Monday, July 20, 2015

Avi Avital and friends perform "Between Worlds" (Deutsche Grammophon)

Born in Beer Sheba, Israel, in 1978, Avi Avital began playing the mandolin at age eight, soon joining the mandolin orchestra founded and directed by his teacher, Russian-born Simcha Nathanson. Following graduation from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Avital went to the Conservatorio Cesare Pollini (Padua, Italy) where he studied original mandolin repertoire with Ugo Orlandi. Today Avi Avital has a busy international performing schedule, now recording exclusively with Deutsche Grammophon. The artist refers to his recent recording “Between Worlds” (2014) as “an invitation to go on a journey and a tribute to the adventurous character of those 20th century composers who introduced the tunes and the spirit of folk traditions…into their art…” Performing on mandolin or mandola, he is joined by other artists, among them, accordionist Richard Galliano, harpist Catrin Finch, percussionist Itamar Doari, clarinetist Giora Feidman, and more.

The disc immediately sweeps the listener into the exotic world of Georgian folk music and peasant life with Avital’s arrangement of four of the 45 “Miniatures” composed by Sulkhan Tsintsade (1925-1991), one of Georgia’s most prominent 20th century composers. In this scoring for string quartet, percussion and mandolin, the compelling timbres of the original settings for string quartet are somewhat mollified, yet the zesty, fresh and engaging colors of Georgian traditional modes and stringent harmonies nevertheless shine through the textures. Joining Avital, the high quality playing of the Kammerakademie Potsdam makes for subtle performance with mandolin in a setting based on Arthur Willner’s string orchestra version of Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances” Sz 56, a collection of six tiny, individually-flavored miniatures, composed originally for piano in 1915 and orchestrated for small ensemble in 1917 by the composer. Avital and his fellow musicians highlight the invigorating beauty, exotic modal keys and diversity of these dances – originally fiddle tunes or tunes played on shepherd’s flute - from different regions of Transylvania, collected by Bartók on expeditions in that region (1909-1913). Avi Avital is joined by percussionist Itamar Doari in an exciting rendition of “Bučimiš”, a traditional Bulgarian line dance from East Trakia. With each phrase constructed from a bar of 4/4 plus one of 7/8, Avital and Doari address the quirky, relentless, driving rhythms with composure and articulacy, Avital’s textural “harmonies” in keeping with the eastern European sound world. Doari, born in Israel in 1985 and today a key figure on the international music scene, teamed up hand-in-glove with Avital on this piece. Remaining in Eastern Europe, but with a piece composed by an Italian, we heard “Csárdás”, composed by the Neapolitan violinist and composer Vittorio Monti (1868-1922), the csárdás being a representative Hungarian dance danced in the csárda – a tavern or inn in farming villages. The composer, a mandolin player himself, suggested the piece, composed around 1904 and a favorite among violinists and gypsy orchestras, be played on violin, mandolin or even piano. Here Avital collaborates in the arrangement and performance of the piece with the great French accordionist Richard Galliano who, like Avital, has expanded the repertoire of the instrument he plays, giving it new horizons. Offering a fresh and tasteful take on this widely performed piece, “so obviously for mandolin” in Avital’s words, they present the distinctive soulfulness of the music, the poignant lyricism and yearning of the slow “lassü”, to be contrasted by the virtuosity and abandon of the fast “friss”.

Another memorable collaboration between Avital and Galliano is their setting of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Aria” (Cantilena) from “Bachianas brasilieras” no.5, one of a set of nine pieces combining the musical influence of J.S.Bach with Brazilian elements. Composed in 1938, Villa-Lobos scored the Aria for solo soprano and an “orchestra of ‘cellos”. As to playing the vocalise itself, its haunting, cantabile melodic lines exuding the flavor of traditional Brazilian song, Avital and Galliano take turns. The middle section’s drama is incisively shaped, suggesting the highly charged agenda of the accompanying poem, then to be followed by the lullaby-like repeat of the original vocalise. Strategic timing is everything here, but so is instrumental timbre, with the singing quality of the mandolin met by Galliano’s rich palette of accordion sounds. Juan Esteban Cuacci’s arrangement is one of many written to Argentinean-born Astor Piazzolla’s “Fuga y Misterio” (Fugue and Mystery), one piece from his highly successful 1969 tango “operita” (operetta) “Maria de Buenos Aires”. For this intriguing blend of counterpoint and intoxicating rhythms, yet another work combining skill in the use of Baroque devices with the composer's own ethnic music, the 12 bar fugue theme is first stated by Avital, to then undergo fugal treatment, but there are still many surprises yet to come after that. Joining Avital are eminent clarinetist Giora Feidman, Galliano, Klaus Stoll (double bass) and Doari. Following the clean, comprehensible playing of the fugue, the work uses the theme to burgeon into a volatile tango, to take on a mysterious mood, to include jazzy influences, then ending with breathless energy. In playing bristling with inspiration, fine detail and sophistication, the influences of Latin temperament, of love, of the sordid reality of the underworld, of tragedy and mystery are threaded through the piece. Performing Manuel de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Españolas” (Seven Spanish Folksongs), arranged by flautist, composer and arranger Efrain Oscher (b. 1974, Uruguay) were Avital, Oscher himself, Sacha Rattle (clarinet), Ralf Benesch (guitar), Sarah Verrue (harp), Zvi Plesser (cello), Stoll and Doari. Composed in 1914 for voice and piano, all authentic regional folksongs from different regions of Spain, it is De Falla’s most popular vocal work. As to the question of performing it without the verbal texts, Falla himself wrote: “In all honesty, I think that in popular song, the spirit is more important than the letter. The essential features of these songs are rhythm, tonality and melodic intervals.” Oscher’s outstandingly evocative arrangements, never overloaded or thick in texture, suggest the color and character of each of the miniatures, with Avital, in the solo role, relating to each of the pieces individually – from those that dance, those that weep, to the Andalusian gypsy/flamenco associations of “Polo”, to the fragility of “Nana” - the traditional Spanish lullaby that was sung to the composer as a small child, its insistent, rocking motif ever present.

The CD moves its focus to yet another sound world and to an entirely different lifestyle with “Nigun”, the second of three pieces of Ernest Bloch’s “Three Pieces of Chassidic Life”, with a setting by German composer and arranger Andreas N. Tarkmann. Joining Avital are Simone Bernadini (violin), Amihai Grosz (viola), Plesser, Stoll, Rattle and Verrue. Chassidism teaches that one can achieve a mystical experience directly through intense prayer or meditation; this can take the form of musical improvisation or “nigun”, as it is called. Bloch’s “Nigun” is actually fully notated but the performance presented to us on this disc gives expression to the free, improvisational character of this music, as well as to the beauty of the modes which form the basis of eastern European Jewish music. Avital’s meditational, reflective and profound playing, with rewarding moments of close communication with Feidman, is fervent in emotion. The ensemble of fine players joins him in recreating this scene of hope, sorrow and ardent utterance. The same sound-world echoes in a klezmer improvisation “Freilich Ron” by Ora Bat Chaim (b. Israel, 1935); here the simple song itself is not lost in the improvisatory process, with Feidman and Avital’s “conversation” imitating the human voice, its excitability and intonation, as might be performed by entertainers at a Chassidic wedding.

The Finale (Vivace ma non troppo) from Antonín Dvořák’s String Quartet No.12 opus 96 “American” (1893) played on mandolin, violin, viola, ‘cello, double bass and accordion (Ivano Battiston), in an arrangement by Israeli-born pianist, composer and arranger Ohad Ben-Ari, might raise a few eyebrows among chamber music aficionados. The work owes its place on the disc due to the Czech composer’s interest in Native American drumming and African American spirituals, the influence of which some listeners claim to hear in the quartet, with others insisting the work is consistent with Dvořák’s European folk- and classical traditions. This much-loved quartet, here presented in hybrid instrumentation, is played with warmth and joy, expressive of the composer’s happiness and energy at being on vacation in Spillville, Iowa. The disc concludes with “Hen Ferchetan” (Old Maid), a traditional Welsh song arranged by Avital and Welsh harpist Catrin Finch. In this song, its text telling of Little Lisa of Hendre who loses her lover and tries to find another, the two artists preserve the song’s authentic Welsh character, its Dorian modal melody as articulate and uncluttered as the harmonies Finch and Avital choose.

Avi Avital’s versatility and open mind take him to many locations and cultures. A brilliant, unique and communicative artist, he has invited some of today’s finest performers to join him on his musical journey. All the works on “Between Worlds” bear some connection with the folk music of whatever country from which they originate. This being the case, Avital talks of each listener as forming his own personal associations with the pieces. "My first partner here is my mandolin", Avital writes in the liner notes. "Familiar and foreign, folkish and classical, the mandolin is both a musical chameleon and a seasoned traveller...the one voice that links the many varied pieces on this album..." The artist speaks of this disc as having much personal meaning to him, that he has a specific attachment to each work on it. "I believe will find the ongoing play of opposing forces outwards and in, exploration and return, adventure and home," Via his deep bond with the mandolin (his “voice”) and with the various pieces, Avital and his fellow players have produced a recording that is indeed a polished jewel, a disc that begs not to be removed too quickly from the CD player.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Works of Salamone de' Rossi performed at Beit Avi Chai (Jerusalem) by Capelata, the Adi Young Israel Choir and the Thalamus Quartet

The “Songs of Solomon” was the title given to an evening of Salamone de’ Rossi’s sacred a-cappella vocal music on July 9th 2015 at Beit Avi Chai, Jerusalem. Taking part were the Capelata Choir (one of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir ensembles) directed by Naama Nazerathy Gordon, the Adi Young Israeli Choir, directed by Oded Shomrony and the Thalamus Vocal Quartet (musical director: Oded Shomrony). As to the title, in Hebrew “Ha-Shirim Asher li-Shlomo”, this collection of Rossi’s consists of 33 settings of psalms, hymns and other religious poems for three to eight voices of Hebrew texts, probably written for festive synagogue services. Actually, the Song of Solomon does not appear in the collection and it is thought that its name is a pun on Rossi’s first name. Although composed in the conservative (outmoded) polyphonic Italian Baroque musical tradition, and not in the semi-improvised style of music sung in the synagogue, these were the first polyphonic Hebrew choral works to appear in print.

Oded Shomrony spoke of Salamone Rossi and his own personal discovery of the Italian Jewish composer’s music. One of very few Jewish musicians contributing to the tradition of art music before the 19th century, court musician, string player and composer Salamone Rossi was probably born in Mantua in 1570. He may have been related to the historian Azariah de’ Rossi, a native of Mantua, but that is not certain. What is certain is that Salamone had a sister; one of the first great opera singers, she was referred to as Madama Europa Rossi. Salamone Rossi’s works provide direct documentation on his life and work. He entered the service of Prince Vincenzo I as a singer and violist, becoming leader of the Duke’s musical ensemble in Mantua and of an ensemble probably comprising Jewish musicians. In 1606, the Duke exempted Rossi from wearing the yellow badge that Jewish citizens were required to wear, with Vincenzo II continuing his predecessor’s policy. Shomrony made much reference to Salamone Rossi’s association with the court of the Gonzaga family, dedicating many secular works to the family, as well as to another Mantuan nobleman the Marquis of Pallazuolo. Referring to the Jewish aspect of Rossi’s life and work, Shomrony also spoke about Rabbi Leon Modena, a Jewish scholar, an accomplished musician, a cantor and one of the most colorful figures in the Jewish Renaissance; he seems to have played a major role in the planning and realization of Rossi’s Hebrew songs. It is known that Modena had been given the task of preparing them for publication and that Rossi met with him in 1622 in Venice to discuss problems connected with the publication of these songs.

At the Beit Avi Chai concert, we heard a rich selection of Rossi’s settings of Hebrew texts, by each of the ensembles and in joint performance, opening with the antiphonal “Adon Olam” (Lord of the Universe) for eight voices, performed by Capelata and the Adi Choir, the blocks of sound resounding from side to side of the hall in the typical “cori spezzati” style of the Italian style, with phrases alternating, dovetailing and, at focal moments, joining both choirs in scintillating and exuberant choral singing. “Eftach na sfatai” (Let me open my lips), Rossi’s double choir 7-voiced setting of a liturgical wedding poem of Matthias ben Isaac, was especially effective and pleasurable, with the Thalamus Quartet initiating each verse, to be echoed and answered by the two choirs. Singing Rossi’s mournful and personal setting of Psalm 137 “Al Naharot Bavel” (By the rivers of Babylon), Nazerathy Gordon and Capelata produced a well-detailed performance of this mostly homophonic work, complex in its dissonances, suspensions and harsh moments, its remarkable harmonic shifts between major and minor underscoring the emotional character of the piece. Capelata’s performance of the motet “Odecha ki anitani” (I thank you that you have answered me), Psalm 118, scored for two soprano voices, alto, two tenors and bass, displayed the work’s rare beauty with mellifluous singing of its long, introspective cantabile lines. In “Elohim Hashivenu” (God restore us) Psalm 80, a plea for salvation, also syllabic in style, Rossi borrows from the style of Christian sacred music, its opening reminiscent of a sacred piece of Orlando di Lasso. The Adi Choir singers, clear in their concept of this elaborate music, used the florid passages well to highlight key words. One of the evening’s highlights was the Adi Choir’s sensitive singing of Rossi’s motet setting of Psalm 128 "Ash'rei kol y'rei Adanai" (Happy are all who fear the Lord.

The Jerusalem-based Thalamus Quartet – soprano Shelley Berlinsky, alto Naama Nazerathy Gordon, tenor Jake Haperin and baritone Oded Shomrony – focuses mostly on a-cappella music, specializing in Renaissance madrigals, Baroque music and new Israeli music. The program included a number of pieces sung by these very experienced singers and conductors, from Rossi’s joyous “Hallelujah” (Psalm 64), to the complexities of the three-voiced setting of “Help Lord; for the faithful are no more” (Psalm 12) and the superb “May God be gracious to us and bless us” (Psalm 67). With the quartet prioritizing clarity of text, articulacy of each melodic line and fine intonation, it tends to prefer light vocal textures, perhaps too light for sacred music. Choosing to perform these pieces using heavier, more concentrated vocal textures and engaging in less physical movement on stage would bring home the message of this sacred repertoire more directly.

The program concluded with Oded Shomrony conducting both choirs in a performance that emphasized the dancelike rhythms of Rossi’s setting of “Kaddish” (with tambourine), this indeed being a song of praise, and a rich and ebullient rendition of “Hallelujah”, conducted by Nazerathy Gordon. There is much to be said for Israeli choirs singing texts familiar to them and in the language most natural to them. It was to their advantage and that of the audience at Beit Avi Chai to be exposed to the superb music written by the most famous Jewish musician of the late Italian Renaissance. What was truly impressive was the detailed, painstaking and rewarding work invested in the preparation of each work on the program, resulting in much high quality and attentive performance of both the amateur choirs and of Thalamus.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra and Shalev Ad-El host the great German countertenor Andreas Scholl

Andreas Scholl (photo:Anne Dean)
The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra closed its 2014-2015 season with “Shakespeare”, a concert directed by Shalev Ad-El, who has served as the orchestra’s musical director and principal conductor since 2013. Ad-El also accompanied on the harpsichord. The event hosted the distinguished countertenor Andreas Scholl (Germany), sopranos Hadas Faran-Asia and Shira Petershnik, also the Moran Choir (director: Naomi Faran). This writer attended the concert on July 4th in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

The program opened with Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to “Otello”. In its plot, the opera is mostly a far cry from that of Shakespeare’s “Othello”. When Lord Byron saw the opera in Venice in 1818, he wrote “They have been crucifying Othello into an opera…Music good but lugubrious…” “Lugubrious” it was not under the baton of Shalev Ad-El. In Rossini’s nine-minute bird’s eye view of the opera, its melodies and moods, we heard performance that was brisk, compelling and bristling with excellent rhythmical impetus. Rossini’s masterful orchestration of this overture in andante mode also offered some delightful solos to NKO players.

Andreas Scholl, no new face to Israeli audiences, was joined by Ad-El (harpsichord) for the performance of three Henry Purcell songs and one of Thomas Campion, beginning with Purcell's “Music for a While”. A unique song of great beauty, the artists shaped and flexed phrases, taking time to ponder the song’s different levels of meaning, from the world of Greek mythology and the Oedipus legend, to its darker side, to its statement on the power of music. Scholl’s vocal depiction of the snakes dropping one by one from Alecto’s head was almost visual. In “Sweeter than Roses”, from Pausanias (1695), Scholl gives life to the song’s emotions, from the improvisatory, ornate and languorous opening, to the effects of a kiss – first a frozen sense of shock, then a fiery, passionate response, as expressed by leaps and a rapid tempo change, to be followed by a section celebrating the power of love. An astounding song, here is a miniature drama so daring and theatrical for its time and ours and always so gripping when performed well. Then, restoring a sense of tranquility, we heard “Evening Hymn”, a glimpse into the sacred element of Purcell’s songs. The opening piece in Henry Playford’s collection of “Harmonia Sacra” (1688), this is not church music but would probably have been sung as part of simple domestic devotional service. Embellishing the keyboard part, a 5-bar ground bass that shifts a few times, Ad-El chose to play it using the lute register, thus creating an intimate setting. Scholl‘s wonderfully controlled restraint reflected the meditative content of the hymn. Then to Thomas Campion's whimsical lute song “I care not for these ladies” with Scholl flexing the pace and highlighting the girl’s ambiguous utterances here and there to present the text’s flirtatious double entendres and dancelike rhythm in a most entertaining way. Purcell’s works and those of his contemporaries form an important part of Scholl’s repertoire. His performance of them is informed, detailed and vivid, his word-painting engaging, as he uses vibrato to emphasize a pivotal idea (verbal or musical). At 47, his voice remains supple and full, his manner relaxed and communicative. In addition to teaching and conducting in many countries, Shalev Ad-El is an outstanding and internationally known harpsichordist with a prestigious worldwide career. His attentive accompaniments to the Purcell songs were subtle and sophisticated. In a very different vein, Scholl spoke of Israeli singer and songwriter Idan Raichel sending him an original melody, requesting that Scholl find words to suit it. Scholl came up with an old German poem “In stiller Nacht” (On a quiet night). He sang this as his encore, with harpsichordist/pianist Tamar Halperin’s arrangement for voice and string ensemble.

Performed by the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra under the baton of Shalev Ad-El, we then heard Menahem Nebenhaus’ “Dowland Song Remix Suite”. In this work, Scholl sang three mournful Dowland songs - “Come heavy sleep”, “In darkness let me dwell” and “Sorrow Come” - first, to the accompaniment of a string ensemble (an association to the viol consort of Dowland’s time) and later to be backed by the orchestra whose agenda branched out to consist of some rich orchestral writing, taking the listener to later styles with jazzy moments and quotes from well-known works of Mozart, Wagner, etc., all these fragments referring to love, night, sadness and death. The audience enjoyed this collage - a dynamic, colorful canvas concluding with an “unadulterated” final octave, returning the listener to the Renaissance style. Conductor, composer and music educationalist, Menahem Nebenhaus (b.1960) has encouraged and inspired young musicians through his work with the Young Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the IDF Education Corps Chamber Orchestra and the Thelma Yellin Symphony Orchestra and the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) Symphony Orchestra.

We then heard a number of movements from Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, providing incidental music to Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Tutored in French, German and English as children, Felix and his siblings enjoyed reading plays together, including those of Shakespeare. With its fairies, elves and magic spells appealing to the children, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a favorite, with Felix familiar with this play from his early years. The appealing and effervescent overture was written in 1826, when the composer was only 17, with the incidental music itself composed 16 years later. With their characteristic voice culture and finely blended harmony, the young singers of the Moran Choir sang with delicacy and competence, capturing Mendelssohn’s world of youthful imagination. Sopranos Hadas Faran-Asia and Shira Peturshnik, their richness of vocal color contending well with orchestra and choir, contributed to the subtlety and nobility of the music. Conducting without the score, Maestro Ad-El’s reading of the work sprang to life with fresh, exciting and finely crafted orchestral sounds. Never discounting any gesture, he recreated the work’s magic and naiveté, its yearning and gentle humor, from the four mysterious and evocative opening chords of the overture which invite the listener to enter the magical forest outside Athens where the story plays out, through the chiaroscuro effect of the woodwinds in the Scherzo, to the horn solo describing the sleeping lovers, to the Wedding March that re-establishes the world of humans and floods the scene with daylight. Performing “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” demands fine wind-playing; the NKO did not disappoint.

The event concluded with a polished performance of “MiMa’amakim” (Out of the depths) from the second CD of the Idan Raichel Project, performed by the Moran Choir, conducted by Naomi Faran and accompanied on piano and with percussion. In a polished, superbly coordinated performance of delicate singing and nicely choreographed movements, the young singers presented the song in an intoxicating mix of European and eastern rhythms and melody.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Salome Rebello conducts two choirs at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul, Jerusalem

“On Sanctity and Love- Sacred Music and Love Songs from Around the World” was the title given to a noon concert that took place on July 3rd 2015 at the Church of St. Vincent de Paul, a western-style structure built almost 150 years ago not far from the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The event featured the Bel Canto Choir, which is one of the ensembles of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, and the choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s Department of External Studies. Both amateur choirs are under the musical direction of Salome Rebello.

With a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Mumbai University, Salome Rebello immigrated to Israel from India in 2008. In the meantime she has completed a B.Mus. and graduate degree in piano and conducting from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. A professional choral singer, Rebello conducts three choirs and teaches piano.

The program opened with members of both choirs lining the side aisles of the church in an uplifting performance of Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi’s 8-part antiphonal motet, “Adon Olam” (Lord of the Universe), a Sabbath hymn to an early text. Rossi’s sacred works constituted the first published collection of Jewish liturgical music. The Choir of the JAMD’s Department of External Studies then offered a colorful selection of pieces, beginning with a lyrical, songful reading of the Swedish folk song “Wem kan segla förutan vind?” (Who can sail without a wind?”) arr. Robert Sund, with the rich, warm voice of Maria Lyubman performing the solo part; this was followed by an interesting setting of a classical Arabic song, arr. Sherine Abou Hadar, in which Naama Hadi sang the solo. Finally, Rebello’s own beautiful, lilting arrangement bringing together three versions of “Adon Olam” to melodies she remembers that are sung by the Bene Israel community of Mumbai; Zeev Treger was soloist in this captivating piece.

Bel Canto’s bracket of songs opened with the well blended and delicately shaped singing of French Renaissance composer Claudin de Sermisy’s (1490-1562) chanson “Tant que vivray” (So long as I live), to American Randall Thompson’s (1899-1984) joyful anthem “Glory to God in the Highest”, to a polished and charming performance of Hungarian-born Israeli composer Oedeon Partos’ “Hamavdil” (May He who makes the distinction between the holy and the everyday) , which uses Sephardic melodies to see the Sabbath out, then to a quirky setting of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” by African-American composer, performer and music educator William Dawson (1899-1990). The “Song of Songs” has served as an inspiration to composers since Palestrina’s setting of it or even earlier. Devoting much attention to text and small nuances, to finely balanced intonation and to the poignant and sensuous character of the work, Salome Rebello’s reading of Yehezkel Braun’s (1922-2014) “Song of Songs” Chapter 3 was profound and rewarding. Reisie Miller soloed pleasingly in this work and in “Swing Low”. Four string players joined Bel Canto for a profound and tender performance of Mozart’s 46-bar-long (short) motet “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail, true Body), a piece that never fails to move the listener.

The instrumentalists and both choirs joined to perform Franz Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G major, D.167 (1815), this concluding the concert. Composed in less than a week when the composer was only 18 (one of four Masses he composed in his teens), this youthful masterpiece has remained a staple of choral repertoire. In a performance bristling with lyricism, joy and contrasts, lush Romantic color, much exuberance, and some darker, more intimate moments (as in the Agnus Dei) singers and instrumentalists displayed confidence and fine teamwork. Rebello addressed the work’s unadulterated sincerity and variety. Soloists were choral bass Dov Faust, tenor Tom Karni and soprano Efrat Wolfson. Wolfson, presently completing her music degree at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, gave a fine, unmannered performance of the various soprano sections, her rich timbre resounding well in the church. Having completed a degree in Physics and Mathematics, tenor Tom Karni, a member of the Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, is now studying for a degree in conducting at the Jerusalem Academy. Despite doubts as to his Catholic faith, Franz Schubert produced a substantial collection of sacred music. These sacred choral works, from all periods of his short life, remain sadly neglected in comparison to his secular music. Mass No.2 is one of his most popular sacred pieces and the enjoyment created by the performance at the Church of St. Vincent was more proof of this.

Polished performance, as heard throughout the program, is proof of what can be achieved by amateur choirs under expert guidance. Salome Rebello is a young, energetic conductor fast making her mark on the Jerusalem choral scene. With music of many countries and religions on the program, the concert was dedicated to solidarity, with a call for tolerance between faiths in response to the vandalistic attack on the Church of Loaves and Fishes in Tabgha on the Sea of Galilee.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Organist Ralph Greis (Germany) performs Bach, Franck and Vierne at the Dormition Abbey, Jerusalem

The Israel International Organ Festival closed its 2014-2015 season with a morning recital by Ralph Greis at the Dormition Abbey, Mount Zion, Jerusalem, on June 27th 2015. Fr. Ralph Greis, born 1972 in Germany, studied sacred music in Detmold, Germany, graduating in both church music and performance. In addition, he has studied Catholic theology in Paderborn (Germany) and at the Dormition Abbey. On receiving his diploma in 2001, he joined the monastic community of the Dormition Abbey, then taking responsibility for liturgical music at the Dormition Abbey as well as for concerts taking place in the basilica of the monastery. As music is an important part of liturgical life in Benedictine monasteries, Greis addresses much importance to the musical content of the liturgy, also believing in the spiritual content of all good music. The large organ of the Dormition Abbey, made to fit the exact measurements of the central gallery of the church, was built by the German firm of Oberlinger and inaugurated in 1980.

The recital opened with two works of J.S.Bach (1685-1750), beginning with the Prelude and Fugue in C-major BWV 547, written around 1725, either in Leipzig or Weimar. Greis displayed the bright, forthright and concentrated writing of the Prelude as well as its exploratory character. The 5-voiced Fugue, constructed from a very concise subject and no less concentrated in texture, is unusual in that the entry of the pedal comes in quite late in the piece. In one of Bach’s major variation works - Partite diverse sopra “O Gott, du frommer Gott” - written for manuals only, the chorale is presented with eight variations. A work of particular interest to an organist/theologist, each variation corresponds to the content of a stanza of the hymn; Greis also brought out the work’s contrapuntal and chromatic beauty, its decorative content and its variety of musical styles, offering registrational combinations to create strident, bright bell-like timbres, mellow moments and some of delicate fragility.

This was followed by “Prière” (Prayer) in C-sharp minor, opus 20 (1860) by César Franck (1822-1890). One of the “Six Pièces pour le Grand Orgue”, it was written in Franck’s religious period and is a personal, devotional meditation on grief, hope and faith, its pensive music eventually spiraling to an ecstatic, richly-textured climax. No small feat for the organist, “Prière” bristles with tenths, elevenths and cross-rhythms (César Franck had huge hands). Greis gave expression to the chorale-type melody forming the basis of this lush mood piece as it developed in a Romantic, symphonic manner, yet never losing sight of the work’s serious and ultra-legato essence.

The final work on the program was Louis Vierne’s Organ Symphony No.3 in F- sharp minor, opus 28. Schooled by both Franck and Widor, then becoming organist at Notre Dame, Paris, Vierne (1870-1937) brought the great French organ symphony to its zenith. His six organ symphonies, all in minor keys, were all written with the sound of the big, Romantic Cavaillé-Coll church organs of his day in mind. Influenced by his teachers and by Debussy, Vierne developed his own personal idiom, which was rich in Romantic harmony, complex in contrapuntal working and, indeed, symphonic in concept. In the opening Allegro maestoso of Symphony No.3, Greis’ forthright playing highlighted the movement’s imposing character and its complexities. In total contrast, the Cantilène’s melodiousness and dreamy poly-timbred toning took the listener into the languid mood of the senses. Greis gave the Intermezzo a touch of whimsy and elusiveness, to be followed by a leisurely-paced Adagio movement of great beauty, its introspective mood temporarily embellished by the church bells ringing outside…an interesting effect to remind the listener of where he was. The final movement, brilliant and fresh in style, intricate in footwork, brought the work to an impressive conclusion.

Fr. Ralph Greis ended his recital with a short, improvised piece, a token of his appreciation to the audience. Adding to the enjoyment of the concert was the fact that the artist at the organ was projected onto the front wall of the church. How often is it that one can watch the organist at work?