Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Jerome Varnier (bass) and Thomas Palmer (piano) open the American Colony Hotel's new concert series with "Don Quijotte"

Guests arriving to attend the opening event of the new American Colony Concert Series on December 12th 2015 were met by an impressive display of Christmas decorations in the gardens and interiors of this unique Jerusalem venue. The American Colony Hotel, originally the palace of a pasha with his harem of four wives and subsequently a commune of messianic Christians before being converted into a hotel, is housed in a classical Ottoman building of great beauty. Classical music has played an important role in the cultural history of the American Colony Hotel. The hotel’s archives house old scores and music written at or for the hotel.  Mr. Yves Corbel, cultural attaché of the French Consulate, Tel Aviv, opened the event with words of welcome. The concert, organized and coordinated by Ms. Petra Klose (Vienna), no new face to music events in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the American Colony Hotel and its general manager Mr. Thomas Brugnatelli, was held under the auspices of the Jerusalem Institut Français and the French Consulate. “The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha”, a recital by two French artists – bass Jérôme Varnier and pianist Thomas Palmer – was held in the hotel’s Pasha Room, a small elegant hall graced with a magnificent hand-painted wooden ceiling, one of the only examples of its kind in the Middle East.

One of the most influential literary pieces of the Spanish Golden Age, Miguel de Cervantes’ “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” (1605, 1615), regarded by many as the first true novel,  has served as the inspiration for a range of literary, dramatic, operatic- and vocal works, tone poems, ballets, paintings and films, a work for two guitars (1982-3) by British composer Ronald Stevenson, for a rap song by the Funky Aztecs (2002), and more. The Jerusalem recital focused mostly on works by French composers.

The artists presented several items from Jules Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” (1910), a five-act heroic comedy opera rooted in its title character (the title part was created for renowned Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin), a man more ridiculed than admired but touching in his world-weary wisdom. Varnier’s portrayal of Quichotte was noble, touching and authoritative, taking on the drama of situations but never extravagant or over-sentimental.  One highlight was the magically lyrical performance of “Quand apparaissant les étoiles” (When the stars appear), with Palmer’s playing almost visually evoking the sparkling of stars. Altogether, his articulate playing of piano reductions throughout the evening bristled with a kaleidoscope of color and textures, strategic timing, often setting a mood or scene, never missing an opportunity for drama and suspense. Varnier’s understated portrayal of the dying Don Quichotte was poetic and bathed in a sense of tragedy.

In a spicy, exotic and polished performance of Maurice Ravel’s song cycle “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” (1932-3), composed for voice and orchestra and later arranged for voice and piano, Varnier and Palmer highlighted the exotic Iberian character of  the three fine concert pieces, entertaining the audience with their virtuosity. To texts of Paul Morand, the song cycle, the last of Ravel’s compositions, was to have comprised four songs and background music. It was commissioned by film director G.W.Pabst  for a cinema version of “Don Quixote”, also to star Chaliapin, but the worsening effects of Pick’s Disease, from which Ravel was suffering, prevented him from completing the task. The songs nevertheless represent the finest of Ravel’s sophisticated writing, presenting Don Quixote as an infatuated lover, a holy warrior and a drinker and with musical settings abundant in zesty dance rhythms. For the love song to Dulcinea “Chanson romanesque”, the first, Ravel engages a quajira, with its alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4, then using a majestic Basque zortzico for “Chanson épique”, the knight’s prayer for protection, flavoring it with gregariously dissonant chords and a modal soundscape. In the feisty strophic, comical “Chanson à boire”, the iota, with its vibrant cross rhythms, endorses the song’s devil-may-care toast:
…‘To hell with the jealous fool, dark mistress,
Who whines, who weeps and makes oaths
To always be the pale lover
Who puts water into his intoxication!
I drink to joy!

Joy is the sole aim
That I pursue…
When I have drunk.’

Jacques Ibert’s “Don Quichotte” songs form the continuation to the Ravel episode, with Chaliapin singing and Ibert conducting in Pabst’s film. Ibert did not use the Cervantes text but those of Pierre Ronsard and Alexandre Arnoux. The artists at the Jerusalem concert gave an impressive reading of the decidedly Spanish-influenced songs, with their improvisational melodic character, melismatic moments and flourishes, guitar-like accompaniment and emotional range. Varnier’s large, resonant voice, his dark timbre garnished with effulgence, is served well by excellent diction and an even timbre throughout. In the final song Arnoux leaves us with the unanswerable question of what characteristics are more genuine to us – our dreams or our reality.

The program ended with the artists’ hearty, flowing and warmly-nuanced performance of “La Quête”, the 1968 French-language adaption of “The Impossible Dream” from the 1964 musical “Man of La Mancha” (lyrics: Joe Darion, music: Mitch Leigh).  Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel translated the songs and played the lead in the musical in Paris (1968).

Opera singer Jérôme Varnier performs internationally in opera houses and at festivals. Thomas Palmer is a vocal coach and accompanist, also playing with orchestras. Palmer and Varnier have worked together intermittently for the last eight years. With music once more playing a prominent role at this imposing venue, the recital was a find opener to what is to be a promising series.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presents "A Storm in Versailles" - the dispute on French versus Italian style

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra has performed much French and Italian music over the almost-30 years of its existence, highlighting the differences between the two styles and approaches to art. Confronting the subject head-on, the JBO event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 25th 2015 presented the case of the wrangling between advocates of both styles in “A Storm in Versailles” with a lively theatrical-musical performance written by viola da gamba player Nima Ben David (Israel/France); Nima Ben David was guest artist in the JBO production. Originally written in French, “La Querelle des Bouffons” (Quarrel of the Jesters) “describes discussions between champions of Italian and French music taking place in 18th century Paris”, in Ben David’s words. Many important public figures took part in these debates, among them the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, authors, revolutionaries and self-appointed intrigants in texts well-stocked with the best of current French rhetoric. Soloists in the JBO performance were Nima Ben David, Noam Schuss (violin) and soprano Daniela Skorka.

To make the case for both sides, JBO founder and musical director David Shemer engaged the services of actor Itzik Cohen-Patilon, who held the audience in the palm of his hand with his articulacy, charisma, humor and wholehearted involvement in the subject at hand, his highly corporal performance clearly enhanced by the fact that his skills include pantomime and street theatre.  With many of the JBO players wearing wigs and colorful hats, they also took part in the performance together with Ben David…mostly with a volley of disdainful gestures, physical or musical, interrupting each other’s playing to display their displeasure and compete in virtuosity.  There was much brilliant playing on the part of Ben David and Schuss.  Maestro Shemer, representing Jean-Baptiste Lully (an Italian-born composer working in the court of Louis XIV of France) arrived on stage wearing an elegant white wig and carrying a long conducting staff, as was the custom of musical directors at the time. (Lully died of gangrene, having accidentally driven the staff into his foot when conducting a performance of his own “Te Deum”.) Appearing on stage with a  glittery gold mask held to her face, young soprano Daniela Skorka, today  enjoying much success on the lively local Baroque music scene, performed “Stizzoso, mio stizzoso” (Irascible, my irascible) from  Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” with pizzazz and whimsy as she sailed effortlessly through  her high vocal register. A little later, she returned to the stage to sing and conduct, her attire and manner dramatically finished with a black shawl and long black gloves, her theatrical flair and expressive face matched by her flexible, rich vocal performance. So, with Cohen’s performance interspersed with a salvo of lively and brilliantly presented excerpts from works of Corelli, Pergolesi and J-P. Rameau, constituting the first half of the concert, the audience was both well entertained and became better informed as to one of the most formidable disputes in the history of music.

Following Lully’s death in 1687, there was some effort to reconcile this stylistic argument in works that became crowd-pleasers in Europe. One such work was “L’Apothéose de Lulli” for various instruments and continuo (1725) by François Couperin, “composed to the immortal memory of the incomparable Monsieur de Lulli”, in which he endeavors to create a synthesis of the two styles. With Ben David announcing the title of each movement in French and Cohen offering following with the Hebrew translation, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performed the work.  The scene opens with Lully in the Elysian fields in discourse with the shades there.. When Lully is taken up to Parnassus, the music serves to remind us of the great French court composer’s Italian origins.  When Lully and Corelli meet on Parnassus, Apollo declares that the reunion of French “goût” (taste) and Italian style will form musical perfection never heard before. As elegant as it is, this multi-movement masterpiece has an element of humor threaded through it. Believing in the merging of the French and Italian sonata styles (goûts réunis), Couperin takes inspiration from both styles and adapts them to his own. When Lully and Corelli join forces, Couperin casts them in the image of two violins (played by Noam Schuss and Andrea Hallam), in which they “accompany” each other. Lully suggests a melody to Corelli and then vice-versa. And apart from the work’s programmatic content and effects, “L’Apothéose de Lulli” is indeed one of Couperin’s most varied and profound compositions.  The JBO’s performance of it was eloquent, offering duets delightfully played – Geneviève Blanchard and Idit Shemer (flutes), Schuss and Hallam (violins), Schuss and Idit Shemer.

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra signed out of this unique event with suave playing of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Gigue anglais”.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Music of the school of National Jewish Art Music performed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On November 24th 2015, “Hymn to a Poet”, the first of three concerts of works by composers of the Jewish Art Music Movement, took place in the National Library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was organized by the “Joel Engel Nigunim La’ad (Melody Forever) Organization”, established in 2012 by Shirelle Dashevsky, with the aim of promoting Jewish art music and encouraging the composition of Jewish works. Holding concerts in various parts of Israel, the organization has three ensembles: a vocal ensemble, a chamber ensemble and an ensemble specializing in the performance of Jewish instrumental-vocal music in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Most of the artists in these ensembles are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. Announcing and explaining the evening’s program was Dr. Gila Flam, director of the Music Department (Hebrew University) and the National Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel; she has helped to make this project a reality, making library funds available to include an exhibition of historic scores. The concept is that of Dr. David Ben-Gershon, who has done much research on the composers, on defining the selection of music, obtaining scores, and more. Soprano Shirelle Dashevsky is the program director, selecting and inviting artists, constructing programs and transforming the chosen scores into actual music. The program we heard offered a representative selection of works by several of the key figures of the Jewish Art Music Movement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a new school of modern Jewish composers took to the European stage. Coming from the great Russian conservatories of St. Petersburg and Moscow, these young composers drew their inspiration from both the current styles of Russian music and from secular Jewish Nationalism. Encouraged by such key musical figures as Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Scriabin, Joel Engel, Alexander Krein, Joseph Achron, Mikhail Gnessin, Leo Zeitlin and Lazare Saminsky and other Jewish composers took it upon themselves to create a new modern style of Jewish art music, shaping it for concert rendition. In doing so, they researched and collected early Jewish liturgical chant, secular folk songs and instrumental melodies, the result being a new fusion of Jewish traditional music and European classical styles. There were several elements influencing the movement - the awakening of a national awareness, the revival of Hebrew, an interest in secular Hebrew- and Yiddish literature, Zionism and what was referred to by them as the ‘Haskala’ – the Jewish ‘Enlightenment’.

As a composer, Alexander Krein (1883-1951) was a major figure in the emerging school of Jewish national music, being an active member of the Moscow branch of the Society of Jewish Folk Music and the Society for Jewish music. He composed instrumental music and much music for theatre. His father was a folk violinist; Alexander spent much of his childhood playing klezmer music in his father’s band. His own individual style combines the harmonic language of Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, together with the lyrical melodies and modes of Jewish music. Opening the concert a vivid performance of Krein’s “Ornament” opus 42 no.1 (Uri Brener-piano, Dina Guyfleg-violin) set the scene with music of a distinctly Jewish yet eclectic nature – eastern European synagogue music, with its spirit of improvisation. In one of the composer’s autumnal “Three Songs from the Ghetto” (1918) Krein’s delicate, reflective vocal line paired well with an evocative piano part, making for interesting listening.

Born in Crimea, Russia, composer, critic and scholar Joel Engel has been referred to as the “father of modern Jewish music”. He published Russian-style song romances and arrangements of Jewish folk songs as well as a collection of Yiddish folk songs. In his mission of revealing the artistic potential of Jewish music to both Russian- and Russian-Jewish composers, he was seen as the founder of the modern school of Jewish national art music, taking a leading role in the Society for Jewish Folk Music, also collecting and recording music from and undertaking the transcription and field recording of Jewish music in the shtetls (villages of Eastern Europe). Giving the program its name, Engel’s “Hymn to a Poet” (lyrics: S. Schneur) in celebration of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s 50th birthday, was performed in Hebrew by soprano Shirelle Dashevsky and tenor Konstantin Kotelnikov (piano: Uri Brener); “Two Letters”, performed by the three and sung in Yiddish, created the emotion and drama of Jewish life of the time. Lazare Saminsky (1882-1969), co-founder of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, was especially involved in the importance of early synagogue music. His “Song of Songs” opus 13 no.1, to a poem of Pushkin, was sung in Russian by Kotelnikov. Also instrumental in the founding of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and director of the Jewish Art Theater, Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1962) went to Palestine in 1925, where he, among other activities, researched Lithuanian biblical cantillation. In “A-Wieg Lied” (Lullaby) opus 4 no.2, one of his Yiddish art songs, the picture emerging from Dashevsky’s contrasting dynamics and well-controlled piano and Brener’s magical and evocative playing was that the lullaby’s message was not all soothing gestures. Violinist Dina Goyfeld-Zemtsova and Uri Brener’s vibrant playing of Michael Gnessin’s (1883-1957) “Song of the Wandering Knight” for ‘cello or violin and piano (1921) highlighted the piece’s interest, temperament and its playfulness, also drawing attention to Gnessin’s fine compositional technique.

A major section of the concert focused on the music of Joseph Achron (1888-1943). Representing Achron the composer and consummate violinist, we heard Goyfeld-Zemtsova and Brener in a sophisticated performance of “Scher” opus 42 (1917), with the violin repeating its traditional klezmer-style dance melody over increasingly more complex and daring, experimental piano textures. The traditionally eastern European Jewish melody of Achron’s Canzonetta opus 52 no.2 (1923), taking its lyrics from a poem by Hebrew poet Avraham Ben Yitzhak, its form strophic but with variety, was performed by Dashevsky, Goyfeld and Brener. Dashevsky and Brener’s presentation of “A dove passed by my face” opus 53 no.2 (1923) delighted in its descriptiveness, with its fluttering of wings, coloristic use of the sustaining pedal and the singer’s easeful communication with the audience.

One of the highlights of the program was all four artists’ moving reading Hirsh Kopit’s “Wos wet sajn mit Reb Isroel dem frumen”, its bittersweet Jewish melodiousness set off by a fragile and reticent - almost dancelike - refrain. The program concluded with all four musicians in a concert version of three movements from Jacob Weinberg’s 1924 opera “Chalutzim” (Pioneers), the lyrics of which were also written by the composer. The first Zionist opera, it focuses on the lives of pioneers on a kibbutz in Mandate Palestine. Having escaped the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the kibbutzniks are now enthusiastic about dedicating their lives to the rebuilding of Israel. The work, which includes a love story, recreates the atmosphere of the times, with dances and songs reflecting the style developing in Israeli music. (Jacob Weinberg lived in Palestine from 1921 to 1925, before leaving for the USA.) In music that might today been viewed as dated, sentimental and naïve, it is nevertheless rich in content and drama. The artists gave it their all, conveying the climate and excitement of this chapter of Israeli history that is sinking into oblivion.

Shirelle Dashevsky’s work on this project is of much value. Her selection of fine artists, her own informed performance and their collaborative high quality of musicianship are bringing back to life a substantial and significant body of Jewish music and recounting a chapter of the history of Jewish music that must be told.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"Rosenblatt Express", telling the story of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Habima Theater (Tel Aviv)

Reissues of early 78 RPM recordings of Yossele Rosenblatt were playing as we were taking our seats in the intimate Hall 4 of the Habima Theatre (Tel Aviv) on November 23rd 2015 to attend “Rosenblatt Express”, a play written by Ron Guetta, directed by Denise Boyd Shama and performed by members of the Theatre Company Jerusalem, the performance telling the story of one of the world’s greatest Jewish cantors.

Born in 1882 in the Ukrainian shtetl of Belaya Tserkov (Galicia), Yossele Rosenblatt was the son of a cantor. Recognizing his son’s extraordinary talent, his father began to tour with the young boy whose singing helped supplement the family income. Married at 18, Yossele took his first cantorial position in Munkacs Hungary, soon moving to Pressburg (Hungary). A commanding figure with a dark beard and suave appearance, he possessed a superb, mellifluous and gripping coloratura tenor voice, a large range and a flexible falsetto range. His creative talents as a composer of Hassidic-flavored music were already becoming recognized. The five years in Pressburg saw the composition and publication of 150 recitatives and choral pieces and in 1905 Rosenblatt recorded his first phonograph record. Moving to Hamburg, where he again won instant acclaim, meant a better-paying job.  His fame now spread to America, where Rosenblatt was invited to sing two Saturday morning services at the Ohab Zedek Synagogue of New York, then receiving a permanent position there, bringing his wife and children over to America. In May 1917, he sang to a crowd of 6000 people at the Hippodrome (New York) at a fund-raising concert for Jews in Europe. This prompted a tour of 30 cities on behalf of the war relief campaign. Attending his concert in Chicago was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, who offered the cantor the role of Eleazar in Halevy’s opera “La Juive” at $1000 per performance. Despite the fact that Campanini’s contract endeavored to take into account Rosenblatt’s orthodox lifestyle (his co-stars would be Jewish sopranos) Rosenblatt refused the offer. In an interview appearing in the “Musical America” journal in 1918, he admitted that the “cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me”.  However, he did start performing concerts that included opera arias and ethnic songs, becoming acquainted with the great opera singer Enrico Caruso and making his Carnegie Hall debut in 1918. Now an integral part of the New York musical scene, Rosenblatt was earning very well from his synagogue position, concerts and royalties from his recordings. However, his philanthropy, the burden of supporting eight children and his generosity towards several other family members weighed heavily on his finances. In 1922, he made a risky investment in a Yiddish newspaper, resulting in his being declared bankrupt in 1925. To pay back his debts, Rosenblatt turned to performing in vaudeville shows, singing sentimental songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian and English and managing to avoid having to share the stage with other singers, acrobats, animal acts and gaudy scenery. In 1933 he was made an offer that he accepted – “Dream of My People” – a movie in which he would sing his own works at the relevant biblical sites in Israel. He also sang in synagogue services and gave concerts all over Israel, meeting Rav Kook and the national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik. Rosenblatt’s next plan was to undertake a European concert tour to make enough money to enable him and his family to settle in Israel. As fate would have it, however, he suffered a heart attack in Israel and died at age 51; he was buried on the Mount of Olives. Seventy years later, Yossele Rosenblatt’s pieces are still a staple of cantors. In his recordings, which now appear on CDs, his artistry, deeply emotional singing and magnificent singing voice live on.

Denise Boyd Shama’s direction of Guetta’s play brings to life the rollercoaster story of Yossele Rosenblatt, with Daniel Botzer comfortably cast as the totally human and naïve Rosenblatt and Neta Bar Rafael portraying his wife Tovale with warmth, depth and winning sincerity. A strong element running all the way through “Rosenblatt Express” is indeed their  story of love and loyalty.   A bare stage with few to no props fills with theatrical energy, as the two leads, joined by Rafi Kalmar, Amir Yerushalmi, Leon Moroz, Ariel Krizopolsky and Eyal Raz taking on a number of roles, present a host of fast-moving and vibrant small scenes taking the audience on “Rosenblatt Express’s” bumpy yet fame-filled ride through life. Not a musical, the few numbers heard in the performance consist either of recordings of Rosenblatt (at one moment, showing Botzer standing behind a white screen as Yossele singing in a vaudeville performance) or, for example, “Ain’t She Sweet” composed in 1927 (Milton Ager-music, Jack Yellen-lyrics) one of the hit songs typical of the Roaring 20s, capturing the atmosphere of that time in America.  The play raises issues of the conservative lifestyle expected of a cantor: Yossele’s father is shocked to hear that his son has been to see “Madama Butterfly”, Yossele is criticized for making gramophone recordings and the powers that be of the Hamburg Synagogue insist there be no improvisation in his cantorial singing.  “Rosenblatt Express” offers some moments of suspense: missing the train for a performance in New York, Rosenblatt hires a train to whisk him off at record speed from Philadelphia to New York…hence the play’s title. There is the episode of another big job offer with the manic Sam Warner of Warner Bros. and Sam Warner’s sudden death, followed by the tragedy of the Great Depression, the latter bringing the cantor back to singing in the synagogue, but for a low salary that leaves him helpless to pay back loans.
In the foreword to his book of Recitatives (1928), Rosenblatt wrote “…I was moved by the double impulse of serving the needs of the Jewish cantor and of demonstrating to the musical world at large that genuine Jewish hazzanut [cantorial singing] can still satisfy completely even the refined taste of today…I shall feel amply rewarded for my efforts when I shall see this work widely disseminated…” Telling his story in a dynamic, entertaining and accessible manner, the performance at Habima concludes with a few more moments for the audience to relish in the sound of Rosenblatt’s voice, yet another moving reminder of the greatness and uniqueness of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Israel Haydn Quartet hosts clarinetist Eli Eban at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Jerusalem

Walking through the gates of the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, on a sunny Autumn morning  means leaving the harsh realities of today’s world behind for a couple of hours. The lush, exotic gardens on either side of the steps that lead up to the concert hall beckon one to take a few minutes to ponder this densely-planted natural haven. The concert on November 14th 2015 was performed by the Israel Haydn Quartet – Eyal Kless- 1st violin, Svetlana Simannovsky-2nd violin, Tali Kravitz-viola, Shira Mani-‘cello - to be joined by clarinetist Eli Eban. Established in 2010, the Israel Haydn Quartet is making its mark, performing throughout Israel and recently in Seoul, South Korea. It plays the gamut of string quartet repertoire, but, as its name infers, it is no coincidence that the quartet takes a great interest in the music of Joseph Haydn, “father” of the Classical string quartet genre. In 2014, the quartet received a grant from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport to record a CD consisting of three Haydn quartets. All four members enjoy international performing- and teaching careers.

The program opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in D-minor No.2 Op.76. Of the some 68 Haydn quartets Opus 76, the last complete set, written between 1796 and 1797 when the composer was 65, constitutes the apex of his career, with No.2 referred to as the “Quinten” (Fifths) Quartet, due to its opening motif of descending fifths.  The Israel Haydn Quartet’s reading of the work was exhaustive, highlighting its closely woven thematic and structural concentration of the opening movement in playing that was vibrant, incisive and direct. Following the Andante (2nd movement), its major theme in a lighter, more smiling frame of mind, its appealing, ornamented songlike melody stated by Kless,  the quartet members launched into forthright playing of the intense, stark canon of the “Witches’ Minuet” its less confrontational  rustic middle section an interesting contrast. Then, with Haydn’s virtuosic first violin part sensitively dealt with by Kless, the quartet produced the full, dynamic canvas of the last movement, its intensive, well-spiced agenda with a touch of gypsy flavoring finally turning to the major key, to sweep away the work’s minor character and conclude with a sense of well-being.

We then heard “Summer Strings” – String Quartet no.1 (1962) by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni (b. Germany, 1927), a set of four small movements bearing  non-musical, evocative and challenging titles : Destination, Argument, Variations without a Theme, Interweaving.  Utilizing many techniques of string  repertoire, Avni’s propelling, changing rhythm patterns, his modal ideas, his energetic style of writing and adept mixing of the influence of east and west make for a work rich in content and temperament, yet so compact, keeping the listener at the edge of his seat in involved, active listening. Highlighting the work’s many moods and imaginative sound combinations, from the relentless running figures of the first movement, through the changing agendas of “Argument”, the thought-provoking, somewhat disturbing timbres of the “Variations” that appear to be looking for a theme, to the robust questioning of “Interweaving”, the Israel Haydn Quartet’s performance of “Summer Strings” was refreshingly raw, intelligent and as articulate as Tzvi Avni’s writing itself.

Clarinetist Eli Eban joined the Israel Haydn Quartet in a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B-minor Op. 115. A former member of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Eli Eban has soloed with many of the world’s finest orchestras. Today he divides his time between teaching at the Jacobs School of music (Indiana University), touring as a soloist and chamber musician and serving as principal clarinetist of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. His summers are spent performing and teaching at the Sarasota Music Festival and as principal clarinetist of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Composed in the summer of 1891, the Brahms opus 115 Clarinet Quintet, a late and decidedly autumnal work, was one of a number of works written at the time featuring the clarinet, as inspired by the virtuosic clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the court orchestra. The Allegro opened with finely coordinated playing of Eban and the quartet, setting the scene for the work’s poetic, nostalgic
intensity, its seriousness and fragility. Opening the 2nd movement (Adagio), with its major-minor split personality, Eban’s haunting and superbly controlled cantabile playing created the effect of gentle calling, with the middle section spiraling to an imposing, gypsy-flavored texture. Following the set of variations of the final movement, played expressively, offering each of the instruments personal utterance,  the listener is taken unawares when the musical course  suddenly reverts to that of the first movement, to end enigmatically almost exactly as does the first movement.  The five artists’ performance of the work was profound, their detailed reading of it rich in finely chiseled phrasing, their energy and rhapsodic gestures never far from the quintet’s underlying sadness. Led assuredly by Eyal Kless, the Israel Haydn Quartet’s fresh, informed and dedicated playing is another feather in the hat of the Israeli chamber music scene.  Eli Eban ‘s refined, poetic expressiveness, his melodic shaping and control of instrumental color were moving and memorable.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Amir Katz solos in the Israel Chamber Orchestra's opening concert of the 2015-2016 season

On November 11th 2015, in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Chamber Orchestra opened its 2015-2016 concert season with a program of works by Ives, Chopin and Beethoven. The event was conducted by the orchestra’s new musical director Ariel Zuckermann. In his friendly, informal manner, Maestro Zuckermann addressed the audience, referring to the financial straits in which the audience had found itself and to how the board of management and audience are contributing to rehabilitate the ICO, to start the new season on a better footing and to reach out to a wider range of audiences, including those of children. After expressing his appreciation to sponsors and to Dr. Eitan Or, chairman of the ICO’s governing council and to the audience itself, Zuckermann spoke of one of his aims as musical director being to surprise the audience.

With the latter in mind, Zuckermann took the bull by the horns, opening the program with American composer Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question”. Composed in 1906 and revised in the 1930s, the work is scored for offstage string ensemble, solo trumpet and woodwind quartet. The audience was not quite sure what to make of the hall and stage suddenly being plunged into darkness, with only the woodwind quartet and Zuckermann on stage. In the composer’s modernistic signature musical language, Ives had constructed the somewhat programmatic work (referred to by him as a “cosmic landscape”) in three layers, with the tranquil, otherworldly-sounding, tonal, shimmering chords of the string section representing “the silences of the Druids”, the solo trumpet asking “the perennial question of existence” and the woodwind quartet becoming more agitated and provocative in its dissonant utterances. The work concludes with the trumpet asking the “question” for the last time, to be followed (or answered) by silence. Its free notation making for a new reading of it for each performance, Zuckermann and the ICO players, in a compelling performance of “Unanswered Question”, offered the audience the rare opportunity of hearing - and indeed experiencing - this work, its significance in the concept  of avant-garde music as pertinent as its statement of the co-existence of chaos and consonance.

We then heard Amir Katz as soloist in Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto no.2 in F-minor, opus 21. Written in 1829 (actually  the earlier of the two piano concertos but the second to be published) the 20-year-old composer premiered it at Warsaw’s National Theater in 1830, finding favor with other musicians of the time, among them Liszt, who referred to the work as of “ideal perfection, its expression now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos”.  Following the first movement’s long orchestral exposition, Katz makes his entry with articulacy and eloquence, then proceeding to set before the listener the meaning of Chopin’s score. He creates a canvas as rich in the work’s generous, larger gestures as it is in the smallest of fleeting ornamental detail. Poetic fragility emerges from drama just as majestic and sweeping gestures take their cue from intimate filigree origins. In the Larghetto movement (inspired by Chopin’s infatuation with soprano Konstancja Gladkowska) Katz sets the listener’s heart afloat with a sensitively nuanced reverie of impeccably fashioned melodies, yet interspersed with a measure of intensity.  For Amir Katz, deeply enquiring reading of the musical text on all levels and note-perfect performance serve as the basis for expressing the young Chopin’s strikingly original writing and emotional energy. In a work of notorious difficulty, in which the composer’s virtuosic writing is taken to its optimum, Katz’s agenda is neither that of showy display nor of self-indulgent musings; he addresses the concerto’s lyricism and subtleties, its layering and textures, illuminating the score with fresh, splendidly clean playing never marred by foggy over-use of the sustaining pedal, never burdened by world-weary rubati.  Together all the way, Katz, Zuckermann and orchestra collaborate closely, the pianist at one moment weaving elegant pianistic reflection through the orchestral fabric, at the next, highlighting the noble importance of a solo passage. For his encore, Amir Katz gave a crisp and sparking performance of Chopin’s Grand Waltz Brilliante in E-flat major, opus 18, its succession of different kinds of waltzes, their moods and grandeur of spirit taking the listener, for just a few magic minutes, to the glittering ballroom of affluent Parisian society. One of today’s foremost pianists, Amir Katz (b. 1973, Israel) today residing in Germany, performs worldwide as recitalist, soloist and accompanist.

With the exception of ‘cellists and percussionists, Ariel Zuckermann had his players  standing for the performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A-major, opus 92. Completed in 1812 and first performed in 1813, this celebratory symphony, dedicated to both Count Moritz von Fries and Russian Empress Elisabeth Aleksiev, was written for the smallest orchestra Beethoven had used in some time, with no trombones and only two horns. Conducting without a baton and with no score, Ariel Zuckermann was totally there for his players; they, freer to express than when seated, produced a large, opulent orchestral sound and plenty of timbral interest in a reading of the work that was aflame with dynamic change and orchestral colors. In the second movement - Allegretto – its solemnity and contrapuntal interest were given much expressiveness and some prodigious contrasts, to be followed by the impassioned Presto, its middle section, played by winds, in rich and pleasing toning. In a carefully exacting yet spontaneous performance of one of Beethoven’s most accessible works, Maestro Ariel Zuckermann’s gripping presentation of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 concluded the festive event at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, promising more fine and varied concert fare in the ICO’s future concerts.

An artist with a large repertoire, energy and ideas, flautist and conductor Ariel Zuckermann (b.1973, Israel) has a career that takes him all over the world conducting both orchestras and opera. He also tours with his own ensemble “Kolsimcha”; in the group’s recently issued  CD “Contemporary Klezmer”, Maestro Zuckermann conducts the London Symphony Orchestra.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Israel Contemporary Players (conductor: Zsolt Nagy) open the 2015-2016 season with works spanning 100 years

The Israel Contemporary Players opened its 25th “Discoveries” season with a representative selection of the ensemble’s wide range of repertoire, from Stravinsky’s “Ragtime”, to music of Ligeti, to folk-flavored music, to the premiering of a work by Eitan Steinberg, with music from England, Europe and Israel. The concert was conducted by Professor Zsolt Nagy (b. Gyula Hungary, 1957), who has served as chief conductor and artistic adviser to the ICP since 1999. A collaboration of The Voice of Music IBA Israeli radio and the Jerusalem Music Centre Mishkenot Sha’ananim, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, the series is under the artistic direction of Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutzky. This writer attended the concert on November 1st 2015 at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

The program opened with “Pierrot on the Stage of Desire” (1998) by British conductor and composer Roger Redgate (b.1958), a work for flute, clarinet, violin, percussion and piano, written in the “New Complexity” style of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As the title infers, the piece focuses on the character of the dreamy, naïve clown Pierrot and his sadly unrequited love for Columbine.  In three miniature but evocative and richly designed movements, the players presented the opening movement’s feisty, witty character in crisp, articulate gestures, the middle movement more introspective than the two outer movements. With fine clarinet playing on the part of Danny Erdman, the sextet’s articulate and skillful performance offered much to fire the listener’s imagination, as the agitated third movement finally dissipated into nowhere. Redgate, who has worked in the fields of jazz, improvised music and performance art, writes music for film and television and writes about music. In 1999, he collaborated with the New York-based experimental rock band GAWK.

Then to what Zmira Lutzky referred to as a significant work in the development of modern chamber music – György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. Composed 1969-1970, it is scored for flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), horn, trombone, harpsichord (doubling Hammond organ), piano (doubling celesta) and solo strings. As to its format, it is not a concerto in the conventional sense but “all 13 players are virtuoso soloists and all are treated as equals”, in the composer’s words.  This being the case, the Israel Contemporary Players’ reading of it was beguiling and not just for its virtuosic performance. Nagy brought his ensemble together in articulate and wonderfully precise playing of the work’s extraordinary textures and different techniques, rendering it transparent, accessible and exciting. In its four contrasting movements, concluding with a wild, whirring series of rapid cadences, the work reminds the listener that this major classical work, in its inventive, playful, poetic and communicative utterance, still has much to say to today’s audiences.

We then heard the Israeli premiere of “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II” for 10 instruments by Israeli composer Eitan Steinberg (b. 1955), one of today’s prominent Israeli composers.  “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II” was commissioned and premiered in 2011 by the El Perro Andaluz Ensemble (Dresden, Germany.)  It is the second of three pieces, each the result of a process of change, referred to by Steinberg as non-linear change, with the composer interested in examining what might constitute development or a lack thereof in the pieces. Scored for orchestra, “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart I” was premiered by the Israel Camerata Jerusalem in 2008. “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart III” for symphony orchestra was premiered in 2013 by the Tbilisi Symphony, Georgia, conducted by Vakhtang Kakhidze. Referring to the pieces and their title, Steinberg spoke of the cosmos and the heart as what we all possess, that what we do has impact on the cosmos, with the cosmos also influencing our actions. When composing the work, what was echoing in the composer’s mind was that Albert Einstein had claimed that past and present are only directions like left and right, forward and backwards. Over recent years, as Steinberg has returned to the work to change parts here and there, creating new versions, it has gone through its own natural processes, hence its three versions. “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II”, as performed at the ICP concert, is scored for strings, flute, clarinet, percussion, accordion and piano.  A richly wrought canvas comprising tiny fragments as well as intense drawn-out sounds, a sprinkling of tonal references, dancelike moments, the use of insistent ostinato, a nostalgic folk-type melody played on accordion, Prof. Steinberg’s orchestration and palette of timbres are both sophisticated and attractive, personal and emotional, making for an exhilarating listening experience.

Igor Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” (1918), one of the composer’s “essays in jazz portraiture”, is scored for flute, clarinet, 2 horns, trombone, bass drum, snare drum, side drum, cymbals, 2 violins, viola, double bass and cimbalom. In 1915, Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet took Stravinsky to hear Aladar Racz playing the Hungarian cimbalom - a hammered dulcimer from Eastern Europe, introduced into Hungary by the Roma (Gypsy) people - at a bar in Geneva. Stravinsky, fascinated by the trapezoid shape of the instrument and its rich timbre, decided to buy one; he and Racz found an elderly Hungarian gypsy with one for sale. The composer  first used it to produce raucous animal effects in his chamber opera-ballet “Renard”, later using it wherever possible.  Assuming an almost solo role in “Ragtime” (an extension of the dance in “A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky used the cimbalom to imitate the sound of a honky-tonk piano. Guest artist at this ICP concert, Hungarian composer, improviser, jazz musician and master of the cimbalom Miklós Lukács (b.1977), in his first Israeli visit, joined Nagy and the ensemble in a performance that was jaunty, clean, pithy, bristling with energy and tinged with Stravinsky’s brand of cynicism, the uncommonly grainy character of the cimbalom infusing a unique voice into the texture. The artist played on the Israel Contemporary Players' cimbalom, tuned chromatically.

The program concluded with “Da Capo” (2003-2004) for cimbalom or marimba and ensemble by Hungarian conductor and composer Peter Eötvös (b.1944), with Miklós Lukács performing the cimbalom part. In an interview with Tünde Szitha appearing in the blog of Universal Music Publishing Classical in May of 2014, Eötvös spoke of the work’s title as relating to the structure of the work, to the constant process of starting afresh. “The music begins and reaches a certain point, but, before it is completed, it starts again…in a different way…nine times.” Introducing fragments of themes from Mozart archives as initial ideas, these launch a creative process transforming them into Eötvös’ own music. Referring to it as his “newest and oldest” work, the composer suggests that the piece could be subtitled “Reading Mozart”, but speaks of its scoring as being very different from Mozart’s orchestration, considering the fact that some of the instruments he uses did not exist in Mozart’s time. The essential difference lies in the variety of percussion instruments, not to speak of the instrument in the solo role. The latter was inspired by Miklós Lukács’ virtuoso playing, which, as we heard, was no understatement. In his dazzling performance, underlining the composer’s complex polyphonic writing, Lukács joins the ICP, serving as soloist and ensemble player as Eötvös runs the listener through the unpredictable course of “Da Capo”, its busy, split-character canvas juxtaposing  velvety, touching Mozart gestures with blatant, fiery moments of atonality, the use of ostinati, some references to jazz and  devil-may-care energy. For his encore, Miklós Lukács played his own composition "After Dark", a  folk-music-inspired piece, now using his hands rather than hammers in a virtuosic and beguiling performance.

In yet another evening of polished, dedicated and finely detailed performance, Maestro Nagy (his direction fluid, articulate and emanating dedication to the music and the ICP) and members of the Israel Contemporary Players opened the new concert season with an outstanding evening of music.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens the 2015-2016 concert season with a semi-staged performance of Henry Purcell's "The Fairy Queen"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened the 2015-2016 season with its own unique performance of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”. This writer attended the concert on October 29th 2015 in the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. JBO founder and musical director David Shemer conducted the performance. Based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the semi-opera, with spoken passages to form the dramatic framework, was premiered at London’s Dorset Garden Theatre in 1692. The original production, with its large cast, elaborate songs, ensembles and choruses, was so extravagant that additional performances had to be arranged to cover expenses. In his informative program notes for the JBO performance, musicologist Dr. Alon Schab referred to the fact that what London audiences of Purcell’s time wanted was to be well entertained with humor, good music and stage effects. With the anonymous libretto of Purcell’s work not including one word of Shakespeare’s text, and considering the fact that the musical numbers are not integrated into the main plot of the play, there remains the need to fill in details of the plot. To conjure up the world of fairies and present the comedy of errors in a format suitable to Israeli audiences, poet and flautist Hila Lahav was enlisted to write connecting texts. Witty, rhyming, topical and constantly touched with the sparkle of magic, it was spoken by actress, singer and dancer Ifat Maor, playing the role of Titania, the Fairy Queen, as she read entries from her diary, continued the process of writing her thoughts and memories with her feather quill and spoke some home truths learned from the goings-on. A little on the lengthy side and with occasional inarticulate moments, the text was nevertheless very charming both in style, content and in Maor’s polished presentation.

Making up the fairy host were singers from the Moran Singers Ensemble (conductor: Naomi Faran; conductor in residence: Guy Pelc), whose natural, unaffected and unforced solo-, duo- and ensemble singing (and their youth) made for much delight in depicting the actions of fairies and mortals in the forest outside Athens. The work offers many solo vocal pieces and, as in former years, Maestro David Shemer gave the stage to young up-and-coming talent, offering audiences the chance to hear these promising singers and to then follow their developing careers. The soloists, both fledgling singers and those more veteran to the Baroque music stage, contributed to the theatrical and musical canvas and to the work’s message on the fragility of love.

Neither the kind of opulent spectacle of Purcell’s time nor the exotic or over-the-top performances of some of today’s “Fairy Queen” productions, David Shemer, in his minimal but effective and tasteful staging, added some appealing touches – bird headdresses, flags, garlands and, in the night scene, the host of fairies being covered with white muslin. In much delightful and satisfying playing of this splendid music, Maestro Shemer and the JBO players performed the overtures, instrumental preludes, ritornellos and dances with due elegance. Modern trumpeter Gregory Rivkin, making his first foray into playing Baroque trumpet, should have been given much more time in order to manage the tricky, uncooperative instrument.

With all song texts and titles of instrumental numbers flashed onto a screen, the audience was invited to ponder Purcell’s texts (despite the singers’ generally good diction) a worthwhile task, considering their sophistication, and to savor and appreciate Purcell’s colorful use of language and his exceptionally liberal approach to life and love – he was certainly no English prude!  It was Benjamin Britten who claimed that Purcell had a greater understanding of the English language than any other composer who had set it and that his ability to blend text, sound and structure into something remarkable was unique.

Some of the several engaging numbers of the JBO performance were Doron Florentin’s singing of the sensuous “One charming night” his well-modulated, rich tenor voice accompanied by elegant, ornamented recorder-playing (Shai Kribus, Hila Lahav), alto Zlata Hershberg and bass Yoav Weiss in a whimsical performance of the risqué “No kissing at all”, soprano Shani Oshri’s soothing, velvety singing of “See even night herself” accompanied by high strings only, Tamara Navot's informed and mellifluous singing of "I am come to lock all fast", Yoav Weiss’s hauntingly moving rendition of “Now Winter comes slowly”, tenor Hillel Sherman’s poetic and rewarding presentation of “See my many-colour’d fields” and Adaya Peled’s superb and languishing performance of the ostinato-based lament “O let me weep”, her word-painting giving expression to the plaint’s heartbreaking message on love and parting.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Israeli artist Ariel Halevy records Brahms' late solo piano works

Not long ago I came across Ariel Halevy’s very recent recording of Johannes Brahms’ late piano works. The works heard on it are Seven Fantasias op.116, Three Intermezzi op.117, Six Pieces op.118 and Four Pieces op.119. In his detailed and informative program notes, Halevy refers to Brahms’ life from 1892 to 1893, when these works were composed, a time the composer was suffering from malaise and problems of health and aging; he was also grieving over the death of his older sister Elise and that of his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. This is the autumnal and joyless setting for these 20 pieces - small, personal works disclosing no programmatic content via their titles but demanding layers of probing and musical meaning that take the pianist far beyond dexterity.

Born in Jerusalem in 1976, Ariel Halevy began piano studies at the age of seven, studying with Ilana Gutman at the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and Dance, before becoming a pupil of Prof. Viktor Derevianko at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. In 1995 he moved to New York to study at the Mannes College of Music on a full scholarship, first with Nina Svetlanova and later with Diane Walsh. On graduating from there with a master’s degree, he went on to study at the Purchase Conservatory, State University of New York. He has also worked with piano pedagogue and writer Madeline Bruser. A prize-winner of the World Piano Competition (1995, Cincinnati) and of the Artist International Debut Award (2000, New York), Halevy has soloed with orchestras and played recitals in Israel, the USA and Europe; he holds lecture-recitals and is a dedicated teacher.

There are several interesting recordings of the late Brahms piano pieces; this one offers much fine interpretation, reflecting Ariel Halevy’s profound thoughts on each piece. Since his teen years, Halevy has been making a deep enquiry into the essence of Brahms’ music, examining his own connection with it - music influenced by so many strands of influence yet defined by its differentness and total uniqueness. In the opus 116 Fantasias, Halevy brings out the contemplative, philosophical tone of the pieces, in the first Intermezzo showing how section connects to section and how important strategic timing is, the piece’s urgency always remaining noble. In the second Intermezzo, addressing the Classical side of Brahms, the artist creates a mood piece from so few strands, the careful placing of a note or two creating a small gesture not to be missed by the active listener. In the last opus 116 Capriccio, Halevy’s playing is personal, shaped and sensitive, taking a sober look at the piece as he highlights the imaginative harmonies to take the piece to a magical conclusion.

Then to the artist’s wonderfully crafted playing of Brahms’ musings in the Three Intermezzi opus 117, referred to by the composer as “lullabies”, then sardonically redefined by him as a “lullaby of an unhappy mother or of a disconsolate bachelor”.  In Halevy’s hands, the three pieces hang together well, their intimacy of the soul and small mysteries expressed with gently flexed simplicity, meaningful tiny pauses and a velvety touch.

Originally dedicated to Clara Schumann, though temporarily forgotten as concert pieces shortly after being written, the Six Piano Pieces opus 118 cover the range of the composer’s emotions at  the time. Halevy takes the listener into the mood of each with subtlety rather than with brooding and rashness. His treatment of the Ballade is energetic and elastic, while his reading of the third Intermezzo is exciting rather than nervous, showing the Romanze’s enigmatic, strange and embellished manner as opposed to the melodic-chordal approach of the piece’s outer sections.

Then to Johannes Brahms’ final solo piano works - Four Piano Pieces opus 119 – its opening Intermezzo dreamy and eloquent, wonderfully shaped, all its gestures and strata present. The second Intermezzo is infused with emotion and performed in a suspenseful, exciting and rewarding manner with a touch of melancholy. In its whimsy that defies bar-lines, Halevy presents the third Intermezzo with charm, this followed by the Rhapsody, its resolutely noble moments dissolving into sprinklings of light-hearted musings, this final piece presenting recollections of gypsy music from Brahms’ youth.

The artist’s fine control, his crystal clear voicing, his understanding of Brahms’ rich polyphonic textures and his tasteful use of the sustaining pedal make for transparence and articulacy that never form dense, overloaded textures. In playing that keeps a safe distance from the subjective, gushy sentimentality too often heard in performance of these works, He calls attention to the poetic and contemplative nature of Brahms’ late writing for piano, presenting its pianistic and emotional sound world.  Ariel Halevy’s playing is meticulously crafted, coherent and economical.  Recorded at the Jerusalem Music Centre on a Hamburg Steinway concert grand, the CD for the RomeoRecords label, was issued in 2015.   

Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Young Symphonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar on tour in Israel in its third concert season

Maestro Michael Sanderling (snipview.com)
The Young Symphonic Orchestra Jerusalem Weimar, consisting of students from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and from the Franz Liszt University of Music, Weimar, gave its first performances in the summer of 2011. In addition to mainstream orchestral repertoire, the orchestra plays European music of the Holocaust period, offering the German and Israeli concert-going public another chance to hear these works, many of them forgotten, others recently rediscovered. In August 2015 the orchestra played in Berlin for the opening of the “Young Euro Classic”, then at the Chorin Music Summer Festival, the Weimarhalle and the Wolfsburg CongressPark, prior to its October Israeli tour. This writer attended the Jerusalem Weimar Orchestra’s concert on October 23rd 2015 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre. The concert was conducted by Berlin-born and educated Maestro Michael Sanderling, one of the most celebrated conductors of his generation; for Sanderling, working with young people is an integral part of his professional life.

Following words of welcome from Israeli President Mr. Reuven Rivlin, the program opened with the Israeli premiere of LINKS.METAMORPHOSES by composer, conductor, arranger and pianist Ziv Cojocaru. Born in Beer-Sheba in 1977, Cojocaru is a cross-over musician, spanning the fields of classical-, contemporary- and popular music. A work endeavoring to portray human connections and relationships, LINKS.METAMORPHOSES is dedicated to the ideals of learning, aesthetics, expression and humanism, as demonstrated in the joint Weimar-Jerusalem project. Fine fare for a large orchestra, the work bristles with active washes of sound, fine homophonic tutti and interesting and evocative timbres, enchanting moments, excitement and drama. This was followed by Kurt Weill’s Symphony No.2, a work completed in Paris 1933-1934, where the composer sought asylum after he was forced to emigrate from Germany when the National Socialists took over and before he finally settled in the USA. A fine work, neglected in today’s concert repertoire, there has been much discussion as to how programmatic Weill’s Symphony No.2 is, despite the fact that it has no explicit program. Sanderling and the orchestra nevertheless recreated the melancholic climate and dark clouds of impending doom hanging over Europe in the 1930s and of Weill’s cabaret style in particular, from the first sultry trumpet solo (and plenty more fine solo passagework) bitter-sweet melodies and the composer’s typical appealingly  sentimental musical language with its underlying tragedy. Watching the young players’ expressions, it was clear that this music is so enjoyable to perform, with its bold approach, melodiousness, wit and accessibility.

Alexey Stadler, today a student at the Franz Liszt University of Music in Weimar, was the soloist in Dmitri Shostakovich’s Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra No.1 in E-flat major opus 107.  At 24, the Russian ‘cellist is already a seasoned performer and has won numerous prizes. Stadler’s performance of the concerto was serious, single-minded and intense, setting the scene in the first movement with feisty vitality and addressing the second movement with exquisite delicacy and expressiveness, its bare, disturbing conclusion speaking of Shostakovich’s personal pessimism. After careful pacing of the third movement – Cadenza – with its gloomy musings on the second movement, the Allegro con moto was played with intelligence, precision and virtuosity. The prominent horn role, woven throughout the concerto, was tackled courageously by one of the German students, no easy task for young horn players.

Concluding the program, Michael Sanderling and the orchestra performed Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture “Romeo and Juliet”, in which Shakespeare’s tragedy and the composer’s tortured personal life merge to produce a masterpiece that alternates between oppressively dramatic moments and those describing the rapturous love of the young couple. Opening with the delightful gentle clarinet and bassoon chorale, conductor and orchestra presented the descriptive, richly timbred work, its beauty and emotion, in polished and well-coordinated playing, bringing to an end a concert of high-level, dedicated and finely crafted playing.

Maestro Justus Frantz conducts and solos with the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva and the Philharmony of Nations in a concert in Jerusalem celebrating 50 years of Israeli-German diplomatic relations

Maestro Justus Frantz (musica-artesacra.org)
Of the many events taking place in Germany and Israel to celebrate 50 years of Israeli-German diplomatic relations, one was a concert on October 27th 2015 in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Orchestra in which the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva hosted the Philharmonie of Nations. Maestro Justus Frantz is musical director and principal conductor of both orchestras. Based in Germany, the Philharmonie of Nations was established by Leonard Bernstein and Justus Frantz in 1995 as a symbol of peace and understanding and includes players from some 50 countries. Established in 1973 with mostly immigrant musicians, the Israel Sinfonietta Beer Sheva has maintained a high standard of performance, also placing emphasis on performing concerts for youth and children. The Sinfonietta has taken several overseas tours, in 2012 performing in China and in the Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow in the summer of 2013. Born in Poland, Prof. Justus Frantz is an internationally renowned pianist and conductor and an artist active in discovering and nurturing outstanding young musicians.

The program opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture, incidental music written for Goethe’s play “Egmont”; it is set in 16th century Spanish-occupied Netherlands, in which Count Egmont leads resistance to the Inquisition and persecution of Protestants. Prof. Frantz introduced the work, referring to the fact the Count Egmont was arrested and executed for his liberty and humanism. The somber work was given an emotional reading, rich in orchestral color, sensitive, fragile at times, with playing attesting to total involvement.

As to W.A.Mozart’s Concerto No.20 in d-minor K466, Frantz spoke of it as Beethoven’s favorite Mozart concerto (Beethoven wrote a cadenza for it, Mozart not having supplied one himself) and as one of the most tragic, ending on an optimistic note. As was premiered by Mozart himself in Vienna (with the ink still wet on the page) Justus Frantz doubled as piano soloist and conductor, with the concertmaster taking more of a lead during piano sections. Frantz’s playing was both forthright and lyrical, at times a little heavy in the left hand. His playing of Beethoven’s cadenza was engaging and strategically paced to present its variety of motifs and the work’s conflicted nature, his playing of it spontaneous and flavored with a touch of Beethoven-type impulsiveness. The orchestra’s precise and elegantly shaped phrasing added to the audience’s enjoyment of this much-loved work.

Of special interest were two works written for the occasion by young composers, one German – Johannes Motschmann - and one Israeli – Gilad Hochman, both Berlin residents today, the connections between the two pieces offering food for thought. Born in 1978, Johannes Motschmann comes from a background in piano, composition, electronic music and, of late, has made a deep study of algorithmic composition. Today Motschmann receives many commissions and his works are performed at prestigious international festivals. “Echoes and Instruments” was recently premiered in Germany. Frantz spoke of the work as dealing in the acoustic dynamics of instruments and different sounds, the concept of the “echo” being rich in layers of meaning, both musical and historical. The composer writes that the work is based on “several melodies and harmonic phrases taken from ‘Nedudim’, Gilad Hochman’s mandolin concerto”. A kaleidoscope of sounds, changing harmonies, rhythmic devices and melancholic melodies in an intelligible, communicative and pleasing musical language, the piece presents the beauty and aesthetics of tonal color and its affect in a style that feels no need to separate tonal- from atonal elements or the static from the active.

Gilad Hochman (born 1982, Israel) an honors graduate from the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) has written a range of orchestral, choral, chamber and solo works, many of which have been commissioned and performed in Israel and throughout Europe. His music has been broadcast on television and radio, in particular, on Deutschland Radio Kultur and the Voice of Music (Israeli radio), with works recorded on four CDs. In its world premiere, “Suspended Reality” for chamber orchestra (2015) was influenced by Hochman’s discussions with Motschmann before- and during writing of the piece, using a specific fundamental chord from Motschmann’s “Augmented Reality” as the harmonic and melodic heart of “Suspended Reality”. Hochman’s work endeavors to portray the Ramon Crater (located in the Negev Desert in Israel) and he looked for musical material that would “capture my experiences of that…powerful, unique, vast and rough…ancient place.” What he has come up with is, in his own words, “a specific state of existence suspended, somewhat tense, unresolved…” The work itself is gripping, its imposing, evocative and heavily-rooted lower string textures, glissandi and interesting use of percussion, with comments from other (mostly wind) instruments, producing a thought-provoking and uncompromising soundscape that is both riveting and rewarding.

The concert concluded with Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4 in A major opus 90 “Italian” (1833), Maestro Frantz’s reading of it fresh and energetic, lyrical and nuanced, with as much attention to its delicate moments as to its ebullience, his tempi in the final Saltarello (with its tarantella elements) firing the joyful, leaping Italian folk dance.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The concert concluding the first workshop of the Bronislaw Huberman Project for Outstanding Young Players takes place at the Jerusalem Music Centre

The final concert of the week-long Bronislaw Huberman Project for Outstanding Young Players took place at the Jerusalem Music Centre on October 3rd 2015. Established and directed by Zvi Carmeli, an Israeli violist and conductor whose international career includes performing, conducting and teaching, this event concluded the first workshop of the newly formed Huberman Project. The concert was dedicated to the memory of Guido Valerio. Opening the Jerusalem concert, Maestro Carmeli explained that the decision to name the project after the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman (1882-1947) was taken due to his having represented the highest standards of performance. A joint project of the Jerusalem Music Centre, the Ra’anana Music Center and the iClassical Academy (the world’s first online music academy), students spent an intensive, enriching week at the Ra’anana Music Center, taking part in master classes in the mornings, in the afternoons playing in chamber music ensembles and in the string orchestra. They worked under the following tutors: violinists Theodora Geraets (Holland) and Virginie Robilliard (Switzerland), Zvi Carmeli (Israel) - viola and chamber orchestra, Matias de Oliveira Pinto (Brazil) – ‘cello and ‘cello ensemble, Petru Iuga (Romania) – double bass and double bass ensemble and Sander Sitig (Holland) – piano accompaniment and chamber music.

Also addressing the audience, violist, teacher and recently appointed executive director of the Jerusalem Music Centre Gadi Abadi emphasized the enjoyment and benefit of Israeli youth playing and studying music with young participants from overseas. He is looking forward to a long and fruitful collaboration with the iClassical Academy.

The evening’s musical program got off to a sparkling start with Itamar Carmeli and Tom Borrow’s performance of Camille Saint-Saëns’ own transcription for two pianos (4 hands) of symphonic poem “Danse Macabre” (1874). In playing that was brilliant, clean, suspenseful and strategic, the two young pianists brought to life (death, actually) the devil’s frenetic night’s work, with each orchestral idea effectively presented with pizzazz on keyboard. This was followed by the opening movement of Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quintet in f-minor, opus 34, in which Itamar Carmeli, Nicole Leon, Yuval Nuri Shem-Tov, Alexis Pelton and Assif Bennes gave the epic movement much Romantic melodious playing, intensity, yearning and dynamic variety, handling its complexities admirably. In their majestic playing of the second movement of Brahms’ String Sextet in G-major opus 18 (Andante, ma moderato), Offje van der Klein, Roni Shitrit, Gal Eckstein, Shachar Tabakman, Emily Siegreich and Pascal Szekely’s richly contrasted playing of the variations in d-minor and poignant solos and were the result of fine teamwork. Tom Borrow, Stephan Nieuwesteeg, Solomon Marksman and Ori Ron gave an imposing and highly expressive performance of the first and third movements of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in g-minor opus 57, with pianist Tom Borrow setting the scene for the work’s searching character. They tackled the feisty Scherzo candidly, shaping it with delicacy and humor.

Following the intermission we heard “Voyage” by American composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich. Zvi Carmeli spoke of the work’s theme of survival. Composed in 2012 for string quartet, it was commissioned by heirs of the legendary Galimir String Quartet, and Austrian string quartet founded in Vienna 1927 by Felix Galimir and his three sisters. Of great relevance is the fact that Bronislaw Huberman saved two of the sisters by bringing them to Israel to play in the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). The other two siblings went to the USA. Taaffe Zwilich (b.1939), a violinist and prolific composer, wrote the single-movement work to describe the Galimir Quartet’s history: a lyrical, melodic work, it includes such elements as Viennese waltzes, dissonances and wailing and ending with Klezmer wedding dance music. Performing it with involvement, competence and feeling were Gennaro Cardoropoli, Jonathan Uzieli, Idan Abrahamson and Eli Levi. Members of the Galimir family were present at the concert.

Presenting the first movement of Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C-major, we heard some impressive, flexible and informed playing on the part of Hadar Zaidel, Michael Shaham, Noga Shaham, Danielle Akta and Emma Osterrieder, some of these players not yet in their teens! With its extra-rich sonority of the two ‘cellos, they addressed the work’s lyrical beauty and personal expression. Then for a very different ensemble of four double basses – Naomi Shaham, Shira Davidson, Blanche Inacio and Liad More in a potpourri of pieces, from Henry Purcell’s March for the Funeral of Queen Mary, to Thomas Morley’s risqué spring madrigal “Now is the Month of Maying” to the whimsical, Latin-tinged music of Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” film theme.

The program concluded with the 1st movement of Shubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet in d-minor D.810, performed by the Huberman Project’s string orchestra of some twenty players, conducted by Maestro Zvi Carmeli, a reading highlighting the movement’s intensity of emotion, its mystery and Viennese lyricism and songfulness. For an encore they performed the final movement in playing that was a true tour-de-force.

All the evening’s performances vouched for the high quality of the young music students chosen for the course, their tutors and for the enriching experience of taking part in the Huberman Project.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Notes from from the October 2015 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

“Sacred Service – Ernest Bloch” was the title given to a concert on October 3rd 2015 at the 48th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. Taking place in the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Ye’arim, 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem, the concert featured the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, conducted by its musical director Prof. Stanley Sperber, with  alto Avital Dery as soloist in the Bloch work.

Prior to the performance of Bloch’s “Sacred Service”, the choir sang a number of short pieces representing a number  of Israel’s finest composers, opening with some of the choir’s repertoire of Sabbath songs:  Gil Aldema’s (1928-2014) arrangement of two traditional Sabbath songs “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace be upon you), “Tzur Mishelo” (The Lord, our rock, whose food we have eaten) and Yehezkel Braun’s arrangement of Mordechai  Zeira’s (1905-1968) “L’cha  dodi” (Come, my beloved, to meet the bride).  Lining both side aisles of the church, the singers welcomed festival-goers with singing that was unforced, clean, direct and so rewarding.  They captured the mystery and exotic flavor of Oedoen Partos’ (1907-1977) setting of the Sephardic traditional melody “HaMavdil” (The One who separates), traditionally sung at the conclusion of the Sabbath.  In Yehezkel Braun’s arrangement of the oriental melody to the medieval poetic text “Dror Yikra” (He will proclaim freedom) the singers gave expression to the piece’s antiphonal style, concluding it with a spirited dance, the darbuka  drum joining the dance.

As a young musician, Swiss composer Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) took the decision to write “Jewish rhapsodies for orchestra, Jewish poems, dances, mostly, poems for voice”.  This he did. It was during his time as director of the San Francisco Conservatory (1925-1930) that he befriended Cantor Reuben Rinder of the Temple Emanuel Reform Congregation, resulting in the commission to write “Avodath Hakodesh” (Sacred Service) for baritone, chorus and orchestra (or piano or organ).  In preparation for the task, Bloch spent a year studying synagogue music and the Hebrew texts used for Saturday morning services, subsequently composing the work over three years on his return to Switzerland in the early 1930s. The work consists of five sections, breaking down into 26 pieces.  In the Abu Gosh Festival performance we heard the role of cantor sung by alto Avital Dery, with Boris Zobin playing the organ. In the  choir and soloist’s  alternating and interweaving  throughout many of the movements, the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir and Dery struck a fine balance, with all choral strands articulate musically and diction-wise.  Maestro Sperber and his singers showed the listener through the work’s agenda, from drama and tension to brighter optimism, from meditation to intense choral exclamation, traversing strategically placed and thought-provoking dissonances to reach the final tranquility of the major-infused Benediction. Sperber’s direction was rich in sensitive shaping of phrases as it held the work’s tension throughout, giving meaning and immediacy to transitions from section to section in Bloch’s conglomerate process, to that of the service itself and to the work’s underlying message of  both strength and fragility.  In singing that was secure, articulate and expressive, the choir highlighted the beauty and subtleties of Bloch’s choral writing. At ease and addressing her audience, Avital Dery’s singing was profound, engaging, intelligent and balanced, her large, richly-timbred and mellow voice finding its way with ease through the text and to all corners of the church. Boris Zobin’s organ-playing added both presence and to the spiritual eloquence of the piece.  Altogether, this was an outstanding and moving performance of the work that Bloch himself referred to as a “cosmic poem…a dream of stars, of forces…amidst the rocks and forests in the great silence…”


Also taking place at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church on October 3rd was “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” works by Pergolesi and Puccini, performed by members of the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio with its musical director David Sebba at the piano. The Meitar Opera Studio, a practical study and performance program for young opera singers who have completed studies at music academies, provides the singers with a stepping stone into a full-fledged opera career.

Following four movements from Giovanni Battista  Pergolesi’s “Magnificat”, the program consisted mostly of solos, offering the audience the opportunity to hear several budding young opera singers, first in works of Pergolesi:  mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny in her rich, fresh and effortlessly musical singing of the charming song warning of love’s pitfalls (attributed to Pergolesi) “Se tu m’ami” (If you love me), soprano Tal Ganor’s exciting, dramatic and highly operatic approach in “Tu me da me divide” (You rend me from myself), in which  Aristea laments the cruelty of her lover from Act 2 of “L’Olimpiade”, and soprano  Galina Khlyzova’s theatrical  and well contrasted  performance of  “Stizzoso mio stizzoso” (Irascible, my irascible)  from “La serva padrona” (The Maid as Mistress). In “Lo conosco” from the same opera, Tal Ganor and baritone Yair Polishook   highlighted the contrasts between Serpina’s insistant “si, si, si” and Uberto’s equally obstinate “no, no, no” in true opera buffa whimsy.  The Pergolesi section of the concert ended with soprano Tali Ketzeff’s rich, focused, devotional and highly expressive singing of one of the composer’s two “Salve Regina” settings, music composed during the suffering of Pergolesi’s final months.

The connection between Pergolesi and Giacomo Puccini (two Italian composers, but therein ends the resemblance) was made via the same Marian hymn text – “Salve Regina”. (Puccini was the fourth generation of a family of church musicians, playing the church organ, his early forays into composition being with sacred works.) Following soprano Nofar Jacobi’s sensitive and involved presentation of Puccini’s “Salve Regina”, we heard Yair Polishook’s richly shaped and expressive performance of the “Crucifixus” from Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria”.  And then to Puccini’s operatic repertoire: soprano Efrat Vulfsons and tenor Osher Sebbag’s communicative and furtively tender  presentation  of the duet  between Rodolfo and Mimi “O soave fanciulla” (O sweet little lady)  from “La Bohème” , soprano  Irene Alhazov’s appealing  singing of “Dondo lieta” (Whence happy leaving) Mimi’s fond farewell to Rodolfo from the same opera, soprano  Tali Ketzef’s  convincing and finely controlled  rendition of “Chi il bel sogno” (Who could Doretta’s beautiful dream ever guess?)  from “La Rondine”, Efrat Vulfsons’ convincing performance of the tragic, grieving  mood piece “Senza mamma” (Without mama) from “Suor Angelica” and, finally, Osher Sebbag’s  introspective and commanding performance of “Torna ai felici di” (Return to the happy days) from the opera-ballet “Le Villi”, his substantial, pleasing vocal timbre and personality highlighting the aria’s dramatic content.

The concert concluded with three much loved vocal pieces sung as ensembles: two Neapolitan songs - Ernesto de Curtis’ 1902 “Torna a Surriento” (Come Back to Sorrento) and Turco and Denza’s “Funiculì funiculà”, composed in 1880 to commemorate the opening of the first cable car on Mount Vesuvius, but with its text changed here to wish listeners a happy New Year; and finally “Va pensiero”  (Fly thought, on wings of gold) – “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s” Nabucco” in a performance that was tastefully blended and rich in color. Throughout the program, Sebba’s spirited piano accompaniments gave a wealth of  color and support to his singers.

Adding to the audience’s enjoyment of the program is the fact that Israel is producing excellent opera singers. Conductor-in-residence of the Ra’anana Symphonette Orchestra, senior lecturer at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, singer, composer and conductor, accompanist and vocal coach Maestro David Sebba directs opera concerts for the Israeli Opera, also serving as translator for many of the Israeli Opera’s community productions.


A major event of the 2015 October Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival was the Israeli premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti’s “Il Diluvio Universale” (The Great Flood) to a libretto of Vincenzo Giattini. The performance took place October 5th in the Kiryat Ye’arim Church. Performing the work were singers and instrumentalists of Ensemble PHOENIX conducted by the ensemble’s founder and musical director Myrna Herzog.  Putting the production together, Herzog worked from a transcription made by the Messina  musicologist Fabrizio Longo, to whom she is indebted.

Sicilian composer Michelangelo Falvetti (1642-1695) was born in Calabria but spent most of his life in Sicily, enjoying  a prestigious career in Messina, where he became maestro di cappella; that is where the “Dialogue for five voices and five instruments” (as he subtitled “Il Diluvio Universale”), was first performed in 1682. Whether or not this work – falling not quite into categories of oratorio or sacred opera – was influenced by Messina’s history, in particular by its suffering from- and rebellion against Spanish rule, with the Noah’s Flood story reflecting God’s punishing the world for its disobedience and corruption, is unclear.  What is clear is that the powerful story of the Great Flood offers and  inspires theatrical potential and variety, as would have Messina itself, a city ravaged by earthquakes and tidal waves and it remains flooded till today.  For starters, “Il Diluvio Universale” is a work of exceptionally fine quality, its originality and inventiveness fired with fine melodic, harmonic and polyphonic writing. And Falvetti has no compunctions about springing a few surprises on the listener, with his occasional unconventional gestures. We meet personifications of Divine Justice (Alon Harari), Human Nature (Einat Aronstein), Water (Claire Meghnagi), Fire (Oshri Segev), Land (Guy Pelc) and Death (Alon Harari). Baritone Guy Pelc, in his portrayal of God, was authoritative, secure and dramatic, some of the role’s vocal range dipping a trifle too low for his voice at this stage...in which case, the players might have adjusted their volume better  to suit his singing.  The tender and anguished duets of Noah (Oshri Segev) and his wife (Claire Meghnagi), providing a touching human element to a play of super powers, also tended to vary in musical balance. Meghnagi, very much at home on the opera/oratorio stage, handled the virtuosic moments with natural ease and charm, soaring into her high register with agility. Served well by his stable and richly-timbred tenor voice, Oshri Segev shaped vocal lines with artistry and highlighted the emotions written into the text. Soprano Einat Aronstein gave a skillful and informed performance, presenting the subtleties of the Baroque style of a challenging text.  As Divine Justice, countertenor Alon Harari brought out the moods and turns of the text, his luxuriant voice, evenly pleasing in all registers.  As to his portrayal of “Death”, Harari, a part cut out for him, Harari indulged in the role of the demonic character with alacrity and  with the wink of an eye, his enjoyment and spontaneity providing comic relief…and the audience loved it! 

Much of the strength of the performance must be attributed to Dr. Myrna Herzog’s deep and genuine enquiry into the score to produce a performance faithful to Italian music of the mid-Baroque and elegant in its restraint. With a strong background in theatre, she talks of the need to understand the text (translated into Hebrew for the program by her and Uri Dror) both in its linguistic detail and its theatrical potential.  What was especially beautiful throughout the performance was the variety of orchestration she chose, each instrumental scoring offering a new set of timbres. Herzog sees scoring  as a parallel to lighting effects in theatre. And Falvetti’s writing presents interesting effects – sweeping winds, the deluge itself, beginning with individual raindrops and building up, re-emergence of the sun and some surprising, dramatic halts at strategic moments. We were also presented with a rich array of dances. The choruses were sung with warmth and beautifully shaped, commenting and updating the listener on developments in the storyline and its changing emotional climate.  Herzog had a group  of very fine Baroque players at hand, reading into visual aspects and reflecting on the plot: violinists Noam Schuss and Ralph Allen, bassoonist Alexander Fine, cornetto- and recorder player Alma Meyer, viol players Tal Arbel and Sonja Navot, Myrna Herzog – Baroque ‘cello, Aviad Stier-organ,  Yehuda (Hudi) Itzhak Halevy on the violone (his first performance on this instrument), Liron Rinot on sackbut, guitarist Ian Aylon  and percussionist  Nadav Gaiman, whose understated use of instruments was both lifelike and fanciful.  Herzog herself alternated between conducting from the podium and playing in the ensemble. A musicologist with energy, curiosity and a fastidious bent, Dr. Myrna Herzog has once again thrilled festival audiences, introducing them to a little-known and rare Baroque treasure that recounts a well-known Bible story with freshness and magic.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Grand Choir "Masters of Choral Singing" from Moscow in a performance of a-cappella music in Ashdod, Israel

On September 29th 2015, the Academic Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing”, an ensemble from Moscow numbering 23 singers, performed a concert in the auditorium of the Monart Centre of the Ashdod Museum of Art, Israel. Established in 1928 by Alexander Sveshnikov, the choir has premiered works of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Schedrin, Khachaturian and many other composers. It has been led by such prestigious conductors as Mstislav Rostropovich, Vladimir Spivakov, Helmuth Rilling and Kristoff Eschenbach and joined by several well-known vocal soloists. Performing a wide range of repertoire, the Academic Grand Choir specializes in a-cappella performance and has enjoyed success in the major concert halls of Russia, Italy, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Japan, South Korea, Qatar and Indonesia, also receiving prizes for its recordings. The choir sang at the inauguration ceremonies of Dmitry Medevedev and Vladimir Putin. Handpicked for high-level performance, the singers perform both as team members and as soloists. Head of the Department of Contemporary Choral Music of the Moscow Conservatory of the Performing Arts, Professor Lev Kontorovich founded the chamber choir Spiritual Revival in 1997. As of 2005, he has been conductor and musical director of the Academic Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing”.

The program in Ashdod opened with a bold and jubilant performance of the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s “Messiah”. In a setting for voices only, the choir members’ stable, dynamic and brightly-timbred singing held one’s attention in the absence of the composer’s festive brassy and percussive orchestral backing.  From the initial works on the program, we were quickly to become aware of the skillful representation of instrumental roles in the arrangements and performance of the choir’s unique repertoire. These included sung versions of J.S.Bach’s Invention in F-major - keyboard music sung with vibrancy and attention to contrapuntal textures - and the precise and polished singing of the “Badinerie” from Bach’s Suite no.2, its virtuosic flute solo presenting no stumbling block to the singers.  Both these interpretations followed the Swingle Singers concept of different sung syllables, producing a vivid “instrumental” soundscape. For their choral version of the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria”, some of the women sang the melody, with other choir members evoking the sound of muted bells in lush, velvety textures. In the Alleluia from Mozart’s “Exultate Jubilate” K.165, soprano Serafima Kaniashna presented the solo in a sympathetic and sincere manner, with the other singers performing the orchestral score in a flexible mix of various different syllables, interspersed with some “alleluia”s. Then, with delightful transparency and lyricism, Kontorovich and his singers captured the richness of Romantic harmonies in one of Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”. For a short visit to the world of opera, Serafima Kaniashna was the soloist in Norma’s wistful plea to the moon goddess in “Casta diva” (Chaste goddess) from Bellini’s “Norma”, the choir taking on the role of both orchestra and opera chorus.

Then to the program’s Russian content, beginning with the luxuriant singing of a hymn by prolific church music composer Pavel Chesnikov (1877-1944), the bass singers’ substantial low register singing reminding the listener from where these singers come.  Tenor Andrei Bashkov’s tender singing of “Evening Song” with an evocative backing of bells and long drawn-out sounds all coming together in natural and gently flexed performance displayed the kind of precision and collaboration of only very seasoned artists. Following their rich, nostalgic and poignant singing of “Moscow Nights” (1955, Vasily Solovyov-Sedoi – music,  Mikhail Matusovsky – lyrics), the audience relished every enticing, come-hither moment of “Kalinka”, with tenor soloist Platon Greco enjoying it no less, its sweetly sentimental moments alternating with wild, carefree and brilliantly presented dancelike rhythms:
‘Juniper, juniper, juniper, my juniper,
In the garden there’s the berry, my raspberry.
Under the pine, under the green pine,
Lay me down to sleep.
Oh you dear pine, you green pine,
Don’t you rustle so loudly over me
Beautiful maid, dear maid,
Please fall in love with me!’

Leaving Russia, Maestro Lev Kontorovich and his singers then took the listener to the Americas – North and South. And what a treat it was to hear soprano Olga Taran in a performance so stylistically correct and so utterly engaging of George Gershwin’s “Summertime”. From there to  Argentinean composer Ástor Piazzolla’s emotionally charged and sophisticated tango rhapsody “Adiós Nonino” (composed in 1959, following his father’s death) in singing that captured so well the piece’s Latin American bitter-sweet warmth, its excitement, heartbreak and mystery. Following the Colombian song “Prende la vela” (Light the Candle) by Eduardo Lucho Bermúdez (1912-1994), actually a “cumbia” - a syncopated frenetic dance – in which tenor soloist Wiachislav Verubiov and his fellow singers gave it their all, the Latin American segment ended with a virtuosic performance of “Mambo” by Cuban composer Guido López-Gavilán (b.1944), a piece bristling with complex vocal-, speech- and percussive effects, a true tour-de-force.

Especially for its Israel visit, the ensemble prepared and sang its own poignant version of “Kol Nidrei” (minus the verbal text), the sacred Jewish prayer that opens the Day of Atonement service, then to sweep the audience off its feet with a vocal version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”, the delicate but frenzied buzzing of the almost-visible bee moving around the stage from group to group. For their two encores, Professor Kontorovich and the Masters of Choral Singing gave a mellifluous and moving reading of Israeli composer Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold”, sending the audience home with a jaunty, upbeat rendering of the modern Israeli folk song “Hava nagila” (Let Us Rejoice).

In performance abundant in interest, beauty, precision, stylistic attention and superb teamwork, Maestro Kontorovich and the Academic Grand Choir “Masters of Choral Singing” offered the audience an evening of choral singing of the highest standard.