Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ensemble PHOENIX premieres Velasco's "Venus and Adonis"

Photo: Andres Lacko
The Israeli premiere of Tomás de Torrejón y Velasco’s (1644-1728) opera “Venus and Adonis – La Purpura de la Rosa” (The Blood of the Rose), performed by Ensemble PHOENIX and VOCE PHOENIX (director: Myrna Herzog) took place in the Kiryat Ye’arim Church on September 26th 2013 as part of the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. Composed in Peru in 1701, this was the first opera written and staged in the New World. Using a revised version of the score she put together, Myrna Herzog directed a team of local singers and players. Stage director was Regina Alexandrovskaya of the Israeli Opera.

The plot of “Venus and Adonis” is the proverbial ménage à trois situation, a story of manipulation, jealousy and suspicion doused with a good measure of mythological fantasy and the powers of nature and fate. One of the more curious features of this story is the unconventional subversion of male-female interaction. Here, it is Venus who calls the cards, wielding power and mischief, leaving Mars hurt and in the weaker position. Cupid is everywhere and hard at work updating, shooting arrows and eavesdropping. The noble Adonis, who had rescued Venus, is gored to death by a wild boar. Whether your family therapist would agree with the final apotheosis or not, Venus ends up ascending to the heavens as the evening star and Adonis as the flower of sacrificial virtue.

Here was another groundbreaking event initiated and directed by Dr. Myrna Herzog. It began with her finding a score of the opera in New York some years back and returning to Israel with the hope of performing it one day with her PHOENIX musicians. Following a conversation with Hanna Tzur (musical director of the Abu Gosh Festival) in which Tzur suggested Herzog stage the work at the Abu Gosh Festival, Ensemble PHOENIX founder and director set to preparing a new score of the opera from a new transcription sent to her by Diana Fernández Calvo (one of Argentina’s most important women composers). Herzog’s project included translating the complete score into English for the sake of her Israeli musicians. In her great love of theatre and Baroque opera in particular, each word of the text would be of importance to presenting an authentic- and convincing performance. In rehearsals, Brazilian-born Herzog explained each nuance and idiom of the Spanish text to her singers and players; no metaphor or play-on-words was to pass unaddressed. She told me that the rehearsal process was a voyage of self-discovery for all the singers, as each took on the personality and emotions of the character(s) at hand. So, what the festival audience was presented with was a theatrically staged performance that shone, moved with energy, surprised and delighted.

As usual, Myrna Herzog’s choice of singers included some artists at the height of their careers and some new faces. Revital Raviv presented the scheming, feminine, languorous and appealing Venus with alacrity, her pearly soprano voice as fresh as ever. Hadas Faran-Asia portrayed Adonis with presence and competence, her large, fruity vocal timbre expressing the impending tragedy of the situation, her dramatic coloration of the text reaching out into all corners of the church. A Spanish speaker, soprano Michal Okon is on home territory in this medium. As Bellona, Mars’ sister, the Roman goddess of war, she addresses both audience and stage to inspire warlike frenzy, her sturdy, stable voice serving the role well. Countertenor Alon Harari was a charismatic Mars, Venus’ hurt, (has-been) lover, giving full passion to the role of a man caught in the dramatic gridlock of the situation. His articulacy and his compellingly well-endowed and very beautiful vocal timbre drew the audience deeper into the musical/theatrical experience. Then there is the multi-faceted artist Eliav Lavi. As a member of the instrumental ensemble, he played both theorbo and Baroque guitar; a tenor, he also sang three roles, sang in ensembles, often playing and singing at the same time. His versatility – including his sonorous voice venturing down into bass range! - added much to the dynamic character of the work. A feather in his cap! Talia Dishon made for an excellent Cupid, her dynamic, whimsical, imp-like facial expressions and fleet-of-foot movements genially used to advise and manipulate as she flitted around the stage; her easeful and creamy soprano timbre provided listeners with much felicity. Ella Rosner and Liat Lidor gave charming, informed presence to their roles as peasant girls (and other roles). The opera includes many vocal ensembles; consisting of mostly high voices, these were well coordinated, creating the silvery brightness of the rustic scene. Ensemble pieces sung behind the orchestra evoked more intimate interaction.

Regina Alexandrovskaya’s stage direction excelled in its small, effective touches. The opera opened with singers entering the stage as contemporary people in street clothing - one talking on a cell ‘phone, another reading a newspaper, another wearing earphones, some carrying brightly colored, fashionable handbags, etc. My fear was that we were about to see yet another opera in contemporary dress and staging. But, no. As if to transport us from the 21st century back to the early 18th century, these modern items disappeared into thin air, enabling us to leave today’s reality and revel in the pastoral atmosphere. Costumes were suited to quick changes – hats, pretty floral garlands, togas and a pair of wings for Cupid, as well as black masks and funereal black outfits worn by Fear, Suspicion, Envy and Wrath. This costuming was simple, humorous and effective, with no bombastic outfits to distract one’s attention from the emotional undercurrents and obstacle course of the love story itself. One of the most humorous moments was when Eliav Lavi (the ultimate quick-change artist) suddenly appeared as Blackbearded Disappointment, leaning on a stick, wearing a black hat and dark glasses and carrying shackles! Another clever effect was that of a scarf held in the form of a frame to represent a mirror: through this mirror, Mars sees Venus embracing Adonis.

Seated on stage, Herzog’s instrumental ensemble created the magical colors of the score, one spiced with many jaunty dance rhythms and the rich timbral colors inherent in Peruvian music. In this work, the continuo part is very tricky, sometimes deviating drastically from the vocal parts. The ensemble consisted of Marina Minkin-harpsichord, Sunita Stanislow-harp, Eliav Lavi-theorbo, Baroque guitar, Alberto Fernandes-violone, Nadav Gaiman-percussion and Myrna Herzog-viol and schryari. (The latter is a strident-sounding 16th and 17th century double-reeded instrument used only in the military scenes of the opera.) The ensemble supported the singers articulately and entertained with vigor and eloquence.

Ensemble PHOENIX’ premiere of “Venus and Adonis – La Purpura de la Rosa” issued in the new concert season with a fresh and exciting event that brought many curious lovers of opera and Baroque music to the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. They were not disappointed! More performances of the opera will take place in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa in December 2013.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Opening concert of the 4th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar

The 4th Tel Aviv International Early Music Seminar, directed by recorder player and educationalist Drora Bruck, opened on September 19th 2013 at the Israel Conservatory of Music with a concert performed by some of the course tutors. 168 participants from Israel and further afield will spend a concentrated week of tuition and performance under the guidance of some of Israel’s finest early music specialists, not to speak of a very impressive line-up of renowned overseas artists. In addition to the workshop, the Israel Conservatory will also host an international conference – “Training Early Musicians in the Age of Recordings” September 23rd-24th; the conference will be chaired by Dr. Uri Golomb (Tel Aviv University) and Dr. Alon Schab (University of Haifa).
Following words of greeting, the event opened with a performance of A. Corelli’s Sonata in D major for violin and harpsichord, performed by violinist Enrico Gatti (Italy) and harpsichordist Noam Krieger (Israel-Holland). The artists presented the audience with much of the raison d’être of Corelli’s violin sonatas and why they have remained popular not just as pedagogical works. We heard effective contrasts between movements, energy and lyricism, with Gatti leaning into some of the more surprising harmonies. In the last movement, Gatti and Krieger juggled syncopations and other quirky rhythmic combinations entertainingly. But, most of all, their playing of the sonata was a lesson in ornamentation – of the techniques, fantasy and daring involved in the kind of rich embellishment Italian music likes!

One of the evening’s treats was Israeli harpsichordist Netta Ladar’s beautifully chiseled performance of the Allemande and Presto from G.F.Händel’s Suite in d minor HWV 428 (1720) from the “Pièces de Clavecin” published to cater to the taste of the more sophisticated circles of the London music scene. Ladar’s eloquent, economically ornamented playing of the Allemande gave the musical discourse time to unfold and breathe in a thought-provoking, secure and calm manner, each subtle gesture dictating the kind of flexibility needed to present it in its full meaning. The Presto, slightly swayed, was solid and energetic and bristling with exciting harpsichord colors. A sense of discovery as well as enjoyment of the familiar lured the listener to follow Ladar through the rondo course.

Noam Krieger and Israeli Baroque ‘cellist Orit Messer Jacobi performed G. Frescobaldi ‘s lively, imitative Canzona quinta detta la Tromboncina, both artists being of one mind on the subject of presenting Frescobaldi’s fast flow of very different ideas in a manner heightening the Italian spicy caprice and dramatic aspects of the music. The artists gave themselves to the improvisatory character of the music, entertaining the audience with color, pizzazz and the wink of an eye.

A member of one of the three largest dynasties of French Baroque music, and a composer mostly writing music for the stage, oboist A.-D. Philidor is known to have published two books for treble instrument and continuo. In just about all of the pieces, the choice of instrument is left to the performer. Only in his Sonata in d minor is the recorder specified. We heard Tamar Lalo (Israel-Spain) playing the recorder solo part, with Noam Krieger and Orit Messer Jacobi forming the continuo. Lalo’s attention to detail and textures, her agile technique and distinctive temperament joined to make for a reading of the work that was expressive, sensuous and singing, also fiery and alive. Fine teamwork showed itself keenly in dialogue and musical involvement, making for interesting listening.

Dutch-born recorder player Kees Boeke, no new face to the Tel Aviv International Music Seminar, is known for his wide scope of musical interest. A program in which he performs is sure to include works less familiar to audiences. This was no exception. With Elam Rotem at the harpsichord, Boeke performed Diminutions on the Palestrina madrigal “Io son ferito” (I am wounded) (1594) by Giovanni Battista Bovicelli. In 1594, Bovicelli, a Franciscan friar and singer, published an instruction manual for instrumentalists to learn the art of playing diminutions – taking a melody and dividing it in many ways through improvisation. The book was considered the gold standard of taste and refinement in the art of improvisation; Bovicelli was one of the most important composers of this genre and he himself was an illustrious improviser. Kees Boeke told me that the composer has written the full vocal text under the diminutions, suggesting that the work might have been intended for a singer…and one of great virtuosity! Boeke decided to slow the original madrigal down in order to make the diminutions musically worthwhile. Playing on a Ganassi-type alto recorder in g, the type of solo instrument that would have been used for this repertoire, Boeke’s articulate and individual playing displayed Bovicelli’s use of extremely florid lines and subtle shifts in harmonic ornamentation. Rotem also had much to say on the harpsichord. Their bright timbres played off in good balance.

Over the last year, Israeli audiences have been hearing some outstanding and moving works – mostly choral - written in early Baroque style by Israeli-born harpsichordist, bass singer and composer Elam Rotem. At the Seminar concert, we heard the composer/performer in a work of the more intimate genre of the solo harpsichord. Rotem performed his Partita sopra La Rosa, composed in 2011 and performed by him for his master’s recital at the Schola Cantorum, Basel, Switzerland. This attractive piece was inspired by similar variation forms from around 1600, mostly based on popular melodies or familiar bass patterns heard in Europe at the time. Here, the La Rosa theme had been written by Rotem himself. His articulate, comfortably-paced playing took the listener through the various devices and contrasts used in variations of the time, the piece ending on a calm note.

We heard Israeli violinist Noam Schuss and Noam Krieger in J.S.Bach’s Sonata no.2 for violin and harpsichord in A major, BWV 1015. The violin and harpsichord sonatas were probably written around 1719, when Bach was in the employ of Prince Leopold of Cöthen. The composer had access to a new German-made harpsichord whose capabilities exceeded those of instruments he had previously been using; thus, the harpsichord roles in the violin sonatas are more challenging and dominant than in previous Bach works. The A major sonata has the harpsichord part written out in full, Bach’s new style of keyboard writing creating the semblance of a trio sonata. Meeting on an equal footing, the two Noams took on board the virtuoso demands of the piece, each in his/her instrumental idiom. The pared-down f-sharp minor Andante canon (third movement) was songful. Throughout, Schuss’ inflective grace and linear clarity were set off well by Krieger’s confrontational playing of the rich harpsichord part. Their energetic reading of the Presto finale rode on melodic- and textural articulacy, never losing sight of its delicate aspects.

The evening closed with G.Ph. Telemann’s Quartet in d minor for recorder (or bassoon), two transverse flutes and basso continuo, TWV 42,d10 (1733) from the Tafelmusik collection. Playing this work, we heard Drora Bruck (recorder), Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard (flutes) and Aviad Stier (harpsichord). The audience was well entertained by the charming dialogue between recorder and both flutes, at moments when all three parts imitated an answered one another, at many others, with the flutes flowing in parallel thirds and suspensions (reminiscent of Corelli trio sonatas). Shemer and Blanchard are an experienced duo, blending elegantly, but, once again, Telemann proves that flutes and recorders can converse in finely blended sonority. Following the serenity and repose of the Largo, the final Allegro, sparkling with vibrant dialogue and playfulness, reminded us of the Polish folk music influence on Telemann’s music, this glittering ‘musique de table” bringing the concert to a delightful end.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Classical saxophone features in a concert in the Jerusalem Hills

Nestling in the Judean Hills is the tranquil village of Nataf. The “Teatron Bahatzer” (Theatre in the Yard) is an outdoor theatre functioning over the summer months in the grounds of the private home of Hadassa and Eitan Jacobus. In recent years, the Teatron Bahatzer has been hosting a great variety of cultural events, from music to dance to theatre and literary evenings. This charming, unique venue draws its audience from both the surrounding communities as well as from further afield. With a strong background in acting and theatre in education, Hadassa spends the winter months selecting artists and events that make for richly varied and thought-provoking fare for many a balmy evening.

This writer attended an evening there titled “Classical and Unconventional” on August 31st 2013. Artists performing were Gan Lev–saxophone, Rachel Mazor–saxophone/flute and Netanel Fastman-piano. The concert focused on the saxophone as a classical instrument. Reminding us that the saxophone is not solely a jazz instrument, Gan Lev mentioned that French composers, such as Bizet, were those who developed the tradition of using the saxophone as a classical instrument; they also contributed to the development of the instrument itself. Having studied in Israel, New York and Paris, Lev has performed with Israel’s finest orchestras, touring with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He has been instrumental in bringing the repertoire and technique to Israel. A founder of the Ensemble Nikel (Israel), a member of the prestigious Israel Contemporary Players, the Tempera Ensemble (Israel) and the Tel Aviv Saxophone Quartet, he established the course for classical saxophonists at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in 2000.

Rachel Mazor studied the flute with Uri Shoham, also studying saxophone with Boris Gammer in the Jazz Faculty of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Today she is learning classical saxophone with Gan Lev. She has played flute and saxophone in several ensembles and has taught music in schools and music centres. In recent years she has been joined by Ofri Akiva in performances of original text readings together with music.

A student of Professor Eitan Globerson and Professor Michael Bugoslavsky, pianist Netanel Fastman received bachelors and masters degrees from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. He was awarded scholarships for excellence in chamber music performance and the Academy Competition Prize. As a solo pianist, in chamber ensembles and accompanying singers, he has performed in festivals and master classes in Israel and overseas.

The program opened with J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor, BWV 1060 played on two saxophones and piano. (Existing as a concerto for harpsichord and strings, there is a reconstructed version of it for two violins or violin and oboe.) Gan Lev and Rachel Mazor gave a sympathetic and informed reading of the work, engaging in fine contrapuntal dialogue and communicative and expressive dialogue. In the middle cantabile movement, the artists kept a safe distance from sentimental playing, allowing the poignancy of the music to speak for itself; they also avoided breakneck tempi (too often heard in the concert hall) in the lively outer movements. The piano (Netanel Fastman) came off as the poor relation in this performance: the piano sound needed more amplification, became diffuse in the outdoor venue, with the richness and beauty of Bach’s melodic- and harmonic gestures not audible or integral enough to achieve (the continuo’s) expressive goals.

Remaining in the Baroque, we heard Lev and Mazor performing G.Ph.Telemann’s (1681-1767) Canonic Sonata no.1 in G major, played on two saxophones. First published in 1738 as one of a set of six, the sonata is mostly performed on recorders or Baroque transverse flutes (Telemann, himself, was a recorder virtuoso) but sometimes on violins; settings for violas and ‘cellos also exist. Mazor and Lev’s reading of the work adhered clearly to Telemann’s ideas, bringing out the style of Baroque strict canon-playing, using different textures to evoke the work’s light playfulness and Telemann’s sometimes surprising counterpoint as well as his good humor. Their intonation was good. The poignant middle movement, with its unusual rhythm based on the Scotch snap, was played attentively and with delicacy.

The prolific French composer Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) was a pupil of Massenet and Fauré, the latter proving to be the greatest influence on Koechlin’s colorful, eclectic, user-friendly and somewhat Impressionistic style. A theorist, educationalist and a significant figure in the vibrant early 20th century whirl of Parisian culture, Koechlin wrote for nearly every medium, including much music for Hollywood movies. His interest in the saxophone was linked to this enthusiasm for 1930s cinema. In his “Traité de l’orchestration” (Treatise on Orchestration) he praised the saxophone, the then new instrument of Adolphe Sax, for its sonority and agility and he composed a set of 15 studies for it. His 24 Duos for 2 Saxophones opus 186 were composed in 1946. Mazor and Lev played two of Koechlin’s duets, two tasty morsels peppered with gentle dissonances, hinting at modality and graceful polytonality, yet stamped with the composer’s multi-genre personal idiom. When in his 60s, Koechlin became infatuated with the screen persona of the German-born actress Jean Harlow and started to write much music in her honor. He even had plans to propose marriage to her, but it is thought that they never actually met in person. When she died in the summer of 1937 at age 26, he composed a romance for flute, alto saxophone and piano - the “Epitaph for Jean Harlow” opus 164. The trio at Nataf - Rachel Mazor on the flute part, Gan Lev on saxophone and Netanel Fastman on piano - recreated Koechlin’s imaginative play of timbres and harmonic color, calling on associations with Fauré’s style in a performance abundant in lush, sensuous flowing melodic lines, French charm and enough freedom to allow for different moods to dictate tempi. Here, the piano fared better, with Fastman more audible and present. On his score of “Epitaph”, Koechlin quoted two lines from “Ėpiphanie”, a poem by Leconte de Lisle:
‘Quand le souffle furtif glisse en ses cheveux blonds,
Une cendre ineffable inonde son épaule…’
(When a furtive breeze riffles her blond hair,
Ineffable ashes wash over her shoulder.)

Commissioned as a competition (and sight-reading!) piece in 1898 by flautist and teacher Paul Taffanel, Gabriel Fauré’s (1845-1924) “Fantasie” in e minor opus 79 was originally composed for flute and piano (or orchestra). Louis Moyse transcribed it for two flutes and piano. Louis Aubert made an orchestral arrangement of it. The transcription we heard for two saxophones and piano was written by young Israeli dancer and composer Matan Daskal and was premiered at this concert. Fauré spent much time and effort on writing the work, referring to the task as “irksome torture…plunged up to my neck in scales, arpeggios and staccati…” Yet the airily effusive and rapturous piece, at times mercurial, belies nothing of its compositional hardships. Mazor and Lev’s playing of it was breezily cantabile and fluid, delighting the audience. As to the piano part, Fauré’s luxuriant harmonies were not sufficiently audible.

The recital concluded with a piece by Swedish composer, organist, pianist and conductor Erland von Koch (1910-2009). “Birthday Music for Sigurd M. Rascher” was composed in 1987 to celebrate the 80th birthday of the German-born classical saxophonist, whose frequent contact with composers resulted in much fine music being written for the instrument. Composed for two alto saxophones, von Koch’s work is essentially tonal and melodic, evoking fanfares, marches, folk melodies, some percussive effects, much joy and plenty of whimsical dialogue. Its clean lines and expressiveness were given life and energy by Mazor and Lev, making for an accessible and hearty piece to end the concert.

Following a short intermission, the audience viewed “A Bird Wrapped in a Grey Coat”, an original work by Ella Rothschild (text, choreography, dance) and Matan Daskal (music). The music was played 4-hands on piano by Daskal and Netanel Fastman. Rothschild interspersed her dance sequences with the narration of a dramatic and bleak story. Daskal’s score was a kaleidoscope offering a glimpse into many musical styles and textures, classical and otherwise; it was expressive, artistic and colorful, his playing and that of Fastman nuanced and pianistic. The Teatron Bahatzer is the perfect venue for non-mainstream performance of this kind, with an audience open to new ideas.

Matan Daskal (b.1988) has danced in the Batsheva Dance Company, with Yasmeen Godder, Sharon Eyal and Iris Erez. Following studies at the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music and focus on Composition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, he moved to Barcelona, where he is presently studying at the Catalonia College of Music. Ella Rothschild (b.1984) was a dancer in the Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollack Dance Company. She then joined the Batsheva Dance Company. She has since worked with several renowned choreographers. Today she works alone, creating works in the realm of multidisciplinary art forms.