Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Accentus Austria in the 2012 Israel Festival

Musical director Thomas Wimmer

A visiting group to the 2012 Israel Festival, “Accentus Austria”, under the auspices of the Austrian Cultural Forum Tel Aviv, performed a concert titled “Aria Viennesa. A Melting Pot of Cultures” May 27th in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. Established in 1998 in Vienna by lutenist and violone-player Thomas Wimmer, it comprises a total of 13 members, the number of players taking part in any one concert depending on each individual program. Directed by Wimmer, “Accentus Austria” has made a deep study of early Spanish music and its influence throughout Europe, this research covering the oral tradition of Sephardic Romances, from art- and popular music from around 1500 to sacred- and secular music of the 16th- and 17th centuries. Another area of the ensemble’s repertoire is music of the 16th- and 17th centuries in the Austrian Empire. The latter was the focus of the concert we heard at the Jerusalem concert. Born in Austria in 1961, Thomas Wimmer studied the viola da gamba in Vienna; due to his interest in music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, he has also been involved in playing such instruments as the Renaissance viol, the vihuela d’arco, medieval fiddle and the rebec.

The evening’s program included music of Vienna and east of Vienna, addressing the eastern Habsburg Empire of the 17th century, with its Italian-style music on one hand, and, on the other, Austrian, Hungarian, Bohemian and Polish music that was played in the streets, with the Turkish influence from the time the Ottoman Empire conducted war against the Habsburgs and their Hungarian territories in the mid-16th century. The latter influence was apparent in the first group of pieces – traditional Hungarian-Turkish music of the 17th century. Accompanied by lute, koboz (a medieval lute associated with the singing of epic songs), flute, with violins and viola held as the fiddle - on the shoulder - and percussion, we heard singer Tamás Kiss in traditional narrative songs, his powerful, bright tenor voice and theatrical approach leaving the listener enchanted:
'When you hear the sound of the koboz,
Your brightness will vanish,
Your delight will change intp grief,
And tears will moisten your beautiful eyes...'
This music was clearly non-European in concept, mode and in the unison doubling of melodies; flautist Michael Posch, ornamenting the same melodies with much invention and agility, promised an evening of masterful flute- and recorder playing!

The ensemble took us back into the Habsburg court to hear two dance suites by Austrian violinist and prolific composer Johann Heinrich Schmelzer (1623-1680). The leading Austrian composer of instrumental music before Biber, we heard two of Schmelzer’s suites, some written for allegorical pageants in which members of the royal family took part. “Accentus Austria” gave expression to the music’s elegance, invention and easy charm, with percussionist Wolfgang Reithofer adding color and, here and there, rustic charm. But were we hearing a typically European Baroque-style suite? Certainly not. In addition to the usual dances, the movements included programmatically-titled pieces and decidedly folk-flavored pieces. And why were we to detect these traits in the music of Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), Austrian organist, court- and church composer and theorist, whose book “Gradus ad Parnassum” (Vienna 1725) has been instrumental in our counterpoint studies at music academies? Fux was born into a peasant family, but it seems that the major influence of folk- and non-European music on him would have come from Vienna’s occupation by the Turks in 1683; this would also have meant familiarity with Turkish percussion instruments. Fux’ music represents early engagement with Turkish music. “Accentus Austria” performed two suites by Fux - Partita K329 and the Symphonia ex C. The latter, referred to by Wimmer as “Turkish music of war and countryside”, began with a military drum beat, the following sections alternating between European Baroque musical language and modal country dances with their unison melodies. Played effectively by the consort, these works had the audience sitting at the edge of its seats, rethinking its concept of Austrian Baroque chamber music!

No less interesting was Canzona terza by Bartolomé Selma y Salaverde, performed by Michael Posch on soprano recorder, with harpsichord and violone continuo. Salaverde, born in Spain some time between 1580 and 1690, was an Augustine monk. A virtuoso bassoonist it seems, and well familiar with the northern Italian styles of the day (his name appeared in Venice), Salaverde’s music is known solely from one manuscript “Primo libro Canzoni, Fantasie et Correnti da suonar a 1, 2, 3, 4 voci con Basso Continuo” (1638) housed in the University of Wroklaw, Poland (Breslau in Habsburg times) - connecting culturally with the Austrian content of the concert. The collection comprises several short instrumental pieces; it includes tempo markings although there is little written there to specify instrumentation. In Posch’s hands, Canzona terza, with its variety of figuration, many moods and contrasting sections, was a celebration of fine musicianship, agility and technical fluency.

Following a traditional 17th century Hungarian song “Budát, ó Hunnia” sung by Tamás Kiss, accompanying himself on a large hurdy-gurdy, the concert ended with pieces from Codex Caioni (Kájoni) and Codex Vietorisz (c.1680), both manuscripts including arrangements of songs, dances, suites, etc., with scoring for instrumental ensembles. The Codex Caioni, showing the great diversity of influences existing in Transylvania, was named after the Franciscan organist Johannes Caioni, who spent 30 years transcribing 17th century Hungarian, Rumanian and gypsy songs and dances, Italian-, German and French compositions and his own works. An organ-builder and restorer, publisher and printer, theologian, philosopher and practitioner of herbal medicine, Caioni was the first Transylvanian musician to win European reputation. The whimsical song “Lepus intra sata quiescit”, the hurdy-gurdy reminding us of its folk origins, tells of a hare under threat from everyone – king, priests, monks, peasants and soldiers; it may possibly represent the “artist” under public attack. Humor and joie-de-vivre characterized the dances ending the program; they were varied in instrumental color and combination, their style spanning from a dignified Saraband to jovial, earthy melodies.

The concert threw light on some interesting aspects of European music. “Accentus Austria” is a high quality ensemble, boasting several fine players; violinists Ulli Engel and Monika Toth and their viola counterpart Ivan Becka were excellent in their double roles. As to the evocative historical songs and nostalgic ballads sung and accompanied by Tamás Kiss, they created much interest:
'Oh what a pearl of beauty is the castle of Esztergom,
Lined by waves!
Like the prettiness of my beloved.
But far am I and full of grief,
As from the heart of my true love
I am separated...'

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Vokalquintett Berlin at the May 2012 Abu Gosh Festival

On their way to attend a concert in one of Jerusalem’s most magical venues, festival-goers to the May 2012 Abu Gosh Festival enter the tranquil, succulent garden of the historic Abu Gosh Crusader Benedictine Church. They wander around, enjoying the pine trees, flowers and archeological artifacts, chatting to friends or sipping a hearty cup of tea or coffee with a piece of baklava (pastry filled with honey, walnuts and pistachios) served by one of the local residents.

The event was “Splendid Italy”, May 26th 2012, a concert performed by the Vokalquintett Berlin, an ensemble established some three years ago with singers from Germany, Austria and Israel – sopranos Nathalie Siebert and guest singer Katja Kuntze (standing in for Christine Bohnenkamp), alto Jonny Kreuter, tenor Martin Netter and bass Amnon Seelig. Performing two concerts at this Abu Gosh Festival, under the auspices of the Israel Goethe-Institut, (they gave a concert of English music 25.5.2012), Vokalquintett Berlin sings repertoire of cappella music from the Renaissance to the 21st century, but focusing much on the music of Monteverdi, Gesualdo, Schein and Schütz.

In his opening comments, Amnon Seelig spoke of secular Italian music as all being on one subject - love. And, on the subject of love and its complications, what could be more suitable than opening with Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “O primavera” (Third Book of Madrigals, 1592)?
‘O Spring, youth of the year,
Beautiful mother of flowers,
Of fresh herbs and new loves;
You are, alas, returned,
But without the dear days of my hope.
You are as you were before, so charming and beautiful,
But I am not as I was in past times,
So dear in the eyes of others.’
Guarini’s message in three madrigals from Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605) - “Ch’io t’ami”(If, cruel girl), “Deh, bella e cara” (Ah, beloved, fair), “Ma tu, piu, che mai dura” (But, harder of heart) - sung by the ensemble is no more encouraging. The VB singers showed a good understanding of Monteverdi’s expressive- and dramatic style and of the revolutionary declamatory style used in this Fifth Book of Madrigals. They made energetic use of consonants, choosing a steady pace, thus steering clear of over-sentimentality, but addressing dissonances, painting them into the mellifluous phrasing of Monteverdi’s distinctive palette. Nathalie Siebert held the first soprano line throughout with outstanding competence and expressiveness, her rich, creamy voice pleasing. From the Fourth Book of Madrigals (1602), based on a monadic song by Giulio Caccini, we heard “Sfogava con le stelle”, telling of a lovesick man venting his grief to the stars; the ensemble gave expression to the longing, the despair and anger of the abandoned lover.

Resulting from a four-year stay in Venice to study with Giovanni Gabrieli, German composer Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) published his opus 1 - “Libro primo de Madrigali” (there was never a second book of madrigals) - a collection of eighteen 5-part madrigals (and one 8-part for double choir). These bold works combine the influence of Gabrieli’s traditional stile antico approach (the old master also encouraged Schütz to explore new Italian works), the late 16th century chromatic madrigal style and Monteverdi’s text settings; they are rich in polyphony and boast exotic harmonies. Once again dealing with the agonies and ecstasies of love, “O primovera” (O Spring), “Io moro, ecco chio moro” (I am dying, I am dying here) and “Di marmo siete voi” (You are made of marble) to texts of Guarini and Marino, were evoked in all their richness of imagery and harmonic daring, VB’s pleasing brightness of tone anchored in Seelig’s rounded bass timbre. For those of us familiar with Schütz’ polychoral sacred music, it is a revelation to hear this same composer (understandably referred to as “musicus poeticus”) at home with the emotional devices of Italian madrigal style – falling intervals and dissonances to express grief, fast running figures and coloraturas expressing joy, etc, and to enjoy his fine grasp of the Italian language.

The subject of love was taken a drastic step further by Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa (1566-1613), who murdered his wife and her lover in 1590. In a style unmistakingly representing Gesualdo’s extroverted musical tastes, his emotional extremes and mental torment, Vokalquintett Berlin performed Gesualdo’s ‘Io tacerò, ma nel silenzio mio’ (I will keep quiet, yet in my silence) from the Fourth Book of Madrigals (1596) and ‘Mercè!’ grido piangendo from the Fifth Book of Madrigals (1611).
‘”Mercy!” I cry, weeping
But who hears me?
Alas, I faint.
I shall die, therefore, in silence.
Ah, for pity! At least,
Oh treasure of my heart,
Let me tell you
Before I die, “I die”’.
Never overstepping the bounds of good taste (or could good taste be stretched in this case?), the VB singers effectively presented the unpredictability and excesses of some of the most original and radical music of its time; the unique way Gesualdo wriggles out of dissonant impasses seems to reflect the strategies of his own personal life.

Although educated by monks in Modena, later also entering into the service of the church, Orazio Vecchi’s (1550-1605) reputation was much through his settings of secular poems. Following the distresses and anxieties of love depicted in the works of Monteverdi, Schütz and the Gesualdo, the audience was offered relief in Orazio Vecchi’s “Gioite tutti”
‘Rejoice all with sounds, songs and dances
Since fair spring has come
And valleys are blossoming
And the rose is in full bloom.
Lovers are jesting
And scattering flowers…’
VB’s treatment of it was delicate, its changing dance rhythms celebrating the season of love.
In the poignant “Il bianco e dolce cigno” (The white and sweet swan dies singing), with both its pathos and rapid parlando passages, the singers demonstrated Vecchi’s interest in intense word painting, their vocal timbre remaining uncluttered.

The concert ended with some arrangements for vocal quintet by Amnon Seelig. These included the 1952 song “That’s Amore” composed by Harry Warren (lyrics: Jack Brooks) together with Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke’s “Bella Notte” (the latter featured in Walt Disney’s movie “Lady and the Tramp”) in an arrangement suggesting the style of the Comedy Harmonists, Lennon and McCartney’s “I Will”, the Brindisi (a song encouraging the drinking of alcohol) - “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Amnon Seelig’s refreshingly different setting of Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”. Seelig’s arrangements are sophisticated, witty and understated and they bristle with interesting harmonic toning. (In one of the lighter numbers, alto Jonny Kreuter did a nice imitation of a muted trumpet). Experienced choral singer, Seelig has sung in many ensembles in both Israel and Germany. He writes arrangements for ensembles and is currently studying Jewish Cantorial Arts at the Abraham Geiger Kolleg in Berlin.

Following the concert, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to Vokalquintett Berlin’s tenor Martin Netter, with Amnon Seelig joining us later. Netter told me that, till now, most of the ensemble’s concerts have been in Germany, with an outstanding concert at the Festival of Early Music in Innsbruck (Austria). These two Abu Gosh Festival concerts were the group’s first outside of Europe. All singers work in other ensembles and choirs and most teach. The VB has no leader; interpretation of works is achieved by way of discussion and experimentation; Amnon Seelig talked about each member bringing his or her expertise to the group. As the result of regular rehearsing, whether preparing for an imminent, concert or not, the VB is working at developing its own signature sound, this forming from the rich mix of its members’ musical tastes the various singing styles. When I mentioned the ensemble singing with a straight sound in the performance of early music, Netter stressed the importance of clear vowels and clear sounds in order to have a good blend of voices but mentioned the ensemble’s very economical use of vibrato for the building of phrases and enrichment of key notes.

The festival audience enjoyed its trip to “Splendid Italy”. Vokalquintett Berlin’s members show a profound understanding of the music they perform; their diction is articulate, as is their pronunciation. Their constant listening, their delicate and pleasing choral balance, blend and vocal color characterize the group’s performance, but do not rule out individual musical personality. Vokalquintett Berlin’s performance is fresh, polished and exciting.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Auser Musici (Italy) at the Felicja Blumental Festival in Tel Aviv

The 2012 Felicja Blumental Festival took place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art from May 14th to 19th. The festival included dance, films, lectures, events for the whole family, solo- and duo music recitals and ensemble performances. A recital of Brazilian songs was sung by singer Annette Celine, daughter of the late Felicja Blumental.

A gala concert "Sweet Baroque and Stormy Times" on May 14th in the Recanati Hall of the Tel Aviv Museum featured the Italian early music ensemble Auser Musici, appearing for the second time at the Felicja Blumental Festival. The group was joined by countertenor Filippo Mineccia, who had stood in at the last minute for a singer who had taken ill. Established in 1997, Auser Musici’s founder and director Carlo Ipata focuses on research- and performance of Tuscan music of the Renaissance and Baroque. Working together with musicologists, Ipata is involved in giving lectures and in publishing these works.

Much of the program was made up of small groups of pieces from operas. This format gave the audience a taste of the excitement, the strongly theatrical aspect, the range of moods and gestures and the arias and dances of Italian music. Preparing the audience for what was to be a solid dose of Italian drama, amorous passion and humor, the concert began with pieces from “Le Disgrazie d’Amore”(1667) (The Adversities of Love) composed by Marc’Antonio Cesti (1623-1669), one of the greatest of the 17th century Venetian school of opera composers. This was followed by two arias from Alessandro Scarlatti’s (c.1660-1725) first opera “Gli Equivoci nel Sembiante” (The Ambiguities of Looks) (1679), a comedy of mistaken identities and, of course, amorous intrigues.

Of special interest were pieces given their first modern performance by Auser Musici. Among those were items from Francesco Gasparini’s (1661-1727) forward-looking operas “Aiace” (1697), “Oracolo del Fato” (The Oracle of Fate) (1719) and “l’Atenaide” (1709). A prolific composer, especially remembered for his operas and their influence, Gasparini was also a teacher, his students including D.Scarlatti and Quantz; he was Vivaldi’s employer when maestro di coro at the Ospidale della Pietà in Venice.

Despite the fact that the performance of the movements we heard from G. F.Händel’s (1685-1759) “La Partenope” (1730) was not groundbreaking, having, indeed, been performed in our times, the fact remains that this delightful opera, wavering between full-on passion and a kindly, humorous glimpse into how human weaknesses complicate love, is not heard enough in our concert halls and opera houses. Countertenor Filippo Mineccia gave a dramatic and vehement reading of the arias, the audience glued to his expressive face and body; his ornamenting of the da capo sections was worth waiting for.

Based on Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem “Orlando Furioso” (a poem inspiring Händel, Haydn, Rossini and other composers to compose works on the subject) Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) “Orlando Furioso” was premiered in 1727 in Venice. Filled with passion, violence, mystery, malice and sorcery, it contains some most dazzling arias and expressive recitatives, telling of the knight Orlando who falls in love with the wrong woman, consequently losing his mind. In the aria “Sol da te con Flauto” (Only with you, with the flute), Vivaldi depicts the casting of a spell with the magic, lascivious sounds of the Baroque transverse flute in one of its most challenging pieces of music for the Baroque flute, Carlo Ipata supported by Vivaldi’s magical instrumental accompaniment. Mineccia matched this with tender singing, long languishing phrases and embellishments that sounded spontaneous. This was followed by the demonic “Non profondo cieco mondo” (In the depths of a blind world), Mineccia’s strong, stable voice serving him well in this fiery utterance.

We were thus reminded that Italian Baroque music, reflecting the Italian temperament, is a series of mood changes. In the above-mentioned pieces, attention to elegant transitions between pieces was given by harpsichordist Daniele Boccaccio and theorbo player Francesco Romano. Renowned recorder-player, Baroque oboist and teacher Martino Noferi’s playing added interest and brilliance to ensemble- and solo roles throughout the evening.

The program included two instrumental works. The first was G.P.Telemann’s (1681-1767) Concerto for Recorder and Baroque Flute, Strings and Continuo in e minor. Ipata and Noferi collaborated in Telemann’s unique and somewhat enigmatic combination of flute and recorder as paired instruments, their pensive playing of the first and third movements whisked away by the heavy-textured Polish dance rondo taking over the fourth movement, an expression of unbridled joy. As well as the composer being a fine recorder player, we are reminded by this work of Telemann’s familiarity with Polish music, stemming from the time he spent in Sorau as court Kapellmeister to Count Erdmann of Promnitz; in his autobiography of 1718, the composer writes of his “acquaintance with Polish music through proximity”.

The other instrumental piece we heard was Vivaldi’s single-movement Trio Sonata no.12 opus 1 “La Folia” (Folly, madness), a set of variations on the musical theme in existence since the late 15th century, its harmonic scheme forming part of the “ground” (used by Lully, Corelli, A.Scarlatti, J.S.Bach, Händel and other composers). The Auser Musici ensemble now pared down to strings, theorbo and harpsichord, playing the melancholy “La Folia” theme - actually a stately saraband. Violinists Mauro Lopes Ferreira and Daniela Godio led, with ‘cellist Mauro Valli also providing beautiful articulate gestures and contrasts. In a seamless chain of 20 variations, presenting much imitation between the violins in florid, energetic, virtuosic variations, contrasted by poignant, tranquilly singing variations, the work’s momentum then built up, beginning with Variation XVII, resulting in rapid figurations leading into the coda.

Filippo Mineccia signed out with a moving performance of Händel’s (much recycled piece, ending up as an aria in “Rinaldo” in 1711) “Lascia ch’io pianga” (Let me weep my cruel fate), the ensemble’s second encore dispersing the atmosphere of tragedy and despair with two miniature movement’s from Cesti’s “Adversaries of Love”. Although their playing and instrumental balance falls short of several of Israel’s own Baroque artists, Auser Musici’s program was of interest. The annual Felicja Blumental Festival offers events of much interest and variety, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art being one of the “white city’s” most inspiring venues.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The spring Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival May 2012

Vokalquintett Berlin

The Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will take place once again May 25th, 26th and 27th, 2012. One of Israel’s leading festivals, it has been running twice a year since its reinstatement in 1992, offering concerts in the Kiryat Yearim Church overlooking Abu Gosh and in the Benedictine Crusader Church which nestles tranquilly in an exotic garden setting in the village of Abu Gosh. The Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) festival will, as always, present top local artists as well as overseas visiting artists and groups.

Among concerts featuring Israeli musicians, concert-goers will be able to hear J.S.Bach’s “Magnificat”, performed by the Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra, with soloists Carmit Natan, Maya Heller, Liran Kopel and Hemi Levison, under the baton of Maestro Stanley Sperber. Conducted by Michael Shani, the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra will perform the Mozart “Requiem”, joined by the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir and soloists Agam Englard-Saar, Ayelet Amotz-Abrahamson, Eitan Drori and Gabriel Loewenheim. An outstanding new vocal ensemble “Barrocade Vocale”, together with Barrocade instrumentalists, with Barrocade Vocale founder Yizhar Karshon on harpsichord and organ, will perform a mostly-Bach program of “Eternal Beauty”. For those with a taste for Russian music, soprano Anastasia Kalavan, alto Svetlana Sandler and pianist Lanna Gershoni will present “Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Russian Folk Songs”. A program ranging from music of Vivaldi, Saint-Saëns, Brahms and Fauré to that of Sasha Argov, Eyal Bat and Yoni Rechter will be performed by singers Dafna Zehavi, Gal Hilman and Hillel Zehavi, with bassoonist Uzi Shalev and pianists Eran Zehavi and Eyal Bat. The Adi Choir (Conductor - Oded Shomrony, pianist -Yevegeny Oslon) in “Golden Voices – from Mozart and Rossini to Our Time” will be joined by vocal soloists Sharon Dvorin, Michal Okon and Irena Scherbin in a colorful potpourri of works by Palestrina, Delibes, Mozart, Rossini, Pablo Casals and Poulenc, also including folk songs and music of Matti Caspi and Yoni Rechter.

Hannah Zur will conduct the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir in works by Mozart and Robert Schumann, but not just: Clara Schumann’s “Evening Festivities in Venice” – three songs for a cappella choir – should prove especially interesting to many music-lovers. Eyal Bat will accompany on organ. Keren Hadar is a singer with an interesting and wide repertoire; she will solo with the Bat Kol Girls’ Choir (conductor - Anat Morag) and the Barrocade Ensemble in a program of works by Händel and Britten.

Swiss-born violinist Cordelia Hagman, now living in Israel, will perform with Israeli soprano Carmit Natan and Kenyan bass Zachariah Njoroge Kariithi in a concert of works by Fauré and Saint-Saëns. The Vokalquintett Berlin, an ensemble singing a cappella repertoire from the Renaissance to today, was formed some three years ago and has already made its mark on the international music scene; its members hail from Germany, Austria and Israel. In the upcoming Abu Gosh Festival they will perform one concert of English music and one of Italian music. The other guest group is the Tbilisi Ensemble from Georgia, conducted by Robert Gogolashvili. The ensemble will sing traditional secular- and religious songs accompanied by authentic instruments; some of the music goes back 1000 years.

There will also be several informal outdoor musical events for those wishing to picnic, listen to music and even sing along in the fresh air and relaxed atmosphere of this spring festival. Stalls will be selling all sorts of handcrafts and other items, and the alfresco festival cafeteria will be doing a brisk business.

Saga of the score for the ballet "La Fille mal gardee" shown May 16th in Israel

Choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton

With the first season of Royal Opera House Cinema Season drawing to a close, audiences in cinemas throughout the world were able to see Frederick Ashton’s version of the ballet “La Fille mal gardée” in real time May 16th 2012, as it was being performed by the Royal Ballet in London. This writer attended the showing at the Rav Chen Cinema, Jerusalem.

“La Fille mal gardée” (The Wayward Daughter) is one of the oldest ballets still popular and performed today. Originally conceived by the 18th century chorographer Jean Dauberval and premiered in Bordeaux in 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution, it was originally titled “Le Ballet de la Paille” (Ballet of the Straw). One of the best-loved modern versions is Sir Frederick Ashton’s 1960 staging of the ballet. The plot is simple - a naïve boy-meets-girl story, taking place in an English village. The setting connects with Frederick Ashton’s great love of the English countryside, the “suspended stillness of the Constable landscape of my beloved Suffolk” and all things English, the beauty of the region serving as a great inspiration to the choreographer. He created a romance and a comedy, but it is the range of dance styles he introduced into it that remind us of his choreographic genius. Ashton was inspired by dance in general: here he combines traditional English country folk dances – such as the Maypole dance and the clog dance - with classical ballet, weaving folk styles in with classical ballet technique. Prior to the evening’s performance we attended on May 16th, former principal dancer and present director of the Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, spoke of the Royal Ballet’s first performance of “La Fille” in 1960, in which she had danced. She described it as one of the most exciting premieres she remembers at Covent Garden.

“La Fille mal gardée” is the story of Lise, a beautiful, coquettish village girl, who is in love with Colas, a farmer, the twist in the plot being that Lise’s mother, Widow Simone, wants her daughter to marry Alain, the half-witted, umbrella-obsessed son of a wealthy landowner. Finally, following the signing of the wedding contract with Alain, his father and a notary, Alain is given the key to Lise’s room, into which Lise has been locked, only to find her there in her wedding dress together with Colas. Love triumphs, all is forgiven and Lise and Colas can remain together.

The backdrop of this production is a richly colorful painted country scene. Indeed, color was a key element in this production, with costumes a blaze of hues, synonymous with the joy of a rustic community, and a sense of community prevailed throughout the performance. Farmyard chickens have been associated with productions of “La Fille” since its early staging (the 1885 performance of it by the Imperial Ballet featuring live chickens). The Royal Ballet’s present production featured them as four colored, plump characters together with a cockerel, dancing in delightful avian style and searching the ground for grains.

One of the more unique items of Ashton’s “La Fille” is the intricate Ribbon Dance, in which Lise (Roberta Marquez) and Colas (Steven McRae) dance a pas de deux connected by a pink ribbon, which they twist around themselves, Ashton’s interpretation of the “lovers’ knot”. Ribbons appear as a motif throughout the ballet, representing the association of love. Then there is the clog dance, traditional to the north of England, which was danced with humor and brilliance by Philip Mosley with a small group, he, as the heroine’s mother Widow Simone, dressed in British pantomime fashion, the role traditionally danced by a man. All the lead roles were performed outstandingly, the corps de ballet also of high quality; the story’s simplicity was well recounted with no need for words, the main characters using facial expression to depict the emotions of the rustic characters at different stages of the story. Ludovic Ondiviela made an excellent Alain, his flexibility and gestures portraying the village idiot with a fine balance of skill and pantomime.

And to the history of the music that accompanied the ballet. Since its earliest performances, the musical score to “La Fille mal gardée” has undergone immense changes. At the time it was created, the role of ballet composer was not that of a highly respected compoer, the music probably being an assortment of existing melodies arranged by the first violinist of the ballet orchestra. In 1829, the French dancer and choreographer Jean-Pierre Aumer commissioned a score from Ferdinand Hérold. Hérold put together themes from popular operas, such as Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and “Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra”, Paul Igidi Martini’s “Le Droit du Seigneur” and Donizetti’s “L’elisir d’amore”. However, in 1864, the German dancer and ballet master Paul Taglioni requested a completely new score from the Berlin Königlichen Opernhaus resident ballet composer Peter Ludwig Hertel. In 1885, the latter version was also used by the influential French dancer, ballet master and choreographer together with his Russian counterpart Lev Ivanov in St. Petersburg, but with music by Ludwig Minkus added to it. Founder choreographer of the Royal Ballet in London, Frederick Ashton wanted to use Hertel’s 1864 score, but on studying it, decided that Hérold’s music would be more suitable to his needs. In the meantime, composer Malcolm Arnold left the project and composer John Lanchbery eventually agreed to take it on, basing the music for Ashton’s choreography on Hérold’s arrangement, the score of which he and Ashton found at the New York POB Library. The score included no notes on the story and no music for mime scenes etc., so Lanchbery incorporated part of Hertel’s score from the St. Petersburg staging. Ashton and Lanchbery worked together on the score for eight weeks, matching action to music, with Lanchbery composing more sections to blend with both Hérold and Hertel’s music. He orchestrated the full score and created character leitmotifs for Widow Simone and Colas and a “disaster” theme. The result was a fine supportive score working hand-in-glove with Ashton’s choreography. In the May 16th 2012 performance, Barry Wordsworth, music director of the Royal Ballet Covent Garden, conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra, breathing joie-de-vivre and orchestral color into Lanchbery’s score.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Handel's "Alexander's Feast" performed in Jerusalem, conducted by Oded Shomrony

Georg Friedrich Handel

Conducted by Oded Shomrony, the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, together with the Israel Chamber Orchestra and soloists soprano Carmit Natan, tenor Liran Kopel and bass Hemi Levison, performed Georg Friedrich Händel’s oratorio “Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Music” May 15th 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. The 100 or so singers taking part are all members of four branches of the Oratorio Choir – The Oratorio Singers (director - Na’ama Nazrati), Bel Canto (director - Noa Burstein), Cantabile (director - Flora Vinokurov) and the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir (director - Ronen Borshevsky).

Händel based “Alexander’s Feast” on an ode by poet laureate, dramatist, critic and leading literary figure of Restoration England John Dryden (1631-1700). It was composed in 1736, to be performed at the annual St. Cecilia’s Feast Day celebration (November 22nd). Edited by Jack Lynch, with additions by Newburgh Hamilton, the latter arranging it into a sequence of recitations, arias and choruses, the text of “Alexander’s Feast” only makes reference to St. Cecilia in the final few pages. Neither a traditional oratorio nor an opera in genre, Händel completed “Alexander’s Feast” in record short time, aware of the fact that performance of a work of this kind was sure to appeal to London audiences and would be remunerative for him. A product of his later years, with the composer now well established in London as a composer and impresario, “Alexander’s Feast” became one of Händel’s most admired compositions; it was popular during the composer’s lifetime and after, and was one of only two of his choral works published in full during his lifetime (the other being “Acis and Galatea”).

The oratorio opens with a banquet scene, where Alexander the Great is celebrating his victory over Darius and the Persians in 331 B.C.; Timotheus, the legendary flautist, is entertaining the guests. His singing, flute- and lyre-playing arouse intense emotions in the audience, ranging from sublime divinity to fiery revenge. When Cecilia, the patroness of musicians, appears, her influence extends even beyond that of Timotheus. It is then concluded that Timotheus and Cecilia should divide the musical crown between them. Dryden’s aim is to show the effects of music on the emotional harmony of man, conceiving of music as the harmonization of human passion and universal order.

Why choose “Alexander’s Feast” for the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir’s annual combined choral work? Despite the oratorio having very little dramatic development, its verbal text bristles with fine poetry and picturesque imagery, its musical score delighting throughout, inspiring performers to give their all to this fine music. This is precisely what happened at the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir concert. Despite the wide range of standards among his choral singers, Maestro Shomrony produced a well blended, velvety choral sound; his attention to dynamics, phrasing and British diction paid off well, producing an articulate and intensely musical performance. Choral singers were coordinated, attentive and energetic. They followed the work’s poetic references, musical course and atmosphere, bringing out Händel’s brilliant and unpredictable setting of such verses as the following:
‘Behold, behold, Darius great and good,
By too severe a fate,
Fallen, Fallen from his high estate…’
The Israel Chamber Orchestra’s playing, on the other hand, lacked precision and clean tuning, sometimes falling short of the Baroque grace and sophistication written into Händel’s instrumental score.

Soprano Carmit Natan addressed the text’s detail and moods; she paced descriptive moments well, the audience enjoying her bright, joyful vocal timbre, her delicacy and tasteful ornamenting. Baritone Hemi Levison displays fine legato technique with a forthright, transparent sound. The young singer’s British diction still needs some work; however, his addressing of the text’s dramatic temperament and contrasts was highly effective:
‘Revenge, revenge! Timothy cries,
See the furies arise;
See the snakes, that they rear,
How they hiss in their hair,
And the sparkles that flash from their eyes!
Behold a ghastly band,
Each a torch in his hand!
Those are Grecian ghosts, that in battle were slain, And, unburied, remain
Inglorious on the plain.’

Tenor Liran Kopel is especially well suited to this genre of English music, his inspired opening recitative and aria setting the scene for what is to come and inviting the audience to be involved in the music. He displays fine, articulate British diction, a detailed approach to the verbal- and musical text and its key words and an exhilarating, songful and stirring manner in performing it.

Oded Shomrony studied piano violin and singing, taking up conducting at age 17 in which he earned his M.Mus. from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. In addition to directing the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, his conducting experience includes work with such orchestras as the Israel Camerata Jerusalem and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, as well as with singers in the International Opera Workshop (Tel Aviv), The Moran Choir, the Adi Choir and the Open Concert Project. Oded teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and is the baritone singer of the Thalamus Quartet. His direction of Händel’s “Alexander’s Feast” on May 15th brought months of detailed and constructive musical work to a satisfying conclusion, producing a concert that sparkled with energy and the joy of music-making.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"Orfeo ed Euridice" at the Israeli Opera, Tel Aviv

Christoph Willibald Gluck

Christoph Willibald Gluck’s (1714-1787) three-act opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” to a libretto by Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, first presented in Vienna in 1762, was revolutionary in its approach. Classified as an “azione teatrale” – an opera on a mythological subject – it represents Gluck’s aim to return opera to a more straightforward style and to free it from becoming a string of da capo arias and acrobatic vocal display; Gluck wished “to confine music to its proper function of serving the poetry and expressing the situations of the plot”. Premiered twelve years later in Paris, it needed a reworking in order to fit in with French taste; for this purpose, the librettist Pierre-Louis Moline both translated- and expanded on Calzabigi’s text. As to other changes, the French opera public had no liking for the countertenor voice (and personality), so Orfeo was to be sung by a tenor and, of course, being in Paris, there had to be more ballet. In his pre-performance talk, Michael Ajzenstadt, artistic administrator to the Israeli Opera, added that, in the meantime, the role of Orfeo has been sung by many well-known tenors and women altos. The Israeli Opera, more-or-less sticking to Gluck’s original version, with the availability of two fine Israeli countertenors – Alon Harari and Yaniv D’Or – chose to have the role of Orfeo sung by a countertenor.

On the stage of the auditorium of the Israeli Opera, we see what could only be called the décor of a contemporary house (set designer, Boris Kudlicka), with, of course, a laptop computer on the table. Polish director Mariusz Trelinski (b.1962) rejects the historical trappings of stage productions, placing emphasis on the expressiveness and dramatic intensity of a work. Singers, dancers and actors were, of course, in modern dress. However, many details of the story had undergone change. For example, Euridice did not die of a snakebite, but committed suicide. And the scene of Orfeo walking with Euridice, finally turning to look at her, to lose her yet again, was not as clear and pivotal as might be. Heaven and hell were not represented visually for most of the performance (save for a short depiction of fire). Some nice effects were projected onto the surtitle screen…there one could see a character standing at the far side of the stage or even from off-stage, as if it were in your mind.

The Opera Orchestra, under the baton of David Stern, not playing on period instruments – there was a harpsichord – supported well, its playing, however, lacking Baroque shape and elegance. The Israeli Opera Chorus (conductor, Yishai Steckler) sang with a well-blended, rich sound that abounded in delicacy and good taste. The dancers, dressed in red, were impressive, adding energetic undercurrents to the opera plot. Countertenor Alon Harari (Orfeo), his well-rounded, stable and mellifluous vocal timbre always thrilling, performed with confidence and alacrity. Claire Meghnagi (Euridice) is a stage natural; opera is such a good medium for her. Her articulate singing pleased and rang out clearly, her dramatic performance convincing. In duet, Harari and Meghnagi delighted as they convincingly played out the roller coaster of love’s infatuations. Hila Fahima, as Amor (dressed as a post office courier) was bright and sparkly in both sound and personality. As to Gluck’s music to “Orfeo ed Euridice”, one’s ears are titillated throughout the work, with the audience waiting with bated breath for the much-loved aria of Orfeo, who, in profound grief, sings “Che faro senza Euridice?” (What will I do without Euridice?) Considering its heartbreaking content, Stern took the aria at a fairly fast pace.

Mariusz Trelinski’s message is that the characters of the opera are real people with human failings, moving from heaven to Hades in daily life. Still, I would prefer to be transported to other worlds on the opera stage. The stage setting appeared banal and uninspiring…lacking in magic, mystery and excitement, detracting from the story’s mythological duality. As to the visuals of heaven and hell, what’s wrong with a preview of the real thing?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A European Union - Janine Jansen and friends play Schoenberg and Schubert

Janine Jansen

The tenth concert of the 2011-2012 subscription series of the Jerusalem Music Centre took place May 10th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. In “A European Union”, we heard Dutch violinist Janine Jansen leading her ensemble – violinist Boris Brovstyn (UK), violists Amihai Grosz (Israel) and Maxim Resanov (UK) and ‘cellists Jens Peter Maintz (Germany) and Torleif Thedéen (Sweden).

The program comprised two works, the first being Arnold Schönberg’s (1874-1951) “Verklärte Nacht” (Transfigured Night) for string sextet opus 4, a work composed within three weeks, in 1899. Following its unsuccessful premiering in 1902 (the audience hissed and fist fights broke out), the composer transcribed it for chamber orchestra in 1917, later publishing a modified version for string orchestra in 1943. Schönberg’s first great early work and his first attempt at program music, taking the Wagnerian approach (rather than the Brahmsian) of basing it on extra-musical material, the composer used as his inspiration Richard Dehmel’s lyrical, Romantic poem of the same name. Despite the great admiration he had in his younger days of this highly regarded, pre-World War I modernist writer, Schönberg, in later life, clearly found his earlier liking of the style of Dehmel’s poem embarrassing, and, aware of the instrumental work’s accrued acclaim, he eventually hoped his audiences would address “Verklärte Nacht” as “pure music”. However, Schönberg’s work is, indeed, directly connected to the various levels of the poem and not just by the fact that the work’s form is based faithfully on that of the poem (ABACA) – “A” being the narrator. Beyond the musings of the poem, there are three clearly drawn characters – the narrator, the woman, who is carrying the child of another man, and the man in love with the woman, ready to accept the child - there is duality, nature, the universe, mysticism and, of course, the nitty-gritty social question involved, connected to bourgeois morals. The latter list makes for quite a tall bill to be juggled by any group of players. The sextet at the YMCA concert created a delicate balance between an unbiased awareness of the poem’s text and the fine detail of the musical score, from the initial mysterious, foreboding atmosphere of night, through intense (sometimes frenzied) moments, bitter-sweet Romantic expression contrasted with the more straightforward message of the “chorale”, through a strong sense of Schönberg’s subjective reading of Dehmel’s poem, to the final bright- and fragile lines representing the mystic solution of unity of the man and woman, this “transfiguration” achieved through sympathy, understanding and compassion. The players displayed oneness of intention through constant eye contact and communication, they used precision for each nuance, strategic pacing of gestures and they brought out many shades of instrumental color, also in the smallest of fragments. One sensed the sextet was playing the musical score, free of excesses and mannerisms.

Following intermission, we heard Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) String Quintet in C major opus 163, D.956, a work composed in the last months of the composer’s life and completed a mere few weeks before his death. Premiered 22 years later and published in 1853, the quintet was referred to by the composer as the “product of my genius and my misery…written in my greatest distress…” A work of broad proportions - the first movement is 445 bars long – (Robert Schumann spoke of Schubert’s “heavenly length”) Schubert does, indeed, sum up here so much of his personal- and musical mindset. With the work based in C major, Schubert confronts us with his own key relationships, the composer’s unconventional but characteristic moving to the caressing key of E flat major for the ‘cello duet in the first movement, for example, creating warmth and tenderness, indeed fitting to the Biedermeier salons of genteel Viennese middle class women, in which rooms Schubert’s small-scale works were performed. On the other hand, moves of a half tone, drastically changing the soundscape, are indicative of the fear and torment taking place in Schubert’s inner world. The players weave the mammoth proportions of the first movement in lively spontaneity, the slight flexing of gestures lending a very real aspect to their playing. Intensity, the shaping of small gestures and good taste dominate the performance. And no one, minute, refined gesture misses Janine Jansen’s bow. In the E major Adagio movement, Jansen leads her players through the tranquil, meditative first section via its harmonic development into the turbulent F minor middle section, moving apprehensively back to the first section. In the third movement, with its atypical string heaviness and hunting horn imitations, the players’ reading of each dynamic marking produced astounding contrasts, their treatment of it holding the tension throughout. The last movement, abounding with Austrian- and Hungarian folk melodies, was played with charm and joy, its terse concluding notes a sharp reminder of Schubert’s predicament. Once again, the “European Union” instrumentalists read deeply into the score in performance that was as true as it was outstanding. In their refreshing approach, they stand back from works they perform, allowing audience members to understand the music however they choose. Janine Jansen is one of today’s finest soloists; as a leader, she shines, placing the music first.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

PHOENIX performs Labadie's arrangement of J.S.Bach's Goldberg Variations

Maestro Bernard Labadie

Bernard Labadie (b.1963, Québec, Canada) is a prominent conductor of Baroque and Classical repertoire; he is also an opera specialist. He founded and continues to direct “Les Violons du Roy” and the choir “La Chapelle de Québec”. In 1997, he began his transcription of J.S.Bach’s Goldberg Variations (composed 1741 or 1742) for string orchestra and continuo. (Russian violinist and conductor Dmitry Sitkovetsky had made a note-for-note transcription of the work for string orchestra prior to Labadie’s). Speaking of his first major arrangement in an interview with Wah Keung Chan, Labadie mentioned the fact that Bach himself did much recycling of his own music. Labadie’s aim was to transcribe the Goldberg Variations in the manner that might be chosen by an 18th century composer. Because of new possibilities offered by different instrumentation, Labadie sees a transcription as a new opus “which should not be compared to the original”. (This is easier said than done!) He referred to the project as “a dangerous and stimulating process”. There is a recording of Labadie’s version played by “Les Violons du Roy” on modern stringed instruments but with period bows. Founder and director of the PHOENIX Ensemble, Dr. Myrna Herzog, always eager to stretch the limits of conventional concert repertoire, contacted Bernard Labadie with a request to perform his still unpublished arrangement, to which he agreed. PHOENIX’ first performance of it took place May 2nd 2012 at Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. Performers were harpsichordist Marina Minkin, violinists Yasuko Hirata and Noam Schuss, violist Daniel Tanchelson and Myrna Herzog herself on viola da gamba, all instrumentalists flying high on the Israeli Baroque music scene and further afield.

To start off in familiar territory, Minkin played the first part of the Aria on the harpsichord, the ensemble joining in on the repeat; likewise with the second part. The following variations were then performed in various combinations from one instrument to five. We were now hearing the Goldberg Variations as chamber music, complete with first violin – Yasuko Hirata in the first half of the work, Noam Schuss in the second. The expressive intensity of strings made for a rich, mellifluous, cantabile sound, with techniques such as pizzicato adding charm and lightness, as in Variations 4 and 28. With the contrapuntal texture allotting individual voices to instruments, Marina Minkin divided her time between reinforcing the harmonic aspect of the piece and playing complete lines, often doubled by Herzog. PHOENIX’ instrumental combination offered opportunities for many solos, the violins winning the lion’s share of them. Violist Tanchelson’s sensitive playing offered listeners a rare chance to hear articulate nuances of inner voices of the contrapuntal texture. Hirata’s reading of Bach is intelligent and directional, confident and unmannered. Noam Schuss gave an impressive, forthright and expressive performance of the upper voice of Variation 25, one of the minor variations. Myrna Herzog’s role of the bass viol complemented both harpsichord and string ensemble, her playing indicative of her emotional involvement in the project.

Duets between stringed instruments, in total keeping with the text, provided much delight, stating the case for fine 2-voiced interaction, also reminding the listener of the intimate character of Bach’s Goldberg Variations: Hirata and Tanchelson in Variation no.11, Schuss and Tanchelson in Variation 17, Hirata and Schuss in Variation no.23 and Schuss and Herzog “keeping their distance” in Variation 27.

The demands of Labadie’s writing for a larger ensemble could not be adapted to the PHOENIX quintet, hence Minkin’s solo playing of some of the movements: the jolly gigue represented in Variation 7, Variation no. 14 in all its devilish complexities, its hand-crossing and characteristic “flutters” and the elusive hide-and-seek of the temperamental no.20. Marina Minkin’s playing of the above movements on a single-manual harpsichord by Klop (Bach composed his GV for a two-manual harpsichord) was high-octane, fresh and exhilarating, leading me to think that perhaps those unique variations were better left untouched by the arranger’s hands.

Once again, Myrna Herzog has challenged audiences to free themselves of pre-conceptions, to listen with “new ears”. What effect do the Goldberg Variations have as chamber music? Do the rich textures, kinder dissonances and dulcet legato melodies relay the work’s message? Or does the work have any specific message? (Bach writes nothing on the subject, only that the Clavierübung- Keyboard Practice – the collection, in which the GV appears, was aimed at “music-lovers” rather than students). Do we need varied scoring to bring out contrasts between movements? I felt the intermission at the Jerusalem concert was detrimental to the work's process; Herzog decided to play straight through in consequent performances. When asked whose music we would be hearing, Labadie answered “Audiences will hear mostly Bach and a little Labadie…I think risk should be part of a musician’s life…” Myrna Herzog would surely agree with him. What was certain at the concert at Christ Church was that we had heard some very fine playing based on deep enquiry into this beautiful work….and it was, indeed, Bach. if somewhat diluted. What was missing for me was the stark reality of that harpsichord timbre and the technical- and emotional “struggle” on the part of the sole harpsichordist attempting the near insurmountable.