Saturday, November 28, 2015

"Rosenblatt Express", telling the story of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, Habima Theater (Tel Aviv)

Reissues of early 78 RPM recordings of Yossele Rosenblatt were playing as we were taking our seats in the intimate Hall 4 of the Habima Theatre (Tel Aviv) on November 23rd 2015 to attend “Rosenblatt Express”, a play written by Ron Guetta, directed by Denise Boyd Shama and performed by members of the Theatre Company Jerusalem, the performance telling the story of one of the world’s greatest Jewish cantors.

Born in 1882 in the Ukrainian shtetl of Belaya Tserkov (Galicia), Yossele Rosenblatt was the son of a cantor. Recognizing his son’s extraordinary talent, his father began to tour with the young boy whose singing helped supplement the family income. Married at 18, Yossele took his first cantorial position in Munkacs Hungary, soon moving to Pressburg (Hungary). A commanding figure with a dark beard and suave appearance, he possessed a superb, mellifluous and gripping coloratura tenor voice, a large range and a flexible falsetto range. His creative talents as a composer of Hassidic-flavored music were already becoming recognized. The five years in Pressburg saw the composition and publication of 150 recitatives and choral pieces and in 1905 Rosenblatt recorded his first phonograph record. Moving to Hamburg, where he again won instant acclaim, meant a better-paying job.  His fame now spread to America, where Rosenblatt was invited to sing two Saturday morning services at the Ohab Zedek Synagogue of New York, then receiving a permanent position there, bringing his wife and children over to America. In May 1917, he sang to a crowd of 6000 people at the Hippodrome (New York) at a fund-raising concert for Jews in Europe. This prompted a tour of 30 cities on behalf of the war relief campaign. Attending his concert in Chicago was Cleofonte Campanini, general director of the Chicago Opera, who offered the cantor the role of Eleazar in Halevy’s opera “La Juive” at $1000 per performance. Despite the fact that Campanini’s contract endeavored to take into account Rosenblatt’s orthodox lifestyle (his co-stars would be Jewish sopranos) Rosenblatt refused the offer. In an interview appearing in the “Musical America” journal in 1918, he admitted that the “cantor of the past and the opera star of the future waged a fierce struggle within me”.  However, he did start performing concerts that included opera arias and ethnic songs, becoming acquainted with the great opera singer Enrico Caruso and making his Carnegie Hall debut in 1918. Now an integral part of the New York musical scene, Rosenblatt was earning very well from his synagogue position, concerts and royalties from his recordings. However, his philanthropy, the burden of supporting eight children and his generosity towards several other family members weighed heavily on his finances. In 1922, he made a risky investment in a Yiddish newspaper, resulting in his being declared bankrupt in 1925. To pay back his debts, Rosenblatt turned to performing in vaudeville shows, singing sentimental songs in Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian and English and managing to avoid having to share the stage with other singers, acrobats, animal acts and gaudy scenery. In 1933 he was made an offer that he accepted – “Dream of My People” – a movie in which he would sing his own works at the relevant biblical sites in Israel. He also sang in synagogue services and gave concerts all over Israel, meeting Rav Kook and the national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik. Rosenblatt’s next plan was to undertake a European concert tour to make enough money to enable him and his family to settle in Israel. As fate would have it, however, he suffered a heart attack in Israel and died at age 51; he was buried on the Mount of Olives. Seventy years later, Yossele Rosenblatt’s pieces are still a staple of cantors. In his recordings, which now appear on CDs, his artistry, deeply emotional singing and magnificent singing voice live on.

Denise Boyd Shama’s direction of Guetta’s play brings to life the rollercoaster story of Yossele Rosenblatt, with Daniel Botzer comfortably cast as the totally human and naïve Rosenblatt and Neta Bar Rafael portraying his wife Tovale with warmth, depth and winning sincerity. A strong element running all the way through “Rosenblatt Express” is indeed their  story of love and loyalty.   A bare stage with few to no props fills with theatrical energy, as the two leads, joined by Rafi Kalmar, Amir Yerushalmi, Leon Moroz, Ariel Krizopolsky and Eyal Raz taking on a number of roles, present a host of fast-moving and vibrant small scenes taking the audience on “Rosenblatt Express’s” bumpy yet fame-filled ride through life. Not a musical, the few numbers heard in the performance consist either of recordings of Rosenblatt (at one moment, showing Botzer standing behind a white screen as Yossele singing in a vaudeville performance) or, for example, “Ain’t She Sweet” composed in 1927 (Milton Ager-music, Jack Yellen-lyrics) one of the hit songs typical of the Roaring 20s, capturing the atmosphere of that time in America.  The play raises issues of the conservative lifestyle expected of a cantor: Yossele’s father is shocked to hear that his son has been to see “Madama Butterfly”, Yossele is criticized for making gramophone recordings and the powers that be of the Hamburg Synagogue insist there be no improvisation in his cantorial singing.  “Rosenblatt Express” offers some moments of suspense: missing the train for a performance in New York, Rosenblatt hires a train to whisk him off at record speed from Philadelphia to New York…hence the play’s title. There is the episode of another big job offer with the manic Sam Warner of Warner Bros. and Sam Warner’s sudden death, followed by the tragedy of the Great Depression, the latter bringing the cantor back to singing in the synagogue, but for a low salary that leaves him helpless to pay back loans.
In the foreword to his book of Recitatives (1928), Rosenblatt wrote “…I was moved by the double impulse of serving the needs of the Jewish cantor and of demonstrating to the musical world at large that genuine Jewish hazzanut [cantorial singing] can still satisfy completely even the refined taste of today…I shall feel amply rewarded for my efforts when I shall see this work widely disseminated…” Telling his story in a dynamic, entertaining and accessible manner, the performance at Habima concludes with a few more moments for the audience to relish in the sound of Rosenblatt’s voice, yet another moving reminder of the greatness and uniqueness of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Israel Haydn Quartet hosts clarinetist Eli Eban at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Jerusalem

Walking through the gates of the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, on a sunny Autumn morning  means leaving the harsh realities of today’s world behind for a couple of hours. The lush, exotic gardens on either side of the steps that lead up to the concert hall beckon one to take a few minutes to ponder this densely-planted natural haven. The concert on November 14th 2015 was performed by the Israel Haydn Quartet – Eyal Kless- 1st violin, Svetlana Simannovsky-2nd violin, Tali Kravitz-viola, Shira Mani-‘cello - to be joined by clarinetist Eli Eban. Established in 2010, the Israel Haydn Quartet is making its mark, performing throughout Israel and recently in Seoul, South Korea. It plays the gamut of string quartet repertoire, but, as its name infers, it is no coincidence that the quartet takes a great interest in the music of Joseph Haydn, “father” of the Classical string quartet genre. In 2014, the quartet received a grant from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport to record a CD consisting of three Haydn quartets. All four members enjoy international performing- and teaching careers.

The program opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in D-minor No.2 Op.76. Of the some 68 Haydn quartets Opus 76, the last complete set, written between 1796 and 1797 when the composer was 65, constitutes the apex of his career, with No.2 referred to as the “Quinten” (Fifths) Quartet, due to its opening motif of descending fifths.  The Israel Haydn Quartet’s reading of the work was exhaustive, highlighting its closely woven thematic and structural concentration of the opening movement in playing that was vibrant, incisive and direct. Following the Andante (2nd movement), its major theme in a lighter, more smiling frame of mind, its appealing, ornamented songlike melody stated by Kless,  the quartet members launched into forthright playing of the intense, stark canon of the “Witches’ Minuet” its less confrontational  rustic middle section an interesting contrast. Then, with Haydn’s virtuosic first violin part sensitively dealt with by Kless, the quartet produced the full, dynamic canvas of the last movement, its intensive, well-spiced agenda with a touch of gypsy flavoring finally turning to the major key, to sweep away the work’s minor character and conclude with a sense of well-being.

We then heard “Summer Strings” – String Quartet no.1 (1962) by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni (b. Germany, 1927), a set of four small movements bearing  non-musical, evocative and challenging titles : Destination, Argument, Variations without a Theme, Interweaving.  Utilizing many techniques of string  repertoire, Avni’s propelling, changing rhythm patterns, his modal ideas, his energetic style of writing and adept mixing of the influence of east and west make for a work rich in content and temperament, yet so compact, keeping the listener at the edge of his seat in involved, active listening. Highlighting the work’s many moods and imaginative sound combinations, from the relentless running figures of the first movement, through the changing agendas of “Argument”, the thought-provoking, somewhat disturbing timbres of the “Variations” that appear to be looking for a theme, to the robust questioning of “Interweaving”, the Israel Haydn Quartet’s performance of “Summer Strings” was refreshingly raw, intelligent and as articulate as Tzvi Avni’s writing itself.

Clarinetist Eli Eban joined the Israel Haydn Quartet in a performance of Johannes Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in B-minor Op. 115. A former member of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Eli Eban has soloed with many of the world’s finest orchestras. Today he divides his time between teaching at the Jacobs School of music (Indiana University), touring as a soloist and chamber musician and serving as principal clarinetist of the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra. His summers are spent performing and teaching at the Sarasota Music Festival and as principal clarinetist of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra. Composed in the summer of 1891, the Brahms opus 115 Clarinet Quintet, a late and decidedly autumnal work, was one of a number of works written at the time featuring the clarinet, as inspired by the virtuosic clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the court orchestra. The Allegro opened with finely coordinated playing of Eban and the quartet, setting the scene for the work’s poetic, nostalgic
intensity, its seriousness and fragility. Opening the 2nd movement (Adagio), with its major-minor split personality, Eban’s haunting and superbly controlled cantabile playing created the effect of gentle calling, with the middle section spiraling to an imposing, gypsy-flavored texture. Following the set of variations of the final movement, played expressively, offering each of the instruments personal utterance,  the listener is taken unawares when the musical course  suddenly reverts to that of the first movement, to end enigmatically almost exactly as does the first movement.  The five artists’ performance of the work was profound, their detailed reading of it rich in finely chiseled phrasing, their energy and rhapsodic gestures never far from the quintet’s underlying sadness. Led assuredly by Eyal Kless, the Israel Haydn Quartet’s fresh, informed and dedicated playing is another feather in the hat of the Israeli chamber music scene.  Eli Eban ‘s refined, poetic expressiveness, his melodic shaping and control of instrumental color were moving and memorable.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Amir Katz solos in the Israel Chamber Orchestra's opening concert of the 2015-2016 season

On November 11th 2015, in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Chamber Orchestra opened its 2015-2016 concert season with a program of works by Ives, Chopin and Beethoven. The event was conducted by the orchestra’s new musical director Ariel Zuckermann. In his friendly, informal manner, Maestro Zuckermann addressed the audience, referring to the financial straits in which the audience had found itself and to how the board of management and audience are contributing to rehabilitate the ICO, to start the new season on a better footing and to reach out to a wider range of audiences, including those of children. After expressing his appreciation to sponsors and to Dr. Eitan Or, chairman of the ICO’s governing council and to the audience itself, Zuckermann spoke of one of his aims as musical director being to surprise the audience.

With the latter in mind, Zuckermann took the bull by the horns, opening the program with American composer Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question”. Composed in 1906 and revised in the 1930s, the work is scored for offstage string ensemble, solo trumpet and woodwind quartet. The audience was not quite sure what to make of the hall and stage suddenly being plunged into darkness, with only the woodwind quartet and Zuckermann on stage. In the composer’s modernistic signature musical language, Ives had constructed the somewhat programmatic work (referred to by him as a “cosmic landscape”) in three layers, with the tranquil, otherworldly-sounding, tonal, shimmering chords of the string section representing “the silences of the Druids”, the solo trumpet asking “the perennial question of existence” and the woodwind quartet becoming more agitated and provocative in its dissonant utterances. The work concludes with the trumpet asking the “question” for the last time, to be followed (or answered) by silence. Its free notation making for a new reading of it for each performance, Zuckermann and the ICO players, in a compelling performance of “Unanswered Question”, offered the audience the rare opportunity of hearing - and indeed experiencing - this work, its significance in the concept  of avant-garde music as pertinent as its statement of the co-existence of chaos and consonance.

We then heard Amir Katz as soloist in Frédéric Chopin’s Piano Concerto no.2 in F-minor, opus 21. Written in 1829 (actually  the earlier of the two piano concertos but the second to be published) the 20-year-old composer premiered it at Warsaw’s National Theater in 1830, finding favor with other musicians of the time, among them Liszt, who referred to the work as of “ideal perfection, its expression now radiant with light, now full of tender pathos”.  Following the first movement’s long orchestral exposition, Katz makes his entry with articulacy and eloquence, then proceeding to set before the listener the meaning of Chopin’s score. He creates a canvas as rich in the work’s generous, larger gestures as it is in the smallest of fleeting ornamental detail. Poetic fragility emerges from drama just as majestic and sweeping gestures take their cue from intimate filigree origins. In the Larghetto movement (inspired by Chopin’s infatuation with soprano Konstancja Gladkowska) Katz sets the listener’s heart afloat with a sensitively nuanced reverie of impeccably fashioned melodies, yet interspersed with a measure of intensity.  For Amir Katz, deeply enquiring reading of the musical text on all levels and note-perfect performance serve as the basis for expressing the young Chopin’s strikingly original writing and emotional energy. In a work of notorious difficulty, in which the composer’s virtuosic writing is taken to its optimum, Katz’s agenda is neither that of showy display nor of self-indulgent musings; he addresses the concerto’s lyricism and subtleties, its layering and textures, illuminating the score with fresh, splendidly clean playing never marred by foggy over-use of the sustaining pedal, never burdened by world-weary rubati.  Together all the way, Katz, Zuckermann and orchestra collaborate closely, the pianist at one moment weaving elegant pianistic reflection through the orchestral fabric, at the next, highlighting the noble importance of a solo passage. For his encore, Amir Katz gave a crisp and sparking performance of Chopin’s Grand Waltz Brilliante in E-flat major, opus 18, its succession of different kinds of waltzes, their moods and grandeur of spirit taking the listener, for just a few magic minutes, to the glittering ballroom of affluent Parisian society. One of today’s foremost pianists, Amir Katz (b. 1973, Israel) today residing in Germany, performs worldwide as recitalist, soloist and accompanist.

With the exception of ‘cellists and percussionists, Ariel Zuckermann had his players  standing for the performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 in A-major, opus 92. Completed in 1812 and first performed in 1813, this celebratory symphony, dedicated to both Count Moritz von Fries and Russian Empress Elisabeth Aleksiev, was written for the smallest orchestra Beethoven had used in some time, with no trombones and only two horns. Conducting without a baton and with no score, Ariel Zuckermann was totally there for his players; they, freer to express than when seated, produced a large, opulent orchestral sound and plenty of timbral interest in a reading of the work that was aflame with dynamic change and orchestral colors. In the second movement - Allegretto – its solemnity and contrapuntal interest were given much expressiveness and some prodigious contrasts, to be followed by the impassioned Presto, its middle section, played by winds, in rich and pleasing toning. In a carefully exacting yet spontaneous performance of one of Beethoven’s most accessible works, Maestro Ariel Zuckermann’s gripping presentation of Beethoven’s Symphony No.7 concluded the festive event at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, promising more fine and varied concert fare in the ICO’s future concerts.

An artist with a large repertoire, energy and ideas, flautist and conductor Ariel Zuckermann (b.1973, Israel) has a career that takes him all over the world conducting both orchestras and opera. He also tours with his own ensemble “Kolsimcha”; in the group’s recently issued  CD “Contemporary Klezmer”, Maestro Zuckermann conducts the London Symphony Orchestra.  

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Israel Contemporary Players (conductor: Zsolt Nagy) open the 2015-2016 season with works spanning 100 years

The Israel Contemporary Players opened its 25th “Discoveries” season with a representative selection of the ensemble’s wide range of repertoire, from Stravinsky’s “Ragtime”, to music of Ligeti, to folk-flavored music, to the premiering of a work by Eitan Steinberg, with music from England, Europe and Israel. The concert was conducted by Professor Zsolt Nagy (b. Gyula Hungary, 1957), who has served as chief conductor and artistic adviser to the ICP since 1999. A collaboration of The Voice of Music IBA Israeli radio and the Jerusalem Music Centre Mishkenot Sha’ananim, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, the series is under the artistic direction of Dan Yuhas and Zmira Lutzky. This writer attended the concert on November 1st 2015 at the Jerusalem Music Centre.

The program opened with “Pierrot on the Stage of Desire” (1998) by British conductor and composer Roger Redgate (b.1958), a work for flute, clarinet, violin, percussion and piano, written in the “New Complexity” style of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As the title infers, the piece focuses on the character of the dreamy, naïve clown Pierrot and his sadly unrequited love for Columbine.  In three miniature but evocative and richly designed movements, the players presented the opening movement’s feisty, witty character in crisp, articulate gestures, the middle movement more introspective than the two outer movements. With fine clarinet playing on the part of Danny Erdman, the sextet’s articulate and skillful performance offered much to fire the listener’s imagination, as the agitated third movement finally dissipated into nowhere. Redgate, who has worked in the fields of jazz, improvised music and performance art, writes music for film and television and writes about music. In 1999, he collaborated with the New York-based experimental rock band GAWK.

Then to what Zmira Lutzky referred to as a significant work in the development of modern chamber music – György Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto. Composed 1969-1970, it is scored for flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), horn, trombone, harpsichord (doubling Hammond organ), piano (doubling celesta) and solo strings. As to its format, it is not a concerto in the conventional sense but “all 13 players are virtuoso soloists and all are treated as equals”, in the composer’s words.  This being the case, the Israel Contemporary Players’ reading of it was beguiling and not just for its virtuosic performance. Nagy brought his ensemble together in articulate and wonderfully precise playing of the work’s extraordinary textures and different techniques, rendering it transparent, accessible and exciting. In its four contrasting movements, concluding with a wild, whirring series of rapid cadences, the work reminds the listener that this major classical work, in its inventive, playful, poetic and communicative utterance, still has much to say to today’s audiences.

We then heard the Israeli premiere of “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II” for 10 instruments by Israeli composer Eitan Steinberg (b. 1955), one of today’s prominent Israeli composers.  “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II” was commissioned and premiered in 2011 by the El Perro Andaluz Ensemble (Dresden, Germany.)  It is the second of three pieces, each the result of a process of change, referred to by Steinberg as non-linear change, with the composer interested in examining what might constitute development or a lack thereof in the pieces. Scored for orchestra, “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart I” was premiered by the Israel Camerata Jerusalem in 2008. “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart III” for symphony orchestra was premiered in 2013 by the Tbilisi Symphony, Georgia, conducted by Vakhtang Kakhidze. Referring to the pieces and their title, Steinberg spoke of the cosmos and the heart as what we all possess, that what we do has impact on the cosmos, with the cosmos also influencing our actions. When composing the work, what was echoing in the composer’s mind was that Albert Einstein had claimed that past and present are only directions like left and right, forward and backwards. Over recent years, as Steinberg has returned to the work to change parts here and there, creating new versions, it has gone through its own natural processes, hence its three versions. “Cosmic Progressions in the Heart II”, as performed at the ICP concert, is scored for strings, flute, clarinet, percussion, accordion and piano.  A richly wrought canvas comprising tiny fragments as well as intense drawn-out sounds, a sprinkling of tonal references, dancelike moments, the use of insistent ostinato, a nostalgic folk-type melody played on accordion, Prof. Steinberg’s orchestration and palette of timbres are both sophisticated and attractive, personal and emotional, making for an exhilarating listening experience.

Igor Stravinsky’s “Ragtime” (1918), one of the composer’s “essays in jazz portraiture”, is scored for flute, clarinet, 2 horns, trombone, bass drum, snare drum, side drum, cymbals, 2 violins, viola, double bass and cimbalom. In 1915, Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet took Stravinsky to hear Aladar Racz playing the Hungarian cimbalom - a hammered dulcimer from Eastern Europe, introduced into Hungary by the Roma (Gypsy) people - at a bar in Geneva. Stravinsky, fascinated by the trapezoid shape of the instrument and its rich timbre, decided to buy one; he and Racz found an elderly Hungarian gypsy with one for sale. The composer  first used it to produce raucous animal effects in his chamber opera-ballet “Renard”, later using it wherever possible.  Assuming an almost solo role in “Ragtime” (an extension of the dance in “A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky used the cimbalom to imitate the sound of a honky-tonk piano. Guest artist at this ICP concert, Hungarian composer, improviser, jazz musician and master of the cimbalom Miklós Lukács (b.1977), in his first Israeli visit, joined Nagy and the ensemble in a performance that was jaunty, clean, pithy, bristling with energy and tinged with Stravinsky’s brand of cynicism, the uncommonly grainy character of the cimbalom infusing a unique voice into the texture. The artist played on the Israel Contemporary Players' cimbalom, tuned chromatically.

The program concluded with “Da Capo” (2003-2004) for cimbalom or marimba and ensemble by Hungarian conductor and composer Peter Eötvös (b.1944), with Miklós Lukács performing the cimbalom part. In an interview with Tünde Szitha appearing in the blog of Universal Music Publishing Classical in May of 2014, Eötvös spoke of the work’s title as relating to the structure of the work, to the constant process of starting afresh. “The music begins and reaches a certain point, but, before it is completed, it starts again…in a different way…nine times.” Introducing fragments of themes from Mozart archives as initial ideas, these launch a creative process transforming them into Eötvös’ own music. Referring to it as his “newest and oldest” work, the composer suggests that the piece could be subtitled “Reading Mozart”, but speaks of its scoring as being very different from Mozart’s orchestration, considering the fact that some of the instruments he uses did not exist in Mozart’s time. The essential difference lies in the variety of percussion instruments, not to speak of the instrument in the solo role. The latter was inspired by Miklós Lukács’ virtuoso playing, which, as we heard, was no understatement. In his dazzling performance, underlining the composer’s complex polyphonic writing, Lukács joins the ICP, serving as soloist and ensemble player as Eötvös runs the listener through the unpredictable course of “Da Capo”, its busy, split-character canvas juxtaposing  velvety, touching Mozart gestures with blatant, fiery moments of atonality, the use of ostinati, some references to jazz and  devil-may-care energy. For his encore, Miklós Lukács played his own composition "After Dark", a  folk-music-inspired piece, now using his hands rather than hammers in a virtuosic and beguiling performance.

In yet another evening of polished, dedicated and finely detailed performance, Maestro Nagy (his direction fluid, articulate and emanating dedication to the music and the ICP) and members of the Israel Contemporary Players opened the new concert season with an outstanding evening of music.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens the 2015-2016 concert season with a semi-staged performance of Henry Purcell's "The Fairy Queen"

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened the 2015-2016 season with its own unique performance of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”. This writer attended the concert on October 29th 2015 in the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA. JBO founder and musical director David Shemer conducted the performance. Based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the semi-opera, with spoken passages to form the dramatic framework, was premiered at London’s Dorset Garden Theatre in 1692. The original production, with its large cast, elaborate songs, ensembles and choruses, was so extravagant that additional performances had to be arranged to cover expenses. In his informative program notes for the JBO performance, musicologist Dr. Alon Schab referred to the fact that what London audiences of Purcell’s time wanted was to be well entertained with humor, good music and stage effects. With the anonymous libretto of Purcell’s work not including one word of Shakespeare’s text, and considering the fact that the musical numbers are not integrated into the main plot of the play, there remains the need to fill in details of the plot. To conjure up the world of fairies and present the comedy of errors in a format suitable to Israeli audiences, poet and flautist Hila Lahav was enlisted to write connecting texts. Witty, rhyming, topical and constantly touched with the sparkle of magic, it was spoken by actress, singer and dancer Ifat Maor, playing the role of Titania, the Fairy Queen, as she read entries from her diary, continued the process of writing her thoughts and memories with her feather quill and spoke some home truths learned from the goings-on. A little on the lengthy side and with occasional inarticulate moments, the text was nevertheless very charming both in style, content and in Maor’s polished presentation.

Making up the fairy host were singers from the Moran Singers Ensemble (conductor: Naomi Faran; conductor in residence: Guy Pelc), whose natural, unaffected and unforced solo-, duo- and ensemble singing (and their youth) made for much delight in depicting the actions of fairies and mortals in the forest outside Athens. The work offers many solo vocal pieces and, as in former years, Maestro David Shemer gave the stage to young up-and-coming talent, offering audiences the chance to hear these promising singers and to then follow their developing careers. The soloists, both fledgling singers and those more veteran to the Baroque music stage, contributed to the theatrical and musical canvas and to the work’s message on the fragility of love.

Neither the kind of opulent spectacle of Purcell’s time nor the exotic or over-the-top performances of some of today’s “Fairy Queen” productions, David Shemer, in his minimal but effective and tasteful staging, added some appealing touches – bird headdresses, flags, garlands and, in the night scene, the host of fairies being covered with white muslin. In much delightful and satisfying playing of this splendid music, Maestro Shemer and the JBO players performed the overtures, instrumental preludes, ritornellos and dances with due elegance. Modern trumpeter Gregory Rivkin, making his first foray into playing Baroque trumpet, should have been given much more time in order to manage the tricky, uncooperative instrument.

With all song texts and titles of instrumental numbers flashed onto a screen, the audience was invited to ponder Purcell’s texts (despite the singers’ generally good diction) a worthwhile task, considering their sophistication, and to savor and appreciate Purcell’s colorful use of language and his exceptionally liberal approach to life and love – he was certainly no English prude!  It was Benjamin Britten who claimed that Purcell had a greater understanding of the English language than any other composer who had set it and that his ability to blend text, sound and structure into something remarkable was unique.

Some of the several engaging numbers of the JBO performance were Doron Florentin’s singing of the sensuous “One charming night” his well-modulated, rich tenor voice accompanied by elegant, ornamented recorder-playing (Shai Kribus, Hila Lahav), alto Zlata Hershberg and bass Yoav Weiss in a whimsical performance of the risqué “No kissing at all”, soprano Shani Oshri’s soothing, velvety singing of “See even night herself” accompanied by high strings only, Tamara Navot's informed and mellifluous singing of "I am come to lock all fast", Yoav Weiss’s hauntingly moving rendition of “Now Winter comes slowly”, tenor Hillel Sherman’s poetic and rewarding presentation of “See my many-colour’d fields” and Adaya Peled’s superb and languishing performance of the ostinato-based lament “O let me weep”, her word-painting giving expression to the plaint’s heartbreaking message on love and parting.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Israeli artist Ariel Halevy records Brahms' late solo piano works

Not long ago I came across Ariel Halevy’s very recent recording of Johannes Brahms’ late piano works. The works heard on it are Seven Fantasias op.116, Three Intermezzi op.117, Six Pieces op.118 and Four Pieces op.119. In his detailed and informative program notes, Halevy refers to Brahms’ life from 1892 to 1893, when these works were composed, a time the composer was suffering from malaise and problems of health and aging; he was also grieving over the death of his older sister Elise and that of his friend Elisabeth von Herzogenberg. This is the autumnal and joyless setting for these 20 pieces - small, personal works disclosing no programmatic content via their titles but demanding layers of probing and musical meaning that take the pianist far beyond dexterity.

Born in Jerusalem in 1976, Ariel Halevy began piano studies at the age of seven, studying with Ilana Gutman at the Jerusalem Conservatory of Music and Dance, before becoming a pupil of Prof. Viktor Derevianko at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music. In 1995 he moved to New York to study at the Mannes College of Music on a full scholarship, first with Nina Svetlanova and later with Diane Walsh. On graduating from there with a master’s degree, he went on to study at the Purchase Conservatory, State University of New York. He has also worked with piano pedagogue and writer Madeline Bruser. A prize-winner of the World Piano Competition (1995, Cincinnati) and of the Artist International Debut Award (2000, New York), Halevy has soloed with orchestras and played recitals in Israel, the USA and Europe; he holds lecture-recitals and is a dedicated teacher.

There are several interesting recordings of the late Brahms piano pieces; this one offers much fine interpretation, reflecting Ariel Halevy’s profound thoughts on each piece. Since his teen years, Halevy has been making a deep enquiry into the essence of Brahms’ music, examining his own connection with it - music influenced by so many strands of influence yet defined by its differentness and total uniqueness. In the opus 116 Fantasias, Halevy brings out the contemplative, philosophical tone of the pieces, in the first Intermezzo showing how section connects to section and how important strategic timing is, the piece’s urgency always remaining noble. In the second Intermezzo, addressing the Classical side of Brahms, the artist creates a mood piece from so few strands, the careful placing of a note or two creating a small gesture not to be missed by the active listener. In the last opus 116 Capriccio, Halevy’s playing is personal, shaped and sensitive, taking a sober look at the piece as he highlights the imaginative harmonies to take the piece to a magical conclusion.

Then to the artist’s wonderfully crafted playing of Brahms’ musings in the Three Intermezzi opus 117, referred to by the composer as “lullabies”, then sardonically redefined by him as a “lullaby of an unhappy mother or of a disconsolate bachelor”.  In Halevy’s hands, the three pieces hang together well, their intimacy of the soul and small mysteries expressed with gently flexed simplicity, meaningful tiny pauses and a velvety touch.

Originally dedicated to Clara Schumann, though temporarily forgotten as concert pieces shortly after being written, the Six Piano Pieces opus 118 cover the range of the composer’s emotions at  the time. Halevy takes the listener into the mood of each with subtlety rather than with brooding and rashness. His treatment of the Ballade is energetic and elastic, while his reading of the third Intermezzo is exciting rather than nervous, showing the Romanze’s enigmatic, strange and embellished manner as opposed to the melodic-chordal approach of the piece’s outer sections.

Then to Johannes Brahms’ final solo piano works - Four Piano Pieces opus 119 – its opening Intermezzo dreamy and eloquent, wonderfully shaped, all its gestures and strata present. The second Intermezzo is infused with emotion and performed in a suspenseful, exciting and rewarding manner with a touch of melancholy. In its whimsy that defies bar-lines, Halevy presents the third Intermezzo with charm, this followed by the Rhapsody, its resolutely noble moments dissolving into sprinklings of light-hearted musings, this final piece presenting recollections of gypsy music from Brahms’ youth.

The artist’s fine control, his crystal clear voicing, his understanding of Brahms’ rich polyphonic textures and his tasteful use of the sustaining pedal make for transparence and articulacy that never form dense, overloaded textures. In playing that keeps a safe distance from the subjective, gushy sentimentality too often heard in performance of these works, He calls attention to the poetic and contemplative nature of Brahms’ late writing for piano, presenting its pianistic and emotional sound world.  Ariel Halevy’s playing is meticulously crafted, coherent and economical.  Recorded at the Jerusalem Music Centre on a Hamburg Steinway concert grand, the CD for the RomeoRecords label, was issued in 2015.