Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Solo song recital in Jerusalem at the first Israeli Rachmaninoff Festival

The first Israeli Rachmaninoff Festival took place in Jerusalem from November 17th to 21st 2013; the five events commemorated the 140th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Artistic director of the festival Professor Alexander Tamir was assisted by Maestro Ilya Plotkin - founder and conductor of Musica Aeterna and Opera Aeterna - and music journalist Vladimir Mak. Mrs. Eleonore Plotkin, untiring in her work with Musica Aeterna, Opera Aeterna and other musical projects, took on production of the festival. Supporting the festival was TENA, the organization promoting immigrant artists. The festival included solo piano music, chamber music and solo vocal music, with the closing event consisting of sacred music by Rachmaninoff performed by the Musica Aeterna Ensemble at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Jerusalem’s Russian Compound.

This writer attended the solo vocal concert on November 20th at the Harmony Hall, downtown Jerusalem. Most of the audience was from the Russian-speaking community. The program consisted of romances and opera arias. Eleonore Plotkin offered brief introductions to the songs and artists, explaining the reason for including two Tchaikovsky romances and one Prokofiev opera aria. Separated by more than 30 years, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff expressed mutual admiration for each other’s music. Tchaikovsky’s own songs were highly influential on the young composer, this heard, in particular, in Rachmaninoff’s early songs. Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff’s shared fate was that they both left Russia and both suffered longing for their home country. One of the finest pianists of his day, conductor and composer Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff was born in Veliky Novgorod in 1873 and died in the USA in 1943.

The concert opened with mezzo-soprano Svetlana Sandler’s performance of two Tchaikovsky romances. Sandler immigrated to Israel some 20 years ago; she has performed with the Israeli Opera Studio, the Israel Vocal Arts Institute, The Israeli Opera, the Hannover State Opera, the Alte Frankfurt Opera and the Opéra National de Lorraine et Nancy as well as solo appearances with orchestras. Her powerful and fine mix of head- and chest voice was matched by dramatic flair and emotional expression, contrasted with lyrical- and light-weight moments, in which she created a delicate weaving of melodic lines through the piano texture. Sandler and pianist Irina Zheleznova presented a compelling reading of “Do Not Sing, My Beauty” (opus 4), composed by the 19-year-old Rachmaninoff in his first setting of a Pushkin poem, the folk-like melodic line set against a rich piano canvas of harmonic tensions, modal chords and inner voices articulately sketched into the rich keyboard texture:
‘Do not sing for me, my beauty,
Your sad songs of yore;
For they wake deep from my memory
Another life and a distant shore.’ (Translation: Edward Lein)

Young bass-baritone Yacov Strizak immigrated to Israel a year year ago. In his native Russia, he studied at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and performed under Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky Theatre (St. Petersburg). Today Strizak is a member of the Israeli Opera Studio and Musica Aeterna. In the Rachmaninoff concert, he opened with Kutuzov’s aria from Prokofiev’s 1942 opera “War and Peace”, convincingly creating the general’s dilemma in which he decides that only by retreating and potentially sacrificing Moscow would there be any hope of victory. In his performance of “In My Soul” (text: Nicolai Minsky) from Rachmaninoff’s Romances opus 14, he and Zheleznova created the song’s still, dejected mood, with Strizak’s sensitive singing of the somewhat exotic melodic line communicating the hopeless feelings of failed love.

Born in Yaroslavl, Russia, Olga Senderskaya graduated from the Marinsky Theater Academy of Young Opera Singers and the St. Petersburg Conservatory. The recipient of many awards, Senderskaya performs in opera houses throughout Europe. In the Rachmaninoff Festival concert, she performed some songs from the composer’s “Six Songs” opus 38 (1916), his last set of songs composed in the romance genre. These last songs show the composer’s use of a subtler harmonic- and melodic language as influenced by Symbolist poetry, repertoire in which he achieves a unique synthesis of his powerful style of keyboard writing with sensitive insight as to vocal expression. In "At Night in my Garden", with delicate piano figures suggesting the warm, sad night described in the Armenian poet Avetik Isaacian’s text, Sadarsky joined Zheleznova’s evocative, transparent textures with varied vocal hues to give meaning to different words and ideas. As well as her fragile treatment of “Dreams”, in its delicate musical textures with a soft-textured, lulling accompaniment creating the elusive nature of the text, we heard “Au”, sometimes called “The Quest” (words: Konstantin Balmont) with the cry of pain bursting out in the last line to express that, once again, one’s love can not be found. Olga Sadarsky communicates with face and eyes, affording even the non-Russian speaker involvement in the matter at hand.

In baritone Igor Tavrovsky’s performance of the superb miniatures, no gesture was left unaddressed. “When Yesterday We Met”, of the 15 songs of Rachmaninoff’s Opus 26, composed when the composer was 33, was nostalgic and fraught with anguish and disappointment. In the immensely dramatic “I Am Alone Again” (text: Ivan Bunin) Tavrovsky’s focused and compelling performance presented the drama of the soul in a real and accessible manner. In the romance, a young man is aware his beloved is leaving him:
‘I am alone again.
How bright, how decorated is the spring!
And tell me: Why have you become so melancholy,
Why have you become so affectionate?

But you are silent, as weak as a flower…
Hush now! I need no confession…
I have recognized this affection of parting…
I am alone again.’
In “Yesterday We Met” (words: Yakov Polonsky), also from Opus 26, a man happens on a chance meeting with a former lover; the music itself offers insight into the delicate situation, with its constant changes and pauses. Tavrovsky also performed Aleko’s Cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s opera “Aleko”, a tour-de-force of vocalism and drama in which Aleko remembers when he and the gypsy women Zemfira were in love and his pain when she finds love with a younger man.

Pianist Irina Zheleznova’s input to the whole evening was powerful and significant. Zheleznova studied at the Tchaikovsky State Conservatory Academy (Moscow), earning a Ph.D. in chamber music. She went on to become associate professor at the Uzbek State Conservatory and has won several duo-piano competitions. She immigrated to Israel in 2008, teaches at the Israel Conservatory of music in Tel Aviv and is a member of faculty of the Keshet Eilon Music Center. Superbly shaped, inspiring and imaginative, her playing was as integrative a part of the soul of each piece as were the singing, the songs and their words. From fragile textures, to sweeping lyrical moments, from painful bitterness and heartbreak to intense drama, Zheleznova’s clean, precise and brilliant playing was inspirational.

For some reason, Rachmaninoff’s eighty five songs, composed between 1893 and 1916 (all before he left Russia) and grouped into seven sets, are the most neglected part of his oeuvre. Mostly using texts from prominent Romantic Russian poets, they represent the composer’s musical development, his poignant word painting and his most intense emotions. There is no doubt that these romances are fine concert fare and probably best handled by Russian-speaking artists. As a non-Russian speaker, I was at a disadvantage without the texts to follow. However, the splendid performance and total involvement of the five outstanding artists drew one into the beauty and strong emotion of this music in an experience that was moving. Let’s hear more of these outstanding artists!



Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ayelet Karni and Gideon Meir play Italian and German music in Tel Aviv

The evening of November 16th 2013 was still balmy in Tel Aviv, with Autumn delaying its presence. Rothschild Boulevard was abuzz with people strolling, running and chatting, with dog-owners and café-sitters. Veering off the main road, I wandered through the maze of side streets of that old, established quarter of Tel Aviv. The event was a house concert performed by recorder player Ayelet Karni and harpsichordist/organist Gideon Meir.

Gideon Meir began piano lessons at age 8 with Malka Mevorach. In 1980, he went to London, where he studied harpsichord with Maggie Cole, later in San Francisco with Laurette Goldberg, them with Lisa Crawford at the Oberlin College Conservatory (Ohio). He has been studying the organ with Arin Maisky (Israel) and made his organ debut at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem in 2010. Among his many and varied harpsichord recitals, Meir’s interest in Flamenco (he, himself dances Flamenco) has led him to harpsichord recitals with Flamenco dancers.

Ayelet Karni plays recorders, Baroque oboe and shawms. A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, studying recorder with Lara Morris, she went on to further recorder studies with Corina Marti at the Basel Schola Cantorum, now completing a second Masters degree there in Baroque oboe (Katharina Arfken). Karni has also taken studies at the Leipzig “Hochschule für Musik und Theater” under Antje Hensel (recorder) and Annette Spehr (historic oboe). As a soloist and ensemble player, she performs in Europe, the USA and Israel.

Seated in Gidi Meir’s music room, surrounded by his two harpsichords and a small pipe organ, we had gathered to hear Meir and Karni in the first recital to celebrate the newly-purchased organ. The two-manual organ, based on a 16th century positive instrument, was built by Gideon Shamir in 1986 for composer and violist Ze’ev Steinberg. On Steinberg’s death in 2011, the instrument was sold to Gidi Meir. Some changes and additions were made by Sharon Rosner, with the final voicing being carried out by Gideon Shamir.

Much of the evening’s program focused on the art of diminution, a skill which, by the end of the 16th century, saw the flowering of sophisticated instrumental variations, many based on madrigals, these, in the course of the 17th century becoming the root of instrumental virtuosity. The program opened with two works of Giovanni Bassano (c.1558-1617), a virtuoso on the cornett and principal instrumentalist at St. Mark’s Venice from 1585 to his death. Karni opened with Ricercata III in g from Bassano’s “Ricercate, passagi et cadentie” (Ricercars, Divisions and Cadenzas) of 1585, a book which details exactly how to ornament passages. Introducing the work by referring to the ricercar as a piece dealing with the idea of “seeking”, both on the part of the composer and of that of the player, Karni’s performance of this multi-sectional piece suggested much spontaneity, giving each section new meaning, color and temperament, embellishing it with the use of florid “passagi”, also offering the listener a surprise or two. The second Bassano piece, played on recorder and organ, was a set of diminutions based on an early 16th century chanson by Orlando di Lasso, “Susanne ung jour”.
‘Susanna faire, sometimes of love requested
By two old men whome her sweet looks allur’d
Was in her heart full sad & sore molested
Seeing the force her chastitie endur’d…’ (English translation: Nicholas Yonge’s “Musica Transalpina”, 1588).
With the melody mostly announced on the organ, we were presented with a great many variation ideas and ornaments in the recorder part, with the two instruments pleasingly balanced.

Still on the subject of variations, Gidi Meir played Dieterich Buxtehude’s Ciacona for organ in e minor BuxWV 160. Over a somber and stately, descending bass pattern, Meir presented the set of highly imaginative variations, building up the momentum, using brighter timbres, yet still preserving the work’s grandeur, signing out with a sense of well-being on a major chord. From the 19 surviving so-called free-form “Praeludia”, constituting Buxtehude’s most important contribution to 17th century German music, Meir played the well-loved Prelude in g minor BuxWV 149. A challenging work, making fine use of the organ’s palette of different timbres (Buxtehude left the choice of registration up to the player), Meir’s playing of free sections alternating with solemn fugal sections displayed the rich array of Buxtehude’s ideas and compositional genius.

Meir and Karni performed Giovanni Paolo Cima’s (c.1570-1630) Sonata in g minor (written originally for violin, violone and basso continuo) on soprano recorder and Meir’s Flemish harpsichord. In the style of music from northern Italy, now moving away from polyphonic textures towards solo melody, their playing was gently swayed, imaginative, with Karni weaving many connecting ornaments throughout the texture, indeed upholding Silvestro Ganassi’s credo that the recorder should imitate the songfulness of the human voice.
Giovanni Cima and Francesco Rognoni were both members of influential families of Milanese musicians. Like Bassano, Rognoni wrote a treatise on the art of embellishing and ornamenting music, so, like Bassono, his diminution piece has a pedagogical element in addition to showcasing the performer’s talents. Rognoni’s Diminutions on Palestrina’s madrigal “Vestiva I colli” (Clothed in the hills and the countryside) are found in “Selva de’ varii Passagi”, his instructional book on singing and instrumental playing. Francesco Rognoni (1570-1626), considered to be the first great violinist in the instrument’s history, wrote his diminutions for violin virtuosos like himself. With the organ holding the basic melody, Karni, on the soprano recorder, dealt with virtuosic passages with ease rather than ego-driven show as she presented their many moods.

If music is “played”, Frescobaldi’s Canzonas are true games. In Girolamo Frescobaldi’s (1583-1643) Canzona Seconda detta La Bernardina, the artists presented the small concentrated and capricious sections, flourishes and interludes and changes of meter and character in a compact miniature. With Meir’s gestures inviting her to embark on each new section, Karni’s recorder playing was enhanced by some nice harpsichord spreads. Light of texture, humorous, entertaining and also challenging, the piece was suddenly over with the wink of an eye.

We then heard the two artists in J.S.Bach’s canonic and sophisticated Chorale Fantasia on “Nun komm’ der Heiland” (Now come, Saviour of the heathens), the music and text based on a Gregorian hymn that was translated into German by Martin Luther in 1524. Gidi Meir spoke of Bach as being a deeply religious man and of the composer’s psychological approach to the coming of the Messiah. The organ role, suggesting a church processional, provided a firm basis for the staggered recorder phrases. Then, moving back in time, we heard what would have been Bach’s inspiration for the piece - Buxtehude’s chorale prelude on the same melody (c.1690). Against velvety, caressing organ- playing, Karni’s playing was warm and full of feeling.

The intimacy of a house concert makes for a true meeting between artists and audience. With organ lofts generally out of view or behind the audience, it is a rare experience to watch the player at work. Here was an opportunity not to be missed. Offering short explanations, Gideon Meir and Ayelet Karni gave a performance that was interesting, stylistically informed, unmannered and eloquent. They sent the audience off with a no-less-artistic rendering of the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, played on tenor recorder and organ.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Soprano Sivan Rotem and pianist Jonathan Zak in "Viva l'Espagna"

Autumn weather had offered some of its different moods on November 9th 2013. A light rainfall had brought freshness to the luxuriant gardens of the Eden-Tamir Music Centre, Ein Karem, Jerusalem. A vivid extravagance of cacti, cyclamen and roses, not to speak of trees heavily laden with fruit, welcomed concert-goers as they made their way up the stairs to the concert hall. The event in question was “Viva l’Espagna” or “La Maja y el Ruisenor” (The Maiden and the Nightingale), featuring soprano Sivan Rotem and pianist Jonathan Zak. The audience included a conspicuous number of Spanish speakers.

Born in Buenos Aires, Sivan Rotem began her musical training as a violinist. Having graduated from Haifa University in English and Literature, she proceeded to take a degree in singing from the Academy of Music, Tel Aviv University, then continuing her vocal studies with Ellen Faull (USA). Sivan Rotem has performed in Europe, South America and South Africa. She appears with all leading Israeli orchestras, has sung leading roles with the New Israeli Opera and has recorded for Helicon, Romeo Records and the Naxos label.

Israeli-born Jonathan Zak is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music (New York). In 1969, he, violinist Uri Pianka and ‘cellist Simca Heled established the Yuval Trio, which had a long and illustrious career in Israel and further afield. As duo pianists, he and Irina Friedland have performed in Israel and Europe. An international soloist and recitalist, Zak has recorded and done much accompanying of Israeli- and overseas artists. A professor of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv University), Jonathan Zak frequently serves as jury member in international music competitions.

The recital opened with five of the Tonadillas (1912) by Enrique Granados (1867-1916), settings of poems by Fernando Periquet, (“tonadilla” meaning a “little song”). In these delightful miniatures, the theme is the men and women of Madrid and their various attitudes to romance. In the whimsical “El tra la la”, a woman informs her man that she will continue to sing, no matter what he says or does to her. Rotem’s gestures and facial expression reinforce the message of each song, with Zak supporting the somewhat folk-like melodies with subtle harmonies and shimmering piano textures. The artists performed “The Maiden and the Nightingale” from Granados’ small opera “Goyescas” H 65 (1913-1915) based on (but with much new material) two piano suites of Granados inspired by vivid of paintings of Goya. An opera sadly neglected in opera houses outside of Spain, the vocal setting of “The Maiden and the Nightingale” has remained popular concert fare. Combining the two subjects most commonly used by Goya – nature and human form - this mood piece depicts a night scene in a garden, a lady and a rapturous bird. The nightingale actually only appears at the end, offering its comments to the woeful tale that has been told. Sivan Rotem’s lyrical, involved performance of it reveled in the piece's sweeping melodiousness and emotions. The piano part was integral, with Zak creating a lush instrumental canvas, complete with bird calls.

Manuel de Falla’s (1876-1946) “Seven Spanish Folk Songs” were composed from 1914 to 1915, at the outbreak of World War I. The songs, based on authentic folk material, come from different regions of Spain and their emotional content is as varied as are their geographic locations and styles. In close collaboration, from the very first piano utterance of the first song – “The Moorish Cloth” - the artists presented a kaleidoscope of Spanish temperament, from the lively seguidilla dance from southern Spain rendered more intense by thick, dissonant piano textures, to the thoughtful “Asturiana”, carefully paced to create some poignant moments. In the rapid Jota, a typical dance in triple time from the Aragon region, Rotem gave her all to the song’s emotional roller-coaster ride, with the piano’s harmonic surprises reflecting humorous twists of the text:
‘They say we don’t love each other because they never see us talking.
But they only have to ask both your heart and mine.
Now I bid you farewell, your house and your window too
And even…to your mother.
Farewell, my sweetheart until tomorrow.’
In their sensitive rendering of “Nana” - a lullaby that had been sung to the composer as an infant – the artists presented Ravel’s unique setting of the fragile piece, with voice and piano having separate agendas. In the seventh song, “Polo”, vehement with the pain of love, the scene is alive with fiery Flamenco music, gypsy presence, drama and intensity.

The Spanish composer Eduard Toldra (1895-1962) ranked high among Catalan composers. Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak performed six of the 71 songs Toldra composed from 1915 to 1960, 21 of which are harmonizations of popular songs. Essentially melodic, the songs communicate a sense of well-being, together with a Catalan mix of nobility, defiance, charm and wit, from the double-entendres of the playful and flirtatious “Game”, to the exotic, sensuous “Lullaby”, to the underlying dejection and magic of nature in “Farewell”. Rotem’s performance of them was appealing and warm, highlighting the composer’s strong connection of words and melody. Once again, Zak drew the audience’s attention to Toldra’s piano writing, which has life and character of its own.

Another Catalan (a, sadly, undervalued) composer and major figure in the musical world of Barcelona, Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002) is known for his interest in West Indian music, which was, in his words, “originally Spanish, exported overseas and re-imported….finding a place at the periphery of our traditions…”. The “Viva l’Espagna” program included the last two songs from his “Cinco Canciones Negras” (Five Black Songs) of 1945. One of several lullabies on the program, the “Cradle Song to Put a Little Negro to Sleep”, to a poem by Idefonso Pereda Valdés, begins with a description of the wide-eyed baby defying sleep; the mother then assures her child that in sleep he is no longer a slave. Rotem’s singing of the lilting vocal line was soothing and wistful, the polytonal, dissonant underlay of the piano accompaniment a subtle reminder that there was a deep message behind the words of this lullaby. Performed with great joy, with buoyant, unrelenting energy on the part of both artists, we heard “Canto Negro” (Negro Song), to words of Nicolás Guillén. Bristling with shouts of joy, the song describes blacks singing and dancing in the jungle.

Moving to Argentina, Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak performed Alberto Ginastera’s (1916-1983) “Argentinean Popular Songs” opus 10 (1943), pieces covering a breadth of emotion, textural, harmonic and coloristic devices. Each song takes its text from a different Argentinean folk tune. The artists presented each heart-on-sleeve emotion – from melancholy, delicate moments to unbridled joy – together with the release of dance and energy of traditional, native rhythms. The dazzling piano accompaniments are every bit as challenging and interesting as the songs themselves. Another Argentinean composer, Carlos Guastavino (1912-2000), ranking close in importance to Ginastera, has sometimes been referred to as the “Schubert of the Pampas”. In his signature style, that blends conservative tonal with lush elements, he succeeded in blending the worlds of "música culta" and "música popular" in song, the major part of his oeuvre. Singing one of his best- known songs “La rosa y el sauce” (The Rose and the Willow), Rotem’s velvety vocal sound was colored with a hint of nostalgia.
‘As it opened, the rose embraced the willow.
The tree loved the rose so passionately!
But a coquettish youth has stolen the rose,
And the disconsolate willow weeps for it. Ah!’
In “The Map of the Plains”, of the huella song/dance style, characterized by alternating 6/8 and 3/4 meters, the artists gave articulate expression to the piece’s sentiments,its longing and intricate vocal and instrumental lines, with the piano introduction and subsequent interludes imitating guitar strumming. The Argentinean/Uruguayan singer, song-writer and actor Carlos Gardel (1890-1935), sometimes referred to as “El Zorzal Criollo” (The Creole Thrush), was the first singer to adopt the tango as a popular song; his suave appeal, his expressive, sobbing baritone, brilliant dramatic phrasing and flair for mournful ballads were well suited to the tango’s emotional language. In his well-known “El día que me quieras” (The Day That You Love Me), Rotem, speaking the words where the melody was taken over by the piano, indulged in a lavishly sentimental rendering of the song, with Zak’s lightness of touch balancing this and adding to its appeal. They then performed “Por una Cabeza” (By a Head), a tango song composed by Gardel and Alfredo le Pera. The song talks about a horse winning a race by the length of one head; the man’s addiction for horse-track gambling is likened to his attraction to women.

The program ended with pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Sebastián Piana’s (1903-1994). Milonga Sentimental, to lyrics of Homero Manzi (1931). Like the tango, the lively, playful milonga was frequently danced by embracing couples, occasionally in rhythmic counterpoint to the musical phrase. The urban milonga emerged in both instrumental- and vocal versions among tango musicians at this time. Piana is considered the father of the modern milonga. Sivan Rotem and Jonathan Zak delighted the audience with their performance of this saucy dance:
‘A sentimental milonga,
Just to remember you by.
Others complain by crying;
I sing so that I don’t cry.
Your love dried up for some reason,
You never told me the tale.
I comfort myself by thinking
It was a woman’s betrayal…’ (Translation: Coby Lubliner)

For an encore, the artists sent the audience off with an intense, no-holds-barred performance of Mexican composer Agustin Lara’s “Granada” (1932), ending a comprehensive concert of Spanish and Argentinean music, in which Zak offered concise explanations about the composers and works. Zak is also a master accompanist, his playing always shaped, sensitive, elegant and stylistic. The artists worked hand-in-glove all the way. Sivan Rotem’s pleasing voice, her fine intonation, her temperament and total immersion in the fabric of the pieces joined with Zak’s playing to make for a satisfying and enjoyable recital.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2013-2014 season with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas"

Celebrating 25 years of fine performance, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 2013-2014 concert season with a performance of Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) opera “Dido and Aeneas”. Conducting the three concerts was the JBO’s founder and artistic director David Shemer. This writer attended the performance in the Mary Nathaniel Hall of Friendship, Jerusalem International YMCA, on November 2nd 2013. This performance was the concluding event of the Choral Fantasy Festival.

Preceding the opera itself, the orchestra presented the premiere of a suite reconstructed by Alon Schab from an incomplete score by Henry Purcell. Taken from the Filmer manuscript in Yale University Music Library, Dr. Alon Schab suggests this Suite in g minor may have been the real overture to “Dido and Aeneas”. This would tie in with the fact that the end of the opera – Dido’s Lament – is also written in the key of g minor. Of the six movements of the suite, only the first survived in its complete scoring of five-part orchestration. Of the five remaining movements, only the bass line has survived. Dr. Schab has reconstructed those movements in the style of French-influenced court dances and in a four-part texture, modeled on Purcell’s theatre music, the result being a totally coherent, stylistically informed and elegant dance suite. Orchestra and audience thrilled to the enjoyment of the music and the inspiring experience hearing the suite for the first time in some 330 years. Musicologist, composer and recorder player Dr. Alon Schab graduated from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in composition and recorder performance. As an Ussher Fellow of Trinity College (Dublin), he wrote his doctoral dissertation on compositional techniques in Purcell’s early instrumental works. Today, Alon Schab is working on a monograph of Purcell’s Trio Sonatas; he lectures at Haifa University, also teaching at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

With no intermission to distract the concert-goers from the matter at hand, Maestro Shemer took his players and singers straight into the opera itself. With musicologists no longer sure that it was first performed at the girls’ boarding school run by dancing master and choreographer Josias Priest (although this might throw light on the reason for the small part given to Aeneas) “Dido and Aeneas” is thought to have been composed in 1689. The libretto, written in verse by Dublin-born Nahum Tate, is based on Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid”; streamlining the existing story to make for an hour’s fine, sung entertainment, Tate changed the emphasis of the drama from being conventionally heroic to more human. There are other changes in the plot: Tate created the idea of the three malicious witches. In Virgil’s version, Dido stabs herself, whereas in the Purcell opera, her death is noble and non-violent; in fact, the dignity of her death is suggested by Purcell’s music rather than by Tate’s libretto.

Six singers took part in the JBO performance, all of them young, rising stars on the Israeli concert scene. Russian-born mezzo-soprano Zlata Hershberg’s large, well-anchored voice (her English colored by a slight Russian accent), her humor and fine theatrical bent made the ideal combination for her role of the sorceress. Providing comic relief, she and young soprano Adaya Peled (who played both second witch and second woman) were convincing and entertaining in their saucy and hexing schemes. Add to these the whimsical effect achieved with some of the instrumentalists poker-facedly singing the echo responses to the chorus “In our deep vaulted cell the charms we’ll prepare”. As the first sailor, Doron Florentin’s sense of fun and waggish personality took “a boozy short leave” for what it really was, reeling in drunken stupor, eventually to be carried off stage by Guy Pelc. As the spirit, however, Florentin’s natural, large vocal sound spelled out the fateful message to Aeneas of “Jove’s command” to “forsake this land” that same evening. As Aeneas, baritone Guy Pelc conveyed acceptance, tragic helplessness, dejection and the urgency of his plight with articulacy, his coloring of each verbal gesture adding to the weightiness of the role.

Soprano Einat Aronstein was a feminine, sympathetic and sometimes coquettish Belinda. Her vocal ease, musicality and confidence are matched with a capacity to be expressive; her emotional support of Dido was well displayed. A student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Shaked Bar made a supreme effort as Dido, her eyes focused somewhere away from the action on stage, evoking a queen emotionally removed from her surroundings, a subdued loner, predicting disaster. Her expressive manner – vocal and facial – was served well by her creamy, stable voice, fine control and total immersion in the plot. With the strong tie between her and her servant Belinda clear from the outset, she opens with a touching rendering of “Ah, Belinda, I am prest with torment not to be confest”, its intimate expression poignantly supported by theorbo and ‘cello alone. Dido’s final aria – her lament – is no light task, technically or musically, also due to the fact that audience members have heard it sung so many times by some of the world’s greatest sopranos and are waiting to compare Shaked Bar’s reading of it with those of others! Bar, however, collected and focused, gave it a convincing, sensitive and emotional performance, yet keeping a safe distance from sentimentalism and bad taste. This was surely a feather in the cap of this young and promising artist.

The same six singers sang the choruses. These pieces were vibrant, richly bristling in individual vocal timbres and dynamics, with attention to the rhythm of words, the singing of the final chorus treated sensitively, with delicate shaping, alluding in gentle sadness to Dido’s death.

The JBO players presented instrumental performance that was well balanced with the voices, subtle, suggestive and palpably relevant throughout. We heard them in some lively, gently flexed dances, elegant overtures and also in effects, such as stormy winds that set the scene for the witches’ (Shakespeare-influenced) meeting. Maestro David Shemer’s production of “Dido and Aeneas”, assisted by Motti Awerbuch’s visual advice, was fresh, dynamic and moving.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Lynn Harrell holds master classes and performs at the Jerusalem Music Centre

History was made in Jerusalem when the Jerusalem Music Centre (Mishkenot Sha’ananim) and the Polyphony Foundation (Nazareth) collaborated to present an evening of chamber music with ‘cellist Lynn Harrell (USA), pianist Saleem Abboud-Ashkar (Israel/Germany) and violinist Giora Schmidt (USA). This cooperation between the two institutions has brought together students from the JMC and the Polyphony Foundation. In words of greeting, the Jerusalem Music Centre’s executive director Hed Sella thanked Polyphony co-founder, artistic director and violinist Nabil Abboud-Ashkar for inviting Maestro Harrel to perform here. Lynn Harrel spent the day prior to the recital holding master classes at the JMC.

The Polyphony Foundation is a non-profit organization whose purpose is to bridge the divide between Arab- and Jewish communities in Israel through creating the possibility for young people to play classical music together and for each to be exposed to the music of the other. By educating both performers and artists in the art of communicating, the organization’s mission is to create understanding between students, families, institutions and communities via the language of music. Polyphony’s programs reach more than 3000 Arab- and Jewish youth, providing training and employment for over 40 musicians and teachers.

Born in New York in 1944 to musician parents, Lynn Harrell studied at the Juilliard School of Music and the Curtis Institute. A soloist, chamber musician, recitalist, conductor and teacher, Harrel works throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. In 1994, he performed at the Vatican with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a concert dedicated to the memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust. After holding the international chair for ‘cello studies at the London Royal College of Music, Harrell has served as artistic director of the orchestra and the chamber music- and conducting program at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute. One of today’s greatest 'cellists, Lynn Harrell plays on a 1720 Montagnana ‘cello.

Opening his first recital at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Lynn Harrell chose to play a movement from each of J.S.Bach’s six‘Cello Suites, in what was referred to as a “J.S.Bach Solo Suite Cocktail”. Some of Bach’s most enigmatic works, possibly owing to the fact that there is no original manuscript, any ‘cellist performing them signs his name on the performance. To ease the transition from key to key, Harrell preceded each piece with a gently plucked arpeggio in the key of the suite. For the Prelude from Suite no.1 in G major BWV 1007, he chose to open in a searching, meditational manner, building the piece up to its dramatic soundscape via its dissonances and resolutions and Bach's unexpected harmonic progressions, celebrating the registers of the ‘cello from the depths of the C string to the ringing tones of the A string. The Allemande from Suite no.2 in d minor BWV 1008 opened in forthright, assertive gestures, these by no means ruling out a very personal and soul-searching reading of the work. For the Courante of Suite no.3 in C major BWV 1009, the artist gave priority to the dance’s joyful “moto perpetuo”-type energy, textures and voice play. The 2nd Bourrée of Suite no.4 in E flat major BWV 1010 is Harrel’s favorite of the six pieces he had chosen; a small and tasty morsel, he presented its quarter note structure with wit and humility. A strong contrast was provided by the stark Sarabande from Suite no.5 in c minor BWV 101. Here, Harrel took his time in spelling out the non-dancelike severity and intense message of the movement, leaning into its dissonances and bearing the innermost regions of Bach’s soul in a text both painful and exquisite, given to inferred harmonic moments in a setting unapologetically devoid of a warmly comforting harmonic basis. The Bach cocktail ended with the freshness of D major, with the Prelude of Suite no.6 BWV 1012. Harrell’s playing of it exposed the piece’s drive and flow, its abundance of ideas and its grandness, his dealing with virtuosic passages no contradiction to the positive, direct and unmannered performance.

Harrell was then joined by pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar to play Ludwig van Beethoven’s ‘Cello Sonata no.3 in A major opus 69. Born 1976 in Nazareth, Saleem Abboud Ashkar studied at the Royal Academy of Music (London) and at the University of Music, Drama and Media (Hanover). A dedicated recitalist and chamber musician, Ashkar appears in the most important venues of the UK and Europe and as a soloist with the world’s leading orchestras; he takes part in festivals and has recorded for the Decca label. Beethoven’s third ‘cello and piano sonata was worked on from 1806 to 1808, a particularly low time in the composer’s life. That considered, the work is surprisingly positive. Harrell and Ashkar showed the composer’s new approach of writing for equal forces (rather than ‘cello and continuo, as in the first two sonatas) in carefully measured themes answering each other in clever exchanges, based on careful listening. Taking on board the many sides of Beethoven’s writing – its rhapsodic, stormy, soaring and mysterious aspects, its languishing thoughtfulness and pathos – the artists presented the work in an emotional yet objective and elegant fashion, leaving nervous and manic interpretations of it to others.

The recital ended with Johannes Brahms’ Piano Trio in C major opus 87. Here, Harrell and Ashkar were joined by violinist Giora Schmidt. Born in Philadelphia in 1983 to Israeli musician parents, Giora Schmidt studied at the Manhattan School of Music and the Juilliard School of Music. A recitalist and chamber musician, he collaborates with many eminent musicians. Committed to education and to sharing his passion of music, Schmidt reaches young musicians through technology and social media. The C major Piano Trio was composed between 1880 and 1882, with the composer at the apex of his career. From beginning to end, the trio’s unique scoring has the piano set against the two stringed instruments, with the abundance of octave playing of the strings reinforcing the idea of two forces, rather than three. Rich in Romantic richness, intensity and nostalgia, in poignant and sweeping melodic gestures, the artists gave a rewarding performance of the work of which Brahms wrote to his publisher thus: “You have not so far had such a beautiful trio from me and very probably have not published one to match it in the last ten years.” This was playing from the soul. In the haunting Scherzo, Schmidt’s violin soared to the top of its range with radiant and poignantly singing beauty.

A surprise awaiting the audience was an intense and richly colored and spirited performance of the first movement of Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quintet opus 81 in A major, with two students of the Polyphony Foundation playing second violin and viola. Opening with the moving and thoughtful ‘cello utterance, the artists displayed infectious excitement at the work’s melodies, textures and powerful emotions, concluding a memorable evening of music.