Thursday, May 30, 2013

Amir Katz performs Beethoven sonatas in Tel Aviv

On May 25th 2013, Amir Katz performed three Beethoven sonatas at the Enav Cultural Center in Tel Aviv. The recital was one of a series presenting Beethoven sonatas the pianist is performing throughout Europe. His previous Israeli concert of the Beethoven series in Israel took place December 22nd, 2012.

Born in Israel in 1973, Amir Katz began his piano studies with Chana Shalgi at age 11,  soloing with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra at age 15. He is the winner of several international competitions and has received a number of scholarships. Among his teachers were Sulamita Aronovsky, Elisso Wirssaladze, Michael Schäfer and Leon Fleisher. Currently living in Germany, Katz performs widely in Europe, Asia and North America; his recordings have won him glowing reviews.
The program opened with L. van Beethoven’s Sonata no.27 in e minor opus 90; composed in 1814 (the composer’s late middle period), it is one of Beethoven’s shorter sonatas, however, forward-looking in its technical- and emotional demands. The fact that the composer was now penning tempo markings in German, rather than Italian, already stamps the work with the uniquely personal approach present in his late sonatas.  Consisting of two movements, the work is a mosaic of forthright gestures, intensive moments, of impulsiveness, of mysterious- and personal inferences. There is not one gesture that passes by Katz as, with his characteristic individual approach to each fragment, he allows for a slight flexing of tempo to suit each one. In the second movement, marked “Not too fast, and highly songful”, Katz creates its melodiousness in a warm, rich yet fragile sound not devoid of contrasts. He presents each modulation as one would think Beethoven intended it - as a transition within the soul. It is not coincidental that the composer had thought of titling the sonata “Struggle between Head and Heart”.

In Sonata no.28 in A major opus 101 (1816), the first of Beethoven’s late period, Katz takes the audience with him into Beethoven’s introspective mindset where all proves to be transitory. The composer himself referred to the first movement of this sonata as a “series of impressions and reveries”. Amir Katz approaches it with subtlety, he “plays” with its motifs, coloring its ruminations with the sense of spontaneity and improvisation that does away with some of the movement’s bar-lines. With the more energetic, happier, mostly tranquil second movement’s soundscape created by clean fingerwork and a sense of weightlessness, fleeting moments of urgency never sound “technical” or muddy. Katz’ playing of this sonata illuminates the function of transitions in Beethoven's music, of their strategic timing and, most importantly, to where they each lead. The third movement is marked “Slowly and longingly”. Here, Katz allows its subdued fantasy to unravel at a serene pace; control is everything here. In the finale, musical ideas collect in capricious abundance and voices are at play. Even in its intense moments, Katz never produces thick, ungainly textures; the brilliant, many-dimensional fugue travels an exciting course as it builds up to each entry; and, ultimately, as layers are pared down, Beethoven’s vulnerability and sense of gloom show through. The pianist’s performance of the work was enormously satisfying.

Performance of Beethoven’s Sonata no. 29 opus 106 in B flat major “Hammerklavier” occupied the second half of the Tel Aviv concert. Composed 1817-1818, Beethoven was in his late 40s (totally deaf) and feeling comfortable with using large forms. The sonata spreads before the listener an expansive canvas of grand gestures, radical artistic statements and new piano idiom.  It is little wonder that few pianists took on its performance before the last decades of the 19th century. Amir Katz cuts no corners in his deep enquiry into the work, daunting as it is in  technical demands, yet even more so in its narrative, its uncompromising struggle and depiction of suffering. Once again, the pianist allows the flow of individual gestures to emerge, fashioning their incongruence into a meaningful whole. From volatile outbursts to bewitching dream sequences, from naiveté to the multi-headed monster of the 4th movement fugue, Katz has examined it all under his own personal magnifying glass. His fine memory, superb technique (including much fast, clean pedaling) and rich dynamic palette breathe palpable life into the mammoth sonata, setting before the audience the workings of one of music’s most perplexed and enigmatic minds.  Amir Katz is insightful. He must surely be one of today’s most interesting Beethoven exponents.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Handel's oratorio "Esther" in the 2013 Israel Festival

Maestro David Stern (Photo:Sergei Bermeniev)
On May 24th 2013, Georg Frideric Händel’s oratorio “Esther” was presented in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre as one of the events of the 2013 Israel Festival. Performing under the baton of Maestro David Stern, we heard the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, the Barrocade Collective and soloists Claire Meghnagi-soprano, Alon Harari-countertenor, tenors Jeffrey Francis and David Nortman and bass-baritone Oded Reich. David Stern (b.1863, New York) is presently director of the Israeli Opera and the Opera Fuoco Ensemble (Paris).

Although its origins are somewhat obscure, Händel’s “Esther”, composed between 1718 and 1720, commonly referred to as the “first English oratorio”, was written for private performance at the residence of Händel’s patron James Brydges (later to become the Duke of Chandos), with the dramatic presentation of a biblical story being unfeasible for public performance in London of 1718.  (The Bishop of London would not permit a biblical subject to be presented in the theatre by such morally questionable characters as professional singers.) Originally a masque (on a biblical subject!), it contained dance, spectacle and visual effects, paying homage to English theatre. Originally titled “The Oratorium”, it went through two versions. The libretto, based on Racine’s play of the same name, is attributed to Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot and presents most of the elements of the Esther story but with some inconsistencies.

Händel’s shortest and most intimate oratorio, it nevertheless offers singers many solos. In the Israel Festival performance, soloists entered and exited the stage. Short solos were performed by choir members; Tali Ketzef’s singing of “Praise the Lord with cheerful noise” was energetic and easeful.  Countertenor Alon Harari changed timbre, mood and volume from role to role, his mellifluous singing of “Tune your harps”, intertwined with the serene beauty of the oboe obbligato (Amir Backman), contrasted with the impactful “How have our sins provk’d the Lord!” In the centerpiece “O Jordan, Jordan, sacred tide”, with the violins evoking the ripples of the river and the sadness of mood, Harari’s glittering intensity gave expression to the aria’s underlying dejection. In the role of Esther, Claire Meghnagi gave a very forthright and convincing reading of the texts, her voice rich in coloratura luster. In “Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee!” she was regal, assertive wily and defiant, her competent performance producing fine drama. In the extended aria of “Tears assist me”, her singing was empathic, creamy and well shaped. Jeffrey Francis’ (USA) expansive, well anchored tenor voice and strong connection with the text lent authority and depth of character to the role of Ahasuerus. In “O beauteous queen”, bristling with dance rhythms, he sings into key words, creating its theatrical substance, its ardor and intensiveness, together with tenderness. The superbly crafted duet “Who calls my parting soul from death?” he shared with Meghnagi gave expression to the story’s passion and warmth.  Mordecai (David Nortman), Esther’s cousin, is the oratorio’s voice of moral conscience, however commanding less authority in the Händel version than in the biblical Book of Esther. Nortman cuts a sympathetic- rather than a stern image; in his aria “Dread not, righteous queen, the danger” the violins leap in playful off-beat figures around Nortman’s imploring, cantabile singing. As the scheming Haman, Oded Reich’s well-endowed vocal sound was as pleasing as it was gripping. In the feisty “Pluck root and branch from out of the land”, with its punchy dotted rhythms adding potency to the text, he used consonants to underline the character’s villainous personality. The tables are turned on him in his heart-rending singing of “Turn not, O queen, thy face away” (introduced by the pathos of the orchestra’s falling intervals) and in his portrayal of the condemned man in “How art thou fall’n from thy height!” with the vocal line demanding a series of plunging leaps.

Providing constant interest and textual update, singers of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (director: Yuval Benozer) gave meaning and much beautiful choral beauty to each chorus. Their fine diction and attention to each subject addressed kept the audience eager to hear each new utterance: their fiery mirroring of Haman’s text in “Shall we the God of Israel fear?”, the plaintive “Ye sons of Israel mourn”, the incisive and dramatic “Save us O Lord, And blunt the wrathful sword”, the explicit empathy in the chorus of Israelites’ “Virtue, truth and innocence”, followed by their vehement handling of words in the climactic “He comes, He comes to end our woes”. The IVE goes from strength to strength.

A seldom performed work, “Esther” is of major significance, marking the beginning of the illustrious English oratorio tradition, with the emergence of the Händelian dramatic chorus. It features harmonic interest and imaginative orchestration as well as some of Händel’s finest arias and, as we heard, superb choruses. Here was a fine opportunity to get to know the work, with Stern and the Barrocade Ensemble performing it with articulacy, involvement and with a sensitive ear to the soloists. Including a Baroque trumpet would have made for that specific Händelian textural gleam; the obbligato players, however, did a fine job. Commendable were oboists Amir Backman and Shira Ben Yehoshua; bassoonist Inbar Navot was outstanding. Eitan Hoffer’s theorbo playing added silvery delicacy to the performance.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

The "Profeti della Quinta" ensemble at the May 2013 Abu Gosh Festival

One of the closing events of the May 2013 Abu Gosh Festival on May 18th was by the “Profeti della Quinta” vocal ensemble in a concert titled “Behold, thou art fair, my love” in the Kiryat Yearim Church of the Ark of the Covenant in the village of Abu Gosh (Jerusalem environs). Members of the ensemble are Doron Schleifer and David Feldman-countertenors, Dino Lüthy and Dan Dunkelblum-tenors and Elam Rotem-bass, harpsichordist. Joining them was their lutenist Ori Harmelin. The program focused on the subject of love.

The “Profeti della Quinta” ensemble was originally established in the Galilee region of Israel by Elam Rotem.  Currently based in Switzerland, where all members have been studying at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis, the group focuses on repertoire of the 16th and early 17th centuries, basing interpretation on research into performance practice of the time – on temperament, diminution, ornamentation and on playing from facsimile editions. The singers perform a-cappella, also collaborating with instrumentalists and additional singers, when required.

Prior to moving to Basel, Elam Rotem (b.1984) graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance where he studied harpsichord under Dr. David Shemer. At the Basel Schola Cantorum, he furthered his studies in early musical style and performance practice. Rotem is presently researching early Italian opera in a collaboratary PhD program of the Schola Cantorum and the University of Würzburg.

The Profeti della Quinta group have performed and recorded works by the Mantuan Jewish singer, violinist and composer Salamone Rossi (1570-1630) – the first Jewish musician to compose, perform and publish polyphonic settings of synagogue liturgy for mixed choir - and have been involved in a film on him by Joseph Rochlitz – “The Search for Salamone Rossi”(2012). At the Abu Gosh concert, the ensemble performed a number of Rossi works, both sacred and secular. The composer’s sacred works “Hashirim Asher Lishlomo” (The Songs of Solomon), using Hebrew texts, consist of 33 a-cappella motets, including Psalms, hymns and prayers for the Sabbath, holyday services, concerts and for one wedding; they were published in 1622. Departing from the ancient tradition of Jewish chants, Rossi, however, brought harmony and polyphony into the synagogue, composing in the current styles of European music but in a more homophonic manner in order to give the verbal text prominence. The Abu Gosh Festival program opened with Rossi’s setting of Psalm 128, in which there was much bandying of key words, its last section joyful and quite contrapuntal. Following a richly dynamic reading of Psalm 100, we heard the ever-popular Rossi piece “Halleluja” (Psalm 146) in a silky-timbred, well shaped performance, its sweeping melodic lines gently ornamented. Rossi’s “Kaddish”, composed to an unexpected triple-time dance rhythm, was dynamic and mellifluous in timbre. The Profeti singers performed Rossi’s sacred pieces in a strong, totally secure, intelligible style and with the understanding that comes from careful scholarship and familiarity with Hebrew biblical texts. The group’s signature brightness of timbre is always energizing, their reading- and interpretation of the pieces bristling with interest. One could claim that, performing these works with only men singers (and without instruments when performed in the synagogue), as would have been done by Rossi, their effect is indeed authentic. 

Although considered a conservative composer, Rossi was the first to publish madrigals with basso continuo parts; composed for the Gonzaga court, they are also groundbreaking in the elaboration he infuses into the chittarone parts.   Opening with a wonderfully colored performance of the composer’s madrigal to Ottavio Rinuccini’s “Sfogava con le stele” (One who was lovesick), the Profeti della Quinta singers performed settings of secular texts. From Rossi’s First Book of Madrigals we heard two songs to texts by Giovanni Battista Guarini: “Tirsi mio, caro Tirsi” (My Tirsi, dear Tirsi) opened with countertenor Doron Schleifer (singing of an abandoned woman) and Ori Harmelin in dialogue. Accompanied by Rotem (harpsichord) and Harmelin in “Pargoletta che non sai” (Little one, you do not know), Schleifer, Feldman, Lüthy and Dunkelblum, adding a little theatrical content and much humor to the concert, portrayed two couples confronting love’s tribulations. 

Claudio Monteverdi’s (1567-1643) “Filli cara e amata” (Dear, beloved Filli) presents a bucolic setting and the innocent games of nymphs and shepherds. In contrast, “Rimanti in pace” (Remain in peace), a feast of vocal sound, timbral colors and emotion, in the hands of the Profeti singers, is the heartbreaking plaint of the wounded and dying Tirsi as he laments with his sorrowful Fillida. We hear individual utterances, astonishing harmonic effects and a fine play of bass timbres. In “Zefiro torna e il bel tempo rimena", a dramatic, narrative piece with some homophonic blocks.  Singers and audience reveled in the piece’s rhythmic changes and daring final dissonances, the latter explained by the final line of Petrarca's text:

'Zephyr returns and with him fair weather,
And the fowers and grass, his sweet family,
And Procne's warbling and Philomel's plangent song,
And spring in all its white display.

The meadows laugh, the sky is serene;
Jove delights in watching his daughter;
Air and sea and earth are full of love;
Every beast tells itself to find a mate.

Yet for me, alas, return those heaviest of sighs,
Drawn from the depths of my heart
By she who has taken its keys to heaven;
And despite birdsong and fields of flowers
And the honest, gentle acts of fair maidens
I am but a desert surrounded by savage beasts.'

Ori Harmelin (b. Haifa, 1982) began his musical training at age 15, studying classical guitar and composition. He later studied lute with Isidoro Roitman and composition with Arie Shapira. In 2003, Harmelin moved to Germany to study lute with Professor Rolf Lislevand at the Trossingen Music Academy. Providing the Abu Gosh concert with a poignant instrumental interlude on the chitarrone, Harmelin performed a Passacaglia by the illustrious Italian lutenist and composer Alessandro Piccinini (1566-c.1638). Despite its gentle sound, Harmelin has a flowing command of the instrument; in playing that was forthright, his melodic lines were expressive, singing and articulate. His playing of this complex material revealed its deep beauty and grace. 

Moving more than 300 years forward in time, yet remaining in the same style, we heard the premiering of some of Elam Rotem’s most recent compositions. Rotem himself preferred to describe the event as a pre-premiering! Since completing his “Joseph and His Brothers” (to be issued on CD in 2014 on the Pan Classics label), a work using the biblical Hebrew text, that has  impressed and moved audiences in Europe and Israel, Rotem is now in the process of setting some new shorter texts, several of them from the “Song of Songs”. These recent pieces will exist both as separate songs and as a group. In his opinion, “Samson and Delilah”, also heard for the first time at the Abu Gosh concert, its text focusing on love and on dialogue, will fit in well with the pieces from the “Song of Songs”. Whereas the idea of “Joseph and His Brothers” was that of early Italian opera, here the style deals more to love songs and madrigals; in both styles, the composer has aimed to integrate the beauty of biblical texts with the musical language of 1600. As to instrumental scoring for the new works, Rotem sees this as somewhat flexible…according to what players he has at hand. Elam Rotem’s settings of the “Song of Songs” reflect the fantasy, fragrance, freedom of expression and sensuousness of this poetry; they are fresh, rich in contrasting sections, solos, fine shaping and effects. “Samson and Delilah” (not the complete story) bristled with fast exchange between singers, with drama and urgency. Elam Rotem is leaving his mark on this highly specialized style of composition.
The Profeti della Quinta singers perform with informed- and polished assurance as an ensemble and as soloists. Theirs is artistry at its finest. Having occasion to talk to Elam Rotem, I asked him how he goes about composing; his answer was simple - “at the harpsichord, with a pencil and the Bible”. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Maarten Engeltjes and Israel Golani with the Barrocade Ensemble at the May 2013 Abu Gosh Festival

Maarten Engeltjes and Israel Golani (photo:Martin Nota)
Concert no.2 of the 43rd Abu Gosh Vocal Festival featured two artists from the Netherlands –
countertenor Maarten Engeltjes and Israeli-born theorbo-, Baroque guitar and lute player Israel Golani, together with harpsichordist and organist Yizhar Karshon and members of the Barrocade Ensemble.  The concert took place on May 14th 2013 in the Kiryat Yearim Church of the Ark of the Covenant, 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem, in the Jerusalem Hills.

Born in 1984, Maarten Engeltjes began singing as a boy soprano at age four. His countertenor debut was at age 16 with performances in works of Bach and Händel. In 2003, he was selected to participate in a master class run by Michael Chance; this led to a joint concert. A graduate of the Royal Conservatory of The Hague (2007), Engeltjes has been coached by Andreas Scholl and his former teacher Richard Levitt and is the recipient of prestigious prizes. Today he runs a busy international performing schedule, records and premieres new works. This Abu Gosh concert was the singer’s Israeli concert debut.

Having graduated with honors in Musicology from Tel Aviv University, Israel Golani studied performance on historical plucked instruments with Fred Jacobs at the Sweelinck Conservatory (Amsterdam) and Elizabeth Kenny at the London Royal Conservatory of Music. He has been involved in projects with the Flanders Opera, the Holland Opera and Opera Studio Nederland. In 2005, he directed “Ballo Cantabile” – a production of modern dance and Baroque music. Together with Maarten Engeltjes, he performed in the Junge Elite concert series at the 2009 Mecklenberg-Vorpommern Festival in northern Germany.

Maarten Engeltjes and Israel Golani’s performance of a number of John Dowland’s (1563-1625) lute songs formed a major part of the concert. Elgeltjes and Golani, seated together, presented the individual character and message of each of these small jewels, most of which tell of love affairs gone wrong or going wrong. In Engeltjes and Golani’s reading of Dowland’s hallmark pavan-ayre “Flow My Tears” the text was treated with ongoing interest and subtlety; tinged with sadness and dynamic changes, including finely controlled pianissimi, they presented different aspects of the text, the word “happy” proving to be merely another shade of Dowland’s melancholy!  With “Sorrow Stay” and “In Darkness Let Me Dwell” we move with them into the most lachrymose of Dowland’s songs; together the artists color the songs with heartbreak, pausing on such key words as “pity” in the former, in the latter, allowing for Dowland’s dissonances to emerge, camouflaging the meter to affect the listener afresh. Dowland places all in proportion when writing that “though the title doth promise tears…no doubt pleasant are the tears which music weeps, neither are tears shed always in sorrow but sometimes in joy and gladness.”

With some interesting ornaments and flutters, small pauses and hesitations, Dowland’s “Now, O Now” was presented less as the “Frog Galliard”, however, rather more as a thoughtful, reticent utterance. (Both titles are thought to have referred to Queen Elizabeth I’s final suitor for marriage -refused by her- the French Duc d’Alençon, in England from 1579 to 1581, a small, ugly man but a fine dancer. She referred to him as “The Frog”.) Another galliard “Can She Excuse” probably refers to Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, who became the Queen’s court favorite after the Duc d’Alençon had parted. In their compelling performance of the song, wordy in its urgency, Engeltjes and Golani use its rhythmic quirkiness to dramatize the dilemma of the Queen’s displeasure of Devereux. In “Dear, If You Change”, a desperate attempt to prove love’s sincerity, Engeltjes and Golani move together, the singer delighting the audience with his bell-like upper register notes and fine British diction. The artists float the contemplation of feminine beauty in “Time Stands Still”, gracing its frozen, rapt wonder with superbly shaped phrase endings. Theirs is a close integration of vocal- and lute parts; Engeltjes’ gestures are compelling, his sound forthright and fresh, with Golani’s response mirroring verbal texts and moods and in constant musical dialogue with the singer.

Israel Golani’s poetic performance of Dowland’s “A Dream” displayed stylish eloquence and good taste. Playing an Allemande for lute solo by the Dutch composer and instrumentalist Nicolas Vallet (1583-1642) the artist’s delicate reading of the work used slight flexing of tempo, giving the melody natural pliancy and a sense of process.

We then heard Engeltjes, Golani (theorbo) and members of Ensemble Barrocade in Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) “Stabat Mater” RV 621. Commissioned by the Chiesa Santa Maria della Pace (Brescia, Lombardy) and first performed there in Holy Week of 1712, it was scored for the church’s in-house ensemble of two violins, viola and continuo. The soloist may well have been the prestigious male alto Filippo Sandri or, in his absence, another male alto. In any case, the Vivaldi “Stabat Mater” is countertenor repertoire. Barrocade and Engeltjes’ reading of the work expressed its pathos and tragedy, but it was fired by emotion, energy and dynamic changes, making for a sense of urgency and drama and avoiding the bleak dourness often present in many interpretations we hear of it. The singer’s buoyant and easeful handling of melismas, his tasteful and economical use of vibrato and his open, expansive and spontaneous vocal sound complemented the ensemble’s animated and articulate punctuation of the instrumental score. The one-to-a-part instrumental situation made for transparency and there was constant communication between instrumentalists and singer.

Maarten Engeltjes and the instrumentalists concluded the concert with the first aria of J.S.Bach’s (1680-1750) cantata “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (Just Resist Sin) BWV 54 (1714), the first of four cantatas written for the alto soloist and possibly the first solo cantata. Although a strict da capo aria, its dissonant opening chord and tensely throbbing rhythm are unconventional, clearly inspired by the ominous text of Georg Christian Lehms that focuses on the stealthy poisoning of the soul from pervading sin.
‘Just resist sin.
Lest its poison seize you.
Don’t let Satan blind you;
For those who defile God’s honor
Will incur a curse that is deadly.’
An interesting work indeed, with the players’ incisive playing reflecting its vitriolic message, it seemed to be placed somewhat too low for Engeltjes’ voice, with his lower register not penetrating the instrumental texture with the ease he does in his higher range. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Barrocade and friends open the May 2013 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Under the musical direction of Chana Zur, the 43rd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival opened on May 14th 2013 with a concert in the Kiryat Yearim Church involving the Barrocade Ensemble, Barrocade Vocale and other Israeli artists. The probability of inclement weather for the start of the festival did not deter people from attending festival events and spending time out in the tranquil surroundings of the Judean Hills. The opening concert, titled “Dvořák, de Falla and the Sweeping Spanish Renaissance”, included music from the 15th century to today, opened with Juan del Encina’s (1468-1529) villancico “Fata la parte” (Close the Door) was performed by four members of Barrocade Vocale - soprano Yeela Avital, alto Ella Wilhelm, tenor Eliav Lavi and bass Joel Sivan – with Barrocade musical director Amit Tiefenbrunn playing viola da gamba, Eyal Lever guitar, Yizhar Karshon organ and Roni Iwryn percussion. The text – a parody of gossip of a medieval town market - alternated between slow, languishing sections and frenetic moments, with one verse played by the instrumentalists in true Barrocade style. In the dignified, melancholy “Triste España”, with its haunting drum beat, Tiefenbrunn’s viol solo was gregariously ornamented, with a mellow alto solo sung by Wilhelm. In uniting popular and artistic elements, Juan del Encina had established a new style of Spanish secular drama.  Possibly of Jewish converse descent, he travelled to Jerusalem in 1519, later publishing a detailed description of his pilgrimage. The anonymous, carefree 16th century “Pase el agoa” (Come Across the Water to Me, My Lady) provided Barrocade Vocale singers  (bass Joel Sivan, in particular) with some jaunty solos, with Iwryn pulling out all the plugs. This was followed by an effective rendition of the strophic 16th century Christmas carol “Yo me soy la morenica” (I Am the Dark Little Girl), with Wilhelm and Tiefenbrunn soloing.

Of Antonio de Cabezón’s (1510-1566) Tientos (a polyphonic instrumental form originating in the Iberian Peninsula) 29 have survived. Yizhar Karshon’s performance of one was the result of strategic planning; he navigated the work’s heavy polyphonic texture and melodic aspects caringly, ornamenting lavishly.

Moving into the Baroque, we heard the great Baroque guitar master Gaspar Sanz’ signature work “Canarios” played by Eyal Lever on guitar and Amit Tiefenbrunn on a colascione (an Italian, long-necked, low-pitched lute of the 16th and 17th centuries) built by Tiefenbrunn himself. The piece depicts a syncopated dance of the Canary Islands. The artists’ vital playing of the work, both in plucked- and strummed style, expressed the dance’s energy with its leaps and stomping of feet, the colascione’s sound solid, flexible and well anchored. In his 1553 treatise, Diego Ortiz (1510-1570) describes three ways for instruments to play together: free invention, variations over an ostinato bass and embellished versions of well-known madrigals. In his performance of “Three Ricercadas for viola da gamba”, Tiefenbrunn clothed melodies in complex and delightfully agile ornamentation, with Lever, Iwryn and Karshon (harpsichord) providing harmonic- and rhythmic support.

Soprano Yeela Avital and Eyal Lever, with some percussion, performed two songs of José Marin (1618-1699), a composer writing in the monadic “tono humano” form using basso continuo - the dominant Spanish and Portuguese secular genre of 17th century Spain. A guitarist, prolific composer and ordained priest, Marin, who worked in the cultural environment of the Habsburg court, juggled a life of music, religion and crime quite skillfully and to his own good. He is one of the few composers to have left works in guitar tablature. “Ojos, pues me desdeñais” (Eyes who do disdain), performed by Yeela Avital and Lever, is an erotically charged text speaking in dance rhythms of the pain of unrequited love, of lust and jealousy; in “Non piense Menguilla” (Do not think of her any more), Avital addresses the audience with a few home truths on love’s desertions and disappointments. Lever follows her and the text closely and sensitively; Avital is well suited to this style, addressing its fragrance and heady rollercoaster of emotions and taking the audience with her.

A very different item on the program was Pablo Casals’ (1876-1973) “Nigra sum”, a calm, meditative piece performed to a text from the “Song of Songs”. A popular work, often performed by women’s choirs, its delicately, exotic layers of meaning came across pleasingly with Avital and Wilhelm keeping the treble lines afloat:
‘I am black,
I am black, but comely,
Oh ye daughters of Jerusalem…
Rise up, my fair one, arise, my love.
Lo, for the winter is past and gone…
Flowers appear on the earth…
And the time of renewal is come…’

Moving into the 19th century, we heard mezzo-soprano Ayelet Amotz-Abramson and pianist Jonathan Zak performing Antonin Dvořák’s “Gypsy Melodies” op. 55.  Written at the request of the opera tenor Gustav Walter and published in 1880, the songs are settings of poems by the Czech poet Adolf Heyduk (translated into German by the poet himself) that create a romanticized view of the freedom and spontaneity of gypsy life and their love of music and dance. Amotz-Abramson and Zak presented the song cycle’s melodic charm and rhythmic grace in a performance that was clear and well balanced, expressive and bristling with good humor. Amotz-Abramson is convincing; her strong, resonant, reedy voice has presence and reliability. She and Zak create the scene for each vignette – the tranquility of “All Around  About the Woods”, the carefree atmosphere of “Come and Join the Dance”, the Slavic, modal image of “The Gypsy Song Man” and the tough attitude of the gypsy in their superbly crafted reading of “Give a Hawk a Fine Cage”.
‘Given a cage to live in
Made of gold,
The gypsy would exchange it
For the freedom of a nest of thorns…’
The artists steer clear of sentimentality, reminding us that this music makes no attempt to imitate specific aspects of gypsy folklore. Professor Jonathan Zak (remembered by many of us as pianist of the prestigious Yuval Trio) is a master accompanist, his lightness of touch creating magical, glittery textures, his shaping and finely chiseled phrase endings delighting the senses. Returning to the realm of Spanish music, the two artists performed Manuel de Falla’s (1876-1946) “Seven Spanish Folksongs” (1914), a cycle using pre-existing Spanish melodies and reflecting the composer’s nostalgia for the folk music of his homeland at the time he was living in Paris. Collaborating closely, Amotz-Abramson and Zak conjure up the Spanish nature of the work – its rhythms and temperament, its emotion and fragility – holding onto its tension right to the end. Zak’s playing of guitar figurations, its melodic course full of flattened intervals and Flamenco-style embellishments. sets the scene for the compelling vehemence of Amotz-Abramson’s performance of “Polo”; together they weave the sultry, mysterious strands of “Asturiana” and the bewitching and alluring “Nana” lullaby.

Eyal Lever (b.1972) gave a virtuosic performance of his composition “Solea” for flamenco guitar – a work fired- and informed with the spirit of Spanish dance, filigree melodies and dazzling technical playing. He was eventually joined by Roni Iwryn, whose masterful, understated percussion playing had permeated the entire concert. The event concluded with the Barrocade singers and instrumentalists’ performance of Paul Ben Haim’s setting of the Judeo-Espagnol folk song “I Fell in Love with a Breeze”, its bittersweet flavor adding an extra dimension to a comprehensive and high quality concert of Spanish music. The opening concert of the May 2013 Abu Gosh Festival signed out with all singers and players performing Mexican songwriter Consuelo Velázquez’ 1940 hit “Bésame Mucho” (Kiss Me a Lot), its lilting bolero rhythm inviting spontaneity.


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Myrna Herzog and David Shemer in Bach recital

The fourth concert of Ensemble PHOENIX’ Bach Project consisted of all three of J.S.Bach’s Sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba as well as Partita no.3 for harpsichord. Performing them were viol player and founder of the PHOENIX Ensemble Myrna Herzog and harpsichordist David Shemer. The concert, at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church Jerusalem on May 7th 2013, was dedicated to the memory of musicologist  and teacher Professor Dalia Cohen.

Scholars are not sure when Bach composed his three sonatas for harpsichord and viola da gamba BWV 1027-1029; the sonatas may have been written in Cöthen, where, as Kapellmeister,Bach was in charge of all instrumental music having at his disposal a small but highly specialized ensemble, or later in Leipzig in the 1740s, where  Bach took responsibility for  the Collegium Musicum.  As to the viol, it had made its way from Spain to Italy, with many of the fretted, six-stringed instruments later being built by master luthiers in Europe and England. Bach became acquainted with the North German instruments owned by Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar; at the time of Bach’s death, an inventory of the composer’s instruments included a 100-year-old English viol. In Diego Ortiz’ groundbreaking instruction book on the playing of stringed instruments “Trattado di glosas” (Principles of Ornamentation for the Viol, 1553), the harpsichord’s role is to introduce themes to the viol for further elaboration. In his viol sonatas, Bach provides an extra dimension by having the left hand of the harpsichord play basso continuo and the right hand function as a melody instrument.

The PHOENIX concert opened with Sonata in G major BWV 1027, a reworking of the Sonata for two flutes and continuo (BWV 1039), somewhat galant in style, with all three voices engaging in intense contrapuntal interaction. In Sonata in D major BWV 1028, the viol part is decidedly virtuosic, with the keyboard not by any means taking a back seat! The Sonata in g minor (BWV 1029) differs from the previous two in that it is a 3-movement form, with the harpsichord scored in a decidedly orchestral style.  The artists’ reading of these three sonatas was clearly the result of much deep enquiry into the repertoire and of good communication. Their choice of moderate tempi allowed for the works’ detail, their poetry, beauty and gestures to emerge. In this way, the wealth of Bach’s ideas found clear expression. Refreshingly different to the endless bedazzling ‘cello performances of them we have been hearing for many years, Herzog and Shemer moved the audience by presenting the music in the soundscape that Bach himself would have heard it. With much tender, cantabile, mellifluous playing, Dr. Herzog, playing on an instrument built in the Tyrol in 1730, reminds us that the viola da gamba is a reticent instrument, its mellow timbre inviting the harpsichord’s myriad of details and crystalline timbres to exist in their own right and in conjunction with the viol. Gentle flexing and minimal inégal playing graced melodies and countermelodies; harmonic developments provided interest and suspense. Faster movements carried no sense of dizzying breathlessness, their energy and brilliant moments, rather, taking reference from the most precise basic beat. With Herzog’s economical use of vibrato and the occasional breathtaking spread on either instrument, we were presented with the broad, rich and poignantly emotional canvas of the viola da gamba sonatas.

Composed in Leipzig between 1726 and 1730, J.S.Bach’s six keyboard Partitas were published by Bach himself as Opus 1 in 1731.  Performing on a Martin Skowroneck harpsichord (2001) founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra Dr. David Shemer played J.S.Bach’s Partita no.3 in a minor BWV 827, a work the composer had dedicated to his second wife Anna Magdalena. Opening not with an Overture but with a fiery, challenging two-part Fantasia, this first movement was followed by an Allemande alive with ornaments and interjections and pleasingly conversational, with Shemer’s playing of the Italian Corrente  sparkling and gripping and drawing attention to the movement’s chromatic interest. The appealingly melodic and dignified Sarabande gave way to two non-dances – a solid Burlesca followed by a Scherzo (Bach’s only Scherzo) whose humor might be its labyrinth of enigmatic rhythmic displacements. Remaining in high energy mode, Shemer confronted the powerful, contrapuntally complex Gigue with a sense of immediacy carried through by fine passagework.  Leading the listener far away from Bach’s Lutheran piety, Shemer’s intelligent, witty and joyful take on the work  were exhilarating, making for fine entertainment.

Myrna Herzog and David Shemer are both key figures and pioneers in Israel’s musical life, in particular on the early music scene. In this prestigious Bach recital, they struck a fine balance between personal- and joint expressiveness. The concert was, indeed, one of the highlights of the 2012-2013 concert season.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Piazzolla and "Maria de Buenos Aires" at the 2013 Blumental Festival

The 2013 Felicja Blumental International Music Festival took place from April 29th to May 4th at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. In its 15th year, the festival is directed by singer Annette Celine (Felicja Blumental’s daughter) with Yehuda Shryer as guitar week editor and Avigail Arnheim executive director. The event closing the festival on May 4th was “Maria de Buenos Aires” – excerpts from opera and other works of Ástor Piazzolla. Directed and choreographed by Chiche Núñez, Schachar Ziv directed and arranged the music. Dr. Rachel Uziel wrote and edited texts that were read by actor Uri Gottlieb. Instrumentalists were Argentinean guitarist Omar Cyrulnik and the Pitango Quartet (Hadar Cohen-violin, Amijai Shalev-bandoneón, Shachar Ziv-piano and Rinat Avisar-double bass.) The Argentinean singer and actress Ampero Gonzalez played the role of Maria.

The event was a tribute to Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992) and his tango-ballet-operita (operetta) “Maria de Buenos Aires” to an evocative libretto by Horacio Ferrer; the plot revolves around the character of Maria - a mythical girl from the slums who falls into the clutches of the city’s underworld. Seduced and corrupted, her demise is watched over by thieves and brothel keepers. The character of Maria herself features in the first half of the performance, with the Shadow of Maria appearing in the second half as it is reborn to wander the streets of Buenos Aires. “Maria de Buenos Aires” is considered to be Piazzolla’s magnam opus,

Piazzolla wrote the part of Maria for a folk singer. Ampero Gonzalez’ low-placed, smoky voice, her earthy intensity and passion are, in which case, well suited to the role of Maria. Fervent and passionate, the petite singer radiates strength, her stage presence and movements and her message (even to non-Spanish speakers) keeping all audience eyes and ears on her.

Working on the operita together with Ferrer at his holiday home in Uruguay, Piazzolla composed the music on the bandoneón (a type of concertina popular in Argentina and Uruguay, essential in most tango ensembles.) Amijai Shalev’s playing of it at the Blumental Festival performance took on more significance than that of an accompanying instrument: it infused the work with emotional color, nostalgia, mourning and intimacy. The Pitango Quartet, founded in 2003, comprises four classically-trained virtuoso musicians. Having made a deep enquiry into the style of Argentinean music, they have performed in Israel, Spain and Argentina. Each has much to contribute to this music, offering the listener the opportunity to hear the distinctive style of each player. Their playing, displaying involvement in the singing, dancing and narration, was gregarious, intense, polished and invigorating. Pianist Shachar Ziv’s solo jazzy numbers struck a personal note. Adding much life, beauty and authenticity to the performance was the distinguished Buenos Aires-born guitarist Omar Cyrulnik.

Setting  scene and mood, and filling in details for those of us who were not Spanish speakers, actor Uri Gottlieb’s eloquence in the readings added much to the quality of the event.

The poet Horacio Ferrer wrote ‘Before being an artistic expression…tango was a certain attitude, a way of life.’ Piazzolla breathed new life into the tango form with the “nueve” tango. Dressed “to kill”, Núñez and his five Israeli dancers performed the provocative, intoxicating tango in all its suave, seductive beauty with the utmost of artistry throughout the performance. The event was convincing and sophisticated, constituting fine collaboration between Argentinean- and Israeli artists.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem in "Moon of Alabama"

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s concert “Moon of Alabama” promised a very different concert
experience. This writer attended the event in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on April 29th 2013. Conducting a program of works by Stravinsky, Hanns Eisler and Kurt Weill was Israeli-born Yaniv Dinur; soloists were soprano Keren Hadar and violinist Matan Dagan.

Born in Jerusalem in 1981, Yaniv Dinur took piano lessons as a child, beginning conducting in his teens. He studied conducting with Dr. Evgeny Zirlin at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and later with Maestro Mendi Rodin, beginning his conducting career at age 19 with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland. He has since conducted in Europe, Canada and the USA. He graduated with a Doctorate in Orchestral Conducting from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater and Dance, where he studied under Kenneth Kiesler. Dinur is a passionate lecturer and music educator. He is currently serving as director of orchestral activities at the American University, Washington DC.

Born in Neve Ne’eman, Keren Hadar studied classical singing with Nili Harpaz, later attending the Beit Zvi Academy of Performing Arts (Ramat Gan), where she focused on musical theatre. She has also been a student in the Tel Aviv Department of Musicology. From 2006 to 2007, she took opera studies in Berlin at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule für Musik. Known for her interest in many genres, Hadar’s career has been varied – performing in Israeli theatre, with orchestras in Israel and further afield, collaborating with composers and playwrights and recording. She has performed with pianist and conductor Yoni Farhi, horn player Alon Reuven and guitarist Daniel Akiva in England, Europe and China.

The Camerata concert opened with Keren Hadar and just four woodwind instruments coming on stage to perform Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) “Pastorale” (1907), a small work bearing no opus number, composed originally for vocal line and piano. The version we heard of this charming wordless “pièce de salon” – tasteful, melodic and understated in the artists’ performance - was the composer’s setting of the piece for soprano and four woodwinds of 1923. Although still influenced by neo-Classicism, Stravinsky became, however, more connected to the Second Viennese School’s thinking by the time he was composing his “Septet” (1952-1953). It was in this work that he experimented with a series for the first time, although not with the absolute strictness of the serialists. Scored for piano, violin, viola, ‘cello, horn, bassoon and clarinet, the Camerata ensemble’s playing of it displayed the work’s contrapuntal mastery, its timbral variety and sophistication, at the same time bringing out the composer’s familiar droll,  grave, bitter-sweet and elegant writing never devoid of surprises. Playing the clarinet in it was guest musician Ilan Schul.

Enter Yaniv Dinur and Keren Hadar to perform five songs of Kurt Weill (1099-1950). All the program’s Weill songs using Hebrew- or English lyrics had been orchestrated by Benny Nagari. (Born in Tel Aviv in 1950, flautist, conductor and arranger Nagari has returned to composing and orchestrating after a career in radio, television, film and recording. He has been living and working in London since 1990.)  Somewhat unexpected in a symphony concert series, Hadar was to perform these songs using a microphone! From “The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny” (Brecht) we heard “Moon of Alabama” (1927), with Hadar singing in German-tainted English, changing its moods through the use of different vocal timbres, the roughest of which depicting the prostitute leaving one town and heading for Mahagonny (a German Las Vegas), with the men of the Camerata Orchestra adding comments in the role of her gang! Bertolt Brecht songs from “The Threepenny Opera” were “Pirate Jenny”, in which Hadar uses fiery consonants to evoke Jenny fantasizing about killing all the townspeople, and “Tango Ballad” (or “Ballad of Immoral Earnings”) with Hadar moving from the role of Jenny to that of Mack – using higher and lower registers of the voice, wearing a hat when portraying Mack – a song in which they reminisce about the days when he was a procurer and she, a prostitute. Hadar portrays Jenny as angry and bitter, with Nitzan Ein Habar’s rich, cantabile saxophone sounding fruity, sleazy and, indeed, most pleasing. “Surabaya Johnny”, from “Happy End” (1929) tells of another dysfunctional relationship between criminal characters; Hadar presents all the emotional drama, the pathos and love in Lilian’s predicament, her smoky vocal timbre tender in the song’s refrains. “The Bilbao Song”, concluding “Happy End”, rings a happier note. In “The Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife” Hadar, sitting at a small round table covered with a dainty black lace cloth, opens a differently colored box for each of the gifts sent to the lady from her husband at the front. In his translation of the song into Hebrew, Dan Almagor has added his own verse referring to Auschwitz: a brilliant song powerfully weaving a woman’s liking of all the finery sent to her in with the horrors of war.

In Germany of 1930, Austrian composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) began his lifelong collaboration with Bertolt Brecht. The two wrote songs on the spur of the moment for workers’ rallies and political cabarets. They then worked together in Hollywood (a city they both found corrupt) and finally in East Germany in the 1950s. Pianist Yoni Farhi and Keren Hadar put Eisler’s work into historical context with “Song of the German Mother” sung in the original German, as it would have been delivered in German cabaret of the time. Farhi deals with the minimal accompaniment sensitively and with much artistry, with Hadar portraying a mother’s regret at having encouraged her son’s Nazi activities with much presence and seriousness.

The program included songs for which Brecht took lyrics from several sources: “Lost in the Stars” (1949) comes from a musical tragedy of the same name, its lyrics written by Maxwell Anderson. In the nostalgic “September Song” (Maxwell Anderson), Hadar’s velvety, tender rendering was supported sympathetically by the orchestra, with trumpets adding color to the mood. Brecht composed Ira Gershwin’s lyrics to “The Saga of Jenny” (Gershwin referred to it as a sort of “blues bordello”) for the 1941 musical “Lady in the Dark”; Hadar, riding on its chromatic, swinging rhythms, told the story of Jenny who could never make up her mind. Also in a humorous vein “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, springing from Weill’s 1943 “One Touch of Venus” collaboration with Ogden Nash, is a lascivious enquiry into the nature of love. Yaniv Dinur once again reminds us that music is entertainment, timbral colors and smiles, and that such a sleazy-jazzy song goes down well with fine directing and a good dose of saxophone sound!
‘Tell me is love
Still a popular suggestion, Or merely an obsolete art?
Forgive me for asking
This simple question;
I’m unfamiliar with this part
I am a stranger here myself…’

Providing a glimpse into a very different aspect of Kurt Weill’s writing, we heard the 3rd movement from his Concerto for violin and wind orchestra. Composed in 1924 (when he had just met Lotte Lenya) this early work was composed in his Berlin years and constitutes one of the composer’s more neglected instrumental works. Reflecting his personal musical language, it is written with careful articulacy yet, giving prominence to percussion instruments, it also creates an association with the feisty sound world of his theatre music. The middle movement is unusual in its three interlinked sections – a ghostly Nocturne, a violin cadenza and a rhythmic serenade. With the (mostly) wind ensemble and violin solo meeting as strange bedfellows in this uniquely scored violin concerto, violinist Matan Dagan gave a precise, finely crafted and competent performance. Witty, cerebral and nonchalantly ironic, here was Weill speaking in an almost atonal musical language, sophisticated and somewhat elusive. Having spent several years studying in Germany and performing in Europe, Matan Dagan has moved much of his performing career back to Israel as first violinist of the Tel Aviv Soloists, guest violinist of the “Israeli Chamber Project” and, as of 2013 and concertmaster of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem.

Hadar has immersed herself well in the style and mentality of the Kurt Weill song, an impressive feat.  Her short readings throughout the concert were pithy and interesting. Taking on their theatrical aspect with natural pizzazz, she was well versed (introducing songs in just a few words) and convincing in the characterization of the decadent, provocative and intensely human personalities voiced in the lyrics. As was Lotte Lenya (Weill’s wife) in the original performances of these songs, she was humorous and vulnerable; Keren Hadar also radiates poise and strength. Maestro Dinur drew all the threads together with confidence, unflagging energy and clarity, proving that singing with a microphone can work in the concert hall with careful balance. His close communication with singer and instrumentalists produced high quality performance. The evening concluded with Hadar and orchestra performing Weill/Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”, with the audience reveling in its popular melody and buoyant rhythm and…well…actually taking a liking Mack the upbeat thief, murderer, rapist and arsonist, especially the ladies!

Maestro Yaniv Dinur