Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Vengerov Festival at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv

Following its Tokyo success, the Vengerov Festival was brought to Israel, taking place September 19th and 20th 2014 at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv. This writer attended the second of the two Tel Aviv concerts, that on September 20th. A concert of two Russian works, it featured conductor Vag Papian, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion and Maxim Vengerov himself both as solo violinist and conductor. The concert was moderated by Yossi Schiffmann.

Maxim Vengerov is one of today’s greatest violinists. Born in 1974, he began his solo career at age 5, making his first recording at age 10. In 2007, he turned his attention to conducting, studying with Vag Papian and Yuri Simonov, making his conducting debut at Carnegie Hall. In 2010, he became first chief conductor of the Gstaad Festival Orchestra. Maestro Vengerov divides his time between violin performance, conducting and teaching; he also serves on competition juries. He is visiting professor of the Swiss Menuhin Academy and Menuhin Professor at the Royal Academy of Music. Maxim Vengerov’s plans include the launch of his own recording label VMV (Vengerov Music Vision). He plays on an ex-Kreutzer Stradivarius (1727) violin.

In March of 1878, recovering from his failed marriage and a botched suicide attempt, Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky (1843-1893) living temporarily in Clarens, Switzerland, sketched his Violin Concerto in D major within eleven days. Visiting him there, his student and friend Yosif Kotek offered him advice on violin matters. On April 1st, the composer and Yosif played through the concerto for Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest. Both Modest and Yosif thought the slow movement to be weak. Four days later, the composer wrote a new slow movement. By April 11th the concerto, dedicated to the great violinist Leopold Auer, was complete. Auer, however, dismissed the piece as unplayable and Tchaikovsky, deeply hurt, feared the work would end up in “the limbo of the hopelessly forgotten”. When the work was finally premiered in 1881 by violinist Hans Richter in an under-rehearsed performance by the Vienna Philharmonic, music critic Eduard Hanslick wrote that he now realized there was music “whose stink one can hear”, claiming that the violin was “no longer played”, rather “pulled about, torn, beaten black and blue”. Auer was later to change his mind, considering the concerto “difficult” but not unplayable and the work’s innate lyricism and popularity has pushed Hanslick’s offensive remarks into obscurity.

We heard Maxim Vengerov as solo violinist in Tchaikovsky’s Concerto in D major for violin and orchestra, Op.35, with Vag Papian conducting the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion in a performance which was both exciting and tasteful, a performance presenting the heart of the music rather than a show of violin acrobatics. Vengerov’s palette of color, technique and emotion was drawn on strategically, each musical gesture articulate and paced well as he presented the work’s lyricism, playfulness, intensity and its big heart. Vengerov’s technical ease and virtuosity is never exhibitionistic, never standing in the way of musicality and eloquence. The performance’s strength was the sensitive collaboration between Papian, orchestra and Vengerov, a balance between the concerto’s sheer melodiousness, the composer’s fragility of soul in the Canzonetta:Andante movement, for example, and the devil-may-care, folk-like joy of the final Allegro vivacissimo. Vag Papian wields magical control, creating fine balance between soloist and orchestra, between tutti, solo passages and orchestral “asides”, as he presents a musical canvas to delight the senses. The Rishon LeZion Orchestra boasts a collection of very fine players, as heard in several poignant wind solos interspersed throughout the work.

Then to a very different realm of Russian music with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) “Scheherazade” Symphonic Suite Op.35, composed in the summer of 1888 and premiered in November of that year in St. Petersburg, with the composer conducting. The score calls for two flutes, two piccolos, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones and tuba, tympani, triangle, cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, tam-tam, harp and strings. Consisting of separate, unconnected episodes and pictures, the work was inspired by “The Arabian Nights”, a collection of Arabic, Persian and Indian tales. This choice reflects the composer’s attraction to faraway places, to fantasy and the exotic. On a holiday in Bakchisaray in central Crimea in 1874, Rimsky-Korsakov was intoxicated by the sounds he heard. “It was while hearing the gypsy musicians of Bakchisaray” he wrote “that I first became acquainted with oriental music in its natural state, and I believe I caught the main features of its character”. He prefaced the “Scheherazade” score with a reminder of the story behind the collection of stories: to sabotage Sultan Shahahriar’s vow to kill each of his wives after the wedding night, the Sultana Scheherazade spins an intricate web of tales, one each night for 1001 nights, ultimately fascinating the sultan and winning him over. Later, in his autobiography “My Musical Life”, the composer denied the work’s programmatic content, claiming that the music depicted no actual characters or episodes and that “all these seeming leitmotifs are nothing but pure musical material…to direct only slightly the listener’s path that my own fancy had traveled…that the hearer…should carry away the impression that it is undoubtedly an oriental narrative…” The work quickly became a favorite Romantic concert piece and a prominent work of descriptive symphonic repertoire.

Following intermission at the Tel Aviv concert, one noticed an unusual prop placed adjacent to the conductor’s podium - a table. This served the purpose of conductor and soloist, both roles to be performed by Maxim Vengerov as he alternated each role deftly, his mellifluous solo parts (perhaps as the story-teller) reappearing to introduce or “comment” on each movement. From the fierce and commanding opening theme, Vengerov had the audience listening actively as the work unfolded in its mysterious and magical moments, its urgency and its yearning. Vengerov shaped the music with passion and affection, his conducting language as expressive and precise as his playing, bringing the score to life and leading the orchestra into some powerful climaxes. Rimsky-Korsakov’s score abounds in virtuoso opportunities for principal players in the orchestra and these, together with the percussion section’s many gestures, were a handsome-sounding treat for the audience to hear and to view. Going for crisp textures and transparency of sound, Vengerov invited his orchestra and listeners to step into the world of fairy tales, fantasy, drama and caprice and to savor the brilliance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s marvelous orchestration.

For the encore, we heard “Meditation”, a symphonic intermezzo from Jules Massenet’s lyric opera “Thaïs” (1893), with Maxim Vengerov rendering its honeyed melodies suggestive of sweet and poignant tenderness, sorrow, tenderness and drama. This ended a festive concert of works both popular and familiar to audiences, a program of concert-hall favorites, played, however, with the freshness and discovery that lodge a safe distance from pedestrianism.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Bach Suites for Solo 'Cello at the 2014 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

The 17th Jerusalem International Festival of Chamber Music took place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from September 4th to 13th 2014. Well attended, the concerts attracted music-lovers from far and wide. This year’s concerts commemorated “two diverse but, each in their own way, highly significant anniversaries…the centenary of the outbreak of World War I…[and] the 160th anniversary of the birth of Richard Strauss”… in the words of pianist Elena Bashkirova, the festival’s artistic director. Another focus of the festival was the chamber sextet. With the 2014 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival drawing to a close, this writer attended a concert on September 12th , a program very different in format to the typical JICMF program – three of J.S.Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied ‘Cello, each performed by a different ‘cellist.

Gabriel Schwabe, born 1988 in Berlin to German-Spanish parents, began playing the ‘cello at age nine, studying under Prof. Catalin Ilea at the University of the Arts (Berlin) from 2000 to 2008. The recipient of many prestigious prizes, a soloist, chamber musician and recitalist, he has been artistic director of the “Resonanzen Siegburg” chamber music since 2012. Gabriel Schwabe plays a ‘cello by Francesco Ruggieri (Cremona, 1674). Pablo Casals, who in 1889, at the age of 13, found a copy of the suites in a used music store, eventually saving them from the fate of didactic exercises and restoring them to their rightful status as ‘cello works of primary importance, characterized Suite no.2 in d minor as “tragic”. Opening the Prelude in a spontaneous, slightly flexed manner, Schwabe’s strategic playing breathed freshness and a constantly lively presence of sound. Characterized by the contrast between fast runs and arpeggios in high- and low register, the artist guided the listener through the many gestures of the Allemande with a vivid, singing sound. Following a feisty, coherent, highly spirited reading of the Courante, Schwabe’s treatment of the Sarabande was meditative and intimate, his tone broad, as he explored the mysteries of the movement. Excitement, intensity and dissonance mingled with the carefree joie-de-vivre of the Gigue, concluding the performance with a sense of freedom. Choosing discrete, minimal use of vibrato, Gabriel Schwabe’s playing of the work spoke of personal involvement and youthful energy.

Born in 1982 to musician parents in Rochester, New York, Alisa Weilerstein began ‘cello studies at age four, making her debut at age 13 with the Cleveland Orchestra with Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme”. As a soloist, she has performed widely. An active chamber musician, Weilerstein also performs with her father violinist Donald Weilerstein and mother Vivian Hornik Weilerstein as the Weilerstein Trio. Highly involved in contemporary music, Alisa Weilerstein has worked extensively with composers Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach and Joseph Hallman. She is the recipient of several awards. Alisa Weilerstein plays on a 1790 William Forster ‘cello. At the festival concert, she played Suite no.3 in C major. Presenting the Prelude’s cascading 16th notes and shifting patterns with huge dynamic interest, virtuosity and temperament, Weilestein, taking the movement to its rich chordal cadenza with all its rhetorical impact, was in her element and promising to keep the audience at the edge of their seats. In the Allemande, the artist used Bach’s turns, double-stops and thirty-second notes to present the movement’s hide-and-seek elasticity and originality, still weaving some sweetness and naïveté through it. Following Weilerstein’s gregariously emotional and spectacular playing of the Courante, the Sarabande was taken very slowly, as she played out its languishing message out note by note, with melodic lines free of ornaments, save for slight vibrato used to color longer notes. Choosing to play Bourrée I with charm and elegance, her detached notes rendering it light-of-foot, Bourrée II was more singing and serious, with a tinge of pain. The Gigue, shifting from the tender to the vehement, from calm to urgency, the occasional dissonant moment hinting here at the common jig-like folk dance, bristled festively with positive energy. Weilerstein’s eye-to-eye rapport with the broad, bold character of the C major scale went hand-in-glove with her ample use of the low c string and its dramatic resonance.

Born in Moscow in 1961, Alexander Kniazev began ‘cello studies at age six, graduating from the Moscow Conservatory in 1986. Also an organist, he then graduated from the Nizhny-Novgorod Conservatory as an organ major in 1991. A soloist and chamber musician, Kniazev has won prizes in prestigious competitions. As well as performing, he teaches at the Moscow Conservatory and gives master classes in Europe and Asia. Bach’s works have always been of supreme importance to Kniazev. His recording of the complete Bach Suites for Solo ‘Cello was released in 2004 on the Warner Classics label. In his own words, “I try to find a reading of Bach’s music that must first and foremost be very animated…In no way should you attempt to make a ‘museum’ out of it.” At the Jerusalem concert, he performed Bach’s Solo ‘Cello Suite no. 5 in c minor, the only of the suites for which a Bach autograph exists. The work calls for the top string of the ‘cello to be lowered from an “a” to a “g” (scordatura), strengthening the c minor chord overtones. Using plenty of vibrato, Kniazev set the scene for the work with an intense, brooding reading of the mammoth Prelude, addressing its motifs and melodic lines in detail, its Allegro section lighter but still in a serious vein. The artist then brought out the large Allemande’s pensive, somewhat vulnerable character, allowing its melodic strands to dictate flexibility of pace and sound. The Courante was no romp, with Kniazev laying emphasis on its irregular shapes and voice-play. His playing of the Sarabande was probing and deeply emotional, its single line of wrenching leaps and tensions brimming with sadness and pain, down to the movement’s final, hushed pianississimo utterance. Not rushed, the two Gavottes breathed delicate and dancelike naïveté, their voices engaged in conversation. Kniazev paced the Gigue with care, the soul-searching aura of the c minor scale preserved right up to the work’s concluding notes. Alexander Kniazev plays on a distinctively mellow ‘cello that belongs to the Russian State Collection. An instrument played by Piatigorsky, its pedigree reads “Bergonzi, Cremona 1733. Curiously enough, no ‘cellos are known to have been made by Bergonzi. In the 19th century, many ‘cellos produced by the Venetian instrument builder Matteo Goffriller were attributed to Bergonzi. This may be the case here.

Here was a profoundly thought-provoking program in which each artist gave the audience a glimpse into his/her engagement with Bach’s most personal ‘cello music, each holding discourse in a language beyond words.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Violinist and conductor Maxim Vengerov comes to Tel Aviv

On September 19th and 20th 2014, the Tel Aviv and Israeli concert scene will wake from its aestivation (aestivation: inactivity and lower metabolic rate in response to high temperatures…) with the first Vengerov Festival to take place in Israel. Both concerts will take place at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, Tel Aviv. Alongside Maxim Vengerov, the concerts will feature pianist Shira Shaked, conductor Vag Papian, the Menuhin Academy Orchestra (Switzerland) and the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion.

The first program (September 19th 14:00) will not only pay homage to composers who wrote for the violin; it will pay homage to the tradition of fine violin playing itself and to some of the greatest violinists, namely Auer, Brodsky, Sarasate, Albertini and Oistrakh. We will hear Vengerov the chamber musician in works of Barber and Prokofiev and Vengerov the soloist and conductor performing Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns with the Menuhin Orchestra.

In the second concert (September 20th 21:00), Vengerov will solo in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major (under the baton of Vag Papian) and will both solo and conduct in Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”. Musicologist and journalist Yossi Schiffmann will host the evening’s event.

Israeli pianist Shira Shaked (b.1981), a graduate of both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Academies of Music, resides in New York and is currently studying for a doctoral degree with Prof. Gilbert Kalish at Stony Brook University, New York. She has given recitals in Israel and abroad and accompanies singers at the New Israeli Opera and the Beit Zvi School for the Performing Arts. Shira Shaked is a composer; she has recently recorded some of her music.

Conductor and pianist Vag Papian was born in 1956 in Erevan, Armenia and completed studies at the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories. He took the position of associate conductor of the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra in 1984, becoming its artistic director and chief conductor in 1987. An internationally performing artist, he immigrated to Israel in 1990, has conducted several Israeli orchestras, making his conducting debut with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 2005. In 2006 he took up the appointment of artistic director of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra and in 2008 was appointed chief conductor and artistic director of the Kazakhstan State Academic Orchestra. Vag Papian teaches piano and conducting at Tel Aviv University. As a recital partner of Maxim Vengerov, Maestro Papian has toured in Europe, the USA and the Far East, recording with Vengerov for the EMI Classic label.

Founded in 1977 and formerly known as “Camerata Lysy” and “Camerata Menuhin”, the Menuhin Academy Soloists are an ensemble consisting of gifted young string players, all of whom attend the International Menuhin Music Academy (Switzerland). There they study instrumental technique, chamber music, take master classes and workshops and have opportunities to gain solo- and ensemble concert experience. Performing with the Menuhin Academy Soloists is an integral part of the Menuhin Academy’s educational agenda.

Violinist and violist Maxim Vengerov was born in 1974 to a Jewish family with a strong musical tradition in Novosibirsk, Russia. He began his solo career at age five, making his first recording at age ten. He studied conducting at the Ippolitov-Ivanov Moscow Institute. He solos and conducts worldwide, frequently doing both in the same concert. Vengerov’s interest in many forms of musical expression has also brought him in contact with Baroque music, jazz and rock. In 2013, the Vengerov Festival was launched in Tokyo. Maxim Vengerov has a passion for teaching and encouraging young talent. He is presently visiting professor of the Menuhin Music Academy in Switzerland and Menuhin Professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In 1997 he became the first classical musician to be appointed International Goodwill Ambassador by UNICEF. Maestro Vengerov has been hailed as one of the world’s finest musicians and has been referred to as the “greatest living string player in the world today”. He will be introducing the Soloists of the International Menuhin Music Academy to the Israeli public, an orchestra led by him internationally and recently at the acclaimed Sion Music Festival.

What makes a musical giant like Maxim Vengerov tick? Two opportunities to find out await Israeli audiences very soon. The first Vengerov Festival in Israel promises exciting concert fare!

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Jerusalem Academy Choir in concert prior to its concert tour of Hungary

On August 27th 2014, the Jerusalem Academy of Music Chamber Choir, conducted by its artistic director Professor Stanley Sperber, performed a program of a-cappella works prior to the choir’s concert tour of Hungary as guest choir of the 2014 Jewish Summer Festival. The concert took place in the Navon Hall (Giv’at Ram Campus) adjacent to the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, in the presence of Mr. Yitzhak Navon, fifth President of the State of Israel and Honorary President of the JAMD, Attorney Yair Green and other members of the Academy board of directors. Established by Avner Itai in 1969, the Academy Chamber Choir (manager: Nir Cohen) today comprises 30 singers, mostly vocal department majors training for careers in singing. The ensemble performs the gamut of choral music, appearing widely. One highlight of the choir’s 2013-2014 season was singing in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polish Requiem”, conducted by the composer himself. One of the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir’s upcoming performances in Hungary will take place in the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest, the largest synagogue in Europe, having seating for some 3000 people.

The evening’s program was rich in content, offering a wide selection of a-cappella mixed choir repertoire. The singers set the scene with Salamone Rossi’s 6-voiced motet “Od’cha” (Psalm 118:21-24), their natural singing voices blending to create a bright, unadulterated choral sound, allowing for the work’s meaning to shine through:
‘I thank you that you have answered me
And brought salvation to me.
The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the cornerstone…’
The choir gave a beautifully introspective performance of Henry Purcell’s “Hear My Prayer” (Psalm 102:2), its suspensions and false relations used to communicate and color the text. Sperber’s reading of William Byrd’s anthem for six voices “Sing Joyfully” (Psalm 81:2-5) uses incisive textures to fire the piece’s brilliant counterpoint and exuberance, vocal textures also evoking timbres of the timbrel, harp, viol and trumpet, all mentioned in the text.

A unique work on the program, and of Giuseppe Verdi’s oeuvre, was “Ave Maria” (1889), a motet based on a bizarre enigmatic scale devised- and advertised in a journal by a certain Adolfo Crescentini, who challenged composers to write a work using it. The aging Verdi took up the challenge, his result magical and austere, unusual in its harmonic ambiguity and a technical tour-de-force. The Academy Chamber Choir’s performance of it was soul-searching and spiritual, the members’ transparent choral sound allowing for the rising and falling cantus firmus, the “scala enigmatica”, to be followed.

A central and larger work of the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Hymn to St, Cecilia” opus 27 (text: W.H.Auden), one of the choral masterpieces of 20th century English music and a work that challenges performers on many levels – technical, emotional and interpretational. The Academy Choir’s fresh, bright and poignantly luminous timbre was wholly suited to the concept of early 20th century British (and the young Britten’s) choral sound (the boy soprano solo in the third section replaced here, for obvious reasons, by a woman soprano); Sperber and his singers worked effectively with Auden’s imaginative text and precarious transitions.

Hungarian music, of one form or another, occupied a central part of the program. There were two arrangements of pieces by Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Taub (1744-1828), the first Hassidic Rebbe of Hungary, sometimes referred to as the “sweet singer of Israel”; Yehezkel Braun’s arrangement of Taub’s “Royz, Royz” (Rose, rose) was sung in Yiddish, while “Szól a Kakas Már”(The rooster crows in the morning), a traditional Hungarian Hassidic tune arranged in lush harmonies by the choir’s associate conductor Tami Kleinhaus, was performed in Hungarian. We heard Zoltán Kodály’s arrangement of the Hungarian folksong “Esti Dal” (Evening darkness overtook me near the woods), its touching melodic beauty outlined by unaffected soprano voices set against gentle humming and, then surprisingly, Koday’s full-bodied setting of “Baruch Shem K’vod” (Blessed be the name of the glory) from the Jewish prayer book, in Hebrew! Stanley Sperber spoke of Kodaly’s interaction with Jews and his familiarity with “nussach” (traditional Jewish melody). The program also included works of Hungarian-born Israeli composers. In Oedoen Partos’s (1907-1977) fine setting of the “Mavdil” prayer (Who distinguishes), based on traditional Sephardic tunes, the choir presented the work’s strong melodiousness and ample dissonances with joy and spontaneity. Composer and ethnomusicologist Andre Hajdu (b.1932), who was a student of Kodály in Budapest, was present at the Academy concert. His tonal, playful “Arba Midot” (Four Qualities) was followed by “She’elot Habanim” (Questions of the Sons), a small but vivid canvas in which Hajdu’s writing brings to life characters from the Passover Haggadah with sharp theatrical color, humor and some references to Jewish cantillation.

Still within the realm of Jewish music, the choir performed Stanley Sperber’s arrangement of Ben Zion Shenker’s “Eshet Chayil” (A Woman of Worth), Proverbs 31:10-31. Shenker (b.1925), a Modzitz Hassid from Brooklyn, has done much to maintain the Modzitz musical tradition, but is also a leading composer of Chassidic music in his own right. “Eshet Chayil” is one of his best known Sabbath songs; the choir gave this jaunty arrangement a sympathetic and charming rendition.

Maestro Sperber then led his singers through a selection of Israeli song repertoire: following a spirited reading of Mordechai Zeira’s “Shirat Hechalil” (Song of the Flute) (arr. Michael Wolpe), the darbuka accompaniment lending zing and regional flavor, we heard a sensitive performance of David Zehavi’s “Halicha LeKesaria” (A Walk to Caesarea), in an arrangement by Shai Sobol, a graduate of the choir. Its text is by Hannah Szenes (1921-1944), a young woman who assisted in the rescue of Hungarian Jews about to be deported to Auschwitz and who was eventually tried and executed. The song was sung by the Academy Chamber Choir at Dachau two years ago. In a lighter vein, Tami Kleinhaus’s spiffy, bluesy, joyful arrangement of Yoni Rechter’s “Atur Mitzchech” (Your forehead is ornamented), then Menachem Wiesenberg’s jagged, densely textured, full-on dissonant arrangement of Yohanan Zarai’s “Vayiven Uziyahu” (And Uziyahu built) (Chronicles II, 26:9-10), a daring and interesting musical gesture on the part of the arranger and a real feat on the part of the singers!

Yehezkel Braun was born in Germany in 1922. His family moved to Mandate Palestine when he was two, where he grew up surrounded by local traditional music that was later to leave a profound influence on him as a composer. He was deeply interested in Jewish melody and Gregorian chant. Yehezkel Braun died on August 27th 2014, the very day of the Academy concert. For all present, it was especially meaningful to hear his “Hem Amru” (They said) from the Sayings of the Fathers. A work written in 2005, this is a small musical gem, one of the many by Yehezkel Braun. We were well entertained by the piece, as by the soloists, as the singers enunciated the verses articulately, presenting the many shades of wisdom and meaning of each verse.

Professor Sperber brings solo voices together to form a fine choral blend. Throughout the evening, the students performed many solos within the works. Under Stanley Sperber’s guidance, the Academy Chamber Choir excels in precision and fine intonation, in the performing of different styles and in warmth of sound resulting from good teamwork and enjoyment.