Saturday, October 31, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Notes from from the October 2015 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Friday, October 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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