Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Arcadia String Quartet at the Israel Conservatory of Music

The Arcadia Quartet was formed when its founding members were all students in the chamber music class of Professor Nicusor Silaghi at the Gh. Dima Music Academy of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. Today, the members are violinists Ana Török and Răsvan Dumitru, violist Traian Boală (who joined the quartet in 2009) and ‘cellist Zsolt Török. From 2012 to 2011, the members of the Arcadia Quartet were post-graduate students at the Vienna University of Music and the Performing Arts. The recipient of several prizes, the quartet today runs a busy international performing schedule. 

The Arcadia Quartet’s first Israeli concert tour began with a concert at the Israel Conservatory of Music on June 26th 2013. The Israel Conservatory’s chamber music series is administered by Dr. Raz Binyamini. Words of greeting were offered by the Romanian Ambassador to Israel Mr. Edward Iosiper. Mr. Iosiper expressed his pleasure at offering an evening of music in recognition of 65 years of uninterrupted political-, economic- and cultural diplomatic relations between Romania and Israel; he thanked the Romanian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv for making the concert possible.

The Arcadia Quartet opened with Joseph Haydn’s (1732-1809) String Quartet in F minor opus 20 no.5, one of the six revolutionary and experimental opus 20 “Sun” Quartets. This piece holds an important place as one of the first of the composer’s more dramatic works, using the darker musical imagery of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” manner. The artists gave a sensitive and lyrical reading of the opening Allegro moderato movement, placing emphasis on the expressiveness of each gesture. Their playing of the Minuet was tinged with nostalgia, relieved by the major Trio, touching in its small hesitations, the return of the Minuet reintroducing the darker shadows of the minor key. The third movement – Adagio – was all delight in its pastoral mood, with violinist Török weaving filigree ornamental melodic strands through and around the lilting Siciliano dance rhythm. With Haydn’s pre-occupation with counterpoint present in the sophisticated fugue of the finale, the players brought out its complexities and intensity, their playing never ensnared, however, into the use of opaque, dense textures.  Alongside the darker musical imagery of Haydn’s “Sturm und Drang” language, the artists retained a sense of the Classical, Haydnesque style in a performance that was flexible, refined and illuminating.

We then heard String Quartet no.2 in G major opus 22/2 by the Rumanian violin virtuoso, teacher, composer and conductor George Enescu (1881-1955). Enescu is now seen as the most important figure in the musical history of his native country. String Quartet no.2 was completed in 1951, having been the final form of a work begun before World War I. Its construction is of motivic connections throughout. Once again, the Arcadia Quartet displayed much delicacy: the opening Molto moderato was contemplative and serene, the players presenting its kaleidoscope of melodies with articulacy, these giving way to a march-like middle section, finally returning to the relaxed pace of the first. With the opening of the second movement – Andante molto sostenuto ed espressivo - recalling the first theme of the first movement, ‘cellist Zsolt Török’s playing was highly expressive. The movement, subdued in mood, abounded in hints and veiled textures, its sul ponticello section adding to the mood, the peace broken by a forceful climax. The ‘cello was given the final word in this Andante movement. The third movement, a Scherzo, exuded an underlying but nevertheless present sense of disquiet, ending on a cluster chord. The final movement, varied, direct and celebratory, showed the influence of Romanian music, perhaps folk dances. Violist Traian Boală’s solo was engaging. Keeping in mind that the work was written when the composer’s confidence and self-esteem were at a very low ebb, the Arcadia Quartet evoked the work’s sense of restraint, suffering and ascetic searching.

Choosing to play Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) String Quartet in D minor D.810 “Death and the Maiden” is no easy decision nowadays, considering the number of recordings and performances we have heard of late. The Arcadia Quartet’s reading of it, however, proved more than rewarding. Taking the audience into the various aspects of the work - its programmatic source in the reuse of a part of Schubert’s own setting of Matthias Claudius’ Romantic poem “Death and the Maiden”, its terrifying moments, its gentleness, its Austrian melodiousness and the clearly autobiographical content – all aspects came together in a performance that was moving and compelling, with the macabre fanfare opening the first movement. In the theme and variations on the song in the Andante con moto, with Ana Török leading with assurance and presenting the melody’s fragility, the players take pianissimo phrases down to a daring hush. Zsolt Török’s high ‘cello solo in the second variation was reedy and rich. Following the carefully fashioned phrases moving between both violinists in the more positive 4th Variation, the final variation was both ghostly and vehement. The artists gave energy to the Scherzo:Allegro, the spectre of the ghostly visitor, however, still apparent alongside the movement’s comforting mood. The final tarantella-like movement took references from previous movements. Here, the artists juggled weightless moments with a sense of chase before spiraling into the work’s conclusion. In the work’s final burst of energy, the artists’ approach was confrontational and vulnerable at the same time. Creating a rich, personal and dramatic musical canvas of Schubert’s work, their assertiveness was equal in all parts.

The Arcadia Quartet bases its performance on deep enquiry into each work, on intelligent, objective reading of each text and good taste. The players’ fine technical know-how serves their oneness of intention in performance that is genuine, sincere and beautifully shaped. This was surely a highlight of the 2012-2013 concert season!

Friday, June 28, 2013

"See the Voices" - Tzvi Avni and Ya'akov Boussidan at the Jerusalem Music Centre

 Guests entering the foyer of the Jerusalem Music Centre in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim neighborhood took time to wander around,
viewing a new exhibit – works by Ya’akov Boussidan relating to the texts of the Song of Songs and the Jewish Legend. The event, “See the Voices: a Musical Vision”,  June 23rd 2013, was held in honor of Israeli composer Tzvi Avni’s 85th birthday and of artist Ya’akov Boussidan, whose exhibition of modern, abstract, poetic and communicative works (curator - Arturo Schwarz) was opened that same evening. Devorah Finkelstein moderated at the event. Hed Sella, executive director of the Jerusalem Music Centre, opened the festive evening, speaking of it as unique in its connection between music and the plastic arts and between Tzvi Avni and Ya’akov Boussidan. Performing Avni’s works, we heard players of the Meitar Ensemble. The program was supported by ACUM’s social and promotional fund.

Tzvi Avni (b.1927, Germany) immigrated to Israel as a child. Initially self-taught, he then studied with Paul Ben-Haim, Abel Erlich and Mordecai Seter. He furthered his studies at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center with Vladimir Ussachevsky and, in Tanglewood, with Aaron Copland and Lukas Foss. Since 1971, he has taught at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, heading the electronic music studio and is Professor of Theory and Composition. Avni’s works include choral- and vocal music, orchestral music, chamber music, electronic music, music for ballet, theatre, art films, radio plays and more, and are performed widely.  He has a profound interest in the plastic arts and in Jewish mysticism. Tzvi Avni is the recipient of several prestigious awards, among them, the Israel Prize (2001).

Born in Port Said, Egypt, in 1939, Ya’akov Boussidan immigrated to Israel at age 10. His artistic training began with Joseph Schwartzmann. He studied sculpture and ceramics with Rudi Lehmann and Hedwig Grossman, with guidance as to modern and abstract styles from Shlomo Vitkin. He continued his studies at the Goldsmith College in London, where he graduated with distinction for his abstract version of the “Song of Songs”. His work also includes etching, printing and calligraphy. In 1990, he was awarded the Jesselson Prize of Judaica from the Israel Museum. Boussidan’s celebrated art book “Jerusalem – Names in Praise” was launched at the Israel Museum in 2006 and at the British Parliament in 2007. After working and teaching in London for forty years, Boussidan has returned to Israel.

The evening’s program opened with the Israeli premiere of Tzvi Avni’s Quintet for Clarinet and String Quartet.  The world premiere took place in Germany. The composer’s intentions (and humor) are reflected in the programmatic- and visually-oriented titles of each movement, opening with “The Unexpected Guest”, this guest apparently being the sonata form! With pizzicato chords ushering in the clarinet, we hear different instruments in solo moments, both lyrical and more rhythmical, all intensely human in their expression, with Gilad Harel’s playing often creating a strong association with human speech and emotion. “The Committee Discussion” is a musical description of such an event – from the orderly utterances of violin, viola and ‘cello, to a mix of pizzicato- and arco textures, with the clarinet then seemingly calling all to order. However, as in most committee meetings, all voices insist on talking together, with the movement ending on just one surprising pizzicato sound. “Presence of the Past” strikes a very different note; this calm and poignant movement is thoughtful and nostalgic, with some stronger, unveiled emotions welling up. Once again, the clarinet (Gilad Harel) comes across as intensely human in expression. “The Spider’s Breakfast” (with the clarinet representing the menu – a fly) mixes the whimsical with the not-so-savory reality of the insect world:  these are described with glissandi, jagged string sounds, the weightless softly buzzing sounds of insects heard in nature and, then, anguished sounds emanating from the clarinet. In “Evening Soliloquy”, we hear Harel alone in an evocative and moving solo. Here, he paces the piece’s course leisurely, shaping, flexing, coloring and breathing meaning into each gesture, the piece’s hushed ending leaving the listener to trail off into his own thoughts. “Ça, c’est ne pas une tarantelle” (This is Not a Tarantella) plays with associations (also with that of René Magritte’s picture of a pipe titled “Ceci n’est pas une pipe), sounding energetic and feisty tarantella rhythms and departures from them into other moods.

A much earlier work, Avni’s “Leda and the Swan” for soprano and clarinet, premiered in 1975 by Adi Etzion-Zak and Richard Lesser at the Israel Festival, is based on a story from Greek mythology, in which the god Zeus takes on the form of a swan, seducing Leda, Queen of Sparta.  The story has been the inspiration of paintings, poetry and, here, of music. We were informed that Ya’akov Boussidan spent a whole night drawing different versions of “Leda and the Swan”, one of the pencil drawings appearing in the printed program. The vocal part contains no real words and has no literal or associative meaning, rather, syllables strung together to give the impression of words and phrases in a merely sonorous sense. The fact that the singer did not sing actual words put her (Ayelet Amotz-Abramson) and the clarinet (Gilad Harel) on an equal footing musically and theatrically. As the artists perform fragments and phrases, some independent, some intertwined or connected in unison phrases or sometimes with Amotz-Abramson a beat after Harel, the listener creates the story in his mind. With careful detail and variously colored textures, the artists set the work’s score before us in all its detail, skillfully evoking the spirit of this Greek myth in its drama, tenderness and eroticism.  

We then watched “Jerusalem – Names in Praise”, a film presenting Ya’akov Boussidan’s spiritual- and emotional connection to Jerusalem in views of his work and many of Jerusalem. The film’s emphasis lay on the many names attributed to the city, reflecting the many meanings the city has for different people. And how nice it was watching the calligrapher’s sure hand at his art!  

Ayelet Amotz-Abramson and Gilad Harel presented the world premiere of Tzvi Avni’s short work “To Seers and Dreamers” for soprano and clarinet, to a poem written by Ya’akov Boussidan. The work exists in two versions - for baritone and ‘cello, with the present setting being the second. In his program notes, Avni explains that the accompanying instrument sometimes serves a contrapuntal role to the singer’s line, at others, constituting a second voice to hers. Once again, we heard Amotz-Abramson and Harel in a performance that was probing and meaningful.

Concluding the evening, we heard four of the seven movements of Avni’s duo “Controversies” for violin and ‘cello. The piece was composed spontaneously in 2002 as a dialogue between a violin and ‘cello. (After completing the work, the composer felt it could also be played by a group of violinists and ‘cellists.) “Controversies” addresses the psychological essence of these dialogues, each representing a specific atmosphere of verbal give-and-take - at times confrontational, at others, in mutual agreement. “Despite the fact that the titles are taken, as it were, from proceedings of the law court”, in the composer’s words, “the pieces do not describe actual arguments between rivals in any theatrical sense, rather representing a private dialogue of one person in the light of the phenomena around him, of which he is a part.” The pieces we heard were Argument, Cross-Examination, The Precedent and Epilogue. Performed by violinist Moshe Aharonov and ‘cellist Jonathan Gotlibovich, the work’s concept of the interaction of dialogue persisted throughout, with both parties at times talking at cross-purposes.  In “The Precedent”, Avni quotes and utilizes the subject of the Fugue in g sharp minor from Book One of J.S.Bach’s “Well-tempered Clavier”, its melody long representing an intimate and prayerful utterance  for the composer.

The evening offered a glimpse into the creative work and minds of both artists. Concerning Tzvi Avni’s music, we heard a varied selection of the composer’s works in high-quality performances by players of the Meitar Ensemble. In his closing remarks, Professor Avni spoke of the moving experience of writing notes on the page.    


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Whiffenpoofs and the Jerusalem Youth Chorus perform at the Jerusalem YMCA

The Whiffenpoofs were in Israel this month of June 2013. Yale University’s most prestigious a  cappella ensemble, the Whiffs, as they are often referred to, began in 1909 as a quartet of men who met weekly for concerts at Mory’s Temple Bar, a famous Yale tavern. The Whiffenpoofs are the oldest male collegiate group of its kind, continuing to uphold the many Whiffenpoof traditions to today. They still wear tails and white gloves, sing at Mory’s on a weekly basis and end each performance with the Whiffenpoof Song. Consisting of 16 male students, each ensemble works for one academic year, then making an extensive world concert tour. The 2013 Whiffenpoofs left on their world tour of 25 countries in May; their Jerusalem concert took place June 19th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. It was sponsored by the Rotary Club and the Yale Club.

Micah Hendler, a 2011 Whiffenpoof, has immigrated to Israel and set up the Jerusalem Youth Chorus. Meeting at the Jerusalem International YMCA, this choir is aims to provide a space for young people from East and West Jerusalem to “grow together in song and dialogue”, in Hendler’s words. “Through the co-creation of music and the sharing of stories, we seek to empower our singers to become leaders in their communities…to create an experience for our singers that is both life-changing and a lot of fun.” Weekly meetings consist of both singing and dialogue, with Hendler directing the musical content and two facilitators from the YMCA leading the dialogue, one in Hebrew and one in Arabic. Introducing the young choir, Hendler greeted the audience in Hebrew, Arabic and English. The 14 members of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus opened the evening with three songs, each in a different language, the first being a jaunty performance of a song of the Hawaiian singer Keali’i Reichel:
‘I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty of the world through my own eyes…’
The young singers managed admirably with a version of “Hine ma Tov” from Psalm 133 (Behold how good and how pleasing if brothers sit together), an arrangement bristling with melodic layers and cross-rhythms. The third item was a setting of a Sufi chant; against an interesting, multi-voiced screen of independent sounds, we heard solos and sections singing the melody. Hendler and his singers performed with joy, energy and true dedication.

Enter the Whiffenpoofs from the back of the hall singing a Bohemian marching song. With Andy Berry ("Pitchpipe") conducting, the evening proceeded with sophisticated arrangements of songs, ranging from traditional Yale songs, to original compositions, to hits of all times, mostly arrangements of choir members over the years. We heard such numbers as “On Broadway” (The Drifters), “I Only Have Eyes for You” (Warren & Dubin), “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Weatherly), “Too Darn Hot” (Cole Porter, who was a Whiff exactly 100 years ago), “All Love is Fair” (Wonder) and more. Then there were some of the wonderful sentimental songs that never fail to tug at the heartstrings – “Nature Boy” (Nat King Cole), Kurt Weill’s “September Song” and the traditional Irish song “Down by the Sally Gardens”. Pieces like “Ride the Chariot” and a medley of Yale football songs belong more specifically to the Whiffenpoof repertoire.  An ensemble of outstanding voices, we heard some superb solos and small solo groups. Ben Wexler’s theatrical arrangement of Mika’s “Grace Kelly” was given a jaunty, lively performance, with McKay Nield singing the solo. Tenor McKay Nield is an entertainer; his flexible range took him with ease into “falsetto land” for this song. Nield is the group’s “joker”, sporting a colored bow-tie (not the uniform white one) and a funky hairdo…another Whiffenpoof tradition.  The Whiffenpoofs function at high energy levels, using some choreography, vocal percussion and other effects accompanying songs, with lots of humor and hi-jinks on stage.

Both choirs joined to sing a South African freedom song in Zulu, Hebrew and Arabic, with two of the younger singers adding percussion on darbuka (goblet drum) and shaker. The Whiffenpoofs bring with them much exuberance and young energy. As singers and stage artists, they are also highly trained and professional, offering performance that is polished. Their evening, shared with the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, was pure delight!

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir at Christ Church, Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir performed its final concert for the 2012-2013 season at Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City. Completing his first year as full-time musical director of the ensemble, Ofer dal Lal conducted the singers in the concert, with Dror Schweid at the piano. The 30-member Chamber Choir is the representative ensemble of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, regularly performing in churches and concert venues in Israel and overseas. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir is supported by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and the Jerusalem Municipality.

Ofer dal Lal is a graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where he studied choral conducting with Professor Stanley Sperber, orchestral conducting with Professor Eitan Globerson and composition with Professor Menachem Zur. He is presently taking graduate studies in choral conducting with Mr. Ronen Borshevsky and orchestral conducting with Mr. Yi-An Xu at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv. Dal Lal has long served as assistant to both Professor Sperber and Mr, Ronen Borshevsky and conducted the premiere of "Loquimini Veritatem" by Israeli composer Sarah Shoham in 2012.

Works performed in the evening’s program spanned the 15th to 20th centuries. The concert opened with Franco-Flemish composer Guillaume Dufay’s (1400-1474) Marian antiphon “Ave Maris Stella” (Hail, Star of the Sea), the chant setting we heard performed cleanly and with elegance; vocal parts were clearly delineated, with the plainchant melody remaining audible. This was followed by the somewhat enigmatic English composer Richard Nicholson’s (1570-1639) setting of “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem”, an anthem highlighting “sound” and melody, but constructed with rather static harmonies. More interesting was Ofer dal Lal’s 5-voiced vocal setting of John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears”, a lute song reworked several times by the composer himself, by Byrd, Morley, Farnaby and others, also cited by poets and playwrights. Dal Lal’s reading of it drew attention to the poem and its key words (“happy” for example in this gloomy setting!), an emphasis practised by Dowland’s contemporaries in light of the enriched beauty of Elizabethan language. In a lighter vein, there was a pleasing, dynamic performance of Dowland’s whimsical madrigal “Come Away”, its double-entendres amusing, at the same time enumerating a lady’s disdain and rejection.

Two late sacred works by W.A.Mozart (1756-1791) constituted a major section of the concert. In lieu of a string orchestra, Dror Schweid accompanied the singers on the (unfortunately out-of-tune) piano. The first was Mozart’s exquisitely simple and compact “Ave Verum Corpus” K.618 (Hail, true Body), with dal Lal and his singers bringing out the piece’s meditational, tranquil, otherworldly mood. We then heard selected movements from Mozart’s Requiem Mass in d minor K.626. Soloist was soprano Noga Shahar.  The performance addressed the work’s sacred agenda, its drama and its pathos (the more relaxed sections sometimes a little behind the beat) in an expansive range of dynamic changes. The Requiem’s arcane counterpoint and evocation of strange liturgical archaism came together in a performance that could indeed be described as majestic and impassioned. Schweid dealt courageously with the role of evoking Mozart’s full orchestral score. 

We heard the Oratorio Chamber Choir in Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s 1843 setting of Psalm 43 “Richte mich, Gott” (Do me justice, o God), a work for eight voices but not scored as two equal choirs – rather, in gender groups. Opening with imposing singing of the lower voice motif, the various different sections of the piece contrasted well, moving into the imposing and rousing final section. The choir’s German pronunciation needs some work.

Moving into the 20th century and back to a cappella singing, we heard Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) “A Hymn to the Virgin” for two choirs, composed (in 1930, revised 1934) to an anonymous text. The ensemble gave a convincing performance of the piece, addressing its beauty of line and spare clarity of texture. With the first choir singing the text in English, the second – Naomi Brill Engel, Orna Harari, Shlomo Tirosh and Benny Schwarzwald, placed in the balcony – responded in Latin, creating a concept close to the format of traditional English devotional music.

With events in Israel currently celebrating composer Tzvi Avni’s 85th birthday, it was indeed fitting that the Oratorio Chamber Choir should perform a work of his. Avni’s “Piyutim LeShabbat” (Sabbath Melodies), a work composed in 1971 and based on Babylonian Jewish Melodies, constitutes one of several works in which Avni (b. 1927, Germany) has created an individual synthesis of oriental elements with his own personal musical language. A work of delicate textures and gentle dissonances, the ensemble gave Avni’s articulate choral writing and simple melodies that merge in flowing lines a pleasing reading. Shira Cohen was soloist.

The ensemble performed three Afro-American spirituals with infectious enjoyment. The members’ singing was confident and well-shaped, their English pronunciation suitably leaning towards the American. Elia Talbar Reznik’s earthy, well-endowed voice made for a fine and spirited solo in “Daniel”.

The program concluded with a work by one of today’s most important British composers of church music - organist, choral conductor and composer Colin Mawby (b.1936). In an interview with Kevin Mayhew, Mawby was quoted as saying “My composition is instinctive and I take no notice of musical fashion which, I feel militates against the sense of the spiritual…I try and write music that speaks to people’s souls, music that listeners can respond to emotionally and spiritually”. His “Ave Verum Corpus”, composed in 1978 for eight voices and organ (or orchestra) ended the concert on a tranquil and devotional note. Ofer dal Lal and his singers gave expression to the work’s stately, contemplative mood, its lush, sonorous texture of autumnal harmonies, set off by splendid melodiousness.

With much fine singing and a strong sense of collaboration between conductor and singers, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir gave the audience a rich sampling of the many styles of music in its repertoire and what we may expect in the future.

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Atar Trio at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

On a tranquil, balmy Saturday evening in Jerusalem, on entering the German Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Muristan Compound of Jerusalem’s Old City, one leaves the busy lanes of the market behind to enjoy the tranquility of this historical building. Ascending the stairs, one is met by the sight of luxuriant flowering plants cascading down into the medieval cloister courtyard. The event there on June 15th 2013 was a concert of the Atar Trio, taking place in St. John’s Chapel. The chapel, built in the early 12th century, as part of a large pilgrim hostel and convent, was one of the many structures erected in Jerusalem by the Crusader Knights of St. John. In 1995, the chapel and courtyard were restored to reflect their 12th century character. The chapel is uncluttered, with rough stones forming the walls, a rib-vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows of geometric designs.

The Atar Trio was established in 1996 by pianist Ofer Shelley; joining him are violinist Tanya Beltzer and ‘cellist Marina Katz. Born in Israel, Ofer Shelley studied piano at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, taking postgraduate studies in Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shelley writes arrangements, produces musical projects and works in music education. Born in the Ukraine, Tanya Beltzer immigrated to Israel in 1994, taking postgraduate studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. Her repertoire spans many musical styles and she is also a recitalist. Beltzer has performed much music of Israeli composers and is also involved in teaching music. Marina Katz came to Israel from Riga, Latvia, in 1994, where she continued her studies at Tel Aviv University and the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. The recipient of several prizes, she is an orchestral player and recitalist, currently serving as principal ‘cellist in the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra.  The Atar Trio runs a busy performing schedule, playing chamber music concerts and in various other productions and projects. It has enjoyed the guidance of such renowned musicians as Professor Benjamin Oren, Professor David Chen and Professor Jerome Lowenthal and has also worked with the Altenberg Trio (Vienna).

Following words of welcome from organist and musical director of the Redeemer Church Gunther Martin Goetsche, the concert began with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Trio Sonata in c minor BWV 1017. Composed as a violin and keyboard sonata, adding a lower instrument to strengthen the (harpsichordist) bass line would certainly have tied in with Baroque performance practice. In the present format, Katz’ playing of the ‘cello added to the lush setting. In the opening swaying, Sicilienne-type movement, Beltzer’s expressiveness colored each phrase. In the demanding second movement – Allegro – there was close interaction between Beltzer and Shelley, with Shelley’s somewhat detached treatment of fast notes keeping the texture from being overly dense. The atypically Baroque third movement – Adagio – with its triplet right hand accompaniment invited each instrument to speak in its own idiom. In the final movement, the artists were articulate in their reading of its packed fugal texture. It is a fact that musicians of the authentic Baroque movement, playing on period instruments and carrying out research as to how Bach’s music must have sounded in the composer’s times, have gained the upper hand in performance over the last decades. The question of authenticity is a complex one. The Atar Trio offers its audience Bach on modern instruments, playing the music with crispness, not, however, ignoring Baroque stylistic considerations; happily, the players avoided over-romantic playing or an attempt at imitating Baroque instruments, making for a satisfying performance.   

Moving in a very different direction, Beltzer and Shelley performed two Spanish dances by the Spanish-born violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908), whose four volumes of Spanish dances for violin and piano (1878-1882) have seen a revival of late. The first book, opus 21, contains the Malagueña and Habañera, which we heard at this concert. The Malagueña, written in ternary form, bristles with soulful, sweeping violin melodies; Beltzer was free and spontaneous with them, spicing textures with a feisty smattering of agile spiccato and pizzicato playing, with Shelley presenting a folksy melody. No less virtuosic in demands, the colorful Habañera (a dance of Cuban origin) once again made use of different effects on the violin for its earthy mix of drama and sweetness. Despite the Iberian temperament of these concert pieces, Beltzer and Shelley kept a safe distance from over-showy and aggressive playing.

An undeservedly forgotten composer over the last hundred years,  Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778-1837) and his music are enjoying a long overdue revival. Born in Bratislava, Hummel was a pupil of Mozart, Clementi and Salieri, becoming admired by Chopin and Schubert. A fortepiano- and piano virtuoso and a renowned improviser, he composed seven piano trios from c.1803 to 1822. His Piano Trio in E flat major opus 96 is the last of them. The Atar players presented this work with its grace and elegance. In the middle movement – a charming theme with variations – there was much communication between the players, with each also clearly heard in individual utterance. In the final Rondo alla Russa, a popular Russian folk tune constitutes the main theme; the artists used strong gestures and plenty of timbral color to evoke its origins, displaying the composer’s expert writing, humor and his forecasting the Romantic era. There was much enjoyable music-making in the Atar Trio’s performance of the work; the artists’ playing radiated warmth and contagious immersion.

Returning to Spain to conclude the concert, we heard Joaquín Turina’s (1882-1949) “Circulo”, one of the most unique works in the ensemble’s repertoire. The “Turina sound”, combining the influence of French music with Spanish, presents melodic invention, infectious indigenous rhythms, harmonic parallelisms, shimmering sonorous effects and sensuality, all bound together with a sense of form and order. The “Circulo” Fantasy for piano trio opus 91 (1936) was the composer’s final piano trio. In keeping with Turina’s penchant for cyclical forms, this work traces the progress of a single day from dawn through midday to dusk. With this programmatic contour explained to those present, the Atar Trio players left the filling in of associations of the changing scene to the audience’s fantasy.  With Marina Katz setting the early morning scene with expressive, mysterious sounds in the ‘cello’s lower register, the richly detailed canvas soars upwards with suggestions of morning brightness, bells, exuberance, associations with Spanish music set in Spain’s sultry landscape, exotic modal melodies and energy, all finally dissipating with the tranquil arrival of  evening. With competence and much individual utterance, the players gave a vivid performance that was rich in color and rhythmic intensity, reflecting a deep enquiry into Turina’s style.

Presenting a not-entirely-mainstream program, here were three fine players, each with much to say, all inspired by the possibilities offered by the chamber music concert platform and interaction with the audience. The acoustics of St. John’s Chapel are as congenial as the chapel itself; the Steinway & Sons piano is delightful.   

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Barrocade closes its 2012-2013 season with the sound of chalumeaux and "La Serva Padrona"

Barrocade – the Israeli Baroque Collective – concluded its 2012-2013 concert season with “La Serva Padrona”. This writer attended the concert in the auditorium of the Weil Cultural Centre, Kfar Shmaryahu, on June 11th 2013. Founded in 2007, Barrocade, mostly performing and rehearsing without a conductor, performs Renaissance- and Baroque music, however, not limiting its repertoire to those styles; its wide repertoire includes folk music, modern music and jazz.  Under the musical direction of Amit Tiefenbrunn, Barrocade also collaborates with guest artists and conductors and enjoys the support of the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport.

The June 11th concert fell into two distinct sections, the first being instrumental, opening with Francesco Geminiani’s (1687-1762) Concerto Grosso for two flutes, bassoon, 2 violins, viola, ‘cello, strings and continuo in d minor, opus 7/4. Born in Luca, Italy, and having had Corelli as one of his teachers, Geminiani moved to London, where he took the concert scene by storm with his brilliant violin playing, concerti grossi and violin sonatas; there, he also built up a fine reputation as a teacher, concert promoter and theorist. His opus 7, published in 1746, shows him moving away from Corelli’s influence and developing his own style. Middle voices became more expanded, the composer recommended extroverted ornamentation and he took more interest in including wind instruments. Here, for the first time in Israel, we heard two guest artists - Michal Lefkowicz and Ido Azrad - playing the chalumeau – a single-reeded instrument played in the late Baroque and early Classical periods; a brief experiment, the chalumeau quickly evolved into the clarinet and basset horn of Mozart’s time. In Geminiani’s work, there was much cheerful banter between flutes (Geneviève Blanchard, Idit Shemer) and violins (1st violinist Shlomit Sivan, Yasuko Hirata) between concertino and ripieno. Emphasizing the work’s invention, interest and originality, the players presented it with refined beauty.

Fine entertainment was in store with the work of yet another violin virtuoso – Dutchman Willem de Fesch (1687-1761). His Concerti opus 5, published in Amsterdam in 1725, atypical in that they feature a pair of transverse flutes, reflect the simpler, more lyrical style coming into vogue at the time. We heard Idit Shemer and Geneviève Blanchard in the flute roles. Their playing was crisp yet singing, presenting detail and interest, always elegant. Yizhar Karshon’s harpsichord spreads and transitions added grace to the performance.

Of special interest was G.P.Telemann’s Concerto for two chalumeaux TWV 52:d1. The chalumeau lacks forte potential and has a range of less than two octaves, but it’s broad, ‘cello-like timbre and woody sound must probably have been what allured Telemann to write for it. In fact, Telemann (1681-1767) used the instrument in a wide variety of musical genres between 1718 and 1760. He never wrote for the bass chalumeau and virtually ignored the soprano instrument (popular in Vienna). In this work, we heard Michal Lewkowicz and Ido Azrad playing alto- and tenor chalumeaux. Both these young Israeli artists have studied and performed in Israel and Europe, excelling both on modern clarinet and on historical instruments. Some of the concerto consists of unaccompanied chalumeau duets, with the orchestra entering to support focal ideas. The work opens with a serious homophonic utterance, setting the mood of the work.  Lewkowicz and Azrad recreate the work’s pathos with its “sighing” figures and chromaticism. The slow movements were economical and treated expressively, the dark, somewhat muted sound of the chalumeau underlining the atmosphere. Fast movements also retained the work’s basically solid mood together with hearty playing. The Barrocade players created a dignified and elegant timbral environment against which to hear the intimate, cantabile sound of the chalumeaux.

Following the intermission, Barrocade presented a more-than-semi-staged performance of G.B.Pergolesi’s (1710-1736) “La Serva Padrona” (The Servant Turned Mistress) to a libretto of Gennaro Antonio Federico (after Jacopo Nelli’s play of the same name) with soloists soprano Revital Raviv and baritone Oded Reich and actor Yehuda Lazarovich. The Intermezzo, originally performed between the acts of Pergolesi’s opera seria “Il Prigionier Superbo” (The Proud Prisoner), was published in 1731 and uses stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. Pergolesi’s score calls for a chamber orchestra of strings and continuo. Barrocade’s version of the work shortens some of the recitatives and gives Vespone, Uberto’s servant (originally a silent part for the actor) the role of narrator, speaking a witty, clever and wordy text written in Hebrew verse by playwright Rachel Ezouz.

With the Barrocade players seated at the left of the stage, the right half served as a theatrical space with minimal props. The three characters are in costume. Uberto (Oded Reich), wearing a dressing gown and long night woolen nightcap, looks every bit the crotchety old bachelor. Revital Raviv looks girlish as Serpina, the scheming young servant girl; she enters carrying a feather duster. The story is as flighty as its characters, with Rachel Azouz’ whimsical texts describing the characters, their idiosyncrasies, Uberto’s stupidity, Serpina’s cunning and her underhand plan to win over Uberto. Serpina does this by introducing him to a new suitor of hers (Vespone, sporting an eye-patch, wearing a brown safari helmet, long overcoat and carrying a sword and shotgun). The same artists performed this piece two years ago, but the current production was a much more polished presentation. There was much more use of the stage and movement; the singers’ fluency and diction made colorful use of the Italian words and sounds to illuminate the text, themselves and the comical tension between the two characters. In addition to much fine and articulate singing, vocal and verbal agility, Raviv and Reich’s amusing and well-coordinated gestures gave the comedy’s theatrical dimension refreshing energy. Serpina (her name translates as “Little Snake”) came across as mischievous and sensual but warm, Uberto as naïve, nervous and hilarious. Listening to actor, story-teller and musician Yehuda Lazarovich on stage means that those present will not miss a word of the text. With a glint in his eye, he seems to be confiding in the audience as he brings home the absurdity of the characters in hand…and of us all. Kudos to Lazarovich, Raviv and Reich for their own effective stage production.

Remarkable in its vocal melodic suppleness and vivacity, for its syllabic patter songs, octave jumps and comical idiom, the entr’acte piece’s orchestral dimensions are, however, modest. The Barrocade instrumentalists gave the score a delicate but pacey reading, keeping musical flow on target. Some audience members began humming along, proof of their enjoyment and how accessible and charming this music is. This was still preferable to hearing the ring of their mobile ‘phones! The theme of “La Serva Padrona” is timeless, a source of amusement and still appealing to today’s audiences. The Barrocade Collective ended its 2012-2013 season with plenty of good music, a smile and the wink of an eye.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir performs "Psalms & Praise" - works of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, directed by its chief conductor Oded Shomrony, signed out of its 2012-2013 season with “Psalms and Praise”, an evening of music by Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Soloists were soprano Daniela Skorka and baritone Oded Reich. The festive event took place in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on June 9th 2013. The choir was joined by the Israel Chamber Orchestra. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, consisting of some 150 singers, was founded in 1987 by Yehuda Fikler. The largest choral enterprise in Israel, it exists, in fact, as five separate ensembles, each with its own repertoire and performing schedule, each with its own conductor, but with one joint concert a year. The five choirs are as follows: The Oratorio Singers, under the direction of Mrs. Na’ama Nazrati,  Bel Canto, under the direction of Mrs. Noa Burstein, Cantabile, under the direction of Mrs. Flora Vinokurov,  Capelata, under the direction of Mrs. Shelly Berlinsky, and The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, under the direction of Mr. Ofer dal Lal. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir is supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Jerusalem Municipality.

Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1805-1847), Felix’s elder sister, was a child prodigy, the possibilities of her having a professional musical career as an adult, however, sadly dashed by her being the daughter of a better class family. Much of her musical activity was organizing biweekly Sunday musicales held in the family residence in Berlin. These house concerts became an important musical centre of the 1830s; these matinees also served as a stage for Fanny’s playing and for her development as a composer. It was here that her choral-, chamber- and piano music was performed and heard by a wide range of musical aficionados from Berlin society. Between June 1831 to January 1832, Fanny Mendelssohn produced three cantatas, “Lobesgesang” (Hymn of Praise) being one of them. Composed in the style of Bach’s Christmas cantatas, it includes a pastoral instrumental introduction, a three-section imitative chorus (Psalm 62), an accompanied recitative for female voice (Gospel of St. John, Song of Songs), a free-composed aria on a hymn by Johann Mentzner and a chorale fantasia. The Oratorio Choir concert opened with this work. The singers dealt well with its contrapuntal textures as well as its expressive- and dynamic aspects. Their singing was clean and articulate, with a warm, blended choral sound, well suited to Romantic music. Daniela Skorka’s solo singing was forthright and confident, contending competently with the orchestra. Here was a fine opportunity to hear a work of this outstanding- and sorely neglected composer; referring to Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy as “the other Mendelssohn” would be doing her a grave injustice.

The other works on the program were all by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847). From his years of study with Carl Friedrich Zelter (a prominent song composer, director of the Berlin Singakademie and friend of Goethe), the arrangement of chorales had played an important role for the composer and he continued to be occupied with the protestant chorale throughout his symphonic and oratorical works. Mendelssohn’s familiarity with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion led to a series of cantatas based on well-known chorale melodies for choir, instruments and sometimes soloists. Composed in 1830, “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” (O Head so bruised and wounded), based throughout on the Latin hymn of the same name so familiar to us from J.S.Bach’s settings of it in the St. Matthew Passion, clearly pays homage to Bach and the Lutheran tradition (Felix himself, following his paptism, was a religious Lutheran), reflecting Mendelssohn’s perceptive and creative treatment of chorales and interest in “musical antiquarianism”.  The chorale cantata is a vivid and dramatic depiction of the awe at meeting the wounded and dying Christ. Baritone Oded Reich, frequently heard in performance of Baroque works, took on board the religious mood and intensity of the aria, here allowing for an approach to Romantic vocal style. The choir’s singing displayed the composer’s contrapuntal prowess, joined by vivid playing on the part of the orchestra.

Mendelssohn is quoted as saying “Everything comes together in Sebastian”. Also based on a chorale used by Bach, and translated by Bach into German from the Latin, “Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten” (My God whose wisdom guides me), composed before 1829, is scored for voices and strings. Following Oratorio’s fine blending of voices and warmth of sound in the opening chorale, there was a little confusion of entries in the second – a polyphonic, neo-Baroque chorus of fast-moving upper voices against the slower chorale melody sung in the bass. Skorka’s reading of the lilting aria, clothed in Mendelssohn’s warm, Romantic sensibility, carried a sense of well-being. With buoyant singing of the final chorale, largely in octaves, but with a welcoming harmonic last phrase, the choir brought the work to a satisfying end.

The most popular of Mendelssohn’s Psalm settings is Psalm 42 “Wie der Hirsch schreit” (Like as the hart desireth), its first sketches made on his wedding trip in 1837. The work consists of seven movements, requiring a solo soprano, a male quartet and a three-part women’s chorus in addition to the full mixed chorus. Drawing all these threads together, Maestro Shomrony achieved a very nice result with his singers: a sense of assurance, of joy, of expressive mellowness and dynamic flexibility. The performance took the audience into the fabric of Mendelssohn’s exquisite melodies, their delicate sentimentality and meditation. Daniela Skorka sang into the text’s meaning. The aria “Meine Seele dürstet nach Gott” (For my soul thirsteth for God), with the solo oboe weaving in and out of Skorka’s vocal line, made for an especially poignant movement. Adding to the work’s timbral richness was the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s pleasing complement of horns, trumpets, trombones and timpani.

Conductor, arranger and composer Oded Shomrony is musical director of the Adi Choir of the New Vocal Ensemble, the baritone of the Thalamus Quartet and a lecturer at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. This Mendelssohn program constituted one of the most beautiful of the annual Oratorio concerts.  The printed program, in Hebrew and English, was informative and comprehensice. Maestro Shomrony’s dedication and superior musicianship made the concert rewarding to performers and listeners alike. His attention to detail, dynamics, timbre and issues of diction and German pronunciation gave good results. Soloists Daniela Skorka and Oded Reich added excellence and inspiring solo singing to the evening. Mendelssohn’s choral works encompass the breadth of his career; nowhere is his soul more poignantly exposed than in his choral works, which exude dream-like tranquility and idealism. His works and those of Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn-Bartholdy deserve to be performed more and to be better known.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

"Mysterium Cosmographicum" - the Zik Group and the Kanazawa-Admony Piano Duo at the 2013 Israel Festival

The Zik Group’s “Mysterium Cosmographicum” was one of the lesser mainstream events of the 2013 Israel Festival. It took place on June 8th in the Rebecca Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. The Zik Group was founded in 1985 by several artists, most of them graduates of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design (Jerusalem), with the non-profit organization Zik for Visual Arts being established in 1990. The group focuses on joint interdisciplinary work and on the integration of structural sculptures and concepts into live performance. Over the years, Zik has shifted from large outdoor performances to those indoors, its visual work has expanded, new members have come in from various other professions and new directions have been taken – cinema, new media and integral combinations of sculpture with stage performance, music and sound. The Zik Group is based not only on a professional model but also on social commitment: members are committed to being active, to attending twice-weekly meetings in a hangar near Jerusalem. The group presently has ten members and a production manager. In Zik productions, music is considered one form of material; its sounds are sculpted over time; it lends weight to aesthetic attribution, at the same time, serving to blur boundaries between design and production, expressing and framing the sounds of work.

“Mysterium Cosmographicum” takes its inspiration from “Epitome Astronomiae” (1621) a groundbreaking book by the German astronomer, astrologer, mathematician and philosopher Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), in which he presents all of heliocentric astronomy in a systematic way. The Zik production is an enactment of the creation of heavenly bodies. Through video art, objects on stage, materials such as glass, fire, soot, wax and light, and the members themselves, we see cosmic images being created, changed, moved and sped up as two pianos (Kanazawa-Admony Piano Duo) perform music composed by Israeli composer Haim Permont. The artists (all dressed in white, as were the pianists) create and sculpt on stage, evoking physical and outer space phenomena, while defining mathematical, three-dimensional and two-dimensional relationships between time, space, dynamic objects and dynamic music.

Haim Permont (b. 1950, USSR) studied composition with Professor Mark Kopytman at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. From 1981 to 1985 he took graduate and post-graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a student of Richard Wernick, George Crumb and Jay Reese. Permont’s works span all genres and media, including symphonic music, choral music, solo vocal music, concertos, opera, music for theatre and cinema and multi-media works. With an impressive list of commissions, prizes and awards to his name, Professor Permont teaches Composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, where he also continues to hold academic posts. “Mysterium Cosmographicum” is not his first collaboration with the Zik Group.

I talked to Haim Permont. He told me that this Zik project began with their members talking to him about elements of astronomy and mysticism, as discussed in Kepler’s above-mentioned book. The composer decided that his music should be mathematical in concept and constitute a retrospect of 20th century piano articulation. This included the following elements:
1.       12-tone music,
2.       Coloristic effects such as pizzicato and strumming on piano strings,
3.       Atonality,
4.       Parallelism – the influence of Impressionist music,
5.       References to elements in the music of Olivier Messiaen, such as “talea” (rhythmic patterns) and “color” (melodic patterns),
6.       Minimalism – as in repetitive patterns used in an asymmetrical manner so as not to become mere background,
7.       The use of Paul Hindemith’s quartal harmony.
The music took two months to write. As the process progressed, Permont started to understand what his teachers in the USA had been stressing – that structured music, such as that of the 12-tone technique, offers so many possibilities that the composer feels a sense of freedom in using it! It becomes free of narrative. Permont does not usually compose in that style, but felt it was called for by the subject at hand. With the pianos not facing each other (they were at either side of the stage) so as to allow the pianists to retain a sense of independence, Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony worked as the Zik people created. The piano parts exist as a written score.  Permont saw this production as a “concerto for piano and visuals”, where the music exists both integrally and as its own entity – as timing, drama and sequence, as a guide to how things were done, in fact, as carrying the role of the Greek chorus. Slow-moving but ever changing, the visuals, lit by fire and moonlight, drew one’s eyes to following events; however, at no time during the performance did the live music take a back seat. Both dimensions existed in careful balance.

Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony formed their piano duo at the Banff Centre for the Arts (Canada) in 1996. Since then, they have performed in major concert venues in Europe, the USA and Canada, in Israel and in the Far East. Presenting a wide repertoire, their work consists of playing in concerts, in music festivals, on television and radio and of recording. The Kanazawa-Admony Piano Duo is the recipient of several international prizes. The artists are co-founders of the International Duo Festival in Israel, of which Yuval Admony is artistic director. Kanazawa and Admony’s in-depth reading of the complex musical score of "Mysterium Cosmographicum" was detailed, articulate and sensitive, rich in nuances and pianistic coloring, coordinated (despite their physical distance on the stage) and highly evocative. Their playing drew the audience upwards into experiencing timbres, textures, weightlessness and a sense of time as dictated by nature.    

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra opens the 2013 Israel Festival's Beethoven Marathon

A large audience filled the Henry Crown Hall of the the Jerusalem Theatre on the mornuing of June 7th
for the Beethoven Marathon, an event of the 2013 Israel Festival. Maestro Gil Shohat officiated at the concert, introducing the works and the various artists. He opened by saying that the marathon has become a tradition of the Israel Festival and that this would be the seventh. Shohat spoke of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) as being rebel, and not only in his music, that he was the friend and contemporary of the French Revolution, believing in a better society – in equality, fraternity, freedom and enlightenment.

Performing in the first part of the marathon, we heard the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra (Harvard University, USA) under the baton of its home conductor Federico Cortese. The concert began with Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture no.3 opus 72. Originally received with skepticism, a writer of “Der Freimütige” newspaper had referred to it as “incoherent music, ostentatious, chaotic and disturbing to the ear” in which “some minor ideas…complete the incredibly unpleasant impression”. The second (and not third!) of four overtures to his opera “Leonore”, later renamed “Fidelio”, it is that of the four which has become popular concert hall fare, due, in part, to the fact that it is a genuine symphonic poem. The piece proved to be a fine vehicle for Cortese and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra; they created a richly colored canvas with precise, disciplined and highly coordinated orchestral playing, from the fullest of orchestral timbres to wispy pianissimo moments, mellifluous melodiousness and some pleasing wind playing. The young artists played out its drama, beginning with the mysterious sounds of the darkness of the prison cell, to which Florestan has been sent. With one of the young trumpeters playing a haunting melody from behind stage, we understand that Florestan is reprieved. A less reticent trumpet solo then suggests that his freedom is certain. Yet, also without reference to the work’s programmatic background, the H-RO presented the work’s dramatic mastery and expressivity, its pathos and its urgency and in finely detailed orchestral terms.

This was followed by Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major opus 61. Composed in 1806, it is regal, lyrical and spacious in concept, happily free of the brooding present in later works; thus, well suited to young players. The soloist was 21-year-old Stella Chen. Her playing was decisive and virtuosic; each gesture was careful in its detail and individually shaped. Chen’s performance of cadenzas was confident strategic and articulate in their multi-layering, with phrase-beginnings announced via slight flexing. In the second movement, she wove cantabile melodic strands in and out of the orchestra’s themes. Orchestra and soloist worked hand-in-glove and with a pleasing sense of balance, the players acutely aware of Cortese’s guidance. The audience was inspired by the freshness of sound, the energy and dedication of these young people.

In addition to their appearance at the Israel Festival, the young musicians and Maestro Cortese interacted with the "Polyphony Foundation" in the Galilee – an organization that uses music to encourage tolerance between Israeli and Palestinian youth – and performed with the Amman Symphony Orchestra at a benefit concert for Syrian refugees, sponsored by the Queen Noor Foundation.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Vox Luminis" performs Italian Baroque music at the 2013 Israel Festival

The Belgian vocal ensemble “Vox Luminis” was formed in 2004; the chamber group specializes in the performance of music from the 16th to 18th centuries, most of its members having met at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague.  Founded and directed by bass Lionel Meunier, the chamber vocal ensemble’s continuo section consists of Ricardo Rodriguez Miranda-viola da gamba, Masato Suzuki-organ and Jan Cizmar-theorbo. Vox Luminis performs throughout Europe and its recordings on the Ricercar label have won awards and much acclaim. The group’s performance of “Barocco Italiano” in the 2013 Israel Festival took place on June 8th in the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. It was Vox Luminis’ first Israeli Performance; indeed, it was its first performance outside of Europe.

The program opened with Domenico Scarlatti’s (1685-1727) “Te Deum”, composed in Lisbon where the composer was employed at the royal court as maestro di cappella in the  1720s, was probably first performed at the marriage service in 1729 that united the royal houses of Portugal and Spain. Although popularly known for his brilliant, original and witty harpsichord sonatas, Domenico Scarlatti clearly benefitted from the influences of the generation that followed Monteverdi through his father Alessandro. Scored for two four-part choirs with basso continuo, it makes a combination of the old style and the concertato style.  The composer uses the choirs antiphonally. Using the verbal text (and the composer’s markings) as guidelines to the elasticity of the work, the “Vox Luminis” artists gave a vivid, dynamic reading of it, from the joyful Sanctus movement to the delicate and languishing “The Father: of an infinite Majesty”, to the final words “Let me never be confounded” repeated at a slow tempo, then stopping dead on “non” to create a spine-chilling effect.

Following a transition played by organist Masato Suzuki, we heard Antonio Lotti’s (1667-1740) 8-part “Crucifixus”, a work on which Lotti’s fame mostly rests and which uses the harmonic language of the early 18th century together with 16th century prima prattica contrapuntalism. In this intense and angular work, the “Vox Luminis” singers created a growing sense of anguish as they leaned into its startling accumulation of pungent dissonances, the tension then subsiding and moving into a more peaceful and  resigned mode in “et sepultus est” (and was buried). The performance juxtaposed the ensemble’s masterful shaping, clarity of sound and intonation with its close association with the text.

Giacomo Carissimi’s (1605-1674) “Jephte” would have been one of the Old Testament oratorios performed during Lent at the Collegico Germanico in Rome (a Jesuit seminary training German-speaking priests) where Carissimi was maestro di cappella. Full of colorful depictions of battle, joy and sorrow, it focuses on Jephte’s war with the Ammonites and his pledge to God in exchange for victory – that Jephte sacrifice the first person to meet him on his return. This person ends up being his (nameless) daughter. Her fate is sealed. She asks for two months to mourn her fate in the mountains, where she implores all nature to lament that she will die a virgin, childless. With the oratorio moving forward swiftly and with a sense of urgency in small, effective and dramatic sections, we heard many of the “Vox Luminis” singers in solos, duets and trios. An interesting effect denoting distance was achieved by having some singers placed at the back of the stage:
‘Then Jephthah’s daughter went away to the mountains, and bewailed her virginity with her companions…’
Hungarian-born soprano Zsuzsi Tóth’s portrayal of the daughter changed with the plot, from her naïve and joyous, gently ornamented opening aria “Strike the timbrels and sound the cymbals!” to when her mood became pained, dejected, mournful and bitter: ‘Then tremble, you rocks, be astounded, you hills, vales and caves, resonate with horrible sound!’ Her final aria, sung sotto voce, displayed fine vocal control. Tenor Robert Buckland was energetic and highly convincing in portraying Jephte and the drama of his predicament. He totally immersed himself in the role, its pathos and its personal predicament. Choruses were vivid, bringing out both the narrative course and emotional reflection on different stages of the story. A chorus of six singers concluded the work with a superbly crafted performance of the final lament, spiraling into heart-rending vehemence, ending in the pianissimo abyss of despair:
‘Weep, you children of Israel,
Weep, all you virgins,
And for Jephthah’s only daughter,
Lament with songs of anguish.’

Domenico Scarlatti’s “Stabat Mater”, though written for ten voices and basso continuo,  doesn’t fall into the conventional late Renaissance format of two choirs; rather, all singers perform individual parts. French-born recorder player and bass Lionel Meunier actually established the “Vox Luminis” ensemble in order to perform this very piece; the outstanding performance we heard justified his decision! The singers bring to light how Scarlatti, through his use of tritones, other dissonances and violation of voice-leading, mirrors the deep emotional anguish experienced by the onlooker on viewing Christ on the cross. The "Vox Luminis" singers open with a seamless performance of the opening verse, the piece’s rich counterpoint crowned with pure soprano singing on the top. And so, throughout the work, the clean, powerful and unspoiled voices of these young singers weave the tragic tapestry of the text in vocal lines that are so individually shaped yet so blended that one is confronted with a multi-dimensional canvas that is overwhelmingly rich. Indeed, we were able to hear many wonderful voices, too many to mention here; one of the most commendable was Hungarian-born countertenor Barnabás Hegyi, with his combination of mellow timbre and intensiveness. And there was much attention by all to the verbal text, as shown in tempo changes, in sudden phrase endings, in moments of non-legato singing, in intimate utterances then well contrasted by compelling, highly colored soundscapes. In the final verse, with consonants used for punctuation, time stands still:
‘While my body here decays,
May my soul Thy goodness praise,
Safe in Paradise with Thee…’ 
Performing with little to no doubling of voices, “Vox Luminis” displays the dynamic beauty, freshness, vitality and spontaneity Baroque music reveals in such a setting!   Supported by fine instrumentalists, “Vox Luminis” sings without a conductor: eye contact is an all-important tool for this ensemble. Equipped with fine diction and superior musicianship, Meunier and his fellow musicians delve deeply into the meaning of polyphony – its teamwork and its individualism - resulting in performance that is exciting, profound and memorable.  


Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Encore! presents "The Secret Garden" in Jerusalem

Encore! Educational Theatre Company’s most recent production was “The Secret Garden”. Based on
the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the theatre production is by Marsha Norman (lyrics) and Lucy Simon (music). This writer attended the opening performance on May 29th 2013 at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit Shmuel (Jerusalem). Robert Binder was stage director, with Paul Salter directing music. Choreography was by Judy Brown; stage design Roxane Goodkin-Levy. The New Savoy Orchestra (concertmaster: Lior Kaminetsky) provided the instrumental accompaniment.

Encore!  established in Jerusalem in 2006, stages well-known musicals as well as those less familiar to the public, also presenting concert programs on the lives of prominent Jewish composers and entertainers, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and more. Encore! is also involved in summer workshops to train children and youth in aspects of stagecraft.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden”, originally a serial in 1910, was published in full 1911.  It is considered to be one of the best children’s books of the 20th century. Several stage- and film versions have been made of it. Recently arrived from India at her rich uncle’s remote Yorkshire estate, Misselthwaite Manor, ten-year-old Mary Lennox, whose parents and nanny have all died of cholera, is spoiled, sickly and disgruntled. Archibald, her uncle and guardian offers her little consolation, having almost completely withdrawn into himself since his wife’s death. As she becomes stronger, Mary starts to take an interest in the outdoors. With the help of a friendly robin, she discovers the arched doorway into an overgrown walled garden, locked since the death of her aunt ten years earlier. Mary soon begins transforming it into a thing of beauty. There are two people who befriend Mary – the maid Martha and her brother Dickon. Dickon is unique in that he has the ability to talk to animals and is able to grow anything with a little bit of soil. The house also holds another secret, as Mary discovers at night. High in a dark room lies her bedridden cousin, Colin, a boy of her age, who is considered an incurable invalid and who believes he is becoming a hunchback (like his father). Colin has given up the will to live. Strong-willed Mary reprimands him and takes matters into her own hands. Mary’s plan is to convince Colin to love the secret garden as much as she does. By nursing the garden back to life, Mary somehow restores life to her grieving uncle and his sick son.

Once again, Encore! has brought together a large group of people of all ages, interested in being part of Jerusalem’s vibrant amateur English-language theatre scene. With children and adults from different English-speaking and non-English speaking backgrounds, some having more professional acting- and singing skills than others, Robert Binder has produced a performance that works well. Aviella Trapido, playing the gentle Lily Craven’s ghost, has a fine voice for this medium and gave a musical and competent performance. Adding warmth to the bleak Craven household, Barabara Blackston as the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, was convincing, as was Avital Sykora as Martha, the chambermaid. Dickon, Martha’s brother, was played by Hanan Leberman, a student of classical voice at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Leberman’s resonant voice and sunny stage personality made for an appealing portrayal of the kindly, simple moor boy whose personality is touched with magic. The role of Dr. Neville Craven, Colin’s uncle, and the physician treating the boy, was Robin Stamler’s Encore! debut; it was well handled, his duets more confident than his solos.  Archibald Craven was played by Michael Sacofsky. Craven suffers from ill health and acute depression; in fact he wants to see neither his house nor his son, as they remind him of his late wife. Although fairly new to the theatre stage, Sacofsky takes on this complex character convincingly.  Articulate, competent and involved, Sacofsky enlists emotion, articulacy and his well-endowed tenor voice to give weight to the major role. Of the two child lead roles, the imperious and gloomy Colin was played effectively by Sraya Goldstein, presenting the young invalid’s melancholy and the changes to his life and mood as brought about by Mary and the properties of the magic garden. Kudos also to Sapir Nachman, as the feisty and precocious Mary Lennox, for acting and singing bristling with personality, courage and real stage presence. It was refreshing to hear children singing beautifully and using their voices naturally.

There was much to commend the performance: stage sets were especially effective, with the cheerless Yorkshire moors nicely contrasted by the manor garden; the choreography (Judy Brown), though not over-challenging, worked well and uniformly. Especially impressive was the work done on accents, both Yorkshire-tainted and pure British, adding much charm to the roles depicting simpler Yorkshire folk. Choruses were lively. Crowd scenes, including people of all ages – from small children to middle-aged people – gave the performance authenticity, even if the story line lacks a little of that. The Indian- and English costumes made for a visually interesting mix. Hebrew surtitles were provided for non-English speakers. As usual, the New Savoy Orchestra, under Paul Salter’s baton, gave a highly satisfying, energetic and colorful performance, and this is no easy score to perform. Then, of course, deserving more than a mere mention, there are all the many, many people behind the scenes working together with those on stage for months at a time to put together a project of dedication, enjoyment and much togetherness. Encore’s contribution to Jerusalem’s cultural life is significant and commendable.


Tuesday, June 4, 2013

"Avital Meets Avital" at the 2013 Israel Festival

“Avital Meets Avital” was one of the more unique events of the 2013 Israel Festival. The idea all came about in September 2012, when mandolin-player Avi Avital received an invitation to perform at the Musikfest, an annual festival in Bremen, Germany. This is a classical music festival, but invariably includes one non-mainstream event they call a “surprise concert”. For this, they challenge a musician to do something he has never done before. Avi called his friend, double-bass and oud player Omer Avital. and they began working on the program we heard on May 23rd 2013 in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA.  To complete the cross-genre ensemble, Avital and Avital were joined by pianist Omer Klein and percussionist Itamar Doari.

Avi Avital started learning the mandolin in Beersheba, his hometown. His teacher, Simcha Nathanson, was actually a violin teacher and he established a mandolin orchestra in the town. Following his army service, Avi Avital went to study with Hugo Orlandi in Padua, Italy. There, the young Israeli became steeped in the true nature of the mandolin. Today he performs Baroque- and contemporary classical works. Avner Dorman wrote his Mandolin Concerto for Avital; it includes references to bluegrass music, Middle Eastern tradition and Brazilian music. Performing with Klezmer musician Giora Feidman has also had a strong influence on Avital, and on many levels. Avital’s musical curiosity has opened up a wide vista of explorations into cross-genre music, these performances taking him to the great concert venues of the world to perform with many great names. My acquaintance with Avi Avital, however, was through his CD of works of J.S.Bach. I was now interested to hear him in a different setting.

Omer Avital was born in 1971 in Giv’atayim, Israel. Beginning his studies with classical guitar, he switched to acoustic bass and began studying- and arranging jazz. At age 17, he began performing with various bands. He moved to New York in 1992, collaborating with some of the greatest names in jazz and leading his own groups. Following the release of his debut album “Think with Your Heart” (2002), Avital returned to Israel for three years to study Composition, the oud and Arabic music theory at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He returned to New York in 2005. Bringing in his rich legacy of oriental music, Avital continues to create works for his ensemble. Recent projects have been the “Debka Fantasia Cycle”, “Songs of Devotion” (Sephardic Jewish liturgical poems), a Concerto for Bass and Orchestra, and more. His works create a highly individual sound based on the musical traditions of Israeli ethnic groups.  

The music we heard at the Israel Festival concert was an interesting mix. Opening with a jazzy piece ,tinged with delicate, oriental timbres, we become aware of the music with which Omer Avital and Avi Avital have grown up. Then, for a different style: “Lonely Girl”, composed by Omer Avital, is nostalgic and sweetly sentimental, at times somewhat Greek in style, its melody moving sensitively among the artists. “Ana Maghrabi”, with Omer Avital’s skilful playing of the oud (and then the double bass), begins with him “inviting” his fellow players to join him. Octave melodies remind us of the music’s roots. The piece becomes spirited, inspiring fine solos. On the program, Avi Avital’s own original material spoke of strong rhythms, energy and oriental-styled melodies. As an ensemble instrumentalist, he was swept up into the storm of things; when soloing, he is poetic, sensitive and profound.  The inebriating oriental Hebrew song “Shedmati” was given delicate and imaginative treatment, with superb solo playing on the part of pianist Omer Klein. Klein’s quirky piece “España” bristled with modulations and ideas; the ensemble players were inspired by them and let their hair down, taking the audience with them! Omer Klein is a virtuoso pianist, bandleader and prolific composer. Born in Israel in 1982, he began playing- and composing music at age seven. He studied Jazz at the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts, playing concerts at age 16. In 2005, he moved to the USA, attending the New England Conservatory. Then centered in New York, he released several discs. He has also written music for theatre. Omer Klein’s inexhaustible flow of musical ideas sorts itself into articulate forms fired by a quick mind, superb technique and humor.

Then there was the piece composed by Omer Avital in memory of his father – intimate and heartfelt – with Avi Avital weaving its wistful mandolin melodies through the ensemble texture. Omer Avital’s “Morocco” began with mandolin alone, eventually, via humming, clapping and even some dancing, spiraling into an exuberant expression of unadulterated joy.  Omer Avital is a “natural”, unhindered by what seem to be the bass’s technical limitations. He strums, he rushes up and down the instrument’s neck like there were no tomorrow, he is all jazz one moment and all song the next. He is a passionate musician!

At age 17, Young Israeli-born percussionist Itamar Doari was already touring the world with some of Israel’s most renowned musicians. In recent years he has been touring and recording with bassist Avishai Cohen. Doari is a member of the “Yemen Blues” Band and has taken part in the Idan Raichel Project albums, his recordings, altogether, winning him high acclaim. Doari’s participation in “Avital Meets Avital” displayed a sensitive ear to each different item as well as good taste, clean gestures, restraint, joy and energy. Sitting on a cajón drum and surrounded by other drums, bells, cymbals etc., he quickly tuned into the mood of each piece. His solo piece was one of virtuosic flair and unbridled energy.

At 10 o’clock on a balmy Jerusalem evening, with the heat of a summer’s day well behind us, “Avital Meets Avital” brought four of Israel’s finest artists together to make music. This kind of event is fine festival fare. The audience enjoyed every moment of it.