Saturday, December 28, 2013

Duo Gurfinkel and Julia Gurvich in "The Romantic Clarinet" at the Eden-Tamir Music Center

“The Romantic Clarinet” was the title given to a concert in The Best of Chamber Music series at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem (Jerusalem) on December 21st 2013. Artists performing in the concert were duo clarinetists Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel and pianist Julia Gurvich. Born in Israel in 1992, Daniel and Alexander Gurfinkel began their music education in 2000. They have appeared with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and other Israeli orchestras. Their busy international performing schedule has taken them to Europe, the USA, Hong Kong and South Africa. Duo Gurfinkel, the third generation of Gurfinkel clarinetists, is also involved in contemporary music and with premiering new works. Julia Gurvich was born in Russia and graduated from the Gnesin Music Academy (Moscow). For 11 years, she was a soloist and accompanist with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Gurvich performs extensively in Israel and abroad and is presently a faculty member of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) and of Keshet Eilon.

A fitting opening to the concert was Carl Baermann’s Duo Concertante opus 33 for 2 clarinets and piano by German clarinetist and composer Carl Baermann (1810-1885). The son of Heinrich Baermann, for whom Weber composed his clarinet works, Carl Baermann’s influence on clarinet-playing was very great through his pedagogical writings, editorial contributions, compositions and the Baermann-Ottensteiner key system for the clarinet. The modern German clarinet is a direct descendant of Baermann’s clarinet model. The Duo Concertante, known to have been performed in Paris by Heinrich and Carl Baermann, is a classic example of clarinet virtuosity in Romantic colors, spiced with some Slavonic influence. The Gurfinkel twins brought out this concert piece’s different moods – its intensity, lilting lyricism and wit – in a myriad of coloristic possibilities. Julia Gurvich gave interest and presence to the piano part.

An interesting item on the program was the first movement of Johannes Brahms’ (1883-1897) Sonata in f minor opus 120 as arranged for two clarinets by the legendary Belgian clarinetist Gustave Langenus. Composed in 1894, this and the E flat Clarinet Sonata were the composer’s last chamber works and remain among the masterpieces for the Romantic clarinet. Taut and concentrated, the f minor sonata exploits the clarinet’s wide expressive range and such technical demands as the ability to rapidly change register. With the lower instrument representing much of the piano bass in Langenus’ arrangement, one heard more intense, muscular voice play than chords, with Brahms’ lush harmonies less present to cushion the texture. With impressive instrumental mastery and natural and instinctive responsiveness, the Gurfinkel brothers, however, presented the drama of the piece, its temperament and its Brahmsian underlying nostalgia.

It was due to German clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld’s brilliant playing that Brahms composed his Trio in a minor opus 114 for piano, clarinet and ‘cello. The composer wrote to Clara Schumann “You have never heard such a clarinet player as…Mühlfeld. He is absolutely the best I know. At all events, this art has, for various reasons, deteriorated very much. The clarinet players in Vienna and many other places are fairly good in orchestra, but in solo they give one no real pleasure”. The arrangement we heard of this piece was by Arkady Gurfinkel, Daniel and Alexander’s grandfather, who was present at the Ein Kerem concert. In this intimate work, the artists created its autumnal mood with wonderful byplay between the clarinets, presenting Brahms’ emotional palette. With full-blown expression and fragile moments, the artists evoked the pensive tranquility of the Andante Grazioso second movement, the hearty waltz and Ländler of the third movement and the spirited, virtuosic gypsy music of the final movement, with its feisty cross rhythms. The Gurfinkel brothers colored the two late Brahms works on this program with warm, mellifluous lower register hues so suitable to this music of affection, yearning and introspection, contrasted by bright, legato cantabile playing in upper registers.

We then heard four of Max Bruch’s (1838-1920) “Eight Pieces for Clarinet, Viola and Piano” opus 83 arranged by Arkady Gurfinkel for two clarinets and piano. Bearing no programmatic titles, these mood pieces composed when Bruch was 70, were written for his son, Max Felix, a renowned clarinetist. (The arpeggio style in the piano part of numbers 5 and 6 suggests that Bruch had also intended to include harp, but the plan was never realized). The pieces, not intended to be performed as a group, bristle with folk-type melodies and harmonic color. Rich in mellow instrumental tonings, they are all in minor keys, barring no.7. The arrangement for two clarinets works well due to the fact that Bruch treats the two melodic instruments on an equal footing; Gurvich met the technical challenges of the piano part with richly colored gestures. The artists opened with a superbly lush and “conversational” rendering of no.1 (E flat major), followed by no.4, a Scherzo presented in sweeping, singing and well-shaped phrases. In the traditional Rumanian melody of no.6, lyrical and haunting moments were displayed with fine dynamic control. In no.7 in c minor (considered by the composer to be the most important of the miniatures) the poignantly cantabile low clarinet melody was set off by other gestures bristling with energy and gregarious temperament.

The recital concluded with another arrangement by Arkady Gurfinkel, that of the Scherzo movement of the 1945 Piano Trio by Russian neo-Romantic composer Georgy Sviridov (1815-1998), a composer of mostly choral music, whose music is not frequently heard outside of Russia. With much virtuosity, intensity and up-front energy, the artists gave expression to the work’s singing qualities, its energy and its wit. Echoes of Shostakovich, Sviridov’s teacher, pervaded the vigorous piece.

Julia Gurvich and Duo Gurfinkel presented the listening public with a thought-provoking program of works rarely performed and with familiar works in a new setting, throwing new light on the arranging of works, a practice common in Renaissance- and Baroque music. The three artists collaborated in performance of the highest standard, pleasing and entertaining the audience.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performs a program of "War and Love"

The third concert of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2013-2014 concert series was “War and Love”. It was conducted by the orchestra’s founder and musical director Dr. David Shemer. This writer attended the concert at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church Jerusalem on December 19th 2013.

The program consisted of works by two Italian contemporaries – Falconieri and Monteverdi. The evening opened with “Battalla de Barabasso yerno de Satanas” by composer and lutenist Andrea Falconieri (1585/6-1656). Born in Naples, he spent ten years in Parma, then, after much wandering, moving back to Naples in 1647 to take up the position of “musician of theorbo and archlute” and later of maestro di cappella at the royal chapel. His Neapolitan heritage places him at the nexus of Italian and Spanish musical culture. The two Falconieri pieces on the program come from his instrumental collection of 1650, the only such collection published in southern Italy at the time. Music describing battles forms a minor but distinctive category of music from the 16th- to the early 19th centuries. This music was characterized by extroverted and dramatic expression. Falconieri’s music draws its color from Iberian-Neapolitan culture, with its richness and variety of instrumental timbres. Linking religious allegory to programmatic battle music, “The Battle of Barabbas, Son-in-Law of Satan” imitates trumpets, fifes, drums, canons and guns, ending with a victory march stemming from the melody and ground “La Girometta”, a popular dance. Here, violins feature largely (Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid), with guitar (Alon Sariel) adding the Falconieri signature element to this joyful, colorful piece. In variations over an elaborated bass accompaniment, the JBO players presented Falconieri’s “Passacalle” with delightful play of the violins, delicate shaping and cohesive instrumental balance. Shemer’s reading of these pieces was stylish and variously colored, offering the concert-going audience a chance to hear and discover the excitement of these seldom-heard works.

“Il Ballo delle Ingrate” is one of the more substantial works of Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals – “Madrigals of Love and War” – concluding the section of pieces pertaining to love. In his secular duties to the Gonzaga family of Mantua, a family known for its lavish festivities, Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Il Ballo delle Ingrate” (The Ball of the Ungrateful Ladies) was an unexpected and exotic item of the festivities surrounding the wedding of Francesco Gonzaga to Margherita of Savoy in 1608. The libretto probably owes its existence to theatrical performances Ottavio Rinuccini attended at the court of Henry IV of France. A central feature of this work was a ballet danced by eight men and eight women, those including the prince and his father, Duke Vincenzo. The framework for the dance was provided by a dramatic plot sung in the recently evolved stile recitativo. The setting is the mouth of hell; here, Venere directly addresses the ladies of the audience. The ensuing action shows the fate of those ladies who reject men’s romantic overtures. At the entreaties of Amore and Venere (Venus), eight ingratiates are permitted by Plutone to appear at the opening of the underworld as a dreadful warning to other women who may choose to deny love. As Venere, mezzo-soprano Avital Dery’s performance was gripping, articulate and dramatic. Dery’s voice is warm and substantial, her vocal ease seeing her through melismatic passages with panache. She and mezzo-soprano Shachar Lavi blended sympathetically in duo. Young Shachar Lavi’s voice is agile and rich in timbre; she was convincing in her role of Amore. Keeping the audience on the edge of their seats, bass Yair Polishook played an imposing Plutone, his large, marvellously resonant voice and musicality coupled with a fine sense of theatre. The fact that he paced the stage now and then added to the importance of the authoritative Plutone, his sidelong glances in the direction of the “offenders” giving strength to- and hinting at the underlying court scandal behind the writing of work itself. Soprano Adaya Peled dealt well with her role as one of the ungrateful women, reminding the listener that Monteverdi’s melodic tools of despair do not stop short of dissonant leaps. With Peled, Lavi, Dery and Doron Florentin’s lush, a cappella rendering of the passionate farewell, the work concluded and the ladies were sent back to the underworld to mourn their fate indefinitely. The instrumental ensemble – harpsichord and strings, with Alon Sariel now on theorbo, reflected the pathos of the drama, also giving eloquence to short dance movements.

The dramatic scene “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” belongs to the section pertaining to war in Monteverdi’s Eighth Book of Madrigals. The text is taken from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem of 1581, “Gerusalemme liberate”. The setting is the wall of Jerusalem. Tancredi, a Christian knight, has fallen in love with Clorinda, a Muslim maiden. Later, when he comes across a warrior in battle, he is not aware that it is Clorinda under the armor and wounds her mortally. When he finally recognizes her, she asks him to baptize her before she dies. In this operatic “scena”, Monteverdi gives Tancredi (Yair Polishook) and Clorinda (Adaya Peled) brief parts to sing. Polishook’s use of different vocal colors made for timbral interest. Peled was feminine and appealing, her performance poignant. The major role by far, however, is that of Testo, the narrator. The role is complex, with Testo both the objective observer and a witness to the horrific scene itself. In this emotionally turbulent role, tenor Doron Florentin displayed involvement, good stage presence and competence. His large, richly colored, resonant and stable tenor voice and dramatic flair are ideal for such a pressing role; he spiced it with much emotion, dynamic variety and subtle ornamentation. With Monteverdi’s concitato style use of tremolo and pizzicato, repeated notes and agitated leaps, there was much instrumental evocation of the combat of war. At one stage, Florentin joined in the affect with skilful, rapid verbal patter (à la Gilbert and Sullivan). Altogether, this major solo role was handled superbly by the artist…certainly a feather in Doron Florentin’s cap!

This was a concert of delights and finely balanced programming. The small instrumental ensemble played with delicate shaping and much attention to style and detail.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Piano and opera artists perform at Romania's 2013 National Day celebrations in Tel Aviv

A special concert of piano- and opera works was held as part of the 2013 National Day of Romania Celebrations at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv, on December 10th. Artists performing were soprano Dika Pilosoph and pianists Sofia Mazar and Andrei Licaret.

Dr. Gina Pană, director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv, opened the most significant day of the Romanian nation by pointing out that 2013 has been a year of very many Romanian cultural projects in Israel, a year also commemorating 65 years of bilateral relations between the countries. Among these cultural activities, many of interest to Romanian-born Israelis, she mentioned the fact that four Romanian opera soloists had performed here of late. Next year, the Romanian Cultural Institute in Israel will be celebrating ten years since its establishment.

Following words of welcome from Mrs. Andreea Păstârnak, Romanian Ambassador to Israel, Dr. Irina Cajal-Marin, Undersecretary of State of the Ministry of Culture of Romania, spoke of the evening's event as rich in classical music and folk culture. She mentioned the long-standing presence of Jewish culture in Romania, an important example being that the Jewish Theatre in Romania, established in 1876 under the management of Avram Goldfaden, was the first Yiddish theatre group.

Prior to the concert, guests were shown a part of “Wild Carpathia” (2011), a film by Charley Ottley (UK) giving insight into the breathtaking natural beauty of the Carpathian Mountains and Forests - this great European wilderness, its villages, its animal life, traditions and history.

Accompanied by pianist Sofia Mazar, Romanian-born soprano Dika Philosoph performed three opera arias. The singer opened with a fresh, theatrical rendering of Marguerite’s aria - the “Jewel Song” - from Charles-François Gounod’s “Faust”; she gave a spicy, coquettish performance of the aria sung by Marguerite, a village maiden, whose head is turned by a handsome stranger and by jewels. As the Sicilian duchess held hostage in Giuseppe Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani”, Philosoph used the stage well, her easeful singing dealing with the aria’s vocal challenges. Philosoph concluded with an intense, sensuous and heartrending performance of “Quando men vo” from Act 2 of Giacomo Puccini’s ”La Bohème”, in which the young Musetta is attempting to attract the attention of her ex-lover Marcello:
‘When walking alone on the streets,
People stop and stare
And examine my beauty
From head to toe…
And then I savor the cravings
Which from their eyes transpires
And from the obvious charms they perceive
The hidden beauties…’
In Israel as of 2005, Dika Philosoph is a member of the Israeli Opera’s Opera Studio. Her natural stage presence, dramatic flair and large, energetic and flexible voice made for convincing and gripping performances of these 19th and early 20th century opera numbers. Sofia Mazar’s skilful piano accompaniments evoked the different moods of these arias. Born in the Ukraine, Mazar today is a doctoral student in the Faculty of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; she also teaches piano and works as a vocal coach.

Romanian pianist Andrei Licaret (b. Bucharest, 1982) began piano studies with his father at age five and made his orchestral debut when he was 11. He has performed concerts and recitals all over Europe, in the UK, the USA and Israel. Licaret opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Sonata no.15 in D major opus 28, the name “Pastoral” having being added not by the composer but by his publisher. Composed in 1801, this is the most conventional of the group of sonatas composed by Beethoven at that time, but it is in no way pedestrian. Andrei Licaret recreated its tranquility with youthful energy. He presented its unity and mastery, giving the opening movement a poetic reading, its outbursts moderate, without disturbing the movement’s sense of well-being. The processional Andante, with its quasi-pizzicato accompaniment, includes a whimsical Trio, the Andante subject much ornamented on its return. Licaret’s playing of the Scherzo brought out the movement’s humor and temperament. His playing of the Finale evoked its rich variety of ideas and moods - from pensive to charming, from hearty to dramatic. The pianist’s performance was pleasingly unmannered, Classical in concept, clean and transparent.

The Pavane from George Enescu’s Suite no.2 in D opus 10 provided the concert’s Romanian content. Enescu composed the suite for a composition competition run by the French music magazine “Musica” in 1903, submitted it anonymously and won first prize. Infused with distinctively Debussyian, Impressionistic French flavor, hinting at the harmonic subtlety of Enescu’s teacher Gabriel Fauré, this piano repertoire is unjustly neglected in today’s concert halls outside of Romania. Licaret revealed the piece’s delicacy and extraordinary detail in playing that was imaginative, sensitively layered and light of touch.

The concert concluded with Andrei Licaret’s performance of Frédéric Chopin’s Sonata no.3 opus 58. Composed in the summer of 1844, before the composer’s health was to deteriorate due to tuberculosis, no.3 is his last piano sonata and large-scale work. Licaret launched into the rich and majestic opening subject of the first movement, juxtaposing it with the singing, gossamer textures of the second subject, one gesture emanating from the former and gliding effortlessly into the next. Following his agile, light and sparkling playing of the Scherzo, we heard the lengthy Largo movement, with its cantabile and graceful gestures. Here, the pianist’s playing offered breadth and respite. In the Finale, a piece of unsurpassed difficulty, Licaret presented its urgency, vigor and excitement with brilliant passagework, building it up strategically and consolidating its musical ideas. An outstanding and profound artist!

Following the festive concert, all adjourned to the foyer of the Enav Cultural Center, where Dr. Paulina Popoiu, General Director of the National Village Museum opened “Portraits of People”, an exhibition of traditions from ethnic communities living in Romania, emphasizing Romania’s multiculturalism in which ethnic entities have each preserved their own cultures.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble opens its 2013-2014 season with a program of Psalms

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble, conducted by founder and musical director Yuval Benozer, opened its 2013-2013 concert series – the Vocal Experience – with “Cantate Dominum Canticum Novum” (Sing to the Lord a new song, Psalm 96:1) a program of psalms of the great composers and of some contemporary composers not familiar to all. With the psalm one of the oldest forms of sacred song in western culture, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s program presented a variety of works inspired by these texts. This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on December 1st 2013. Aviad Stier (organ) and Haggai Zehavi (double bass) participated in some of the works performed

Established by Yuval Benozer in 1993, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble is a small group of professional singers. The ensemble sings repertoire spanning from the Middle Ages to contemporary music. Performing widely in Israel and further afield, also with many Israeli orchestras, the singers work with a variety of world-renowned choral conductors, have premiered three new works, participated in many festivals and won prizes in international choral competitions. Yuval Benozer has conducted prominent orchestras in Israel, Europe and South America. He is also the musical director of the Kibbutz Artzi Choir and chairman of the Israeli Choir Organization.

With the stage of the Recanati Auditorium darkened, the program opened with American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b.1970) “Alleluia”. Written for the Sidney Sussex College Choir and premiered by it at Cambridge University (UK) in 2011, the piece represents a new trend in the composer’s work. Having previously avoided the setting of liturgical texts, singing in the Sidney Sussex College Choir for a year brought Whitacre “awareness of the deep wisdom in the liturgical service”, finding himself “suddenly open to the history and beauty of the poetry”, in his words. He adapted “October”, a piece he had written for wind symphony, to the simple and spiritual single-worded text –“Alleluia”(done previously by Randall Thompson). In a performance evoking the mystery and rapturous wonder of the word, we heard singing that was pure, weightless in the work’s layering, its clarity the result of superb control. Soloists were Taliya Dishon and Oded Amir.

As choirmaster of St. Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, for the last 60 years of his life, Monteverdi wrote much sacred music, exploring the sonic possibilities and effects of that complex space. In Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) motet “Cantata Domino canticum novum”, from which this program took its title, a setting for six voices, the singers were joined by Aviad Stier and Haggai Zehavi. Opening homophonically, the piece welds Monteverdi’s madrigal style into a motet form. The two vocal trio groups gave expression to the piece’s arioso style and exuberance, interacting with each other, with the psalm text moving back and forth between them. Next to his Vespers of 1610, Monteverdi’s 1641 “Selva Morale e spiritual” (The Moral and Spiritual Forest), 37 motets, psalms, Mass settings and madrigals from different stages of his creative years, is Monteverdi’s most significant and virtuosic collection. From this book, the IVE gave the “Confitebor alla francese”, in its many small sections, a sense of immediacy, clarity and precision. Soloists were soprano Taliya Dishon and alto Avivit Menachem,

Lithuanian choral conductor, educator and composer Vytautas Miškinis (b.1954) has written over 400 secular works, some 150 sacred words and over 100 folk song arrangements for various combinations. His oeuvre is almost exclusively choral. In one of his several settings of “Cantate Domine canticum novum” (1997), this uplifting version of the piece was sung by women only. Miškinis’ music is in the tonal world, his chords gently colored by dissonances and added notes. The IVE singers brought out this music’s accessive melodiousness, the composer’s reverence for the text and the user-friendly catchy, lilting, almost jazzy rhythm of the piece. Kudos to the IVE for introducing this beautiful and unfamiliar choral repertoire to the local concert-goer!

Another modern work was Finnish composer Jaako Mäntyjärvi’s (b.1963) “Canticum Calamitas Maritimae” in eight voices. The work was inspired by the sinking of the cruise ferry MS Estonia in 1994 and is dedicated to the 852 people whose lives were lost in one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters of the 20th century. Texts used, from Psalms and the Catholic Requiem Mass, appeared in surtitles above the stage. Yuval Benozer and his singers created a skilful and sensitive collage of the many elements of this work, from the initial exhaling-and sighing sounds setting the scene – symbolizing the sea, perhaps - the women then randomly, hauntingly speaking a phrase from the Requiem Mass creating the collective-individual effect of prayer, this followed by a wordless, sole, folksong-like melody, sung as if from afar by soprano Nava Sahar, standing at the back of the hall. Following the report in Latin of the sinking ship, the text moved to Psalm 107, speaking of those “who go down to the sea in ships”, with the basses singing in eerie parallel fifths. The work then built up to a clamorous climax before dropping into the uneasy calm of “Requiem aeternum”, the fifths returning as if a warning, and, once again, the mournful solo soprano voice. Peter Simpson sang the bass solo. In this very moving performance, the IVE presented the work on its three levels – the individual, the objective and the collective.
‘Some went out on the sea in ships;
They were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord,
His wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest
That lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
In their peril their courage melted away. Psalm 107:23-26

The Israeli content of the program consisted of Tzvi Avni’s (b.1927) “Mizmorei Tehillim” (Psalm Songs) composed in 1967 for a cappella 4-voiced mixed choir. Opening with the forthright ”Clap your hands, all you nations” (Psalm 47) peppered with strident parallel octaves and syncopations, Psalm 48 “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” begins in a more relaxed, mellifluous vein, eventually building up massively, its modal soundscape filled with contrasts. In “Hallelujah” (Psalm 50) the bare octaves return, to be punctuated by large chunks of harmonies and vivid choral textures. The choir’s razor-sharp diction added to the direct expression of these three fine miniatures.

The second half of the program, focusing on German music, included Heinrich Schütz’ (1585-1672) “Die mit Tränen säen” SWV 378, one of the 29 motets from the “Geistliche Chormusik” (Spiritual Choral Music) published in 1648, the year ending the “Thirty Years’ War”; besides the heavy mood of this genre of German music, one of the effects of the war was that the Dresden court, of which Schütz was musical director, was working with fewer musicians. The IVE showed this aspect by having the motet performed by organ and just five singers: Taliya Dishon, Naomi Brill-Engel, Gabriel Goler, Eliav Lavi and Ronen Ravid. A combination of the Venetian polychoral concertato style, giving equal weight to both voices and instruments, and Protestant German tradition, we know that the German performers of Schütz’ time found this cutting-edge music extremely difficult to perform. In a beautifully shaped and fervent reading of this funeral motet, observing its quick mood changes, the singers leaned into dissonances and the meanings of words, the latter highlighting the idea of hope at the end:
‘They who sow with tears will reap with joy.
They go out and weep and carry worthy seed
And return with joy and bring their sheaves’. Psalm 126:5-6

Singing Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) a cappella setting of Psalm 43, “Richte mich, Gott” (Give sentence with me, O God), the singers presented the composer’s “concerto” effect with his coloristic use of vocal textures - here, women’s voices in answer to phrases sung by the men, sonorous double choir passages and interesting contrasts between the piece's three sections, and all articulated in well-pronounced German. Johannes Brahms’ (1833-1897) a cappella choral pieces use a musical idiom learned from his study of Renaissance- and very early Baroque counterpoint. “Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz” (Create in me, O God, a pure heart), composed in 1889, features a text drawn from Psalm 51, its structure bristling in canonic writing. In five voices, unusual in its two bass parts, the singers showed themselves responsive to both words and music.

The concert concluded with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) motet “Singet dem Herr ein neues Lied!” (Sing to the Lord a new song). Composed possibly in Leipzig in 1727, Bach used texts from Psalms 149 and 150 and a hymn by Johann Gramann. Written for double choir without instrumental accompaniment, Yuval Benozer chose a performance practice used in Bach’s day - that of doubling voices with instruments (organ and double bass). One of the most challenging of choral works in complexity and density, this motet requires “instrumental” virtuosity from its singers and much sensitivity. Avoiding any form of over-dramatization, Benozer led his singers through this taxing work with clarity, freshness and rhythmic vitality. Lightening melodic lines with springy textures, double-choir sonorities never emerged as turgid; they allowed for the intricacies of the counterpoint to meet in voice play of the most sophisticated kind. The use of a solo quartet for the chorale statements interspersed through the second movement added poetry and naïve beauty to the performance. Aviad Stier and Haggai Zehavi’s playing was sensitive to the singers.

Yuval Benozer has assembled an attractive group of competent singers, producing a well-balanced and finely blended choral ensemble. Each very different project taken on by him and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble is carried out with dedication, in-depth work and fine musicianship. Cantate Dominum Canticum Novum was rewarding and enriching.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Early instruments in still life at the Israel Museum

Photo; The Israeli Museum
On visiting the Israel Museum on December 3rd 2013 to view four new exhibitions opening that day, we walked into the gallery housing COLLECTING DUST in Contemporary Israeli Art, in  which fifteen artists are exhibiting items that transform dust into contemporary works that explore temporality, memory and Israel’s environmental landscape. However, on entering the gallery, a very different item met our eyes: a work of oil on canvas “Still Life with Musical Instruments and Books”, painted by Bartolomeo Bettera.

Bartolomeo Bettera was born in Bergamo, Italy in 1639, where he was a student and then producer in the studio of the priest and painter Evaristo Baschenis. Baschenis (1617-1677) painted a few religious subjects, but, being also a musician with an impressive collection of instruments and scores, his works concentrated on the painting of poised and polished still lifes of musical instruments. They carry an air of silence and the instruments lie on a table, covered with a layer of dust. So Baschenis’ main claim to fame was that he established the subgenre of still-life paintings of musical instruments, the instruments appearing almost three-dimensional. Bettera followed this teacher’s style faithfully, in the tradition of Caravaggio. In fact, so strong was his teacher’s influence that there is some doubt as to which of the two painted “A Girl with a Still Life”, in which a girl stands behind a table covered with a dark cloth, on which we see musical scores, a violin and bow and a magnificent bass recorder with one key, with possibly two more recorders leaning on the folds of a tasseled drape.

Following Baschenis’ death, Bettera moved to Milan, where he remained till his death, some time after 1687. In his still lifes, the instruments depicted would have been played by chamber ensembles that performed for guests in private homes. The instruments are rich in symbolism; the lute, for example, was used to accompany amorous songs. In “Still Life with Instruments and Books”, the two lutes are dusty and abandoned. One is placed on a virginal; a viol, at the back, is leaning on the virginal. The lush table cloth has a silky glow. Each instrument appears illuminated. Guiding us around the exhibition, art curator Mira Lapidot remarked that it had been important to inform the museum cleaner that the dust on this exquisite still life was part of the painting!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Charlotta Chorale of Tel Aviv at Christ Church, Jerusalem

The Charlotta Chorale of Tel Aviv performed a concert of short works at Christ Church, Jerusalem, on November 23rd, 2013. Eli Gefen, the choir’s founder and musical director, conducted and soloed. Anna Korochik accompanied on the piano. Choir members include people born in Israel, Russia, England, Japan and Korea. Named in memory of Eli Gefen's mother, the Charlotta Chorale would like to be seen as a witness to the hopes and values of those who long for peace and friendship. Maestro Eli Gefen was born in Bratislava. His father, a distinguished cantor, was offered a job in Vienna and the family consequently moved there. As a child, Gefen studied violin and, later, the bassoon. He has sung from a young age from the days when he sang in his father’s synagogue choir.

The program opened with the chorale from J.S.Bach’s Cantata no.140:
‘Gloria to Thee be sung now
With mortal and angelic voices
With harps and with cymbals, too…’
We heard two choruses from Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” (1845-1846) – the women’s trio “Lift Thine Eyes” and “Guardian of Israel” (Psalm 121), P.I.Tchaikovsky’s setting of “Let My Prayer Ascend” (Psalm 141) sung in Russian, American composer Randall Thompson’s fragile “Alleluia” and two pieces by British composer John Rutter (b.1945). Eli Gefen’s predilection for John Rutter’s music is all to the advantage of the Israeli listening audience: this music is direct, expressive and accessible. “Bogorodistse” (Rejoice, O Virgin) comes from Sergei Rachmaninoff’s a-cappella “All-Night Vigil” (1915), a work considered by some as being the composer’s finest composition.

Of a very different genre, I.Singer’s nostalgic Yiddish song “Fate”, sung unaccompanied, was gentle and moving. Gefen, himself, sang the solo. We heard one of Stephen Foster’s most beautiful serenades, the sweetly sentimental “Beautiful Dreamer”, sung with delicacy and natural shaping. Basque-Spanish Pablo Sorozábal (1897-1988) was mostly known as a conductor. One of his best remembered pieces for choir (and orchestra) is the Basque song “Maite” (Our Lady) from the soundtrack of the 1945 movie “Jai-Alai”. The Charlotta Chorale gave a pleasingly lilting reading of the song. For the program’s Israeli content, the choir sang “Eli, Eli”, David Zahavi’s setting of a poem of Hannah Szenes, in a magical rendering, including a delicate soprano solo. The “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s 1842 opera “Nabucco” made for a hearty encore; pianist Anna Korochik dealt well with the piano accompaniment, despite the poor state of the piano at Christ Church.

I have been following the Charlotta Chorale in recent years and have heard them perform most of the items in the above program. The choir sings in as many styles and languages as its members, all of whom display much dedication. What has eventuated since the choir’s re-organization is a silken, warm, sensitive choral blend of real beauty and musicianship. Eli Gefen encourages well-coordinated singing, dynamic variety and careful vocal control. The Charlotta Chorale is certainly a chamber choir of excellence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

"Du aber. Daniel", Baroque German vocal and instrumental music performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Barrocade Ensemble

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s second concert of the 2013-2014 season “Du aber, Daniel”, a concert of German Baroque music, was a collaboration between the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Barrocade Ensemble. Harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon (Barrocade) conducted from the harpsichord; vocal soloists were soprano Ye’ela Avital and baritone Guy Pelc, with vocal ensemble Barrocade Vocale performing ensemble pieces – Ye’ela Avital, alto Avital Dery, tenor Doron Florentin and bass Joel Sivan. Instrumental soloists were recorder player Corina Marti (Switzerland) and Benny Aghassi (Israel/Holland). This writer attended the concert at St Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on November 21st 2013.

The concert opened with Schütz’ Italian-style Easter piece “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” (Discard the old yeast So that you may be a new dough). Referred to by Johann Mattheson in 1740 as the “father of musicians, to whom the Germans…were indebted”, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) was probably the most important and influential composer of 17th century Germany. “Feget den alten Sauerteig aus” works on two levels: its joyful, highly colored musical texture, concluding with the uplifting “Alleluja” and a deeper lesson. The First Letter to the Corinthians uses the metaphor of unleavened bread to juxtapose former hypocrisy with new sincerity and truth in the spirit of sacrifice and ritual. A kind of vocal-instrumental concerto from the composer’s Symphoniae Sacrae lll (1650), voices and violins combine in homogenous sonorities to form a complex motet-like structure. Karshon’s vivid instrumental mix, with recorders (Corina Marti, Shai Kribus) adding interest and their specific brightness, allowed for individual vocal timbres to come through in Luther’s translation of the Bible, writings so important to the composer, a text Schütz aimed to “translate into music”. In “Es steh Gott auf” (Psalm 68, Let God arise) from Schütz’ Symphoniae Sacrae ll (1647), a motet for two sopranos or two tenors modeled after two Monteverdi madrigals “, we heard Ye’ela Avital and alto Avital Dery in a piece equating voices with violins, intensified by the text’s dovetailed phrasing, yet preserving the rhythm and accentuation of spoken German. A performance bristling with dynamic color, the singers joined with the players in a forthright (almost battaglia-like) reading of the dazzling Italienate vocal lines reflecting the vehement text:
‘Let God arise so his enemies will be destroyed,
And those that hate him will flee from him.
Drive them, as smoke is driven,
As wax melts in the fire,
So must the godless be destroyed before God...’

Johann Rosenmüller also provided a clear and important link between German- and Venetian music, but on the instrumental scene. Trained in Venice, he was later to return there where he worked as trombonist and composer. From his highly acclaimed “Sonatae à 2, 3, 4 è 5 stromenti da arco & alti et basso continuo” (1682), these works show the influence of the German suite (his early teacher was Heinrich Schütz) and the Venetian “sinfonia di opera”. Karshon’s reading of “Sinfonia prima” displayed the astonishing beauty of Rosenmüller’s blend of conservative North German musical tradition with Venetian flair, from the formal, strongly chiseled and punctuated opening Sinfonia to the dances themselves, their affects, dissonances, rhythmic games, polyphonic passages and differing moods, the instrumental scene highly colored and anchored to a firm bass.

One of the chief figures in North German music of his time, Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) left over 120 vocal works using a wide range of texts, scorings, genres and compositional styles. “Alles was ihr tut” (Whatsoever ye do in word or deed) BuxWV4, one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces, was Buxtehude’s most popular cantata during his lifetime. A work of unwavering faith, its general theme is the proper relationship between the individual and community. It comprises a combination of different texts: from the Old- and New Testaments, a Lutheran chorale as well as some German poetry. In the work, Buxtehude juxtaposes all three of the most common cantata types in his repertoire: the concerto type (setting a prose Biblical text), the strophic aria type and the chorale cantata (text and melody taken from a chorale). After the overture, the first chorus, uncharacteristically homophonic in style, was followed by an aria, this being sung by the Barrocade Vocale singers in strict homophony. The text for this is an anonymous poem (perhaps by Buxtehude himself) in which the players give life to a ritornello and short interludes between verses. The second Biblical text, Psalm 37:4, was sung by bass Joel Sivan, his voice addressing the sacred- and arioso style of the piece, his vocal timbre transparent, warm and flexible:
‘Take delight in the Lord,
And he will give you the desires of your heart.’
The closing chorale, two stanzas of a hymn by Georg Neige to an anonymous 16th century melody, with instrumental interludes separating each phrase, started with a pleasing rendering by soprano Ye’ela Avital, then taken over by the vocal ensemble. Certainly an interesting work, it was performed with energy and contrasts, delightful instrumental playing balancing weight with clarity and communication between soloists and vocal ensemble.

In his Concerto for recorder, bassoon, strings and basso continuo in F major, we meet Georg Philipp Telemann in one of his unconventional pairings of instruments (this one also, however, used by Vivaldi). Recorder and bassoon are treated on a strictly equal footing as they exchange musical material, partly through imitation. This is music to be enjoyed from within as much as from without and the name of the game is dialogue. From the sympathetic opening Largo movement, layered with charm, flexed figures and much expression, Corina Marti and Benny Aghassi were in league, communicating in a way so directly as to allow for the spontaneity of the moment. In their hands, the Vivace movement took on the spirit of adventure in virtuosic dexterity, peppered with ornaments. Poignant minimal gestures in the violins set the scene for the Grave movement,in which the soloists engaged in carefully shaped and sensitive dialogue. The final Allegro presented Telemann at his most vivacious; with attention to detail, the artists engaged in call and response, playing with a wealth of vigor and humor. Fresh and joyful, the performance coupled academic understanding with the musical personalities of these very excellent artists.

While Telemann’s instrumental music features frequently in Baroque music programs, his sacred music tends to take a back seat. Seldom heard in this part of the world, the funeral cantata “Du aber, Daniel” (Go Thy Way, Daniel) (of the 1400 Sunday cantatas Telemann composed, of which 13 are funeral cantatas) is among his most distinguished works in this genre. Probably written while the composer was in his twenties, it is an early manifestation of the expressive delicacy and melodic lyricism of Telemann’s own idiom. Representing the new cantata style, its recitatives alternate with da capo arias set to texts in madrigal style; the opening and closing chorales are settings of biblical texts. The madrigalesque verses present themes that give the listener a glimpse into Lutheran pietism – distrust of the world, ardent longing for death and hope in eternal bliss stemming from the eschatological revelation made to Daniel of things to come:
‘But go thou Daniel on thy way and take thy rest,
For thou shalt receive thy just share at the end of days.’ (Daniel 12:13)
Scored for violin, oboe, recorder, two viols, ‘cello, positif organ and four singers, the cantata is remarkable for its affecting and beautifully crafted text setting, lightness of scoring (considering the somber, austere subject matter) and its myriad of details. From the first languishing sounds of the overture, Karshon and his fellow musicians had the audience totally engrossed in the work and its atmosphere. With the lion’s share of the solos, young baritone Guy Pelc was compelling, driving home the work’s solemn message, with changes in the text reflected in dynamics and timbre; his sonorous, stable voice embraced the hall. Ye’ela Avital’s singing was sensitive, delicate and appealing: her rendering of the Bachian soprano aria was a high point of the performance as she addressed its fragility and compassion, her singing graced by Telemann’s sublime instrumental scoring. Altogether, this was a polished performance - equally attentive to literary and musical detail.

Concerts of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra usually have a thread running through the choice of works. In his program notes, Maestro David Shemer put much emphasis on the emotional climate in Germany during- and after the Thirty Years’ War, the music of composers “like Heinrich Schütz, Johann Rosenmüller, Dieterich Buxtehude and others” voicing “pain and unease”. To understand the religious philosophy behind them, it might be worth noting that “Luther’s belief in the reality of the devil was as strong as his belief in God and that music was for him one of the principal antidotes to the devil’s work” (John Butt). And yet, in all its weightiness, this music is intensely rewarding and riveting. Throughout the concert, Karshon delved deeply into the delicacy of the works; his phrasing and incisive dynamics made for exciting listening. The JBO players gave a meticulous performance. Yizhar Karshon’s inventive concept of timbral colors encouraged magical moments on oboe, recorder, bassoon and viola da gamba, moments that would have passed unnoticed without first class players.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Solo song recital in Jerusalem at the first Israeli Rachmaninoff Festival

The first Israeli Rachmaninoff Festival took place in Jerusalem from November 17th to 21st 2013; the five events commemorated the 140th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Artistic director of the festival Professor Alexander Tamir was assisted by Maestro Ilya Plotkin - founder and conductor of Musica Aeterna and Opera Aeterna - and music journalist Vladimir Mak. Mrs. Eleonore Plotkin, untiring in her work with Musica Aeterna, Opera Aeterna and other musical projects, took on production of the festival. Supporting the festival was TENA, the organization promoting immigrant artists. The festival included solo piano music, chamber music and solo vocal music, with the closing event consisting of sacred music by Rachmaninoff performed by the Musica Aeterna Ensemble at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound.

This writer attended the solo vocal concert on November 20th at the Harmony Hall, downtown Jerusalem. Most of the audience was from the Russian-speaking community. The program consisted of romances and opera arias. Eleonore Plotkin offered brief introductions to the songs and artists, explaining the reason for including two Tchaikovsky romances and one Prokofiev opera aria. Separated by more than 30 years, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff expressed mutual admiration for each other’s music. Tchaikovsky’s own songs were highly influential on the young composer, this heard, in particular, in Rachmaninoff’s early songs. Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff’s shared fate was that they both left Russia and both suffered longing for their home country. One of the finest pianists of his day, conductor and composer Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Veliky Novgorod in 1873 and died in the USA in 1943.

The concert opened with mezzo-soprano Svetlana Sandler’s performance of two Tchaikovsky romances. Sandler immigrated to Israel some 20 years ago; she has performed with the Israeli Opera Studio, the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, The Israeli Opera, the Hannover State Opera, the Alte Frankfurt Opera and the Opéra National de Lorraine et Nancy as well as solo appearances with orchestras. Her powerful and fine mix of head- and chest voice was matched by dramatic flair and emotional expression, contrasted with lyrical- and light-weight moments, in which she created a delicate weaving of melodic lines through the piano texture. Sandler and pianist Irina Zheleznova presented a compelling reading of “Do Not Sing, My Beauty” (opus 4), composed by the 19-year-old Rachmaninoff in his first setting of a Pushkin poem, the folk-like melodic line set against a rich piano canvas of harmonic tensions, modal chords and inner voices articulately sketched into the rich keyboard texture:
‘Do not sing for me, my beauty,
Your sad songs of yore;
For they wake deep from my memory
Another life and a distant shore.’ (Translation: Edward Lein)

Young bass-baritone Yacov Strizak immigrated to Israel a year year ago. In his native Russia, he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and performed under Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theatre (St. Petersburg). Today Strizak is a member of the Israeli Opera Studio and Musica Aeterna. In the Rachmaninoff concert, he opened with Kutuzov’s aria from Prokofiev’s 1942 opera “War and Peace”, convincingly creating the general’s dilemma in which he decides that only by retreating and potentially sacrificing Moscow would there be any hope of victory. In his performance of “In My Soul” (text: Nicolai Minsky) from Rachmaninoff’s Romances opus 14, he and Zheleznova created the song’s still, dejected mood, with Strizak’s sensitive singing of the somewhat exotic melodic line communicating the hopeless feelings of failed love.

Born in Yaroslavl, Russia, Olga Senderskaya graduated from the Marinsky Theater Academy of Young Opera Singers and the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The recipient of many awards, Senderskaya performs in opera houses throughout Europe. In the Rachmaninoff Festival concert, she performed some songs from the composer’s “Six Songs” opus 38 (1916), his last set of songs composed in the romance genre. These last songs show the composer’s use of a subtler harmonic- and melodic language as influenced by Symbolist poetry, repertoire in which he achieves a unique synthesis of his powerful style of keyboard writing with sensitive insight as to vocal expression. In "At Night in my Garden", with delicate piano figures suggesting the warm, sad night described in the Armenian poet Avetik Isaacian’s text, Sadarsky joined Zheleznova’s evocative, transparent textures with varied vocal hues to give meaning to different words and ideas. As well as her fragile treatment of “Dreams”, in its delicate musical textures with a soft-textured, lulling accompaniment creating the elusive nature of the text, we heard “Au”, sometimes called “The Quest” (words: Konstantin Balmont) with the cry of pain bursting out in the last line to express that, once again, one’s love can not be found. Olga Sadarsky communicates with face and eyes, affording even the non-Russian speaker involvement in the matter at hand.

In baritone Igor Tavrovsky’s performance of the superb miniatures, no gesture was left unaddressed. “When Yesterday We Met”, of the 15 songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 26, composed when the composer was 33, was nostalgic and fraught with anguish and disappointment. In the immensely dramatic “I Am Alone Again” (text: Ivan Bunin) Tavrovsky’s focused and compelling performance presented the drama of the soul in a real and accessible manner. In the romance, a young man is aware his beloved is leaving him:
‘I am alone again.
How bright, how decorated is the spring!
And tell me: Why have you become so melancholy,
Why have you become so affectionate?

But you are silent, as weak as a flower…
Hush now! I need no confession…
I have recognized this affection of parting…
I am alone again.’
In “Yesterday We Met” (words: Yakov Polonsky), also from Opus 26, a man happens on a chance meeting with a former lover; the music itself offers insight into the delicate situation, with its constant changes and pauses. Tavrovsky also performed Aleko’s Cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s opera “Aleko”, a tour-de-force of vocalism and drama in which Aleko remembers when he and the gypsy women Zemfira were in love and his pain when she finds love with a younger man.

Pianist Irina Zheleznova’s input to the whole evening was powerful and significant. Zheleznova studied at the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory Academy (Moscow), earning a Ph.D. in chamber music. She went on to become associate professor at the Uzbek State Conservatory and has won several duo-piano competitions. She immigrated to Israel in 2008, teaches at the Israel Conservatory of music in Tel Aviv and is a member of faculty of the Keshet Eilon Music Center. Superbly shaped, inspiring and imaginative, her playing was as integrative a part of the soul of each piece as were the singing, the songs and their words. From fragile textures, to sweeping lyrical moments, from painful bitterness and heartbreak to intense drama, Zheleznova’s clean, precise and brilliant playing was inspirational.

For some reason, Rachmaninoff’s eighty five songs, composed between 1893 and 1916 (all before he left Russia) and grouped into seven sets, are the most neglected part of his oeuvre. Mostly using texts from prominent Romantic Russian poets, they represent the composer’s musical development, his poignant word painting and his most intense emotions. There is no doubt that these romances are fine concert fare and probably best handled by Russian-speaking artists. As a non-Russian speaker, I was at a disadvantage without the texts to follow. However, the splendid performance and total involvement of the five outstanding artists drew one into the beauty and strong emotion of this music in an experience that was moving. Let’s hear more of these outstanding artists!



Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ayelet Karni and Gideon Meir play Italian and German music in Tel Aviv

The evening of November 16th 2013 was still balmy in Tel Aviv, with Autumn delaying its presence. Rothschild Boulevard was abuzz with people strolling, running and chatting, with dog-owners and café-sitters. Veering off the main road, I wandered through the maze of side streets of that old, established quarter of Tel Aviv. The event was a house concert performed by recorder player Ayelet Karni and harpsichordist/organist Gideon Meir.

Gideon Meir began piano lessons at age 8 with Malka Mevorach. In 1980, he went to London, where he studied harpsichord with Maggie Cole, later in San Francisco with Laurette Goldberg, them with Lisa Crawford at the Oberlin College Conservatory (Ohio). He has been studying the organ with Arin Maisky (Israel) and made his organ debut at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem in 2010. Among his many and varied harpsichord recitals, Meir’s interest in Flamenco (he, himself dances Flamenco) has led him to harpsichord recitals with Flamenco dancers.

Ayelet Karni plays recorders, Baroque oboe and shawms. A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, studying recorder with Lara Morris, she went on to further recorder studies with Corina Marti at the Basel Schola Cantorum, now completing a second Masters degree there in Baroque oboe (Katharina Arfken). Karni has also taken studies at the Leipzig “Hochschule für Musik und Theater” under Antje Hensel (recorder) and Annette Spehr (historic oboe). As a soloist and ensemble player, she performs in Europe, the USA and Israel.

Seated in Gidi Meir’s music room, surrounded by his two harpsichords and a small pipe organ, we had gathered to hear Meir and Karni in the first recital to celebrate the newly-purchased organ. The two-manual organ, based on a 16th century positive instrument, was built by Gideon Shamir in 1986 for composer and violist Ze’ev Steinberg. On Steinberg’s death in 2011, the instrument was sold to Gidi Meir. Some changes and additions were made by Sharon Rosner, with the final voicing being carried out by Gideon Shamir.

Much of the evening’s program focused on the art of diminution, a skill which, by the end of the 16th century, saw the flowering of sophisticated instrumental variations, many based on madrigals, these, in the course of the 17th century becoming the root of instrumental virtuosity. The program opened with two works of Giovanni Bassano (c.1558-1617), a virtuoso on the cornett and principal instrumentalist at St. Mark’s Venice from 1585 to his death. Karni opened with Ricercata III in g from Bassano’s “Ricercate, passagi et cadentie” (Ricercars, Divisions and Cadenzas) of 1585, a book which details exactly how to ornament passages. Introducing the work by referring to the ricercar as a piece dealing with the idea of “seeking”, both on the part of the composer and of that of the player, Karni’s performance of this multi-sectional piece suggested much spontaneity, giving each section new meaning, color and temperament, embellishing it with the use of florid “passagi”, also offering the listener a surprise or two. The second Bassano piece, played on recorder and organ, was a set of diminutions based on an early 16th century chanson by Orlando di Lasso, “Susanne ung jour”.
‘Susanna faire, sometimes of love requested
By two old men whome her sweet looks allur’d
Was in her heart full sad & sore molested
Seeing the force her chastitie endur’d…’ (English translation: Nicholas Yonge’s “Musica Transalpina”, 1588).
With the melody mostly announced on the organ, we were presented with a great many variation ideas and ornaments in the recorder part, with the two instruments pleasingly balanced.

Still on the subject of variations, Gidi Meir played Dieterich Buxtehude’s Ciacona for organ in e minor BuxWV 160. Over a somber and stately, descending bass pattern, Meir presented the set of highly imaginative variations, building up the momentum, using brighter timbres, yet still preserving the work’s grandeur, signing out with a sense of well-being on a major chord. From the 19 surviving so-called free-form “Praeludia”, constituting Buxtehude’s most important contribution to 17th century German music, Meir played the well-loved Prelude in g minor BuxWV 149. A challenging work, making fine use of the organ’s palette of different timbres (Buxtehude left the choice of registration up to the player), Meir’s playing of free sections alternating with solemn fugal sections displayed the rich array of Buxtehude’s ideas and compositional genius.

Meir and Karni performed Giovanni Paolo Cima’s (c.1570-1630) Sonata in g minor (written originally for violin, violone and basso continuo) on soprano recorder and Meir’s Flemish harpsichord. In the style of music from northern Italy, now moving away from polyphonic textures towards solo melody, their playing was gently swayed, imaginative, with Karni weaving many connecting ornaments throughout the texture, indeed upholding Silvestro Ganassi’s credo that the recorder should imitate the songfulness of the human voice.
Giovanni Cima and Francesco Rognoni were both members of influential families of Milanese musicians. Like Bassano, Rognoni wrote a treatise on the art of embellishing and ornamenting music, so, like Bassono, his diminution piece has a pedagogical element in addition to showcasing the performer’s talents. Rognoni’s Diminutions on Palestrina’s madrigal “Vestiva I colli” (Clothed in the hills and the countryside) are found in “Selva de’ varii Passagi”, his instructional book on singing and instrumental playing. Francesco Rognoni (1570-1626), considered to be the first great violinist in the instrument’s history, wrote his diminutions for violin virtuosos like himself. With the organ holding the basic melody, Karni, on the soprano recorder, dealt with virtuosic passages with ease rather than ego-driven show as she presented their many moods.

If music is “played”, Frescobaldi’s Canzonas are true games. In Girolamo Frescobaldi’s (1583-1643) Canzona Seconda detta La Bernardina, the artists presented the small concentrated and capricious sections, flourishes and interludes and changes of meter and character in a compact miniature. With Meir’s gestures inviting her to embark on each new section, Karni’s recorder playing was enhanced by some nice harpsichord spreads. Light of texture, humorous, entertaining and also challenging, the piece was suddenly over with the wink of an eye.

We then heard the two artists in J.S.Bach’s canonic and sophisticated Chorale Fantasia on “Nun komm’ der Heiland” (Now come, Saviour of the heathens), the music and text based on a Gregorian hymn that was translated into German by Martin Luther in 1524. Gidi Meir spoke of Bach as being a deeply religious man and of the composer’s psychological approach to the coming of the Messiah. The organ role, suggesting a church processional, provided a firm basis for the staggered recorder phrases. Then, moving back in time, we heard what would have been Bach’s inspiration for the piece - Buxtehude’s chorale prelude on the same melody (c.1690). Against velvety, caressing organ- playing, Karni’s playing was warm and full of feeling.

The intimacy of a house concert makes for a true meeting between artists and audience. With organ lofts generally out of view or behind the audience, it is a rare experience to watch the player at work. Here was an opportunity not to be missed. Offering short explanations, Gideon Meir and Ayelet Karni gave a performance that was interesting, stylistically informed, unmannered and eloquent. They sent the audience off with a no-less-artistic rendering of the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, played on tenor recorder and organ.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Soprano Sivan Rotem and pianist Jonathan Zak in "Viva l'Espagna"

Autumn weather had offered some of its different moods on November 9th 2013. A light rainfall had brought freshness to the luxuriant gardens of the Eden-Tamir Music Centre, Ein Karem, Jerusalem. A vivid extravagance of cacti, cyclamen and roses, not to speak of trees heavily laden with fruit, welcomed concert-goers as they made their way up the stairs to the concert hall. The event in question was “Viva l’Espagna” or “La Maja y el Ruisenor” (The Maiden and the Nightingale), featuring soprano Sivan Rotem and pianist Jonathan Zak. The audience included a conspicuous number of Spanish speakers.

Born in Buenos Aires, Sivan Rotem began her musical training as a violinist. Having graduated from Haifa University in English and Literature, she proceeded to take a degree in singing from the Academy of Music, Tel Aviv University, then continuing her vocal studies with Ellen Faull (USA). Sivan Rotem has performed in Europe, South America and South Africa. She appears with all leading Israeli orchestras, has sung leading roles with the New Israeli Opera and has recorded for Helicon, Romeo Records and the Naxos label.

Israeli-born Jonathan Zak is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music (New York). In 1969, he, violinist Uri Pianka and ‘cellist Simca Heled established the Yuval Trio, which had a long and illustrious career in Israel and further afield. As duo pianists, he and Irina Friedland have performed in Israel and Europe. An international soloist and recitalist, Zak has recorded and done much accompanying of Israeli- and overseas artists. A professor of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv University), Jonathan Zak frequently serves as jury member in international music competitions.

The recital opened with five of the Tonadillas (1912) by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), settings of poems by Fernando Periquet, (“tonadilla” meaning a “little song”). In these delightful miniatures, the theme is the men and women of Madrid and their various attitudes to romance. In the whimsical “El tra la la”, a woman informs her man that she will continue to sing, no matter what he says or does to her. Rotem’s gestures and facial expression reinforce the message of each song, with Zak supporting the somewhat folk-like melodies with subtle harmonies and shimmering piano textures. The artists performed “The Maiden and the Nightingale” from Granados’ small opera “Goyescas” H 65 (1913-1915) based on (but with much new material) two piano suites of Granados inspired by vivid of paintings of Goya. An opera sadly neglected in opera houses outside of Spain, the vocal setting of “The Maiden and the Nightingale” has remained popular concert fare. Combining the two subjects most commonly used by Goya – nature and human form - this mood piece depicts a night scene in a garden, a lady and a rapturous bird. The nightingale actually only appears at the end, offering its comments to the woeful tale that has been told. Sivan Rotem’s lyrical, involved performance of it reveled in the piece's sweeping melodiousness and emotions. The piano part was integral, with Zak creating a lush instrumental canvas, complete with bird calls.

Manuel de Falla’s (1876-1946) “Seven Spanish Folk Songs” were composed from 1914 to 1915, at the outbreak of World War I. The songs, based on authentic folk material, come from different regions of Spain and their emotional content is as varied as are their geographic locations and styles. In close collaboration, from the very first piano utterance of the first song – “The Moorish Cloth” - the artists presented a kaleidoscope of Spanish temperament, from the lively seguidilla dance from southern Spain rendered more intense by thick, dissonant piano textures, to the thoughtful “Asturiana”, carefully paced to create some poignant moments. In the rapid Jota, a typical dance in triple time from the Aragon region, Rotem gave her all to the song’s emotional roller-coaster ride, with the piano’s harmonic surprises reflecting humorous twists of the text:
‘They say we don’t love each other because they never see us talking.
But they only have to ask both your heart and mine.
Now I bid you farewell, your house and your window too
And even…to your mother.
Farewell, my sweetheart until tomorrow.’
In their sensitive rendering of “Nana” - a lullaby that had been sung to the composer as an infant – the artists presented Ravel’s unique setting of the fragile piece, with voice and piano having separate agendas. In the seventh song, “Polo”, vehement with the pain of love, the scene is alive with fiery Flamenco music, gypsy presence, drama and intensity.

The Spanish composer Eduard Toldra (1895-1962) ranked high among Catalan composers. Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak performed six of the 71 songs Toldra composed from 1915 to 1960, 21 of which are harmonizations of popular songs. Essentially melodic, the songs communicate a sense of well-being, together with a Catalan mix of nobility, defiance, charm and wit, from the double-entendres of the playful and flirtatious “Game”, to the exotic, sensuous “Lullaby”, to the underlying dejection and magic of nature in “Farewell”. Rotem’s performance of them was appealing and warm, highlighting the composer’s strong connection of words and melody. Once again, Zak drew the audience’s attention to Toldra’s piano writing, which has life and character of its own.

Another Catalan (a, sadly, undervalued) composer and major figure in the musical world of Barcelona, Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is known for his interest in West Indian music, which was, in his words, “originally Spanish, exported overseas and re-imported….finding a place at the periphery of our traditions…”. The “Viva l’Espagna” program included the last two songs from his “Cinco Canciones Negras” (Five Black Songs) of 1945. One of several lullabies on the program, the “Cradle Song to Put a Little Negro to Sleep”, to a poem by Idefonso Pereda Valdés, begins with a description of the wide-eyed baby defying sleep; the mother then assures her child that in sleep he is no longer a slave. Rotem’s singing of the lilting vocal line was soothing and wistful, the polytonal, dissonant underlay of the piano accompaniment a subtle reminder that there was a deep message behind the words of this lullaby. Performed with great joy, with buoyant, unrelenting energy on the part of both artists, we heard “Canto Negro” (Negro Song), to words of Nicolás Guillén. Bristling with shouts of joy, the song describes blacks singing and dancing in the jungle.

Moving to Argentina, Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak performed Alberto Ginastera’s (1916-1983) “Argentinean Popular Songs” opus 10 (1943), pieces covering a breadth of emotion, textural, harmonic and coloristic devices. Each song takes its text from a different Argentinean folk tune. The artists presented each heart-on-sleeve emotion – from melancholy, delicate moments to unbridled joy – together with the release of dance and energy of traditional, native rhythms. The dazzling piano accompaniments are every bit as challenging and interesting as the songs themselves. Another Argentinean composer, Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), ranking close in importance to Ginastera, has sometimes been referred to as the “Schubert of the Pampas”. In his signature style, that blends conservative tonal with lush elements, he succeeded in blending the worlds of "música culta" and "música popular" in song, the major part of his oeuvre. Singing one of his best- known songs “La rosa y el sauce” (The Rose and the Willow), Rotem’s velvety vocal sound was colored with a hint of nostalgia.
‘As it opened, the rose embraced the willow.
The tree loved the rose so passionately!
But a coquettish youth has stolen the rose,
And the disconsolate willow weeps for it. Ah!’
In “The Map of the Plains”, of the huella song/dance style, characterized by alternating 6/8 and 3/4 meters, the artists gave articulate expression to the piece’s sentiments,its longing and intricate vocal and instrumental lines, with the piano introduction and subsequent interludes imitating guitar strumming. The Argentinean/Uruguayan singer, song-writer and actor Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), sometimes referred to as “El Zorzal Criollo” (The Creole Thrush), was the first singer to adopt the tango as a popular song; his suave appeal, his expressive, sobbing baritone, brilliant dramatic phrasing and flair for mournful ballads were well suited to the tango’s emotional language. In his well-known “El día que me quieras” (The Day That You Love Me), Rotem, speaking the words where the melody was taken over by the piano, indulged in a lavishly sentimental rendering of the song, with Zak’s lightness of touch balancing this and adding to its appeal. They then performed “Por una Cabeza” (By a Head), a tango song composed by Gardel and Alfredo le Pera. The song talks about a horse winning a race by the length of one head; the man’s addiction for horse-track gambling is likened to his attraction to women.

The program ended with pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Sebastián Piana’s (1903-1994). Milonga Sentimental, to lyrics of Homero Manzi (1931). Like the tango, the lively, playful milonga was frequently danced by embracing couples, occasionally in rhythmic counterpoint to the musical phrase. The urban milonga emerged in both instrumental- and vocal versions among tango musicians at this time. Piana is considered the father of the modern milonga. Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak delighted the audience with their performance of this saucy dance:
‘A sentimental milonga,
Just to remember you by.
Others complain by crying;
I sing so that I don’t cry.
Your love dried up for some reason,
You never told me the tale.
I comfort myself by thinking
It was a woman’s betrayal…’ (Translation: Coby Lubliner)

For an encore, the artists sent the audience off with an intense, no-holds-barred performance of Mexican composer Agustin Lara’s “Granada” (1932), ending a comprehensive concert of Spanish and Argentinean music, in which Zak offered concise explanations about the composers and works. Zak is also a master accompanist, his playing always shaped, sensitive, elegant and stylistic. The artists worked hand-in-glove all the way. Sivan Rotem’s pleasing voice, her fine intonation, her temperament and total immersion in the fabric of the pieces joined with Zak’s playing to make for a satisfying and enjoyable recital.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2013-2014 season with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas"

Celebrating 25 years of fine performance, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 2013-2014 concert season with a performance of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) opera “Dido and Aeneas”. Conducting the three concerts was the JBO’s founder and artistic director David Shemer. This writer attended the performance in the Mary Nathaniel Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA, on November 2nd 2013. This performance was the concluding event of the Choral Fantasy Festival.

Preceding the opera itself, the orchestra presented the premiere of a suite reconstructed by Alon Schab from an incomplete score by Henry Purcell. Taken from the Filmer manuscript in Yale University Music Library, Dr. Alon Schab suggests this Suite in g minor may have been the real overture to “Dido and Aeneas”. This would tie in with the fact that the end of the opera – Dido’s Lament – is also written in the key of g minor. Of the six movements of the suite, only the first survived in its complete scoring of five-part orchestration. Of the five remaining movements, only the bass line has survived. Dr. Schab has reconstructed those movements in the style of French-influenced court dances and in a four-part texture, modeled on Purcell’s theatre music, the result being a totally coherent, stylistically informed and elegant dance suite. Orchestra and audience thrilled to the enjoyment of the music and the inspiring experience hearing the suite for the first time in some 330 years. Musicologist, composer and recorder player Dr. Alon Schab graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in composition and recorder performance. As an Ussher Fellow of Trinity College (Dublin), he wrote his doctoral dissertation on compositional techniques in Purcell’s early instrumental works. Today, Alon Schab is working on a monograph of Purcell’s Trio Sonatas; he lectures at Haifa University, also teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

With no intermission to distract the concert-goers from the matter at hand, Maestro Shemer took his players and singers straight into the opera itself. With musicologists no longer sure that it was first performed at the girls’ boarding school run by dancing master and choreographer Josias Priest (although this might throw light on the reason for the small part given to Aeneas) “Dido and Aeneas” is thought to have been composed in 1689. The libretto, written in verse by Dublin-born Nahum Tate, is based on Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid”; streamlining the existing story to make for an hour’s fine, sung entertainment, Tate changed the emphasis of the drama from being conventionally heroic to more human. There are other changes in the plot: Tate created the idea of the three malicious witches. In Virgil’s version, Dido stabs herself, whereas in the Purcell opera, her death is noble and non-violent; in fact, the dignity of her death is suggested by Purcell’s music rather than by Tate’s libretto.

Six singers took part in the JBO performance, all of them young, rising stars on the Israeli concert scene. Russian-born mezzo-soprano Zlata Hershberg’s large, well-anchored voice (her English colored by a slight Russian accent), her humor and fine theatrical bent made the ideal combination for her role of the sorceress. Providing comic relief, she and young soprano Adaya Peled (who played both second witch and second woman) were convincing and entertaining in their saucy and hexing schemes. Add to these the whimsical effect achieved with some of the instrumentalists poker-facedly singing the echo responses to the chorus “In our deep vaulted cell the charms we’ll prepare”. As the first sailor, Doron Florentin’s sense of fun and waggish personality took “a boozy short leave” for what it really was, reeling in drunken stupor, eventually to be carried off stage by Guy Pelc. As the spirit, however, Florentin’s natural, large vocal sound spelled out the fateful message to Aeneas of “Jove’s command” to “forsake this land” that same evening. As Aeneas, baritone Guy Pelc conveyed acceptance, tragic helplessness, dejection and the urgency of his plight with articulacy, his coloring of each verbal gesture adding to the weightiness of the role.

Soprano Einat Aronstein was a feminine, sympathetic and sometimes coquettish Belinda. Her vocal ease, musicality and confidence are matched with a capacity to be expressive; her emotional support of Dido was well displayed. A student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Shaked Bar made a supreme effort as Dido, her eyes focused somewhere away from the action on stage, evoking a queen emotionally removed from her surroundings, a subdued loner, predicting disaster. Her expressive manner – vocal and facial – was served well by her creamy, stable voice, fine control and total immersion in the plot. With the strong tie between her and her servant Belinda clear from the outset, she opens with a touching rendering of “Ah, Belinda, I am prest with torment not to be confest”, its intimate expression poignantly supported by theorbo and ‘cello alone. Dido’s final aria – her lament – is no light task, technically or musically, also due to the fact that audience members have heard it sung so many times by some of the world’s greatest sopranos and are waiting to compare Shaked Bar’s reading of it with those of others! Bar, however, collected and focused, gave it a convincing, sensitive and emotional performance, yet keeping a safe distance from sentimentalism and bad taste. This was surely a feather in the cap of this young and promising artist.

The same six singers sang the choruses. These pieces were vibrant, richly bristling in individual vocal timbres and dynamics, with attention to the rhythm of words, the singing of the final chorus treated sensitively, with delicate shaping, alluding in gentle sadness to Dido’s death.

The JBO players presented instrumental performance that was well balanced with the voices, subtle, suggestive and palpably relevant throughout. We heard them in some lively, gently flexed dances, elegant overtures and also in effects, such as stormy winds that set the scene for the witches’ (Shakespeare-influenced) meeting. Maestro David Shemer’s production of “Dido and Aeneas”, assisted by Motti Awerbuch’s visual advice, was fresh, dynamic and moving.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lynn Harrell holds master classes and performs at the Jerusalem Music Centre

History was made in Jerusalem when the Jerusalem Music Centre (Mishkenot Sha’ananim) and the Polyphony Foundation (Nazareth) collaborated to present an evening of chamber music with ‘cellist Lynn Harrell (USA), pianist Saleem Abboud-Ashkar (Israel/Germany) and violinist Giora Schmidt (USA). This cooperation between the two institutions has brought together students from the JMC and the Polyphony Foundation. In words of greeting, the Jerusalem Music Centre’s executive director Hed Sella thanked Polyphony co-founder, artistic director and violinist Nabil Abboud-Ashkar for inviting Maestro Harrel to perform here. Lynn Harrel spent the day prior to the recital holding master classes at the JMC.

The Polyphony Foundation is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to bridge the divide between Arab- and Jewish communities in Israel through creating the possibility for young people to play classical music together and for each to be exposed to the music of the other. By educating both performers and artists in the art of communicating, the organization’s mission is to create understanding between students, families, institutions and communities via the language of music. Polyphony’s programs reach more than 3000 Arab- and Jewish youth, providing training and employment for over 40 musicians and teachers.

Born in New York in 1944 to musician parents, Lynn Harrell studied at the Juilliard School of Music and the Curtis Institute. A soloist, chamber musician, recitalist, conductor and teacher, Harrel works throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. In 1994, he performed at the Vatican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. After holding the international chair for ‘cello studies at the London Royal College of Music, Harrell has served as artistic director of the orchestra and the chamber music- and conducting program at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. One of today’s greatest 'cellists, Lynn Harrell plays on a 1720 Montagnana ‘cello.

Opening his first recital at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Lynn Harrell chose to play a movement from each of J.S.Bach’s six‘Cello Suites, in what was referred to as a “J.S.Bach Solo Suite Cocktail”. Some of Bach’s most enigmatic works, possibly owing to the fact that there is no original manuscript, any ‘cellist performing them signs his name on the performance. To ease the transition from key to key, Harrell preceded each piece with a gently plucked arpeggio in the key of the suite. For the Prelude from Suite no.1 in G major BWV 1007, he chose to open in a searching, meditational manner, building the piece up to its dramatic soundscape via its dissonances and resolutions and Bach's unexpected harmonic progressions, celebrating the registers of the ‘cello from the depths of the C string to the ringing tones of the A string. The Allemande from Suite no.2 in d minor BWV 1008 opened in forthright, assertive gestures, these by no means ruling out a very personal and soul-searching reading of the work. For the Courante of Suite no.3 in C major BWV 1009, the artist gave priority to the dance’s joyful “moto perpetuo”-type energy, textures and voice play. The 2nd Bourrée of Suite no.4 in E flat major BWV 1010 is Harrel’s favorite of the six pieces he had chosen; a small and tasty morsel, he presented its quarter note structure with wit and humility. A strong contrast was provided by the stark Sarabande from Suite no.5 in c minor BWV 101. Here, Harrel took his time in spelling out the non-dancelike severity and intense message of the movement, leaning into its dissonances and bearing the innermost regions of Bach’s soul in a text both painful and exquisite, given to inferred harmonic moments in a setting unapologetically devoid of a warmly comforting harmonic basis. The Bach cocktail ended with the freshness of D major, with the Prelude of Suite no.6 BWV 1012. Harrell’s playing of it exposed the piece’s drive and flow, its abundance of ideas and its grandness, his dealing with virtuosic passages no contradiction to the positive, direct and unmannered performance.

Harrell was then joined by pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Cello Sonata no.3 in A major opus 69. Born 1976 in Nazareth, Saleem Abboud Ashkar studied at the Royal Academy of Music (London) and at the University of Music, Drama and Media (Hanover). A dedicated recitalist and chamber musician, Ashkar appears in the most important venues of the UK and Europe and as a soloist with the world’s leading orchestras; he takes part in festivals and has recorded for the Decca label. Beethoven’s third ‘cello and piano sonata was worked on from 1806 to 1808, a particularly low time in the composer’s life. That considered, the work is surprisingly positive. Harrell and Ashkar showed the composer’s new approach of writing for equal forces (rather than ‘cello and continuo, as in the first two sonatas) in carefully measured themes answering each other in clever exchanges, based on careful listening. Taking on board the many sides of Beethoven’s writing – its rhapsodic, stormy, soaring and mysterious aspects, its languishing thoughtfulness and pathos – the artists presented the work in an emotional yet objective and elegant fashion, leaving nervous and manic interpretations of it to others.

The recital ended with Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio in C major opus 87. Here, Harrell and Ashkar were joined by violinist Giora Schmidt. Born in Philadelphia in 1983 to Israeli musician parents, Giora Schmidt studied at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music. A recitalist and chamber musician, he collaborates with many eminent musicians. Committed to education and to sharing his passion of music, Schmidt reaches young musicians through technology and social media. The C major Piano Trio was composed between 1880 and 1882, with the composer at the apex of his career. From beginning to end, the trio’s unique scoring has the piano set against the two stringed instruments, with the abundance of octave playing of the strings reinforcing the idea of two forces, rather than three. Rich in Romantic richness, intensity and nostalgia, in poignant and sweeping melodic gestures, the artists gave a rewarding performance of the work of which Brahms wrote to his publisher thus: “You have not so far had such a beautiful trio from me and very probably have not published one to match it in the last ten years.” This was playing from the soul. In the haunting Scherzo, Schmidt’s violin soared to the top of its range with radiant and poignantly singing beauty.

A surprise awaiting the audience was an intense and richly colored and spirited performance of the first movement of Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet opus 81 in A major, with two students of the Polyphony Foundation playing second violin and viola. Opening with the moving and thoughtful ‘cello utterance, the artists displayed infectious excitement at the work’s melodies, textures and powerful emotions, concluding a memorable evening of music.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Doris Bogner and Hyang Lee-Labek in recital at the Austrian National Day celebrations at the Austrian Hospice, Jerusalem

To conclude the Austrian National Day festive evening held on October 26th 2013 at the Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, a recital took place in the salon of the Hospice; it featured Austrian artists Doris Bogner-soprano and pianist Hyang Lee-Labek. The concert, comprising all Austrian music, was attended by many distinguished guests, among them, the Apostolic Delegate in Jerusalem and Palestine, Archbishop Giuseppe Lazzarotto, and the Greek Patriarch Theophilus III, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. Words of greeting and appreciation were given by rector of the Austrian Hospice Markus St. Bugnyar.

A graduate of the Vienna Music Academy, Doris Bogner teaches voice at the Ludwig Ritter von Köchel Music School, Krems (Austria), is a consultant at various vocal courses; she gives solo performances in church music and as a concert- and oratorio singer in Austria and further afield. Born in Seoul, South Korea, Hyang Lee-Labek studied at the Seoul National University of Art and the Vienna Conservatory. She performs as a soloist and chamber musician, also accompanying singers, in Austria and other countries. Today, she teaches at the Ludwig Ritter von Köchel Music School and works as an accompanist at the Conservatory for Church Music of the Diocese of St. Pölten.

The program opened with Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) “Scena di Berenice”, a large-scale operatic scene set to a text from Metastasio’s “Antigono” and first performed in 1795. Doris Bogner contended impressively with the dramatic character of the scene, in which Berenice, in love with Demetrius, the son (by a previous marriage) of her husband Antigonus, struggles with her conflicting emotions, imagining her lover departing for the underworld; she calls on the gods to bring her life to an end. Bogner and Lee-Labek presented the many stages of the heroine’s drama and its dilemmas compellingly, with Lee-Labek taking on the orchestral score with two hands!

A major part of the program consisted of works by Mozart. The soprano voice has inspired some of Mozart’s most sublime music. In the concert aria “Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte” (When Louisa burned the letters of her unfaithful lover) Bogner’s rendition brought out the doubts, the passionate despair, the melancholy and bitterness of this dramatic stage monologue, all with urgency and precision. In “Dans un bois solitaire” (In a lonely wood), written in the style of a French arietta, the artists set the tranquil scene of the cool, green forest through which a young man is wandering; he sees cupid asleep and wakes him, only to be shot with his arrows. Here, Bogner and Lee-Labek build up the song’s intensity and its message of fate in this compact but complete musical drama. One of the two songs Mozart had written to French texts, “Dans un bois” certainly does not belie the composer’s dislike of the French language! In “Das Veilchen” (The Violet), Lee-Labek opened with a sensitive description of the small, modest and unassuming violet, the piece then spiraling via the shepherdess’s song and dance to the catastrophe of the trampling of the violet, with the piece rounding off with the narrator’s sympathy with “the poor violet”. Bogner and Lee-Labek addressed the minutiae of this perfectly formed work. Providing comic relief from the tribulations of love, “Warnung” (Warning) was performed with the wink of an eye, with Bogner addressing her audience and entertaining it well with a few home truths:
‘Men are always searching for something to nibble;
If one leaves them alone
They will easily find a maiden to snatch,
For they know how to surprise them…’
The Mozart section of the program ended with what might be considered the composer’s greatest concert aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?...Non temer, amato bene” (To forget you...Fear not, my beloved). Composed in 1786, the work merges operatic- with concerto elements. The artists collaborated in creating the many-faceted opera duet, Lee-Labek’s handling of the virtuosic and expressive piano part (played originally by Mozart himself) meeting Bogner at eye level, juxtaposing the virtually unaccompanied vocal outbursts with rapid flourishes on the piano.

The Schubert Lied section of the program opened with a very amusing rendering of “Die Männer sind méchant” (Men Are Rogues), to a text of Johann Seidl. This is a humorous, lubricious song on the subject of relationships between the sexes, (a subject and style seldom broached by Schubert), a risky theme at the time of stringent censorship in Metternich’s Austria. We then heard three much-loved and familiar Schubert Lieder: a finely chiseled performance of “Heidenröslein” (The Hedge Rose), with Lee-Labek alert to each turn of the miniature song, a descriptive and evocative reading of “Die Forelle” (The Trout) and the beguiling “Auf dem Wasser zu singen”, with its challenging piano evocation of the gentle lapping of the waves and the movement of a boat, the background to the song’s message that human life is transient.

In Hyang Lee-Labek’s performance of Franz Schubert’s Impromptu opus 142 no.3 in B flat major, there was much attention to the piece’s cantabile mood and to the different character of each variation, to its lightness as well as the dark brooding of the minor variation, offering some magical moments. Some of the passagework lacked delicacy.

The recital took the audience into the very early 20th century, with one of Arnold Schönberg’s Brettl-Lieder (Cabaret Songs). Financial pressures provided the unfortunate circumstances for the composer to try his hand at writing music for the less-than-cultured audience of cabarets, rather than for the bourgeois people visiting Vienna’s musical salons; in fact, there is no record that these “Cabaret Songs” (1901-1902) were ever performed. The singer in the Aria from the “Spiegel von Arkadia” (Mirror of Arkady), to a poem by Mozart’s librettist Emanuel Schikenader, is a womanizer. Here, in a decidedly unfamiliar guise, Schönberg uses Romantic, tonal language and utilizes ambiguous harmonic ideas and piano figurations to highlight textual double-entendres. Doris Bogner and Hyang Lee-Labek gave the feisty, satirical song their all, ending the recital on an earthy note, bringing a smile to the faces of many present.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Mendelssohn's "Elijah" opens the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's 76th season.

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA opened the Liturgical Series of its 76th season with a performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah” opus 20. This writer attended the performance on October 16th 2013 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre. Making his debut with the JSO was Maestro Klaus Knubben, conductor of the Limburg Boys’ Cathedral Choir, which, together with some extra bass singers, formed the chorus in this performance. Soloists were soprano Mechthild Bach (Germany), mezzo-soprano Alison Browner (Ireland/Germany), tenor Markus Schäfer (Germany) and baritone Christoph Prégardien (Germany). The Limburg Cathedral Choir was established in 1967 and comprises 50 singers in concert, chosen from some 140 singers in the overall organization. The choir’s main function is the singing liturgical repertoire for church services; it also tours abroad. Having conducted the choir for 25 years, Knubben, now retiring, was given the visit to Israel as a token of appreciation by the Bishop of Limburg, Dr. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst. The two Israeli performances of “Elijah” were supported by the Goethe Institute.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) completed “Elijah” a year before his untimely death. In 1837, he had begun working on the text with Carl Klingemann and then with theologian Julius Schubring, both collaborations eventually amounting to nothing. When on a visit to England, the composer was conducting at the Birmingham Music Festival, where the director proposed Mendelssohn write a new oratorio for presentation the following year. The collaboration with Schubring was revived, not without differences of opinion as to what texts to use, they finally agreed on Old Testament texts, using Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible, and the work came into being. Using a quickly written English version, Mendelssohn conducted it in England in 1846. Instead of an unbroken narrative, the oratorio presents a series of scenes from the prophet’s life, interspersed with prayers and meditations. Mendelssohn had his own clear image of Elijah, in his own words, “energetic and zealous, but also stern, angry, brooding…up against the whole world – yet borne aloft on angels’ wings.” It was Schubring’s idea to place the prophet’s curse before the overture, an effective and original initiative. The singers adopt the roles of specific characters, at times, playing more than one: the baritone soloist is Elijah; the mezzo-soprano represents both an angel and the idol-worshipping Queen Jezebel. The choir embodies the Israelites as well as the priests of Baal (Jezebel’s imported deities), also commenting on the miracles of divine intervention.

Mendelssohn wrote to Schubring that “the dramatic must predominate…and the contemplative, moving aspect…” Klaus Knubben’s reading of it presented the composer’s richly endowed canvas - the people’s suffering, the divinity versus the curse brought on by the Israelites’ inconsistency and the many marvelously vibrant pictorial ideas propelled by the score’s orchestration – such as the descent of fire and the onrush of water in Part One and the whirlwind in Elijah’s ascent to heaven, complete with effects of the storm and pelting rain. The performance we heard abounded in powerful contrasts and internal echoes. The soloists at this concert, all singing with the JSO for the first time, fuelled the emotional plot in an outstanding and convincing range of portrayals. Christoph Prégardien (whose powerful performance of an unconventional scoring of Schubert’s “Winter’s Journey” with Ensemble Pentaedre and Joseph Petric in Jerusalem in March 2011 remains unforgettable in the minds of many of us) presented music and theatre at their best. Prégardien used his extensive palette of colors and his profound understanding of Elijah’s complex character in singing that was tender, humane, confrontational and colored with overwhelming sorrow.
‘It is enough;
O Lord, now take away my life,
For I am not better than my fathers…’
Nothing hindered the range of emotions Prégardien highlighted in the texts and his totally convincing and moving performance of them engaged, convinced and moved the listener.

Soprano Mechthild Bach’s easeful, natural singing served the text’s immediacy; in her depiction of individual suffering with the revival of her child representing the restoring of faith, she communicated with orchestra and audience. In “Hear ye, Israel”, Mechthild Bach’s expressive singing was delicate, haunting and silvery. Dublin-born Alison Browner’s true, bright vocal sound, her fine diction and careful pacing gave rise to shades of expression, her singing of the most delicate sounds reaching all corners of the hall. In her eloquent singing of “O rest in the Lord”, she conveyed the aria’s message of consolation. Markus Schäfer’s large, mellifluous, expressive and well-anchored tenor voice, sounded uniformly well in all registers, contending with the orchestral forces and blending splendidly with Prégardien’s voice.

One does not often hear such an outstanding line-up of soloists in one performance in Israel. Not to be forgotten are the boy soprano soloists (from the Limburg Cathedral Boys’ Choir) and, of course, the richly rewarding vocal ensembles. Klaus Knubben’s work with the cathedral choir brings out the drama and vehemence of the choruses in Mendelssohn’s extensive range of dynamics and choral colors as he plays timbre against timbre. The choristers show confidence and flexibility; their diction is polished, as is their precision in entries, phrase endings and rests. Jerusalem concert-goers were presented with the finest of European musical performance, with attentive and supportive playing on the part of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. An uplifting performance.