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.

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