Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Israel Contemporary Players open the 2012-2013 concert season

The Israel Contemporary players opened their 22nd Discoveries concert season in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem Music Centre October 22nd 2012. The concert, the closing event of the Asian Music Festival in Israel, was produced by Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutzky in collaboration with the Voice of Music (Israeli radio) and the Jerusalem Music Centre, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality. Conductor was Zsolt Nagy, the ensemble’s mainstay musical director.

Chee-Kong Ho, born Singapore 1963, is a composer of orchestral-, chamber-, piano- and electro-acoustic works. “Shades of Oil Lamps” was commissioned by the 2008 Singapore Arts Festival. Over a jaunty counterpoint of woodblock, gong and marimba, a Chinatown storyteller draws his listeners in with a tale, suddenly leaving them wondering as he goes off to collect hand-outs.  An essentially Asian piece, it uses the woodblock as a recurring motif against the backing of which other players create evocative individual melodic of motivic strands culminating in a pentatonic-type harmony. In the Israel Contemporary Players’ performance, the primal rhythmic underlay of the piece was not too inebriating to camouflage the artful solos of flautist Dafna Yitzhaki, clarinetist Michal Beit-Hallahmi, percussionist Oded Geizhals and double-bass player Danny Felsteiner, the latter adding to the unique percussion timbres symbolically dropping coins into a brass bowl. Collaborating in a performance of precision, shape and delicacy, the Israel Contemporary Players brought a warm, exotically vibrant, social Asiatic-Chinese scene to the concert hall.

Japanese conductor and composer Isao Matsushita’s (b.1951,Tokyo) mostly orchestral-, chamber-, choral- and vocal works are widely performed. A professor at Tokyo University of the Arts and Music, musical director of Camerata Nagano and the Bunkyo Civic Orchestra, he represents Ensemble Kochi (East Wind) and is resident composer of the Hibiki String Orchestra (Japan). “Tenku-no-Hikari” (A Shining Firmament) is the second piece of the “Inori (Prayer) Trilogy” for chamber ensemble. The composer spoke of the importance of the number “three” as arising from the Buddhist concept of “Shin-ku-I”, meaning “body-speech-soul”, the ideal human balance between all three; the idea of rays of light undergoing gradual metamorphosis, stimulate the concentration needed for prayer. In time, these rays of light return to the heavens. Zsolt Nagy and the players presented the almost pictorial mood piece in delicate strands – high string sounds, woodwinds, muted trumpet and arpeggios on the piano – these forming long held notes gaining progressively more color, embellished by ‘cello. The effect was an eerie, alienated scene, all instrumental strands building up to a compelling intense sound, the piece ending with minimal, high, joyless filaments of sound.

Born in China and living in the USA since 2001, Yao Chen started as a singer and pianist, studying at the Xinghai Conservatory of Music in Guangzhou and the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing. Following the completion of his doctorate in composition at the University of Chicago, Yao joined the composition faculty of the School of Music at Illinois State University. His compositions and research fuse musical approaches of east and west in an innovative, personal manner, his perceptions on time, timbre, intonation, pulsation and expression straddling modern- and traditional concepts, mystical- and logical aspects with cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary references. Working in multiple genres, his works are performed widely. The concept of Tangents II 2010/2012 relates to the geometrical, astronomical tangent, a point’s eventual return to starting point, this likened to the journey of a person’s life, in which connections always end in parting, with parting always finding a way back to unity. The piece falls into three sections. From the opening section, peppered with many single notes and glissandi, to the middle section in which the half-tone motif moves from instrument to instrument, punctuated by stormy outbursts, the last section is intense, using a multitude of ideas and textures that eventually break down, become minimalized and die away.  The effect is one of harmony as well as randomness. On the subject of chamber music, Yao, in an interview with Jen Wang (director of Wild Rumpus New Music Collective) refers to each player as an individual actor or actress. For that reason, he gives each voice of the piece “a significant aspect of individuality and theatricality”, demanding that “musicians have to lift their sensibility up to a visible level. Breathing, expressions, characteristic motives, accents in the music should be seen in their physical movements”.

Born in Tajikistan in 1962, Benjamin Yusupov studied in Moscow in the 1980s and immigrated to Israel in 1990. His father was a folk musician who played the rubab, an instrument indigenous to the Tajik-Iranian region. Yusupov, therefore, grew up with the ethnic music of the region but was taught piano in the European tradition. The composer speaks of himself as “Jewish, with a background in a Muslim tradition of music and a western education from Moscow”. Composed in 2010, Memories (Crossroads no.6), an octet for flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, viola, ‘cello, harp and piano, was commissioned by the Danish Storstrøms Kammerensemble and premiered by the group at the Orienten Festival. It belongs to the cycle of works titled “Crossroads”, all of which focus on the merging of cultures, compositional methods and different manners of musical development. The piece is dedicated to the memory of Yusupov’s father, who died in 2009. The composer speaks of music as having the unique ability of expressing emotions in the purest and most authentic way. In the work, Yusupov’s music represents the words and emotions he, for a variety of reasons, was never able to convey to his father. Using conventional instruments to create a work influenced by ethnic sounds, the piece, meditative in mood, evokes ancient, dour, folk-style melodies as well as distinctly Jewish musical elements, the latter’s melancholy melodies played on clarinet (Michal Beit Halachmi), to be taken over by the bassoon (Richard Paley). Interesting piano- and xylophone effects add to the work’s soul-searching character. Yusupov’s skilful compositions weave musical motifs, textures and strategies into the aesthetics of musical expression and human communication.

The concert ended with György Ligeti’s (1923-2006) Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1985-1988). Ligeti was born to Hungarian Jewish parents in a village that today is a part of Romania, and was educated in Budapest. Setting aside the doctrinally correct folk song arrangements of his early career, he moved to Vienna where he came in contact with Karlheinz Stockhausen, the Darmstadt contemporary music summer events and the post-serial avant-garde. Of the five movements of the Piano Concerto, four are fast. The second movement is a mood piece, its atmosphere created by long pedal notes, microtonal slides and an unusual use of such colors as produced by low piccolo sounds and high bassoon notes. Ligeti’s score also calls for an exotic array of percussion instruments, slide whistle, harmonica and ocarina.  Zsolt Nagy led his players through the whirlwind of rhythmically propelled ideas created by colliding cross-rhythms and feisty melodies at dizzying speeds, in a performance that at no moment ventured towards a thick blur of cacophony or musical rough-housing. Nagy’s directing was articulate, drawing awareness to the work’s development and timbre. Pianist Ofra Yithaki reminded the audience of how pianistic Ligeti’s writing is; her performance was outstanding not just in its virtuosity - it abounded in accuracy, freshness, a clear sense of the full score, in color and elegance. Nagy has, at his disposal, an ensemble of first-class players; together, they read deeply into modern works, ensuring much interest and enjoyment in this unique concert series.


Friday, October 26, 2012

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra - "Dixit Dominus"

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, the opening program of the 2012-2013 concert season was of special interest to me. Titled “Dixit Dominus”, this first concert was performed in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre October 23rd 2012 and in the newly refurbished hall of the Israel Conservatory of Music Tel Aviv October 24th. David Shemer, founder and musical director of the JBO, conducted the concerts. A choir was made up of members of Barrocade Vocale – Ye’ela Avital, Ella Wilhelm, Doron Florentin, Eliav Lavi and Yoav Wiess – joined by Hadas Faran-Asia, Avital Dery, Yair Polishook, Shmrit Tziporen and Shaked Bar.
To whet one’s appetite for a season of interesting and varied works on the JBO’s agenda, the concert began with the Sinfonia to Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Cantata 49, “Ich geh’ und such mit Verlangen” (I Go and Seek with Longing). Composed in 1726 for solo voices and instrumental ensemble, the text the anonymous librettist based on Matthew 22:1-14 creates a mystical marriage between Christ and the Soul. With strong associations with the Song of Solomon, one could say that this cantata is as close as the fervently religious Bach would get to using a sensuous text for a work. The Sinfonia begins with an outburst of joy - perhaps the idea of a wedding celebration. The rising chromatic scales in the middle section could well denote the striving towards union between Jesus and the Soul. In the Sinfonia (overture), a substantial concerto movement, the solo instrument is the organ. Maestro Shemer played the role on a positif organ, its action somewhat more limiting, in light of the intricacies and virtuosic demands of the piece, than that of the pipe organ. The intensity and drive of the piece made for exciting listening; Shemer’s handling of the flow of runs and detail was heartily supported by bass members of the string ensemble.

This was followed by J.S.Bach’s Lutheran Mass in A major BWV 234. Bach’s four Lutheran Masses, settings of only the Kyrie and Gloria, appear to have been composed and performed from 1736 onwards. The Mass in A, possibly designed for Christmas, was written around 1738. From the very outset of the performance, Shemer went for a sumptuous orchestral- and vocal sound. In the Kyrie, the flute lines (Idit Shemer, Avner Geiger) threaded themselves elegantly throughout the textures, there playing, in fact, as cantabile  as the singers’ voices. The vocal ensemble bristled with vibrancy, shape and fine intonation; the small vocal solos delighted with the strong, warm lustre and competence of some of Israel’s finest young singers.  Via the fine interaction and balance between string orchestra and singers the audience was exposed to the work’s moods, imitations, melismas and rich voice-play. At no time was the choir drowned out by the ensemble. In the “Domine Deus” (Lord God) sung by bass Yair Polishook, Dafna Ravid’s playing of the violin obbligato was intelligent, well-fashioned and personal, with Polishook’s singing highly expressive and devotional as he used different vowels to vary tone color. The flute obbligato duo, outstanding throughout, added poetry and intimacy to “Qui tollis peccata mundi” (Who takes away the sins of the world) sung by Ye’ela Avital, soprano, as did Maestro Shemer’s careful pacing. Avital’s singing was bright and easeful, each sound and phrase woven into the delicate, meditative plan of the movement. Creating a strong contrast in mood, the dancelike “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” (For Thou alone art Holy) was sung by alto Avital Dery. Her quiet confidence, intelligent reading of the text and directness of sound made for articulate expression. Tenor Doron Florentin’s singing delighted throughout the concert. David Shemer’s attention to detail was matched by his stirring reading of the work.

G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) “Dixit Dominus” (The Lord Said), composed in 1707 (Händel was only 22 years of age) at a time the composer was in Rome to further his career as an opera composer, is a setting of Psalm 109. With the display of brilliance in instrumental works of such composers as Vivaldi and Corelli and exciting musical theatre springing from the pens of the likes of A.Scarlatti and Caldara, Italy was the place to indulge in virtuosity; in command of the Italian style, the young Händel proved he was right up there with the finest of the Italian composers of the time. “Dixit Dominus”, one of the composer’s finest works, is, indeed, a showcase for players and singers, its energy and dramatic intensity posing challenges to all performers and attesting to the composer’s melodic-, harmonic- and contrapuntal invention. Händel takes on board a text that is indeed spiritual but, no less, vengeful and furious, creating a curious paradox in vivid colors. Scored for five-part choir, strings and continuo, the “Dixit Dominus” uses a cantus firmus as the work’s unifying element. From the first notes of the work, the JBO and singers had the audience following and involved in a performance bursting with energy and emotion. Following the exuberant opening chorus, Zohar Shefi (organ), ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi and alto Avital Dery performed the “Virgam virtutis” (Rod of power); Messer-Jacobi gave much meaning to the ‘cello obbligato part, with Dery’s play of textures chiseling shapes into the vocal line. Soprano Hadas Faran-Asia’s performance of the “Tecum principatus” (With your power)was richly colored and musically strategic, her reedy voice (much vibrato) exercising control, her palette of timbres varying with the text. Shemer kept the tension high, with dynamic contrasts, daring harmonies and venturous dissonances floated by suspensions coming to the fore in crisp rendition.  One of the most surprising moments was the effect of sudden, jaggedly detached chords outlining the word “Conquassabit” (He will smash), the fiery drama of that section followed by an introverted, moving movement with Avital and Faran-Asia’s voices forming a pleasant blend. An extended fugue concluded the work.

The JBO opened its season on a high note. The interest, sparkle and excitement communicated by Maestro Shemer, his perception of the works, his players and singers well appreciated by the audience. What worked amazingly well was the somewhat ad hoc choral ensemble; the singers produced a resonant, coordinated, warm sound, their many small solos offering listeners the opportunity to hear some wonderful individual voices.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Charlotta Chorale salutes Daniel Pearl's memory

An event held at the premises of the National Federation of Israel Journalists at Beit Hillel, Jerusalem, on October 13th 2012 marked ten years since the murder of Jewish, American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi.  Daniel Jacob Pearl (1963-2002) was kidnapped while working as the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall St Journal, based in Mumbai, India. He had gone to Pakistan as part of an investigation into the alleged links between Richard Reid (the shoe-bomber) and Al-Qaida.

The event opened with a few words from Danny Zaken, chairman of the Journalists Association in Jerusalem, who mentioned the fact that there were concerts being held in Pearl’s memory all over the world during these weeks. Established by the Daniel Pearl Foundation, the “Daniel Pearl World Music Days” is an international network of concerts that uses the power of music to reaffirm the organization’s commitment to tolerance and humanity. Zaken reminded the audience that Pearl was a classically-trained violinist who “travelled the world with a pen and a violin”, in the words of Judea Pearl, Daniel’s father.

Joe Federman, news editor in the AP’s Jerusalem bureau, had known Daniel Pearl professionally. He spoke of Daniel being a talented musician, a witty person and as always trying to understand “the other side”. He mentioned Pearl’s optimism, obvious in a song he had composed - “The World is Not Such a Bad Place” – written for his son who was never to know him.

The Charlotta Chorale of Tel Aviv is a new ensemble, conducted by Eli Gefen – singer, bassoonist and conductor – who was born in Bratislava and has been in Israel since 1939. The Charlotta Chorale of Tel Aviv is named after Gefen’s mother, who perished in Auschwitz. Maestro Gefen and his singers performed the concert “Gifts We Share” in honor of Daniel Pearl’s memory. All the ensemble’s singers have a strong musical background, most having immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union. Anna Korochnik is the choir's pianist.

A fitting opening to the evening was a Gil Aldema’s (b.1928) a cappella setting of Israel Goldfarb’s “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace Be to You). Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) “Lift Thine Eyes” (“Elijah” 1846) was sung by women members of the choir and was followed by Mendelssohn’s “Guardian of Israel” sung by the whole choir, both in Hebrew. P.I.Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) setting of “Let my Prayer Ascend” (Psalm 141) from “Nine Sacred Pieces” (1884-1885) was a high point of the concert. Soloist was Galina Zucker. It was given a finely chiseled performance, a small group of women singers alternating with the whole choir. Sung in Russian, the singers brought out the stately, exquisite beauty of this piece. Also effective and sensitive was Gefen’s reading of American composer Randall Thompson’s (1899-1984) “Alleluia” (1940), a piece for unaccompanied choir, nowadays the composer’s most performed work.  Composed within five days under the dark cloud of the events of wartime Europe, the “Alleluia”’s mood is reflective rather than joyous, its rising- and falling waves of sound enticing the audience to listen and follow the music’s course. Thompson referred to the piece as “comparable to the Book of Job where it is written ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’.

Eli Gefen has always had a penchant for John Rutter’s music. This is to the Israeli concert-goer’s advantage, as Rutter’s music is sadly neglected in this country. Steering clear of avant-garde styles, choral conductor, scholar and editor Rutter is considered a reactionary in that his works show no signs of progressivism or pull towards contemporary music. What stands out in his music is the influence of the styles of Ralph Vaughan Williams, William Walton and Benjamin Britten. “Look at the World” was commissioned by the British Council for Rural England. Rutter wrote the text himself, referring to the work as “on the theme of the environment”. His strategies in the variation of choral textures – women singing alone, men and women alternating in the singing of the melody etc. – are simple but effective, preserving the work’s childlike sense of wonder. Based on a strophic 19th century hymn text by F.S.Pierpoint, “For the Beauty of the Earth” is a joyful hymn of celebration for mixed choir and piano. In “The Lord Bless You and Keep You” (Numbers 6:24) for women’s voices, we heard the clean singing of young  Efrat Levy, joined by the expressive singing of the women members of the choir. Rutter’s choral repertoire, in its directness, humility and uncluttered style, is accessible to all audiences. With more emphasis on transparency and English diction, these pieces will be small jewels in the Charlotta Chorale’s repertoire.

We heard “You Are the New Day” (1978) by Welsh songwriter, rock musician and record producer John David (b.Cardiff, 1946).  A harmonically simple and basically homophonic a cappella piece, its words are as direct as their sounds, the work’s message being “hope”.  In a performance that was appealing and buoyant, Gefen used short textures to highlight syncopated rhythms. Philip Lawson, a sought-after British arranger, set the Japanese folk-song “Furusato” (Homeland) for six voices. Eli Gefen chose to include the piece in the program because of Daniel Pearl’s good relations with Japan. An arrangement in the western style, (soloists Liora Lupin, Leonid Michelson) the ensemble gave it a pleasing interpretation:
‘The mountains where I once ran after hares,
The streams where I often went fishing;
I still dream of there now and then.
I can never forget my home country…

When I have achieved my ambitions
I want to return home some day.
My home country, where the mountains are blue;
My home country, where the water is clear.’
The concert ended with Gil Aldema’s four-voiced setting of Naomi Shemer’s (1930-2004) “Jerusalem of Gold”.

Only four month’s into the Charlotta Chorale’s existence, the ensemble is showing fine potential. The 16 singers we heard are serious and devoted; under Maestro Gefen’s guidance, they produce a rich choral sound with an ear to blending and intonation. The Charlotta Chorale is a work in process. The concert public can look forward to enjoying the high quality of these artists’ musicianship and the Charlotta Chorale’s refreshingly different repertoire.

A first hand talk on the dangers of being a foreign correspondent in locations of conflict was then given by Ilene Prusher, former staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, now an independent journalist in Jerusalem and teaching Reporting Conflict for NYU-Tel Aviv.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Musica Aeterna performs in Holy Trinity Cathedral Jerusalem

It was a historical event in Jerusalem. For the first time ever, the Holy Trinity Cathedral, the Russian church in downtown Jerusalem, agreed to host a concert. People of all communities and creeds  thronged to the church on October 11th 2012 to hear Russian church music performed by the Musica Aeterna Chamber Choir - 19 singers conducted by its founder Maestro Ilya Plotkin. Visitors arriving early were invited to join a tour of the church. The concert was a project of the “Art Rainbow” non-profit organization in cooperation with the Russian Orthodox Church Delegation and Archimandrite Isidore Minayev, who has been head of the Patriarchal Mission since 2009.

The impressive, gleaming white structure of the Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Cathedral, with its domes and bell towers, was established by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society in the 19th century. The site was chosen because of its proximity to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; the architect was Martin Ivanovich Eppinger. The church’s aim was to recreate the architecture- and atmosphere of St. Petersburg; building on Holy Trinity Cathedral started in 1860 and continued for over a decade. Holy Trinity became a welcoming centre for Russian Orthodox pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. During World War I, the Turks evicted all Christians from Jerusalem, leaving the church derelict. With Israel’s independence in 1948, the cathedral resumed functioning and was back in Russian Orthodox hands. The church’s interior is richly ornate, resplendent with massive chandeliers, carpets, Baroque iconography and a great many paintings of saints. It also boasts good acoustics.

The program consisted of 18th, 19th and 20th century sacred Russian music; it began with three movements from a Requiem by Alexandr Alexandrovich Arkhangelsky (1846-1924), a choral conductor in St. Petersburg whose more than 300 sacred settings range from simple arrangements of church chants to enriched settings in the more complex and freer “St. Petersburg style” of church music, a model in which composers used the practice of “harmonious chanting”. The singers created its pious, nostalgic and moving atmosphere in well-blended choral awareness.  Following Gregory Davidovsky’s “Now Lettest Thou”, with Helena Plotkin’s large, reedy voice soloing, we heard two of Dmitry Stepanovich Bortniansky’s (1751-1825) many concertos for 4-part a cappella mixed choir. The early 19th century of the classicist sacred concerto took its cues from the western motet, most composers writing the concertos after having studied in Italy or in Russia with Italian masters. Singing into the climaxes of the music, the Musica Aeterna singers filled the church with the bright- and joyful utterance of Bortniansky’s  Christmas work “Glory in the Highest”, later painting a more meditative and prayerful mood in his Concerto no.32 – Psalm 39:
‘Make known to me, o Lord, my end, and the measure of my days what it is; that I may know how frail I am…’ Bortniansky’s liturgical works combine Ukrainian choral tradition (including Russian- and Ukrainian secular song material) and 18th century Classical European style music. Of the same period, and working under similar influences, was renowned Ukrainian composer Stepan Anikievich Degtiarev (1766-1813), a composer thought to have written the first Russian oratorio, whose multi-sectional setting of Psalm 22 (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me) expressed the text with a mix of vehemence, tranquility and optimism. In A.Frunza’s “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord”, contralto Julia Plakhin’s voice was compelling in performing solo sections that alternated with the full choir.

Composer, choral conductor and teacher Pavel Grigorievich Chesnokov (1877-1924) composed over 500 choral works, 400 of which were sacred pieces. The most prolific composer of the Moscow Synodal School and a great polyphonist, he was known as the “conductor-magician”, this referring to his ability to “play on voices as on an instrument”. His music forms a fitting bridge between the musical tradition of the Soviet era and the present. We heard a scintillating and emotional reading of his “Prayer to the Virgin Patroness”, with mezzo-soprano Veronika Grace (director of the choir of the Notre Dame Jerusalem Center) as soloist. Soprano Hilma Digilov performed the solo role in I.Smirnov’s “Praise the Name of God”, her vocal line line threaded through the choral texture.

Born in 1966, Hilarion Alfeyev received his first education in music, studying violin, piano and composition at the Moscow Gnessins School and the Moscow State Conservatoire. In addition to over 600 publications in Russian- and western languages, Archbishop Hilarion composes sacred- and orchestral music. In his sonorous and luxuriantly tonal “Now Lettest Thou”, tenor soloist Dmitry Semenov’s singing blended with- and merged into Musica Aeterna’s choral timbre with a delicate sense of balance. Another priest combining an illustrious career as a cleric and a liturgical composer is Archbishop Ionafan Yeletskih (b.1949). His music merges Russian Orthodox choral form with themes from Latin Gregorian chant, surely a gesture of peace in the troubled times of orthodoxy in the Ukraine. Soloing with the choir in Ionafan’s ”My Soul Magnifyeth the Lord”, soprano Shirelle Dashevsky’s mellifluous voice soared out into the church, her singing well phrased and poetic.

The Musica Aeterna chamber choir, established in 1996 by Ilya Plotkin, is made up of professional singers from the former Soviet Union. The soloists among them are familiar artists in the local concert- and opera scene. Plotkin and his singers have a deep understanding of Russian liturgical music, its nostalgic undertones, its rich harmonies and profoundly spiritual earnestness. They know and express its musical- and emotional language, performing these choral works with both emotion and humility. Musica Aeterna was the right choir for this historic occasion; Maestro Ilya Plotkin and his singers provided an opportunity for many of us to hear these most beautiful choral works, most of which are hidden from the west.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Boeke, Zipperling and Weiss perform in Tel Aviv

On October 8th 2012, with the end of ten days of intensive studies of the 3rd International Early Music Seminar at the Israel Music Conservatory Tel Aviv in sight, a concert of 16th- and 17th century European music was performed by three of the seminar’s overseas guest tutors – recorder-player Kees Boeke (Holland/Italy), ‘cellist Rainer Zipperling (Germany) and harpsichordist/organist Kenneth Weiss (USA).

The program opened with four pieces from Italian church composer, organist and violinist Tarquinio Merula’s (1590/96-1665) Libro IV (1651).  Aside from sacred vocal works, Merula composed a number of pieces for single instruments, a rare practice for his time. Book IV consists of 28 pieces for a variety of instrumental combinations. We heard four canzonas performed by the three artists, the upper line (originally for violin) played by Boeke on recorder. The inspiration and innovative character of this repertoire might be attributed in part to the composer’s unstable character but also to the development of Italian opera which lent a new theatrical dimension to Italian music. The artists captured the freshness of harmony and the poetry of these pieces, its humor, technical verve, its swift dialogue, frequent changes of rhythm and vivid expression. In Merula’s concerted use of recorder and ‘cello, Boeke and Zipperling interacted, each also leaving his personal stamp on solo passages. Weiss supported some pieces on the harpsichord, others on organ.

Thomas Tallis’ (c.1505-1585) keyboard music is not heard frequently, especially in this part of the world. His surviving keyboard repertoire is not large; much has possibly been lost and most of his own keyboard performances were probably based on improvisation. Most of the surviving keyboard works are plainchant settings, as is “Felix Namque” (For Thou art happy), based on a sacred cantus firmus, which we heard played by Kenneth Weiss on harpsichord. Possibly composed for performance in the Elizabethan Chapel Royal (Queen Elizabeth was known as a good amateur musician) two treatments of this text exist in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, one from 1562 and one from 1564, their virtuosic style of writing being far beyond that of European keyboard writing of the time. With this unrivalled contrapuntal tour de force at his fingertips, Weiss presented Tallis’ imaginatively conceived series of rhythmic variations - a fast-flowing microcosm of sections of textures from two-voiced moments to densely packed chords, contrasted moods and ideas, rhythmic variety, rhythmic shifts, interestingly accented phrases and variations of mind-blowing virtuosity. Challenging the listener to keep up with the kaleidoscope of ideas, Weiss performed the gamut of keyboard styles and expression of the time, all rolled into one exciting roller-coaster ride. This daring music was handled gregariously by Weiss.

The three artists then performed two sonatas from Marco Uccellini’s (1603-1680) Opus IV (1645), a collection of “Sonate, correnti et arie” for solo or multiple violins.  Boeke played the violin line on soprano recorder, with Weiss playing organ in Sonata settima (La Prosperina) and harpsichord in Sonata undecima. Within the typically Italian practice of contrasting sections proceeding back-to-back, the artists were free and articulate in presenting Uccellini’s somewhat eclectic style (he was as familiar with street songs as he was with church- and court music), showing the music’s beautifully singing melodic phrases, rapid modulations, wide leaps and contrasting tempi.  Boeke’s skilful playing adapted the violinist-composer’s innovative- and virtuosic violin writing to the recorder.

 Italian capriciousness, multi-sectional- and quasi-improvisational form also characterize Philipp Friedrich Buchner’s (1614-1669) Sonata V from his “Plectrum Musicum” collection (1662), the reason being that Buchner, a composer from southern Germany, spent time in Italy. The ensemble brought out the sonata’s inventive combination of Italian monody and polyphony, its rich variety of textures, detail and temperament, Buchner’s musical language borrowing heavily from early 17th century Italian string idiom.  Boeke’s expressiveness was juxtaposed with focus on Zipperling’s fine solo playing together with organ continuo.

Boeke and Weiss performed Diminutions on “Un gay bergier” (T.Crecquillon) written by two composers – those composed by Giovanni Bassano in 1584 and those by Richardo Rogniono in 1592. Richardo Rogniono (Riccardo Rognioni) (c.1550-1620) wrote a didactic treatise “Passages for Practice in Diminution” (Venice, 1592) in which he addressed the difference between diminutions for string- and wind instruments. Giovanni Bassano (1558-1617) wrote an important treatise on ornamentation. Not only did Boeke and Weiss’s performance identify with the two composers’ strategies in the building up of ornamentation of diminutions, enlisting progressive technical complexities, they indeed left room for individuality of expression of the performer.

Remaining in Italy, the concert concluded with Dario Castello’s ((c.1590-c.1658) Sonata Quarta from “Sonate concertate” Libro 1 (1621). A prominent Venetian chamber musician, having his own wind ensemble, Castello had connections with Monteverdi, hence the use of the concitato style (a style expressing strong emotions, introducing such effects as repeated notes as symbols of passion). Weiss, Boeke and Zipperling gave lively expression to the composer’s freedom of style, the work’s bold gestures, use of imitation, virtuosic passagework, contrasting tempi and changes of affect.

This was a concert bristling with sparkle and interest. It also included works seldom heard in early music recitals, offering the audience the opportunity to widen its listening repertoire.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

IPO founder Bronislaw Huberman honored

Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) was born in Czestochowa, Poland and began to play the violin at age six. Within a year he had given his first public performance, playing Spohr’s Violin Concerto no.2. In 1892, the family moved to Germany to enable the boy to study with Joseph Joachim in Berlin. Joachim, tired of child prodigies, was unwilling to accept the young violinist, but, on hearing him play a Chopin Nocturne, rapidly changed his mind. After a concert performed by the 10-year-old, Anton Rubinstein wrote: “Only a genius plays like that”. Following lessons with other teachers, Huberman, by age 11, decided to be his own tutor, claiming the best teacher to be “the many-headed Hydra, the public”. Performing to an ecstatic audience at the farewell concert of the great singer Adelina Patti, Huberman’s future was secured. Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, presented him with the money to buy a valuable violin. In 1896, Huberman’s concerts in Vienna were attended by such great names as Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss and Brahms; the latter, on hearing the violinist perform his violin concerto, was moved to tears. Huberman made his American debut at Carnegie Hall in 1896, with a New York critic referring to his “splendid sonority of his tone, a tone rough and impure, but very noble in its majestic breadth.”  By now, Huberman’s trademark style was present – his individuality, his flair and depth of interpretation. His Russian tour of 1897-98 was no less successful. On tour in Italy in 1903, Huberman was only the second violinist to be given the honor of playing a concert on Paganini’s Guarnerius violin.

The catastrophe of the First World War caused Huberman to become interested in politics; he became convinced that the issue of peace was inseparable from the problem of political unification. Tours to America resumed in 1921; he performed with Richard Strauss and other artists, also making recordings. In 1924, Huberman published a book “My Road to Pan-Europa” on the role model America provided for economic- and political integration, then continuing his political activities on his return to Europe in 1925. Huberman visited Palestine in 1929.  He saw himself as an internationalist, felt more European than Jewish and was somewhat anti-Zionist, but the atmosphere in Palestine changed his attitude. By the time he visited Palestine again, in 1931, he had formed a vision of creating a Palestine Symphony Orchestra. He now began to see the project as also helping employ Jewish orchestral players who had been left jobless. In January 1934 Huberman’s proposal for the orchestra was accepted and local committees were set up in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv to collect donations, organize subscriptions and act as advisory groups. However, back in Europe, despite the fact that his concerts were all sold out months in advance, Huberman’s political outspokenness was gaining him notoriety. In 1935, Huberman asked Arturo Toscanini to conduct the opening concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. Toscanini, a well-known anti-fascist, agreed, viewing the orchestra of “émigrés” as a powerful anti-Nazi statement. The violinist declined Toscanini’s invitation to be soloist at the opening concert. Huberman had established the “Association of Friends of the Palestine Orchestra” in the USA, with Albert Einstein, himself a German exile, as chairman. To make up the orchestra, Huberman had chosen sixty or more first class players, all from renowned European orchestras. With the help of the Workers’ Branch of the Palestine Orchestra Association, two subscription concerts were planned for each city, the second intended for workmen, with tickets costing a fifth of the regular ticket price. On December 26th 1936, Toscanini conducted the orchestra’s inaugural concert in Tel Aviv. By 1939, the PSO had played under the batons of Toscanini, Sargent, Dobrowen, Szenkar, Taube and Horenstein. The languages spoken by orchestral members were German, Polish, Hungarian and Russian, with Hebrew only spoken by younger players. In 1940, Huberman soloed with the PSO in Palestine and Egypt. When the State of Israel was born, the orchestra’s name was changed to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Bronislaw Huberman died June 16th 1947 at his home near Lake Geneva, Switzerland.

The Polish city of Czestochowa is renaming its orchestra in honor of Bronislaw Huberman, in recognition of the fact that he had saved hundreds of Jews from the Holocaust and of his founding of what is today the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The official concert on October 3rd 2012 in the town of his birth was a reminder of the important role the Jewish community had played in Polish cultural life prior to its disappearance in the Holocaust; Czestochowa had had a community of 40,000 Jews. Symbolically, the newly rebuilt Philharmonic Hall occupies the former site of the synagogue destroyed by the Nazis. The orchestra’s director Ireneusz Kozera has referred to Huberman as a “wonderful violinist and a humanist” who will be remembered all the more with the orchestra now bearing his name.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Third Early Music Seminar, Tel Aviv

The Third Early Music Seminar, Tel Aviv, opened October 1st 2012 at the Israel Conservatory of Music. The 10-day workshop, attended by 120 students, is under the musical direction of Head of the Israel Conservatory Early Music Department, recorder player and teacher Drora Bruck and produced by Ya’ara Mittleman-Sharit. Tutors from overseas include Kenneth Weiss (USA)- harpsichord, vocal coaching, Kees Boeke (Holland)-recorders, Rainer Zipperling (Germany)-Baroque ‘cello, viola da gamba, Antonella Gianesse (Italy)-voice, Noam Krieger (Holland)-harpsichord, vocal coaching and Tamar Lalo (Spain)-recorder (younger students). Israelis teaching at the Seminar are Drora Bruck-recorders, Idit Shemer-Baroque transverse flute, Ayala Sicron-voice, Orit Messer Jacobi-Baroque ‘cello, Zohar Shefi-harpsichord, Sharon Rosner-viola da gamba and Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba. Alon Schab is musicologist in residence. This year, a number of overseas students are joining their Israeli counterparts for the duration of the course.

The Israel Conservatory of Music (Tel Aviv) was founded in 1943 and continues to be a centre of musical learning, preparing several of its students for professional musical careers. It has recently undergone extensive refurbishment, with the opening concert of the Early Music Seminar taking place in the impressively rebuilt auditorium. Artists participating in the concert were all members of the Seminar’s teaching team.

The program opened with Drora Bruck, Orit Messer Jacobi and Noam Krieger performing Nicolas Chédeville’s Sonata in g minor for alto recorder and basso continuo (1737.) Bruck took on board the work’s character and technical challenges; however, the artists seemed unfamiliar with the hall’s acoustic, with Messer Jacobi’s ‘cello drowning out the other two players in a performance that needed to breathe more easily. Noam Krieger then treated the audience to some pieces from Jacques Duphly’s “Les Grâces”. Duphly (1715-1789), a fine harpsichordist himself, boasting all the right connections with Paris nobility and musical circles, was one of the last French composers to be writing for the instrument. With the term “grace” representing a number of ideas during the French Baroque – the Greco-Roman representations of beauty, mirth and good cheer, a term for musical ornaments and, finally, values of good taste in social behavior – what is certain is that these pieces constitute a combination of all three in salon music played for the pleasure of Paris nobility. Specifically instrumental, somewhat modeled on the Italian sonata (D.Scarlatti) but retaining melodic- and ornamental traits of F.Couperin and Rameau, the pieces were presented by Krieger in all their intricacies and ornamentation, with a degree of rhythmic freedom, yet presenting the text articulately to his audience. Noam Krieger then accompanied Ayala Sicron in G.Frescobaldi’s “Aria di Passacaglia” (1630). An aria without an opera, this is a hugely virtuosic piece, its characteristically Italian changes of mood representing the changing emotional turmoil of love together with a measure of sarcasm and bitterness. Dealing well with its technical challenges, I felt Sicron could have added a spicier dose of Italian drama.

‘In this way you despise me?

Like this you make fun of me?

The time will come, Love,

That love will make of your heart

That which you make of mine…

Your blond locks, your purple cheek

Will leave now, faster than I will.

Prize them then, so that I will have the last laugh.’

The program included two ricercars by the northern Italian composer Domenico Gabrielli (1650s-1690), considered the first violoncello virtuoso. These short, rarely heard pieces, not ricercars in the earlier, polyphonic sense but light multi-sectional pieces of an improvisational nature, are based on dance rhythms. Gabrielli’s seven Ricercare for Violoncello Solo count among the earliest works for solo ‘cello. Somewhat in the style of etudes, they were probably written for the composer’s own use; they are technically demanding, including florid passages, also double-, triple- and quadruple chords. Written shortly after the introduction of wire-wound gut strings, these ricercare make much rapid use of the lower strings, a feat not possible on purely gut strings. Rainer Zipperling performed Ricercar no.1 in g minor. His artful, subtle and sober playing of it produced a coherent, sensitive melodic journey, his rhythmic flexibility pointing out the composer’s array of different musical ideas. In Orit Messer Jacobi’s performance of Ricercar no.7 in d minor, her generous, full-bodied sound took each gesture to its full dynamic- and emotional potential. Rainer Zipperling also performed the Sarabande from Bach’s Suite in E flat major for solo ‘cello.

Zohar Shefi and Sharon Rosner performed Marin Marais’ (1656-1728) “Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte Colombe”, the composer’s homage to his viol teacher. In a well formulated reading of the work, the artists evoked the work’s ponderous melancholy through its falling motifs, chromatics, sighing, lamenting figures and suspensions, Rosner’s tone highly expressive; he evoked the grieving of the composer for his master by short vibrato effects and vehement utterances, all supported by Shefi’s sympathetic and reflective continuo support. A poignant performance, indeed. Shefi and Rosner were then joined by flautist Idit Shemer in a performance of Jacques-Martin Hotteterre’s (1674-1763) Suite in D major in a performance engaging French Baroque elegance, serenity and courtly etiquette. Idit Shemer’s playing was pleasing in its relaxed timbre and rich in melodic shape.

Israeli-born recorder-player Tamar Lalo, currently residing in Spain, performed Jacques Paisible’s Sonata in d minor. Krieger and Rosner formed the continuo section. A musician with a forthright manner, Lalo’s playing was fresh, lively, idiomatic and varied, her use of ornaments heightening its expressiveness. Her confident and articulate playing was indicative of the fluent and nuanced sound, the finesse of agréments and piquancy of expression French musicians had brought to London musical life at that time.

Dutch-born recorder player Kees Boeke performed a “lay” by poet and musician Guillaume de Machaut (c.1300-1377). In the 25 lays attributed to Machaut, most of which deal with courtly love, the standard format for this secular poetic/vocal form was one of 12 stanzas, their content spanning from Marian hymns, debate poems, laments, complaints, comforts and didactic poems directed at patrons. The “lay” or “lai” Boeke played – “Lay de L’Ymage” – written for male voice, would have been composed in the 1320s or 1330s. Boeke played it on a medieval tenor recorder (Luca de Paolis, Italy), his playing adapting a narrative, vocal approach, constantly interesting, even without the verbal text.

The concert ended with a performance of J.J.Quantz’ (1697-1773) Trio sonata in C major performed by Drora Bruck-recorder, Idit Shemer-traverso, with Zohar Shefi and Orit Messer Jacobi forming the continuo section. In what might have been included in an evening’s entertainment at the Prussian court of Frederick the Great, with Quantz and his patron possibly playing the flute and recorder parts, we heard a performance that was communicative, graceful, playful and expressive. With Quantz proving that recorder and flute are not , after all, strange bedfellows, the Seminar ensemble’s playing was a poignant reminder that Quantz was influenced by the warmth and vibrancy of the timbres of Italian singers popular in early 18th century Dresden.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A new CD: Avi Avital - Bach

Bach concertos and sonatas played on the mandolin? A new CD featuring the interpretation and playing of Israeli-born Avi Avital has some interesting and pertinent answers to this question. “Avi Avital – Bach” (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012) is a CD of familiar J.S.Bach works reworked and soloed by mandolin-player Avi Avital. Avital is joined by Shalev Ad-El-harpsichord, Ophira Zakai-theorbo, Ira Givol-‘cello and the Potsdam Kammerakademie Orchestra.

Avi Avital (b.1978, Beersheba) began learning the mandolin at age eight, soon joining the local mandolin youth orchestra which was directed by Russian-born violinist Simcha Nathanson. In 2007, Avital won first prize in Israel’s prestigious Aviv Competitions, becoming the first mandolin player to win the award. Following studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Avital studied in Italy with Ugo Orlandi at the Cesare Pollini Conservatory (Padua). He appears widely as a soloist in Europe, England, China and the USA and has released recordings of klezmer-, Baroque- and modern music. Concerned by the fact that much of the repertoire he wished to play was not originally written for mandolin, Avital, playing on a mandolin built by Arik Kerman, has taken a courageous step to widen the scope of works to be played on the instrument.

Thoughts on the flexibility of instrumentation are relevant if one considers that Bach’s Concerto for Keyboard no.1 in D minor BWV 1052, a work composed in Leipzig in 1738, was the transcription of a lost violin concerto. Often presented in a bold and grand manner, Avital and his sensitive orchestral players take the listener into the intricate spider web of the mechanics of the work. Once adjusted to the gentler volume level, the ear follows Avital through the harmonic- and melodic course of the three movements as he negotiates them with superb rhythmical precision. Breaking away from its unison majestic themes and the expansive dialogue between orchestra and soloist in the first movement, Avital creates the sense of freedom of the concerting soloist in brilliant transitions and cascading arpeggiated cadenza passages. In the second movement – Adagio – he weaves mystery into the meditative text that had its beginnings in “We must suffer much injustice to enter the Kingdom of God” from Cantata BWV 146.

The Harpsichord Concerto in G minor BWV 1056, whose outer movements are thought to have been from a lost oboe concerto, has undergone reconstruction as a violin concerto. In the disc liner notes, Avital talks about his transcription of the work as falling “somewhere between the harpsichord and violin versions”. His reworking is skilful, the mandolin part threading its way through the string orchestra, as textures become progressively denser in the first movement. The Largo movement is poignant, with pizzicato strings giving the mandolin centre stage; here, Avital’s phrases are as artfully shaped as they are fragile. It is the mandolin that reinforces the vitality of the string statements in the Presto movement. This is exciting performance! Keeping a safe distance from over-amplification, the engineers have placed the mandolin sound in the body of the orchestra; this fine musical balance, however, allows Avital’s passagework to shine articulately through the orchestral sound.

In Concerto in A minor BWV 1041, originally a violin concerto, we hear Bach stretching the boundaries of the Vivaldi-associated Italian style, with solo- and tutti passages punctuating and overlapping each other. Avital and the orchestra revel in Bach’s experimentation and subtlety. With freshness and vitality, they give a buoyant reading of the opening movement, with its extensive echoing and syncopation. The Andante sees an interesting juxtaposition of the sturdy tutti character and the intimacy and expressiveness of Avital’s solo as he weaves it through its intensely human and never-quite-predictable course with thoughtful engagement. In the dance-like Allegro assai, Avital employs crisply worked ornaments to spice the pizzazz and virtuosity of the movement.

The Sonata in E minor BWV 1034 for flute and harpsichord was probably composed during Bach’s years in Cöthen (1717-1723); this being the case, it would fit in with the period in which Bach showed intense interest in the transverse flute, a time he included a series of flute obbligato parts in cantatas. (The E minor Sonata makes great demands of the flautist, with lengthy phrases not always taking into consideration the players need for breath!) Nevertheless, the work has been arranged for instruments other than the flute. In his reworking of it, Avi Avital is joined by Shalev Ad-El, Ophira Zakai and Ira Givol in a chamber music setting. Their high quality ensemble playing carries the mark of experience and good taste. Relating to the sonata da chiesa form and character of the work, Avital states the solemn melodic line of the first movement with poetic beauty, maintaining the energy of the line and its relationship to the continuo part in order to bring out dissonances created by suspensions. In the second movement – Allegro – Avital and the continuo section engage in its characteristic counterpoint, echo effects and sequences with much joie-de-vivre, with technical solo demands met with easeful nimbleness by Avital. Avital has chosen to score the third movement – Andante – for mandolin and lute only, the tranquil, meditative scene set in wistful tones by Zakai, with the mandolin, however, creating the complete melodic course enhanced by cadenzas. In the final movement, dancelike in character, with all four players back in a careful balance of forces, delicate dynamic changes and nuances play a major part in a genuine affecting of the senses.

An accepted strategy for Baroque composers to transcribe works of their own or of other composers they admired, Bach himself prepared new concerto material by rearranging previous works, a practice also carried out in his cantatas, the B minor Mass and the Christmas Oratorio. Musicologist Frank Macomber has analyzed some 130 works in which Bach has transcribed previously written material of his own. Avi Avital’s reconstructions and ensuing performances of Bach works, music that “goes far beyond any given instrument” (in his words), offer fresh insight into this material and a new- and inspiring listening experience. This is music of the senses. The performance on the disc represents Avi Avital’s deep enquiry into Bach’s compositional methods.