Friday, July 27, 2012

Kanazawa-Admony Duo on two pianos

Duo-pianists Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony, of international acclaim, performed a concert of music for two pianos at the Felicja Blumental Music Center (Tel Aviv) July 24th 2012. Proceeds of ticket sales went to supporting the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes, this year’s course running from August 5th through August 24th at the Sde Boker College in the Negev.

Yuval Admony opened with a few words about the annual master classes. The Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes were started 20 years ago. At that time, Admony attended as a student and remembers the experience of playing for renowned pianists and teachers who come from Israel and abroad. The course’s artistic directors are still Victor Derevianko and Emanuel Krasovsky who, together with the late Marina Bondarenko, founded the prestigious project. Due to the Tel-Hai College’s vulnerable position at the time of the Second Lebanese War, the course moved its location from the north of Israel to the Negev Desert. There are many advantages to the new venue: it has a larger hall, attracting local audiences to attend events, and the magic of the natural environment has proved a great attraction to those students and teachers attending from overseas. Admony spoke of 80 young pianists from 30 different countries enrolled in this year’s course, with internationally renowned teachers there to tutor them. Master classes will be held by different teachers each afternoon and there are concerts every evening. Today, Yuval Admony and Tami Kanazawa are members of faculty, coaching duo piano performance.

The Tel Aviv concert opened with Johannes Brahms’ “Variation on a Theme of Haydn in B flat major for two pianos opus 56b. Composed in 1873, the variation theme of the St. Anthony Chorale – possibly a pilgrim song - was not composed by Haydn; rather, the majestic asymmetrically-phrased melody had been used by Haydn in a Divertimento. Brahms had showed Clara Schumann the variations in September 1873 and they played it together. The orchestral form was presented to Brahms’ publisher two months later. The two versions were probably composed simultaneously; Brahms pointed out that one was not a transcription of the other. With the orchestral work better known to many of us, Kanazawa and Admony’s performance of the work was enlightening, making a strong case for the piano duo version, which is the composer’s last large-scale piano work. The duo-pianists created the work’s large and highly-colored tapestry, Brahms’ writing challenging them to play to- and against each other, to create textures and moods ranging from the lyrical to the agitated, from the skittish to the turbulent, from the agile Scherzo (var.5) to the caressing Siciliano (var.7), from the heavy chords of an eastern European dance to the sophistication of the cross-rhythms and syncopations of the Finale. Entertaining and entertained, Kanazawa and Admony’s playing was rewarding in its clear, translucent piano sound, creating an uncluttered environment for the work.

We then heard W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) Sonata in D major for two pianos K448. With piano music being largely for domestic use in Mozart’s day, there were few works composed for two pianos. However, on moving to Vienna in 1781, Mozart acquired a proficient piano student by the name of Josepha von Aurnhammer, in whose family’s home he had taken lodgings, and he wrote the Sonata in D major for the two of them to play, completing it in the same year. It is his only completed work for two pianos (without orchestra). Giving Josepha the “primo” part to play attested to her ability; indeed, she went on to become a concert pianist and composer. In keeping with the composer’s D major works, this sonata is both happy and virtuosic. Kanazawa and Admony’s committed playing of it was yet another reminder that Mozart was a writer of opera buffa and that virtuosity does not rule out human expression. Once again, the duo brought home the importance of hearing a work such as this in live performance, the audience experiencing the interlocking melodies and simultaneous cadences as well as the exhilarating runs and arpeggios joyful to both players and listeners. Kanazawa and Admony’s playing of this galant work (probably originally performed on fortepianos) was, however, brittle at times, some of the crescendos gathering intensity rather too quickly. It was played with exuberance and dynamic variety, but I would have enjoyed hearing some more gossamer-woven, poignant Mozart moments.

Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story’ have been skillfully arranged for four hands by John Musto. (The musical drama ‘West Side Story, telling of teenage gang friction in New York, was written in 1957, with the ‘Symphonic Dances’ put together in 1960 by the composer, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal). With the original Symphonic Dances score offering a celebration of orchestral timbres, calling for large orchestra and lots of percussion, (Bernstein was initially worried about there being no percussion in the piano version) Kanazawa and Admony used the fantasy, spontaneity and technique up their sleeves, creating the many-layered, bitter-sweet piano interpretation of this wonderful jazzy suite. As to percussion instruments, Admony engaged the audience in some finger-snapping for some sections. How articulately well the pianos can evoke Bernstein’s rich palette of harmonies: whether describing rush hour in New York or bringing a tear to the eye with West Side Story’s poignant songs, the duo-pianists did not miss a gesture, their frolicsome lightness and acute sense of rhythm serving the score well. With the opening motif of ‘Maria’ underlying the whole collage, Kanazawa and Admony swept the audience off their feet with a reading of this unique work that was as fresh as it was brilliant.

The concert concluded with ‘Tangata’ by Argentinean tango composer and virtuoso bandonéon player Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992). This short work was composed in 1965 and dedicated to the choreographer Oscar Araiz. The original scoring was rearranged for two pianos by Pablo Ziegler, Piazzolla’s pianist. A tango based on the dance style that had originated in the lower- class districts of Buenos Aires during the 1890s, Piazzolla added his layers of harmonic- and rhythmic vocabulary to suit the concert hall. The piece is rich with emotions of sadness, happiness, passion, grief and sensuality. From the outset of the work – its pining, reticent and autumnal-tinted melody placed over a precise, stable walking bass, Kanazawa and Admony set the mood of pensiveness, Piazzolla’s delicious sentimentality then bursting into a variety of moods and temperaments. This repertoire is right down these two artists’ alley as they meet its challenges with relish and panache, juxtaposing the piece’s majestic and singing moments with its daring dissonances and abrupt shifts of tempo and meter. The repertoire for two pianos is as varied as it is attractive; Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony’s playing of it left the audience eager for more.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Jerusalem

Maestro Ilan Volkov

Following its annual intensive residential summer workshop, the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performed two concerts of orchestral works. The conductor was Ilan Volkov. This writer attended the concert at the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre July 20th 2012.

The Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is Israel’s national youth symphony orchestra. Working in cooperation with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, it is one of the Jerusalem Music Centre’s most prestigious projects. Consisting of some 80 players aged 14 to 18 who hail from all parts of Israel, most of them recipients of America-Israel Cultural Foundation scholarships, the young people are coached by leading Israeli- and guest musicians and rehearse under the baton of top conductors. The YIPO convenes twice a year, giving the young musicians extensive training in the playing of orchestral music. The YIPO functions thanks to its many friends and supporters. Hed Sella, executive director of the Jerusalem Music Centre, greeted the audience with a few words about the YIPO and about the people and organizations who have made it a reality.

Born in Israel in 1976, Ilan Volkov has been conducting since his early teens. He was chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra from 2003 to 2009 (the youngest person to hold the position with a BBC orchestra); he is currently its principal guest conductor. Volkov’s international career includes conducting orchestra concerts and opera. He is also one of the guiding forces behind Levontin 7 (Tel Aviv), a performance venue that brings together differing musical genres, including classical music, jazz, electronic music and rock.

The concert opened with Antonin Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Carnival Overture opus 92, the composer’s most successful concert overture; Dvořák conducted its premiere as part of a farewell concert in 1892 in Prague, prior to his departure for America. This piece forms the middle panel of a triptych of three overtures titled “Nature, Love and Life”, the three overtures being linked by a motto theme representing nature. The “Carnival Overture” was inspired by the composer’s childhood memories of village celebrations. Volkov and his players brought to life the exuberance of Bohemian dance rhythms and the music’s dazzling brilliance; they handled the work’s swift mood swings with precision. A lush pastoral interlude was evoked by horn, flute, clarinet and solo violin and tinted with the subtle use of tambourine.

Next on the program was Leonard Bernstein’s (1918-1990) Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” – composed in 1960 and based on the 1957 musical drama borne of the composer’s collaboration with choreographer Jerome Robbins and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. The nine movements of the 1960 work recreate many of the story’s episodes and songs, presenting several of its wonderful melodies; the signature motif of an ascending tritone followed by an ascending minor second, from the opening of the song “Maria” constitutes a central motif running throughout the work, the same three notes also forming its final nostalgic chord. The auditorium was alive with youthful energy as the YIPO players presented Bernstein’s supreme orchestration of moods, timbres and contrasts; the young musicians reveled in the work’s many and varied elements – its jazzy off-centre rhythms, its intricate counterpoint and intense textures – as they made poignant references to the work’s unforgettable song melodies. I was hoping the young players were aware of the story of “West Side Story”, that of ‘two teenage gangs – the warring Puerto Ricans, the other self-styled Americans’, in Bernstein’s words. The YIPO players’ vibrant approach, their finger-snapping, whistles and cries created busy street scenes; they floated melodies with breezy lightness and gave articulacy to the strands of the fugue. In an uninterrupted sequence, the pieces communicating the tension of the musical story and the frenetic pace and troubled social aspects of America of the 1950s, Volkov and his players provided an exciting musical canvas.

Having labored over his first symphony for two decades, Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) writing of Symphony no.2 unfolded naturally and rapidly, its premiere taking place barely a year after it was begun. The composer’s stay in the mountainous countryside around the village of Pörtschach am Wörthersee in the Austrian Alps, a haven of tranquility conducive to composing, inspired him to write a very different symphony from its predecessor, the second described by his friend Theodor Billroth as ‘all rippling streams, blue sky, sunshine and cool green shadows’. Although not entirely devoid of the sadness ever pervading the composer’s soul, the symphony has sometimes been referred to as Brahms’ ‘Pastoral Symphony’. The YIPO infused the sweeping melodies of the opening Allegro non troppo with mellow, expressive richness, the stronger of the strands never sounding course, the gentler lines bright and soaring, the horn solo of the coda a precious, Brahmsian moment. In the Adagio non troppo movement, with Brahms’ darker side somewhat present, there were nice opportunities to enjoy the fine playing of the YIPO’s ‘cello section, timpani, trombones and tuba, with the following lilting major-minor Allegretto gracioso graced by fine woodwind playing. Volkov took his players through the highly contrapuntal course of the final movement with much skill, its moods, painted in vivid orchestral timbres, ranging from gloom to exuberance.

The concert was a festive event, attracting a wide range of concert-goers, including many families with children. The program’s orchestral fare was well chosen both in terms of young taste, challenges and also in the opportunities it offered all players to be heard. Volkov’s work is always inspiring; the YIPO players, under his direction, produced a concert of the highest quality.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Cosi fan Tutte" in Jerusalem

Baritone Sir Thomas Allen

Israeli opera lovers had the pleasure of viewing W.A.Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” (translated as “So do they all” or “Women are like that”) filmed September 10th 2010 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. This writer attended the performance shown July 19th 2012 at the Jerusalem Theatre.

Originally premiered in 1790 in Vienna under the composer’s direction the day before the composer’s 34th birthday (and only two years before his death), “Così fan Tutte” was well received and given ten performances that year. The opera buffa in two acts, to a libretto in Italian by Lorenzo da Ponte, is set in 18th century Naples; it was the third of three operas to libretti by da Ponte, the first two being “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”.

The Covent Garden production we viewed was directed by theatre- and opera director Sir Jonathan Miller (b.1934); Miller also happens to be a neurologist, author, television presenter, humorist and sculptor. Assisted by revival director Harry Fehr, Miller took leave from the setting of 18th century Naples to go for a contemporary stage presentation both in dress and in other touches, such as the existence of mobile ‘phones, laptops and takeaway cups of Starbuck’s coffee on stage, not to speak of the sudden appearance of a CNN news cameraman. The minimal, contemporary and unchanging stage setting meant total focus on the music, action, the characters, body language, facial expression and on the smallest of pertinent gestures. Mozart’s wit and da Ponte’s sharp observation of human nature combine well with Miller’s own humorous- and more philosophical take on the opera and his all-encompassing work (he also had a say in set designs and lighting). On the musical front, German violinist, conductor and musicologist Thomas Hengelbrock (b.1958), especially known for his fine directing of Baroque operas, here conducting without a baton, gave Mozart’s brilliant score freshness, transparency and zing; from the very overture, energetic and bristling with hints and warnings – musical and otherwise - of what was to come, the Royal Opera House Orchestra shone; each orchestral section excelled in quality and color, inviting the listener to enjoy Hengelbrock’s precision and elegance of detail. The fortepiano (Christopher Willis) accompanying recitatives was effective in its intimacy and authenticity. Singers’ costumes ranged from suave, contemporary daywear worn by soloists and chorus to the black leather gear, rings and tattoos of Hell’s Angels bikers, to servant girl Despina’s (Rebecca Evans) hilarious disguises as the doctor and, later, the notary.

Whether one likes the idea, atmosphere and props of “Così fan tutte” set in the 21st century or not, there was no doubt that the international cast of soloists was well chosen. British baritone Sir Thomas Allen, celebrating forty years of singing for the Royal Opera House, was a cunning and commanding Don Alfonso, his performance streamlined, his elegant, well-timed gestures, verve and magnetic stage presence delighting throughout. With a glint in his eye, he had the audience eating out of his hand. Then there was the Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans who is known to have said “Mozart is my favourite composer. I can’t live a day without him”. As the coquettish servant girl Despina, she is the flirtatious Don Alfonso’s accomplice; the two singers work very well together. Endowed with a lustrous, creamy, focused voice and much charming personality, she is a fine comic actress, portraying Despina as out for what she can get, but as more lovable than the scheming Don Alfonso.

The other four soloists were opera singers of a caliber suited to gracing the ROH stage. Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson and Lithuanian-born mezzo-soprano Jurgita Adamonyté were convincing as sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella and collaborated well. Bengtsson, in particular, was resplendent with emotional intensity and her depth of understanding of the real issues at hand. Manipulated by Don Alfonso, the male suitors – French baritone Stéphane Degout as Guglielmo and Pavol Breslik as Ferrando - were definitely in character. Taking on their guise as “Albanians”, they relinquished both formal lounge suits and the code of suitors for the loutish mannerisms and apparel of Hell’s Angels. Breslik’s (born Slovakia, 1979) honeyed tenor voice and intensity made for some impressive moments.

Singers and orchestra guided the audience through the twists and turns of this opera buffa in a performance that did not lag for a moment. Via the absurd, the ludicrous and weaknesses of human nature, the performance, nevertheless, expressed da Ponte’s sound observations as to how we function. Jonathan Miller added some interesting touches of his own on the subject. Characters, for example, walking past the full length mirror placed on stage, would pause to “take a look at themselves”. When beset by the dilemma of whether to be unfaithful to their lovers in favor of the “Albanians”, Fiordiligi and Dorabella imitate tightrope walkers, as they walk the tenuous fine line of human relationships. However, if audiences do not want to concern themselves as to whether the reunited couples will live happily ever after or not, there is always Mozart’s delicious music, its sequence of sections strategically structured and cohesive, its course wonderfully seamless. With each soloist provided with one aria in each act, there also abound a rich variety of vocal duets, trios and quintets. Mozart’s orchestration is supreme in its use of color, economy and clarity as he celebrates da Ponti’s text with musical joie-de-vivre and a wink of the eye.

The film was preceded by a short explanation of the opera by Israeli journalist, lecturer, music critic and editor of music programs Yossi Schiffmann. Subtitles in Hebrew and English were provided. Royal Opera House Cinema offers opera lovers the opportunity to savor some of the world’s finest opera moments from the Royal Opera House in central London.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in a concert of much harpsichord music

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I was keen, and indeed curious, to attend the orchestra’s concert July 9th 2012 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre, this being the final event of the 29th season of the “Etnachta” (Hebrew: pause, break) weekly chamber music series. Under the auspices of the Voice of Music (Israeli Broadcasting Authority), these Monday afternoon concerts are produced and hosted by Hayuta Devir and broadcast live.

This was to be a unique concert; indeed, the Henry Crown Hall was bursting at the seams with so many people interested to hear the all-Bach program featuring some works that are not often heard in Israeli concert halls. On entering the hall, we were met by the sight of four harpsichords on the stage; that, in itself, is an unusual spectacle. Those playing them would be JBO founder and director David Shemer, Yizhar Karshon, Noam Krieger (Holland/Israel) and Tilman Skowroneck (Sweden/Germany).

Harpsichordist, fortepianist and musicologist Tilman Skowroneck (b.Germany, 1959) is no newcomer to the Israeli Baroque music scene. Living in Sweden, he performs both solo recitals and in ensemble concerts, teaches and is especially interested in practice techniques. His research covers the early piano, its construction and repertoire, the performing of Beethoven’s early keyboard works and the development of Viennese pianos after 1800. On his current visit to Israel, in addition to participating in the JBO concert, Skowroneck held a two-day workshop for local harpsichord players – professionals and students – on harpsichord maintenance.

Noam Krieger studied orchestral conducting, musicology and harpsichord in Tel Aviv, The Hague and Paris and has performed with such groups as "Les Arts Florissants" (William Christie), “Le Concert des Nations" (Jordi Savall) and "Concerto Vocale" (René Jacobs) and in early music festivals. In the Montreal Early Music Festival he conducted the first performance of J-B.Lully’s “Les Ballets d’Impatience” since 1601. Krieger has taught in Versailles, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv and is on the editing staff of a French project to publish all of Lully’s works.

The program opened with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major BWV 1050, one of six concerti grossi sent to Christian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721, with Bach hoping to receive employment from him. With no job forthcoming, the concertos found their way into the margrave’s library and were later added to the Berlin Royal Library collection. Brought to light in the 19th century Bach revival, the Brandenburg Concertos were published in 1850. Playing in the concertino section were violinist Dafna Ravid, flautist Idit Shemer and David Shemer - harpsichord. The worked opened with panache and elegance; the audience was kept on its toes following the magical threads of the texture. Seated close to the stage, I was able to enjoy the nuances of Idit Shemer’s well-fashioned and sophisticated reading of the flute part. The massive and unique harpsichord solo later in the first movement, there to display the possibilities of the newly-acquired two-manual harpsichord built by Michael Mietke that Bach had brought back from Berlin, was handled strategically by Shemer. Establishing a solid, measured pace at its outset, Shemer allowed the cadenza to spiral gradually and naturally into a feat of elaborate and astounding torrents of sound layers and textures. Following the intimate Affettuoso movement, with much melodic discourse between Idit Shemer and Ravid, the work concluded with the balance of delicacy, energy and sincerity of the Allegro movement.

Like the Brandenburg Concertos, the Concerto for two Violins in D minor BWV 1043 may have been composed in Cöthen between 1717 and 1723, also commissioned by the Margrave of Brandenburg, although the manuscript parts Bach used in performance date from around 1730-1731. Following the extended opening tutti, Bach’s more modest orchestral scoring handed the display of skill to the two soloists, in our case, Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid, whose challenging roles, including descending scales and angular upward leaps, formed the basis for shape, color and musical meaning. In a potent synthesis of concerto and fugue, we heard subtle interplay between soloists and orchestral strings. The sublime Largo ma non tanto middle movement, with the soloists soaring above the simple accompaniment in a continuous stream of sinuous melody, took the listener into the poignant expressiveness of the intertwining and imitating of violin lines, the artists addressing dissonances and solutions. In the third movement, soloists and orchestra engaged in Bach’s play of imitation, energy and an unconventional placing of accents in its rhythmic vivacity. Not to be ignored was the meaning and shape etched into the continuo line by ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi.

There has been much discussion of scholars as to whether the Concerto for Three Harpsichords and Strings in D minor BWV 1063 was, indeed, composed by J.S.Bach, and, if so, whether it is a transcription of a lost work of his. Supposing it is Bach’s work, it was possibly composed in 1730 and written for domestic music-making, to be played by the composer and his two eldest sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, probably with Johann Sebastian himself playing the more challenging first harpsichord part with its two cadenzas in the first movement.
At the JBO concert, we heard Noam Krieger playing first harpsichord. He was joined by Skowroneck and David Shemer. Despite the fact that here the work was performed in the Henry Crown Hall, a larger than Baroque-type venue, the subtlety, virtuosity and distinctive, alluring timbre of three harpsichords were thrilling both in their intense- and its sotto voce effects. The middle dancelike movement, punctuated by Dafna Ravid’s violin solo, was both stately and sensuous, with Orit Messer-Jacobi’s understated comments gracing the third movement, yet allowing the harpsichord timbre to emerge.

Remaining within the realm of secular music, we heard J.S.Bach’s Cantata no.209 “Non sa che sia dolore” (He does not know what it is to suffer). The date of composition is unknown (the use of a virtuoso flautist in three of the five movements might suggest it was written around 1724-1725, with the existence of such a player in Leipzig); the poet is thought to have been from Ansbach, a town with a court strongly inclined towards Italian culture. Modeled on the cantata form of A.Scarlatti, the text, quoting passages from Guarini and Metastasio, tells of a young man’s departure to sea to enter military service. Also here, we had not entirely left the Baroque concerto form; the lively Sinfonia opening the work is, indeed, a concerto for flute and strings. Altogether, flautist Idit Shemer’s well handled ornamental role played a focal part in the cantata. The musical text adds descriptive ideas, such as the rocking of the boat in a storm, with the vocal melismas evoking the sea itself. Soloist was soprano Carmit Natan, who has been a student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, nowadays soloing in much Baroque performance on the Israeli concert platform, her lustrous, fresh-sounding vocal color pleasing and promising. Her singing from the printed score, however, detracted from what could have been a more spontaneous, vivid and flexible reading of the work without it.

To complete the harpsichord extravaganza, the JBO and guest harpsichordists performed the Concerto for Four Harpsichords and Strings in A minor BWV 1065. Twenty years following Bach’s Weimar transcriptions of Vivaldi concertos for organ and harpsichord, Johann Sebastian returned to Vivaldi’s “L’Estro armonico” (The Harmonious Inspiration) collection of 1730-1733, arranging Vivaldi’s Concerto in B minor for Four Violins, Strings and Continuo Rv 580 as his Concerto in A minor for Four Harpsichords (the only harpsichord concerto in which Bach did not recycle his own material). In rearranging Vivaldi’s work, Bach improved and expanded Vivaldi’s counterpoint, enriched harmonies and made the solo parts both more transparent and more complex. the work was most probably performed with the University Collegium Musicum (Bach served as its director from 1729-1741) at the weekly concert in Zimmermann’s Coffee House in Leipzig, with Johann Sebastian and sons Wilhelm Friedemann, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Gottfried Bernhard at the keyboard, all fine harpsichordists. The JBO’s performance was one of floating, fresh and joyful sounds; string players were sensitive never to conceal filigree harpsichord parts. With virtuoso sections in the two outer movements, at no time did harpsichord textures sound thick or opaque. The middle movement – Largo e spiccato- is one of Bach’s enigmatic pieces, with all harpsichords playing differently articulated arpeggios in an unusual tonal combination.

In a program presenting Bach’s music as a vehicle of communication, rather than as a show of technical acrobatics, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and friends signed out of the 2011-2012 season with much to interest and delight their audiences, sending them home with a taste for more.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Barrocade closes its 2011-2012 concert season with Handel's "Acis and Galatea"

Bass baritone Oded Reich as Polypheme

The Barrocade Ensemble, joined by Barrocade Vocale, wound up the 2011-2012 concert season with three performances of G.F.Händel’s “Acis and Galatea”, produced and conducted by Philip Picket (UK). Soloists were local artists - soprano Revital Raviv, bass-baritone Oded Reich and tenors Doron Florentin and Eliav Lavie – and German tenor Robert Sellier. This writer was present at the performance in the auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art July 7th 2012.

Born 1950 in London, Philip Pickett started out as a trumpeter, consequently becoming a renowned recorder player, going on to establish the “New London Consort” and “Musicians of the Globe”. Today he is considered one of the leading international conductors of period- and later performance, touring and recording widely. Combining informed early music practice with a degree of freedom, Pickett’s performances tend to be colorful in instrumentation and ornamentation, flexible, lively and at times improvisatory, yet never losing sight of the vocal- and instrumental style of the period.

Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective (musical director Amit Tiefenbrunn), was formed in 2007 by a number of young Israeli early music specialists, most of them freshly back in Israel from the early music conservatories of Europe. Today the ensemble performs widely in Israel, records and tours, sometimes working with guest conductors, but frequently without a conductor; all members have a say in performance decisions. Focusing much on Baroque music, Barrocade members are, however, inspired by new and exciting projects that take them into other styles of music.

G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) “Acis and Galatea” (1718) was among the first and most successful extended secular music dramas in the English language, drawing on the Renaissance masque tradition in England that had sprung back to life in the early 18th century, this possibly being a reaction to the increasing popularity of Italian opera. Händel was now court composer to the Earl of Carnavon (who became Duke of Chandos) at Cannons, the aristocrat’s opulent residence just north of London, where a resident ensemble of instrumentalists and singers was at hand, forming an environment giving the composer the possibility to experiment. In “Acis and Galatea”, tying in with the English aristocracy’s need to escape from the staid constraints of British society by way of addressing the laissez-faire morals of the idyllic countryside, the nymphs and shepherds pass from childhood to adulthood, and, as in real life, with much confusion. (The 1718 masque was actually Händel’s second setting of the myth, the first titled “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo”, which he composed in Naples in 1708, probably for a royal wedding.) The driving force behind the London “Acis and Galatea” was literary: England’s post-Renaissance literati had a predilection for the classical idyll typified in the works of Theocritus , Longus and Ovid. Händel used a libretto pieced together by John Dryden, Alexander Pope and John Gay (of “Beggar’s Opera” fame) in which unblemished nature forms the background for naïve love that becomes tinged by the element of tragedy. Ensuring that the English audiences of the time would not become too obsessed only with the idyllic nature of the story, Händel adopted the idea of the chorus from Greek tragedy to involve them emotionally. This is a masterfully expressive tool. The five members of Barrocade Vocale constituted the “chorus”.

Händel was the right composer to further the pastoral masque genre in England, infusing into it the musical style and order he had acquired in Italy – as in the clear delineation between the role of recitative and aria. In fact, “Acis and Galatea” appealed so greatly to the public that it was frequently plagiarized, with much money being made from crudely altered versions; in his later “patched up” versions, the composer never really managed to restore the opera to its original form. It was not till the mid-20th century that the original Cannons version of the performing score of “Acis and Galatea” was resurrected.

Acis and Damon are close. Acis and Galatea are in love. Polypheme, the one-eyed monster, has had his youth taken from him by war, but wants to turn back the wheel of time. He fancies Galatea, but she is not to be his. He destroys Acis, and is, himself, in turn destroyed. Arcadia is in turmoil, but, by the end of the opera, all returns to eternity; the dead Acis is turned into an eternal fountain. This solution corresponds with ideal of the cyclic order in nature.

The opera opens with a brilliant Italian-style Sinfonia, its rhythmic course punctuated by pastoral woodwinds (oboe). The ensuing deceptive cadence, shaking the listener out of his complacent enjoyment of the Arcadian countryside, warns us that the apparent love triangle (or is it a quartet?) spells trouble. Maestro Pickett had the Barrocade players seated at one side of the stage. He, himself, conducted without a score; and what a joy it was to see singers unencumbered by scores! Pickett’s production means movement! All singers, mostly barefooted (as would be such bucolic characters) used the whole space of the auditorium. A startling theatrical moment was Polypheme’s (Oded Reich) first entrance: carrying a massive stake, he lumbers awkwardly down the steps from the top of the auditorium, a large eye painted on the centre of his forehead. At a later stage, representing Acis’ funeral scene, members of Barrocade Vocale descend the steps in a perfectly coordinated funeral procession. And the stage set? In actuality, there was none, but Pickett had the singers looking upwards and outwards, creating the scenery of trees, birds, blue skies and babbling brooks in the minds of the audience! Add to these effects the many textual allusions to nature and its direct association with the characters, and the scene is complete. Thus, the sounds of nature arouse Galatea’s fears:
‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!
Your thrilling strains
Awake my pains,
And kindle fierce desire….’

I had the feeling Pickett had extended- and painted the space of the auditorium. And, to keep us in the pastoral mode, members of Barrocade Vocale cavorted and ran about with the carefree joy and childish naïveté of shepherds and swains, their facial expressions never frozen. Here was a semi-staged Baroque opera bristling with the sense of freedom and with pizzazz.

Enter Galatea (Revital Raviv):
‘Ye verdant plains and woody mountains,
Purling streams and bubbling fountains,
Ye painted glories of the field,
Vain are the pleasures which ye yield;
Too thin the shadow of the grove,
Too faint the gales, to cool my love.’
Raviv fits into the role of Galatea so naturally, her silvery, unforced- and sculpted singing pleasing; her feminine sweetness, her pining, her joy, her mourning and her final noble acceptance of the situation are convincing and come across musically. She has the audience siding with her all the way. Raviv, who possesses a fine command of British English, has done much performing in England under Pickett’s direction.

Opera singer Robert Sellier (b. 1979, Germany) is equally at home singing Lieder as he is performing early music, Mozart, Schubert and contemporary works, having premiered several of the latter. Recording for the OehmsClassics and ORF labels, Sellier is also a member of the soloists’ ensemble of the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz (Munich). His tone is sweet and lyrical, his manner confident, open and forthright. Infatuated with Galatea, he is a possessive Acis, fired with energy, energetically moving with the plot.
‘Love sounds th’alarm,
And fear is a-flying
When beauty’s the prize,
What mortal fears dying?...’

Barrocade Vocale, an ensemble established by Barrocade harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon and soprano Yeela Avital in 2011, specializes in the performance of Renaissance- and Baroque music. The five singers taking part –Yeela Avital, alto Ella Wilhelm, tenors Doron Florentin and Eliav Lavie, and bass Joel Sivan – represented the singing of the kind of chorus used in Händel’s original performance of “Acis and Galatea”. The chorus pieces, their narrative laden with information, guide the listener’s moods and sympathies, initially setting the scene:
…’For us the zephyr blows,
For us distills the dew,
For us unfolds the rose,
And flow’rs display their hue…’
Striking a fine balance between blend and individual vocal color, the five singers paint landscapes, report on the state of the lovers’ relationship, warn of Polypheme’s arrival, sing the dirge over Acis’ death and, in the final chorus, they comfort the mourning Galatea in the fact that ‘Acis now a god appears’. Two of the BV members also performed solo roles, those of the two newer characters added to the story. The role of Damon was sung by Doron Florentin. Attempting to advise and caution Acis with some good, old-fashioned home truths, the role, representing the element of rationale, was handled with tenderness, with Florentin’s mellifluous, sturdy timbre, inspiring confidence. The running bass line in “Shepherd, what art thou pursuing”, however, emphasizes the fact that Damon is unable to convince Acis, too blind with love, to keep up with his shepherd’s duties. Advising Polypheme, we heard Eliav Lavie as Coridon, his empathic efforts at softening the monster’s jealous heart falling on deaf ears. His extending of the final dissonance of the aria, with the audience starting to wonder when or whether the solution would appear, was a comical effect…perhaps representing his patience.

Bass baritone Oded is a Polypheme to be reckoned with. From the moment he appears on the scene, his brutish gait and deportment smacking of evil and lust, we are drawn into the complexity of his dark soul and the sheer absurdity of the character. Reich takes on the role of the larger-than-life softie with great relish, his large, rich and stable voice enveloping the auditorium. Händel’s wit is paramount when, following the monster’s demand of ‘a hundred reeds of decent growth to make a pipe for’ his ‘capacious mouth’, he scores the sopranino recorder (Shai Kribus) to accompany “O ruddier than the cherry”, the giant’s attempt at wooing Galatea. Raviv, Sellier and Reich build up the story in a strangely contrasted manner to its dramatic climax in “The flocks shall leave the mountains”, wherein the naïve lovers describe their love within the richness of the pastoral setting, with Reich’s outbursts of frustration and murderous intentions punctuating the movement. In recent years, Oded Reich has proved himself to be a superb performer of sacred music. Audiences are now enjoying his fast-developing stage presence in the very different genres of secular cantatas and opera.

Much of the evening’s excellence was also due to Barrocade’s fine instrumentalists, who performed with vivid alacrity, their phrasing suave. Pickett and orchestra move hand-in-glove with the singers, supporting gestures and adding extra layers of meaning to the plot. Courtly dances and wonderful instrumental duets and trios thread their way through arias, offering listeners the chance to hear some of Barrocade’s players individually: in Galatea’s aria “As when the dove Laments her love”, Raviv’s amorous utterences “billing, cooing, panting, wooing” are answered by violins; Kribus, on the oboe, echoes and mirrors Damon in “Consider, fond shepherd”; Galatea’s final aria “Heart, the seat of soft delight” is cushioned in the lush texture of strings and two alto recorders.

Philip Pickett’s direction of “Acis and Galatea” highlighted both the excellence of the opera’s verbal text and Händel’s musical setting of it. Pickett’s treatment of both, enhanced by his uniquely dynamic, flowing direction produced a performance of the highest quality.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choral Singers in "On the Wings of a Dove"

Conductor Naama Nazrati-Gordon

“On the Wings of a Dove” was the title of a concert performed at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church (Jerusalem) June 30th 2012 by the Oratorio Choral Singers, an amateur choir - one of the four ensembles that make up the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. The Oratorio Choral Singers’ concert was directed and conducted by Naama Nazrati-Gordon. Soloists were soprano Carmit Natan and alto Nitzan Yogev. Tania Shchupak played piano- and organ accompaniments.

Naama Nazrati-Gordon has studied conducting, composition and voice at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. She is a member of the Thalamus Quartet, an ensemble specializing in the performing of a cappella works. Ms. Nazrati teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance as well as in the Faculty of Cantorial Studies of Hebrew Union College (Jerusalem).

The evening’s program focused on settings of the “Ave Verum Corpus” text, on the subject of night and on the dove of peace. The program opened with several settings of the “Ave Verum Corpus”, a Eucharist hymn based on a text dating back from the 14th century. The first we heard was Charles Gounod’s (1818-1893) homophonic setting of the text, sung in a well blended and nuanced manner, to be followed by a clean and prayerful reading of William Byrd’s (1543-1623) “Ave Verum Corpus”. A masterpiece of text setting and compositional devices, this Aeolian motet is considered by some scholars to be Byrd’s finest sacred work. We then heard Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) setting of 1894 performed by the two soloists, with Tania Shchupak at the organ, the music evoking the simple and emotional style of Fauré’s Requiem. Carmit Natan’s bright, focused timbre and expressive, unmannered singing make for pleasurable- and communicative performance. Nitzan Yogev possesses an authentic molasses-textured alto voice, compelling presence and musicality. The teamwork and mix of voices of both was, indeed, agreeable.

British composer, pianist and jazz musician Will Todd (b.1970) is best known for his choral works, from small pieces to large-scale works, from opera, to oratorio, from church music to jazz. In his “Ave Verum Corpus” setting (2001), for SATB choir and piano or organ, Todd offers choirs the option of singing the anthem in English or Latin. Nazrati-Gordon competently led the choir through the beautifully crafted off-beat rhythms, jazz-tinted melodic lines and harmonies which float hauntingly above the decidedly independent keyboard role, the latter handled well by Shchupak. The “Ave Verum” section of the concert concluded with W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791) much-loved motet in D major K618 (1791), the work encased in just 46 bars (actually incomplete, with the last two verses missing); it was composed during the last months of the composer’s life. Nazrati and her singers created the miniature motet’s otherworldly peacefulness in velvety, floating sounds, clear phrasing, dynamic change and acceptable intonation.

On a very different note, we then heard a number of songs by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) sung in the original German; these were all on the theme of night, nighttime mirroring the composer’s aesthetic- and emotional sensitivity. “In stiller Nacht” (In the Quiet of the Night), one of the composer’s best-known folk song settings from the “Deutsche Volkslieder” collection, was sung with poignancy, with attention to word textures, to the piece's lush, soft Romantic tone-colorings and expressive moments. Nitzan Yogev, accompanied by Tania Shchupak, then performed “Nachtwanderer” (Night Wanderer), its strangely alternating major- and minor chords evoking the trancelike state of the sleepwalker. Highlighted with the honeyed notes of her high register, Yogev’s control and understatement open the way for the painful yearning of the song’s message to emerge.
‘Silently lost in his dream
He traverses deep chasms,
Drunk from the full moon’s light,
Woe to the lips that would call out to him.’
Yogev’s singing of Brahms’ “Lullaby” was mellow, confident and pleasing.

“Nächtens” (Nightly Visions) to F.T.Kugler’s poem of the same name, is one of Brahms’ “Seven Evening Songs”. Although a night piece, this is no serene nocturne. Nazrati and her singers convincingly created the disturbing canvas of a malevolent night of madness and destruction, unease and dread, the sotto voce unison passages making for a suitably ghostly effect. Brahms’ unique seething and restless piano accompaniment is vital to this piece; Shchupak managed it admirably on electronic piano. With “O schöne Nacht” (O Lovely Night) composed in 1877, using a German translation of a poem from Georg Daumer’s collection of Hungarian folk poetry, the section of Brahms songs concluded with the glowing splendor and wonderment of night, the poem describing how nightingale harmonies accompany the moonstruck youth to his beloved. Filled with lyrical contrapuntal lines of great beauty, the piece's text painting is masterful in all voice parts; the piano part, filled with florid shapes, seems to evoke the shimmering of stars.

The concert ended with Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) “Hear my Prayer/ O for the Wings of a Dove” for solo soprano, choir and organ (1845), the composer’s best-known sacred piece. Originally written to the German text of Psalm 55, we heard it sung to William Bartholomew’s English paraphrase of the German. The composer wrote it for the English audience, modeling its form on the English 17th and 18th century verse anthem, with alternating solo- and choral writing. A challenging piece for all concerned, it is beautifully crafted, with interplay between accompaniment, choir and soprano soloist. Carmit Natan’s energy was instrumental in moving the text forward; singing into the heart of the phrase, she brought out the piece’s contrasting moods, always well synchronized with the choir. Some of her longer notes tend to fatigue and would benefit from more inner spiraling power. The choral singers were articulate in their building of the tensions of the work’s dramatic course, and the intertwining of forces made for interesting listening.

The concert was one of careful- and balanced programming. The Oratorio Choral Singers’ sound is both blended and coordinated. Naama Nazrati-Gordon’s tireless work on expression, understanding, diction and musicality has produced fine results. Tania Shchupak, Carmit Natan and Nitzan Yogev’s participation added to the evening’s quality and enjoyment.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A conference in Jerusalem - L'Italia in Israele - the reaearch of Leo Levi into Italian Jewish musical tradition..and more

L’Italia in Israele (Italy in Israel) – The Contribution of Italian Jews to the Establishment and Development of the State of Israel - was a two-day conference in Jerusalem, June 27th and 28th 2012, at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, an international cultural and conference centre established by the Jerusalem Foundation nestling in the Yemin Moshe quarter. The venue offers spectacular views of the Tower of David, the Jerusalem Old City walls and the Judean Desert. Among the various subjects discussed, the conference placed emphasis on the story of a specific Jewish community from Puglia (also known as Apulia), a mountainous region in the “boot heel” of the peninsula of Italy bordering the Adriatic Sea. During the Fascist era, a group of several dozen Catholic peasants in San Nincandro collectively converted to Judaism and immigrated en masse to the newly created State of Israel.

Instrumental in the conference was Professor Silvia Godelli, regional minister for the Mediterranean, Culture and Tourism in the Puglia region. Ambassador of Italy in Israel – Luigi Mattiolo – was also in attendance. In his notes in the conference brochure, Eliahu C. Benzimra, chairman of the Association of Italian Jews, talks of the local Italian community as being prominent in its unique artistic- and professional contribution to culture, society, science, technology and agriculture, despite the modesty of its numbers. He adds that, through preservation of the tradition of worship at the Conegliano Veneto Synagogue in Jerusalem, members of the Italian community have held onto their deep connection with a Jewish cultural heritage that goes back two thousand years. The Conegliano Veneto Synagogue and the U.Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art provide an important meeting centre for the Jerusalem Italian community and the Israeli community in general. Living in a new reality, Italian immigrants to Israel have continued to undertake promoting the values that have made Italy a symbol of culture.

In the hall adjacent to the auditorium, a photographic exhibition titled “Italy-Israel: Sixty Years of Relations”, presented by the Italian Embassy, perpetuating the presence of Italian Jews in some of the most important events of Israel’s history, greeted guests to the conference. The exhibition was first shown at the Knesset in honor of the visit to Israel of Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Italian Republic in 2008.

In “Hand in Hand with Italian Culture”, chaired by Dr. Carmela Callea, director of the Italian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv), various areas of involvement of the Italian community were addressed. First to speak was art historian Dr. Andreina Contessa, chief curator of the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art. Professor Sandra Debenedetti Stow of Bar Ilan University then spoke about Jewish scholars, also about linguistics and the translation of sacred- and secular Italian texts at Israeli universities. Dr. Flavia Cevidalli Lwow, of the Israel Museum, spoke about artists and art dealers, the presence of Italians in the plastic arts and in all important fields in Israeli culture – in architecture, cinema, painting, Judaic art, archeology, etc. - and mentioned contributions made by Italian Jews to the Israel Museum, such as the Vera and Arturo Schwartz Collection of Dada and Surrealist Art. Finally, we heard ethnomusicologist Dr. Massimo Acanafora Torrefranca, of The Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre, in a talk summing up the work of Leo Levi. Musicologist Leo Levi (1912-1982) was the first scholar to research Italian Jewish oral traditions. He did not limit himself to any one approach, nor did he censor or filter the 1100 recordings he made in the 1950s in 20 centres of Italian Jewish life, focusing on 27 different Jewish musical traditions throughout Italy. Levi recorded old and new music, analyzing harmonic structure, intervals, sociological aspects and the way verbal texts were used and interpreted. Levi’s research resulted in the first and only aural documentation of the cross-cultural spectrum of Italian Jewish music, that of the synagogue, of private homes, liturgy, life-cycle traditions and its use of Hebrew and Judeo-Italian languages; much of this orally transmitted heritage was being lost over the first half of the 20th century. Levi settled in Palestine in 1936, returning to Italy, where he connected with other important ethnomusicologists interested in “music of the people”. His recordings are preserved in the archives of Ethnomusicology Archives of the Santa Cecilia National Academy (Rome) and the National Sound Archives of Jerusalem in the Jewish Music Research Centre of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Leo Levi died in Jerusalem.

Tying in with focus on southern Italy, an evening event on June 27th provided conference-goers with a unique musical experience, presented by the Pizzica Musical Ensemble “Kalàscima”, a folk band from Salento in southern Italy: Riccardo Laganà-percussion and vocals, Luca Buccarella-accordion and vocals, Massimiliano de Marco-guitar, Irish bouzouki and vocals and Valentina Cariulo-dance, violin, vocals. The pizzica, a popular Italian folk dance that originated in the Salento region and spread through Puglia and eastern Basilicata, is danced by a couple (not necessarily of opposite sexes); belonging to the tarantella type of dance that is part of village- and family celebrations, it is also a therapeutic dance, its energy and speed traditionally used to heal a person bitten by a tarantula spider. There has been a recent revival of interest in pizzica music and dance as part of the neo-“tarantism” movement. (Tarantism, widespread in southern Italy from the 15th to 17th centuries, has actually been defined as a nervous disorder marked by uncontrollable body movements. It is popularly thought to have been caused by the bite of the tarantula). But back to the conference performance in Jerusalem. The cloth we saw held and incorporated to the dance by Valentina Cariulo is a symbol of both distance and communication. The style of singing used by the ensemble was no bel canto technique, rather a technique used for singing folk music, the sound being forthright and produced largely in the throat. Most of the songs performed were highly strophic, energetic and exuberant, with a pleasing mix of earthy singing and instrumental timbres; and there was much improvisation. Centered around on the subject of love, its carefree joy and its complications, the songs were sung in regional dialect. The audience, largely made up of Italian-born Israelis, wasted no time in becoming a part of the good humour – people clapped to the catchy rhythms and a few, unable to stay seated, got up and danced.

The conference concluded with the screening of “Lookout to San Nicandro. Eti’s Journey”, a film produced by Vincenzo Condorelli in 2009. Film director and producer Vincenzo Condorelli lives and works in London.
The film traces the history of the above-mentioned small rural community in San Nicandro Garganico pronouncing itself to believe in the Jewish faith, despite having no previous connections with Judaism. Under the leadership of Donato Manduzio, an almost illiterate farm laborer, many members of the community converted to Judaism, the only case of its kind in modern times. The documentary features descendants of the community living on both sides of the Mediterranean – in the Galilee, to where some of the families immigrated following World War II, and in the Gargano region of the Province of Puglia. Eti, a student of Cinema at the Tel Hai College, is working on her final course project – a film dedicated to her grandparents living in Safed, who, as children, came to Israel with the San Nicandro group. Thus begins granddaughter Eti’s physical-, psychological- and historical journey - the search for her roots.