Monday, July 29, 2013

Centennial of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" at the Tel Aviv Opera House

The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion and the Israel Ballet collaborated in a gala concert celebrating the centennial of the premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet music “The Rite of Spring”. The event took place to a packed hall of the Opera House at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on July 28th 2013 in the presence of Ms. Limor Livnat, Minister of Culture and Sport. The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, founded in 1988, also serving as the resident orchestra of the New Israeli Opera, has established itself as one of Israel’s finest orchestras, performing the gamut of orchestral music. It was the first Israeli orchestra to perform works by Richard Strauss, Alexander Zemlinsky and other composers, has issued CDs of live performances, including those of Israeli works, and has made concert tours in Europe and South America. Born in Israel in 1971, Dan Ettinger, the ISO’s musical director, began his musical career as a baritone singer, performing with the Israeli Opera and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He is an accomplished pianist, accompanist and coach and was a faculty member of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and Tel Aviv University. Today Ettinger also serves as the general music director of the Mannheim Opera and of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. With the orchestra on stage, the event opened with Alexander Borodin’s (1833-1887) “Polovtsian Dances” from his opera “Prince Igor”. In 1869, Borodin began working on “Prince Igor”, an opera based on a Russian epic from the 12th century. It tells of the heroic Russian warrior, Prince Igor, who goes to war with the Polovtsi, a Tatar warrior tribe. When a sudden eclipse of the sun portends the defeat of his army, the prince is captured by the Polovtsi leader who tries to seduce Igor by means of the sensuous dancing of the Polovtsian slave maidens. Igor, however, manages to escape. Borodin and his colleagues were intrigued by all aspects of music from the regions of the vast Russian steppe. Borodin, himself, conducted his own research into the music of the Polovtsian tribes; this, however, does not mean that this work bears direct correlation with the authentic, ethnic, musical style of the Polovtsi tribes. The original version of the Polovtsian Dances was for chorus and orchestra. The version we heard – for orchestra – is that most commonly performed today. (In addition to its role as ballet music, themes from the dances are familiar to many of us from the 1953 Broadway musical “Kismet”.) Ettinger and his large number of players conjured up the work’s modal evocation of exotic “orientalism”. This is a work calling for fine wind- and percussion playing and the ISO did not disappoint, from the opening whirling melody on clarinet and oboe, to the famous “Stranger in Paradise” tune on oboe and English horn, to such percussion instruments as tambourines and finger cymbals. This is a wonderful concert piece; Ettinger, contrasting its nostalgic moments with its hedonistic aspects, retains an orchestral sound that is well blended and balanced. For the second work – and the centre piece of the program - the orchestra remained seated on stage. Presenting Igor Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) “Rite of Spring”, members of the Israel Ballet would perform Jerusalem-born dancer and choreographer Ido Tadmor’s dance version of the work at the front of the stage. Composed on the eve of World War I and the Russian Revolution, its notorious premiere, with Nijinsky’s groundbreaking and provocative choreography, elicited so much resistance that the music itself was frequently inaudible. But its musical style, too, where gestures interact and superimpose with each other with daring, challenged the musical perspective and logic present for centuries in Europe, exalting a new and explosive sense of movement. Ido Tadmor’s choreography took a very different approach to that of Nijinsky. He creates beautiful patterns with his dancers, who are essentially classical ballet dancers. With women on points, the dancers are elegant, coordinated, pleasing to the eye and certainly energetic. Here is a “Rite of Spring” less libidinous, less dramatic in its development, less jagged, less urgent and less based on tribal intensity. Tadmor (b. 1964, Jerusalem, artistic director of the Israel Ballet since 2013, head of the
dance department of the Ironi H High School in Haifa and artistic advisor to the Haifa Municipality and Haifa Theatre) is not out to recreate atavistic primitivism; neither is he interested in reenacting a scandalous scenario as of 100 years ago. What was most effective was the visual experience of watching both orchestra and dancers creating the work on the same stage. The ISO presented the complex score, unfolding before the audience’s eyes, beginning with that unforgettable eerie, high unaccompanied bassoon solo and, in the course of the piece, punctuated by the unique, threatening and spine-chilling sword motif. And, as we hear and watch it all happening, we are reminded that, from small, simple melodic patterns, Stravinsky has fashioned a canvas that is harsh, sensual, savage and haunting, but also lyrical, from dissonances peppered with pulsating cross-rhythms, crunching harmonies and the multi-layering of rhythmic motifs. Ettinger juggles all of these with amazing eloquence and intelligible clarity, not advocating opaque textures in the name of pagan ritual music. For the third work on the program, with the orchestra now placed in orchestra pit, we moved back n style to the world of classical white ballet with Michel Fokine’s choreography of “Les Sylphides”. Premiered in 1907 as a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, this is a ballet with no story line; the music consists of Glazunov’s orchestration of Frédéric Chopin piano pieces in a ballet titled “Chopiniana” – well-loved waltzes, mazurkas, a nocturne and a prelude. When the curtain rose at the Tel Aviv Opera House performance, a lush, tranquil backdrop suggesting a moonlit park set the work’s Romantic, dreamy mood. In the ballet, a young man (sometimes referred to as a poet) walking at night encounters a group of white sylphs dancing in the moonlight. The man joins in and dances with the sylphs. The Israel Ballet gave a performance that was visually very charming, authentic in style and dress and elegant. The solos were pleasing. Once again, Dan Ettinger and the ISO Rishon LeZion gave a well-shaped and detailed reading of the score. The impressive Opera House hall constituted a suitable venue for this festive event.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Christiane Kessler in an organ recital at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

On July 20th 2013, Christiane Kessler played an organ recital at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem. Ms. Kessler, a church organist and choral conductor from Marburg (Germany), gives two to four recitals per year; she was in Jerusalem for a month also to accompany services at the Lutheran Church. This was her first recital in Israel. The organ of the Redeemer Church was built in Berlin by Karl Schuke in 1971. It has 21 registers connected to two manuals and the pedal. It is an instrument rich in color and energy. From 1976 to 1980 Christiane Kessler studied Church Music in Frankfurt am Main, working as a regional church musician near Frankfurt from 1981 to 1994. Moving to Marburg in 2000, Ms. Kessler is organ professor in Schluechtern and a tutor at the Summer Academies for young Organists at the Baltic Sea.

The concert opened with Concerto in G major by the little-known North German composer Christoph Wolfgang Drückenmüller, of whom there are few works. Kessler’s playing of the work was vivacious, fresh, exact and well defined in character. This was followed by Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni’s (1671-1750) Adagio in g minor, a work only discovered in 1940 by musicologist Remo Giazotto in the Dresden State Library. A reconstruction based on realization of the figured bass, possibly for organ, it was probably a fragment of a sonata da chiesa. The work is mostly Giazotto’s, with Albinoni’s two thematic elements consisting of only six bars. Kessler presented the work’s poignant pathos, its melodic tranquility and elegiac character.

An interesting item on the program was Fantasia in g minor by Czechoslovakian organist, harpsichordist and composer Jan Křtitel Kuchař, one of the first musicians to recognize and publicize Mozart’s works. Bohemia’s leading organist of the Rococo style and one of the few composers to see the organ as a full-blown solo instrument, Kuchař’s best-known compositions are those for organ. Constructed in an ABCBA cyclic form, one hears the influence of Mozart’s style and the polyphonic richness of organ repertoire in the g minor Fantasia. Kessler brought out its spontaneous character and textural possibilities – ranging from intense denseness to light, bell-like and even naïve utterances.

It takes an organ recital of this kind to remind the concert-goer that the great and versatile musician and artist Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was both an accomplished organist, a skilful improviser on the instrument and the first composer of international renown after Bach to return to the organ. He composed several dozen organ pieces of one kind or another.  One important collection is that of the “Three Preludes and Fugues” opus 37 (1837), dedicated to the English organist Thomas Attwood, with whom Mendelssohn was acquainted. Christiane Kessler’s playing of two preludes showed Mendelssohn at his most traditional, with Baroque forms and Romantic techniques not at all incompatible.  The Prelude in G major exuded a sense of well-being, with the C major played in more strident timbres. Also of the German organ repertoire, we heard Josef Gabriel Rheinberger’s (1839-1901) Cantilena in F major opus 148 from one of his 20 organ sonatas. Rheinberger’s organ had no swell division; dynamic changes could be created only by adding or taking off stops. He disliked ostentation and avoided dramatic writing. The Cantilena is, therefore, conservative and Classical in concept, but the piece is highly melodious, accessible and wistfully sentimental, with ascending and descending octaves in the pedal.

Moving to France, Théodore Salomé (1834-1896) was well-known not only for his brilliant organ-playing but also for his chamber music, piano pieces, songs and church music. The three pieces of his Kessler played are probably used in church services; they displayed the compelling grandness and full use of organ sonority. French organist and composer Louis Lefébure-Wély (1817-1869), who was instrumental in the development of French organ music, in particular, in the evolution of French symphonic organ style, also wrote other instrumental music and a comic opera. A highly respected figure on the music scene and in the bourgeois salons of Paris, he held some of the most prestigious organ posts the city. He was known for his exceptional pedal technique. Christiane Kessler chose to perform two contrasting pieces by Lefébure-Wély. The first was Andante: “Choeur de Voix humaines” (Chorus of the Nuns) – an interesting and especially lush combination of dark-colored bass sounds, reedy melody and a brighter embellishing voice.  Kessler’s energetic playing displayed the panache (and the composer’s penchant for secular music) in her playing of the flamboyant “Boléro de concert”. The latter piece boasted much Spanish flavor, its middle section evoking a village fairground.  

Austin Lovelace (1919-2012) was one of America’s most distinguished church musicians, a prolific composer of hymnody and organ music and educator in the field. His “Gigue for Fanfare Trumpet”, although tonal, avoids cliché writing. Its joyful mood makes good use of woodwind- and brass stops. We heard a short piece by another American composer – David German (b.1954). “Festive Trumpet Tune”, also tonal in concept, features the festive sound of the trumpet (the score includes a separate trumpet part).

This was an especially interesting selection of organ works, introducing the audience to some lesser-known works and covering three centuries of music from Europe and the USA. Christiane Kessler’s playing is vivid and informed and audiences can enjoy her interest in the wide gamut of organ repertoire. Talking to her over a glass of wine following the recital, Ms. Kessler said she was looking forward to having more time to explore the dynamic action of the organ in the Redeemer Church. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Doret Florentin and Gideon Brettler perform at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

Once Jerusalem’s summer evenings become pleasant and balmy, it is delightful to attend concerts
of the “Summer Nights in the Courtyard” series. The “courtyard” refers to the medieval cloister that forms an inner courtyard to the complex of the Lutheran Redeemer Church in the Muristan Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. It was June 29th 2013 and we were to hear a recital by recorder-player Doret Florentin and guitarist Gideon Brettler.

Born in Thessaloniki, Greece, Doret Florentin took bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music at Tel Aviv University, with a B.A. also in Mathematics and Statistics, then continuing her studies at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. Since 2003, she has been studying the historical bassoon. A founding member of the “Me La Amargates Tú” ensemble, she has performed internationally as a soloist and with various groups. Back in Israel since 2008, Florentin performs and teaches recorder in various places, including the Levinsky College (Tel Aviv).

Gideon Brettler took music studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and the Mannes College of Music (New York), following with a post-graduate degree with Laura Young at the Escuela Luthier (Barcelona). He performs as a soloist, at festivals and with various chamber ensembles. In 2005, Brettler won first prize in the Israeli National Guitar Competition as well as a special prize awarded by the Spanish Embassy in Israel for the interpretation of Spanish Music.

I was seated in the courtyard of the Lutheran Redeemer Church for some minutes before the beginning of the concert; the sounds all around us were a random mix of the muezzin calling to prayer and the excited twittering of hundreds of birds wheeling around the twilit sky above us. But, as people took their seats and the last rays of sunset took their leave, evening silence and tranquility descended on the leafy outdoor venue and the concert began.

Works performed encompassed music of the 16th to the 20th centuries, beginning with Florentin’s solo performance of “The English Nightingale” from Jacob van Eyck’s (1590-1657) “The Flute’s Garden of Delights”. 140 melodies with variations, this collection would have been a staple of 17th century Dutch household music, played by the Utrecht carillonneur (van Eyck), himself a virtuoso recorder player, and by other competent amateurs. This is some of the most challenging material for the soprano recorder. Florentin presented the charming piece with clear two-voiced banter, variously shaped bird calls (also using Flatterzunge), plenty of temperament and ornaments galore.

We then heard a number of works for alto recorder from the Baroque repertoire, with Brettler providing the harpsichord basso continuo role on the guitar, no mean feat. The first was G.P.Telemann’s (1681-1767) Sonata in C major, composed specifically for recorder around 1727 - delightful music for both players and listeners. G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) Sonata in F major HWV 369, opened with the noble and velvety Grave movement. Florentin has a love of embellishment; in this movement, she adds ornamentation without losing sight of its tranquil character. The two fast movements were entertaining rather than showy. The artists took the Siciliano movement at a relaxed pace, creating a mood piece seemingly enhanced by the gentle swaying of trees in the courtyard, the occasional leaf floating down in free flight. From oboist, flautist and recorder-player Giuseppe Baldassare Sammartini’s (1695-1750) “24 Sonatas for Flute and Bass”, Florentin and Brettler performed Sonata no. 7. This single-movement, late-Baroque work consists of a theme and variations, the virtuoso recorder part handled in great detail by Florentin, with her palette of imaginative effects and textures coming into play. Here was a good opportunity to hear a work by an undeservedly neglected composer who was actually an exceptionally influential and forward-looking composer of his time!   

Also representative of German Baroque repertoire for solo alto recorder are Telemann’s “Twelve Fantasias for Solo Flute”, published in Hamburg (1732-1733). Performing Sonata no.2 in a minor, Florentin shows the audience that the work – apparantly a sonata da chiesa – is, indeed, a fantasia. In fact, only an artist who is daring and spontaneous can really catch the spirit of this unique music. Florentin spells out the contrasts between each of the small movements, playing them with freedom and imagination and emphasizing the work’s rhetorical character.

Prior to performing works written specifically for the guitar, Gideon Brettler performed an arrangement of Domenico Scarlatti’s (1685-1757) Harpsichord Sonata in A major K.208. Marked “Andante e cantabile”, this is one of the 555 short keyboard sonatas best suited for transcription to guitar. Beginning with a leisurely rising arpeggio, Brettler fuses Scarlatti’s anticipations and chromatic alterations into a spontaneous whole as he bends rhythmic ideas in an expressive, personal manner to create a poignant reverie.  Then, to Isaac Albéniz’ ((1860-1909) prelude “Asturias” opus 47, no.5 of “Suite Espanola”, composed (originally for piano) in the early 1890s in London, in which the composer expresses nostalgia for his native Spain. This is expressed through references to flamenco music and that of Moorish tradition. The work has become one of the most important of classical guitar repertoire. Brettler’s reading of it is dexterous, the piece’s excitement tempered with poise and clarity. In his sensitive performance of Prelude no.4 in e minor of the six composed in 1940 by Heitor Villa-Lobos’ (1887-1959), Brettler brings out the work’s mystery, its mellow and exotic timbres, colored with echoes of Impressionism and the music of the Indians of Brazil.

Moving to Italy, we heard Duet no. 1 in D major opus 158 by the Italian-turned-Parisian guitar master Ferdinando Carulli (1770-1841).  This straight-forward salon music, now being rediscovered, offers much melodic elegance…almost Mozartian in character. Florentin and Brettler’s skillful playing displayed the music’s vitality and charm, their close interaction and interweaving of timbres fresh and surprising.

The concert ended on a breezy, upbeat note, with one of Argentinean composer Ástor Piazzolla’s (1921-1992) most popular works - “Libertango”. Composed in 1974, the composer referred to it as “a sort of song of liberty”. Brettler and Florentin juggled the piece’s pulsing rhythms and its textures and South American flavors, with Florentin winding the sinuous and irresistible themes in and around the ostinato accompaniment. For an encore, the artists played Scott Joplin’s (1868-1917) rag “The Strenuous Life” (1902), the title inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s collection of essays in which he advocates that Americans should work hard and accomplish more. Naïve and dancelike, making use of the brighter sound of the soprano recorder, the carefree music seems unrelated  to Roosevelt’s weighty texts, its small twists and teasing moments ending the concert with the wink of an eye!

Following the concert, Wolfgang Schmidt, Provost of the Church of the Redeemer, invited the audience for a glass of wine and to attend the opening of an exhibition in the refectory - “Sum-E Calligraphy of the Soul” and “The Road for Peace” - by Belgian artist Annie Fischler.