Saturday, September 26, 2015

Three piano duos perform at a benefit concert in Tel Aviv for the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes

“A Celebration of Two Pianos”, a benefit concert for the Tel Hai International Piano Master Classes, took place at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on September 15th 2015. Performing at the concert were duo-pianists and teachers of the Tel-Hai course Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony, as well two young duos - Guy and Alon Ostrun and Rinat Tsodyks and Oren Lok.

Since its establishment in 1992, the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes have been attracting celebrated teachers and outstanding young pianists from more than 30 countries to engage in all aspects of piano performance. A summer school known for its dedicated work, its uncompromising standards and warm, encouraging atmosphere, several of its alumni have gone on to prestigious performing careers. In addition to the intensive tuition they receive, participants are encouraged to perform in public concerts. At the time of the Second Lebanese War, the course was moved from the Tel-Hai Academic College in the far north of Israel to the unique and inspiring desert-scape of Midreshet Sde Boker in the Negev, where it has remained.  All master classes and concerts take place in the George Evans Auditorium of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, Ben Gurion University of the Negev. The piano duo course was begun there in 2005. It is taught by Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony. Winners of several international competitions and awards and appearing in over 20 countries, the husband-and-wife team performs and teaches and has recorded for the Naxos and Romeo Records labels. In addition to their teaching at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv University), the two artists hold master classes worldwide.

The program opened with Franz Liszt’s “Concerto Pathétique” S258, the composer’s 1856 arrangement for two pianos of his Grosses Konzertsolo and was performed by 20-year-old twins Guy and Alon Ostrun, students of the Tel-Hai International Piano Master Classes. Taking on the ambitious challenges of this two-piano extravaganza, the young pianists orchestrated the intensity of the work’s “tutti” sections, capturing the dreamy mood and Romantic outpouring of the central movement and indulging in many cantabile and personally expressed moments. This was certainly a fine effort at performing a work that is gregarious and thrilling, a vehicle of both pathos and strength. Where the Ostruns’ playing occasionally fell short on eloquence, it certainly made up in youthful energy and sincerity. Guy and Alon Ostrun later performed the two-piano version of Maurice Ravel’s “La Valse”, the composer’s own transcription, a work replete with virtuosity, technical brilliance and richness, described by the composer himself as a “sort-of homage to the memory of the Great Strauss, not Richard, the other – Johann”. The Ostrun twins’ playing evoked the work’s glittering and opulent  homage to the Viennese waltz, its nostalgia, sweeping movements and twirling figurations, and it also made reference  to Ravel’s comment on corruption in society and on warfare, as expressed in work’s percussiveness, distortion and dissonance…these complexities, both technical and emotional, must certainly present a challenge to very young artists. The brothers, however, highlighted different characteristics of the various waltzes, also expressing Ravel’s message of destruction. Students of Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony, Guy and Alon Ostrun are winners of the Young Artists’ Competition and have been performing in the Tel-Hai course concerts for the last three years.

As a piano duo formed over the last year, Rinat Tsodyks and Oren Lok, both also pursuing solo careers, aim to perform a variety of new and interesting repertoire. They have given recitals in halls, at art exhibitions and at private functions. They were pronounced Most Distinguished Musicians at the 2015 IBLA Grand Prize (Italy) for their performance of Oren Lok’s composition “Humoresque”, playing Lok’s two-piano version of the original orchestral setting. The composition itself also received a Special Mention. Tsodyks and Lok performed the work at the concert at the Blumental Center. As a virtuosic symphonic overture composed in rich tonal language, Lok’s work makes reference to the music of J.S.Bach, to symphonies of the 19th century, to jazz, musicals and to Hassidic music. Here, Lok is joining the new movement of composers wishing to revive tonality, turning his back on the avant-gardism that has dominated music since the 2nd World War. Creating the piece’s intensive canvas of ideas and styles in rapid flow and with ceaseless energy, Tsodyks and Lok’s playing evoked the orchestral origins of the piece articulately - its whimsy, its dance moments and its occasional moments of furtive reticence, all threaded through the busy collage of textures. The artists’ easeful, musical playing of this highly layered score placed the work’s richness and exuberance at the fore, offering the audience much enjoyment. Rinat Tsodyks and Oren Lok are graduates of the Tel-Hai International Master Classes.

Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony concluded the concert with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite no.2 for two pianos opus 17. Admony, offering information on the artists and works throughout the concert, explained that this work had come after the composer’s three-year silence that followed a disastrous premiere of his Symphony No.1 and the caustic comments when Rachmaninoff played his music to Tolstoy two years later. It seems the composer’s confidence was restored with the help of a hypnotherapist, who also happened to be an amateur musician. Completed in 1901, Rachmaninoff, a highly renowned pianist himself, and his cousin and teacher Alexander Siloti premiered the work at a concert of the Moscow Philharmonic Society the same year. In a work that has too often been performed as a muscular show of piano acrobatics, Kanazawa and Admony kept well clear of this approach, having much to say about the music and its emotional and stylistic agenda, from the opening movement, chiseled effectively with its chiaroscuro contrasts and varied textures, followed by the 2nd movement Waltz. Here, we heard the fast devil-may-care vibrancy of the waltz punctuated by small, strategic hesitations, there to announce a new idea, as the artists dipped into their extensive palette to suggest different moods, to flex, to offer cantabile- and velvety melodies in what one could only consider as music of the senses. With the same motif sometimes moving from piano to piano, the pianists’ even balance and consummate artistry led the listener to endeavor to follow the musical line… if not aurally, at least visually. Then, in the exquisitely fashioned Romance, its interlacing melodies and rich melodies swelling up from an arpeggiated accompaniment, Kanazawa and Admony took the listener into the pensive, Romantic setting of moving melody and harmony. Following this, the artists kept audience members at the edge of their seats with expectation as they gave the virtuosic Tarantella a good dose of feisty energy and excitement, served by their large textural and dynamic range, however, never ignoring the need to contrast. A work not heard often enough, Tami Kanazawa and Yuval Admony’s precision and attention to the detail of Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.2 gave the score life, meaning and the pleasure of music-making.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The PHOENIX Ensemble in the Israeli premiere of J-Ph. Rameau's complete chamber music

In a program titled “Tradition and Innovation”, Ensemble PHOENIX opened its 2015-2016 season with the Israeli premiere of the complete collection of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s “Pièces de clavecin en concerts”. Performing them were Geneviève Blanchard – Baroque flute/piccolo, Noam Schuss-violin, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and musical director Myrna Herzog-viola da gamba. This writer attended the performance in the Ran Baron Hall of the Lin and Ted Arison Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv, on September 8th, 2015.

 Best known for his operas and solo harpsichord music, J-Ph. Rameau (1683-1764) composed only one collection of chamber music works, but this work stands alone as a masterpiece and a groundbreaker in the chamber music genre. There are five trios – the composer referred to them as “concerts” - each having three movements, apart from the second, which comprises four.  Rameau worked on them from 1737 to 1741, taking the initiative of giving each instrument an independent role; they were inspired by Gaspar LeRoux and Jean-Joseph Cassanea de Mondonville, both of whom had published harpsichord pieces with violin accompaniment. Rameau wrote: “I have given them the form of little suites for harpsichord, violin or flute, and viol or second violin”; he considered the collection to be predominantly pieces for solo harpsichord. Interestingly, he published them in score form, not common at the time, to allow each player to follow all parts.

 As to the various extra-musical titles of pieces, the composer devised them with the help of his friends. How truly programmatic they are remains unclear, but the titles certainly serve an important purpose: they offer the listener a glimpse into the composer’s rich imagination, to members of his circle and into the lifestyle of wealthy musical patrons enjoying the arts and life’s delights, in general. The PHOENIX players also made it clear from the outset that these were no suites of stylized and impersonal courtly dances, no music that might float past the ears of noble society.  And the pieces are not as abstract as how we might nowadays conceive the “chamber music” genre. These “concerts” are a genre unto their own in every way, inviting the listener to ponder Thamas Kouli Khan, hero of a pseudo-historical novel set in Persia in La Coulicam (1st concert), musical acquaintances such as in La Laborde (a harpsichord child prodigy  who later wrote a book on the harpsichord in which he denounced equal temperament tuning as a vice!), La Boucon (a prominent woman harpsichordist), La Forqueray, La Marais and La Cupis (Marie-Anne de Cupis, a brilliant dancer, appeared in performances of several of Rameau's operas. She was the first woman to execute the entrechat quatre, to wear ballet slippers, the calf-length ballet skirt and the now standardized tights), patrons of the arts (La Livri, La Poplinière) and even a place - Le Vezinet - a picturesque countryside town in the environs of Paris, a location offering much to delight  visitors. The collection does include some dance movements – the menuet, tambourin  – as well as a few character pieces – L’agaçante (the annoying one), La timide, L’indiscrète, La pantomime..

 The strength of the PHOENIX performance was the artists’ in depth enquiry and insight into each and every movement of the concerts, an exceptionally rich and motley collection of pieces - French music spiced with some Italian flavors. In their study of them, the concept of each piece has undergone fine chiseling to result in splendid execution of Rameau’s huge range of ideas, from the elegant rondeau of La Livri (1st Concert), its delicate, sedate and aristocratic melody (a “tombeau” dedicated to the Comte de Livri who had died that year) fashioned by the flute (Blanchard), to the folksy drone of pipes and heavy-footed enjoyment of La pantomime (4th Concert), punctuated by some small musical comments. Reference to folk music was also represented by the two tambourins (3rd Concert), the tambourin being a lively, duple Provençal dance form much liked and used by Rameau.  Here, Blanchard played the melody on piccolo, reminding the listener that the tambourin would have originally been played on a small flute. In La Cupis (5th concert), flute and viol duet and converse gracefully, the viol (Herzog) utilizing the high register to meet the graceful flute at certain moments, at others, returning to support the harpsichord bass line.  Rameau’s musical portrait La Forqueray (5th Concert) is a true masterpiece; in this gregarious fugue (celebrating the wedding that year of the great player and composer, Rameau’s friend) there was much give and take between harpsichord (Minkin) and violin (Schuss).  The fine teamwork in L’agaçante (2nd Concert), with its opposing registers and unpredictable phrases punctuated by small pauses, made for interesting listening.  We also receive an introduction to Monsieur Alexandre-Jean-Joseph Le Riche de La Poplinière, an especially rich tax-farmer and patron of the arts, at whose Paris mansion the best of chamber music was performed and heard. (Rameau, who received financial support from La Poplinière, was idolized by him and, it seems, also by his wife.) I enjoyed the jolly and slightly pompous description of the gentleman in La La Poplinière (3rd Concert) as the players halted here and there to allow the M. de La Poplinière to pose…or was he bowing?

 The heart of the “Pièces de clavecin en concerts” is the harpsichord, its fully written-out obbligato part demanding and virtuosic. Marina Minkin’s reading of it was secure, interesting and brilliant in execution. The viol part, however, is also extremely challenging; from his instructions to the viol player, it is clear the Rameau was well aware of some of the impossibility of his demands! Herzog imagines it may have been played by Forqueray. She was playing on an original Andrea Castagnery 7-string French viol, built in 1744, three years after the concerts were published. The Baroque expertise of all four artists took the pieces beyond that of technical know-how, recreating the evocative selection of musical vignettes in all their intricate detail. Altogether, the ensemble’s careful and strategic consensus on such elements as tempo, ornamentation, doubling and inégal playing made for a result that was stylish, personal, convincing and enormously enjoyable.  


Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (USA) and Elena Bashkirova in recital at the 2015 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival

A unique event of the 18th Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA from September 3rd to 12th 2015, was a recital of mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (USA) with the festival’s music director Elena Bashkirova at the piano on September 5th.

 The artists opened the festive Saturday morning event with three Brahms Lieder. In the first “Von ewiger Liebe” op.43/1 (Of Everlasting Love) DeYoung’s richly endowed lower register well described the scene of two lovers meeting in a forest, the dark, the silence and the anxiety of  the young man;  the scene lightened up with the girl’s confirmation of how strong their love was. Then, an unhurried, tranquil reading of “Dein blaues Auge” op.59/8 (Your Blue Eyes), followed by the effusive vigor and nature metaphors of love described in “Meine Liebe ist Grün” op.63/5 (My love is as green as the lilac bush) to a text of Felix Schumann (Robert and Clara Schumann’s youngest child; Brahms was his godfather.) With just three songs, the two artists took the audience into the emotional world of Brahms in performance that was deeply felt, vibrant and wonderfully satisfying.

 Gustav Mahler chose five of the 428 poems of Friedrich Rückert’s “Kindertotenlieder” (Songs on the Death of Children) for his own work of the same name and subject (both he and Rückert had lost children) composed between 1901 and 1904 for voice and chamber orchestra. The piano-vocal version is not an arrangement of the orchestral version but a true alternative version, having been played, for example, by the composer himself to accompany baritone Johannes Messchaert in 1907, and used till today. DeYoung and Bashkirova’s approach to the work was reflective, fragile, acutely sensitive yet controlled, the songs imbued with a sense of the pain, fate, courage and empathy as guided by attention to the text. DeYoung highlights key words with eloquent shaping, with Bashkirova making use of dissonances to affect and highlight the subject. And how effective their performance was of the third song “Wenn dein Mütterlein” (When your dear mother comes through the door) its duet comprising two separate musical agendas, its childlike naivety woven round a sense of tragedy, the short dramatic final section ending on a note of dejection. From the fine tuning of wispy-fine textures from the first piece, the artists’ interpretive capabilities and articulacy held the listener suspended in the fragile  void between life and death right up to the fifth song, the eerie atmosphere suddenly swept away by Bashkirova’s intense, horror-stricken introduction to the fifth song “In diesem Wetter” (In this weather, in this bluster, I never would have sent the children out), its waves of sound rising and falling gusts and squalls in the internal storm as in the storm raging outside. Bashkirova reminds us throughout that Mahler’s accompaniment and voice are equal forces. With the anger of the storm past, the artists shape the work’s final moments with tender, warm thoughts of the children in the next world, Bashkirova taking time to place each and every final almost-inaudible sound into the sound world of distant memory, of comfort. DeYoung and Bashkirova’s performance was a rare, memorable performance.

 One of the two central themes of the 2015 Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival focuses on works of European composers who settled in the United States (the other focuses on Beethoven’s quartets and piano trios) hence the performance of two of Arnold Schoenberg’s eight Brettl Lieder from a collection titled “Deutsche Chansons”, written in the composer’s yet  tonal language during the first years of the 20th century, when he worked as a conductor at the Überbrettl, a literary cabaret in Berlin. “Galathea” (text: Franz Wedekind) exploits the narrator’s infatuation of a man for a woman. Against Schoenberg’s richly textured and vibrant piano setting, the artists pulled out the plugs to express the song’s sparkling, saucy and energetic text (Wedekind was considered one of the most promiscuous poets of his time) the poem’s moral then to be revealed in the song’s conclusion:

‘But to my kisses, darling maiden
Revealed your lips should never be
For the fullness of their charms
Are only found in fantasy.’

In “Mahnung” (Warning), DeYoung and Bashkirova communicate the home truths and advice of Gustav Hochstetter’s lyrics to beautiful young women on how to conduct themselves, conveying words and music with a lighthearted touch of theatre and whimsy, DeYoung’s facial expressions as telling as some of the composer’s piano gestures. Behind their seductive and satirical facade, these Schoenberg songs have some serious messages, speaking of the polarities in Viennese society.

 DeYoung and Bashkirova concluded with two Kurt Weill songs, their gently lilting, sentimental and tasteful reading of the texts referring to the transience of love in “September Song” (from the operetta “Knickerbocker Holiday, text: Maxwell Anderson), its minor-major mood changes affecting and nostalgic, to be followed by the same theme and thoughts on growing old in so sensitively lush and soulful a manner in “Speak Low” (lyrics: Ogden Nash), sending the audience home moved and thoughtful.
'We’re late darling, we’re late,
The curtain descends, ev’rything ends
Too soon, too soon,
I wait darling, I wait
Will you speak low to me,
Speak love to me and soon.’


Michelle DeYoung’s voice moves seamlessly through its registers in singing that feels natural and effortless, her beautiful diction and range of color and inflection making for singing that is inspiring, fresh and always meaningful. She and Elena Bashkirova perform hand-in-glove, balancing ideas and collaborating on a number of levels. Bashkirova is an outstanding accompanist, sometimes using just a few delicate pianistic brushstrokes or more intensely orchestrated textures to set a scene, to comment, to present feeling, meeting DeYoung at eye level in performance that is gripping and thrilling.



Friday, September 4, 2015

"Requiem for a Holy Island", pianist Zecharia Plavin's novel about music and society

“Requiem for a Holy Island” is the first English language novel of Zecharia Plavin. Originally written in Russian, but somewhat changed and translated into English by the author, the book was published in 2015 by Dekel Publishing House, Tel Aviv, Israel and Samuel Wachtman’s Sons, Inc., CA, USA. It is basically the story of a community of a small island living under the tyrannical leadership of people of warped minds and tells of the committed people who strive to change it. The story is woven of several layers, each with its own agenda and characters, but all connect. It spans whole lifetimes in pre-war France, French Saigon, the island – Pinto Island - and Paris in the late 20th century.

We enter the story frame via a woman’s search for her lost love, Illirio Mariafels. A courageous and energetic idealist, Illirio has the gift of singing in two voices simultaneously and teaching the island children the technique, its unique sound bringing tranquility, albeit temporary, to those who hear it.  Illirio’s mother is the French concert pianist Adélaïde Fourangier, who spends many years on the island, mostly teaching piano. Illirio’s father is Costas Tegularius, a doctor most determined to rid the island of its emotionally and physically toxic leadership. Then there is the endearing old traveler and director of the meteorological station Jean-Luc Lefevbre, a person steeped in wisdom: “…truth be told, I no longer know the difference between laughter and weeping. In old age I think they become the same”. (p.278) These people are the novel’s major characters. They represent culture, human warmth, idealism and social conscience in an environment so negative, so physically disgusting and degrading that their goodwill shines brightly in the environment of a warped regime, whose main victims are the islanders themselves.

For the music-lover and educationalist there is much written on the subject of music practice, the learning process, concert criticism, on the choice of piano repertoire and on children’s music education; there are references to the great Franco-Swiss pianist and teacher, known especially for his interpretation of the works of Chopin and Schumann, Alfred Cortot (Adélaïde’s teacher). Among the most poignant descriptions of the book are accounts of the young islanders’ piano and vocal studies and the naïve beauty of these in a contaminated world in which so many islanders perish. Plavin also draws our attention to the harm caused by hard-headed directors of conservatories and music inspectors and how limiting their narrow-mindedness is on those teaching and those learning. As to the meeting of different musical cultures, the writer brings together the musical worlds of the French Romantic piano school and the folk culture of Pinto Island in Illirio’s ventriloquial singing.

Most of the book consists of diary entries, recordings, reports or newspaper articles. A very few photos give the story a sense of reality. Kathleen Roman’s language editing is consistent; I personally would rather the use of “children” than “kids” (slang).  “Requiem for a Holy Island” is definitely a page-turner; it is enormously rich in content, joyful and tragic; but, most importantly for both writer and reader, Zecharia Plavin is making a statement on the horrors of stringent regimes of so-called “justified” ideologies, such as those of the Nazis, Stalin, Al-Qaeda, etc., of narcissistic regimes devoid of all human conscience. Making his point, he does not soft-pedal when it comes to countless (at times, excessive) descriptions of the disgusting physical filth promoted as a way of life by the ideology of the island’s secretaries. In her diary entry of March 28th 1977, Adélaïde writes: “The island is now the embodiment of Danté’s Inferno, with naked secretaries dancing around their own excrement like wild apes. They have lost all resemblance to humans…” (p.278)

Softening some of the horror of the island situation described are two tender and rich relationships – Adélaïde and Costas and Illirio and the musically gifted Nissa. Those readers with a sharp eye may just pick up on many symbols: dates of certain events that parallel to those of Stalin’s death, Kennedy’s death, demolition of the Berlin Wall, etc.; Jean-Luc’s name comes from that of Jean-Luc Picard, a character from “Star Trek”; and, with Plavin being an admirer of Hermann Hesse, the name (Costas) Tegularius comes from Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”, in which Fritz Tegularius represents a prophecy of what Castalians might become if they remain insular; the name (Illirio) Mariafels is taken from  the Benedictine monastery from the same novel. And, as Illirio’s two-voiced singing represents two cultures - the fabric of any peace-making process and a weapon against fanaticism, Zecharia Plavin’s message is that peace is created from the joining of two voices, of two cultures. In Plavin’s own words: “Illirio’s chant is the hope for all future liberal idealists who look for identities to lean upon in their struggles for liberty, dignity and fairness for their fellow people”.
Author, scholar, composer, concert pianist and educator Zecharia Plavin was born in Lithuania in 1956, immigrating to Israel in his youth. Professor Plavin teaches at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and at the Ono Academic College.