Saturday, March 31, 2012

Classical music events in the 2012 Israel Festival

The 51st Israel Festival will take place from May 23rd to June 14th, offering theatre, dance, jazz, events for children, world music and classical music in a variety of venues, most of them in Jerusalem. Artists from 12 countries will participate. Especially prominent this year will be works and artists representing Israel’s cultural relations with Czechoslovakia, as part of the “Days of Prague” Czechoslovakian Festival in Israel; it will take place in many venues, not just in Jerusalem. Prague is a bustling city, rich in its active and creative cultural life. The “Days of Prague” aims to bring the best of contemporary Czech culture to the Israeli public – the unique Forman Brothers Cabaret Circus, the DOT 504, a jazz collaboration between Czech- and Israeli players led by Jaroslav Jakobovits, the American-Czech multi-media project producing Verdi’s “Requiem” – the “Defiant Requiem” - telling the story of courageous Jewish prisoners in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp and the prestigious Kühn Choir of Prague, to mention only some of the events. The “Days of Prague” will be officially opened on June 5th by the Mayor of Prague, who will be visiting Jerusalem. The project represents cooperation between the Prague Municipality, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Israel Festival and the Czech Ministry of Culture, the Czech Embassy in Israel, Czech Centres, the Israel-Czech Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Czech Staropramen Brewery, the Czech Skoda Automobile Company and Israeli importer Champion Motors, and Czech Airlines. Artistic director of the “Days of Prague” project is Ms. Marina Sternova, cultural attaché to the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Israel.

Here is a short summary of classical music events at the 2012 Israel Festival:
For lovers of early music, there will be two visiting ensembles. “Musica Ficta” will present Latin American and Spanish music of the Renaissance and Baroque. Established in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1988, the group has won wide acclaim for its scholarly research and innovative approach to vocal- and instrumental performance of this lively genre. “Accentus Austria”, founded in 1992, is unusual in the fact that it focuses much on Spanish music, from the oral tradition of Sephardic Romances through art- and popular music from around 1500, to the richly majestic sacred and secular polyphonic music of the late 17th century. “Accentus Austria” also performs 16th- and 17th century music of the Austrian Empire.

The Romanian Cluz Choir will join soloists and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Meir Minsky (USA,Belgium,Israel) to present a work rarely performed - Franz Liszt’s oratorio “Christus” , one of the finest oratorios composed in 19th century Europe. A mammoth work, festival audiences will be invited to savor three hours of some of Liszt’s best writing. The Cluz Choir will also perform a concert of a cappella music. The Kühn Choir of Czechoslovakia will present a program of a cappella Czech music. Established in 1959, the Kühn Choir specializes in performing Romantic a cappella music, also placing importance on contemporary music.
Maestro Gil Shohat will conduct a marathon of performances by Israeli artists of Johannes Brahms’ chamber-, vocal and instrumental music; the traditional series of J.S.Bach works presented over three weekends will once again delight visitors to the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Ein Kerem). A complete day of concerts at the Jerusalem Theatre will feature students and teachers of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

One of the 2012 Israel Festival’s most important events will be the “Defiant Requiem” – Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem at Terezin; this specific presentation of it, created by Murry Sidlin, who will also be conducting the work, will be performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Kühn Choir of Prague, soloist singers Ira Bertman, Yotam Cohen, Assaf Levitin and Bracha Kol, with actors Sasson Gabai and Yona Elian. The multi-media event reveals the story of courageous Jewish prisoners in the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp who formed a choir under the direction of fellow prisoner Rafael Schächter, performing Verdi’s Requiem 16 times as an act of defiance and resistance to their Nazi captors. In addition to a full performance of Verdi’s Requiem, the present program includes video testimonies from members of the original choir, Nazi propaganda and film footage made at Theresienstadt. A powerful performance carrying a message of hope, it has been performed several times, including three performances in the grounds of the Theresienstadt Concentration Camp itself.

Pianist and piano teacher Alice Herz-Sommer talks about life and music

The documentary film “From Hell to Paradise” or “Chopin Saved Me” (2005), in German with English subtitles, directed by Michael Teutsch, in which pianist Alice Herz-Sommer talks about her life and the strength music has given her to deal with its tragedies, was shown at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on March 30th, 2012. Proceeds from the event will provide a scholarship to a piano student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. The renowned pianist, now aged 108, was a member of Faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance for 37 years. She now lives in London.
Born in Prague in 1903 to intellectual, secular Jewish parents, Alice Herz was educated in the German cultural tradition and language. The family home was a cultural salon where writers, scientists, musicians and actors met. One was Franz Kafka, whose best friend journalist, author and philosopher Felix Weltsch married one of her sisters. There was much music-making at home, thanks to her mother, who encouraged the children to play music. Alice went on to become the youngest pupil to study at the German Music Academy in Prague.

In 1931, Herz married Leopold Sommer, a fine amateur musician. In 1937, their son Raphael was born. In 1939, the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia; she spoke of the humiliation of wearing the yellow star in Prague. Her two sisters fled to Palestine. In 1942, the Germans arrested her 72-year-old mother, subsequently murdering her. Losing her mother was terribly traumatic for Alice Herz-Sommer (in the film, she talks much about the mother-child relationship and the privilege of having been a mother) and she suffered an emotional crisis, unable to be comforted by her husband, doctor or child. What gave her new hope was a sudden drive to immerse herself in playing all 24 Chopin Études. In 1943, Alice Herz-Sommer, her husband and son were deported to the Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp. There, she took part in many concerts, alongside other fine players, conductors and composers. Despite the hunger inmates suffered – their diet consisted solely of coffee and soup - she was happy playing music and gave over 100 concerts; the atmosphere in these concerts, she said, was indescribable. She spoke of an all-Beethoven concert there as being unforgettable. One day, several of the prisoners were rounded up and taken to a remote field. Herz-Sommer and her son were among the lucky ones to be returned to the Terezin Ghetto. There young Raphael played a leading role in “Brundibár”, a children’s opera by Jewish Czech composer Hans Krása (libretto: Adolf Hoffmeister). In September 1944, Leopold Sommer was sent to Auschwitz. He survived imprisonment there, but then died of typhus in Dachau. A workmate from Dachau later brought Herz-Sommer the wooden spoon her husband had used there to eat his meager rations.

In 1945, Alice Herz-Sommer and Raphael immigrated to Palestine. The pianist spoke of her time in Jerusalem as “the best period of my life” in a city that was challenging, interesting and dynamic; “Jews are not easy to live with”, she observes. Raphael studied the ‘cello at the Rubin Academy of Music, later studying in in Paris, finally moving to England, where he took over the ‘cello department of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). In 1986, Herz-Sommer moved to London to be close to her son and grandsons. Raphael Sommer died in 2001 on concert tour with the Salomon Trio in Israel. He was 64. “Still I am grateful to have had such a son” she adds sadly.

The film is about the powers and therapeutic qualities of music. Alice Herz-Sommer’s lively personality and wisdom, however, are no less gripping than the subject of the film and her articulacy is astounding. She speaks of the importance of daily routine and discipline – we see her at the supermarket, at the swimming pool, cooking in the kitchen of her London apartment and, of course, playing the piano. Despite two paralyzed fingers, the film shows her playing the piano on a daily basis; we witness her playing pieces by Beethoven and Chopin and sense her total absorption in the music. She speaks of music as a gift of a higher power, as her religion, hoping, with a glint in her eye, to be a piano teacher again in her next life. Despite memories haunting her at night, Alice Herz-Sommer is not bitter: she mentions the fact that evil did not start and end with Nazism and that every person houses within him both positive and negative qualities. Alice Herz-Sommer has an optimism that could never be crushed. She is an inspiring person. Her favorite composer? Beethoven.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs "The Imaginary Invalid"

Marc-Antoine Charpentier

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was curious to attend Concert no.6 (the last for the 2011-2012 subscription series) “Le Malade imaginaire” (The Imaginary Invalid) March 27th 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre – a concert program of a very different kind. Honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott was to have directed the performance, but was forced to cancel due to family illness. Founder and musical director of the JBO David Shemer directed the performance.

Molière’s three-act comédie-ballet “Le Malade imaginaire” was first performed in 1673. The playwright was well known for his comedic attacks on the professional attitudes of doctors and other privileged snobs. This farce, however, pokes fun at both the medical profession and its gullible clientele. As fate would have it, Molière, playing the hypochondriac Argan in the production, collapsed during its fourth performance and died soon after. The theatrical piece’s farcical intermèdes were written by the prolific and versatile Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704), writing in a vastly different medium to his sacred music! The work opens with a pastoral scene, where mythological figures are rejoicing and praising King Louis XIV. Vocal scenes are interspersed with court dances, “airs de violons” and ritornellos (there were no dancers in the JBO production). Choruses following solo arias comment on the actions (and remind us to praise Louis “a thousand times…the greatest of kings”. Molière clearly knew on what side his bread was buttered!) In the JBO performance, the spoken text, performed by actor Sasson Gabai, was written by poet Hila Lahav. In the first intermède, the monologue spoken by the intoxicated buffoon Polichinelle is punctuated by orchestral ritornellos. An out-of-tune ritornello prompts him to object:”Be silent, you violins….be quiet I tell you….It is I who wish to sing…It hurts...” With most of the characters changing throughout the work, the topic of each scene is completely different. In fact, only the last scene is directly related to the title of the work.

Following the French-style Ouverture, Gabai recites the Prologue, in which Hila Lahav makes generous references to our present government (not forgetting the Ministry of Health and Sport). We then heard soprano Anat Edri’s opening Italianate recitative and Aria (Charpentier had studied with Carissimi in Rome). Edri’s constantly broadening competence and excellence in performance of Baroque music is reflected in her expressive, lyrical singing and easeful ornamenting, making effective use of dissonance. Tenor Lior Lavid-Leibovici’s familiarity with the French Baroque style and language made for elegant performance. Another new face with the JBO was soprano Ofra Hurvitz-Znati, whose reedy voice added a pleasant color to ensemble sections. Soprano Carmit Natan, tenors David Nortman and Tal Koch and bass Guy Pelc are not new faces to the Baroque music scene; their performance and involvement was pleasing and hearty. Together with Edri, Lavid-Leibovici and Hurvitz-Znati, the finely balanced ensemble sang with alacrity, precision and artistry. Managing the French text well, the singers played several roles – from simple country folk, to gypsies, to archers, to doctors; costumes were minimal but effective and whimsical.

At the pitch of A=392 Hz, typical in French Baroque music, the JBO’s performance of court dances, interludes and other instrumental pieces was indeed one of the highlights of the performance - tasteful, delicate, reveling in quirky rhythms and as elegant as this fine French court music dictates. The string ensemble was graced with delightful playing of recorders (Drora Bruck, Katharine Abrahams), and oboes (Shira Ben-Yehoshua, Michael Lam), Bari Moscovich’s theorbo-playing, as ever, refined and subtle. In addition to her viola da gamba role, Myrna Herzog was discerning in her finespun use of percussion.

Sasson Gabai’s stage presence was a breath of fresh air: dressed in clown apparel (Polichinelle) or in a dressing gown and nightcap (Argan), he brought the house down with his tomfoolery, lightness of step, his superb diction, pleasant singing voice, unhesitating recitation of Lahav’s barrage of patter and his innate good humor. Towards the conclusion of the first intermède, Gabai (Argan), wishing to sing a “serenade”, makes a few raucous attempts at singing Mike Brandt’s 1970 hit “Laisse-moi t’aimer”, each time being interrupted by the orchestra; in frustration and anger he approaches the players themselves, aping their sounds. The scene with the archers was a hilarious dialogue in a mix of French (singers) and Hebrew (Gabai). Having been beaten by the bludgeon-bearing archers, Polichinelle, finally willing to pay up, offers them a credit card. In the final scene, Lahav’s text mixes the doctors’ so-called Latin with Hebrew into a pompous, side-splitting verbal concoction, in which Argan’s gastrointestinal problems are analyzed detail by detail in a manner that is comedy at its best. Eventually, becoming a doctor himself, capable of enumerating his own problems, Argan seems to be cured.

Hila Lahav’s texts connected admirably with Molière’s play and its absurdities. Her writing is sharp, witty and peppered with puns. Maestro David Shemer did a truly splendid job of drawing all the threads together – orchestra, singers and the acting, resulting in a very high quality performance, its energy and pace never lagging. If Shakespeare saw music as the “food of life”, Molière has proved that laughter is the best medicine. In this wild whirl of love and sickness, song and dance, Molière’s 17th century comedy, coupled with Charpentier’s superb music, brought the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2011-2012 subscription concert season to a brilliant, effervescent end.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Notes from the 2012 Eilat Chamber Music Festival

Peacefully situated away from the bustling Eilat town centre, the Princess Hotel, surrounded by pine trees and well tended flower beds, tranquilly looking out onto the bluest sea, was the ideal setting for the 2012 Eilat Chamber Music Festival March 12th to 17th. In its seventh year, this unique Israeli festival was founded by Leonid Rozenberg, who remains its general director.
Despite Eilat’s beckoning blue skies and winter sunshine, the concerts (and two short lectures) drew music-lovers into the halls in a whirlwind of orchestral concerts, recitals, ensemble music and even opera. And, as befits the festival scene, we were presented with a new take on works familiar to many of us. This was the case in the orchestral concert (Concert no.6) performed by the Mokum Strings Orchestra from Amsterdam (Joan Berkhemer – conductor and violinist) March 15th. Beginning with an arrangement of César Franck’s Chorale in B minor no.2, I felt that Mokum’s cultured string orchestra performance did not reflect the excitement and brassy brilliance of the work on the pipe organ, for which it was written. Berkhemer’s 1992 arrangement of Franz Liszt’s 1854 Piano Sonata in B minor poses many technical and other challenges to a string orchestra. Dedicated to Robert Schumann, its fusing of the five motivic elements into a single, sprawling structure is addressed by Berkhemer, with melodic strands allotted different instrumentation; he also addresses its lyrical, dramatic, fateful and melancholy traits. But the cushioning of Liszt’s work in the string timbre detracts from its eruptive drama and intrinsically pianistic character. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra no.1 in C minor opus 35 (1933), conducted here by Berkhemer, was referred to, by Yossi Shiffmann, who emceed the Eilat concerts, as the first Soviet concerto. Composed when Shostakovich was enjoying popularity on the Leningrad concert scene, in theatre and in film music, it reflects the young composer’s predilection for satire, lyricism and boisterous street music as well as his encounter with many musical styles. Pianist Oxana Yablonskaya (USA) delighted the audience with her articulate, light and agile playing and whimsical interpretation. She and Israeli trumpeter Yuval Shapiro collaborated and communicated in a performance that was indeed tasteful, sparkling, elegant and amusing.

Concert no.7
One of the events attracting Baroque music- and opera lovers to the 2012 Eilat Chamber Music Festival was surely the premiering of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) opera “L’Olimpiade” (1734) (libretto Pietro Metastasio, adapted for Vivaldi by Bartolomeo Vitturi) in its present and revamped form. A suitable choice for this Olympic Games year, the opera will be taken back to Britain and on to Europe. Violinist, Italian Baroque scholar and founder and director of the “La Serenissima” Ensemble Adrian Chandler created the present performing edition from Vivaldi’s score, the original being housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale of Turin. In a short talk given by him, Chandler reminded us that from 1713 to1739 Vivaldi was writing 3-act operas every year, with Venice having several theatres producing operas at the time. Composed for performance at the San Angelo Theatre, Vivaldi’s orchestra typically called for the inclusion of two horns (probably trumpets) and two harpsichords. The plot of “L’Olimpiade” is way too detailed (and a trifle fantastical) to mention here. Suffice it to say that we were presented with operatic performance of a consistently superb standard on the part of singers, all of whom sing the gamut of opera repertoire. No less outstanding, and somewhat more authentic in sound, was the instrumental ensemble, with Chandler leading his Baroque instrumentalists, his eye seldom leaving the singers on stage. The banal stage setting and action (do we really want to see opera singers all singing into mobile ‘phones, or using them in asides?) left much to be desired, but that indeed proved secondary to what was gracing our ears.
Concert no.8
Aficionados and devotees of choral music filled the Eilat Hall of the Princess Hotel March 16th to hear “From Gabrieli to Penderecki”, a combined performance of the State Choir of Latvia (chief conductor Maris Sirmais) and instrumental ensemble Hortus Musicus, the concert conducted by the latter’s violinist and artistic director Andres Mustonen. Most of the program, spanning 400 years, focused on music of Christian devotion.
The State Choir of Latvia, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, has been directed by Maris Sirmais since 1997. The recipient of several awards, the choir sings in major European venues and under many of today’s well-known conductors. Hortus Musicus (Estonia) was founded in 1972 by Andres Mustonen and maintains a busy international performing schedule of European music from Gregorian music to that of the Baroque period, but it also ventures into very different styles, such as in ancient Indian music, early Armenian Christian music, and more.
The concert opened with music by Giovanni Gabrieli (1553-1612): in the exuberant, 8-part motet Jubilate Deo (Shout to God with joy) (Psalm 99) of 1597, the audience was introduced to the State Choir of Latvia’s clean, bright timbre giving expression to the music’s contrapuntal play, imitation and the text itself. The two ensembles created the Gabrieli signature sound of voices and instruments, as would have been heard in St. Mark’s Venice, on an equal footing in “Angelicus ad Pastores” (The angel says to the shepherds), as did Monteverdi’s “Cantate Domino” (Sing unto the Lord a new song), in which tenor- and bass soloists displaying fine technique and musical competence, the vitality of Mustonen and his players’ vitality and fine tradition of early music playing defying all compromise.
From Kryzysztof Penderecki’s (b.1935, Poland) “Polish Requiem”, a work dedicated to his country’s suffering, we heard the “Agnus Dei”(1981), a movement written on the day the composer heard of the death of his friend Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. Mustonen’s broad-gestured conducting gave the piece a sensitively-colored reading, its inner voices as clear as its outer voices, the piece’s scintillating choral clusters gently supported by the instrumental ensemble. The work’s compelling message combines sacred music with reality, Penderecki’s paintbrush dipped in “zal” (Polish: sadness or gloom pervading Polish art forms). It ends on a dark minor chord. John Tavener’s (b. 1944, UK) “Hymn to the Mother of God” mixes tonality with what I hesitate to call “dissonance”, the State Choir of Latvia weaving intervals of the second through chords in pastel brightness, concluding the work on a majestic major chord.
To German Romantic music: in Felix Mendelssohn’s essentially diatonic, syllabic and homophonic treatment of Psalm 100, its dynamics and nuances present in detail, Mustonen’s phrase endings allowed time to stand still. And Anton Bruckner’s first major composition, the seven-part “Ave Maria” (1861) was performed with control and both vehemence and humility.
With the spotlight turning to Spain and South America, sacred music, folk music and dance merge to become one joyous form of expression. Hernando Franco (1532-1585) was born in Spain, moving to Guatemala and then Mexico City. His vibrant “Santa Maria”, in the Aztec language, was followed by a colorful, spontaneous performance Juan Garcia de Zéspedes’(1619-1678) “Convidando esta la noche” (Night-time was an invitation), the latter using both African rhythms and European counterpoint.
Relocating back to England, some Elizabethan pieces provided a change of style and atmosphere. In Anthony Holborne’s consort music from the “Pavans, Galliards and Almains” of 1599, we enjoyed a hint of rakish, rustic frivolity, with Mustonen on the violin joined by the distinctive sound of the shawm, gentle percussion and satisfying “remplissage” on the part of Ivo Sillamaa on the organ. In Thomas Morley’s (c.1557-1602) small jewel “April is in My Mistress’ Face” (1594), we heard three men singers together with instrumentalists singing of love’s illusions and eventual suffering. A different take on Morley’s popular “Now is the Month of Maying” started out with just one male soloist singing alone, then building up, with one verse played on instruments, ending with the women of the choir joining in the “fa la las”. The madrigals were sung in good British English.
The concert finished with Monteverdi’s “Lauda Jerusalem, Dominum” (Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem) (Psalm 147) from “Vespers for the Blessed Virgin” (1610) performed by choir and ensemble capturing the work’s splendor, its majesty and ecstasy. In a program of great variety, excellent choral singing and a chance to enjoy the timbres of early instruments, Andres Mustonen wielded choir, instrumentalists and his outstanding vocal soloists with crisp incisiveness in an inspired and inspiring approach to music-making.
Concert no.9
This was a solo piano recital by Stephen Kovacevich (b.1940, USA). Also well-known as a conductor, Kovacevich performs with chamber ensembles, with major orchestras and records. When still a student with Myra Hess, it was becoming clear that the pianist was attracted to Ludwig van Beethoven’s (1770-1827) music, in particular, to his later works. Kovacevich’s recording of all the Beethoven sonatas was issued in 2003. Beethoven’s Bagatelles opus 126 (1825), dedicated to the composer’s brother Johann, were his last published works for solo piano; the composer contended that these brief character pieces were the best of his three sets of Bagatelles. Despite the word Bagatelle (French) translating as “trifle”, Beethoven’s opus 126 pieces challenge the player’s ability in the technical pianistic techniques of Beethoven’s late music, not to speak of creating a mood within a miniature, the style and short form forging ahead into Romantic free styles. In pieces 1,2,5 and 6, Kovacevich, generous in his use of the sustaining pedal, took the listener into Beethoven’s state of mind and the capriciousness of these intimate pieces – from the spontaneity of arpeggiated, cadenza-like passages, to a sense of urgency, and from Viennese charm to stormy and, indeed, fearful moments.
To perform Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no.31 opus 110 in A flat major (1821) is a weighty choice at a festival and, especially in a hall that does not exude intimacy. Presenting the interrelated structure of movements of the mammoth work, from its opening lyricism through the erratic avalanche of musical ideas, the meditative, soul-searching Adagio, ending in the grandeur of the super-human fugue of the Finale, Kovacevich convincingly presented Beethoven’s innermost thoughts with delicacy and restraint, standing back to allow the music to speak, the pianist steering clear of showy acrobatics.
Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Piano Sonata in B flat major D960, his last, was composed less than two months before his death. Once again, Kovacevich presents a composer’s very late work, that of young Schubert gravely ill, facing his own death, yet still feverishly writing masterpieces and putting the finishing touches on his “Winterreise” song cycle. The artist’s playing was articulate and transparent, melodic strands carefully delineated, dramatic and sad moments juxtaposed with both bright, dark and serene sections.
Stephen Kovacevich chose the Sarabande from J.S.Bach’s Partita no.4 in D major BWV 828 for his encore. Taking his cue from the temperament of the piece, he challenged the listener to follow him through gently lyrical course graced with tiny ornamental figures. It was a delicate and subtle ending to the recital.
Concert no.11
Presenter Yossi Shiffmann spoke of one of the Eilat Chamber Music Festival’s aims as bringing young artists to perform in the concerts, mentioning that although 25-year-old violinist Valeriy Sokolov (Ukraine) may be young, he has performed widely and recorded. Playing with Sokolov was pianist Evgeny Izotov (b.1979, Russia) an artist who has performed much in Europe and the UK; Izotov teaches at the St. Petersburg State Conservatory and is visiting professor at Silla University (South Korea). The works we heard in this recital are to be recorded by the two artists in the near future.
The “Sonata for Violin and Piano” was the last work Claude Debussy (1862-1918) completed before his death. It was premiered in May of 1917, with violinist Gaston Poulet and Debussy at the piano; this was also the composer’s last public performance. Moving away from his former Impressionistic style, the work nevertheless breathes fantasy, freedom and emotional warmth. In a different kind of duet relationship, in which neither instrument accompanies the other, Sokolov and Izotov created Debussy’s specific sonority and tension in a kaleidoscope of musical ideas that included cantabile, humorous, fantastical and sensitive elements. Izotov’s delicate touch and constant attention was matched by spider-web delicate playing on the part of Sokolov.
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was also of the opinion that the violin and piano were essentially incompatible; in his Sonata for Violin and Piano in G major, his final chamber work, this premise shows clearly in the friction heard throughout the first movement. The artists played out both intense and bitter-sweet qualities of the somewhat jazz-influenced second movement (Blues: moderato), this being followed by a thrilling performance of the Perpetuum mobile (third movement), a veritable tour de force for the violin, with Sokolov handling its virtuosic demands with aplomb. The artists’ delving into fine detail and elegance of expression were woven into fine teamwork.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), completed his Sonata for Violin and Piano no.1 opus 80 in 1946, although some of the material dates from 1938. It was dedicated to- and performed by David Oistrakh; in fact, the composer collaborated with Oistrakh while working on the sonata, the result being a work demanding virtuosity on the part of both players. Composed in wartime Russia, Prokofiev himself referred to it as “serious in mood”. Sokolov and Izotov took on board the various aspects of the work – from the foreboding character of the opening movement, the terse, unsmiling reality of the second, the expressive searching of the third and the impactful rush of ideas and gestures of the fourth. Not an easy undertaking for young people, the artists dealt admirably with the fraught canvas of the work, using timing strategically, contrasting heavy textures with light and communicating its emotional message to the audience.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The PHOENIX Ensemble in "Matters of Love"

Alon Harari

The PHOENIX Ensemble held a concert in Christ Church, Jerusalem on March 7th, 2012. In “Matters of Love” - earthly and celestial, in PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog’s words - we heard Myrna Herzog on viola da gamba, Marina Minkin on harpsichord and countertenor Alon Harari.

Vivaldi composed 39 solo cantatas (that we know of), 12 of them written for the contralto soloist. Of this major vocal chamber music genre of the early 18th century, Vivaldi’s solo cantatas all comprise three or four movements. “Care Selve Amici Prati” RV 671 (Dear woods, friendly meadows) (c.1742) is of the more concise form - aria, recitative, aria. Alon Harari expounds the woes of a shepherd who loses his freedom and peace-of-mind to “treacherous hope and false love”, eventually finding contentment in his “beloved flock” and the “murmur of the waves”. With Minkin and Herzog’s varied and evocative textures an integral part of the canvas of this small pastoral picture, Harari sets forth the verbal text with compelling intensity, his melismatic passages woven through the melodic line with consummate artistry. From hearing this refined, superbly embellished work, that poses many challenges to the singer, demanding no less artistry and initiative on the part of the players, one is left regretting that these solo cantatas are heard so rarely. They certainly belong hand-in-glove with the performing repertoire of the PHOENIX Ensemble.

François Couperin’s (1666-1733) “Ritratto dell’amore” (Portrait of Love) is the ninth of a set of “concerts”, term “concert” referring to a piece for two or more instruments. In this “pièce de caractère”, the composer is “trying to write in the Italian style” (in Herzog’s words) resulting in a work using both French and Italian elements: the French style overture is followed mostly by dances. Titles given to the various movements certainly create the idea of love but also have an enigmatic, whimsical side to them; behind some of the titles there is a dance form - “Enjoyment” is an Allemande and “The Etc.” is a pair of Italienate minuets. Minkin and Herzog steered clear of showy tempi, rather spelling out straightforward melodic lines in a singing, sometimes inégal manner, Minkin’s playing filling out the harmonic soundscape (remplissage), the artists creating a sense of well-being and inviting audience members to decide whether Couperin’s flirtations were genuine or just the wink of the eye.

We tend to hear more concerts of Dietrich Buxtehude’s organ repertoire than of his other keyboard music. Marina Minkin’s playing of the “Allemande d’amore” from Suite no. VI gave the audience at Christ Church a small glimpse into the composer’s harpsichord suites, these representing the intimate, domestic aspect of the composer’s art. Her performance of the weighty Buxtehude-type Allemande was clear in direction, moderately flexed and richly embellished.

This was followed by Buxtehude’s Italienate “Jubilate Domino” (Psalm 98, 4-6) for alto, viola da gamba obbligato and continuo, a work indeed distinctive in its instrumentation. Beginning with a long instrumental introduction, the piece is a veritable tour de force for the viol, which moves in drastic leaps between its registers. Is it a sonata, a concerto, a cantata or all infused into one piece? Brazilian-born Dr. Myrna Herzog, in her program notes, presumes Buxtehude chose the bass viol as the obbligato instrument in order to represent the cithara – the lyre – mentioned in the psalm. The harpsichord part displays independence, while voice and viol are on equal terms; Harari addresses word painting and modulations, navigating melismatic passages nimbly, with intensity and confidence. Herzog’s superbly expressive playing did not belie the technical acrobatics demanded by the score.

Christ Church’s fine, clean acoustic always does justice to the harpsichord sound, thus a fine opportunity to hear two Domenico Scarlatti sonatas. Born in the Ukraine and in Israel since 1981, Dr. Marina Minkin began with one of the more massive of the bipartite sonatas - the K 132 in C major. Her agile playing highlighted the composer’s less-than-conventional mind-set, his extravagant use of dissonances and surprise modulations. No less adventurous was Sonata K 133, also in C major, in which the composer’s ideas come thick and fast, his palette brazenly mixing major and minor keys and superimposing harmonies into what could only be termed “clusters”. Minkin’s exuberant, energetic and daring playing revealed the flamboyance, sophistication and freshness of these unique works. The audience was right with her all the way!

Existing in both soprano and alto versions, “Nel dolce Tempo” HWV 135b (1708), one of G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) better-known, early cantatas, was written, it seems, when the composer was in Naples for a visit, the reference in the text to the Volturno River pointing to this fact, according to Herzog. It was in Italy that Händel became acquainted with the chamber cantata genre. In “Nel dolce Tempo” (In the sweet time), a pastoral courting situation, the singer acts out responses of both shepherd and shepherdess. Harari’s performance was nuanced and superbly crafted, his voice control matching his focus on the text and key words. Returning to the first section of the da capo aria “Senti, dite, mio”, he paused strategically on the first syllable, producing a mellifluous, bell-like effect before the conclusion of the work.
‘Listen, my beloved,
Even though the birds from the woods to the streams sing of you….’

Alon Harari, joined by Herzog and Minkin in their own artistic and non-intrusive instrumental arrangements, performed two traditional Jewish Yemenite melodies - “O, Graceful Doe” a wedding song and “For Candle and Spices”, the latter marking the transition from the Sabbath or festival to a weekday. Harari’s singing, using the Yemenite dialect of Hebrew, was spontaneous, emotional and gripping. The audience was deeply moved. Alon Harari (b.1982, Israel) wields absolute control over his large, distinctive voice; his international career in opera, oratorio and other genres is soaring high and justifiably so.

Myrna Herzog’s programming is a high point of the PHOENIX concert season. Audiences are frequently exposed to rarely-performed repertoire in performance that does not compromise on excellence.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Barrocade Vocale's inaugural concert in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

Claudio Monteverdi

“Lamento della Ninfa” was the title given to the inaugural concert March 3rd 2012 of Barrocade Vocale - soprano Ye’ela Avital, alto Ella Wilhelm, tenor Doron Florentin, tenor Eliav Lavi and bass Joel Sivan. The venue was the chapel at Notre Dame de Sion, Ein Kerem (Jerusalem); nestling in luxuriant gardens, the setting breathes tranquility. Harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon, artistic director of the vocal ensemble, and veteran Barrocade member Ye’ela Avital, went to great lengths to select and match the five voices that make up Barrocade Vocale. In this concert of mostly secular Italian music of the Renaissance and Baroque – you might call it “love and death Italian-style” - the singers were joined by Barrocade instrumentalists Shlomit Sivan-violin, Amit Tiefenbrunn-viola da gamba, Eliav Lavi-lute and Yizhar Karshon-harpsichord.

The concert opened with a rush of energy with Giovanni Paolo Cima’s (c.1570-1630) Sonata for Violin, Violone and Basso continuo in G minor, a work representative of the development of early Baroque music in northern Italy that was now moving away from polyphonic texture towards solo or duo melodies, supported rhythmically and harmonically by a continuo bass. Sivan and Tiefenbrunn’s vivid playing of its complex melodic lines made for exciting listening. Italian lutenist and composer Francesco da Milano (1497-1543), referred to as “Il Divino” by his admirers, was both foremost lutenist and the greatest lute composer of his time, his oeuvre including many ricercars. Eliav Lavi’s playing of Francesco da Milano’s “Recercario undecimo” was sensitive and well shaped, his melodic lines articulate, the lute timbre, even when pianissimo, sounding articulate in the welcoming acoustic of the chapel. Violinist, organist and opera-composer Michelangelo Rossi (c.1602-1656) has been referred to as Frescobaldi’s most gifted pupil. Yizhar Karshon’s playing of Rossi’s “Toccata settima” for harpsichord revealed the progress of the toccata in Rossi’s hands: no tame piece of music this, Karshon pulled out the plugs to present Rossi’s unpredictable, extraverted temperament and cascading figures with nimble energy and a sense of adventure, the dramatic toccata ending on an unexpectedly naïve major chord! Diego Ortiz (c.1510-1570) published “Trattado de Glosas” (Rome, 1553) a book of music for viol, with guidance as to ornamentation as well as pieces, namely Recercadas. Tiefenbrunn’s playing on the bass viol of two of the Recercadas highlighted Ortiz’ practice of dividing long notes into groups of many agile short notes in subtle patterning, the basic melodic line sounding present throughout.

And to the impending subject: idyllic love, bucolic love, love’s torments and death. From being employed as a singer at St. Mark’s Venice, Alessandro Grandi moved up to becoming Monteverdi’s assistant. Grandi was the first composer to use the term “cantata” in the modern sense, but he was also important for his many collections of solo songs. The sensuous “O, quam tu pulchra es” (Oh, how beautiful you are), the text taken from the Song of Songs, was expressive and bright in timbre, Avital and Lavi allowing the words to fashion the pace of the work. Karshon’s short, improvisatory transition led into the motet version for three voices in which Wilhelm, Florentin and Sivan’s fine vocal interplay was infused with discretion and subtlety in an almost madrigalian setting.

Franco-Flemish composer Jacques Arcadelt (c.1507-1568) spent time in Venice, wrote sacred music, his interest, however, lying mostly in secular music; he was an important composer of madrigals, of which he wrote more than 200. Avital, Wilhelm, Florentin and Sivan performed Arcadelt’s fragile “Il bianco e dolce signo” (The white and sweet swan), in which the narrator contrasts the gentle swan’s dying moments with his own death. This piece is considered the paradigm of the Italian madrigal. The quartet gave shape to its lush harmonies, guiding its sensual textures into finely-chiseled phrase endings.

Also on the subject of death, we heard Carlo Gesualdo’s (c.1560-1613) “Sparge la morte” of 1596 (Death spreads over my Lord’s face). Gesualdo, one of the boldest, most unconventional and idiosyncratic composers of his time, was quite conversant on the subject of death, having murdered his wife with her lover. The piece we heard, one of his more restrained, was painted in dark, somber shades by Barrocade Vocale, Gesualdo’s audacious use of color and daring harmonic changes addressed.

It stands to reason that a vocal group of this kind will present its credentials, at least partially, with the singing of Monteverdi madrigals. “Cruda Amirilli” (Cruel Amaryllis) the first piece of the composer’s 5th Book of Madrigals, its text from Guarini’s “The Faithful Shepherd”, is no simplistic pastoral madrigal: telling something of the emotional tangles of a tragic love triangle, Barrocade Chorale presented Mirtillo’s side of the story in all its angst – his hopeless love of Amaryllis. The singers leaned into the dissonances Monteverdi used to symbolize the complexity of Mirtillo’s desire and suffering.

Amorous dialogues – depicting risqué exploits desires and dreams - form an important part of 17th century dialogue repertoire, with nobility sometimes playing at being Arcadian shepherds and nymphs. Avital and Florentin’s performance of Monteverdi’s canzonetta “Bel pastor dal cui bel guardo” (text: Rinuccini) (c.1651), is a playful dialogue between nymph and shepherd. Avital’s coquettish enquiring and manipulations are not answered to her satisfaction by the not-very-forthcoming shepherd (Florentin’s embarrassment was convincing.)
“Handsome shepherd whose lovely grace shoots flame that burns me completely, do you love me?”
“Yes, my heart.”
“As I desire?”
“Yes, my heart”.
“Tell me how much.”
“So much, so much…”

Another dialogue “Ardo e scoprir” (I burn and, alas, I do not have the courage to reveal the burning which I bear hidden in my breast), first printed in the 8th Book of Madrigals, takes a more serious stand in its D minor tonality. Eliav Lavi and Doron Florentin express the lover’s paralyzed speechlessness in the face of his lady. In two-voice recitative, they poignantly present the plangent outpouring of the piece, its mood changes, verbal fragments and word-painting.

Composed when he was 71, Monteverdi’s 8th Book of Madrigals – “Madrigals of War and Love” – constitutes the synthesis of the composer’s experience in the realm of secular music and the culmination of the Italian madrigal. Lavi and Florentin and Sivan performed “Gira il nemico insidioso, Amore”, an intense, impulsive and masculine piece bristling with energy, fast changes and humor.
‘The enemy, insidious Love
Is encircling the citadel of my heart.
Take action quickly, for he is not far from here.
Take up your weapons!’

The concert ended with one of Monteverdi’s greatest madrigals “Lamento della Ninfa” (The Nymph’s Lament) for 4 voices, also from Book 8, this Barrocade concert taking its name from the piece. Accompanied by harpsichord and viol, Ye’ela Avital, standing in an elevated position behind the other singers, gave an affecting representation of the nymph, launching her passionate complaints over lost love, to a chaconne bass played by Karshon and Tiefenbrunn, with Lavi, Florentin and Sivan (three fauns!) expressing utterances of sympathy at the nymph’s suffering and sorrow. Convincingly performed, the audience was able to override the platitudinous content of the mini-drama to delight in and be moved by this fine piece of choral music. Karshon’s imaginative harpsichord improvisations added much richness to the musical scene.
‘On her pale face
Grief could be seen,
Often from her heart
A deep sigh was drawn….

So amidst disdainful tears
She spread her weeping to the sky;
Thus, in lovers’ hearts
Love mixes fire and ice.”

Developing a distinctive blend, Barrocade Vocale promises to fill a void in the local early music scene, in which small early music vocal ensembles are rare. The singers’ profound understanding of style and repertoire, their musicianship and secure technique were clear to all present. As to the individual voice timbres – Ye’ela Avital’s silvery voice is, indeed, at its best (her use of vibrato in this repertoire could be more sparing), Ella Wilhelm’s rich, dark alto color is stable and pleasing, as is Doron Florentin’s warm, bright and expressive voice. Eliav Lavi adds a grainier color into the vocal mix, much competence and the option to perform lute songs. Joel Sivan’s bass voice is neither heavy nor overpowering; rather, a focused, warmly blended, flexible sound, well suited to early music. And, vital to such an ensemble, the instrumentalists were well aware of their role of harmonic support and the need for careful shaping to emphasize rhetorical aspects of the sung text, transmitting its emotional significance to the listener.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Barrocade Ensemble in "The Renaissance of Flamenco"

Inclement weather did not prevent people from attending concert no.3 of the Barrocade Ensemble’s 1011-2012 season at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre February 29th 2012. Barrocade’s musical director Amit Tiefenbrunn spoke of “The Renaissance of Flamenco” as being a different kind of concert, using period instruments and others to evoke the music of Spain - a location that was the meeting-place of Christians, Jews, Arabs and Gypsies. Soloists were Hezy Levy-voice and guitar, Eyal Leber-vihuela and Flamenco guitar, Jacob Reuven -mandolin and Flamenco dancer Shir Cante Hirsch-Behar.

Not coincidentally, much of the evening’s music centered on music played on guitars and other plucked instruments, the boundaries between classical- and traditional music being unclear and, indeed, irrelevant. For example, Gaspar Sanz (mid-17th century-early18th), a man of literature, religion and music – pedagogue, organist and guitarist – was influenced by Spanish popular dances and those he had heard in Naples, where he was organist to the Spanish viceroy. Barrocade opened its concert with Sanz’ “Canarios” a lively, syncopated dance from the Canary Islands featuring jumps and stomping feet. In “Three Ricercadas for Viola da Gamba” by Diego Ortiz (c1510-c1570), with Amit Tiefenbrunn playing solo soprano viol, the audience enjoyed delicate but lively ensemble playing, Eyal Luman’s understated use of percussion (also using the cajón, meaning big box, on which he was seated) and a look into the improvisatory “viola bastarda” (single melody style) style, of which Ortiz was an initiator. In another Barrocade arrangement, the players took a work of Italian composer and choreographer Cesare Negri (c.1535-1604), employed by the Spanish Hapsburgs of Milan, the familiar and fragile “Il bianco fiore” (The White Flower), presenting it first on plucked instruments, later to be joined by bowed instruments and percussion.

Italian ‘cello virtuoso and prolific composer Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) spent most of his life in Madrid. His Quintet no.4 for Guitar and Strings (he composed more than 100 quintets), commissioned by the guitar-playing Marquis de Benavente for private chamber music events in Madrid, reflects Boccherini’s connection with locally-flavored music; the Fandango, an old Spanish courtship dance in triple time, was danced by a couple to guitar and castanets. Presenting a slice of 18th century Spanish life, we heard Eyal Leber playing the solo guitar part on a guitar especially built for him by Yaron Naor, Luman’s polished percussion-playing evoking the sound of castanets. If Isaac Albéniz (1860-1909) had expressed the guitar of his native Spain through the piano, Barrocade’s arrangement of the Malageña from Albéniz’s piano work “España” opus 165 used plucked instruments to evoke the energy of the dance music of Spain. Jacob Reuven’s solos here and throughout the evening provided moments of true magic, his refined and subtle nuancing always a delight to the senses.

The “La Folia” bass pattern (for improvised dance music), used most prolifically for countless sets of variations, was given a new twist by the Barrocade musicians: they took the beginning of Gaspar Sanz’ solo guitar version and merged it with the last movement of A.Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata opus1 no.12, RV 63. Eyal Leber began the work on guitar, other plucked instruments joining (also pizzicato on violins), building up to a fiery conclusion. An interesting timbre was created by mandolin (Reuven) doubling arco violins (Shlomit Sivan, Yasuko Hirata).
Singer and guitarist Hezy Levy introduced the audience to some interesting, little-known repertoire. Take Fernando Sor’s Seguidillas (a Castillian poem often set to music and danced) which are, according to Levy, either arrangements of folk material or Sor’s own pieces. Sor’s seguidillas, most of the twelve being in triple time, are related to dance (the bolero) but also exist independently of it. The poetic form, potent in its brevity, uses a strict metrical form and traditional imagery. Prior to Levy’s performance of three of them, we heard translations of the texts into Hebrew, with the artist reminding listeners that the verbal text of each of the miniatures carries one of life’s painful lessons! Accompanied by guitars, colascione lute (Tiefenbrunn was playing on one he had built) and bass viol, Levy’s warm, caressing tenor voice, superb diction and well-crafted phrasing, tinted with Spanish heart-on-sleeve emotion, made for a sensitive and delightfully convincing performance. The third seguidilla translated:
‘Women and guitar strings: you need to tune them.
If they are slack they do not sound.
And as to the many, if you tighten them too much, they break.’
Neapolitan composer Federico Moretti (1765-1838), who lived in Spain, was highly regarded by Sor. We heard Levy once more bewailing the problems of love in ‘La Irresolucion”, from “Doce Canciones” (Twelve Songs), his singing supported by the finely shaped playing of plucked instruments only.

Hezy Levy concluded with three Ladino songs from a tradition stemming mostly from Turkey. His own emotional involvement in the genre was infectious. In a Sabbath song sung in both Ladino and Hebrew, Shlomit Sivan played an amply ornamented verse, the art of embellishment slipping effortlessly off her bow onto the violin strings. Altogether, the audience was moved by Hezy Levy’s in-depth understanding of repertoire, his fine guitar-playing and mellifluous singing.

Joining the instrumentalists was Flamenco dancer Shir Cante Hirsch-Behar, dancing to Albéniz’ “Asturias”, to music from Manuel de Falla’s “La vida breve” (Life is short) and a traditional “Sevillianas” (an exciting style of song and dance originating in Castile, not in Seville). Hirsch-Behar’s stage personality is as riveting as her skill in dance, her rhythmic precision and hand-in-glove collaboration with the players no less impressive. Initially dressed in black, later in white and finally in fiery red, she set before the audience the spontaneity of personal improvisation, the unleashing of unspoken mysterious forces and the passion and drama of the Spanish tradition of Flamenco dance.

The concert, the result of creative ideas and much work, was one of interest, enjoyment and fine performance.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Natalie Rotenberg and Alex Rosenblatt play Bach on harpsichord and piano

On the morning of February 25th 2012, the village of Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) was bathed in winter sunlight. Trees and the abundant foliage shone green and revitalized and the gold, onion-shaped domes of the Gorny “Moscovia” Monastery on the hill gleamed in all their splendour. Leaving Mary’s Well on our left, we made our way up through the leafy gardens of the Eden-Tamir Music Center to the concert hall. The occasion was a concert of the Musica Antiqua series - “At Ferdinand’s Court” or “Bach for Two” - with Natalie Rotenberg (harpsichord) and Alex Rosenblatt (harpsichord, piano). Alex Rosenblatt addressed the audience, mentioning what the harpsichord and pianoforte have in common and the dichotomy between them “popular nowadays”, in his words.

The Concerto for Two Keyboard Instruments in C major BWV 1061a, composed some time around 1733 in Leipzig, is probably J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) only work written originally and expressly for two harpsichords. (He later provided an alternative version with a string ripieno in the first- and third movements.) Technological advances of harpsichord construction in France and Germany during the 1700’s had made the instrument more powerful and Bach was now experimenting with its solo qualities. The work might have had its first performance by members of the Collegium Musicum in a congenial Leipzig coffee house – perhaps Zimmermann’s on Catherine St. -with Bach, its director and among the greatest keyboard virtuosos of his day, playing one of the harpsichords. Rotenberg and Rosenblatt performed the concerto on a two-manual Kaufmann harpsichord (Brussels, 1975) and a Klop (Holland) spinet. The two different instruments, tuned to perfection, allowed for fine blending as well as for clear imitation and individual expression, the second movement (Adagio ovvero Largo) including the sharing of melodic lines, rich embellishment and robust chordal spreads. The outer movements bristled with energy and interaction; supporting voices took on shorter notes to give centre stage to main melodies. Tutti passages versus thinner textures were indicative of the concerto style.

Natalie Rotenberg then performed Bach’s Toccata in E minor BWV 914 on the two-manual harpsichord. The work, from Bach’s earliest period, was probably composed before 1708, “its passion and temperament that of youth” (in Rotenberg’s words), its formal structure not as strict as in later works. The German toccata of Bach’s time had developed into a complex form, referring back to the earlier extroverted Italian toccata, but combining it with serious counterpoint. Indeed, what style could have suited young Bach better than this? Rotenberg’s reading of the work gives free reign to Bach’s invention and spontaneity, from the flexed, improvisatory opening movement, to fugato sections, to highly melodic utterances, to varied textural ideas and strict counterpoint. This was an interesting and adventurous performance, reminding the listener of Bach’s daring as a composer and of his greatness as an improviser.

In their programs, Natalie Rotenberg and Alex Rosenblatt will always offer audiences a new approach to familiar (or non-familiar) repertoire. Rosenblatt spoke of each era as bringing its own inspiration to the performance of Bach’s music, in Glen Gould’s playing and jazz versions, for example. In the following item – a Sarabande Suite, compiled by Rosenblatt – the artist’s aim was to use his extensive knowledge of Baroque music and authentic performance in playing Bach on the piano. The Sarabande, usually the third movement in a Baroque suite, has its own motley history: possibly of Mexican origin, or originating from a Spanish dance with Arabic influence, it was considered disreputable in 16th century Spain, in the 17th century, however, making its way into the French court via Italy as a slow, processional triple-time dance, also becoming a stylized musical form when not danced. Hearing four Sarabandes played consecutively was to be a new experience. The first two Sarabandes Rosenblatt performed were from keyboard suites, beginning with the Sarabande from English Suite no.3 in the imposing scale of G minor, its grandness embellished with abundant ornaments, a gregarious range of piano touches as well as the use of the sustaining pedal. The second, from Bach’s French Suite no.1in D minor, contrasted nicely in its intimate and poignant character. The third and more enigmatic Sarabande was taken from an anthology issued in Russia called “From My Childhood”, a piece in A minor attributed to Bach. A highly ornate piece, it was played beautifully and in a forthright sound befitting the modern piano. The fourth Sarabande was an arrangement made by Rosenblatt of that from Bach’s Solo Violin Partita no.2 in B minor, its voice strata articulate, with chord spreads expressive and adding richness to the soundscape. Blown away by the beauty of these pieces on the piano as well as Rosenblatt’s rich and sensitive playing of them, I think the Baroque authenticity devotees among us were shaken out of their (our!) presumptuousness and have since spent time in deep thought about Bach’s music and the wide range of possibilities for performing it.

J.S.Bach’s Concerto for Two Keyboard Instruments in C minor BWV 1060 (1735) was a transcription of a concerto for two violins (or possibly violin and oboe), the score of which has been lost. The composer is thought to have arranged it for two harpsichords and orchestra in 1736. It was then reconstructed as a concerto for oboe, violin, strings and basso continuo. Rotenberg and Rosenblatt, in the tradition of Bach, have transcribed the concerto once again, this time for harpsichord and piano (this is not a typo!) in order to achieve a three-dimensional effect. The harpsichord's sound was slightly amplified for this work. Rosenblatt, playing the piano, lightened his touch and played more detached textures, never overshadowing the harpsichord when they played together. When soloing, he allowed the piano more volume. (Fortunately, he was not trying to make the piano emulate a harpsichord.) Yet, I felt a sense of leaping back and forwards through the centuries as the focus moved from one instrument to the other. It was an interesting experiment and performed with much thought by these two fine artists.

An all-Bach concert is always interesting. Paderewski claimed that Bach “could weave counterpoint as a spider weaves its web – up to the sky and back again”. The Rotenberg-Rosenblatt Duo’s concert provided a morning of delight. It also posed some new questions to all of us present.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra presents a concert of Magnificats

Conductor Daniel Cohen

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA, in cooperation with The Israeli Opera, came up with an interesting program concept for concert no.3 of its 2011-2012 Vocal Series: a program of Magnificats. The Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre was filled to capacity February 23rd 2012 to hear the JSO, The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (conductor and musical director Yuval Ben-Ozer), The Adi Choir of The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (conductor Oded Shomrony) and soloists sopranos Claire Megnaghi and Alla Vasilevitsky, mezzo-soprano Na’ama Goldman, countertenor Yaniv D’Or, tenor Nimrod Grinboim and baritone Noah Brieger. Conducting the concert was Maestro Daniel Cohen.

The Magnificat – the Canticle of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:46-55) - traditionally formed part of the Roman Catholic service of Vespers. After the Reformation, it was incorporated into evening services of the Lutheran- and Anglican churches. The Magnificat has been set to music more than any other liturgical text (other than the Mass) from 5th century plainsong settings to the 2002 Magnificat by Canadian composer Ruth Watson Henderson.

The concert began with Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) Magnificat D.486. It was composed by the 18-year-old composer in 1815 – a productive year, in which Schubert had also composed some 150 songs. Not frequently performed, this Magnificat made for a good concert piece, with its opening flourish of trumpets (and fine trumpet-playing it was) and drums, the somewhat Haydnesque work expressed with a large, scintillating choral- and orchestral sound. The more subdued middle section, sung by four soloists, provided a thoughtful and expressive interlude. Young Russian-born Alla Vasilevitsky’s reedy voice and musicality shone throughout the evening.

W.A.Mozart’s (1759-1791) years in Salzburg (1771-1779) saw much emphasis on church music. The “Dixit and Magnificat” K.193 (1774), written for performance in the Salzburg Cathedral, is indicative of the ingenuity and energy (indeed, manic intensity) of the 17-year-old composer. Abounding in fine counterpoint, (Alfred Einstein found it “somewhat too showy”), we heard the Magnificat, its streamlined text making “heroic” demands on orchestra and singers.
The Magnificat in C major from the “Vesperae solennes de Dominica” K.321 is charged with temperament (and, indeed, a touch of opera buffa), with sudden pianissimi punctuated by vigorous trumpet interjections, powerful unisons and playful violin arpeggios setting off heightened dramatic writing for chorus and solo voices, all culminating in the emphatic and positive “Amen”. Nimrod Grinboim’s zesty, flexible singing provided enjoyment. The K.321 Magnificat was composed for ordinary Sunday use, whereas the “Vesperae solennes de Confessore K.339 (1779), also in C major, the last work Mozart wrote for his employer Archbishop Colloredo, was composed for a feast day. The Magnificat concluding the K.339 Vespers, expressing joy and thanksgiving, opens with emphatic triplets in a sweep of stormy orchestration, with staggered entries of the choir. Commentary from the choir is interspersed with solo passages. The three Mozart Magnificats we heard constitute joyful, excellent concert hall music. One wonders, however, if they did not raise a few eyebrows among more conservative Salzburg church-goers. The audience in the Henry Crown Auditorium enjoyed the vibrant, colorful and articulate performance of the three Mozart Magnificats.

Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Magnificat (originally composed for women’s choir in 1715) exists in four distinct versions and its wide circulation in Europe suggests it was the composer’s best-known composition. The version we heard at the JSO concert was a combination of the RV 610a and RV 611 versions. Here, from the outset, we are acutely more aware of the text’s religious nature than in the Mozart settings(Vivaldi was an ordained priest), the NIVE and the Adi Choir performing the first, homophonic movement (Magnificat) ceremoniously and with grandeur, presenting its chromatic content and placing its weighty, religious message in the foreground. Soprano Claire Megnaghi handled the “Et exultavit” and “Quia respexit” with easeful flexibility, florid ornamentation and competence. Megnaghi and Vasilevitsky showed fine teamwork in the “Esurientes”. Yaniv D’Or, wielded the melismatic passages of the “Esurientes” in a well-defined manner, but his voice was not heard well enough due to the acoustic limitations of the Henry Crown Auditorium. His voice would be enjoyed and appreciated better in a smaller venue and with Baroque period instruments. The choirs took on board the tension, drama and unique text-painting of the work, infusing the “Fecit Potentiam” with biting energy, expressing the rich textures, chromaticism and majesty in choruses. Daniel Cohen, going for clarity, avoided daredevil tempi, thus giving articulacy and depth to his reading of this celebratory work.

The concert ended with J.S.Bach’s Magnificat BWV 243, composed in Leipzig for the 1723 Christmas Vespers. Bach later revised it, removing the Christmas content to make the piece more flexible for use at Easter and throughout the year. He also transposed it from E-flat major to the brighter key of D major, for the convenience of trumpets. A work on a grand scale, it calls for five soloists, a five-part choir and a large orchestra (for the time) including two flutes, two oboes, three trumpets, strings and continuo. Following the radiant instrumental opening, we heard the choirs in inspired, buoyant singing, the excitement of the “Omnes generations” and the carefully woven intricacy of lines and vehemence of the “Fecit potentiam” providing high points, the fugal texture of the “Sicut locutus” cleanly delineated. Solo sections and duets provided much delight: Vasilevitsky’s use of vibrato-ornamentation in the “Et exultavit”, the gently flexed, discretely melancholic interweaving of oboe, bassoon and voice (Megnaghi) in the “Quia respexit”, the teamwork of organ, bassoon and compelling singing (Noah Brieger) in the somber “Quia fecit” and D’Or and Grinboim’s attention and blending in the gently lilting “Et misericordia”. Grinboim’s handling of the tortuous, instrumental-type melodic line of the “Deposuit potentes” was expressive. The “Suscepit Israel” (Vasilevitsky, Megnaghi, D’Or), with its touching oboe obbligato, preceded the final choral sections.

Young Israeli-born Daniel Cohen, chief conductor of the Jersey Chamber Orchestra, musical director of the Eden Sinfonia (London) and artistic director of the Gropius Ensemble, has been permanent guest conductor of the Israel Chamber Orchestra since 2010. His conducting is dynamic, detailed and communicative. His vitality and enthusiasm made for a high level of interest and energy in this uplifting concert.