Sunday, January 27, 2013

Organist Yuval Rabin performs at the Mormon University, Jerusalem

The January 20th 2013 concert of the “Sunday Evening Classics” series at the Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, Mormon University (Jerusalem) was an organ recital performed by Yuval Rabin.  The program “And the Melody Returns – Ostinato and Variations” focused on themes and variations of composers of the 16th-  to 21st centuries. The 39-stop organ in the Center’s auditorium, inaugurated in 1987, was constructed by the Danish organ-builder Marcussen. The two organ cases, built of ash wood, are modern and elegant in their simplicity, the horizontal Chamade Trumpet, protruding from the front, adding visual beauty.

Born in Haifa in 1973, Yuval Rabin studied at the Dunie Weizmann Conservatory (Haifa), the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (organ, theory, Baroque music, education), the Musik Akademie der Stadt Basel (organ, modern improvisation) and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensas (harpsichord, clavichord). Today, Rabin participates in festivals, performs internationally with ensembles, orchestras and choirs on harpsichord and clavichord and records. His CD “Organ Music from Israel” for the MDG label has received excellent reviews. Rabin lives in Basel, Switzerland, but remains involved in Israel’s music life, holding master classes here; he is the director of the Israel International Organ Festival (under the auspices of the Israel Organ Association) and will direct the Jewish Music Days (conference and concerts) to be held in February 2013 at the University of Haifa. Rabin composes and writes poetry.

Organist and president of the Israel Organ Association Mr. Gerard Levi opened the evening with a few words about the Israel Organ Association’s monthly concerts, informing those present that this recital was the IOA’s first at the Mormon University.

The program began with J.P.Sweelinck’s (1562-1621) variations on the joyous, well-known secular melody (originally English) “Unter der Linden grüne” (Under the Green Lime Tree) SwWV 325, a tune popular in Holland at the time. Varying with flute- and reed stops, Rabin brings out the improvisatory nature and fine polyphonic- and contrapuntal writing of the imaginative variations. Later in style, Dietrich Buxtehude’s Ciacona in e BuxWV 160 captivated the ear with its mass of chords sometimes clashing, at others, caressing and mellow, its rhetoric and poetry expressed in a variety of timbres. The program also included a work of Frescobaldi, for which Rabin devised the variations.

Then to the lush, spiritually-tinged sound world of César Franck’s body of organ music that was not written for liturgical use, of which there exist a sum total of 12 pieces! Franz Liszt claimed that “these poetic works have a clearly marked place alongside the masterpieces of Bach”. Franck’s “Trois Chorals” (the “choral” here used to describe an original theme harmonized in chorale style) of 1890 are his final works and represent the summit of his creative genius at the organ. We heard the second- in b minor – beginning with a contemplative and mournful bass theme, spiraling into a giant passacaglia, its Franck-type “serene anxiety” (G.-J. Aubry) colored with bell effects and rich Romantic- and melancholic harmonies, its struggle finally finding tranquility. Rabin gave a sympathetic, articulate and contemplative performance of the first of Felix Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847) organ works, the untitled Andante in D (1823), a work distancing the composer from his former classical style mindset and into the Romantic style.

Presenting the interest and involvement of European-born Israeli composers in oriental music, Yuval Rabin played two movements from German-born Haim Alexander’s (1915-2012) “Contemplations on a Yemenite Folk Song” - a modal work (not quite venturing into atonality) merging oriental charm with western ideas in a kaleidoscope of colors and gentle dissonances.

The recital ended with J.S.Bach’s Passacaglia in c minor BWV 582. Composed possibly between 1706 and 1713, it is thought that the first half of the main subject was taken from French composer André Raison’s “Christe: Trio en passacaille” from “Messe du deuxième ton” of his “Premier livre d’orgue”. Rabin’s playing of the passacaglia included some ornamenting and gentle flexing as he built up the tension to the work’s final splendor. For a work of this architectonic grandeur, the Marcussen organ, tending to timbral brightness, lacks the profundity and “thunder” effect of the larger pipe organ.  

Opening of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra's 2012-2013 lecture-concert series

With “The Christian Split – Catholicism vs. Luther; Reformation vs. Catholicism”, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA opened its new Shohat-Nahari Concert-Lecture Series on January 23rd 2013 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. This series will focus on history, politics and ideology of different times and the music that arose from them. Presenting it are composer, conductor and pianist Gil Shohat, also known for his guided listening courses, joined here by Oren Nahari - world news editor and presenter on Israeli radio and television – whose broad knowledge and insight also take him into the field of music. Shohat and Nahari will present five lecture-concerts on five thematic events, discussing music in the relation to history, politics and ideology. The JSO was conducted by Shohat, with soprano Sivan Goldman as soloist. Shohat also soloed at the piano.

Israeli-born opera singer Sivan Goldman performs in opera houses in Israel and Europe. She has also given solo recitals in Hungary and Slovenia. The evening’s program opened with her performance of “Rejoice Greatly, O Daughter of Zion” (Zechariah 9:9-10) from Georg Frideric Händel’s “Messiah”. Goldman’s flexibility and energy took the listener straight into the joy of this coloratura aria as she navigated its effervescent melismatic passages with ease, her singing characterized by much vibrato (perhaps too much for some Baroque tastes). The middle section, emphasizing the word “peace” might have been pared down by Shohat to contrast the first with more of a sense of “time standing still”. No less exuberant or virtuosic is “Exultate, Jubilate”, composed by the 16-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for soprano and orchestra. A Latin motet in operatic style, it was inspired by- and written for the brilliant opera singer Venanzio Rauzzini, one of the most famous castrati of Mozart’s day. Goldman presented the motet’s lyrical melodic course with fluid elegance and glitter as she flitted confidently through its speedy, florid passages, contending well with the orchestra. Shohat’s orchestral players supported with elegance, well-phrased delicacy and freshness.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony no.5 in D, the Reformation Symphony (an early work, despite it being opus 107) was composed in 1830 to honor the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, the document approved by Martin Luther, momentous in the Protestant Reformation. The first and last movements make musical reference to the event: the first quotes the “Dresden Amen”, the last the chorale “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A Mighty Fortress is our God), both themes treated dramatically rather than in a devotional manner. Shohat’s reading of this fine and much-neglected work was lush and earnest, his wind sections well coordinated and wonderfully rich in expression, his use of dynamic contrast creating powerful energy. The two middle movements were evocative of the congenial Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy familiar to us from other works. Shohat gave the second movement – a scherzo and its lilting trio - buoyancy, the cantabile third movement (a Song Without Words?) moving into the final Andante con moto with the chorale melody threaded in and out of the orchestral texture, creating an impressive effect. Noam Buchman’s flute solos were pleasing.

The program ended with the first movement of J.S.Bach’s Concerto no.1 in d minor BWV 1052, composed in Leipzig in 1738. Gil Shohat conducted from the piano. A work demanding virtuosic execution of arpeggiation, ornamentation and runs, Shohat took it at breakneck speed, yet still keeping lines clean with precise finger-work and little to no use of the sustaining pedal; he provided his own cadenza. For an encore, Shohat played Chopin’s Waltz opus 64, no.2 in a manner that was brilliant and capricious but somewhat remote from the melancholy and crystalline delicacy of the piece.

Throughout the evening, Oren Nahari spoke of the religious climate in Europe and to what extent the composers whose works were performed at this concert fitted into it at any given time. In his book “A General History of the Science and Practice of Music” (1776), Sir John Hawkins wrote of “the pleasure” Händel “felt in setting the Scriptures to music”. I wish to add the following: the composer’s oratorio “Esther” was met with outrage by the church and the bishop of London prohibited its performance. Händel, aware of on what side his bread was buttered, proceeded with the performance and the British royal family attended; but the church was still angry. In 1739, advertisements for “Israel in Egypt” were torn down by devout Christians, who also disrupted its performances. In 1741, the composer – bankrupt, ill and the victim of plots to sabotage his career – composed “Messiah”, bringing him back to the limelight.

Shohat commented that Mozart’s religion was music itself. Nahari mentioned Mozart’s avant-garde, flamboyant writing of “Exultate, Jubilate” as well as his noble setting of the Catholic Mass in the Requiem. It would be relevant to add that Mozart was a devout Freemason – this secret society pursuing truth, self-perfection and enlightenment. This did not appear to be in opposition to Catholicism, the religion in which Mozart was raised; however, there are those who object to that statement, claiming the Bible states that man cannot reach perfection on his own.

Nahari spoke of Felix Mendelssohn as the grandson of the practicing orthodox Jewish philosopher and scientist Moses Mendelssohn and of his parents’ and his conversion to Christianity as a ticket of admission to German culture. Felix’ cultural upbringing was, however, still that of the Jewish intelligentsia of the time: the composer Ignaz Moscheles, diplomat Karl Klingemann, violinist and composer Ferdinand David and the baritone, librettist, playwright, actor, theatre director and historian Eduard Devrient were frequent guests at the Mendelssohn home. Mendelssohn lived and died a practicing Lutheran; almost a century later, the Nazis besmirched his memory as a Jewish composer, forbidding his music to be played. Nahari referred to Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony as a more humanistic form of Christianity, with the wind sections performing the chorale in place of a choir. Taking us to the final work on the program, Nahari reminded us that we owe much to Felix Mendelssohn for his revival of Bach’s music, which had fallen into relative security by the turn of the 19th century.

This concert series promises much interest, obvious by the large audience attending the first event. Oren Nahari gave an informed general picture of the cultural climate of Europe. Both he and Gil Shohat display a wide knowledge. The lecture part of the evening was rich in detail, albeit a trifle too long and spoken too fast.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Aeterna Opera celebrates ten years at a gala concert in Jerusalem

The Jerusalem chamber choir “Musica Aeterna”, specializing in the performance of music by Russian composers, was established in 1996. With most of its singers hailing from the former Soviet Union, it was founded by Ilya Plotkin, who continues to serve its musical director and conductor. Then, in 2003, Maestro Plotkin formed “Aeterna Opera”, creating a company that annually performs fully staged operas in Jerusalem, its members being professional opera singers. “Aeterna Opera” enjoys the support of the Ministry of Absorption, the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Centre for Support for Immigrant Artists.

Ilya Plotkin immigrated to Israel in 1992 from Moscow. In Russia he taught music, conducted choirs and carried out an in-depth study of the psychology of musical perception. Plotkin was a recipient of the Ministry of Absorption’s 2009 Yuri Stern Prize for immigrant artists.

On January 13th 2013, the “Aeterna Opera” Theatre Company celebrated its first ten years of existence with a gala concert held at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre. City councilman Pepe Alalu opened with a few words of greeting. Mrs. Elinor Plotkin, the untiring, driving force behind “Musica Aeterna” and “Aeterna Opera”, spoke of the talent, support and friendship that make the company such an important part of the Jerusalem cultural scene. The evening consisted of excerpts from several of the company’s productions, accompanied at the piano with much good taste by Nataly Rotenberg and Uri Brener alternately. A screen at the right of the stage showed a selection of excerpts from several “Aeterna Opera” productions, including the small accompanying orchestras in which Maestro Plotkin and his players were seen in costume and wigs. During the course of the evening, we viewed an interview filmed with Maestro Plotkin ten years ago. Emceeing the evening with much lightheartedness was Moscow-born actor and translator Gera Sandler. Costumes and stage design were created by Irina Tkachenko.

The event opened with a small reminder of Musica Aeterna’s beginnings in 1996, as a handful of the chamber choir’s singers on stage (today they number 22 to 24 singers) performed movements from Haydn’s “Missa Brevis” in D major K194, some solo moments sung by high soprano Hilma Digilov contrasting well with the richly anchored alto section of the choir. The program then proceeded with several arias from operas from the company’s repertoire: mezzo-soprano Julia Plakhin’s competent and compelling performance of one of Dorabella’s arias from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” (Thus Do They All), followed by the large, silvery, bell-like voice of Galina Zifferblat as the fickle young Narcissa in Luigi Boccherini’s “La Clementina”. Also from “La Clementina” we heard the fine singing of sopranos Helena Plotkin and Shirelle Dashevsky in duet, flowed by one of Dona Damiana’s solo arias (Helena Plotkin). Zifferblat, one of the troupe’s younger, more recent singers, gave a coquettish portrayal of Sandrina from Haydn’s 1773 “burletta per musica” (“burletta” a term for “comic opera” or “farce”) “L’infedeltà delusa” (Deceit Outwitted).

One of the evening’s highlights was tenor Dmitry Semenov’s portrayal of Lensky in an aria from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegen”, the collaboration between him and pianist Brener producing a beautifully shaped and sensitive performance. Semenov was then joined by veteran Aeterna bass baritone Andrei Trifonov in a duet reflecting the tension and drama woven into the atmosphere of the same opera.

Gera Sandler took a few moments to remind the audience of the daring experiment carried out by Ilya Plotkin in 2008, in which G.B.Pergolesi and Giovanni Paisiello’s settings of “La serva padrona” (The Servant Mistress) were presented together in one performance. Till today, the memory of the originally conceived, sumptuous stage setting, its space divided into two symmetrical sides (for two separate operas, their music alternating throughout) remains imprinted in my memory. In the concert, we first heard soprano Shirelle Dashevsky, as the devious and flirtatious Serpina, bating the unfortunate and gullible Uberto (Andrei Trifonov) from the Pergolesi setting, then Trifonov as Uberto to be taunted by  Julia Plakhin as Serpina in the Paisiello version.

“Opera Aeterna” has recently returned from Italy, where it gave the first ever performance of Aldo Finzi’s opera “Serenata al Vento” in the Bergamo Music Festival of December 2012. Under the auspices of the Jerusalem Foundation, with costumes and sets designed by members of the Harmartef Theatre and the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (both in Jerusalem), the opera took place at the Gaetano Donizetti Theatre. Born in Milan, Aldo Finzi (1897-1945) was from a Mantuan Jewish family; his oeuvre includes lyrics, chamber music, symphonic music, an unfinished dramatic opera and “Serenata al Vento” (Serenade to the Wind), the latter based on a libretto by Carlo Veneziani. Finzi had entered the opera into a competition promoted by the Teatro alla Scala for selection of an opera for the following season. However, with the racial laws enforced a few months later in Italy, Finzi was denied the right to have his music performed and this opera remained unperformed. The plot focuses on the exuberant Loly and her pedantic tutor, Leandro, who enters Loly’s window by mistake in order to get away from his secret lover’s house. Loly’s strict father, Colonel Dagoberto, is incensed and what results is a volley of misunderstandings and comical situations. Shortly before he died, Aldo Finzi expressed his last wish “Fate suonare la mia musica” (Let my music be performed). On December 2nd 2012, his wish was granted: with his son Bruno Finzi present, “La Serenata al Vento” was premiered by "Aeterna Opera" and the Donizetti Theatre Orchestra almost 70 years after being written. At the Jerusalem concert, we heard soprano Shirelle Dashevsky, accompanied by pianist Uri Brener, in a poignant and expressive performance of one of Loly’s arias. “Aeterna Opera” offers its audiences the opportunity to hear well-known, lesser-known and rare works of opera repertoire.

We were also presented with a preview of the next “Aeterna Opera” production – Gaetano Donizetti’s “Rita” or “The Beaten Husband” (1841), a one-act “opéra comique” to a French libretto by Gustave Vaëz. The complications of this domestic comedy were presented by Galina Zifferblat (as Rita), Andrei Trifonov, comically portraying Rita’s cunning first husband Gaspar and Dmitry Seminov as Peppe, her present, miserable and hen-pecked husband. This future Aeterna production promises to amuse audiences with the hi-jinks and the light-heartedness of one of Donizetti’s most frequently performed operas.

The evening concluded with a colorful ensemble from the company’s first production - W.A.Mozart’s “L’Impressario” - performed by its core of six soloists, each of the singers familiar to Jerusalem’s opera-going public. The evening’s festive concert was yet another reminder of the high standard of singing and stagecraft “Aeterna Opera” has set and maintained, of its rich repertoire and the dedication of all its artists and members working behind the scenes.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Franck Amsallem performs in Jerusalem

Franck Amsallem (photo:Franck Bigotte)
Franck Amsallem was born in 1961 in Oran, Algeria and grew up in Nice, France. He began piano lessons at age seven but gave up after some time. However, listening to the family’s large collection of LPs, Amsallem fell in love with blues and swing in his teens and, considered too old to take up the piano, he signed up for classical saxophone lessons at the Nice Conservatory, and with great success. With his main love was still the piano, he went to work in Monte Carlo, learning the gamut of jazz standards and jamming with some of the greatest names of the jazz community. Amsallem has always loved American music. In 1981, he relocated to the USA to study at Berklee College, Boston for three years, studying composition and arranging, but not jazz piano, however, performing and winning several awards. He then studied at the Manhattan School of Music (New York) in 1986, earning a Master’s degree in Composition, emerging as an accompanist and leader. With the influence of his teachers, among them jazz musician Bob Brookmeyer and Phil Kawin (classical piano), and being involved in the New York jazz scene, Amsallem became aware that there were “many pianists out there, but good pianists who are equally good composers”, in his own words. What followed was a volley of commissions for compositions, successful recordings and performances worldwide - from solo performances to playing with symphony orchestras, with big- and small bands and with local musicians.  His suite “Nuits” for jazz quartet and string orchestra has been performed in Romania, Bulgaria, France and Los Angeles. Returning to Paris in 2002, now considered one of Europe’s leading jazz pianists, Amsallem has of late also incorporated singing in recordings and live performances.

Franck Amsallem was a guest of the Gerard Bechar Centre (Jerusalem) and the Romain Gary Institut Français (he also performs under the auspices of the Alliance Française) in a solo recital January 6th 2013 in the Leo Model Hall. He began the program with some jazz standards by Thelonius Monk – “Ask Me Now”, “Evidence”, “Just You, Just Me”. The artist’s solid touch, his use of dissonances, angular melodies and improvisations hinted at Monk’s own personal style.  Amsallem then performed an original composition “Out a Day”, a pensive, nostalgic piece based on “Night and Day”. Another original piece was “In Memoriam”, dedicated to the memory of the American jazz saxophonist and composer Michael Brecker. Here Amsallem used some otherworldly pedaled effects in this personal mood piece – one hears bells and eerie muted effects - these punctuated by a warm recurring melody and occasionally agitated moments.

From his debut vocal CD - “Amsallem Sings” (FRAM MUSIC) – we heard the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein 1932 favorite “The Song is You”. With crystal clear diction and fine American English, Amsallem’s singing is up-front, resonant, nuanced and natural, his signature vocal timbre ever so slightly gritty.  His detail and precision have the effect of drawing his audience into the meaning and sentiments of the song.  Another old song, taught to him by his mother, was the 1944 Johnny Burke/James van Heuson popular standard “It Could Happen to You”, the artist also imitating muted trumpets at one point.
‘Hide your heart from sight, lock your dreams at night,
It could happen to you.
Don’t count stars, or you might stumble.
Someone drops a sigh, and down you tumble…’
Franck Amsallem has a penchant for George Gershwin’s music, hence his piano medley incorporating melodies from “Porgy and Bess”.

“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (1955) was composed by David Mann and lyricist Bob Hilliard in the course of a post-midnight impromptu song-writing session at Hilliard’s New Jersey home. Amsallem’s treatment of it was a lush- and sophisticated weaving of piano- and vocal lines. His directness, sincerity, his well sculpted phrases and velvety voice bring these old songs back to life, expressing their romantic, simple sentiments with respect to what they are and with no hint of sarcasm.

Amsallem’s own composition “Paris Remains in My Heart”, sung by him partly in French, partly in English and punctuated by a piano interlude, tells of returning to Paris. Intimate and touching, with the lure and magic of Paris wound together with personal emotional complexities coloring the song, the piece presents layers of autobiographical elements.

For his encore, Franck Amsallem performed the 1945 Joseph Kosma/Jacques Prevert song “Les feuilles mortes” (The Falling Leaves) concluding a program of sophisticated music, good taste and fine performance.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

An all-Bach concert in the Eden-Tamir Center's "Musica Antiqua" series

After a rainfall, the view of the historic village of Ein Kerem on a winter’s morning is always inspiring – green and pastoral, its tranquility and many spires never fail to draw one’s attention. But it is the sight of the glistening, gold, onion-shaped spires of the Gorny Convent that take one’s breath away. Climbing the steps to the Eden-Tamir Music Center, one wants to pause to set eyes on the herbaceous plants thriving in the center’s carefully tended terraced garden.  The occasion was a concert in the Eden-Tamir Music Center’s “Musica Antiqua” series on January 5th 2013, a program of works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) performed by Idit G. Shemer – Baroque flute (traverso),  Netta Ladar – harpsichord, Inbar Navot – viol and countertenor Doron Schleifer.

The concert opened with Netta Ladar’s playing of Chorale Prelude BWV 691 “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” (He who allows dear God to rule him), a miscellaneous chorale transmitted by Bach’s student J.P.Kirnberger, from the Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Ladar’s performance of the cantabile style piece (often played on the organ), its chorale melody sounding in the soprano, was richly embellished, her playing spontaneous and personal. Ladar also performed Harpsichord Concerto in d minor BWV 974, a reworking of an oboe concerto by mathematician and musician Alessandro Marcello (Benedetto’s brother), one of several examples of the profound impact the transcription of Italian concertos had on Bach stylistically, in terms of compositional thought and his own virtuosity. Marcello, however, was not a composer of the level or influence of Vivaldi (six of whose concertos Bach transcribed). Ladar mentioned the fact that Bach, in arranging (rather than transcribing) this Italian-style, three movement format concerto, probably stemming from his Weimar period, had raised it to a higher level. Ladar’s playing was interesting in its presentation of the piece as a concerto – its solo- and tutti sections expressed clearly in both range and in leaner- and thicker textures. Her reading of the second movement placed emphasis on its grandeur and harmonic twists rather than on a dreamy approach. Her performance of the contrapuntal, joyful Presto was a play of textures and ornaments. Ladar’s competent, intelligent playing is not heard often enough in Israeli concert halls.

Another reworking, this time of his own work, was Bach’s first organ trio sonata BWV 525 (1730), perhaps written for his son Wilhelm Friedemann to help him master his keyboard skills. These trio sonatas were probably played on a pedal harpsichord. We heard Idit Shemer and Netta Ladar performing the Trio Sonata in G major for traverso and harpsichord obbligato from the Waltraud and Gerhard Kirchner transcription. Their performance spoke much of melodiousness, thoughtful collaboration – including much imitation – and careful phrasing.

No arrangement this time, the Sonata in E major for traverso and continuo BWV 1035 was completed in 1741, prior to Bach’s journey to Potsdam to visit his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, now in the employ if Frederick of Prussia. The sonata may have been intended for Michael Gabriel Friedersdorf, a flautist and valet at Frederick’s court, but it could also have been played by the younger Bach together with Frederick, himself a flautist; the manuscript, consisting of the flute part and just the bass line of the keyboard part, survived in Frederick’s library. In general, with the transverse flute’s popularity in 18th century Germany, Bach made use of the instrument in several of his works and had some fine players at hand. With the opening Adagio generously ornamented, Shemer and Ladar played into Bach’s many surprising harmonic- and tonal deviations, Shemer’s playing tender, lyrical and singing. The artists utilized gentle flexing and small pauses to punctuate and lend delicacy and a pastoral feeling to the third movement – a Siciliano. In the faster movements, both leaning towards the galant style, Ladar’s playing was well fleshed out and had much to say. Ladar, speaking to me about collaboration and the enourmous technical difficulties posed by this work, especially for the flute, mentioned that she and Shemer have been playing together since their teens.

Countertenor Doron Schleifer is currently based in Basel, Switzerland, where he regularly performs as a soloist, also with such ensembles as the Schola Cantorum Nürnberg and the all-male “Profeti della Quinta”. In addition to singing, Schleifer is the conductor and director of the Basel Synagogue Choir. In the Eden-Tamir concert, he sang a number of (mostly) sacred arias, beginning with “Betörte Welt” (Deluded world) from J.S.Bach’s Cantata no.94 “Was frag’ ich nach der Welt” (What do I ask of this world), its text denouncing the false pomp and vanity of the material world, a subject possibly prompted by the growing affluence taking over Leipzig society.  What is clear from the score is that the composer must have had the services of a most gifted transverse flute player at St. Thomas’s, the individual- and ornamented flute line weaving across and around the voice  splendidly executed by Shemer. Schleifer’s vocal timbre is full and bright, his presentation inspired by- and directly involved in the musical- and verbal text. This was followed by “Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze” (Open, my whole heart) from Cantata BWV 61 “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland" (Now come, savior of the gentiles) of 1714, accompanied by continuo (Navot, Ladar). In “Bete aber auch dabei” (Pray nevertheless also during your vigil) from Cantata BWV 115 “Mache dich, mein Geist bereit” (Make yourself ready, my spirit), its opening displayed appealing interaction between flute and viol (Bach’s original scoring being for the smaller 5-stringed violoncello piccolo). Schleifer’s sensitive, sonorous treatment of the text – indeed, of each word – was supported by cantabile instrumental playing.  “Komm in mein Herzenshaus” (Come into my heart’s house) is the soprano aria from “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (A mighty fortress is our God) BWV 80 (1715/6) a chorale cantata based on a text by Luther celebrating Reformation Day. In an especially poignant performance, Inbar Navot’s playing added eloquence, each phrase singing and beautifully shaped. Schleifer addressed the text’s duality, contrasting its tender devotion with its biting end:
‘Come into my heart’s house,
Lord Jesus, my desire!
Drive world and Satan out
And let your image in me renewed sparkle!
Out, repulsive sins of horror!
The alto aria “Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen” (It is well for you, you chosen souls) comes from Cantata BWV 34 “O ewiges Feuer, o Ursprung der Liebe” (O eternal fire, o source of love) and commemorates the first day of Pentecost. Scored for two flutes, two violins, viola, continuo and voice, it was reduced sympathetically by the artists at the Jerusalem concert, creating a totally acceptable and full- yet caressing-sounding reduction of the score, complementing the intimacy of the alto voice with the piece’s gentle, restful yet syncopated phrasing to promote its characteristic peacefulness and  pastoral atmosphere.
Returning to the Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, the artists concluded with the sweet and personal simplicity of “Bist du bei mir” (Be thou with me) BWV 508. The 1725 compilation, a collection providing a glimpse into the domestic music-making of the Bach family, includes works by composers other than Bach. It is supposed that the melody for this aria was  composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem pays homage to St. Cecilia

“Ode to Santa Cecilia” was the title of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s concert January 1st 2013 in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert was conducted by the orchestra’s founder and musical director Avner Biron. Soloists were soprano Elinor Rolfe-Johnson (UK), tenor Nathan Vale (UK) and local singers soprano Shimrit Tsiporen, mezzo soprano Sigal Haviv and baritone Guy Pelc. Joining them was the New Israeli Vocal Ensemble (musical director Yuval Benozer).

The program opened with Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Symphony no.49 (La Passione) in f minor.  The final work of Haydn’s middle period, no.49 (1768), modestly scored for 2 oboes, bassoon, two horns (in f), harpsichord continuo (mostly inaudible in this performance) and strings, is his last work in the sonata da chiesa form (the order of movements being slow-fast-slow-fast). The thematic material for each movement is derived from the symphony’s four opening notes (c, d flat, b flat, c). Probably named “La Passione” for its foreboding emotions associated with the death of Christ, it was deemed suitable for performance during Passion Week. Composed in the key for expressing loneliness, desolation and tragedy, the work displays Haydn’s emotional palette, its intensity, pathos and turbulent emotions and its minor modes, tying in with the Sturm und Drang aesthetic. The Camerata’s performance of the work was, indeed, painted in dark hues – the brooding atmosphere of the opening movement (Adagio), mellow and somber, subtly enriched with Haydn’s light use of wind textures. This was followed by the brighter, more energetic, sunnier Allegro di molto. The Menuet, certainly no Haydnesque Scherzo, was measured and pensive, the players’ use of detached notes, nevertheless, retaining the lightness of the dance. Graced by horns and bassoon, the Trio ventured into the major key. In the Finale, however, Biron takes us back to the darker moods, the sudden dynamic changes, punctuated by oboe utterances, propelled on by the work’s underlying tension. This was an interesting choice, certainly a different Haydn to much of his oeuvre.

And to the two works dedicated to St. Cecilia. In 1683, a group of amateur- and professional musicians in London established a “Musical Society” to celebrate the Festival of St. Cecilia, who, in the mid-fifteenth century had been accredited with the invention of the organ and was, consequently, proclaimed the patroness of music. St. Cecilia’s Day is November 22nd, the supposed date of her martyrdom. The members of the society commissioned Henry Purcell (1659-1695), only 24 at the time, to write an ode in honor of the first public celebration of the feast of St. Cecilia, thus launching an English tradition that would continue in one form or another till today. The libretto for “Welcome to all the pleasures” (An Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day) for soloists, chorus and instruments, Z.339 was set to a poem by dramatist/poet Christopher Fishburn. Purcell scored it for three solo voices, choir, four-part strings and continuo. Relying on the intermingling of string-, solo- and choral textures to create tension, this sorely neglected small gem of a work opens with a Sinfonia in two movements – a majestic, canonic Grave, followed by a contrapuntal Canzona. Maestro Biron had his string players – although not playing Baroque instruments - using less vibrato, keeping the general sound fresh and bright, lending vivacity to the wonderful and original string ritornelli that conclude many of the vocal sections. Soloists and small ensemble members were tenor Nathan Vale, soprano Elinor Rolfe-Johnson, soprano Shimrit Tsiporen, mezzo soprano Sigal Haviv and baritone Guy Pelc. In a movement composed over one of Purcell’s many grounds (an ostinato of three bars!), Haviv gave a breezy, pleasing reading of “Here the deities approve”. With vocal ensembles threaded throughout and joining the choral- and instrumental score, the performance brought out Purcell’s (sometimes whimsical) word painting. (Dissonances appearing around the word “lute” hinted as to Purcell’s opinion of the instrument). Following Pelc’s articulate singing of “Then lift up your voices” and Vale in “Beauty, thou scene of love”, we heard one of Purcell’s most original touches - his setting of the word “Cecilia” in the last section: it is repeated in all voices, in all registers, with one sole bass member of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble left to sing it for the last time. The New Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s flexible, precise singing and timbral homogeneity gave the performance elegance and verve.

At the 1739 St. Cecilia’s Day festival in London, Georg Frideric Händel’s dazzling Ode to St. Cecilia HWV 76 to the famous Dryden text praising music’s powers was performed. The score calls for chorus, strings, continuo, flute, double reeds, trumpets, timpani and the seldom-heard pairing of solo soprano and tenor voices, originally intended to showcase the skills of Händel’s two Italian opera stars. Most of the melodies were taken from Gottlieb Muffat’s “Componimenti musicali” (c.1739) but totally reworked by Händel. Avner Biron’s reading is free of dryness and affection, his orchestra never sounding dense and inarticulate, as the performance moves along swiftly through its discussion of harmony, the human voice, the trumpet, flute, violins, organ and lyre to extolling Saint Cecilia to the point that the “spheres began to move”. Parallel to these, we heard lush and colorful individual playing by several of the Camerata’s instrumentalists – first ‘cellist Zvi Orleansky in most expressive obbligato playing, flautist Esti Rofe, Iris Globerson on organ, trumpeters Dima Levitas and Marat Gurevich, bassoonist Mauricio Paez, etc. The NIVE’s singing was polished, rich in meaning and shape and articulate, its members singing into the natural emphasis of Händel’s music and the text’s key words.

This was British opera singer, recitalist and oratorio tenor Nathan Vale’s first Israeli appearance. His performance displayed much involvement in the Dryden text and its translation into the musical medium, their drama and impact. Throwing the listener headlong into the colorful text, his treatment of the first wrenching aria of the work was full of contrasts, his easeful leaps and crisp diction powerful and effective. This kind of performance could certainly leave no room for indifference on the part of the audience!
‘The tuneful Voice
Was heard in high,
“Arise, ye more than dead!”
Then cold and hot,
And moist and dry,
In order to their stations leap
And Music’s pow’r obey.’
His singing of ‘The TRUMPET’s loud clangor’, joined by trumpet obbligato and choir, was every bit as joyful and celebratory as intended. Vale is a convincing young artist, his rich, grounded tenor timbre tempered with flexibility, a sense of drama and emotional depth.

Back performing with the Camerata, British soprano Elinor Rolfe-Johnson is also an artist to watch. Hers is a large, creamy voice of even timbre, her upper register fruity and stable, her held notes and melismatic moments spiraling richly and effortlessly into the apex of her range. In ‘What passion cannot MUSIC raise and quell?’ she and ‘cellist Orleansky created music of sheer beauty, Rolfe-Johnson then collaborating with flautist Rofe in the delicate and sensitive aria speaking of
‘The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper’d
By the warbling flute’
Rolfe-Johnson’s calm presence and physical poise, giving rise to an outstandingly steady, powerful voice, carried her triumphantly into the resplendent, totally solo passages of the final Grand Chorus, concluding what was, indeed, an enriching and inspiring evening of music.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Encore! performs Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Gondoliers" in Jerusalem

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” or “The King of Barataria” was the eleventh annual G.&S. performance of Encore! Educational Theatre Company in association with the Jerusalem Gilbert & Sullivan Company. Robert Binder was stage director, Paul Salter musical director, Judy Brown did the choreography and Roxane Goodkin-Levy was stage designer. This writer attended the performance December 29th 2012 at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit Shmuel, Jerusalem.

Encore!   was established in Jerusalem in 2006 and has staged many of the classics of musical theatre as well as lesser-known works and new pieces. It aims to expose audiences to English language theatre repertoire and, in particular, to encourage young people to become the theatre-going public of the future. It has also cooperated in summer workshops to train children and teenagers in aspects of stagecraft.

“The Gondoliers” or “The King of Barataria” was Gilbert and Sullivan’s twelfth opera – and last great success. Composed in 1888, it opened December 7th 1889 at the Savoy Theatre, London and ran for 554 performances. On the morning after the premiere of “The Gondoliers”, Gilbert wrote to Sullivan as follows: “I must thank you for the magnificent work you have put into the piece. It gives me the chance of shining right through the twentieth century with a reflected light”.   In this opera, Gilbert focuses on issues of snobbery and class distinction, taking an aim at romance and egalitarianism, setting the plot conveniently far enough away from England for him to pass criticism on the British upper classes and on the monarchy itself. None of these issues are solved, but they are dealt with wit and the intricacies typical of Gilbert’s of librettos. It is Gilbert & Sullivan’s sunniest, catchiest score (belying the fact that the tenuous G&S partnership was now on the point of crumbling) offering much scope for musical color and melodic invention and it calls for more dancing than their other operas.

Entering the Hirsch Theatre to take our seats, one became aware of how vibrant and active Jerusalem’s English-speaking community is. With conductor Paul Salter’s entry, the orchestra, seated in front of the stage, struck up with the lively “Gondoliers” overture. With the raising of the curtain, we view the expansive opening scene set outdoors, the stage crowded with actors and actresses of all ages – from young children to people in their seventies – all  clothed in colors evoking the brightness and atmosphere of the sun-drenched city of 18th century Venice, the backdrop’s blue skies and sea completing the association. As to the totally far-fetched story, suffice it to say that it involves two gondoliers, one of whom is supposed to be a prince in disguise. Together they rule Barataria, putting to practice republican ideals…with madcap results. As always in G,&S. plots, the twists of the comedy of disguises are ironed out just in time to send the audience home unperplexed - it had been perplexed – and smiling.

Robert Binder’s stage direction was lively, fast-moving and smoothly carried out by participants. What I missed were a few more quips and topical humorous references to heighten the hilarity and produce a few unexpected belly laughs. Roxane Goodkin-Levy’s stage design was effective, her sets of Venice and Barataria nicely contrasted: the Barataria backdrop for Act 2 was decidedly exotic and surreal, its colors and shapes oddly dreamlike. Costumes were pleasing, if not outstanding, and they showed the G.&S. social classes as clearly delineated. Of the props, both boats were most effective, the latter with a little boy from the cast posed as the figurehead on the bow.  As to the choreography, in group scenes as well as  Sullivan’s gavottes, tarantellas and fandangos, Judy Brown had her players well in step, no easy task for such a large cast, most of them amateurs; dances included a colorful maypole dance and a duet  with trained dancers Yochai Greenfield (Ottavio)) and Shira Potter (Esperanza).

As usual, Paul Salter’s musical direction was outstanding. G.&S. operas depend on good orchestral support and bouncy overtures and, with “Gondoliers” being one of G.&S.’s more sophisticated scores, the 15-piece “New Savoy Orchestra” gave fine musical support to singers and a pleasing mix of instrumental color with  good ebb and flow throughout. Chorus singers were confident; they were carefully trained and coordinated and their energy never lagged. “Gondoliers” is very much an ensemble piece and the smaller ensembles here were satisfying, their performance polished, sporting fine intonation and presenting some rapid word play (although, apart from perhaps “In a Contemplative Fashion”, “Gondoliers” has no real patter song.)  All cast members took care to use British accents. The cast included nine major players: Rafael Apfel and Daniel Forst gave a whimsical portrayal of the Palmieri brothers, Maya Cohen a coquetish Tessa, Hanan Leberman played Luiz (the duke's attendant), Claire Greenfield was the Duchess of Plaza-Toro and Maria Liyubman her demure daughter. All performed pleasingly and with competence. To mention only a few, Aviella Trapido played Gianetta with vocal ease and rich, warm color, together with natural stage presence. Well cast, bass Jay Shir, in the role of Don Alhambra del Bolero (the Grand Inquisitor), played the extra-British official, his tongue-in-cheek, unsmiling portrayal of the pompous character cool, officious and totally supercilious in speech and body language. His singing was resonant and carefully paced. Making his first stage appearance, Michael Sacofsky, in the role of the Duke of Plaza-Toro, pulled out all the plugs, bringing the house down with his humor and total dedication to the character he was playing, despite the fact that he was actually singing below his natural tenor range.
Following months of hard work with a cast of 45, not forgetting the many, many other people assisting in all aspects of the production, Encore!  has once again proved that English language musical theatre, involving devoted professionals and amateurs working together, is alive and kicking in Jerusalem and that audiences are interested to enjoy G.&S.’s operas together. Kudos to Robert Binder and Paul Salter.