Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem plays Armenian and Georgian music

“Between Ararat and the Caucasus”, a concert in the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s “Peoples’ Voices” series, was dedicated to classical- and traditional Armenian music, with works of Georgian-born composers. It featured conductor Aram Gharabekian (Armenia/USA) and mezzo soprano Anna Mayilyan (Armenia). This writer attended the concert in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre November 13th 2012. The event was held in cooperation with the 13th Jerusalem International Oud Festival.

Born in 1955 to Armenian parents, Aram Gharabekian moved to the USA at a young age, graduating from the New England Conservatory with a Master’s degree in Composition, then taking graduate studies in Musical Phenomenology at Mainz University (Germany). He studied conducting in Italy, later taking up a fellowship to study Conducting and Composition with Jacob Druckman and Leonard Bernstein at the Tanglewood Music Center, Massachusetts. His conducting appointments have taken him to Boston, Zagreb, the Ukraine and his native Armenia; however, he conducts many orchestras, touring widely. Gharabekian has commissioned several works by American- and other composers. Committed to promoting music of our time, Maestro Gharabekian is, in addition, enriching the international concert scene by exposing the fine repertoire of traditional- and classical Armenian music.

The music of Armenia is one of the world’s most beautiful, most ancient and most overlooked traditions. The medieval songs of Armenia had their roots in both the sacred music of the Armenian Church and in the ancient traditions of the Caucasus region. Some of the major medieval Armenian composers were Khorenatsi, Narekatsi and Shnorali. Many older Armenian works exist today thanks to the tireless work of Komitas.  Born Soghomon Soghomonyan, Vartapet Komitas (1869-1935), taking the name “Komitas” on his ordination as a priest, was born in Turkey to Armenian parents who were both singers. He became a composer, choir leader, singer, music ethnologist, musicologist and pedagogue. Despite the fact that his output was modest – 80 choral works and songs, arrangements of the Armenian Mass and some dances for piano – he singlehandedly laid the foundations for Armenia’s classical tradition. He was a collector and arranger of folksongs, traveling from village to village, acutely aware of all the social implications of the repertoire. His settings used sophisticated polyphony.  He was also interested to rediscover the original reading of the neumes (musical notation) used in Armenian chants of the early middle ages. Komitas studied composition in Berlin, moving to Paris, there attracting large audiences to folk song recitals and becoming a musical celebrity in Europe. He also founded expatriate Armenian choirs in Alexandria and Constantinople. Although regarded as the musical voice of Armenia, he was in friction with traditionalists of the Armenian Church. While in Turkey, on an oral history project of the Armenian community in Turkey, Komitas was among 291 prominent figures arrested and taken in trucks to be imprisoned in the mountains. Although eventually reprieved, with the help of the American ambassador, he became ill with paranoia, spending his remaining 20 years in an asylum.

The concert opened with a song from the Komitas collection “Thou Stranger”. Performing the sensuous text, we heard Anna Mayliyan’s evocative and compelling voice, a reedy, mysteriously beautiful mix of chest- and head voice, above a most minimal use of percussion. From the Komitas collection, she also performed four songs by Khorenatsi, arranged by Ruben Altunian (b.1939, Yerevan), a composer with a deep knowledge of Armenian folk music, also an accomplished performer and educator. Referring to the songs as small gems would be no exaggeration. Mayliyan’s performance of each song was different; she incorporated hand movements as well as facial- and body language to convey meaning and to create each setting. In the dancelike “Shogher Jan”, she was coquettish and gregarious:
…‘Snow is beginning to appear beneath the clouds, dear Shogher
My heart is on fire,
Dear Shogher,
Sleep escapes from my eyes,
Dear Shogher,
Move with the wind, dance with the wind
Dear Shogher,
Snow is beginning to appear beneath the clouds,
Dear Shogher.’
In bell-like tones, Mayilyan holds her audience in the palm of her hand, her voice mellifluous and stable; her presentation is intense, theatrical, fired and endearing. Music and movement become one. We are transported to Armenia, to its landscape and to the soul of the people themselves:
‘Mount Alagyaz is shrouded in clouds,
Vay le, le, le, le, le, le. Le,
Rain has soaked the ground
Ah, my dear, sweet mother…’ (Komitas/Shnorhali/Muadian)

With “Surev Em Ter” (You Are the Holy Lord), a hymn of life and death, Mayliyan’s performance became intimate and devout, the orchestral setting not over-chordal. Anna Mayilyan, a professor in the classical vocal faculty of the Komitas State Conservatory, Yerevan, performs widely, focusing much on the music of her native Armenia. 

And to Komitas’ instrumental music - “Four Armenian Miniatures”, transcribed for orchestra by Sergei Aslamazian. These small pieces, wistful and hypnotic, at times lending themselves to distant reveries, at others, tinged with a hint of aching sadness, one piece free in spirit, light-hearted and exuberant, were given a polished performance. Maestro Aram Gharabekian’s conducting is elegant, expressive and unmannered. As a conductor, his total command of the orchestra is matched by his distinctive knowledge of- and immersion in Armenian music. One observes how comfortable he is working with the Camerata.

Maestro Gharabekian requested the concert be a tribute to two great Armenian composers who had recently died – Alexander Arutiunian and Edvard Mirzoian. Armenian composer and pianist Alexander Grigoriyevich Arutiunian (1920-2012) was a professor at the Yerevan State Conservatory. His creative style is based on the musical principles of Classical and Romantic styles but also on the musical heritage of Armenia, obvious in the use he makes of Armenian folk music. His focus on “vitalism”, as the elemental principle of art, is a method of recreating the nature of folklore melodies and rhythms, together with the art of interplay. His music abounds in lyricism, nostalgia and irony. Arutiunian’s “Sinfonietta” in four movements for string orchestra, composed in 1966, is characteristic of Armenian music written in the 1960s. In the neo-Classical style, the work’ bristles with sweeping national melodies, relentless syncopated rhythms and poignant, nostalgic moments. The Finale, with the whole orchestra coming into play, is peppered with dense motor rhythms.  Gharabekian and his players brought out the work’s singing melodies, sketching in its myriad of fine detail – small solos, whimsical comments and ostinati – to present its personal aspect, intertwined with Armenian expressiveness. Fine orchestral fare, indeed!

Edvard Mirzoian (1921-2012) was born in Georgia. Composing from age eight, he was initially educated in Yerevan, furthering his art in Moscow, later to become professor of composition at the Komitas State Conservatory. In 1958, he was raised to the status of an “Honored Artist of Russia”. We heard his tone poem “Shushanik”. “Shushanik” is a century-old legend concerning the creation of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia: King Vakhtang Gorgasali was hunting in the forest. His falcon chased a pheasant. The bird fell into water, recovered and flew away. Surprised by the miraculous healing powers of the water, Vakhtang gave orders to build a city on this sight. Mirzoian composed the lyric tableau in 1973 for the Armenian film “Chaos”, which was based on Alexander Shirvanzadze’s book of the same name. With  oriental flavor added to western, neo-classical writing, the work is meditative, its filigree-fine, melancholy, caressing sounds building to a larger orchestral canvas. Gharabekian’s moving reading of the work, colored by concertmaster Arnold Kobliansky’s soloing, made for music of the senses.

The program also included a work by Joseph Bardanashvili (b.1948, Batumi, Georgia), a composer of stage-, film-orchestral-, chamber-, choral-, vocal and piano works. Bardanashvili’s works are performed widely; he is the recipient of numerous awards, including the ACUM Prize for life Achievement (2002). In Israel since 1995, he is the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s current composer in residence. In an article published by Dr. Uri Golomb for the Israel Music Institute (2006), Golomb talks of the composer referring to himself as a “conceptual composer”, using extra-musical sources – literary and visual – for inspiration, using materials “with diverse historical, geographical and stylistic resonances”. “Migrating Birds” for string orchestra was commissioned by the Ingolstadt Georgian Chamber Orchestra (Germany) in 2010.  The work endeavors to evoke the experience of migrating – that of the players of the Ingolstadt Orchestra, of the composer himself and, indeed, the emotional upheaval involved in moving to a new country. The basis of the work also lies in Georgia’s struggle with Soviet rule and the stages its society had undergone before reaching its eventual independence. The composer uses few motifs, those being rhythmic-, melodic- and intervallic ideas and folk idiom; he also quotes melodies from Yoel Engel’s “Dybbuk”. He acieves effects by using single strands of melody, some very high, followed by pauses, by clusters with tail-end echoes, by sudden jagged utterances, glissandi, etc., the work  ending with minute birdlike sounds, all integrated to create a disturbing sense of alienation. Reaching out to the ear, the music drew the audience into its tense-, at times almost transparent, otherworldly sphere. The composer, who is also a painter, speaks of the work as demanding “inner listening to discover lost- or non-existent sounds”. Joseph Bardanashvili was present at the performance.

How inspiring it was to experience this poetic and distinctive evening of music, most of it unfamiliar to local Israeli audiences. It was a pleasure to see a greater mix of people at the Henry Crown Hall; for those members of the local Armenian community present, it was surely an especially festive event. Maestro Gharabekian’s dedication and his precise, spirited and inspiring leadership was reflected in the beauty of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s performance throughout the evening. Anna Mayilyan’s artistry and musicianship reach far beyond the musical notes.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hadassah Medical Center examines Mozart's medical file

Medical professionals took their seats in the auditorium of the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital on November 7th 2012 to attend a case history presentation, a weekly series produced by Professor Yoel Donchin. This specific clinical, historical conference was to focus on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, his life, health problems and causes of death.

The conference opened with a lively, fresh and contrasted rendition of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D major for four hands KV381 (1772) performed by cardiologists Dr. Ayelet Shower and Professor Arthur Pollak. Dr. Uzi Izhar, head of the Hadassah Medical Center’s General Thoracic Surgery Unit, gave background information on the composer, starting with his birth in Salzburg in 1756. Mozart’s father, who nurtured his son’s talent throughout his childhood, had been employed as a musician to the Archbishop of Salzburg and was himself a renowned teacher. Mozart’s mother was also highly supportive and caring of the boy. From the content of his letters to her, we know she read music. Of the seven children born to them, only two survived – Wolfgang and his sister Nannerl; she was a child prodigy on the piano and harpsichord. For some three years, their father toured with them by carriage all over Europe, where the two children performed. This remunerative tour greatly improved the Mozart family’s financial situation. In England, a notice publicizing a recital the young Mozart referred to him as a “prodigy of nature”.  Wolfgang played piano and violin and had written his first work – Andante in C – at age five. He never went to school. A sketch on the screen showed the music room in the Mozart House in Salzburg.

At this point, Dr, Izhar began to describe Mozart’s illnesses from age five, beginning with recurring fevers and joint pains which temporarily prevented him from performing. In September 1765, when they were in The Hague, Nannerl became ill with a raging fever, sore throat and loss of consciousness. She was treated by Professor Thomas Schwänke, who diagnosed her as having “pox on the lungs”. Following her recovery, Wolfgang became ill with something similar. His condition deteriorated to the point that his father described him as “all skin and bones”. Within two months, the young boy had recovered and could continue performing. Altogether, Mozart’s first ten years were fraught with throat infections…probably meaning he had an abscess on his tonsils. Medications prescribed him included powders, juices and Indian tamarind water. At age 11, he came down with chicken pox and recovered. At age 16, he was ill with ephagitis. Then his mother died when he was 23. She was 58 and had suffered from chronic fever accompanied by chills, headaches, loss of consciousness, etc. At age 26, Mozart married Constanze Weber, a cousin of Carl von Weber. Wolfgang’s father was unhappy about his choice of a wife, considering his son worthy of someone of a higher social standing. Together Wolfgang and Constanze had six children, but only two reached adulthood – Karl and Franz. Karl became a pianist and composer and Franz was a clerk. Neither of the sons married or brought children into the world, thus putting an end to the Mozart line.

Mozart was described as a thin, pale, short man. Under his wig his hair was blond. He may possibly have been short-sighted. His alcohol consumption was average and he smoked a pipe. He liked pets and kept a dog and a canary. He was born with a deformity of one ear but with good hearing. At age 29, in Vienna, he premiered his Piano Concerto no.20, K466. Altogether, his late 20s in Vienna, during which time he performed and conducted his piano concertos, were Mozart’s happiest and healthiest years. His 30s were characterized by constant complaints of headaches, throat infections, toothache and stomach aches. His sister, five years older than him, was healthy. Constanze, however, was not so healthy. In addition, she and Wolfgang had financial worries. A scene we viewed from one of the Mozart films shows the ill Wolfgang taking ice baths and talking to Constanze about the family’s money problems. In May 1787, Mozart’s father died at the age of 68. In the same year, Wolfgang and Constanze lost another child. Mozart made a number of visits to Prague, completing the latest symphonies – numbers 39, 41 (Jupiter) – and two operas – “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”.

1791, Mozart’s last year, was a year of work at a frenzied pace, causing him emotional crises. In June of that year, he claimed he was in good health. In his visit to Prague in September, some two months prior to his death, he conducted the premiere of one of his most important operas - “The Magic Flute”- at this time also composing his clarinet concerto. On October 14th, in a letter written to his wife Constanze who was sojourning at the spa town of Baden, he wrote that his health was in order, in the same letter, also discussing the future of their son’s education. Only a month later, Mozart fell ill with the malady that would bring about his end. There was no medical record of this. Evidence of his final illness was written years later by Constanze’s sister, Sophie Haibel. In a letter written by Sophie to Georg Nikolaus Nissen, a Danish diplomat who penned a Mozart biography, and who was to become Constanze’s second husband in 1809, she described a chronic illness, seemingly common at the time, that manifested itself in fast developing edema of the whole body accompanied by a pungent smell, general pain, fever and, possibly, a rash. Mozart’s edema became so bad that he was finding it difficult to turn over in bed and Sophie and Constanze sewed a special night shirt to make tending to him easier. Two weeks after taking ill, Mozart’s consciousness began to ebb. Dr. Thomas Franz Closset was called in to examine him; he came by after attending a theatre performance. He bled Mozart and prescribed cold compresses for the composer’s burning forehead. Sophie writes that, shortly after that, Mozart died at home on December 5th 1791, only weeks short of his 36th birthday.  A number of years following Mozart’s death, a doctor in Vienna  - Dr. Eduard Vincent Goldhörner von Lotz - wrote that, at that time, many of the city’s inhabitants had come down with a similar fatal illness. Dr. Closett observed Mozart’s dead body and claimed it was in keeping with the illness. Having examined Mozart before his death, Dr. Closett wrote that the composer’s death had been the result of brain deposit, “deposito alla testa”. The cause of death, as announced by St. Stephan’s Church was “hitziges Frieselfieber” (miliary fever). At that time, the cause of death was not always determined by a doctor but was often decided on by the family according to an account of the person’s death. On the day following his death, Mozart was taken to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Few people were there to attend his funeral ceremony. On December 7th, he was buried in a common grave, quite an accepted practice in those days. Although his exact burial place is not known in St. Mark’s Cemetery, a monument has been erected there in the composer’s memory.

In the almost 36 years of his life, Mozart had managed to write more than 600 works, as numbered by Ludwig von Köchel. His last and uncompleted work was the Requiem K.626, a liturgical, sacred work for the dead. It was probably commissioned by one of Vienna’s well-known noblemen – Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach - a music lover, who had requested the work in memory of his late wife. Following Mozart’s death, Constanze wished to find someone to finish the incomplete Requiem. The only person willing to do this was the composer’s student Franz Süssmayr. (Not all music researchers agree on this fact.)

Pediatrician Dr. Yigal Shvil opened his talk by expressing real sorrow at the fact that the genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had left us at age 36, Dr. Shvil asking why he could he have not lived as long as J.S.Bach. There have been many theories regarding cause of death. The first is poisoning….connected to the stranger who visited Mozart constantly for a month to pay him in installments for composing the Requiem and to keep an eye on its progress. Feeling enormously pressured by the task, Mozart told Constanze that he was feeling unwell, that he was “being poisoned” and that he sensed the Requiem would be for his own death. Dr. Shvil mentioned the theory that Aqua Tofana, a substance having neither taste nor smell, used by women for cosmetic purposes, had caused Mozart’s death by poisoning. But that could not have been the case as his handwriting had remained steady. Mozart’s son Karl Thomas was also convinced his father had been poisoned due to the terrible smell emanating from Mozart before his death and, even more so, after his death. He added that, after his death, Mozart’s body did not take on rigor mortis.  Then there is the story of composer and contemporary of Mozart, Antonio Salieri, who, late in life, in a mental hospital, told Beethoven’s secretary that he had poisoned Mozart. However, closer to his own death, Salieri informed Bohemian composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles that this had not been the case at all. Dr. Shvil reminded us that Pushkin had written a play on the subject and Rimsky Korsakov, an opera, not to speak of Peter Shaffer's stage play “Amadeus”, premiered in 1979, and Milos Forman's film version of five years later. The only medical professionals in Vienna who had looked after Mozart were Dr. Thomas Franz Closett and his assistant Matthias von Sallaba, but we have no official medical account of Wofgang’s last illness. “Hitziges Frieselfieber” is not a precise medical diagnosis. And how could there be one? The stethoscope was invented by René Laennec only in 1816, and the clinical thermometer had also not existed in Mozart’s time, its accuracy only established in 1920; it then took more time again to determine the normal range of body temperature. So how could they treat Mozart? They used bleeding, cold baths and other remedies of the time. Mozart was a small man, so bleeding him must have been detrimental to his weakened state.  

What were the symptoms of the illness? His hands and feet were swollen but he did not suffer from shortness of breath. He was lucid till his death. He could not move; he suffered from vomiting and fainting. His hearing, however, had remained sensitive, so much so that he had asked that his beloved canary be removed from the room. Mozart’s was an epidemical illness, so common at the time that the doctors could predict when he would die. Could it have been syphilis, widespread in Europe at the time? This would be treated with mercury. Could Mozart have overdosed on mercury? No. He did not show symptoms of mercury poisoning. Did he perhaps suffer from his father Leopold’s complaint of severe perspiring and colitis? It seems not. Mozart complained of having the “taste of death” in his mouth; this can be caused by uremia, the result of kidney failure. Dr. Shvil then listed symptoms of several other diseases, including rheumatic fever, ruling them out one by one. But then, in 1820, at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, a student had gone to the dissection room, where there was a patient who had had tuberculosis; the student saw worm spicules in a muscle. The disease caused by this became known as “trichina spira”. This was then forgotten for some 30 years. In 1860, Friedrich Albert von Zenker, a German pathologist and physician, observed the same thing in the muscles of a German waitress from an inn who had died, realizing that others who had eaten at the very public house had also suffered the same fate. He checked the pork sausage they had eaten and found the same larvae. The course of the disease – trichinosis – was that of Mozart’s illness. 44 days before his death, Mozart had written to Constanze that he had eaten delicious pork cutlets at a public house, eating them “to your health”. It had not been to the good of his health! In 1899, there was an epidemic of it in northern Italy; by now, however, the patients could be treated and they recovered. And in 2004,  30 Thai workers in Emek Hefer, Israel, were found to be suffering from trichinosis!

For a moment of relief, a picture of a chocolate Mozart kugel appeared on the screen. Pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Irene Anteby drew the audience’s attention to the fact that the halved chocolate looked like an eye! She was to speak about Mozart’s eyes, the information for which would be taken from written accounts and from her own scrutinizing of portraits of the composer. Leopold Mozart had written to his wife that Mozart had good eyesight; Constanze also wrote that Mozart had never needed glasses. However, she also wrote that his eyes had been quite large. We then observed two paintings of the seven-year-old Mozart; Dr. Anteby found his eyes quite normal. From another portrait, painted of Mozart at age 21, some questions arise as to the white of the eye, the eyes’ slight protrusion and asymmetry, lid lag, etc. These could be symptoms of certain illnesses. Or were these signs of acute short-sightedness? Probably not. But what about thyroid problems? Hyperthyroidism was ruled out; Mozart’s hand-writing was too steady for that. In a portrait of the composer at age 27, painted by Joseph Lange, there are no signs of any systemic disease. In Doris Stock’s side on drawing of Mozart at 33, one sees a little swelling of the lower eyelid; his collar, however, hides his neck, making it impossible to see signs of thyroid problems. So Dr. Anteby’s answer to Professor Donchin is that Mozart probably suffered neither from poor eyesight nor from eye disease. One cannot rule out slight short-sightedness in one eye or a lazy eye.

Moving from eyes to ears, ear-nose-and-throat surgeon Dr. Michal Kauffman-Yechezkeli took to the platform. She opened by reminding us that Mozart had absolute hearing and more than outstanding musical aptitude. However, many people do not know that he suffered from a deformation of the left ear, causing him much grief; and he did all he could to hide this. Most of the Mozart portraits show his right side and, generally, his ears stayed tucked under his wig. In the biography written by Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, published in 1828, there is a sketch of Mozart’s left ear shown together with a sketch of a normal ear. The very rare deformation has since been termed the “Mozart ear”. Dr. Kauffman spoke of there being only been five cases recorded. The sixth case, as shown on the screen, was is that of a child seen a week ago at the Hadassah Medical Center! The phenomenon is hereditary; Mozart’s younger son suffered from the same deformation. Kauffman concluded by quoting from P.H.Gerber’s 1898 Mozart biography: “It is a peculiar irony that a person, whose inner ear has, so to speak, reached the highest level of development, has a retarded and malformed outer ear”.

Professor Donchin thanked all those who had taken part in the event. He added that Mozart’s reputation had been much harmed: the film “Amadeus” took artistic license in portraying the composer as a clown. Salieri did not write down the Requiem (as shown in the Forman film), nor did he hate Mozart. And Mozart had not been a womanizer. Professor Donchin closed the meeting with the fact that Mozart had been a composer of rare genius with an amazing musical memory and that he had been a superb improviser.

Informed, inspired and well entertained, people quickly left the auditorium to return to today’s reality.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Two choirs close the November 2012 Choral Fantasy Festival

On November 3rd 2012, the closing program of the first part of the Choral Fantasy Festival (November 1-3) was performed by two choirs – the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir (conductor Stanley Sperber) and the Megiddo Choir (conductor Pnina Inbar) at the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Chuck (Yehoshua) Kleinhaus.

The evening began with two movements from Giacomo Puccini’s (1858-1924) “Messa di Gloria”, composed by Puccini at age 18 as his graduation thesis from the Institute Musicale in Lucca. One frequently associates the composer with his operas; the writing of sacred music, however, had been a tradition of four generations in his family. Sperber wielded the many singers of both choirs plus other singers, placed in three parts of the hall, with amazing command, resulting in a well-coordinated choral sound with good dynamic variety, joy and many velvety, lyrical moments. Soloist was tenor Liran Koppel. A user-friendly work, the “Messa di Gloria” nevertheless evokes the effervescence, color and freshness of Puccini’s operas.

The 33 singers of the Megiddo Choir then performed a number of very different pieces, from Joseph Bardanashvili’s (b.1948) haunting setting of Psalm 123, to Poulenc’s motet “Hodie Christus Natus Est”, to more traditionally-based works such as a tasteful,  balanced performance of a Hadjidakis song, the gentle, lilting and beautifully blended singing of a Catalonian song, Gispert Fabres’ spirited “Boleras Sevillanas” with soprano solo and castanets, Hebrew songs and Pnina Inbar’s own arrangement of Ro’i Raz’s “Psalm 23”. With soloists and pianist all choir members, the ensemble gave a polished, well rehearsed and rewarding performance.

The Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, its members placed the length of both aisles, with Maestro Sperber on the stage, performed a mellifluous, well blended performance of Salamone Rossi’s (c.1570-1630) “Elohim Hashivenu” (O God, restore us)from Psalm 80, followed by Yehezkel Braun’s (b.1922) “Dror Yikra” (He will proclaim freedom) - a colorful arrangement of three traditional oriental versions of the famous medieval poetic text, with the sound of the darbuka adding to its oriental flavor.

One of the evening’s highlights was the first Israeli performance of Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet for eight five-part choirs - “Spem in alium” (Hope in any other). The work is listed in the catalogue of Nonsuch Palace, the country home of Henry FitzAlan, 19th Earl of Arundel, whose banqueting hall was octagonal with four first floor balconies, a suitable venue for such a work. Some historians suggest it was written to honor Queen Elizabeth I’s fortieth birthday, another theory being that it was written for Mary Queen of Scots. Each of the eight choirs consists of a soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass singer; the work, beginning with a single voice, includes much imitation, smaller ensembles and larger, and some homophonic sections, its course presenting new musical ideas as it progresses. With each choir singing sections and then falling silent, the most astounding effect of the work is the moving of sound from choir 1 to choir 8 and, later, from choir 8 to choir 1 – a kind of natural, moving spotlight effect. The text is adapted from the Book of Judith:
‘I have never put my hope in any other but in You,
O God of Israel
Who can show both anger and graciousness
And who absolves all the sins of suffering man.
Lord God, creator of heaven and earth,
Be mindful of our lowliness.’
The JAMD Chamber Choir’s eight quintets were placed on stage and in both aisles, not the ideal arrangement for singers relying on eye contact; not all individual groups were heard articulately. The moving effect was, indeed, present, with much fine resonance and sparkle in the homophonic sections. Where groups got a little out of kilter they resynchronized themselves. Stanley Sperber’s reading of the work preserved “Spem in alium”’s sacred character.

The Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir then presented a number of spirituals, folk songs, Hebrew songs and songs that have been set by the King’s Singers. Taking on board arrangements that were mostly very challenging, Sperber and his singers entertained the audience with choral performance that was polished, sophisticated and precise, whether in the flexed Haim Hefer/Sasha Argov song “The Purple Dress”, the silky, touching rendering of American folk song “Shenandoah”, a feisty, jazzy performance of the Beetles song of 1968 “Back in the USSR” or an appealing, fragile rendition of the traditional Afro-American spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning”. The JAMD Chamber Choir is cutting-edge and highly professional.


Sunday, November 11, 2012

"Stabat Mater" performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra

As a member of the board of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, I had the opportunity of hearing the orchestra’s “Stabat Mater” program at the Choral Fantasy Festival at the Jerusalem International YMCA November 3rd 2012 and on November 6th at the Israel Conservatory of Music (Tel Aviv).

Led by violinist Noam Schuss, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra consisted of bowed instruments, theorbo and organ for the program. Conducting from the organ was the JBO’s founder and musical director David Shemer. Soloists were soprano Einat Aronstein and countertenor Alon Harari.  

The settings of the Stabat Mater text constitute some of the most outstanding works of the Italian Baroque. The poem, written possibly by the medieval mystic Jacopone da Todi, was set by such Renaissance composers as Josquin, Palestrina and Browne; the plangent nature of its text, however, beckoned the great Italian composers Vivaldi, A.Scarlatti, D.Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Caldara, Bononcini and Boccherini to plunge into the depths of its sacred- and expressive meaning. The JBO program began with Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) setting of the “Stabat Mater” (1727) for alto, strings and continuo. Possibly the composer’s first sacred work, it was commissioned for the church of Santa Maria della Pace in Brescia, to be performed by the church’s in-house ensemble of two violins, viola and continuo. It is also believed that Vivaldi intended it to be sung by a male alto (and not necessarily a castrato) – probably the highly-paid male alto Filippo Sandri - as ‘falsettists’ were more often employed as altos. So despite the fact that it was commissioned for the all-male forces of the della Pace, it used a text expressing the depth of a mother’s grief. The work is written with great economy – only two keys and some repeated movements (due to time constraints?) and the composer chose to set only 10 of the 20 stanzas. Like many of Vivaldi’s works, the “Stabat Mater” lay hidden for centuries until it was heard again in Siena in 1939. Alon Harari, immersed in the stillness and richly evocative text of the work, held the work’s tension throughout, embellishing sensitively, gently swaying some rhythms with inégal notes, allowing for strategic, gradual dynamic developments as the work built up and ebbed in accordance with the text. In the last stanza, the witness telling of the Mother’s agony at her son’s crucifixion changes role to becoming a person praying in a heart-rending utterance of sensitivity. Here, Harari, violins and viola presented the heart-rending ‘Eia Mater’ text convincingly:
‘O Mother, fount of love, make me to feel the strength of your grief, so that I may mourn with you…’
There were poignant communicative moments between Harari and Noam Schuss. Altogether, the internal instrumental balance and timbral qualities of the ensemble supported the expressive quality of the work.

Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) “Salve Regina”, an ancient hymn to the Virgin – “Hail o Queen, Mother of Mercy”, has many of the stylistic traits of Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” – suspensions, chromaticism and its prayerful, contemplative character. Einat Aronstein, her voice bright, fresh in color and highly flexible, gave expression to both the intimate- and dramatic aspects of the work, its excitement and compassion. Aronstein, using a fair amount of vibrato not just as a means of embellishment, addressed the text in detail, coloring such affects as – ‘Ad te suspiramus gementes et flentes in hac lacrimarum valle’ (To thee we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears).

Composed at the same time as the “Salve Regina”, Pergolesi wrote the “Stabat Mater” in a monastery in Pozzuoli, the Italian spa town on the Bay of Naples, where he spent his last months, ill with tuberculosis. The work became one of the most frequently printed and celebrated works of the 18th century. With the young Pergolesi exhibiting a flair for theatre, his “Stabat Mater” has often been criticized for being too operatic. A setting of the sequence for the ‘Feast of the Seven Dolours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the work was harmonically ahead of its time, Pergolesi’s use of chromaticism creating a bitter-sweet environment for the piece’s expressive sensibility. Keeping a safe distance from the dangers of flamboyancy and over-sentimentalism, Maestro Shemer’s use of a minimal number of instruments in the ensemble gave priority to the religiosity and intimacy of the work, his tempi allowing for Pergolesi’s dramatic dissonances and the work’s great tenderness and somber beauty to take effect.  From the colliding dissonant seconds opening- and consequently characterizing the work, Aronstein and Harari met on the same wavelength regarding the text and its potential, blending well in duets, embellishing richly and contrasting the work’s fragility with its dramatic moments. Harari’s musical performance is commanding, confident and chiseled, from his palette of ornaments, his superb control, his approach to sacred music and its mystery and introspection as in ‘Tui nati’ (Share with me the agony of your wounded Son who deigned to suffer so much for me) to the drama and tension of the gripping, jagged, short phrases of ‘Fac, ut portem’ (Grant that I may bear the death of Christ, the fate of his Passion and commemorate His wounds’).  Aronstein showed fine control and a sense of delicacy, as in the heart-rending single note touches beginning the ‘Quis est homo’ (Who is he that would not weep if he saw the Mother of Christ in such torment?), then surrendering herself to the pain and tragedy of the ‘Cuius animam’ (Her soul, sighing, anguished and grieving, was pieced by a sword.) The two singers joined in duets that ranged from poignant outpourings to briskly contrapuntal sections, concluding with the Amen, the latter exuberant yet colored with chromatic falling notes predicting Pergolesi’s approaching death.  The JBO instrumentalists’ finespun and sensitive performance – in particular that of violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid and ‘cellist Orit Messer Jacobi – conveyed some important messages: sorrow and anguish with sudden octave jumps (Cuius animam), an answer to the singers’ ‘Quis?’ (Who?) with much intensity, playing scattered notes to depict Christ’s difficulty in breathing as he was losing his life strength (Vidit suum), the strikingly dissonant accompaniment to ‘fac ut tecum lugeam’ (Make my heart with thine accord), sighing motives, etc. David Shemer and the JBO ensemble read past the notes of the written score into the deeper meaning of a work.    

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Farewell concert of the Israeli Bach Soloists

On November 1st 2012, the Israeli Bach Soloists, directed by founder Sharon Rosner, performed their farewell concert at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv. Those taking part were singers Hadas Faran Asia, Anat Czarny, Avital Dery, Alon Harari, Yair Polishook, David Nortman and Guy Pelc, violinist Rachel Ringelstein, flautist Idit Shemer, Zohar Shefi (harpsichord, organ), ‘cellist Jackie Fay and Rosner himself, who played viol and also sang.

Sharon Rosner addressed the audience briefly, mentioning that the concert was bringing to a conclusion several years of activity during which time the ensemble had performed mostly works of J.S.Bach. He spoke of the fact that playing Bach had taught them much, also bringing home the fact that Bach’s music is not easy to grasp, that it is, in fact, enigmatic and evasive, defying categories. For this concert, the audience had no printed program to follow, no list of works and no program notes to guide it through the evening. Neither did Rosner wish to provide the audience with words or translations of the vocal pieces: he claimed the music itself would express the words and that the music performed was to constitute a tribute to itself.

For those of us conditioned to following a printed program there was some compromise to be made, but once under way, the music did, indeed, tell its own non-verbal story and in depth and the audience was focused. Suffice it to say the program consisted of chorales, solo arias from cantatas, two motets, the e minor Flute Sonata and a sonata for viol and harpsichord. Rosner and his performers are all highly experienced early music artists and well-known to Israeli early music aficionados, most of the artists being soloists in their own right. The solo performances attested to that. As a consort, the strength of the Israeli Bach Soloists lies in deep reading into texts, balance, precision and interaction, individual timbre and delicacy. A highlight of the program for me was a superbly shaped and moving rendering the motet “Ich lasse dich nicht” BWV Anh.159 (To Thee I will cling until I am blest), composed by Bach in 1713.

The Israeli Bach Soloists have left their mark on the local concert scene and will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Choral Fantasy" Festival features Barrocade, the Gary Bertini Choir and soloists

A new Jerusalem festival - “Choral Fantasy” - offered a variety of choral concerts, most of which took place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from November 1st to November 3rd 2012.  Haggi Goren was festival director, with Maestro Stanley Sperber as musical advisor. In addition to conventional concerts, there was a Jerusalem walking tour for the energetic, a teatime concert of “Love, Passion and Longing” (The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble) and a cabaret evening under the direction of Yuval Cohen, the latter for the night owls among us. All the choirs, soloists and conductors taking part were Israelis, bringing home the fact that Israel harbors an abundance of local musical talent and on a high level. Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Pepe Alalu welcomed the project, one of its objectives being to provide more weekend cultural activities in the capital. School children students and soldiers were admitted to events free of charge.

The “Baroque Highlights” program, November 2nd, featured the Barrocade Ensemble, soloists and the Gary Bertini Choir, conducted by Ronen Borshevsky. Opening the concert on a festive note, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir (conductor - Ofer Dellal), singing from the gallery, performed Richard Nicholson’s (c.1563-1638/9) “O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem”.

The evening’s official program began with the “Gloria” from Giovanni Gabrieli’s (1554/1557-1612) “Sacrae Symphoniae” (1597), of the polychoral repertoire originally performed in the San Marco Cathedral of Venice, with choirs (vocal and instrumental) placed at different locations within the church to maximize the echo effect of the cori spezzati style. With members of the Gary Bertini Choir standing either side of the Barrocade players, the imitation, interweaving and coming together in grand refrains of choirs and instruments of the work came into effect. Yuval Shapiro (early brass) and Yigal Kaminka (Baroque oboe) contributed to the scintillating, luxuriant timbre characterizing Gabrieli’s music and the Venetian style.

Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) verse anthem “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem” was probably performed at the coronation of William and Mary in 1689, its combination of Biblical texts (Psalm 147, Isaiah 49, Psalm 48 and Psalm 21) including those performed at English coronation ceremonies. It was actually the last of Purcell’s symphony anthems. Strings had been included in choral anthems only on royal occasions and, after the coronation, William banned the use of them in the church. With the choir now standing behind the orchestra, the ensemble now comprised of more players for this work. The five soloists on stage were sopranos Einat Aronstein and Shaked Bar, mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm, tenor Doron Florentin and baritone Yair Polishook. They were not soloists in the usual sense as the work has no solos or duets; the solo voices, however, blended in a rich vocal mix in both chordal sections and moments of complex counterpoint. With the formal atmosphere turning to one of exultant and joyful utterance, the full forces ended with the exuberant, dancelike “Alleluia” in a decidedly congenial performance.

Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) setting of “Lauda Jerusalem” (Psalm 147), a late work, was one of the many written for the Ospedale della Pieta in 1739, the state-funded girls’ orphanage that employed Vivaldi as musical director. Employing double choir and orchestra, the piece takes the form of one long movement. The influence of opera in Venice at the time is reflected in the use of solo voices (the two soprano roles suitable to the fine vocal students of the orphanage). The solo roles were performed by Einat Aronstein (who, at the last moment, had stood in for Barrocade’s Ye’ela Avital who had taken ill) and a new, promising young soprano on the concert scene - Shaked Bar. Aronstein, who, though young, has made her mark in the concert platform, gives deep and emotional meaning to each verbal- and musical gesture, her voice sonorous, pleasing and easeful in its flexibility. Shaked Bar is competent, with good intonation, if not a little more restrained than Aronstein; her creamy fresh timbre is well suited to Baroque music. The two soloists gave expression to the charming soprano interchanges. The double choir effect, also present and richly presented in Barrocade’s dependable instrumental performance, was handled well by the ebullient, fresh voices making up the Gary Bertini Choir. The performance brought home the accessibility of the work and its spiritual – rather than mystical – message.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Cantata no.147 “Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben” (Heart and Mouth, Deeds and Life) was originally composed in 1716 but revised and expanded to ten movements in Leipzig, where Bach was called upon to provide a cantata each month for services in the Duke’s chapel.  Premiered in 1723, it uses much original poetic text. Opening in a fanfare-like gesture, the elaborate first chorus is a celebration of Bach’s contrapuntal invention. The work provides a fine platform for each of the vocal soloists. Audiences of late have been enjoying the significant development of Tenor Doron Florentin’s warm-, muscular- and richly endowed voice: in two arias, his clear musical plan and vibrant vocal power combined well.

Most commendable were Kaminka’s performance on oboe, oboe d’amore and oboe da caccia and Shapiro’s handling of the trumpet role, the latter doubling the soprano voice in movements 6 and 10, adding extra brightness to the choral setting. Mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm’s articulacy and emotional involvement never fail to draw her audience into the music; her singing was partnered with Kamnika’s splendid playing, all to the good of the performance. Baritone Yair Polishook’s gripping performance utilized color and drama, careful phrasing and impressive coloratura. A high point of the work is “Bereite dir, Jesu” (Prepare, Jesus)  - the soprano aria with violin obbligato - with Aronstein’s singing floating with joyful ease above the more intricate triplet violin solo, the latter’s intensity and focus handled pleasingly by Shlomit Sivan Jacobi. With the two identical appearances of the wonderful extended chorale “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring”, the audience was again able to enjoy the integrated, thrilling sound of the Gary Bertini Choir, established by Ronen Borshevsky in 2009.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mezzo Jazz Mix Festival comes to Jerusalem

A concert on October 31st 2012 at the Gerard Behar Centre was one of six Israeli jazz concerts (four in Tel Aviv and two in Jerusalem) as part of the Mezzo Jazz Mix Festival, an international project launched originally in the USA in 2008 by the Mezzo channel. Mezzo -the French television music channel - will broadcast the concerts in March 2013, beginning each with views of the streets and buildings surrounding the concert hall. Addressing the audience at the Gerard Behar Centre, Yossi Sharabi, the director of the Culture, Society and Leisure Administration of the Jerusalem Municipality, spoke of the concerts as yet another opportunity to expose the artistic energies of Jerusalem. Omri Batz, CEO of Talit Communications, representing Mezzo in Israel, reminds us that, more than ever, Israel has become a country offering culture of the highest level.  The idea of the broadcasts is to provide a stage for top Israeli musicians. Mezzo dedicated the month of October 2012 to young Israeli artists; the concerts will be viewed in 44 countries. The Mezzo TV channel, established in 1992, is a music channel presenting classical music, opera, jazz and world music.

We heard pianist Yaron Herman, joined by trumpeter Avishai Cohen and percussionist Ziv Ravitz. At age 16, Yaron Herman (b.1981) began studying piano with Opher Brayer, two years later being awarded the young talents prize at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. After appearing on concert platforms in Israel, he moved to Paris, recording his first CD there “Takes 2 to Know 1” together with Sylvain Ghio. Herman has developed a theory of musical improvisation – “Real Time Composition” – on which he lectured at the Sorbonne University. His first solo album “Variations” was issued in 2005, with solo performances following in Europe, the USA and in China, where he was the first jazz pianist to perform in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Born in Tel Aviv in 1978, trumpeter and band leader Avishai Cohen started to play the trumpet at age eight, was playing with the Rimon Big Band at age 10 and touring with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in his teen years. After studies at the Berklee College of Music (Boston), he moved to New York. Cohen has many CDs to his name, some recorded with saxophonist brother Yuval and clarinetist-saxophonist sister Anat.

Born to a musical family in Beer Sheba, Ziv Ravitz began focusing on playing drums at age 9, performing professionally by the time he was 13, acquiring experience in jazz, rock- and avant-garde music. In 2000, he moved to the USA to expand his experience as a composer and performing artist. Since graduating from the Berklee School of Music in 2004, Ravitz has performed and recorded in the USA and Europe. Ziv Ravitz presently resides in New York.

The concert consisted mostly of improvisations, some pieces based on ideas or melodies – such as “Summer Time”. It was an evening of sophisticated, elegant sounds, of fine poetic solos, of intense- and soothing mood pieces, of much articulate non-verbal communication between the three artists, of jazz as a noble and cultured form of expression. The audience was right there with the players - focused and involved in the musical course of each piece - and, happily, not subjected to the horrors of over-amplification. It was an evening of pure aesthetic pleasure at the hands of three of the most outstanding members of the Israeli Jazz movement.