Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir sings Dowland and Britten

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, conducted by Ofer dal Lal, performed “Two English Minstrels: A Birthday Tribute to Two Composers” a program of works by John Dowland and Benjamin Britten. Joining the choir was soprano Michal Okon, guitarist Roi Chen and actor Doron Tavori. The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, belonging to the larger group of Oratorio choirs, is an ensemble of 30 hand-picked singers performing widely in Israel as well as further afield. Its broad repertoire ranges from music of the Renaissance to contemporary works, including Christian- and Jewish sacred music, Israeli music and choral arrangements of folk music. Ronen Borshevsky directed the choir from 1998 to 2012, when Ofer dal Lal took over the position.

An honors graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Ofer dal Lal studied choral conducting under Professor Stanley Sperber, orchestral conducting under Dr. Eitan Globerson and composition with Professor Menachem Zur. He is currently completing a master’s degree in choral conducting under Ronen Borshevsky and orchestral conducting under Mr. Yi-An Xu at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv). Having been assistant conductor of the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (musical director: Stanley Sperber) for some time, dal Lal served as deputy conductor to the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir as of 2011 before taking over as full-time conductor.

Soprano Michal Okon graduated in vocal performance from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, studying with Miriam Meltzer and Marina Levit, also graduating with a B.Mus in Musicology from Tel Aviv University. With a wide repertoire, from early to contemporary music and from South American to Jewish music and Israeli works, Okon performs at concerts and festivals in Israel, Europe and the USA as a soloist, with orchestras and ensembles. Michal Okon is known for her performance of early music in Israel and overseas.

A graduate of the Faculty of Musicology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Roi Chen studied guitar with Professor Yossi Yerushalmi and composition with Gidi Chazor. He appears in Israel and overseas with ensembles playing jazz, classical music and tango. Roi Chen researches classical and early music originally written for voice and guitar and arrangements of classical works for guitar. A CD of his own works issued in 2005 has won him acclaim.

This writer attended the Birthday Tribute concert at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on March 17th 2013. The extensive program notes (compiled by Liora Herzig) refer to John Dowland (1563-1626) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) as neither being mainstream personalities in their own societies and mention the influence Dowland’s works had on Britten, referring to Britten’s interest in early music (in particular, Henry Purcell and folk songs) and older composing techniques. As did several composers of Dowland’s time and some 20th century composers, Britten took Dowland’s “Lachrymae” (Tears) melody (1604), one of the best-known English songs of the early 17th century, using it as the basis of a cycle of free variations in “Reflections on a Song of John Dowland” opus 48 for viola and piano. (Dowland himself wrote very many settings of the work.)Then there is Britten’s “Nocturnal after John Dowland” (1964) composed for guitarist and lutenist Julian Bream (a direct association with Dowland as a great lutenist and composer of the English lute song) based on Dowland’s “Come Heavy Sleep”, the music straddling the G major and B major scales (and neither fully modal or tonal) perhaps suggesting the stages between sleep and death.

A poet and one of the greatest of the English school of lutenist-song-writers, John Dowland suffered from bouts of melancholy and/or cultivated the idea of it in many of his songs as of the 1680s, the importance of this melancholic persona (in his secular music) constituting an awareness of subjective emotions and articulacy in expressing them never experienced before the Elizabethan era.  The evening’s concert opened with the choir singing a hearty rendering of the witty homophonic song “Say, Love, if ever”, the guitar (substituting lute) accompaniment chordal rather than contrapuntal, its volley of words demanding much individual attention. From Dowland’s instantly successful First Booke of Ayres (1597) – 21 songs and one instrumental piece in lute tablature - we heard a pleasing performance of the love song, Petrarchan in its suffering, “Come Again!” performed with guitar, the singers’ English happily leaning towards the British accent, with crisp consonants. Michal Okon and Roi Chen gave the love ballad “Come Away, Come Sweet Love” a rhythmical performance, urgent and explicit in its delight of love. From the Second Booke of Songs and Ayres (1600) –  22 songs published when the composer was in the employ of King Christian IV of Denmark - we heard Okon, Chen and the choir in “Now Cease my Wand’ring Eyes”, a light discourse on the fragility of love; in the more somber “O Sweet Woods”, Okon addresses the text’s meaning and sadness, supported by the choir’s delicate, lush choral sound. One of the most interesting performances of the evening was the chamber choir’s hearty, well contrasted singing of the flighty, anonymous text (possibly by the fine wordsmith Dowland himself) “Fine Knacks for Ladies”, the peddler’s wordy patter bristling with double entendres. Using Dowland’s setting of “Flow My Tears” for viol (or broken) consort, Ofer dal Lal arranged the lute song for choir, premiering his setting of the bittersweet, sometimes dissonant dirge at this concert; his reading of it was poignant and seriously elegiac, the choir displaying fine vocal blending. This was followed by Roi Chen’s gently embellished playing of the “Galliard to Lachrymae”, Dowland’s transformation of the original plangent pavan into a triple galliard. Dowland’s preoccupation with death and despair reaches its height in the rhetoric of the late lute song “In Darkness Let Me Dwell”, in which Okon and Chen created a mood of gloom, tenderness and drama, with Okon addressing Dowland’s evocative word painting in clean, unmannered singing:
‘In darkness let me dwell; the ground shall sorrow be,
The roof despair to bar all cheerful light from me;
The walls of marble black that moistened still shall weep;
My music hellish jarring sounds to banish friendly sleep.
Thus, wedded to my woes, and bedded to my tomb,
O let me living die, till death, till death do come…’

Homesick in the USA in the early 1940s, Benjamin Britten began to write arrangements of English folksongs, this first collection followed by another six that would include settings of French, Scottish and Irish folksongs. They were performed extensively by the composer and singer Peter Pears. Britten’s folksong arrangements defy sentimentality; with the composer never associating these works with the “folksong school”, they adhere less to authenticity than to personal expression and originality and were all composed with specific performers in mind – Peter Pears, Julian Bream, Osian Ellis, Sophie Weiss and the composer himself.  It was in the late 1950s that Julian Bream emerged as a highly renowned player of lute and guitar, accompanying Pears in performances of songs by Dowland and other Renaissance English composers. With encores in mind, Britten arranged songs for the two, his idiomatic and virtuosic writing showing a detailed understanding of the guitar and its ability. Several of Britten’s songs we heard performed come from Volume 6, songs published in 1961.  Okon and Chen performed the whimsical Dorset song “I Will Give My Love an Apple” (Riddle Song), its unconventional arpeggiated accompaniment peppered with tritones, the jaunty “Sailor Boy” (Appalachian Mountains), with Chen handling the dancelike guitar part skillfully and the Somerset folksong “Master Kilby”, with its poignantly minimal accompaniment. In “The Shooting of His Dear”, Britten makes his own comments on the story with heavy, unsymmetrical chords and descriptive, changing textures of dissonant harmonies; in “Bonny at Morn” the accompaniment also adds much to the bleak, haunting picture of Northumberland country life. The somber mood does not lift with “Yif Ic Of Luve Can” (If I Know of Love) a sacred piece from Britten’s late work “Sacred and Profane” (1975) for 5-part chorus, eight settings of medieval English poems; in this homophonic, almost totally atonal piece, Michal Okon’s expressive singing floats effectively above the choir’s singing of dark chords. The artists presented the audience with a fine, representative selection of Britten’s folksong settings.

Two of Benjamin Britten’s larger choral works featured in the concert. In an ambitious undertaking, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir sang the dazzling a-cappella “Hymn to St. Cecilia” (text: W.H.Auden) first performed on St. Cecilia’s Day (November 22nd) 1942, Britten’s 29th birthday.  Each of the three stanzas is different in musical concept, each highly challenging to choir and soloists; Auden’s text is inspired by the patron saint of music but colored by the destruction and cultural crisis of World War II and by Britten’s personal dilemmas. Dal Lal led the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir through the piece’s rich canvas with its abundance of word painting and mood changes, culminating in the descending 5ths of “weep away the stain” and the powerful “bow of sin…drawn over our trembling violin”. The concert ended with another large choral work – Britten’s Choral Dances from Act II of the 1953 opera “Gloriana” (text William Plomer) in which Queen Elizabeth I (another association with Dowland) is entertained at a colorful masque featuring six pieces paying homage to her. In a pageant of a-cappella sections, of sections performed by all, by women only, Okon and Chen (guitar in lieu of harp) and Okon alone, the dances took on life in all its effects and with fine diction.

Throughout the evening, Dal Lal and Chen spoke briefly about items on the concert program. Actor Doron Tavori’s reading of Hebrew translations of various English texts was interesting, however, read too fast and excerpts were too lengthy. Young conductor Ofer dal Lal has chosen a rich and enormously demanding program, has made a deep study of this fine English music and with pleasing results from his choir. It is repertoire to be continued. Michal Okon and Roi Chen added much fine performance and attention to detail and style. Dowland songs, however, cry out for the timbre of the lute! I think I, personally, would prefer hearing the Dowland songs first, to be followed by the Britten works.  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance presents Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea".

Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) opera “L’incoronazione di Poppea” (The Coronation of Poppea), first performed in Venice in the carnival season of 1643, is one of the greatest operas and probably one of the most problematic. Performed once again in Naples in 1651, the opera then fell into oblivion until two scores from the 1650s were rediscovered in 1888 (the original score is lost). Opera as an art form had existed for less than fifty years when the aging, ailing Monteverdi and his influential librettist, lawyer and poet Giovanni Francesco Busenello, staged the morally lax opera built around ambition, political greed, love, jealousy, ruthlessness and the abuse of power. Taking its story from Roman history – the affair between the Roman noblewoman Sabina Poppea and the emperor Nero - it was written at a time of lively, intellectual debate over the relative value of spiritual ideals versus sensual pleasures, the conflict here being between loyalty and lust, with lust triumphing. It is, therefore, not surprising that Busenello, referring to his own concept of the opera as being based on modern taste and not ancient rules, writes a libretto bristling with multiple meanings, irony and tension. Monteverdi, utilizing inflection and affect, the meaning of words and their emotional content, creates real and fallible people; this, his final opera, is a masterpiece, combining the elements of drama, humor, sensuality and heartbreak.

As one of the events of the 2013 Jerusalem Arts Festival, the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, with the assistance of the Italian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv) and the Jerusalem Foundation, presented two performances of “L’incoronazione di Poppea”. This writer attended the performance on March 16th at the Gerard Bechar Center (Jerusalem). Dr. David Shemer of the JAMD was musical director and conductor; stage direction and design were in the hands of Moti Averbuch.  Hebrew surtitles were prepared by Averbuch and Ronit Segev. The majority of the singers and instrumentalists were students of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

The somewhat austere Leo Model Hall of the Gerard Behar Center is a far cry from the opulence of the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo of Venice (where “L’incoronazione” was premiered), a venue boasting “marvelous scene changes, majestic grand appearances (of performers)…and a magnificent flying machine; you see, as if commonplace, glorious heavens, deities, seas, royal palaces, woods, forests…” as one observer had written. However, in the Leo Model Hall’s favor is its suitable size for a Baroque opera production. Stage props were minimal but flexible in use and costumes were mostly very ornate silk blankets and pillows. The choreography was simple, movement on stage, at times, stilted.  Players of the instrumental ensemble of period Baroque instruments were seated at the left of the stage, with Shemer conducting from the harpsichord. One of the major strengths of the performance was the elegant and stylistically pleasing playing of the ensemble and its delightful mix of timbres. Joining the ensemble as guest artist was harpsichordist Netta Ladar.

“L’incoronazione” calls for many soloists and the JAMD has a fine group of young singers for those roles, some more attuned to the singing of early music than others. Most displayed an adequate to good approach to sung Italian. To mention just a few - Guy Pelc, as Ottone (Poppea’s husband) sang with warm color and conviction; Victoria Slavin (Poppea) came across as sensuous and demonstrative, her lower register not quite matched in strength to her upper range. Tenor Oshri Segev (Nero) has an excellent voice for Baroque music; his vocal sound is fresh, articulate and Italianate and he makes good use of syllables for effect. Shira Agmon, as Nero’s wronged and wronging deserted wife Ottavia, was in character in her portrayal of suffering. Soprano Lily Solomonov was well cast as Valletto, Ottavia’s whimsical page-boy. Sofia Mishayev, playing a lady of court and enjoying comfortable stage presence, was racy as the love-sick Drusilla. In the role of the profoundly wise and heroic philosopher Seneca, representing virtue and the former concept of aesthetics and reason, we heard guest singer bass Joel Sivan in one of the earliest florid parts written for a bass vocalist.  Sivan’s unforced, limpid vocal timbre is well suited to early Baroque opera style; his voice floats as Seneca’s calm demeanor portrays the acceptance of his fate.

An ambitious project involving participants on stage and no fewer “behind the scenes”, the musical side of the production came out on top, with the build-up of drama, visuals and stagecraft not quite impactful or gripping enough.


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Andrew Parrott conducts the JBO in Bach's Christmas Oratorio

Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Christmas Oratorio (1734), performed less frequently yet more demanding than Händel’s “Messiah”, is actually six sacred cantatas written to celebrate each of the episodes of the Nativity, from birth to arrival of the Magi, and intended to be performed cantata by cantata during the 12 days from Christmas to Epiphany (January 5th). With the heavy demands of his role as cantor and director of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig – teaching music (and Latin), managing the choir, hiring and firing musicians, playing the organ and composing music for two churches - Bach made a practice of reusing musical material from earlier compositions, this recycling known as “parody”. However, a good measure of the Christmas Oratorio is newly composed material, including all the recitatives and chorales. The secular origins of some of the oratorio do not detract from the sacred content of the work due to the composer’s unshakable belief in its liturgical significance at a time when secular music was gaining popularity. Each of the cantatas was given its own scoring but all are in the scale of D major and represent Bach at his most joyful, with bells, trumpets, timpani, joyful choruses and Lutheran hymns, the latter being familiar to Bach’s audience.

In the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on Tuesday March 12th 2013, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, conducted by its honorary conductor Andrew Parrott, performed three of the cantatas from J.S.Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – Part 1: “Shout ye exultant this Day of Salvation”, Part 5: “Glory be to God Almighty” and Part 6: “Lord, when our haughty foes assail us”. A scholar of musical interpretation, Andrew Parrott has published important articles on Monteverdi, Purcell and Bach; of special importance is Maestro Parrott’s book “The Essential Bach Choir” (2000), in which he discusses the original performance convention of Bach’s choral works. Basing his enquiry on sources such as Bach’s own writing, the scores he used for performances, contemporary accounts and archival documents, Parrott shows that Bach used expert vocal quartets or quintets and the one-to-a-part singer approach. So, for the JBO performances, one vocal quartet of soloists (soprano Anat Edri, alto Avital Dery, tenor David Nortman, bass Guy Pelc) was placed at the front of the stage, with a supporting quartet (soprano Reut Rivka Shabi, alto Zlata Herschberg, tenor Eliav Lavi, bass Yoav Weiss) placed much further back.

Part 1 of the Christmas Oratorio calls for three trumpets, two flutes, two oboes, two oboes d’amore, two violins, viola and continuo. Following the opening chorus beginning with drums, a rush of strings and winds to the dazzling entrance of trumpets (Naama Golan, Yuval Shapiro, Jaroslav Roucek-Czechoslovakia), David Nortman in the role of the Evangelist, began the recounting of the Christmas story articulately, and in beautifully shaped phrases colored with his bright, warm signature vocal sound. Alto Avital Dery’s pleasing, relaxed and expressive, direct manner always finds its way to the listener’s heart. In “Prepare yourself Zion”, fine teamwork between Dery and the players made for good performance. Following the unique aria shared by Guy Pelc and soprano Anat Edri, Pelc was joined by Roucek in a powerful reading of the bass aria “Great Lord, O mighty King”. In his frequent appearances on the Israeli Baroque scene, young Pelc combines poise, a richly-endowed timbre with convincing performance of these works and is proving to be one of the most promising young bass-baritones around.

Despite its lighter scoring, Part 5’s complex opening chorus was a gush of joy and energy, with detached notes being used to keep the texture candescent. With Ayelet Karni’s fine handling of the oboe d’amore obbligato and ‘cellist Ira Givol’s well chiselled playing in the bass aria “Enlighten too my gloomy mind”, Pelc and his fellow musicians brought out the lustrous and poetic joy of the movement, the celebratory mood to be swept away by the following section in which Nortman describes Herod’s anxiety:
‘When King Herod heard this
he was alarmed
and with him all of Jerusalem.” (Matthew 2,3)
Embellished with the well-balanced playing and fine passagework by JBO 1st violinist Noam Schuss, the performance of the unusual soprano-tenor-alto trio “Ah, when will that time appear?” emphasized the personal aspect of this piece, with soprano (Edri) and tenor’s (Nortman) enquiries as to when the Messiah would appear in melodic lines, both independent and interwoven,  answered reassuringly by Dery. With the final chorale, Part 5 ended on a pensive note.

Part 6, depicting the arrival of the savior to the world with much celebration and pomp, reintroduces the trumpets and drums into the instrumental texture, the cantata’s darker moments making reference to the approach of Lent. In the soprano recitative and aria, intense in their condemnation of Herod and pronouncement of God’s power, Anat Edri, a young singer making an impressive niche for herself in this genre, was confident, her voice rich in expressive tone, as she dealt competently with aria’s the tricky phrasing, small outbursts and sudden, unexpected musical gestures. Taking the work almost to its conclusion, Nortman’s aria “Now if you arrogant foes want to scare”, featuring oboe, bassoon (Alexander Fine) and continuo, was delightful in its mix of timbres, if not as dramatic as the text implies. The imposing final chorus, rich and scintillating in orchestration, makes reference to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in its use of chorale melody.

This was not a performance for those who yearn to hear Bach choral works sung by massed choirs. However, free of the frantic rhythms and overly grandiose gestures that tend to camouflage the real music and meaning of the Christmas Oratorio, Maestro Parrott’s reading of it was fresh, buoyant and joyous, with much emphasis on flow and timbre. Inspired and guided by Parrott’s articulate concept, there was a strong sense of teamwork among the performers, with singers and the JBO’s players meeting the work’s technical demands.   

Friday, March 22, 2013

Roy Amotz and Amit Dolberg in a flute and piano recital at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

Climbing the stairs to the refectory of the neo-Romanesque Church of the Redeemer in the Muristan Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, one was taking time out from everyday life and from the inclement weather outside to enjoy an evening of German- and French music.  The event was a recital performed by Israeli artists Roy Amotz (flute) and Amit Dolberg (piano). Gunther Martin Göttsche, the church’s newly appointed organist and choir director, opened with words of welcome.

Flautist Roy Amotz (b.1982, Israel) completed his musical studies in Israel and Germany. The recipient of several scholarships and international awards, he has been a member of the Yehudi Menuhin Live-Music-Now Association (Berlin) since 2007. A dedicated performer of modern music, Amotz is a guest player of the Israel Contemporary Players and a member of the Meitar Ensemble (a group performing contemporary Israeli chamber music and music based on Jewish themes and concepts) and the Gropius Ensemble, the latter focusing on creating new genres that draw on different art disciplines. Amotz has soloed with orchestras in Israel and Europe; festivals in which he has appeared include the Apple Hill Chamber Music Festival (USA), the Stuttgart International Bach Academy (Germany) and the Lucerne Music Festival. Since 2005, he has been a member of the Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra, with which he has toured Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. He has served as principal flautist of the Israeli Opera Orchestra since 2009.

Pianist Amit Dolberg has studied in Israel, London and Berlin. A recipient of prizes and scholarships, Dolberg performs in Israel and further afield, taking part in such festivals as the Spanish Nights Festival (Germany) and the Warsaw Autumn Festival, also recording for Israeli radio. Founder and musical director of the Meitar Ensemble, Dolberg is renowned for his performance of modern music in Israel and abroad; from 2005 to 2011, he was a member of the Israeli Contemporary Players and, from 2009 to 2011, he served as the artistic director of “Hateiva” – the Israeli centre for contemporary music.  Dolberg is a faculty member of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, serving as head of the workshop for contemporary music.

The concert opened with J.S.Bach’s Sonata in E flat major for flute and harpsichord BWV 1031, an obbligato sonata (right hand notes fully written out); it is a work surrounded by some doubt as to whether Johann Sebastian or his son Carl Philipp Emanuel composed it or whether it might have been a joint effort. The artists gave a sympathetic reading of the work, its Baroque character outlined by varied textures, some inégal playing and a minimal use of flute vibrato. The duo’s signature sound is rich, fruity and assertive, but certainly poetic and well nuanced. The final Allegro was taken at a rapid pace. The artists’ playing of it was brilliant, muscular and energetic with much communication between them. They were, of course, performing on modern instruments, but, with the recorder then becoming superseded by the transverse flute by the 1720s, Roy Amotz’ playing showed that these works were indeed a celebration of the technical and expressive qualities and tonal colors available to the more gregarious transverse flute. Appearing in three different original manuscripts, Bach scholars believe that Bach’s Flute Sonata in g minor BWV 1020 was written by one of Bach’s sons (possibly C.P.E.Bach) or by one of Johann Sebastian’s pupils and that it may have originally been composed for the violin. Dolberg and Amotz performed it with a true sense of duo teamwork, their reading of the first movement – Allegro – hearty and fired, with an economic use of embellishment. In the second movement, with much melodic interest in the piano set against long held notes in the flute, the artists created a sense of tranquility and balance graced by elegant phrase endings. Once again offering the audience the full range of dynamics of modern instruments, the final Allegro was rapid and exciting, but crisp and well contrasted.
Roy Amotz then performed C.P.E.Bach’s Sonata in a minor for solo flute Wq 132, first published in 1763 in the Berlin musical quarterly “Musikalisches Mancherley” (Musical Assortment). Presenting the work’s inter-voice dialogue and sharp dynamic contrasts, Amotz’ confident playing produced a rich variety of dramatic gestures in varied tempi, using some rubato and peppered with exciting, well-fashioned passagework. Of the manner of performing the work, C.P.E.Bach had written: “The components of performance are the loudness and softness of notes, their pressure, spring, draw, thrust and vibration, with breaking, holding, slowing down and accelerating…” Amotz’ uniquely large palette of timbres, fantasy and expression (including some dark, solidly-anchored sounds distinctive to his specific musical palette) served him well in the performance of this remarkable piece.

Introducing the French content of the program, we heard Amit Dolberg perform “Voiles” (Veils, Sails) from Claude Debussy’s Piano Preludes Vol.I (1909-1910), in playing that was lush, subtle and well delineated in its multi-layering, the pianist’s use of the sustaining pedal contributing to the piece’s enigmatic and exotic mood. Amotz and Dolberg played three pieces of incidental music Debussy composed to accompany a set of staged poems - “The Songs of Bilitis” (1894) – based on texts by photographer, poet and author of erotic novels Pierre Louÿs. Debussy created the three pieces in 1897 and 1998. Amotz and Dolberg captured the delicate and mysterious states of mind of these slow, pastoral and hedonistic pieces in fragile timbres and finely sculpted phrases.

If C.P.E.Bach’s Sonata in a minor (1763) was the first really significant piece for solo flute, Debussy’s tone poem “Syrinx” for solo flute was the next and, actually, the first solo composition for the modern Böhm flute (perfected in 1847).  Inspired by the sentiments of Pan’s sadness over losing his love, the piece was originally written without bar-lines and breath marks, thus offering the performer generous room for interpretation. Amotz’ pacing gives the work a sense of broad timelessness; he weaves its lush sensuousness with intensity, rendering the piece’s beguiling and dreamy lyricism as gripping and mysterious as ever!

French-born composer Tristan Murail (b.1947), renowned for his groundbreaking work on the relationship between instrumental performance and aspects of electronics, composed the piano piece “Cloches d’adieu et un sourire” (Bells of Farewell and a Smile) in 1992 in memory of his teacher Olivier Messiaen, its musical fabric alluding to a piano prelude of Messiaen that also evokes the sound of bells. Dolberg’s acute sense of color and competent, flowing portrayal of Murail’s structure of clanging bells of different sizes, some sounding closer, some more distant, their resonance, the dying away of sound, of harmonies, dissonances and clusters, produced a feast of timbres and dimensions. The concert ended with Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Merle Noir” (The Blackbird). Commissioned in 1957, it is one of the composer’s many pieces based on his intensive study of bird songs. Straddling the boundary between tonality and atonality, the work, by virtue of its subject, gives more of the stage to the flute than to the piano. Amotz meets the demands for virtuosic runs, various effects evoking the blackbird’s call and the piece’s sense of randomness and spontaneity. For an encore, the artists improvised a short piece, choosing to use a prepared piano (a piano that has had its sound altered by placing objects between or on the strings, hammers or dampers) and flute.

The Redeemer Church refectory made for a sympathetic and acoustically welcoming environment for Roy Amotz and Amit Dolberg’s recital. Through their full-bodied signature sound and close collaboration, the artists have much to say about the repertoire they play.  Their performance was one of interest, delight and excellence, and it spoke to the senses.


Monday, March 18, 2013

A French Bouquet at the Felicja Blumental Music Center

The “Sounds & Words” Early Music Series hosted French recorder-player Pierre Boragno in “A French Bouquet” at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on March 7th 2013.  Artists performing together with Boragno were harpsichordist Jochewed Schwarz and viol player Tal Arbel. Under the direction of renowned artist and early music scholar Jochewed Schwarz, Sounds and Words, now in its eighth year, offers audiences an annual concert series of six concerts of music from the Renaissance, Baroque, to the early Classical period and music of later styles. Performing on period instruments, the series features mostly local Israeli artists.

Pierre Boragno (France) studied with Kees Boeke and Walter van Hauwe in Amsterdam. He plays with several prestigious European early music ensembles, founding the Alta Trio (high instruments) in 1989. He teaches at the Garches Conservatoire and at the Conservatoire National of the Versailles region, also joining the faculty of summer academies, such as those in Barrèges, Dinard and Arras. Boragno has translated and adapted Walter van Hauwe’s “Modern Recorder Technique”, writes for “Cahiers de musique médiévale” (Notebooks on Medieval Music) and is one of the compilers of “!0 ans avec…la flûte à bec” (10 Years with…The Recorder) (1998).

Jochewed Schwarz spoke of French Baroque music as being an integral part of social life of the time, meaning that it gravitated either towards dance or to the telling a story – verbal or otherwise. An authentic touch to the evening was that each group of pieces played opened with a Prélude from Jacques-Martin Hotteterre’s (1691-1728) “L’Art de Préluder” (The Art of Preluding) of 1719, Europe’s first flute manual; this is a rare document of pieces composed in 19 different keys, with information on the manner in which preludes and practice studies could be improvised, on meter, ornaments, transposition and modulation. These solo miniatures, worked from a melodic skeleton, served the player – in this case, Boragno - as a “warm-up”, allowing him to relate to the instrument’s timbre, to rhythms and his own mood. The key of each of the vastly different preludes Boragno performed was introduced by a chord or two on the harpsichord.

The evening’s program included a number of French Baroque sonatas and suites, beginning with the carefully paced, ornamented playing of  Anne-Danican Philidor’s (essentially French) Sonata in d minor “pour la flute à bec” (1712), unusual for its two fugues; it is the sole French sonata written specifically  for recorder. François Couperin (1668-1733), on the other hand gives few indications as to instrumentation. We heard no.5 of the five suites of “concerts” of his 1724 collection titled “Les Goûts réunis” (Tastes United), sonatas with continuo that create a sophisticated intertwining of French- and Italian styles. The artists’ reading of the work was personal (in particular, in the somewhat veiled Sarabande in which the recorder was joined by viol only), a variety of textures and ornaments making for fine royal entertainment, with the harpsichord producing interesting bell effects in the fourth movement (Muzette).  Hotteterre’s suites for flute and continuo, free of the showy Italian manner and intellectual exploits of Rameau, remain within the strict constraints of the severity and etiquette of Versailles and are based on ornamental practice as laid down in the composer’s own treatise and in the notation itself. The first movement of his 3rd Suite opus 2 (1715), an Allemande titled “La Cascade de St. Cloud”, takes its inspiration from a fountain no longer existent at a chateau outside of Paris. Boragno and his fellow artists find the right stylistic environment for Hotteterre’s suite, giving expression to its lilting, coquettish moments, attractive asymmetry, its outstanding and increasingly haunting “Le plaintif” (The Sad One), followed by carefree, hearty treatment of the final Gigue.  Boragno’s playing of Antoine Dornel’s (1685-1765) Suite no.1 opus II, 1711 displayed the composer’s imaginative and dynamic compositional style in dances that were elegant and flowing, graced with ornaments and with Dornel’s characteristic melodic resourcefulness. Composer, theorist and teacher Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (1667-1737), one of the most eclectic composers of the generation preceding Rameau, was of the first musicians to introduce the “basse de violon” to the Paris Opera. A sadly neglected composer, his works show masterful melodic writing, fantasy and Baroque tenderness. Boragno’s reading of Pignolet’s 4th “concert” (1724) was rich in ideas, in flexibility and ornamenting, his lightness of touch in the second movement “La Joyeuse” (The Joyful One) contrasted with the melancholic third movement, the latter’s dejected, languishing mood enhanced with harpsichord spreads.

And to the works on the program based on songs: Boragno and Schwarz performed Bénigne de Bacilly’s (1625-1690) miniature “Puisque Phyllis est infidele” (When Phyllis is unfaithful) with charm and sincerity. Bacilly’s “Commentary upon the Art of Proper Singing” is surely the most important treatise on singing published in 17th century France. It focuses on the “airs de cour” (courtly melodies) and their performance in the 1660s, with ornamentation being of prime importance. Arbel and Boragno performed Hotteterre’s “Pourquoy, doux rossignol” (Why, Sweet Nightingale) from his 1721 “Airs et Brunettes”, a collection of 18 pieces;
‘Why, sweet nightingale,
Do you awaken me
In this dark room before dawn?
Have you come to announce the return
Of the charming object which I adore?
But should Clemene be still insensitive,
Then abandon my heart
To the fire which devours it’.  

Viola da gamba player Tal Arbel played three solos, representative of the genre, the first being a Prélude for viol by Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe (late seventeenth century)- a piece of great delicacy, of ideas, gestures and dissonances. In Marin Marais’ Chaconne for solo viol, Arbel offered a rich variety of moods and textures in the individual variations – some pizzicato, others played arco, some more dancelike,  others languid, Arbel never losing sight either of the short bass line, on which all was based, or of the dance form itself. Arbel is developing a large expressive range, is most competent and shows mastery in presenting a work’s intricacies, twists and virtuosic passages. The last solo piece she played was a “Gavotte en Rondeau” by Sieur de Machy (late 17th century), a French viol player, composer and teacher, largely remembered today for his “Pièces de Violle en Musique et en Tablature” (1685), a volume that includes a detailed technical introduction of historical value, the eight surviving pieces of the collection being printed half in notation and half in tablature. Showing the composer’s chordal/melodic approach to the viol, Arbel’s slightly flexed reading of the piece was appealing and decidedly French in its dancelike character.

The concert presented the essence of French Baroque music in its true sense. Pierre Boragno, playing on recorders built by Ernst Meyer, chose to use instruments of different timbres to suit the various pieces and styles, thus placing the aesthetic of color in the foreground; the artists agreed on questions of tempo, gestures, detail, understatement and elegance. It was an evening of “bon goût”, with Boragno supported by finely nuanced and interesting continuo playing on the part of Schwarz and Arbel. Jochewed Schwarz’ concise explanations outlined important features of French Baroque music. To add a few more flowers and fragrances to the French Bouquet, it would have been nice to hear Schwarz perform some French solo harpsichord pieces.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble performs Portuguese music

Concert no.2 in the Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s 3012-2013 Vocal Experience series was a program of Portuguese music, mostly a-cappella. Guest conductor was Paulo Lourenço. This writer attended “Portugal: A fascinating Musical Mosaic” at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church on March 2nd 2013.

Born in Lisbon, Paulo Lourenço is one of Portugal’s leading conductors. He heads the Choral Music Masters Program at the Lisbon Superior School of Music, where he teaches choral literature, conducting and vocal technique. Among the many choirs Professor Lourenço has established and directed in Portugal is the acclaimed a cappella TETVOCAL. He has been guest conductor in Europe, South America and the USA and was an adjudicator for the 1st and 2nd Winter Choral Festivals in Hong Kong. Paulo Lourenço dedicates a substantial part of his work to the performing of contemporary music; over the last 15 years, he has conducted more than 90 premieres of works by Portuguese composers. He has been a guest conductor at the Zimriya – World Assembly of Choirs in Israel.

The Israeli Vocal Ensemble was founded in 1993 by its present musical director Yuval Ben Ozer; the ensemble comprises professional singers and performs a wide range of repertoire, from medieval music to contemporary works, premiering new works and participating in festivals in Israel and overseas.

In his program notes, Paulo Lourenço speaks of Portugal as the cultural crossroad between northern- and southern Europe, located between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and between ancient- and modern worlds. It is the meeting place of the strict counterpoint from the Franco-Flemish region of northern Europe, of modality and the melancholy music of the Jewish legacy, of Italian opera as well as rhythms brought from Africa; also simple rustic melodies combined with more sophisticated Brazilian harmonies. For a program covering many of the above-mentioned aspects of the rich palette of Portuguese music, Lourenço asks his audience to listen to this music with an open mind, to be ready to experience unusual combinations of harmonies, rhythms and details of language.

The program opened with “Olà zente que aqui samo” (Hail people who gather here), to an anonymous 17th century text - a busy community scene in which a person journeying to Bethlehem to see Jesus takes gifts “of our land” (meaning African products); they dance merrily and play instruments (pipes, drums, castanets) because today the black folk (from Guinea and S. Tomé) “have opened the glories of heaven”. In this colorful, joyful tableau, there are vocal solos, lute, recorder and percussion. Portuguese-born singer, instrumentalist and organist Gaspar Fernandes (1566-1629) lived and worked in Guatemala and Mexico; his oeuvre includes some 250 villancicos (a common poetic/musical form of the Iberian Peninsula and Latin America from the late 15th- to 18th centuries, using a mix of sacred and profane, refined- and vulgar language) forming the largest extant collection of secular music from the 17th century New World.  In his earthy a-cappella “Pois com tanta grace” (As he was born with such grace) soloists and choir used the words for percussive effect. The anonymous “Sã qui turo zente pleta” (We are all black people, all from Guinea) was performed with humor, its fast, wordy, rhythmically animated style creating a boisterous village scene.

From Portugal’s late-flowering Renaissance, we heard works by Manuel Cardoso (1566-1650) and Duarte Lobo (1565-1646), Portugal’s two most important composers of sacred works of the time. In Cardoso’s restrained motet “Non mortui” (They are not dead who are in hell), the choir minimized its use of vibrato to allow its richly sonorous legato bring out the work’s chromatic inflexions, its mirror effects, canons and massive use of suspensions.  Lobo’s six-voiced motet “Audivi vocem” (I heard a voice from heaven) created a sense of timelessness, the choir’s upper voices present in crystalline clarity. Moving to sacred music of the 20th century (stepping aside temporarily to Spain), we heard Pablo Casals’ (1876-1973) personal style and thick-textured choral language in his deeply yearning, sad setting from Lamentations “O vos omnes” (O ye people). Portuguese historian and composer Eurico Carrapatoso’s (b.1962) beautifully shaped, homophonic “Ave Maria” was followed by “O magnum Mysterium” (O great mystery), the latter written for women’s voices. Carrapatoso’s intentionally communicative musical language is colored with references to the styles of Landini, Machaut, Monteverdi, Fauré, Stravinsky and other composers, his use “of the perfect chord” being “with the same liberty as I use a cluster”, in the composer’s words.   Moving to Carrapatoso’s secular music, his 2004 “Poemário de Sophia” (text: Sophia de Mello Breyner Andreson, 1919-2004) is scented with personal nostalgia, the IVE’s sweeping phrases and tranquil, autumnal mood doing justice to the gentle, introspective song cycle. We also heard songs of Carrapatoso in which he incorporates strong folk elements.

Other compositions based on modern Iberian poetry included the Israeli premiere of Luis Tinoco’s (b.1969) “Descubro a voz” (I am revealing the voice that sounds from fear) (2007), an effective  mood piece set to a poem by the composer’s father José Luis Tinoco, calling for humming colored with gentle dissonances as a backing to the melody; also “4 Canciones”, a set of contrasted and poignantly emotional miniatures by Joly Braga Santos (1924-1988) and the Catalan Spanish composer Federico Mompou’s (1893-1987) “Cantar del Alma” (Song of the Soul) (1951) in which we hear Mompou’s personal, lyrical and evocative musical idiom to a text by the Spanish mystic and ascetic St. John of the Cross (1542-1591).

Works grouped under the category of “The New World”, the fabric of each drawing folk elements into art music, included Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos’ (1887-1959) love-song “Rosa Amarela” (Yellow Rose), Carrapatoso’s dreamy, flowing setting of the Angolan spiritual “Tuendi oko komunda” (I look up to the mountain)  and the poly-layering of the Mozambique  folk song “Vangelo” (Gospel). Included in this group  were two Brazilian songs arranged by Paulo Lourenço himself: his setting of the cheeky folkloric poem “Ólhó Rojão” (Look at Rojão), using spicy dance rhythms and harmonies, words as rhythmic effects, a shaker and much exuberance, was followed by the no less humorous “O Pato” (The Duck), complete with the quacking of ducks.  

Under the expert guidance of Professor Lourenço, the IVE singers took a courageous plunge into the expansive repertoire of Portuguese vocal music. The IVE displays flexibility and and open mind to new and complex material. This included language challenges and the performance of many styles - from sacred music in strict Renaissance counterpoint to the highly spirited, unbridled (at times, raucous) joyousness of street music. Soloists were well chosen, confident and convincing. And there was clearly fine rapport between Maestro Lourenço and the singers as they touched on the many moods, aspects and influences inherent in Portuguese music. Quite a journey! It was involving, exhilarating and classy.