Monday, April 27, 2015

Michael Tsalka's 2014 recording of Viktor Ullmann's seven Piano Sonatas

Born in Silesia, Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) grew up in Vienna, where he received his education. He took part in Schoenberg’s advanced courses and became one of Alexander Zemlinsky’s conducting assistants at the New German Theatre in Prague in the 1920s, becoming first Kapellmeister at the municipal theatre in Aussig (1927-1928). A member of the Schoenberg circle, he was also a devotee of Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophical movement.

Unable to find work in London or South Africa, Ullmann was in Prague after the German invasion of March 1939. He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942 where fortunately he was asked to work as a critic and concert organizer in the “model” concentration camp – a sly Nazi propaganda showcase project - assisting in performances and lecturing on various topics, a place where, in his own words, “anything connected with the muses is in utter contrast to the surroundings”. His compositional output there was large – three piano sonatas, a string quartet, Lieder, orchestral works, an opera “The Emperor of Atlantis” and arrangements of Yiddish and Hebrew songs. In addition to his concert reviews there, he also wrote extensively in words – essays, an opera libretto and “The Strange Passenger”, poems and aphorisms in which he discloses his misery, ambivalence regarding his Jewish identity and his cynicism. Ullmann was deported in one of the last transports to Auschwitz in October 1944, where he perished.

After 1945, Viktor Ullmann’s works sank into oblivion, to be rediscovered in the 1990s. Of late, there has been renewed interest in his seven sonatas. Israeli-Dutch keyboard performer Michael Tsalka recorded all seven of Viktor Ullmann’s piano sonatas in 2014 for the Paladino Music label. They are played on a 1912 Steinway, now in the historical instrument collection of the Nydahl Collection, Stockholm, Sweden; it is an instrument “which, by virtue of its individualized registers and distinct timbers, served well to bring back to life the sonic imaginarium of Ullmann’s piano sonatas” in Tsalka’s words. Dr. Tsalka and painter Corinne Duchesne were both artists-in-residence at the Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Red Wing, Minnesota at the time he was learning the sonatas. The painting displayed on the back of the liner note booklet was done by Duchesne as she listened to Tsalka rehearsing the sonatas.

Ullmann’s seven piano sonatas, composed between 1936 and 1944, trace the composer’s stylistic thinking and development, displaying the influence of Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, Alban Berg and other composers; but what is also highly relevant to both performer and listener is the political and artistic climate in Europe during which they were composed and which they reflect. The first four sonatas were written when Ullmann was still in Prague. From the very first notes of his playing of Sonata No.1 opus 10, one senses how naturally Tsalka adapts Ullmann’s own modernistic language of 1936 to his own mindset in 2014. Melodic voices take on individual and conversational reality, the Andante funeral march (2nd movement of Sonata No.1), written in memory of Mahler, emerges as soul-searching and spontaneous. As in Sonata No.1, and, in fact, in all seven sonatas, the composer grapples with the issues of the pull of tonality and what lies beyond it in Sonata No.2 opus 19 (1939). Following Ullmann’s use of a Czech folksong in the 2nd movement, Tsalka takes the final Prestissimo-marked movement leisurely enough to highlight its fine detail and underlying pessimistic searching, as it plumbs the depths of the mind. In Piano Sonata No.3 opus 26b (1940), the pianist presents more demonic elements, the 2nd movement - Scherzo Allegro violente (prestissimo), unsmiling and cynical, offers few comforting moments. As to the enigmatic 3rd movement – Variations on a Theme of Mozart – Tsalka states the naïve melody with simple, positive eloquence, presenting the gamut of styles of its intriguing transformations as the composer pushes the boundaries of tonality, leaving it and returning to it. Ullmann dedicated Sonata No.4 opus 38 (1949) to pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, who had premiered his Sonata No.2 in 1940. Herz-Sommer (1903-2014) survived Theresienstadt. Tsalka presents and contrasts the alternating moods of Sonata No.4’s opening Allegro vivace movement – the despondent, downcast opening mood set against a more Romantic mood, wistful rather than brooding, concluding the movement with a pastel-hued major gesture. The middle movement – a contemplative fugue, as interesting and delicate as it is joyless, is played with eloquence. Tsalka’s articulate and clean playing shows the listener with sensitivity through the complexities of the 3rd movement, a fugal tour-de-force, addressing and highlighting its somber shapes and nuances, ending with a major chord.

The last three sonatas were composed in Theresienstadt. There Ullmann wrote: “In my work in Theresienstadt I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited…” proof of his belief in the supreme value and strength of artistic creativity. Sonata No.5 opus 45 (1943) “Von meiner Jugend” (From my Youth) was dedicated to the memory of Ullmann’s wife Elisabeth, who had just died in the camp. Tsalka’s reading of it brings to life each witty, playful gesture of the positive C-major/atonal first movement, punctuated by its sentimental tonal episodes and lavished with a sense of wellbeing. The composer’s bleak situation colors the following Andante with ghostly musings, Tsalka’s small pauses on introducing new phrases giving the piece a sense of searching. Following energetic playing of the cynical, miniature, densely compiled Toccatina, Tsalka takes us into the Serenade and the composer’s memories of youth with a nostalgic Slavic folk melody; this is colored with sad, tender and occasionally dark moments. More sinister and mercurial is the fugal Finale. The pianist’s playing of the first movement of Piano Sonata No.6 opus 49a (1943) takes the listener from elements of jazz, through lyricism, then intensity, finally settling in into an introverted, almost vulnerable mood. Following Ullmann’s inspired theme and variations (2nd movement) the work forges on to two movements of huge technical demands. Sonata No.7 (1944), dedicated to three of his children (a fourth child died in Theresienstadt) and bearing no opus number, was the last of Ullmann’s works written before he was transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Yet the opening Allegro movement, reflecting the late German Romantic style, is exhilarating and life-affirming. Tsalka’s playing supports its energy, stability and the affirming message of the major tonality. With the ominous message of the Alla marcia (2nd movement), however, most of this optimism is replaced by a sense of fatalism, of isolation and inner despair, also expressed in the atonal language of the following Adagio and of a Scherzo deprived of joy and peace, save for a quote from a musical – a flash of happy past memories. In the final movement, rich in the elements threaded through Ullmann’s musical, emotional and intellectual life (references to Bach, to Christianity versus Judaism, folk music, theme and variation form, counterpoint, the fugue, tonal versus atonal writing) Michael Tsalka opens with the tender, lush playing of a Yiddish tune. The work concludes on a triumphant chord.

Michael Tsalka has made an in-depth study of Ullmann’s music and life. His recording of all seven sonatas offers the listener the opportunity of following developments in Ullmann’s writing over the final eight years of his life. The 1912 Steinway piano, with its fresh, open sound and wide range of timbral and expressive possibilities, was an optimal choice for this music. Tsalka’s articulate and sensitive reading gives each sonata palpable musical life, the works coming across as “contemporary” and as relevant to current musical thought today as when they were written. This is a great and lasting strength of Viktor Ullmann’s writing. Michael Tsalka finds a fine balance between his understanding of the background and circumstances of each sonata and his objective playing of some of the finest piano music composed in the first half of the 20th century.

An artist of great versatility, Tsalka performs repertoire from early Baroque- to contemporary music on keyboard instruments from harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano, chamber organ, to historic pianos and the modern piano. His performance schedule takes him all over the world, where he also holds master classes.

Michael Tsalka (photo:Rami Tsalka)

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Yaron Gottfried, in a concert to celebrate Israel's 67th Independence Day

With the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre packed to capacity on April 22nd 2015, the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra IBA, under the baton of Yaron Gottfried, performed a festive concert for the eve of Israel’s 67th Independence Day. Soloist was singer Yasmin Levy.

Following words of welcome from JSO director Yair Stern, the event got under way with L. van Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No.3 opus 72a (1806). Of the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his opera “Leonore” (later renamed as “Fidelio”) this piece, better suited to the concert hall than the opera house, traces the dramatic ups and downs of Florestan’s fate in the “Fidelio” story in Beethoven’s full orchestration, a setting rich in its use of wind instruments (including off-stage trumpet, to signal Pizarro’s defeat.) Programmatic content aside, Gottfried and the JSO gave an incisive, varied and exhilarating performance of the work, offering pleasing flute and bassoon solos and whetting the audience’s appetite for a musical event that kept it captive throughout the evening.

We then heard Alexander Uriya Boskovich’s (1907-1964) “The Golden Chain”, instrumental settings of Jewish melodies the composer had heard in villages of the Carpathian Mountains. In 1938, Maestro Issay Dobrowen invited the Transylvanian composer to attend the Palestine Orchestra’s (later to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) premiering of the work, one consequence being that Boskovich attended the premiere and decided to stay in Palestine (Israel), becoming an important figure and teacher in the country’s musical life, the other consequence being that his life was saved. In vivid and tasteful orchestrations of melodies familiar to many in the audience, its orchestration offering some dissonance intertwined with the bitter-sweet harmonic fabric, the vignettes of “The Golden Chain” evoked the atmosphere of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, from the melancholy modal lullaby of “Sleep, my Daughter”, to the joy and humor of the “Chazke’le” wedding dance, the mystery and small solos of “The Eternal Enigma”, the magical setting of the love song “Deep in the Woods” and the sweet naivety of the maiden’s song “Yume, Yume”.

Suite no.1 from Manuel de Falla’s (1876-1946) ballet music “The Three-Cornered Hat”, quintessentially Spanish in its folk modes, its traditional dances and excitement, is based on a novella by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, in which love, jealousy and buffoonery play out against each other. Choreographed by Leonid Massin, the ballet itself was premiered in 1919, with décor by Picasso. Again, without necessarily referring to its programmatic content, the audience was well entertained by the JSO’s presentation of the work’s joy, its brilliant orchestral colors, fast-changing rhythms, driving rhythms and exotic hues.

Following the intermission, the audience returned to the hall to see some extra players seated with the orchestra: Eduardo Abramson - bandoneón (a small concertina played in Argentina, Uruguay and Lithuania), Yechiel Hasson - guitar, Ishai Amir - cajón (a box drum, originally from Peru, on which the player sits) and Philip Luria – piano. This part of the concert featured Yasmin Levy singing tango songs and songs in Ladino, all of them arrangements by Yaron Gottfried. Levy presented the tango songs in all the dramatic roller-coaster ride of love of which they tell, their sensuous passion and the sweeping, inebriating rhythms of the exotic tango dance. Such is “El Amor Contigo” (Loving You):
‘Loving you is difficult.
It is almost impossible.
You are everybody
And really you are nobody…
I never asked that you love me
That your secrets discover me
That you expect me impatiently
That you hopelessly dry my tears at night,
That you make me laugh.
I only ask to be able to love you.’ (Translation: Jessica Malo)
As to the songs in Ladino, those in the audience less familiar with the songs heard in Boskovich’s work were clearly familiar with the gently caressing, lyrical songs of the Sephardic Jewish community as passed down in Ladino from generation to generation. Levy spoke of her parents having sung these songs to her, just as she sings them to her own children. In “Adio kerida” (Goodbye, My Beloved), a song lamenting disappointed love, Levy invited the audience to join her in the refrain:
Goodbye beloved.
I do not want to live.
You have made my life miserable.’
Yasmin Levy’s burnished, unleashed and true voice is not her only attribute: she is very free on stage as her temperament and emotions pour out generously via the texts and melodies. An artist of international renown, she is warm, dramatic and humorous, communicating directly with her audience. She is also a born storyteller. Maestro Gottfried’s arrangements, tailor-made to Levy and to the songs, bristle with color and interest. Add to the above much involved, subtle and polished performance on the part of Luria, Hasson, Amir and Abramson.

A multi-disciplinary musician, who bridges classical, contemporary and jazz music, Maestro Gottfried is known for his innovative and creative concert programming. This event saw Israel’s 67th Independence Day in with heartwarming delight.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Harpsichordist Imbi Tarum (Estonia) performs a recital at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem

“Then and Now” was the title given to a “Baroque Fridays” event on April 17th 2015,a series in which the Israel Museum hosts the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra. At this event, however, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra hosted Estonian harpsichordist Imbi Tarum. Preceding the harpsichord recital, Dr. Shlomit Steinberg, curator of the Israel Museum’s European Art Department, gave a most enlightening talk on the personification of music in European art.

A prominent figure in Estonia’s musical life, Imbi Tarum, a graduate of the Heino Eller Music School and the Tallinn Conservatory, wrote her doctorate on the treatment of harpsichord in works of Estonian composers. An ensemble player, Dr. Tarum has also played solo recitals throughout Europe. Since 1991, she has been teaching harpsichord and basso continuo at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre. Her recital at the Israel Museum focused on French music, but it included one work by a contemporary Estonian composer. Imbi Tarum was in Israel some 25 years ago as a member of the Hortus Musicus Ensemble. Her 2015 visit included holding master classes at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and this recital, in which she played on David Shemer’s Skowroneck harpsichord.

Tarum performed two suites by J-Ch. Chambonnières (c.1602-1672), this music being influential repertoire, in the light of the fact that Chambonnières is considered the father of the French harpsichord school; his writing was also influential on music outside of France. A court musician (the first to hold the position of “the King's harpsichordist) he was also an exceptional dancer, in 1535, dancing alongside the young King Louis XIV and Lully. Tarum’s performance of the Suite in a-minor, boldly set out and rich in ornamentation, melodic narrative and harmonic interest, brought out the composer’s brilliant style of harpsichord writing. Her reading of the three movements she played from the Suite in F-major displayed the poetry, charm and tenderness projected through the dance forms in Chambonnière’s works.

A renowned teacher, Chambonnières was known to have taught such musicians as d’Anglebert, one of the Gautiers and all three Couperin brothers. In fact, at one stage of his career (and in the thick of court politics) there was a plot to force Chambonnières to resign as court harpsichordist in favor of his pupil Louis Couperin (c.1626-1661). Couperin, however, out of loyalty and high regard for his teacher, refused the post, accepting the job as treble viol player in the court. Imbi Tarum’s playing of Louis Couperin’s Suite in F-major combined stylish courtly elegance with imagination and spontaneity, again with much ornamentation, then taking a step away from aristocratic elegance to perform the Branle de Basque – a dance lighter of heart and heavier of foot. For the last movement of the suite, “Tombeau de Mr. de Blancrocher”, Tarum enlisted the music’s gestures and raison d'etre to spell out the text of this curious piece. A musical tribute to the lutenist Charles Fleury, Sieur de Blancrocher, who died in 1652 after having fallen down the stairs, it is thought by some that the downward leaps in the bass might de descriptive of the accident, with the use of the highest descant register possibly representing the lutenist’s ascent to heaven!

Well suited to Imbi Tarum’s technical prowess and temperament were three pieces from J.N.P.Royer’s (c.1700-1766) “Premier Livre de Pièces pour Clavecin” (1746). Born in Turin, Royer moved to Paris in 1725, working for the court, eventually becoming director of the Royal Opera orchestra. With Tarum taking the lead from the fact that Royer had an Italian soul and that he had set pieces from his own operas and ballets (many of them lost) for harpsichord, we were presented with some dramatic and colorful performance. In “L’Allemande”, taken from “Le pouvoir de l’amour” (The Power of Love) a ballet-héroique, the artist brought out its theatrical aspects, its tendency to the unpredictable and its timbral interest. “La Sensible” (The Sensitive One), beautifully shaped and gracefully melodic, yet still surprising in its arpeggiated middle section, was lyrical and tender. This was followed by “La Marche des Scythes” (March of the Scythes) a transcription from Royer’s opera “Zaïde”, a feisty, virtuosic and clamorous rondo, strange and daring, so interestingly orchestrated and so wonderfully entertaining!

I would have liked to have heard Imbi Tarum perform more Estonian music; what we did hear, however, was Rein Rannap’s “Variations”, commissioned by Tarum in 2007. Born in Tallinn in 1953, Rannap is a virtuoso pianist who has performed many of his own piano works. But he is also a rock musician, a jazz musician and bandleader; he has written and performed arrangements of Estonian folk songs, written his own songs, composed songs for children and written film music and stage music. “Variations” is a mood piece, a journey starting out meditatively in the lute register. An evocative vista linked in tonality, the piece investigates many aspects and moods of harpsichord sound as it takes the listener into the world of timbres and of the mind, the piece finding its way back to the lute register sound, ending with minimal sound fibres.

Imbi Tarum is an artist with rare expressive and technical ability. She has the knack of drawing her audience into the essence of each work; in her hands, the instrument becomes a dynamic, powerful and highly orchestrated medium. This recital was a treat - one of this season’s highlights.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Concert in memory of conductor and composer Gary Bertini, marking the 10th anniversary of his passing

A concert in memory of Maestro Gary Bertini took place in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on April 7th 2015. An event of the Bertini Choral Fest (March 30th-April 24th 2015) it marked the 10th anniversary of Gary Bertini’s passing. Produced by Haggi Goren, the concert featured the Gary Bertini Israeli Chamber Choir (musical director/conductor: Ronen Borshevsky), the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir (musical director/conductor: Stanley Sperber), the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra (musical director/conductor Shalev Ad-El) and vocal soloists. The concert was made possible by support of the Bertini family, especially by the generosity of Mrs. Rose Bertini, and also with the help of the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport and the Tel Aviv Municipality Department of Culture. The evening's proceedings were introduced by Danny Orstav and broadcast live on the Voice of Music IBA, Israeli radio.

Gary Bertini (1927-2005) was born in Bessarabia. The family immigrated to Palestine in 1946. Following studies at the Music Teachers’ College in Tel Aviv, Bertini continued his studies in Milan, Italy and then at the Paris Conservatoire. On returning to Israel, he established the Rinat Choir in 1955, becoming musical advisor to the Batsheva Dance Company and composing incidental music for productions of the Habima and Cameri Theaters. He founded the Israel Chamber Orchestra in 1965, remaining its conductor till 1975, was conductor of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra from 1978 to 1986, assuming artistic direction of the New Israeli Opera from 1994 to his death. Gary Bertini also had a prestigious musical career in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is especially remembered for his dedication to promoting Israeli music.

The Rinat Choir was a unique ensemble and has been a major influence in the shaping of the culture of choral music in Israel. It was a central force in the performance of much new Israeli choral music written at the time. Starting out as the “Chamber Ensemble”, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra also introduced new and exciting orchestral ventures to players and audiences.

The Gary Bertini Israeli Choir was established in 2009 by Haggi Goren and Ronen Borshevsky and performs a wide range of repertoire with celebrated conductors and orchestras. The Gary Bertini Israeli Chamber Choir is the representative body of the choir. Conducted by Ronen Borshevsky, it also has a sizable a-cappella repertoire and has taken two European concert tours. The Bertini Chamber Choir opened the Jerusalem concert with three very different a-cappella pieces. With Gary Bertini’s own setting of the Catalonian folk melody “Song of the Birds”, memories of the Rinat Choir sound came flooding back to those of us who had heard Rinat and learned to know Israeli vocal music through its distinctive choral sound. Following a rewarding, well delineated performance of Salamone Rossi’s “I will praise thee for thou hast heard me” (Psalm 117), Borshevsky took his singers and the audience into the emotional roller-coaster of Claudio Monteverdi’s love-sick madrigals, with a brilliant and dramatic performance of “Di Ch’io vorrei morire” (Yes, I want to die) from the 4th Book of Madrigals; via its barrage of musical sighs, whispers and screams, the madrigal’s message is glued together with a daring amount of seconds. The Israel Netanya-Kibbutz Orchestra joined the choir in a performance of eight songs from Johannes Brahms’ “Liebeslieder” Waltzes opus 52 and one Lied from opus 65, in the composer’s own arrangement for small orchestra, rather than for two pianos. There was much to enjoy in the performance, with its happiness, longing and nature imagery set in light, dancelike vignettes so lush in their harmonies and nicely contrasted. The more intense, despondent and ambivalent texts, however, (possibly prompted by Brahms’ own anguish at Clara Schumann’s daughter’s engagement) made for movements of stronger profile and more heightened interest. Soprano Einat Aronstein contended well with the orchestra in some lively solo singing. One of the evening’s highlights was the performance of Marc Antoine Charpentier’s grand polyphonic motet “Te Deum” (c.1692) for five soloists, choir and instruments. Soloists were sopranos Einat Aronstein and Daniela Skorka, countertenor Alon Harari, tenor Eitan Drori and baritone Guy Pelc. Borshevsky’s direction of the work brought out its brilliance and dramatic impact, inspiring the artists to take on board Charpentier’s vivid soundscape. The orchestra offered energetic and energizing support, with zesty percussion and some fine wind playing, the full orchestral and choral forces finding a good contrast with smaller combinations for solo voices. Many of the solos were stylistically pleasing and the various soloists’ ensembles were well coordinated. The audience was justifiably enthused by the work’s mix of drama and devotion and by the ceremonial brilliance that infused the performance.

Following the intermission, we heard the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, conducted by Stanley Sperber (Maestro Sperber conducted the Rinat Choir for 17 years.) Founded in 1969, the choir, made up of Academy students, performs widely. It was the first Israeli choir to appear at the Dachau concentration camp and its recent concert tour to Hungary was highly successful. In the Jerusalem concert, the Academy Chamber Choir presented a group of mostly a-cappella pieces in the spirit of the repertoire Rinat had performed throughout the years. In keeping with the choir’s reputation, each item emerged as a detail-perfect, carefully polished musical jewel. The choir opened with three Jewish texts, from the meditative, filigree-fine singing of “Yihiyu leratzon” (Let it be Your will) from Earnest Bloch’s “Avodat Hakodesh” (Holy Worship), to the strategic mix of timbres Sperber uses for Yehezkel Braun’s setting of the ancient grace after meals “Tzur mishelo” (The Lord, whose food we have eaten) to the playful vocal “orchestration” of Oedoen Partos’s “Hamavdil” (sung at the conclusion of the Sabbath, with a reference to Elijah). Then to Anton Bruckner’s astounding, symphonic motet “Chistus factus ist”, its canvas one of wide dynamic contrasts, dramatic tension and personal, sacred expression, to then be soothed and comforted by Claude Debussy’s flowing, “Dieu, qui la fait bon” (God, but she is fair), glittering with the ideal of beauty and sung with a real sense of the French transparency of language and timbre. Articulacy and sophistication set the scene for the luxuriant, ecstatic intensity of Samuel Barber’s “Come with Me”. And, on a lighter note, George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930 jazz standard “I Got Rhythm”, garnished with the singers’ vocal percussion effects, was tossed off with carefree precision, to be followed by Fats Waller and Harry Brooks’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (with piano). This part of the concert ended with fine blending and engaging solo moments in Tami Kleinhaus’ arrangement of Avraham Halfi and Yoni Rechter’s “Atur Mitzchekh” (Your forehead is gold black).

Concluding the concert, both choirs joined to perform three works with orchestra of which Gary Bertini was very fond. Sperber conducted the choir and Daniela Skorka in a velvety, lush reading of W.A.Mozart’s haunting “Laudate Dominum” (Praise the Lord) from “Vesperae Solennes de Confessore”, Skorka’s singing addressing the work’s spirituality. Following the well-chiseled, unbridled joy of G.F.Händel’s festive “Hallelujah” Chorus, Sperber went to join the choral singers and Borshevsky returned to the conductor’s podium to conduct two movements from the Mozart “Requiem”. The uncompromising drama juxtaposed with sotto voce otherworldly moments (women’s voices) of the “Confutatis” (While the wicked are confounded), followed by a heartrending, gripping and intimate reading of the “Lacrimosa” (Oh that day of tears and weeping), the latter begun on the day Mozart died, made for a moving end to the concert which was, in Haggi Goren’s words, “a homage to Bertini’s enormous contribution to our culture and life and a testimony that Gary’s heritage is still so meaningful and alive”. Add to these sentiments the high standard of choral performance we heard throughout, dedicated direction on the part of both conductors and the five fine “homegrown” vocal soloists.

The evening was an impressive and fitting tribute to Gary Bertini.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra closes its 2014-2015 concert season with a birthday celebration for J.S.Bach

“A Baroque Offering” was the title for the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s birthday celebration for J.S.Bach (1685-1750) and the orchestra’s final concert for the 2014-2015 season. The Tel Aviv concert took place right on Bach’s birthday - March 21st - with the Jerusalem concert a slightly belated but nevertheless hearty celebration. Conducting the concerts from the harpsichord was the JBO’s founder and musical director Maestro David Shemer. Soloists were sopranos Adaya Peled and Yuval Oren and flautist Idit Shemer. This write attended the concert on March 25th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship, the Jerusalem International YMCA, this concert being one of the events of the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival.

The event opened with one of Bach’s four surviving orchestral suites (the composer referred to them as “Ouvertures”) Orchestral Suite No.2 in b-minor BWV 1067, a work for strings, continuo and flute from around 1739. Indeed a dance suite in the French style, it, like its sister suites, opens with a long overture, followed by a set of stylized dance movements. However, with the flute figuring in a soloistic manner in this suite, Bach here merges elements of the solo concerto into the French suite. Here was a sympathetic and eloquent reading of the work, fresh and vital, abundant with French lightness and charm. David Shemer chose natural, unlabored tempi allowing for much satisfying interchange and making for lively and characteristic dance rhythms. Idit Shemer handled the virtuosic flute role with intuitive ease and beauty, interacting pleasingly with violinist Noam Schuss. The small ensemble gave the performance piquancy and intimacy.

We then heard Claudio Monteverdi’s motet for soprano (or tenor) and basso continuo “Laudate Dominum” (O, praise the Lord), here accompanied by harpsichord, ‘cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) and theorbo (Eliav Lavie). Adaya Peled gave a spirited, at times dramatic performance of the arioso piece, handling the expressive, nuanced (somewhat instrumental in its demands) style admirably, enriching vocal lines with melismas and Monteverdi’s own ornaments. From Giovanni Paolo Cima’s “Concerti ecclesiastici” of 1610, we heard “Surge propera” (Arise, my love), scored for two sopranos “in ecco”, to a text from Song of Songs 2:13-14, again supported by a simple continuo bass. Adaya Peled, positioned at the front of the stage, was echoed by vocal student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance Yuval Oren, a new face to JBO concerts, standing further back. Their presentation was effective.
‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
And come away.
O my dove, in the clefts of the rock,
In the crannies of the cliff,
Let me see your face,
Let me hear your voice,
For your voice is sweet,
And your face is lovely.’
In Monteverdi’s antiphon “Pulchra es” (Thou art beautiful) also from “Song of Songs” from the “Vespers” published in 1610, Peled and Oren joined in a delightful performance of the duet, highlighting the emotional words with ornaments or dissonances.

Little is known about Dario Castello’s life. What is known is that he published two collections of sonatas and that he was probably a musician at San Marco in Venice when Monteverdi was maestro di cappella there; a chamber musician, he was leader of a wind ensemble. The JBO instrumentalists gave a varied reading of his Sonata no.12, bringing out its contrasts of tempi, with different combinations of instruments producing varied timbral effects in a text offering distinctively different roles for players.

Idit Shemer rejoined the other JBO players in the final work on the program, J.S.Bach’s secular Italian chamber cantata “Non sa che sia dolore” (He knows not what sorrow is). The text deals with parting, functioning as a valedictory ode, but there are various theories as to whom the text refers. The town Ansbach is mentioned in the text, possibly referring to Torelli working in the court there, and whom Bach knew, or perhaps it is, as David Shemer writes in his program notes, a “farewell song to a friend who leaves the town in order to serve in the army”. The work is constructed as two paired recitatives and arias, preceded by a substantial sinfonia. As to when it was composed, the use of a virtuoso flautist in three of the five movements suggests it might have been written around 1724-5, when Bach was composing challenging flute parts in some of his religious cantatas, due to having a virtuoso flautist at hand in Leipzig; and a fine concert piece for flute this is! Idit Shemer’s playing was carefully detailed throughout, being especially luxuriant in the first aria, a piece contradictory in its sadness at leaving but pleasure in a new life challenge, as she wove its rich, triplet-abundant flute melodies into and around the vocal line Adaya Peled, free and comfortable in this Baroque medium, addressed her audience, setting the narrative out boldly and articulately, in a pleasingly unmannered way, bringing the work to an end, as she contended ably with the word-painting and melismas of the final aria.

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra signed out of the 2014-2015 concert season with a flourish!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir opens the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival with works from Bach to Bernstein

Opening the 2015 Jerusalem Arts Festival to a packed Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre on March 22nd 2015 was “A Varied Sound – from Bach to Bernstein”, a choral evening performed by the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir. Now in its 14th year, the Jerusalem Arts Festival gives the stage to Jerusalem artists in the fields of music, dance, theatre and the plastic arts. The event began with words from Mr. Shemi Amsalem, director of the Department of Arts of the Jerusalem Municipality, and Mr. Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, who also opened the festival. Veteran radio announcer and narrator Hayuta Dvir emceed the event, introducing the choirs, artists and works performed.

The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir was established 28 years ago by Yehuda Fickler. Comprising five choirs today, it is the largest choral body in Israel, attracting amateur singers from all walks of life. Each choir prepares and performs its own repertoire, but, once a year, all the choirs join to work on joint repertoire to be performed at the annual festive concert. Joining the 150 Oratorio singers were the Israel Chamber Orchestra and the Young Efroni Choir (musical director: Shelley Berlinsky). Conducting the Oratorio Choir and the Israel Chamber Orchestra were Naama Nazerathy-Gordon and Flora Vinokurov.

The concert opened with an impressive performance by the men of the choir singing the a-cappella piece “Vayimalet Cain” (Then Cain Fled) (text: Yaakov Shabtai) by Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014). Articulately performed and well shaped, the singers presented the piece’s narrative in an engaging and vivid manner. Especially pleasing was the tenor soloist.

This was followed by some of the movements from J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) Cantata 140 “Wachet auf” (Awake, calls the voice to us) conducted by Naama Nazerathy-Gordon. One of Bach’s best-known cantatas, it was composed in 1731, when the composer was in Leipzig in the employ of the Lutheran Church. It is based on a hymn composed by Philipp Nicolai in 1599. The Oratorio Choir’s choral sound was rich and mellow, both well blended and finely balanced with the orchestra. In Chorale verse 2, the choral tenors amalgamated to sing as a well blended section, alternating with the exquisite ritornello theme. In the role of Christ (in the accompanied recitative) baritone Yair Polishook addressed each phrase with insight and meaning. This was followed by the duet between Christ and the bride (savior and soul), with Polishook and soprano Daniela Skorka in an uplifting performance, their roles seemingly independent both melodically and register-wise, the interlacing of the voices, however, enhanced by the extrovert joy of the oboe obbligato. Skorka’s fine technique takes her up into the upper register with ease and beauty.

Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) was barely 20 years of age when he wrote the “Cantique de Jean Racine” opus 11, a short hymn setting of a medieval Ambrosian Latin hymn for mixed choir, translated from Latin into French by Racine. This was the first of Fauré’s several religious works and his first significant composition. The text of “O Light of Light” is an entreaty to God for his heavenly gaze, fiery mercy and guidance towards the path of righteousness. Presented here in John Rutter’s setting for keyboard, strings and harp, the harp added silvery fibres to the beauty of this piece. Singing by heart, the many small girls and one boy of the Young Efroni Choir joined the Oratorio choristers in silky, translucent, well-prepared singing; both choirs linked well to give a subtle, restrained and convincing performance of this small jewel, bringing out its sober, limpid harmonies. With Nazerathy-Gordon conducting the ICO and Shelley Berlinsky conducting the children, the Young Efroni Choir then gave a competent, pleasing performance of “Vois sur ton chemin” (Look to Your Path) (music: Bruno Coulais, lyrics: Christophe Barratier) from the 2004 film “Les Choristes” (The Choristers).

The program then moved to a very different genre and soundscape, to Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s (1895-1968) “Gypsy Ballads” opus 152, conducted by- and to a setting by Flora Vinokurov for mixed choir, guitar, harp and ‘cello (the original being for choir and guitar). Soloists were Yair Polishook, Daniela Skorka and mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm. An Italian-born, Jewish composer today best remembered for his guitar- and film music, Castelnuovo-Tedesco was familiar with Spanish music, as is evident in his seven “Gypsy Ballads”. Not easy music for amateur singers to learn and handle, the Oratorio Choir gave a richly-colored performance of the madrigal-style songs, their spirit suggestive of the cante jondo style (a vocal style in Flamenco music. Garcia Lorca was devoted to keeping this tradition alive), with the instrumental ensemble coloring the songs with Spanish rhythms and vivid harmonies. Adding to the audience’s enjoyment of the songs, Flamenco dancer Michaela Haran took to the stage in some dazzling costumes and dancing that was fetching, tasteful and no less dazzling than the music!

The event concluded with a performance Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”. The work was commissioned by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral in 1965. Calling for boy soprano (or countertenor), vocal quartet, choir and orchestra, a reduction made by the composer pared the ensemble down to organ, harp and percussion. Naama Nazerathy-Gordon and the Oratorio Choir performed it with piano, harp and percussion. The texts used are Psalms 108, 100, 23, 131 and 133, including choruses sung in Hebrew, “a suite of Psalms, or selected verses from Psalms” in the composer’s words. Bernstein’s original name for the work was “Psalms of Youth”, but he subsequently changed it for fear people might think it easy to perform. Previous to composing the “Chichester Psalms”, the composer had spent a year experimenting with 12-tone music, but decided the style was not a natural musical language for him. The “Chichester Psalms”, therefore, are rooted in B-flat major. Uniquely, they comprise the vocal part-writing of church music with Judaic liturgical tradition. In a performance that never lagged, we were presented with the work’s kaleidoscope of contemporary and modal music, with its unusual meters, its drama and vigor, its devilish, jazzy moments and its flowing cantabile sections. As to the lyrical setting of Psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) Bernstein wanted a boy soprano to sing it as it bears an association with King David, the shepherd-psalmist. With no tradition of cathedral boy soprano soloists in Israel, 12-year-old Yael Shapira was chosen for the part. Her vocal timbre is very close to that of a boy’s and she created the tranquil mood of the piece very nicely, backed by the evocative harp role. With soloists, the Young Efroni Choir and members of the Oratorio Choir, Nazerathy-Gordon created the large, varied and vivid canvas of the life-affirming work representing Bernstein’s hope for brotherhood and peace.

“From Bach to Bernstein” was a very varied and highly ambitious program for any choir, let alone an amateur choir. Kudos to all performers and conductors for a performance that displayed musical interest, dedication and much involvement.