread running through the evening’s program.

And back to the Christmas content of the evening: the “Noëls pour les Instruments” (c.1690) by prolific French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) who wrote mostly sacred choral works, were composed around 1690 but published only in 1973! Charpentier may have been the first composer to set noëls (popular Christmas carols) for groups of instruments. Composed probably when he was choirmaster for the Jesuits, consciously or not, there may have been some hidden agenda in the music, and how better way to convert could there be than with fine music peppered with popular tunes, some stemming from dance airs. Musicologist Catherine Cessac refers to the “grandeur and originality of Charpentier’s music” as “due to a combination of exceptional musical talent and deep faith”. One of the attractions of the “Noëls pour les instruments” is the delightful pairing of recorders in the score and the JBO did not disappoint: Katharine Abrahams and Shai Kribus added the pleasing, spirited timbre of recorders and much musicality to the buoyant, uplifting performance of the JBO, with Reiter’s delicate touch ever present, sculpting phrases and phrase-endings in filigree threads.

The concert’s Chanukah content consisted of the Overture to Georg Frideric Händel’s (1685-1759) “Judas Maccabeus”, a commissioned work, written in 32 days and premiered at Covent Garden (London) in 1747. The oratorio is in three parts and describes the changing moods of the people with the fluctuating situation of the Jews. Its Overture is one of Händel’s greatest; here, the composer borrows from one of his duets (Sono liete) and from Telemann’s “Tafelmusik”. For the Overture, Walter Reiter relinquished his violin to conduct the stately, dotted opening slow Grave, in its solemn, minor mode and characterized by angular leaps, followed by a fugue and French-styled Lentement. Fine oboe-playing gave color to Reiter’s intense, exciting reading of this piece.

A rare treat of the concert was the performance of two of Biber’s “Mystery Sonatas”. Composed around the mid-1760s and published only in 1905, this collection, also referred to as the “Rosary” Sonatas, constitutes one of the high points of violin literature. The 15 sonatas come with a figured continuo bass; engravings in the manuscript copy depict each of the scenes represented in the work – the music is not really program music - the latter grouped under the following titles: “The Joyful Mysteries”, “The Sorrowful Mysteries” and “The Glorious Mysteries”, these followed by a Passacaglia titled “The Guardian Angel”. In addition to the daring contrapuntal- and technical demands in Biber’s writing, there is much use of “scordatura” (deliberate mistuning of the violin strings in order to produce unusual effects). Walter Reiter performed two of the sonatas – nos.1 and .3, with Dr. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the JBO, playing the continuo role on the organ (a positive built by Gideon Shamir). Creating an atmosphere of mystery and awe, Reiter and Shemer evoked the emotional reactions to the events inspiring the composition in a range of effects so personal, languid and thought-provoking that one was not concerned with or even totally aware of the incredible range of complex violin techniques needed to produce the intricacies of such music. Reiter has made a much-celebrated recording of the complete work (Signum label). Hearing the concert at the Enav Cultural Center was advantageous – it gave listeners the opportunity of drinking in every wonderful sound and gesture of the timeless “Mystery Sonatas”.