Monday, June 30, 2014

Soprano Keren Hadar, the Bat-Kol Girls' Choir, the Ma'ayan Choir and Sapir Quartet at the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Despite taking place parallel to the 2014 Israel Festival, the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (June 3rd to 7th, 2014) drew people from near and far, filling the two local churches to hear 17 different programs.

“Mendelssohn and Mozart with Keren Hadar” took place June 7th at the Shrine of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, a Catholic church, overlooking natural forests of Jerusalem Pine, built in Kyriat Yearim in 1911 on the site of 5th century Byzantine church. Joining Israeli-born soprano Keren Hadar were the Ma’ayan and Bat Kol Choirs, both directed by Anat Morahg, organists Janina Tsitrin and Odelia Eliazarov and the Sapir String Quartet (violinists Jana Gandelsman, Yonah Zur, violist Amos Boazson, ‘cellist Oleg Stolpner).

The program opened with the Bat-Kol Girls’ Choir in a scintillating, fresh-sounding performance of Alessandro Constantini’s (c.1581-1657) motet “Confitemini Domino” (Give thanks to the Lord). Morahg and her young singers gave expression to the piece’s pastoral nature and interesting textures in an impressive, uplifting and well contrasted performance of F.Mendelssohn’s (1809-1847)“Surrexit pastor bonus” (The shepherd blest has risen) opus 39 no.3 for female voices and organ, the girls’ bright, silvery voices a reminder to the listener that the work was inspired by the delicate sounds of a nuns’ choir Mendelssohn heard when traveling in Italy in 1830. Morahg’s work with this choir is outstanding: the girls sing by heart, their performance disciplined, polished and shaped, their voices blended. The Bat-Kol Girls’ Choir of the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, was founded by Anat Morahg, its current director and conductor. Consisting of some 100 children singing in three ensembles, choir and conductor have been recipients of several international prizes. Performing classical music, Israeli music and works especially written for it, the choir frequently performs with the Israeli Opera, with orchestras and under renowned international conductors.

Accompanied by the Sapir String Quartet and organ, we heard the Ma’ayan Choir’s superbly blended singing of “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord, all nations”), Psalm 117, the 5th movement of W.A.Mozart’s (1756-1791)“Vesperes solennes de confessore” K.339 (1780). Soprano Keren Hadar’s singing of solo sections was richly colored and tinged with just the right amount of sweetness, the performance nevertheless communicating the work’s power. The same forces performed F.Mendelssohn’s most popular psalm-cantata “Wie der Hirsch schreit” (As the Hart Panteth) opus 42, Psalm 42. A high point of the concert, the work’s freshness, inspiration and energy came to the fore with attentive singing on the part of the choir and with Hadar’s silvery, stable and communicative solo performance. Established in 1974 and comprising some 45 singers, the Ma’ayan Choir, under the direction of Anat Morahg, is the official choir of the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality. A selective ensemble, it performs a wide variety of repertoire, performing concerts, singing at official ceremonies and festivals and working with many Israeli orchestras and ensembles. An interesting artist, with a large scope of styles and genres in her repertoire and fine stage presence, Keren Hadar has become one of Israel’s most interesting and flexible singers today, performing both in Israel and abroad.

With singers of the Bat-Kol placed in the aisles, both choirs joined to present a joyful performance of the antiphonal Christmas motet “Duo Seraphim” (Two Seraphim) by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591), aptly depicting the call and response of the heavenly beings seen by the prophet Isaiah in a mystical vision.

Moving away from sacred music, instrumentalists, choral singers and soloist joined, providing suitable festival fare with selections from W.A.Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. Here was Hadar in a more operatic vein, addressing the arias with drama, joy, sympathy, freedom and splendid vocal control.

This was indeed an outstanding event of the 45th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, providing high quality performance, colorful programming and much enjoyment to the large audience gathered at the Kyriat Yearim Church.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sephardic music performed by Ensemble Me La Amargates Tu at the 2014 Israel Festival

A unique event of the 2014 Israel Festival was “My Heart Remembers” – Romances and Canciones from Sepharad - performed by Ensemble “Me La Amargates Tú” on June 7th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. “Me La Amargates Tú” was formed as the result of interest in- and research on Sephardic music and Spanish music of the 15th-, 16th and 17th centuries. Using the original Ladino lyrics of the former, the ensemble combines Jewish folkloric tradition with elements from the period in which Sephardic communities were living in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the expulsion of Jews by the Inquisition. Up to the beginning of the 20th century, when scholars began recording and notating them, the singing of Sephardic songs was orally preserved, being passed down from generation to generation. The traditional language of many Sephardic Jews is Ladino (or Judeo-Spanish), a language mainly derived from Old Castilian (Spanish), with words borrowed from Turkish, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and South Slavic. Depending on when and where they were composed, their melodies and rhythms were colored by Spanish, Turkish, Arabic and Balkan music. Mostly sung on social occasions, and mostly by women, the Ladino songs focus on everyday life events and sentiments, on love, sadness, loneliness, despair, happiness, etc.

With each artist hailing from a different country, the group’s members meet in The Hague, Holland. Members of the ensemble are tenor Esteban Manzano (Argentina), recorder player Doret Florentin (Greece/Israel), viol player Tulio Rondón (Venezuela/USA), Sarah Ridy (UK/Belgium) on Baroque harp and percussionist Juan Martinez (Mexico). Guest singer for the event was Israeli mezzo-soprano Bracha Kol. The ensemble takes its name from line 7 of “Adio Querida” (Goodbye, my Beloved), a song of love and loss:
‘When your mother delivered you
And brought you into the world
She did not give you a heart
To love with and be loved.

Farewell, farewell my dear,
I do not want my life.
You have embittered it for me.

Go look for another love,
Knock on other doors,
Wait for another passion,
Because for me you are dead.

Farewell, farewell, my dear.’

With the first notes of “I Will Seek You at Dawn”, sung to a liturgical poem of Ibn Gabirol (11th century) in both Hebrew and Ladino, the audience was swept into the enchanting world of Sephardic song, many of the pieces familiar to members of the audience, who occasionally joined in with gentle humming. The ensemble’s instrumental combinations and, in particular, the sensitive, delicate, evocative arrangements at the hands of the players, presented each work with a fusion of imagination, the art of understatement and delicacy. Having the texts at hand gave the audience a glimpse into the folk stories behind the songs, many of them bathed in gentle humor. One well-known song, the amiable, somewhat whimsical “El Rey de Francia” (The King of France) tells of the daughter of the King of France who dreams of love. The song opened with the harp joined by soprano viol, thus creating a dream-like mood, its dialogue sung by Bracha Kol and Esteban Manzano. As heard several times during the evening, Doret Florentin’s inspiring and enterprising recorder improvisations and ornamentation were enough to keep the listener poised at the edge of his seat. The traditional Ladino lullaby “Durme Durme” (Sleep, Sleep) , introduced by tenor recorder and harp, and graced with gently intimated percussion sounds and a viol solo, was sung by Manzano with beguiling subtlety. Altogether, Esteban Manzano’s performance throughout the evening was charismatic and moving; his voice is warm, nuanced, easeful and richly colored, his insightful delving into the music’s sentiments finding its way directly to the listener’s heart. Bracha Kol’s lusty approach to the songs gave a voice to some of the more robust and salacious texts, at times sidestepping the fragility of settings.

Another genre represented on the program was the “villancico”, as found in the “Cancionero de Palacio” manuscript (Spain, 1470-1510). The villancico was a common poetic and musical form of the Iberian Peninsula (and Latin America) sung in the vernacular. “Me La Amargates Tú” performed four of them. The instrumentalists also gave tasteful and well-informed performances of two Ricercadas of Diego Ortiz (1510-1570).

Me La Amargates Tu is a group combining serious enquiry into Sephardic Jewish music, fine performance and refreshing spontaneity. Let's hear more of this superb ensemble!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Kaleidoscope - Katharine Abrahams and Bridget Cunningham - in a program on David and Saul and the power of music

A unique concert - its Israeli premiere - on the subject of David and Saul was performed on June 5th 2014 at the Felicja Blumenthal Music Center (Tel Aviv) by Kaleidoscope – Katharine Abrahams (Israel) and Bridget Cunningham (UK). Some of the music performed was based on the research of Parisian organist and composer Suzanne Haik-Vantoura (1912-2000), who devoted her enquiry to deciphering the melodies found in the Masoretic text, and on that of her American student John Wheeler. Their research focused on the ancient Jewish rite of singing the scriptures according to the once thriving musical system of the ancient Levites. The evening's program, filmed to be part of a documentary, included works from Baroque musical repertoire and earlier, a variety of readings and some Jewish prayers sung in melodies as deciphered in the thirty years of Haik-Vantoura's work.

The concert opened with a Niggun (melody) of music by Shlomo Carlebach, played by Bridget Cunningham. Harpsichordist and opera conductor, Cunningham has researched and recorded with London Early Opera. Her recent solo harpsichord CD "Hӓndel in Ireland" won her great acclaim. Throughout the evening, she performed some movements from Kuhnau's Biblical Sonata no.2. Johann Kuhnau (1660-1672), remembered as being Bach's predecessor as cantor of the Thomas School, Leipzig, published his six highly programmatic, complex and inventive keyboard (the keyboard instrument not specified) Biblical Sonatas in 1700, the second of which is titled "The Melancholy of Saul Assuaged by Means of Music". Its opening depicts Saul's melancholy in depth via chromatics and strange harmonies. Cunningham's virtuosic, easeful playing of the movements of the sonata was invigorating and picturesque, inspired and inspiring as she took the audience through "Saul's affliction and madness" to "the refreshing music of David's harp", ending with "the King more at peace". Her gently swayed reading of G.F.Hӓndel's Passacaille from Suite no.7 in g minor displayed her secure, forthright signature touch.

Katharine Abrahams, known to the Israeli concert scene as a Baroque 'cellist and recorder player, added much to the meditative atmosphere of the program with the tranquil, filigree sounds of her Celtic harp. Now on recorder, her playing of C.P.E. Bach's Sonata for transverse (Baroque) flute without bass H.562 was reflective and well delineated, breathing spontaneity. Then on 'cello, daring and personal inspiration and temperament were the basis for her reading of the Prelude and Allemande from J.S.Bach's 'cello Suite in G major BWV 1007, as she allowed the Allemande to dictate rubato and flexibility in performance that was rewarding. In A.Corelli's virtuosic "La Folia" in g minor (1702), Abrahams (recorder)and Cunningham created the variations with constant interest and in a gamut of moods; Cunningham's playing offered individual input, with Abrahams' playing rich in ornaments, textures and agility. Following the reading of writings of composer, keyboard player, singer and theorist J.Mattheson (1681-1764)in which he extols the qualities of music as "glorifying God, softening emotions, uniting and creating aversion to all vices, also having the power to cure mental- and other sicknesses", we heard the artists in a suave, melancholic reading of J.Mattheson's Air in g minor, their sound broad, generous and singing. Their fine sense of communication, coupled with the individual character of both instruments, came to the fore in a performance of D. Buxtehude's (1637/9-1707)Sonata in G major for viola da gamba.

In words on "the power of music", emphasizing the fact that the Jewish scriptures were intended to be sung, Katharine Abrahams posed the question of "what if we could really hear the sounds originally sung to the Scriptures as dictated by the te'amim (a "hidden" set of melodic signs appearing on the texts). Against the delicate sounds of the Celtic harp (and gentle humming on the part of Cunningham), she then performed the "Shema" prayer and the Aaronic Blessing, singing the melodies as deciphered by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura. Abrahams' voice, pleasing well-anchored and unforced, mixes lyrical- with smoky timbres. Her singing of the texts comes from deep conviction.

The result of much thought and interesting planning, here was a highly creative and personal program, a far cry from mainstream concert fare, in the hands of two fine artists.

Katharine Abrahams and Bridget Cunningham have been performing together for 20 years, since their student days in London. In the meantime, Abrahams, who resides in Jerusalem, has been doing a lot of research on biblical music and the healing powers of music. Cunningham, who today lives in the Dordogne, France, spoke of their plans to expand the project, possibly also adding some orchestral music.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The PHOENIX Ensemble performs J.S.Bach's organ Trio Sonatas in several venues around Israel

J.S.Bach composed the Trio Sonatas BWV 525-530 for organ or pedal clavichord (an instrument the Bach household possessed, possibly for practicing works to later be played on pipe organ). They were found in an autograph dating from the composer’s first few years in Leipzig, where he lived from 1723 till his death in 1750. In his 1802 Bach biography, Johann Nikolaus Forkel writes that the works were written for Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, to give him practice in dexterity on the organ. In which case, they join other pedagogical collections of keyboard works, such as the Inventions. And we know that Wilhelm Friedemann went on to have a brilliant career as organist. The sonatas demand outstanding coordination of hands and feet, with three lines played on two keyboards and pedal. There is much variation in the registrations organists choose for these pieces. Some believe in selecting three different timbres for the three voices, allowing for every detail of the counterpoint to be heard. Others are of the opinion that the sonatas benefit from similarity of timbre in the voices. Here, Bach is offering a wide scope in how the player may concern himself with “good taste”. Even more of Bach’s flexibility is displayed by that fact that Bach was constantly reworking pieces to use them in new settings: the first movement of Trio Sonata in e minor BWV 528 began its existence as an instrumental trio for oboe d’amore, viola da gamba and harpsichord in Cantata no.76, whereas the Adagio e Dolce from Sonata in d minor BWV 527 was later recast as the middle movement of the BWV 1044 Triple Concerto.

It is highly likely that Bach wrote a lot of chamber music that has been lost and there is quite a choice of arrangements of these trio sonatas for chamber ensembles. Indeed, here Bach himself was imitating a chamber genre in the three-movement Italian model. Consider the fact that these works are not the flamboyant organ toccatas and fugues, nor are they characterized by the mysticism of the organ chorale-preludes. So it is fitting that Myrna Herzog, founder and director of the PHOENIX Ensemble, should choose to play a concert of these pieces on four instruments, a true trio sonata line-up of violin–Noam Schuss, flute-Na’ama Lion (USA/Israel), harpsichord-Marina Minkin and with Herzog herself on viol. This writer attended the concert on May 31st 2014 at St. Andrews Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem.

From the very first sounds of Trio Sonata in G major BWV 525, one became acutely aware of the Scottish Church’s receptive acoustic, displaying the clarity and beauty of these period instruments. In probably the first of the six to be written, offering a fusion of sonata- and concerto styles, the players set out the musical narrative with crystal clarity and freshness. Schuss and Lion created dialogue that was joyful, bristling with interest and appealing, each retaining her- and the instrument’s individuality. However, all instruments had much to say and I found myself needing to tune in to the melodic and harmonic richness of each individually. Sonata in d minor BWV 527 was presented as a suave gamba sonata, the harpsichord part being an obbligato role. Herzog and Minkin engaged in discourse of the most mellow of coloring in a relaxed setting, their tempi carefully paced, their flexing subtle. Sixteenth notes and arpeggii were threaded into the lush text with delicacy and understatement, the artists’ message being that this was no showpiece, rather the noble music of a Lutheran church composer. Trio Sonata in D major opened with a lively soundscape, its imitative style giving flute and violin a green light to intertwine their thoughts in a texture where the flute took the upper strand, with Schuss the middle (left hand on the organ), as they played with sixteenth notes that oscillated around a fixed pedal point followed by lively eighth notes. In the Lento, the artists expressed the Siciliano movement’s profound three-voiced dialogue, careful not to over-embellish, lest they camouflage the nuances of melodic lines.

PHOENIX presented Sonata in C major BWV 530 as a flute and obbligato sonata. Together with its sparkling, virtuosic character, very much of the Vivaldian concerto style, Na’ama Lion (her well-anchored sound defying the “shrinking violet” character adopted by many Baroque flautists) chose to show the listener through the text’s course, with Marina Minkin’s rich and elegant playing highlighting prominent moments. Their playing was celebratory, intelligent and interactive. Sonata in e minor BWV 528 was performed as a violin sonata with obbligato harpsichord. Harpsichord and viol provided a solid bass through which continuum Schuss threaded the upper line. Noam Schuss’s playing is directional, secure and informed, always rewarding. As all address the serious character of the work, Schuss moves through its expansiveness and textural density, also standing back to give Minkin the stage. Dr. Myrna Herzog referred to Trio Sonata in d minor BWV 526 as “the most loaded”. Opening with graceful, buoyant playing of the Vivace, the players’ reading of it was both perceptive and introspective, the haunting Largo movement, with Minkin making use of the lute register, gentle, mellifluous and contemplative. The players had their listeners sitting on the edge of their chairs as they presented the choral-style fugue, its subject fanfared by two noble whole notes, a tour-de-force of compositional brilliance and beauty to end the concert.

This program was the result of much searching work, discussion and decisions of all four artists. To anyone not familiar with these works on organ, it might have seemed that these trio sonatas were scored for the PHOENIX quartet instrumentation. In tailored melodic lines that “sang”, at no time overloaded with showy ornaments, the players’ clarity of texture and lightness were all to the good of Bach’s ingenious counterpoint. This was playing of commitment, of beauty of melodies, of inner dialogue, of sincerity and musical persuasiveness. In an anonymous quote of 1788, some wise person (was it C.P.E. Bach?) wrote: “Bach’s trios still sound good; they will never grow old, but, on the contrary, will outlive all revolutions of fashion in music.”

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir presents "Viva la musica!"

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir’s annual gala concert took place on May 28th 2014 in the Henry Crown Symphony Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. “Viva la musica!” was the title given to the program music of Italian composers, or music in the Italian language, stretching from the Renaissance to 19th century choral pieces from Italian opera.

Established in 1987, the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir is the largest of its kind in Israel, its 150-or-so members consisting of amateur- and semi-professional singers coming from many sections of Jerusalem's local- and foreign communities. Having become an independent, member-based association, the choir today continues to receive funding from the Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Jerusalem Municipality. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir actually comprises five choirs, each working independently, with some joint annual collaboration. In total, they perform some 20 concerts a year. The five ensembles are as follows: The Oratorio Singers, directed by Ms. Naama Nazrathy Gordon, Bel Canto, directed by Ms. Noa Burstein, Cantabile (a women's choir), directed by Ms. Flora Vinokurov, Capellatte, directed by Ms. Shelley Berlinsky (absent from the concert due to imminent childbirth) and The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, directed by Mr. Ofer dal Lal. Ms. Tania Schupak is the choir’s piano accompanist. The Oratorio Choir was joined by the Israel Chamber Orchestra, by Tania Schupak and Natalie Povolotsky (piano, organ) and soloists soprano Svetlana Kosyatova and mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm. Veteran radio announcer Hayuta Dvir emceed the event.

Throughout the evening, each choir sang separately, with several works performed by two or more of the choirs. In singing that was both majestic and transparent, the program opened with “Barekhu” (Bless the Lord, Songs of Solomon) and “Halleluja” (Psalm 146) works of the Jewish Italian composer Salomone Rossi (1570-1630), the first non-cantorial composer to use Hebrew texts. Continuing with two witty villanellas of Franco-Flemish composer Orlando di Lasso (1530-1594), “O La, O Che Buon Eccho” (The Echo Song) was sung by heart by Capellatte and Bel Canto, making for much eye contact between singers and finely crafted, natural echo effects. In “Matona Mia Cara”, a bawdy song mocking the efforts of a German soldier to clumsily woo an Italian lady, Bel Canto and the Chamber Choir blended well, shaping phrases delicately…perhaps too delicately for such a text! Reacting sensitively to Nazrathy Gordon’s conducting, the Oratorio Singers and Chamber Choir created the sacred, reverent mood of the Kyrie from G.Rossini’s (1792-1868) “Petite Messe Solenelle”, with its musical references to the “stile antico” style and the unconventional but highly effective piano and organ accompaniment. (This scoring arose from the fact that the work was premiered in the private chapel of Countess Louise Pillet-Will, in which there were both piano and harmonium.) Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) “Magnificat”, performed by the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and conducted by Nazrathy Gordon, brought the first half of the concert to a close. Here, the choir displayed a well-trained choral sound and clear understanding of the verbal text, with the movements well contrasted, their singing of the gorgeous and plangent “Et misericordia” (And His mercy is on them) bathed in poignancy and anguish, the “Fecit potentiam” (He hath showed strength) deisplaying the text’s spirit of strength. Svetlana Kosyatova and Ella Wilhelm gave impressive, pleasing performances, both as soloists and in duo.

With Ofer dal Lal conducting, we heard the Chamber Choir and Bel Canto in one of the many settings (they range from four- to ten voices) of the “Crucifixus” text by Antonio Lotti (1667-1740). Their singing presented the work’s awe and mystery and highlighted its compelling dissonances, dal Lal’s use of dynamic color moving from fragile piano to a scintillating, silvery and exciting choral sound. One of the evening’s high points was the Chamber Choir’s performance of the “Plorate Filii Israel” (Weep, you children of Israel) the expressive lament ending Giacomo Carissimi’s (1605-1674) most famous oratorio “Jepthe”. Against an effective organ (Schupak) and ‘cello (Gregory Yanovsky) setting, the sopranos floated their melodic strands with weightless ease over and through Carissimi’s well-crafted imitative polyphony, the piece’s tragedy, grief and suffering heightened via the work’s multiple suspensions.

Moving away from sacred music, Cantabile and the Chamber Choir, conducted by Vinokurov, took the audience into the world of secular song of an Italian flavor with D.Bollati’s “La Mammoletta” (Shrinking Violet). The presence of two mandolins (Yulia Sinievsky, Sarah Taylor) added charm and delicacy to this friendly, sweetly sentimental song. With Umberto Giordano’s (1867-1948) “O Pastorelle, Addio” (Now is the time for parting) we had launched into the genre of operatic choruses, this section concluding the concert. In this graceful song, from “Andrea Chénier”, an opera focusing on the life of the poet Andrea Chénier, the wealthy Countess di Coigny is hosting a ball, the entertainment being an 18th century pastorale. Cantabile and the Chamber Choir, some of their women members hiding behind Venetian masks, created the piece’s mood, the harp (Sara Shemesh) adding magic and sparkle to the singers’ velvety choral timbre. Sung by the collective Oratorio Choir under the baton of Ofer dal Lal and accompanied by players of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, we then heard a selection of well-known opera choruses, the majority by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Performed with verve and spirit, these pieces provided hearty choral fare and much orchestral say, from the devil-may-care “Tarantella” from “The Force of Destiny” and “La Vergine degli Angeli” (The virgin of the angels), its solo sung exquisitely by Kosyatova, to the expressive, sweeping- yet disturbingly underlying melancholy of the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” (Nabucco). Two poignant choruses from Pietro Mascagni’s (1863-1945) “Cavalleria Rusticana” (Rustic Chivalry) completed the bill.

A great deal of serious and painstaking musical work had clearly been invested into the preparation of this concert, the result of which was pleasing amateur choral singing of a high standard. Singers were confident, expressive and articulate, their collective choral sound well shaped and clean, at the same time, both rich and transparent. The concert, providing hearty enjoyment to those attending, was a credit to Oratorio’s conductors and singers alike.