Monday, February 25, 2013

Barrocade presents Bach's St John's Passion at Abu Gosh

The Barrocade Ensemble, joined by Nuove Musiche (Holland) and conducted by Shalev Ad-El, performed J.S.Bach’s St John’s Passion in February 2013. Vocal soloists were tenor Markus Ullmann (Germany) and Israeli singers – soprano Yeela Avital, alto Avital Dery and bass-baritones Oded Reich and Guy Pelc.  This writer attended the performance at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church in Abu Gosh on February 23rd 2013.  The Barrocade Ensemble, formed in 2007, numbers some 12 players, working together and cooperating in decisions as to performance; the Barrocade Ensemble frequently performs without a conductor. Although playing mostly Baroque- and Renaissance music, Barrocade also ventures into other musical styles, such as folk- and modern music as well as jazz.

Shalev Ad-El (b.1968, Ramat Gan) is one of Europe’s most sought after continuo players, harpsichord recitalists and conductors, also performing in North- and South America, the Far East and the USA. Teaching in many countries, he is a member of several European ensembles and is the musical director of Accademia Daniel (Israel).

Tenor Markus Ullmann (b. 1967, Dresden), whose teachers have included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is an opera singer, a recitalist, also performing as a soloist in orchestral concerts. Ullmann performs much Baroque music but not just: of late, for example, he has been involved in the first recording of the original version of Dvorak’s “Cypresses”.

Ensemble Nuove Musiche, established five years ago and centered in Helmond, Holland, performs Baroque-, Classical and Romantic repertoire and is the permanent ensemble in a project involving professional- and amateur musicians.

Bach’s St. John’s Passion BWV 245 was first performed on Good Friday of 1724, exactly one year following the composer’s appointment as cantor of St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig. It was written in two parts so a sermon could be held between them. The first scene takes place in the Kidron Valley and the second in the palace of the high priest Kaiphas. Bach draws on the Gospel of St John and St. Matthew of the Luther Bible as well as from a number of unknown sources providing arioso- and formal arias that gave voice to the emotional responses of the contemporary individual believer. The characters represented are the Evangelist (Ullmann), Christ (Pelc), Pilate (Reich), Peter and servants. The choir represents the crowd (in the second part delivering urgent, angry calls for blood) also punctuating the narrative and arias with Lutheran chorales that allow the audience to reflect on the drama. As Bach’s most controversial work, it is a work built around suffering, moral dilemmas and conviction; as a devout Lutheran, Bach believed in the sacramental function of music.

Situated tranquilly among olive trees atop a hill overlooking the town of Abu Gosh, the Kiryat Ye’arim Church of the Ark of the Covenant was becoming a beehive of activity on February 23rd as people entered to take their seats. At the front of the church, the eight members of Ensemble Nuove Musiche, placed behind the 13 Barrocade players, were joined by soloists Avital, Dery, Pelc and Reich for the opening and ending choruses of the work. From the very first notes of the monumental opening chorus, one became acutely aware of Shalev Ad-El’s reading of the work – as a somber, powerful, impactful piece, urgent and uncompromising in its manner and message. Tenor Markus Ullmann made for a very fine Evangelist as he drew the listener into the drama of the text, presenting the story in a bold, articulate manner that bristled with freshness, brightness of vocal color and rediscovery. The Evangelist’s demanding recitatives have Jesus’ name sung in the highest register, biblical prophesies are given dignified utterance and then there is reported speech.   Ullmann’s voice is richly hued and buoyant; he floats with ease through melismatic passages, his diction allowing every word to emerge with crystal clarity (some words uttered at a whisper) and his energy is unflagging. In the tenor arias, Ullmann addresses the text and emotional content of each, playing with the asymmetry of the grieving “Ach, mein Sinn” (Ah, my mind, where finally willst thou go?), to be joined by violinists Shlomit Sivan and Yasuko Hirata in the poignant “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” (Consider how his blood-tinged back). His evocative word-painting, for example as in “weinete bitterlich” (wept bitterly) in section 12, brings out the work’s expressive and compassionate content.  

In her true, unmannered style, Avital Dery’s portrayal of the sinner’s tormented conscience in the alto aria “Von den Stricken meinen Sünden (To unbind me from the shackles of my sins) was pleasing, the brightness and timbral beauty of the obbligato oboes (Ofer Frenkel, Shai Kribus) and bassoon (Gilat Rotkop) sometimes covering the alto voice. In “Es ist vollgebracht” (It is accomplished), with the delightful intermingling of the alto vocal line and the viola da gamba (Amit Tiffenbrunn), Dery held onto the tension of the first section, then following the dramatic and challenging middle section with a moving and compassionate reading of the ending section.

Soprano Yeela Avital gave a sympathetic and sensitive reading of the aria “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” (I follow you likewise with joyful steps), its childlike joy graced with obbligato flutes (Genevieve Blanchard, Na’ama Lion), (its tripping rhythm here actually creating a moment of dramatic irony) her well crafted, delicate singing of “Zerfliesse, mein Herze” (Dissolve then, heart, in floods of tears), also joined by flute, imbued with suffering.

Guy Pelc’s smooth, open yet full-bodied vocal sound, unencumbered by vibrato, is well suited to this genre. He takes on the calm confidence and resignation of the role of Jesus, weaving lines into the split-second timing of the brisk dialogue, creating some gripping moments. Pelc’s art of blending was especially effective in the plangent “Mein teurer Heiland” (My beloved Savior), his voice and the choir collaborating hand-in-glove in magical balance.

 Oded Reich was intense, powerful and convincing. As Pontius Pilate, he presented the character in a direct and authoritative manner. Bringing events to a head in the challenging “Eilt, ihr angefochten Seelen” (Bass & Choro) he highlights key words of the solo, punctuated by the chorus’s dramatic interjected questions, his large, rewarding vocal reserve and dramatic flair lending intensity throughout;
‘Hurry, you tormented souls,
Leave your dens of torment,
Hurry – Where to? - to Golgotha!...’

Ensemble Nuove Musiche juggled its many chorus roles, from the “turba” (crowd) choruses – dramatic and sometimes jaggedly depicting the various groups involved in the story – high priests, the mob, soldiers - to liturgical chorales as well as to strategic choral pieces there to heighten- or relieve dramatic tension. These choral sections draw on the full spectrum of choral techniques. Comprising only eight singers, Nuove Musiche displayed oneness of intention, fine balance within itself and with the instrumentalists, flexibility, an ear to blending and the emotional range necessary for this work. The chorale “Durch dein Gefangnis” (Through your imprisonment) sung unaccompanied was a moment of floating and poignancy. Mellifluous and heartrending, the comforting c minor epilogue “Ruht wohl”, prior to the final chorale, was especially moving:
‘Rest in peace, O holy limbs,
Over which I no longer weep:
Rest in peace, and bring me to peace also.
The tomb that has been set aside for you
And contains no further distress
Opens the heavens to me and closes hell.’

With all strands held together by the Barrocade instrumentalists’ blended and well consolidated ensemble sound, Shalev Ad-El’s hallmark on the St John’s Passion was present throughout: his highly expressive (and sometimes unconventional) conducting language spoke of minute detail, shape, expressiveness and beauty of sound; contrapuntal lines interacted in articulate voice play.  He breathed life and meaning into the highly charged emotional canvas of the work, taking musicians and the audience through the captivating human drama.  This was performance at its best.   



Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Swiss organist Marc Fitze at the Redeemer Church (Jerusalem)

One of the events of the 2012-2013 Israel International Organ Festival, under the auspices of the Israel Organ Association, was “Sound of the Animals”, a recital by Marc Fitze (Switzerland) on February 16th 2013 at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in  Jerusalem’s Old City.  Installed in the Redeemer Church in 1971 the organ, built by Karl Schuke (Berlin), has 21 registers connected to two manuals and the pedal; it is an instrument rich in timbres and vitality.

Marc Fitze began piano- and organ studies in Bern, later moving to the New England Conservatory (Boston, USA) to study with Yuko Hayashi. He has won prizes for composition and organ and has given organ recitals in Europe, Mexico, the USA and Japan. His recordings include Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals” on the new Fisk organ in the Lausanne Cathedral. Fitze has also specialized in the art harmonium, its repertoire and restoration of the instruments. Fitze is the organist of the Bern Heiliggeistkirche (Holy Spirit Church)  and is organ professor at the Bern Music Academy. This was the artist's first concert tour of Israel.

The program began with Fitze’s transcription of the first movement of Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) Symphony no.83 in g minor “The Hen”. Composed in 1785, the work is one of the “Paris Symphonies”. Opening with hearty sound, the movement is peppered with Haydenesque humor and joy. The fact that the composer’s scoring was for strings, flute, two oboes, two bassoons and two horns presented no problem to Fitze, whose transcription of the piece was a feast of colors and dynamic variety, the hen motif (introduced by the  oboe) making articulate entries in this spirited and somewhat theatrical (opera buffa?) movement.

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1728 “Nouvelles suites de pieces de clavecin” (New Suites for Harpsichord) includes nine genre pieces in the scale of “g” (major and minor), one of the best-known being “La Poule” (The Hen). With its repeated notes effectively imitating the clucking (or pecking) of chickens, Fitze’s reading of the witty work, complete with lively spreads, took on large changes of registration as the five repeated notes return continuously as if becoming more insistent. Remaining on the avian theme, the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” from Modest Mussorgsky’s (1839-1881) “Pictures at an Exhibition” originally for piano (1874) describes a costume design by Victor Hartmann for “Trilby”, a ballet with music by Julius Gerber. Fitze chose a frothy, weightless and slightly muted timbre for the opening of the frenetic dance, moving into a more bell-like sound. After hearing the orchestration of Mussorgsky’s work, Fitze’s performance of it makes a valid case for playing it on the organ.

We then heard Swiss organist, composer and pedagogue Lionel Rogg’s “La Femme et le Dragon” (The Woman and the Dragon). Rogg, (b.1936, Geneva), is known to be a virtuosic organist and improviser; these qualities were, indeed, the basis of “La Femme et le Dragon”. Beginning with a melody played against a static cluster, Fitze gave a daring performance of a work that is uncompromising in intention and almost visual, bristling with intensity and unreserved effects – ominously low fortissimo sounds, noise, eerie buzzy melodies, some brighter moments and, finally, a tranquil, ethereal, remote and otherworldly soundscape created in long, held sounds. In his presentation of the work’s forthright utterance of power, anguish and struggle, Fitze cuts no corners.

Then, to Camille Saint-Saëns’ (1835-1921) “Carnival of the Animals” in Fitze’s own transcription for organ: in a series of whimsical vignettes reflecting the composer’s personal observations of the animal world (organists – originally pianists – included in the category!) Fitze literally re-orchestrates the small pieces in the most authentic manner.  His gentle subtle flexing of rhythms creates a sympathetic elephant waltz, punctuates the kangaroo’s leaps and conjures up a lush, European forest from the depths of which the cuckoo’s modest call is so moving. The aquarium of gliding fish is glistening and silvery and the aviary boasts birds in full throat in playing that is brilliant and vibrant with fine passagework. The fossils merge with “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and the regal swan, the water lapping around her, glides majestically in pastel “covered” sounds. Only the organists, worriedly practicing and trying to improve their scale-playing, are not at one with nature. The concert concluded with Fitze’s exuberant and virtuosic playing of the Finale. Throwing a new and highly creative light on the pipe organ’s range of possibilities, Marc Fitze uses color generously, yet addressing detail and precision.  He is an artist of rare talent.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

Moran Choirs' 2013 gala concert

The Moran Choirs 2013 gala evening was held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on February 10th. The first Moran Choir was started in 1986 on Moshav Beit Yitzhak (Emek Hefer) by conductor and musical director Naomi Faran. Establishing a very high standard of choral singing from the outset, the choir has gone from strength to strength in performance and educational projects, winning several competitions, touring and singing at international festivals (this past year saw the choir performing in Hong Kong and China), singing with orchestras and in opera houses and performing works of prominent Israeli composers.  Faran’s aims have always been to instill the value of choral singing in young Israelis, to encourage natural, cultured singing and to further understanding among children of different sections of the community. Today there are four Moran ensembles, with the young singers taking their musical work with the utmost of seriousness; they also take on a variety of community activities - with at risk youth, special needs children, children in the Schneider Children’s Hospital pediatric cancer unit and with young Ethiopian immigrants. On entering the Tel Aviv Museum on February 10th, guests were invited to enjoy a light supper, circulate and talk to people, hear first-hand about the experience of singing in Moran choirs from some of the young singers and also to meet with Naomi Faran.

Opening the event, Naomi Faran greeted all guests and supporters, expressing her appreciation to them for believing in the work the Moran Choirs do. Mr. Rani Idan, mayor of Emek Hefer, spoke of Faran’s enormous community involvement, mentioning “The Valley Sings”, a project to develop the love of singing  Faran has introduced into all the local primary schools. Mr. Shmuel Dror, chairman of the Moran Choirs executive committee, spoke of the aim of the evening being to bring the public closer to Moran Choir programs and to display the very fine results of the tireless work of its conductors and other music professionals. Speeches were kept to a bare minimum, giving priority to the evening’s musical program.

Much thought had been invested in the concert program, offering the audience the opportunity to hear several of the choirs as well as much and varied repertoire. The Moran Singers Ensemble comprises experienced singers, graduates of the Moran Choir, outstanding musician soldiers and music academy students. As a professional ensemble, one of its aims is to promote solo singing. Naomi Faran continues to be its musical director and conductor, with soprano Sivan Rotem and pianist/composer Eyal Batt also working with the singers on a regular basis. The Ensemble opened the evening’s program with a finely shaped, restrained, gentle and blended performance of the “Kyrie” from (the 18-year-old!) Franz Schubert’s Mass no.2 in G major. Soprano Hadas Faran-Asia addressed the work’s lyricism in the solo. We then heard the male singers in Raymond Goldstein’s arrangement of the traditional Jewish prayer melody “Ein Keloheinu” (There is none like our God), together with soloist mezzo-soprano Zlata Hershberg. In the soulful, sensitive rendering, conducted by Guy Pelc, Hershberg’s feel for the piece together with her richly endowed voice made for fine listening. Following the Ensemble’s recent participation in the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s concert production of Gluck’s “Orpheo ed Euridice” (January, 2013), we heard impressive performances of the funereal, poignant “Ah, se intorno” (If around this sad tomb) and the opera’s finale “Trionfi amore” (Love triumphs).

Some 50 singers between the ages of 12 to 18 make up the Moran Choir, a choral group performing with orchestras, the Israeli Opera and in festivals, competitions and workshops around the world. Several Israeli composers have written works for the choir. In superb harmony and musical competence, the Moran Choir members performed Eyal Batt’s poetic arrangement of Naomi Shemer’s “Grasses” (text-Rabbi Nachman of Breslau); the singers’ intonation, blend and sensitive singing of “HaDudaim” (The Mandrakes’ Aroma) to a text from “Song of Songs” was followed by a precise- and  dynamically rich reading of the Amen to G.B.Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”. One of the strengths of the Moran Choir is its strong commitment to the community; in “Yesh Li Tsipor K’tana b’Lev” (I have a troubled heart) the members were joined by young people from the Dana Club for special needs youth of the Emek Hefer region, a centre promoting social- and cultural interaction. Uri Moustaki directs the musical program there. The young people choose their own repertoire; their musical activities include a weekly choir practice plus rehearsals together with the Moran Choir. Naomi Faran established this project in 2001. In “Coffee at Bertha’s” (lyrics-Ehud Manor, music-Natan Cohen) and “I Have a Troubled Heart” (Lyrics-Igal Bashan, Yossi Banai, music-Igal Bashan) members of both choirs intermingled, held hands, made music and harmonized together. Faran danced as she conducted and the audience hummed along.

Another project in which Faran has been involved since its initiation in 2006, with the Nordau Center for Enrichment, the PACT Project, the Ministry of Education and the Netanya Municipality and directed by Varda Perry, is aimed at integrating small girls  from the Ethiopian community into Moran choirs. Much of the success of this project has been due to the fact that the girls’ parents have also been involved. The Moran Little Ones Choir numbers around 20 five- to eight-year-old girls whose own musical tradition provides an added dimension to the project. We heard these little girls and some of their parents in a polished and totally charming performance of “So, Come to Me, Nice Butterfly” (Lyrics-Fanya Bergstein, music-Oved Efrat); the very young soloist sang with fine intonation, sweetness and remarkable self-assurance. In the aboriginal children’s song “Seserie”, the percussion, solos and the children’s innate sense of rhythm and movement made for an impressive and rousing performance. Following that, three Ethiopian girls from the Moran Choir were joined by 23-year-old singer Hagit Yasu (also of the Ethiopian community) in “Someone Always Walks with Me” (lyrics-Rami Kedar, music-Effi Netzer).

The choir at the Tokayer Boarding School for at-risk children (Kibbutz Bachan) was the initiative of Nachum Itzkovich (director of the Emek Hefer Regional Council) and Naomi Faran in 2002. The activity brings at-risk children together with children from the Moran Youth Choir and on an equal footing. At the school, 70 children from ages 7 to 15 rehearse weekly in what might be referred to as “a singing school”. Under the guidance of Ori Shachar, Rani Golan and Idan Eisler, the Tokayer children sing, play percussion instruments, take voice lessons, learn basic music theory and perform; this musical training encourages interpersonal skills, the ability to listen and the children’s understanding of language and texts. The Recanati Hall stage was crowded with enthusiastic children of both choirs singing “Without You” (lyrics-Danny Minster, music-Yoni Rechter). What a joy it was to see the Tokayer boys as soloists in “A Letter to My Brother” (lyrics and music-Ilai Botner) in Rani Golan’s jaunty arrangement, backed by piano, guitar and percussion:
‘Don’t be afraid of biting reality
And of cold people.
Everyone has “baggage”.
And you see it only in a few.
How much strength there is in a moment!
Eternity is endless.
In every tear to be shed
Laughter will come…’

Soloist and graduate of the Moran Singers and the Moran Singers Ensemble and member of the Israeli Bach Soloists, Hadas Faran-Asia studied at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Today, in addition to a busy performing schedule, she works as a vocal coach with the Moran choirs. Accompanied imaginatively by David Sebba, we heard Faran-Asia in “Song to the Moon”, an aria from Dvořák’s “Rusalka” in which the mermaid Rusalka confides to the moon the secrets of her longing.  This aria, with its melody rising to a haunting refrain over gently shifting chords, is well suited to Faran-Asia’s creamy, lyrical voice and expressiveness.

Musical director of the Israeli Opera’s Opera Studio Israeli-born David Sebba composes theatre music, writes arrangements and orchestrations, sings, performs as a pianist and conducts. He has also translated several operas into Hebrew. Sebba has put together “Mad about Opera”, a show in which he sings and is accompanied by pianist Irit Rub; this is a parody on the history of voice and opera. Rub and Sebba performed parodies on both Italian opera and oratorio, much to the enjoyment of the audience. In addition to being a fine singer, Sebba is also a brilliant comedian!

Since 2008, the Moran Choirs organization has been associated with the Nitzan Onim Institute (Kfar Saba), a centre for young people aged 18 to 25 with learning disabilities. Directed by Rachel Regev, the centre provides a rehabilitative- and therapeutic framework, training young members with cognitive-, motor- and social difficulties to function in the general community.  Some twenty of the young people regularly take part in a choir that collaborates with Moran, the partnership giving the Nitzan Onim youngsters self-esteem and both choirs a sense of shared achievement. Despite severe learning disabilities, one member Ofir Nuriel (b.1979) has published a volume of poetry. His poem “Missing”, which he read to the audience, speaks in honesty, simplicity and wisdom of the physical- and emotional limitations of people like himself; the poem concludes with “As a frog I can not go out with princesses”. Rani Golan has set Nuriel’s text. We heard Golan’s catchy and lively arrangement, sung by young people from Nitzan Onim together with members of the Moran Singers Ensemble. This was a very special moment.

With members of all four choirs standing in the aisles and on stage, the audience was surrounded by beautiful sounds and joy as the evening drew to a close with Yonatan Razel’s “In Between the Sounds”, both sung and conveyed in Deaf Sign Language. The Moran Choirs gala evening was indeed a stirring experience for all present. It was an evening of careful programming and good taste – of fine, unmannered, cultured singing and movements; the works sung were relevant and meaningful to the young performers, clothing was unfussy and in good taste. What was so impressive was how thoroughly well trained all singers were for the event. Through rigorous musical training and much love, Naomi Faran and her devoted staff are teaching these young people the value of excellence, acceptance and self respect and that singing makes for happiness.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The 2013 Israeli Schubertiade

During Schubert’s lifetime, Schubertiades were generally informal, unadvertised gatherings held in private homes, some with the composer in attendance, others not. They were usually sponsored by some wealthy friend of the composer or by aficionados, some of the get-togethers including poetry readings, dancing and other sociable pastimes.  The Israeli concert scene has established its own tradition of Schubertiades. Under the auspices of the Ralph Kohn Foundation and under the musical direction of Raz Kohn, the 2013 Schubertiade took place in several venues, this writer attending the February 7th concert at the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA as part of the Jerusalem Music Centre’s Chamber Concert series.

The first half of the concert consisted of several vocal works by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) – both Lieder and ensemble pieces - performed by Israeli singers soprano Hila Baggio and countertenor Yaniv D’Or, British tenor Simon Wall and the Belgian-born baritone Kris Belligh. They were accompanied on the piano by Graham Johnson, who was in Israel to hold master classes for singers and pianists at the Jerusalem Music Centre.  Professor Graham Johnson (b.1950, Rhodesia), widely recognized as one of the world’s greatest accompanists and Lied experts, teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (London). He has directed and accompanied recordings of all Schubert’s Lieder - 37 discs - for the Hyperion label. In the Schubertiade program notes, Johnson speaks of the task of choosing songs from the composer’s more than 700 for performance by four very different singers. The songs were grouped into themes. On the subject of the seasons, each soloist would sing one song. Johnson also emphasized the relevance of performing Lieder with texts of Jewish poets, reminding us that Salomon Sulzer - composer and cantor of the Seitenstettengasse Temple in Vienna – was one of Schubert’s close friends. In this connection, Johnson saw fit to add Schubert’s setting of Psalm 13 as translated into German by philosopher (and Felix Mendelssohn’s grandfather) Moses Mendelssohn. Other categories of Lieder in the program were those dealing with death and on the subject of shepherds and fisherman.

The evening opened with the five artists presenting a richly colored performance of “An die Sonne” (To the Sun) D439 (text: Johann Uz, a poet writing on moral themes). Of all his quartets for mixed voices, each having some degree of moral content, Schubert’s paean to the sun, composed in 1816, might be considered the most noble in character.  Against a piano accompaniment that is varied, pianistically interesting and majestic, we hear the singers paired and imitating, the rich canvas of the work offering block harmonies as well as  contrapuntal lines, the outer verses, set in the scale of f major, sparkling in the majesty of the heavens and an awareness of mortality. “Der Tanz” (The Dance) (1825), on the other hand, is a light-hearted, bright and jolly piece - a “pièce d’occasion” - for the enjoyment of performers and guests gathered at a non-professional venue.  Although warning youth of the overindulgence of partying, it is a piece of gentle humor. These vocal quartets, not heard frequently enough here in Israel, are well endowed in harmonic imagination and would probably have originally been sung with one singer on each voice, as heard at this concert.  The combined different timbral qualities of the singers at this concert made for an interesting, well contrasted and pleasing performance.

Israeli soprano, Hila Baggio, enjoying much success on opera stages at home and further afield, is also well suited to the Lied genre. Her bright, well-shaped phrases move along naturally with the verbal text – from her fresh, sympathetic, almost scented reading of “Frühlingsglaube” (Spring Belief), to the religious atmosphere created in Schubert’s setting of Psalm 13 as it progresses from recitative to aria to a 6/8 dance rhythm, to her lyrical reading of the 19-year-old Schubert’s less sacred but celebratory, gently humorous picture of heaven as a venue of the Viennese waltz in “Seeligkeit” (Blessedness). In the vocal quartets, Baggio both blends well and holds the solid top line competently.

Simon Wall is no new face to Israeli concert-goers. An English tenor, Wall is familiar to Israeli audiences for his convincing singing of the role of the Evangelist in Baroque sacred works. Tonight, we were to hear Wall in a very different genre and soundscape. Much thought had clearly been invested in selecting Schubert Lieder suited not only to Wall’s very uniquely bright, silvery, stable tenor timbre, but also to his innate sense of tranquility against which background he creates the setting to the more intimate and introspective of Lieder. In “Der Winterabend” (Winter’s Evening) he gradually unravels the calm thoughts, musings and mysteries of a person on such a cold evening. His fine vocal control and delicate pianissimo legato create a fragile mood of understatement, inviting the listener to join the mood.  In “Das Fischermädchen” (The Fisher Maid), a Heine text from the “Schwanengesang” (Swan Song), Schubert’s last collection of songs, we hear the lyrical barcarolle and gentle lapping of the water as the background to the poet’s mistaken trust in the maiden. Another boat song, “Des Fischers Liebeglück” (The Fisherman’s Luck in Love), set to a poem by C.G.R. von Leitner, constructed of unusually short lines and seven-line stanzas complete with halts, makes great demands on the singer. Here again, Wall does not disappoint as he creates a scene of rapture and timelessness.

Countertenor Yaniv D’Or’s solo career has mostly been in Baroque opera. Hearing D'Or or any countertenor singing Lieder raises a number of questions to which there is certainly no cut-and-dried answer. Singing Schubert’s late and much loved “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (To Be Sung on the Water) to words that swing from the introspective to the carefree, a text written by the Danish diplomat, poet and classicist Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolberg, D’Or’s reading of it was spirited, using vibrato to enrich long notes. “Ihr Bild” (Her Portrait) (Heine) from the “Schwanengesang”, in its stark and enigmatic mood, demands much subtlety. D’Or sometimes seems too busy with the business of reading the text to allow himself to totally identify with the disturbing message of the song. Choosing Schubert’s perfect miniature set to Claudius’ “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (Death and the Maiden) was a courageous move after the many renditions  we have heard of this song over the last years. D’Or’s performance of it was impactful, his representation of the song’s two characters effective.

Belgian-born baritone Kris Belligh’s performance was intense and compelling throughout, from his  dramatic strength representing the present time in the black foreboding of Heine’s text of “Die Stadt” (The Town) to the fisherman’s expression of simple happiness in the less familiar Lied “Fischerweise” (Fisherman’s Ditty) to the almost visually descriptive, fragile and truly magnificent mood piece “Herbst” (Autumn), fashioned by Belligh and Johnson with strategic pacing, the resulting effect evoking restless unease and gnawing loneliness in a powerful performance.

The word “accompaniment” seems inadequate to describe Graham Johnson’s participation in these pieces with the singers. The piano role is part and parcel of the canvas of each Lied:  artfully and actively he adds richness of meaning, descriptive ideas and moods, underlying veiled elements, poetic and magically fashioned melodies as well as dramatic effects, some of the latter clothed poignantly in the subtlety of understatement! Johnson’s delicate, articulate gestures, his pianistic touch and tempi conjure up rich backdrops to the Lieder and ensembles as he constantly connects with Schubert’s understanding of the human soul as presented in these small dramas and vignettes.

After the intermission, we heard the Ariel Quartet – violinists Gershon Gerchikov and Sasha Kazovsky, violist Jan Grüning and ‘cellist Amit Even-Tov – joined by ‘cellist Michal Korman in Schubert’s String Quintet in c minor opus 163. Formed in Israel, the Ariel Quartet moved to the USA in 2004, today performing in Europe, North America and Israel. Born in Jerusalem, Michal Korman is an avid chamber musician, also soloing in her busy international career. Following reference above to Schubert’s “Scwanengesang”, Schubert's Quintet in c minor, composed in 1828 during the last weeks of his life, is his instrumental swan song. Sadly, the composer never heard the work performed. The Ariel Quintet and Korman gave a memorable performance of the quintet, displaying its intensity as well as its (Schubert’s) fragility, its harmonic freedom, its mellow double-‘cello sonority and its grave, haunting moments that contrast with a sense of well-being. In a performance of fine communication between players, each small gesture was addressed in a reading bristling with freshness and discovery and anchored in fine musical perspective.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Zither player Martin Mallaun and Barbara Zeidler - photo collages - at the Austrian Hospice (Jerusalem)

The Austrian Hospice of the Holy Family, located on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City, opened its doors on March 19th, 1863.  Its founding was the vision of Joseph Othmar von Rauscher, Archbishop of Vienna at the time. The Austrian Hospice remains a home away from home for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem and a centre for inter-cultural dialogue. In celebration of the Hospice’s 150th anniversary, 2013 is to be a year of many cultural events there, most with an Austrian flavor.  Bishops and the head of the Habsburg family will be among the esteemed guests hosted there in this celebratory year; a 19th century-style pilgrimage to Jerusalem will take place in October.

 Rector Markus St. Bugnyar opened an event on February 6th with words of welcome and information about the anniversary events. Ms. Gabriele Feigl, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum (Tel Aviv) and press and cultural counselor to the Austrian Embassy (Tel Aviv), expressed her joy at the Forum’s cultural cooperation with the Austrian Hospice.

A short solo recital was performed by Austrian zither player Martin Mallaun. Born 1975 in Kitzbühel/Tyrol, Mallaun studied zither with Harald Oberlechner at the Tyrolean State Conservatory and Botany at the University of Innsbruck, at the same time, attending workshops on historical performance practice, contemporary music and improvisation. Mallaun’s studies with lutenist Hubert Hoffmann have been of lasting influence on his musical development. Active in experimental music, Mallaun is involved in improvisation, electronic music, Baroque lute music, Alpine folk music and new music. In addition to projects with other musicians, actors and writers, Mallaun records and has established projects of his own. Performing in Europe and further afield, Martin Mallaun also teaches for the Tyrolean Music School Organization. He is a member of GLORIA, a research project investigating the effects of climate change on the vegetation of the Alpine ecological system. This was the artist’s first recital in Israel.

The Alpine concert zither, a flat instrument placed on a table (or the player’s knee) features from 32 to 42 strings. The fingers of the left hand play the melody on the five fret-board strings; while the pick on the right hand thumb plucks the melody strings, the index and middle finger play the accompaniment strings and the ring- and little finger play the bass strings to form harmony and rhythm. The zither is technically challenging. Up to the early part of the 20th century, the zither was the most widely played and, indeed, popular folk music instrument in Austria and Bavaria. However, following the zither backing to Carol Reed’s film – especially memorable for the “Harry Lime theme” - the instrument gained worldwide recognition, this promoting new interest and a vastly wider range of music for the instrument. Mallaun told me that the alto zither he was playing at the Jerusalem concert was built by German harpsichord builder Klemens Kleitsch; of a kind developed over the last 15 years, it is taller than the traditional zither and better suited to the performance of Baroque lute music and contemporary music. (When playing traditional folk music or pieces like Johann Strauss’s “Stories from the Vienna Forest” or Kurt Weill’s “Mahagonny”, Mallaun uses more traditional types of zither).
Mallaun opened his recital with three movements from J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Suite in c minor BWV 997.  Considered by some to be Bach’s finest lute work, it was probably composed in Leipzig in the late 1730s or early 1740s, displaying the extraordinary detail and restrained manner of works of Bach’s later years.  From the two-voiced Prelude, through the meditative Sarabande to the graceful, lilting Gigue, the audience was introduced to the dynamic- and timbral possibilities of the zither; vibrato was used for ornamental purposes. Mallaun’s playing was rhythmically flexible, his use of rubato sometimes a little on the generous side!

We then heard two “entries” in German composer Leopold Hurt’s (b.1979) “Logbuch” (Logbook) (Hommage à K.V.) composed in 2007. (K.V. refers to the German comedian and avant-garde artist Karl Valentin, also remembered for his grotesque zither playing). Hurt, who, apart from being a viol player and conductor, is a very fine zither player himself and has done much to integrate the zither into the current musical scene. “Logbuch”, which calls for the zither to be tuned in quarter tones, was created from an improvisation performed in Hurt’s silent move project “Mysteries at a Hairdresser’s”, a work inspired by Karl Valentin’s movies. The work is a kaleidoscope of effects: the first piece made up of a descending 4th motif, striking effects, rubbing, single plucked notes and a gong effect. In the second piece, single clusters create bell-like sounds, the forlornly repeated single high note (a small bell?) played insistently against darker chords producing an inebriating texture, this suddenly swept away by a percussive, strident gesture that brings the piece to an end. The play of overtones resulting from quarter tone tuning added much interest to the soundscape of work.

Werner Pirchner (1940-2001) was a Tyrolean jazz vibraphonist who began to compose in his last 15 years. Martin Mallaun has transcribed some of his pieces for the zither.  The two he played in the concert were in bright, positive tonings, their small sections offering fast modulations, a whiff of jazz and definite references to the Austrian soul.

Mallaun chose to end the recital with German Baroque music - movements from Silvius Leopold Weiss (1686-1750) Suite in f minor. A court composer and one of the greatest lutenists of all time, Weiss’ oeuvre of more than 600 lute works,  including lute sonatas and seventy complete suites, is not for the amateur player! Weiss’ reputation as an improviser was legendary, as was J.S.Bach’s, and it seems the two must have met; with Weiss befriended with J.S.Bach’s son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, he is known to have visited the Bach home.  With the zither capable of conveying what was written for the 13-course lute, Mallaun brought the musical part of the evening to a satisfying close with a poignant and inspiring performance of this suite, its communicative, dazzling style excelling in melodic beauty, brightness and magical vitality. For many of us present, this recital was an engaging introduction to the zither and its now varied repertoire. I should add that the size and intimacy of the salon of the Austrian Hospice make it the ideal venue in which to hear a recital of this kind.

Guests were then invited to enjoy light refreshments and to attend the opening of “A Different View of Vienna”, a photographic exhibition created by Barbara Zeidler. The artist, present at the event, spoke of how the project had allured her into small Viennese museums previously unfamiliar to her. Initiator and photo-artist of the exhibition, Ms. Zeidler (b.1974) lives and works in Vienna where she is a freelance photographer, coach and project manager. Together with Abbé Libansky, she operates the “Institute of Culturally Resistant Goods”, active in Vienna and the Czech Republic. The organization focuses on so-called “popular culture” and on art in its everyday forms of expression as well as its conscious involvement in social processes. In “A Different View of Vienna”, each collage focuses on one of Vienna’s tiny and unique museums, “some hidden and unknown treasures of Vienna…a selection of museums off the beaten track and queues”, in Zeidler’s words. The collages offer an unconventional glimpse into these museums of curiosities, collections that show many aspects of Vienna’s lifestyle and history. Take a peek into the Coffee Museum, Vienna’s Tramway Museum, the Third Man Museum, the Museum of Forgers, the Museum of Magic Boxes, Vienna’s Shoe Museum, the Old Distillery Museum, the Museum of the Mekhitarist Congregation in Vienna, the Pharmacy and Drugstore Museum, Vienna’s Brick Museum, the Circus and Clown Museum and others. Each of Zeidler’s beautifully designed collages tells a story. This exquisite exhibition is bound to draw tourists and Austrians alike to Vienna to see and experience the museums for themselves.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Tel Aviv Cameri Theatre's production of "Cabaret"

Itay Tiran (Photo:Elizur Reuveni)
The musical “Cabaret” is based on Christopher Isherwood’s short novel “Goodbye to Berlin” (1939).  (British author Isherwood actually lived in Berlin from 1929 to 1933. The novel sums up his observations of the deteriorating political- and social situation in Germany.) Following John van Druten’s 1951 setting of it as a stage play, titled “I Am a Camera”, the 1966 Broadway production of “Cabaret”, with music by John Kander to Fred Ebb’s lyrics, was the vision of Broadway director Hal Prince, who saw its relevance to the riots of the civil rights movement in the United States. Then there was the memorable 1972 film of “Cabaret”, directed by Bob Fosse and starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey. The Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv’s municipal playhouse, first staged “Cabaret” in 1990. The present version, directed by Cameri artistic director Omri Nitzan, opened in October 2011, has extended its season way beyond expectation and is continuing to play to full houses. In the 2012 Israel Theater Awards, it took the awards for Play of the Year and Best Musical; Itay Tiran (cabaret host) won Best Actor Award, Roni Toren won Best Set Design and Omri Nitzan Best Director. The Hebrew translation is that of Eli Bijaoui. Javier de Frutos did the choreography; costume design Orna Smorgonsky, musical direction Yossi Ben Nun. This writer attended the performance on February 3rd, 2013.

The setting is Berlin on the eve of the Third Reich. The performance opens at the campy, decadent Kit Kat Klub, its artists introduced by the leering, epicene master of ceremonies (Itay Tiran). A penniless American writer Cliff Bradshaw (Aki Avni) arrives in Berlin to look for a subject for his next book. At the sleazy Kit Kat Klub he meets and falls in love with the sad and flighty English chanteuse and hostess Sally Bowles (Ola Schur-Selektar). The hopelessly mismatched Cliff and Sally drift in this happy but desperate milieu as the situation in Germany is fast turning ugly. Meanwhile, Clifford’s spinster landlady Fräulein Schneider (Miki Kam) becomes engaged to her tenant and admirer Herr Schultz (Gadi Yagil), an equally conservative greengrocer – not an easy decision, given the increasing influence of the Nazis. An engagement party takes place, in the middle of which Ernst (Uri Ravitz), the man Cliff met and befriended on a train, arrives wearing a Nazi armband. Fräulein Schneider ends up breaking off the engagement to the Jewish Herr Schultz for fear of losing her license. Clifford realizes that he has been inadvertently helping the Nazis by delivering packages to Paris for Ernst. The American writer ends up returning to the United States, but Sally, after aborting their baby, still believing that “life is a cabaret” decides to stay in Berlin. The musical ends with the emcee reminding the audience that he had promised that they would forget their troubles. Clifford now has a subject for his book: “There was a cabaret and there was a master of ceremonies…and there was a city called Berlin in a country called Germany…and it was the end of the world…and I was dancing with Sally Bowles and we were both fast asleep…”

The Cameri’s production revolves around Itay Tiran’s charismatic and sparkling performance as he manipulates the life and characters of the Kit Kat Klub (and us) to the point at which Nazism and eroticism meet. Holding the audience in the palm of his hand, Tiran’s body language, his clean, unmannered singing and feisty authority embody the life of the cabaret, its smut, its risqué excitement and its saving graces in hard times. The audience is delighted by the performance’s fast-moving pace, its uncluttered, pleasingly understated set designs, its polished singing, dancing and costumes and probably, no less, by the glimpse into the permissive “other’ Berlin of the 1930s. Tiran has what it takes – his stage personality has much charisma and daring, too. Petite Ola Schur-Selektar is convincing in enacting Sally Bowles with her dreams and desperate hopes of becoming rich; she performs her big numbers with impressive vocal assurance. Aki Avni’s performance preserves Cliff Bradshaw’s blind- and endearing naiveté, almost comical but also touching and very real, considering his own bisexual past and the company he is now keeping in Berlin’s hotbed of perversity. Irit Kaplan is well cast as Fräulein Schneider’s promiscuously clad, comedic, whorish and incorrigible tenant, Fräulein Kost. Yet Kost is, in effect, a deceivingly tragic figure, representing the economic problems facing the 1930s that leave her with no choice but to sell her body to survive.  Far away from the glitzy world of the cabaret, veteran actors Miki Kam and Gadi Yagil are authentic and convincing in their portrayal of ordinary people caught up in life’s relationships and dilemmas. Their dream of being a married couple looks hopeful as they take off in a pineapple-shaped hot air balloon.

The Cameri’s production - from Roni Toren’s imaginative and meaningful stage design showing newspaper clippings and street pictures of the time to the very fine instrumental ensemble of mostly women “even our orchestra is beautiful” placed high on a moving platform, to the scantily clad, well trained dancers, to the extras who create the effect of the general public in Berlin – is polished and succinct. Omri Nitzan has re-edited the musical, moving round scenes and songs. He pulls out all the plugs when it comes to various touches reflecting the morals of the Kit Kat Klub artists and Fräulein Kost: he is stating rather than judging without being offensive. The general effect is that we, as Israelis seated in the auditorium, lap up the entertainment, relishing every familiar song, unthreatened until the last moment by where the plot is leading - to the rise of Nazism and its consequences. We are brought to our senses with the horror of seeing Ernst’s armband and Avni’s stinging utterance of wisdom “If you are not against them, you are with them”. 

The Cameri’s present production of “Cabaret” is musical theatre of the highest standard. Not to be missed!!!

Friday, February 1, 2013

Boris Begelman and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in "Il Favorito"

“Il Favorito”, the title of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s recent concert, performed in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on January 26th 2013, was the sobriquet given by Charles IV to Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Concerto in e minor no.2 opus 11. The opus 11 violin concertos were the composer’s gift to the king, who happened to be only one of the several noble acquaintances of the inveterate name-dropping Vivaldi. This JBO concert was a program of violin concertos – the solo instruments numbering from one to four – and one viola concerto. Violinist Boris Begelman (b. 1983, Moscow) conducted and soloed, the other soloists being Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid and Katya Polin. For this program, the orchestra consisted of bowed instruments and theorbo (Eliav Lavi) with David Shemer - founder and director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra – at the harpsichord.

The evening’s program began with Arcangelo Corelli’s (1653-1713) Concerto Grosso in D major opus 6, no.4. Among his best-known works, the opus 6 concerti grossi, published after the composer’s death, include movements reworked from earlier pieces, some settings being from very early works.  It seems Concerto no.4 was originally conceived for the trumpet; it was, however, meticulously revised by the composer to form a convincing concerto grosso.  Members of the JBO's concertino section were Begelman, Dafna Ravid (violin) and Orit Messer-Jacobi (‘cello). From the first notes of the piece, Boris Begelman’s deep musicality and articulate musical intentions created a myriad of ideas and shapes as he guided and inspired his players with his breath, with a single hand gesture or a moment of eye contact. Corelli’s royal fare, with its chiaroscuro (light and shade) effect created by the ripieno- and concertino sections, was presented with natural- yet flexible playing, the effect of the D major concerto’s fiery ending always sure to raise at least one eyebrow!

Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) concertos formed the bulk of the program. Two were from the collection titled “L’Estro Armonico” (Harmonic Fantasy), originally published in 1711, a set of 12 concerti that did more than any other works to promote the ritornello form and, indeed, Vivaldi’s music in Europe.  Concerto no.6 of opus 3, RV 522 for two violins is one of the most popular of the collection. In sharp contrast between solo instruments and orchestra, Begelman and Ravid play singly or together, poignantly weaving melodic lines, echoing, teasing, challenging and supporting each other in joyous and harmonious or stormy moods that lead to a fierce conclusion, their playing of the latter never overstepping the bounds of good taste. For Vivaldi’s highly original – indeed, experimental - Concerto in b minor opus 3, no.10 RV 580 for four solo violinists, Begelman had soloists (Begelman, Schuss, Ravid, Polin) dispersed throughout the semi-circle of players, creating both fine blending as well as the effect of a moving spotlight for the many small but wonderfully unpredictable solos. In this work of extraordinary intensity, its vivacious outer movements are punctuated by the nevertheless passionate and powerful slow movement; the solo parts each seem to have their own rhythmic agenda. Despite the work’s non-stop energy of contrasting patterns and fast imitations, the JBO instrumentalists preserved its transparency of texture. ‘Cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi added expressiveness with her finely nuanced playing. It is little wonder that Vivaldi’s concertos took Europe by storm!

Performing the solo violin role in Vivaldi’s Concerto in e minor for violin “Il Favorito” opus 11, RV277 (1729), Begelman’s playing displayed the grandeur and drama of the lengthy, complex first movement, the melodic material, scoring and texture of the (ritornello) episodes dealing out constant variety. In the wistful Andante, scored for soloist with only the upper strings, Begelman showed the listener through the fragile, gossamer-fine course of the movement, his playing sensitive and strategic. The final Allegro calls for much brilliance; Begelman did not disappoint as he navigated the increasingly virtuosic episodes with confidence, his playing untainted by a sense of over-familiarity or tired routine. With lengthy- and technically demanding cadenzas in the outer movements, yet another testimony to Vivaldi’s own reputation as a great violin virtuoso is his Concerto in D major for violin “Il Grosso Mogul” (The Grand Mughal) RV 208.  The title refers to the great Mughal Empire of India. In the opening Allegro, Begelman, as soloist, supported by the JBO’s lively, rich and dynamic ensemble sound, presented Vivaldi’s gamut of technical devices and gregarious flights of astonishing violinistic fantasy. The second movement, for solo and continuo, intense and singing, paved the way to the final Allegro, its demands sitting comfortably with Begelman’s dexterity and energy. In his program notes, Maestro David Shemer referred to the work’s unusual title as “reflecting western civilization’s attraction to the magical-, exotic- and mysterious Orient”. But is  this feisty work not yet another example of how Europeans viewed people from remote lands as…a little wild?

A unique work heard at this concert was Georg Philipp Telemann’s (1681-1767) Concerto in G major for viola TWV 51:G9, possibly the earliest surviving viola concerto, composed c.1716-1721. It was first published in 1731, then remaining out of print for more than two centuries. At the JBO concert, the solo part was played by Russian-born Katya Polin, currently a student at the Schola Cantorum in Basel. Of the sonata da chiesa form, it opened with a Largo movement, Polin’s treatment of its richly cantabile melody indeed noble and direct, with much of the solo material placed in the lower register of the viola. In the second movement, a decidedly lively ritornello piece, somewhat galant in style, Polin communicated closely with her fellow players, the viola part often set against high violin passages. The Andante, presented with elegance and graced with some gentle flexing, with Polin’s richly endowed timbre now moving pleasingly between upper- and lower registers, was followed by her confident- and technically competent playing of the sprightly Presto movement. The relaxed, stately performance of this concerto, much enjoyed by the audience, was, indeed, another feather in young Katya Polin’s cap!

Telemann also composed four concertos for four violins without orchestra. This effective combination allows  the delicacy of chamber music to merge with the concerto form; in Telemann’s hands this scoring focuses on the challenges of a concerto of several treble instruments with emphasis on the interplay of voices and blending of musical ideas rather than on technical showmanship. We heard Concerto in D major for 4 solo violins TWV 40:202 played by Begelman, Schuss, Ravid and Polin. Following the brief Adagio, really just an introduction, the artists interacted playfully in the Allegro, then passing motifs from one to the other in the well coordinated Grave. The final movement was a celebration of music-making, with the violins sometimes playing in pairs with the melody leaping between them.

With Begelman both performing and conducting a work, he will often be seen momentarily with his back turned to the audience as he “addresses” a specific player. He also takes time to tune with each player; for him tuning is paramount. Boris Begelman’s outstanding artistry and musicianship make for fine performance and exciting listening. A truly delightful concert.