Monday, May 26, 2014

Early music at the 42nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The 42nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will take place from June 3rd to 7th 2014. Concerts will take place in two churches in Abu Gosh – the spacious Kyriat Ye’arim Church, sitting high up on the hill and the Crypt – a small, 12th century Crusader Benedictine church set in a magical, exotic garden in the lower part of the town. The Abu Gosh Festival has existed in its present form since 1992. People come from far and wide to attend concerts, picnic in the open, buy trinkets at the outdoor stalls set up near the Kyriat Ye’arim Church and relax in the tranquil surroundings of the Jerusalem Hills. The festival features many Israeli groups and soloists, also hosting some overseas artists. As of 1995, Hannah Tzur has been musical director of the festival. Ms. Tzur, a contralto who has soloed with major orchestras and conductors in Israel, has directed the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir for 19 years.

The 42nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will present a variety of music and styles, from Morley Pergolesi, to Bach and Händel, from Romantic music to Slavic songs, Villa-Lobos, music of Leonard Bernstein, Nat King Cole, Joan Baez and Paul Simon as well as a work of Israeli composer Eyal Batt. Here is a brief outline of some works early music aficionados might want to hear. Concert no.3, performed by the Ramat Gan Choir, conducted by Hannah Tzur, will include works by Pergolesi. Concert no.12 “I Saw a Bird of Infinite Beauty- On the Wings of Poetry” will feature the Melzer Consort – Michael and Yael Melzer and Ezer Melzer – and soprano Ye’ela Avital. Their program will include works of English composers Thomas Morley, Richard Nicholson and John Bennet. The Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director Yuval Benozer) joined by Ye’ela Avital will present works of Händel, Bach and Corelli in Concert no.5. The festival’s visiting choir – the very fine Nederlands Kammerchor (conductor Risto Joost) - will include Bach’s Cantata no.4 in Concert no.6. Concert no.10, featuring the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir (conductor Michael Shani) and the Barrocade Ensemble will include Pergolesi’s “Magnificat”. The festival will sign out with the Upper Galilee Choir (conductor Ron Zarhi) and soloists in Händel’s “Messiah” (Concert no.11).

Folk songs mostly have early origins and there will be plenty of those to hear in the various concerts throughout the five days of the festival.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Idit Shemer, Netta Ladar and Doron Schleifer at the Eden-Tamir Music Center in "O Let Me Weep"

The lush, well-tended gardens either side of the stairs leading to the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Ein Karem, Jerusalem, had donned vivid spring finery to welcome guests to a morning concert in the Musica Antiqua series on May 17th 2014. The artists taking part in “O Let Me Weep” were Idit Shemer-Baroque flute, Netta Ladar-harpsichord and Doron Schleifer-countertenor.

Opening with Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) bittersweet “A New Ground in e Minor” from “Welcome to All the Pleasures” (1683), Netta Ladar took the mood piece at a relaxed pace, its personal, pensive mood tempered by the triste, falling three-measure bass ostinato. This was followed by all three artists in a performance of “O Let Me Weep” from Purcell’s semi-opera “The Fairy Queen”. Doron Schleifer’s singing in fine British English and his dramatic focus lured the audience into the piece’s devastating pathos, Idit Shemer’s gently swayed weaving of melodic lines providing a tender flute obbligato, her shaping of small musical gestures adding sighs to the singer’s plight of rejection. In a similar vein, but moving to France, we heard Shemer and Ladar in Suite no.5 for flute and continuo by Pierre Danican Philidor (1681-1731). From a family numbering composers and instrument builders, P.D.Philidor was a wind player in the grande écurie (military band) of Louis XIV from 1697, oboist in the royal chapel from 1704 and a flautist in the chamber du roi from 1712. Louis XIV considered his music as the “perfect representation of his purest taste for the arts”. P.D.Philidor was one of the few French composers to specify instruments for a given work, however, offering more than one possibility. Opening with a beautifully crafted and spontaneous-sounding movement marked “Très lentement”, Shemer lavished its somber mood with opulent ornaments, Ladar’s harpsichord spreads adding elegance. Following the proud-stepping, solid Allemande - a collaboration of rich textures and individual expression - the Sarabande sounded somewhat bare, with its harpsichord texture extensively pared down. The Gigue livened up the scene.

Of the instruments relating to how music affects the human soul in John Dryden’s libretto to G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759)“Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day”, “The Soft Complaining Flute” mirrors lovers’ woes, with the solo flute naturally providing the obbligato. Actually a soprano aria, Schleifer gave it a beguiling performance, bringing to life the key words of the text and its birdlike effects:
‘The soft complaining flute
In dying notes discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers,
Whose dirge is whisper’d by the warbling lute.’
Shemer, both collaborating in every turn of the text, yet also presenting the flute’s separate agenda, made clear how poignant and evocative this role is when played on Baroque flute.

A work rarely heard on the Israeli concert platform is Händel’s small secular cantata “Mi Palpita Il Cor”, one of some 60 cantatas for solo voice and obbligato written by the composer. Scored originally in Italy for soprano voice, this cantata may very well have been performed at musical gatherings at the Accademia dell’Arcadia, these being costumed affairs in which those attending would arrive dressed as Arcadian shepherds. “Mi Palpita” was later revised and re-scored for alto voice in London. Beginning “My heart palpitates, but I do not know why”, it tells of a young man confused at being in love. Here is an example of Händel’s virtuosic writing in the Italianate vocal style (and language), a pastoral-Arcadian style piece using an unabashed heart-on-sleeve text. Free of the constraints of singing off the score, Schleifer skillfully wielded the Italian text to explain, gesture and express the angst caused by love in the world of shepherds and shepherdesses. He fired such words as “Tormento e gelosia, sdegno, affano e dolore” (anguish and jealousy, fury, grief and pain) dramatically as he handled the work’s technical challenges, interacting well with the other two artists. The pastoral qualities of the transverse flute enhanced the scene, a flute part that is very demanding. Shemer’s playing of it was stylish and warm in tone.

The artists devoted the second half of the concert to works of J.S.Bach (1685-1750). The text to Cantata BWV 182 – “King of Heaven, be thou welcome” - from which the artists performed “Leget euch dem Heiland unter” (Submit yourself to the Saviour), a work from Bach’s Weimar period, was probably written by Salomo Franck, the Weimar court poet, many of whose texts Bach had set to music. In this attractive aria with flute obbligato, the artists presented the piece’s mood of devotion, purity and dedication in a reading that was reverent, subtle and not over-embellished. In “Öffne dich, mein ganzes Herze” (Open yourself, my entire heart) from Cantata BWV 61 “Now Come, Saviour of the Heathens”, Schleifer’s mellifluous singing and facial expression evoked the believer’s joy at the onset of the Advent Season. “Wohl euch, ihr auserwählten Seelen” (It is well for you, you chosen souls) is the only aria in Cantata no.34 “O Eternal Flame, O Fount of Love”. Its text celebrates the merits of those “whom God has chosen”; here Schleifer wove the aria’s words of love, peace and contentment into the tender yet fervent melodiousness of the piece. Harpsichord and flute substituted for the work’s scoring of strings, two flutes and continuo in what was, nevertheless, mellifluous and lullaby-like delivery.

Netta Ladar’s unrushed and unmannered playing of Prelude and Fugue in f sharp minor from J.S.Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I brought out the differences in character between the two pieces, the course of the fugue slightly flexed as its course unfolded. The last instrumental work on the program was Bach’s Sonata in C major BWV 1033, a continuo sonata in which Bach provided the harpsichord part with only the bass line. There is, in fact, some doubt as to which Bach composed the work. Opening with a short elegant Andante section, Ladar kept the harpsichord role minimal in the Presto. After a touching, serene reading of the noble Adagio movement, two graceful minuets brought the work to a close.

The audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Center delighted in this concert featuring home-grown talents, bringing together three outstanding Jerusalem-born musicians in Baroque performance that was as well-informed as it was tasteful.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Heinrich Walther (Germany) in his first performance on the Schuke organ of the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

The bells of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer issued in the third event of the Old City of Jerusalem Concerts on May 10th 2014 – an organ recital by the Heinrich Walther. Born in 1959 in Germany, Heinrich Walther studied in Freiburg, Toulouse and Dallas, studying organ with Zsigmond Szathmary, Xavier Darasse, Robert Anderson and Larry Palmer. Walther performs worldwide as an organist and on period keyboard instruments. His many CD recordings include, for example, new works of contemporary composers and his own transcriptions of orchestral works by Mendelssohn, Franck and Reger. Heinrich Walther teaches at the colleges of music/church music in Freiburg, Heidelberg and Rottenburg; he joins courses as guest tutor and, as of 2006, has been honorary organist of the Saint Matthieu Church Colmar, France.

The program opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue in e minor BWV 548, a mature work dating from the composer’s Leipzig period, a time he was testing organs and performing recitals for aristocratic audiences. One of the most ambitious and monumental works for the organ, it shows Bach at the peak of his performing career. Walther presents the pliant, richly harmonic and somewhat vocal material of the concerto-style prelude, in its four ritornello sections, as majestic and seamless musical narrative. The fugue is sometimes referred to as the “Wedge Fugue” on account of the opening theme which starts with one note, then with two notes either side to form a minor third, gradually widening to an octave; here is Bach’s fascination with forms and numbers. A true “Spielfuge” (virtuoso fugue), it is 231 bars long, Bach’s longest organ fugue and challenging to the extreme. Walther tackles its bravura passages with color and contrasts, tempering its flamboyancy with objective, level-headed playing and articulacy.

Heinrich Walther then performed three chorale settings of “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr” (To God alone be praise) from the “Leipzig” Chorale Preludes, these eighteen pieces constituting a summit of the instrument’s repertoire. Originally composed in Weimar and revised in Leipzig from 1747 to 1749, the last years of Bach’s life, each of the “Great Eighteen” explores the various ways of transforming a simple chorale tune into an elaborate, multi-layered piece. Walther performed all three settings based on “Allein Gott in der Höh”, choosing to begin the elegant, contrapuntal introduction to the first (BWV 662), (Bach marked it Adagio) in a somewhat veiled timbre, the ornamented cantus then riding buoyantly above it in brassy tones. Walther’s reading of the second version, marked Cantabile, with the cantus in the tenor presented in reedy tonings, was tranquil; the cantus was preceded by the chorale melody in the pedals. He chose a range of interesting registrations. The third version, a trio setting celebratory and concerto-like in character, resounded in vital, positive utterances, its detail carefully presented.

The section of works by J.S.Bach concluded with Trio Sonata no.5 in C major BWV 608. According to Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, these trio sonatas were written some time between 1723 and 1729, or even as late as 1731, for Bach’s teenage son Wilhelm Friedemann to improve his flexibility and accuracy of both fingers and feet. To be played “à 2 Clav. E Pedal” may refer to the works’ three voices or to performance on a piped instrument (three manuals); perhaps they were practised on a pedal harpsichord in the Bach home. What characterizes all six of these trio sonatas is that the counterpoint is mostly woven into the two upper voices, harmonically supported by a bass line, a line nevertheless not taking a back seat when suggesting dance rhythms and engaging in dialogue. The trio sonatas adhere to the three-movement Vivaldian concerto form. As to BWV 529, Bach later transcribed it as a trio sonata for oboe and viola. Walther’s reading of the opening Allegro was bright, energetic and optimistic, its joyousness held under control, the florid Largo then personal and singing, spiritual rather than mournful, its reading both tasteful and appealing. The final Allegro was sympathetically played, noble rather than urgent in ambience, all melodic lines clean and pleasingly apparent.

The recital ended with W.A.Mozart’s “Fantasia for Mechanical Organ” in f minor K.608. The work was written at a time when there was a fashion among wealthy people to own mechanical clocks that had organs built into them. Mozart wrote three works for such machines. There is no autograph score for the K.608 Fantasia, but is familiar to many due to the many arrangements of it for piano (two- and four hands), for string quartet, orchestra, organ, and more. With its French overture-style beginning and two fughettas, it might be seen as Mozart’s homage to Bach, some of whose music he knew. Walther infused individual color and character into each of the different sections of the work, from its imposing brassy opening, its fughettas, its large chords and the lyrical, pastoral section to the grand concluding cadence. The artist’s engaging performance raises the question of how a mechanical instrument could do justice to such a fine piece. This was Heinrich Walther’s first visit to Israel. Talking to him following the concert, he said he had very much enjoyed playing on the Redeemer Church’s Karl Schuke organ (built 1971). A very fine recital.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Andrew Parrott directs the Israeli Vocal Ensemble and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in Handel's "Israel in Egypt"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (founder and conductor David Shemer) signed out of its 2013-2014 subscription series with a festive performance of G.F.Händel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt”. Conducted by the JBO’s honorary conductor Andrew Parrott (UK), the orchestra was joined by the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director Yuval Benozer) and soloists Hadas Faran-Asia, Taliya Dishon, Alon Harari, David Nortman and Yoav Weiss. This writer attended the performance on May 10th 2014 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre.

The fifth of the nineteen oratorios penned by Händel in England, “Israel in Egypt” was written in 1738, the composition of the whole colossal work taking a mere 27 days! It was originally a work in three acts, the first, now omitted, being an adaptation of the Funeral Anthem HWV 264, composed the previous year on the death of Queen Caroline. The texts of both original- and later versions were taken almost entirely from the Book of Exodus. The only additions are a few psalms. The eminently dramatic text, taken literally from the Bible, is set essentially as a choral oratorio, comprising 28 large double choruses linked together by a few bars of recitative, five arias and three duets. The dramatic aspect of the piece is achieved via a large repertoire of textures – cantus firmus themes with moving counter-melodies, antiphonal double choirs, thunderous choral homophony and a great many fugues. Atypical of Händel’s oratorios, “Israel in Egypt” has no overture; rather than unveiling a plot that is driven by individual passions, it presents and celebrates the story of a people. Moses and Miriam are mentioned in the text but the oratorio lacks any defined individual characters or conventional plot.

One of the earliest existing recordings of “Israel in Egypt”, a wax cylinder recording from 1888, was made at a performance at the Händel Festival at the Crystal Palace, London, with a choir 4000 strong!! The Israel Vocal Ensemble – numbering 12 singers in each choir, placed on either side of the orchestra – addressed the content of each event and emotion of the text with involvement, the singers’ vocal color, dynamic range and outstanding technique a dependant and determining factor, critical and decisive to the general outcome of the performance. The soloists also sang as part of the double choir. As to the soloists, kudos to tenor David Nortman, who contended well with both orchestra and the size of the Henry Crown Hall in singing that bristled with fine English diction, beauty of timbre, competence and a sense of comfort in the oratorio genre, Nortman valiantly taking on the role of the second bass with singer and oboist Yoav Weiss in “The Lord is a man of war”. Countertenor Alon Harari wielded the oratorio’s vivid text convincingly, creating a richly colored duet with Nortman in ”Thou in Thy mercy hast led forth thy people” and firing the dire message of his first solo with volatile consonants:
“Their land brought forth frogs, yea, even in their king’s chambers. He gave their cattle over to the pestilence; blotches and blains broke forth on man and beast.” (Psalm 105:30, Exodus 11:9,10). With the tempestuous events subsiding into the past, Harari expressed hope, warmth and tranquility in his final solo – "Thou shalt bring them in and plant them in the mountain of Thine inheritance…” - his delicate ornamentation taken up by the JBO strings. Sopranos Hadas Faran-Asia and Taliya Dishon fared less well, the timbral quality of two fine voices ill-matched in “The Lord is my strength and my song”. As to the soprano aria ”Thou didst blow with the wind”, joined by oboes and bassoons, singing without the score would have freed Faran-Asia to communicate more with orchestra and audience.

Maestro Parrott infused life and color to the many unique, almost visual ideas creating the rich canvas of the work – the evocation of the plagues, Händel’s humor in violin lines mimicking leaping frogs, in the majestic “He spake the word”, its text constantly interrupted by the buzzing and whirring sound of insects, then the brassy, stormy hailstorm with fire that “ran along upon the ground”, the savage blows and single, detached words of “He smote all the first-born” and the totally eerie, opaquely drawn chorus describing “a thick darkness over the land”, its small,saparate vocal utterances emerging here and there as lost people groping about in the gloom. And then the pastoral, illuminated serenity making up the soundscape of “But as for His people, He led them forth like sheep”. Opening the second part – “The Song of Moses” – Parrott launched straight into the brief, incisive orchestral prelude, the choir’s declaration that “Moses and the children sung this song” and the imposing fugued chorus “I will sing unto the Lord for He hath triumphed gloriously”. From here to the end, we are presented with concepts of strength, triumph and stately assertion, several of the allusions to strength being to that of the sea. Parrott created a somber, funereal all-too-real atmosphere of the drowned in “The depths have covered them”, then not soft-pedaling when it came to the bassy, merciless vocal effects in one of the oratorio’s most dramatic and horrific passages “And with the blast of Thy nostrils the waters were gathered together, the floods stood upright as an heap, and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea.” With fine instrumental and choral forces at hand, Parrott encapsulated what Mozart once wrote, that “Händel understands effect better than any of us; when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.” At a talk given by Maestro Parrott for the Friends of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra on May 9th at the Jerusalem International YMCA on Händel and the ins-and-outs of the “Israel in Egypt” score, Maestro David Shemer informed the audience that Andrew Parrott had required the instrumentalists to be familiar with all the words of the work, their meaning and their inferential- and linguistic emphases. The result was an uplifting and vivid event to draw the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2013-2014 season to a satisfying close.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra performs on the eve of Israel's 2014 Independence Day

The annual Independence Eve concert of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA took place on May 5th 2014 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall, Jerusalem Theatre. Due to illness of the orchestra’s house conductor, Frédéric Chaselin, the concert was conducted by Yuval Zorn and Amos Boasson.

Having performed extensively as a pianist in Israel and Europe, Israeli-born Yuval Zorn today combines conducting, assisting and coaching, working in opera festivals and opera houses, the latter including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London) and the Frankfurt Opera. The 2013-2014 season sees him taking musical direction of Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Lohengrin” at the Oldenburg State Theatre (Germany).

The 2014 Independence Eve event opened with Arie Shapira’s (b.1943) Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (2014). This was the composer’s debut with the JSO. Soloist was Amit Dolberg. A brief, mostly atonal work, making use of aleatoric elements, the score calls for an orchestra of 23 instruments in keeping with Shapira’s view that “Israeli music should be lean and precise...not obese and sweaty…” (Interview JSO, May 3rd 2014.) The work is built around the constant, relentless piano role, this given articulacy, energy, a sense of urgency and direction by Dolberg. The piece begins with a large, brisk and colorfully-timbred screen of single notes. As the piece progresses, the small orchestra seeks to join the piano, its players’ random sounds and tempi eventually joining Dolberg in what becomes a texture more unified in pitch and close to homophony. The piece ends on a major chord. Shapira claims there are “no Israeli sounds” and that he is the only Israeli composer who feeds on the Israel situation – “nervous, frantic, unclear, doubtful, relentless, violent”. Maestro Yuval Zorn guided the players through each section of the work with assured precision and transparency. Amit Dolberg is the founder and director of the Meitar Ensemble; today he heads the Workshop for Contemporary Music at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.

Then to Argentina, to Astor Piazzolla’s (1921-1992) “Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas” (The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires). Best known for the sophisticated and experimental genre he created in the 1940s from the traditional tango he combined with jazz and classical music to produce the (then controversial) “Nuevo Tango” (New Tango), music designed more for listening than for dancing, Piazzolla wrote four separate pieces pertaining to the seasons. Composed from 1965 to 1970, and scored for his quintet of violin (viola), piano, electric guitar, double bass and bandoneón (a kind of concertina playing an essential role in the tango orchestra) the pieces were not originally intended to be performed together. After Piazzolla’s death, violinist Gidon Kramer commissioned Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov (b. 1955, Leningrad) to place the four pieces together and transcribe them for solo violin and string orchestra. Kremer wanted a piece he could perform in concert on the same program as Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”. Desyatnikov created a bridge between the two works by interpolating witty references from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” into Piazzolla’s work, one whimsical idea being the quoting of Vivaldi’s “Winter” in Piazzolla’s “Summer”. As in Vivaldi’s work, each season of Desyatnikov’s setting falls into three sections. The movements are “Verano Porteño (Buenos Aires Summer), originally composed as incidental music for the Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’ play “Melenita de Oro”, “Otoño Porteño” (Buenos Aires Autumn), “Primavera Porteña” (Buenos Aires Spring) and “Invierno Porteño” (Buenos Aires Winter). In these descriptive and evocative tableaus, Desyatnikov, transferring the composer’s stylistic- and programmatic elements to the world of the virtuoso violin concerto, has combined Piazzolla’s tango-inspired rhythmic pulse and complex contratempos with his own skilful orchestration. Piazzolla’s dissonances and abrupt tempo shifts, electrifying rhythms, together with some instrumental effects, make for exciting listening.

The violin soloist in this work was Rusanda Panifili (b. 1988, Moldova). Endowed with a fine inside view of the musical text, a masterly, dazzling technique and much temperament, this violinist, violist, dancer, actress and composer had the listeners perched at the edges of their seats as she revealed her large expressive range, spicing her playing with shape, exuberance, sultry nostalgia, sensuality, heart-on-sleeve lyricism, spontaneity and unbridled, defiant energy. She was the perfect artist for the demands of this genre. In his mellifluous solos, ‘cellist Oleg Stolpner wove pensive melodiousness and melancholy into the “Autumn” movement. Co-principal violist of the JSO, Amos Boasson, also assistant conductor of the Israeli Sinfonietta Beer Sheva since 2011, conducted the work with as much attention to detail and melodic shape as to the work’s large emotional range, introducing the enchanted audience to its heady, colorful mix of jazz, Romantic- and Impressionistic ideas, its humor and playful modern techniques as well as to its sentimental beauty.

For her encore, Panifili performed Alexey Igudesman’s (b.1973, St. Petersburg) “Flamenco Fantasy”, an energy-packed display of color, virtuosity and panache, its Spanish flair supported by occasional percussive foot-stamping.

The concert ended with Yuval Zorn conducting P.I.Tchaikovsky’s (1840-1893) Symphony no.5 in e minor, opus 64, the symphony composed in 1888 in the tranquility of the composer’s vacation residence on a forested hillside outside Moscow, where he had taken up residence. However, despite the beauty of his idyllic surroundings, Tchaikovsky’s music was never divorced from his own personal existential issues as he struggled with thoughts on destiny and the quest for happiness. Although audiences were enthusiastic about the work’s first performances, Tchaikovsky was fraught with self-doubt, writing “Having played my symphony twice in St. Petersburg and once in Prague, I have come to the conclusion that it is a failure. There is something repellent in it, some over-exaggerated color, some insincerity of fabrication that the public instinctively recognizes.” Whether or not the listener chooses to relate to the message of “fate” or “providence” in the somber theme enunciated at the outset of the work in low clarinet register, the motif then threaded throughout the fabric of symphony, is immaterial to the individual’s enjoyment of the work. What came through in the JSO’s performance of the work was its emotional power, its vivid orchestral coloring, its geniality, large dynamic range and its flowing, majestic melodies. Scored for 3 flutes (the third doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets and 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani and strings, the work asks for fine wind playing and the JSO players did not disappoint, from the imposing clarinet statement opening the work, to the languid, lush horn melodies going on to converse with other winds in the second movement and the subdued, caressing statement of clarinets and bassoons towards the end of the third movement. Relieving the mostly weighty seriousness of the symphony, the Allegro moderato Waltz movement was given a light, buoyant reading, striking an association with the composer’s graceful ballet music. Fine orchestral fare, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.5 made for a satisfying and enriching end to the program.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Shira Bitan and Salome Rebello perform scenes from Grigori Frid's "Diary of Anne Frank"

In anticipation of Holocaust Memorial Day, nine scenes from the mono-opera “The Diary of Anne
Frank” (1975) by Grigori Frid were performed by soprano Shira Bitan and pianist Salome Rebello on April 27th 2014 at the Moreshet Yisrael Synagogue, Jerusalem.

Growing up in Jerusalem, Shira Bitan sang in the Ankor Youth Choir, taking voice lessons with Cilla Grossmeyer. As a student of Pnina Schwartz and Anat Efrati, she undertook Bachelor- and Master’s degrees in voice at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, also completing an undergraduate degree in orchestral conducting. Shira Bitan has soloed in operas and has participated in master classes. Her repertoire ranges from early Baroque music to that of the 21st century. A member of several ensembles, she is also active in promoting awareness to contemporary works of young composers in Israel and further afield.

Having graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Mumbai University, Salome Rebello immigrated to Israel from Mumbai, India, in 2008.She completed her B.Mus. at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, majoring in piano performance (Revital Hachamoff) and choral conducting. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in choral conducting under Prof. Stanley Sperber. A professional choral singer, Salome Rebello conducts two choirs in Jerusalem and teaches piano.

Born in St. Petersburg, the prolific composer Grigori Frid (1915-2012) composed in several genres, from “social Realism” to twelve-tone and other contemporary styles. His oeuvre includes three symphonies, several instrumental concertos, music for theatre and cinema, stage music as well as vocal- and chamber music. In addition to composing, Frid was a painter, also writing a number of books of recollections. His best known musical works are his two chamber operas – “The Letters of van Gogh” (1975) for baritone and chamber ensemble and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1968), a monodrama of 21 scenes for soprano and chamber orchestra. Completed within five months, both music and libretto to “Anna Frank” were written by Frid, interpolating Anne Frank’s original text. The opera was premiered with piano accompaniment at the All-Union House of Composers in Moscow in 1972. Drafted into the army, Frid experienced the horrors of the Second World War first hand. In his introduction to the “mono-opera”, as he referred to it, he wrote “Racism, violence and anti-Semitism were not just bare words for me.”

Born in Frankfurt in 1929, Anne Frank moved to Amsterdam in 1933 with her family. By May 1940, they were trapped in Amsterdam by German occupation of the Netherlands. In 1942, the family went into hiding in some concealed rooms in the building where Anne’s father worked. Two years later, the group was betrayed and transported to concentration camps. Anne and her sister were taken to Bergen-Belsen, where they both died of typhus in 1945. Penned in Dutch, Anne wrote the diary at age 13 when in hiding in Holland. Her dream was to publish it after the war. Frid wrote the opera as a series of brief scenes, such as “Birthday”, “School”, “Summons to the Gestapo”, “The Hideout” and scenes dealing more with thoughts, memory and fantasy. Not only depicting the girl’s fate, the diary entries show the mental and psychological pressure under which the girl is living but also her positive character and will to live. Frid makes use of tonality as well as twelve-tone technique and aleatoric moments.

Shira Bitan and Salome Rebello chose to perform the work in German. The audience was provided with the text printed in German, Hebrew and English. Bitan was impressive in the manner in which she brought each individual scene to life: with a sense of girlish freedom, flexibility of voice and of facial expression, Bitan revealed the young girl’s poetic and expressive strength as she presented her inner life in the lyrical narrative. The thorny musical text, with its angular lines and sudden leaps, its musical language colored with hints of Shostakovich, Weill, Hindemith, jazz, etc., makes great demands on the singer. Bitan managed the technical- and emotional tour-de-force admirably, its tender, anxious, comical and fearful moments, its fantasies, its mood swings, the girl’s awakening of feelings of love for Peter, moments of horror and also nostalgia. The piano part was handled no less skillfully by Rebello: the instrumental text frequently sets the scene, providing a varied, vivid and powerful dramatic backdrop, at times laughing and joking along with the sung text, at times fraught with warnings of what was to come, its ghoulish messages contrasted against the girl’s optimism. Rebello collaborated closely with Bitan, her sensitive touch and imagination combining with her skilful use of pianistic timbres. Rendering the scintillating octaves of the Finale menacing and powerful, despite their weightlessness, the long, thought-provoking piano epilogue concluding the work in haunting sounds, as it echoed Anne Frank’s life philosophy:
“I truly believe that nature can redeem all suffering. When I look at the sky, then I think to myself that all these horrors will have an end and peace and serenity will again rule the land…As long as we keep looking fearlessly to the sky…”

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Soprano Heidrun Goettsche and organist Gunther Martin Goettsche in an all-Bach recital at the Jerusalem Redeemer Church

An event of the Israel International Organ Festival, now in its 4th year, was a program of music of J.S.Bach performed by Gunther Martin Goettsche and Heidrun Goettsche at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 26, 2014.

Born in Germany, Gunther Martin Goettsche studied in Mannheim and Berlin, working as organist and choir conductor in Aalen/Württemberg and Braunschweig. From 1992 to 2013, he was director of the Schleuchtern Academy of Church Music and, from 2008 to 2013, he taught organ improvisation at the Heidelberg University of Church Music. Goettsche composes and arranges organ- and choral works for German publishers. As of 2013, he has been first organist of the Lutheran Redeemer Church, Jerusalem.

German-born soprano Heidrun Goettsche is presently working as a voice teacher at the Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts, where she also trained, at the Schleuchtern Academy of Church Music and at the Schmidt Girls College, Jerusalem. A lyric soprano, she has performed in Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Estonia, the USA and Israel. The founder of the “Voce libera” voice course (using the Corneius Reid method), she is a member of the German women’s sextet “Allegria-Vokalensemble”.

The program opened with Gunther Goettsche’s performance of “Christ ist erstanden” (Christ is risen), a chorale prelude based on an Easter carol published in 1529 (but probably three or four centuries older) in Bach’s “Orgelbüchlein” (Little Organ Book) BWV 627. The largest of the four works dealing with the Resurrection from this 46-work collection, it was composed when Bach was nearing the end of his service in the Weimar court of the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar (1708-1717), by which time Bach himself was a keyboard master. Opening with a forthright, brassy timbre, Goettsche chose to color each verse differently as the work became progressively more complex and more contrapuntal, the final section, animated and triumphant, encapsulating the religious meaning behind the piece and Bach’s profound belief. Of the large-scale organ works grouped under the title of “Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes” composed in the last decade of Bach’s life, Goettsche played the substantial organ partita that uses the Good Friday hymn “O Lamm Gottes unschuldig” (O innocent lamb of God), beginning in a reedy, personal timbre, intensifying and spiraling into anguished chromaticism, the final eighth notes flowing in veiled tranquility.

Still in the spirit of Easter, soprano Heidrun Goettsche and her husband presented two Easter songs from the “Schemelli” songbook. It is not sure how much involvement Bach had in the production of this hymnal, a historic selection of 950 sacred Lieder and arias published in Leipzig in 1736, collected by Georg Christian Schemelli, the musical director of Zeitz Castle. The two strophic, homophonic songs we heard were clearly arranged for home use, the artists addressing their simplicity in the spirit of house music of the time. Three arias from cantatas and oratorio represented a more sophisticated and challenging genre, starting with “Oeffne dich, mein ganzes Herze” (Open yourself, my entire heart) from “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland” (Now Come, Savior of the Heathens) BWV 61, an early cantata for Advent from Bach’s Weimar days. The artists gave expression to this introspective aria, addressing its personal aspect, presenting its rhythmic ambiguity. From the St. Matthew Passion, the joyful “Ich will mein Herze schwenken” (I will give you my heart) Gunther Goettsche chose bright, reedy registrations to replace the oboes d’amore and bassoon in the original scoring. In “Mein gläubiges Herze” (My faithful heart) from Cantata 68 “Also had Gott die Welt geliebt” (God so loved the world), with its tricky vocal line, the artists preserved the piece’s joyous energy throughout. This aria is a reworking of a piece from an earlier secular cantata. “Bist Du bei mir” (Be thou with me), from Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook, a piece misattributed to Bach, is thought to be a popular aria composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. This was followed by a poignant reading of “Schlummert ein” (Slumber, my weary eyes) the central aria from Bach’s sublime cantata “Ich habe genug” (It is enough) BWV 582. The aria also appeared in Anna Magdalena Bach’s Notebook in a version with continuo accompaniment. The artists gave this lullaby a sympathetic, mellifluous reading, its mostly tranquil message ( with some dark undercurrents) coming across. Heidrun Goettsche chooses to present Bach’s sacred music in a straightforward, unmannered way, offering the listener the freedom to interpret each piece in his own way. Her firm, stable voice carried well into the church.

The concert ended with Gunther Goettsche’s imposing performance of one of J.S.Bach’s supreme masterpieces for organ, the Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor BWV 582. Robert Schumann described the 20 passacaglia variations as “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed”. Following his majestic, richly-colored playing of the chaconne, Goettsche launched attacca into the large double fugue, its multi-layering articulate and gripping. The organ of the Redeemer Church, built in Berlin by Karl Schuke (1971), has 21 registers connected to two manuals and the pedal. It is an instrument rich in colors, character and warmth. Making fine use of its attributes, Gunther Martin Goettsche’s performance was articulate, easeful and genuine, offering an interesting, unmannered and learned approach to J.S.Bach’s organ repertoire.