Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Jerome Varnier (bass) and Thomas Palmer (piano) open the American Colony Hotel's new concert series with "Don Quijotte"

Guests arriving to attend the opening event of the new American Colony Concert Series on December 12th 2015 were met by an impressive display of Christmas decorations in the gardens and interiors of this unique Jerusalem venue. The American Colony Hotel, originally the palace of a pasha with his harem of four wives and subsequently a commune of messianic Christians before being converted into a hotel, is housed in a classical Ottoman building of great beauty. Classical music has played an important role in the cultural history of the American Colony Hotel. The hotel’s archives house old scores and music written at or for the hotel.  Mr. Yves Corbel, cultural attaché of the French Consulate, Tel Aviv, opened the event with words of welcome. The concert, organized and coordinated by Ms. Petra Klose (Vienna), no new face to music events in Jerusalem, in cooperation with the American Colony Hotel and its general manager Mr. Thomas Brugnatelli, was held under the auspices of the Jerusalem Institut Français and the French Consulate. “The Adventures of Don Quixote de la Mancha”, a recital by two French artists – bass Jérôme Varnier and pianist Thomas Palmer – was held in the hotel’s Pasha Room, a small elegant hall graced with a magnificent hand-painted wooden ceiling, one of the only examples of its kind in the Middle East.

One of the most influential literary pieces of the Spanish Golden Age, Miguel de Cervantes’ “The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha” (1605, 1615), regarded by many as the first true novel,  has served as the inspiration for a range of literary, dramatic, operatic- and vocal works, tone poems, ballets, paintings and films, a work for two guitars (1982-3) by British composer Ronald Stevenson, for a rap song by the Funky Aztecs (2002), and more. The Jerusalem recital focused mostly on works by French composers.

The artists presented several items from Jules Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” (1910), a five-act heroic comedy opera rooted in its title character (the title part was created for renowned Russian basso Fyodor Chaliapin), a man more ridiculed than admired but touching in his world-weary wisdom. Varnier’s portrayal of Quichotte was noble, touching and authoritative, taking on the drama of situations but never extravagant or over-sentimental.  One highlight was the magically lyrical performance of “Quand apparaissant les étoiles” (When the stars appear), with Palmer’s playing almost visually evoking the sparkling of stars. Altogether, his articulate playing of piano reductions throughout the evening bristled with a kaleidoscope of color and textures, strategic timing, often setting a mood or scene, never missing an opportunity for drama and suspense. Varnier’s understated portrayal of the dying Don Quichotte was poetic and bathed in a sense of tragedy.

In a spicy, exotic and polished performance of Maurice Ravel’s song cycle “Don Quichotte à Dulcinée” (1932-3), composed for voice and orchestra and later arranged for voice and piano, Varnier and Palmer highlighted the exotic Iberian character of  the three fine concert pieces, entertaining the audience with their virtuosity. To texts of Paul Morand, the song cycle, the last of Ravel’s compositions, was to have comprised four songs and background music. It was commissioned by film director G.W.Pabst  for a cinema version of “Don Quixote”, also to star Chaliapin, but the worsening effects of Pick’s Disease, from which Ravel was suffering, prevented him from completing the task. The songs nevertheless represent the finest of Ravel’s sophisticated writing, presenting Don Quixote as an infatuated lover, a holy warrior and a drinker and with musical settings abundant in zesty dance rhythms. For the love song to Dulcinea “Chanson romanesque”, the first, Ravel engages a quajira, with its alternating bars of 6/8 and 3/4, then using a majestic Basque zortzico for “Chanson épique”, the knight’s prayer for protection, flavoring it with gregariously dissonant chords and a modal soundscape. In the feisty strophic, comical “Chanson à boire”, the iota, with its vibrant cross rhythms, endorses the song’s devil-may-care toast:
…‘To hell with the jealous fool, dark mistress,
Who whines, who weeps and makes oaths
To always be the pale lover
Who puts water into his intoxication!
I drink to joy!

Joy is the sole aim
That I pursue…
When I have drunk.’

Jacques Ibert’s “Don Quichotte” songs form the continuation to the Ravel episode, with Chaliapin singing and Ibert conducting in Pabst’s film. Ibert did not use the Cervantes text but those of Pierre Ronsard and Alexandre Arnoux. The artists at the Jerusalem concert gave an impressive reading of the decidedly Spanish-influenced songs, with their improvisational melodic character, melismatic moments and flourishes, guitar-like accompaniment and emotional range. Varnier’s large, resonant voice, his dark timbre garnished with effulgence, is served well by excellent diction and an even timbre throughout. In the final song Arnoux leaves us with the unanswerable question of what characteristics are more genuine to us – our dreams or our reality.

The program ended with the artists’ hearty, flowing and warmly-nuanced performance of “La Quête”, the 1968 French-language adaption of “The Impossible Dream” from the 1964 musical “Man of La Mancha” (lyrics: Joe Darion, music: Mitch Leigh).  Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel translated the songs and played the lead in the musical in Paris (1968).

Opera singer Jérôme Varnier performs internationally in opera houses and at festivals. Thomas Palmer is a vocal coach and accompanist, also playing with orchestras. Palmer and Varnier have worked together intermittently for the last eight years. With music once more playing a prominent role at this imposing venue, the recital was a find opener to what is to be a promising series.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presents "A Storm in Versailles" - the dispute on French versus Italian style

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra has performed much French and Italian music over the almost-30 years of its existence, highlighting the differences between the two styles and approaches to art. Confronting the subject head-on, the JBO event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 25th 2015 presented the case of the wrangling between advocates of both styles in “A Storm in Versailles” with a lively theatrical-musical performance written by viola da gamba player Nima Ben David (Israel/France); Nima Ben David was guest artist in the JBO production. Originally written in French, “La Querelle des Bouffons” (Quarrel of the Jesters) “describes discussions between champions of Italian and French music taking place in 18th century Paris”, in Ben David’s words. Many important public figures took part in these debates, among them the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, authors, revolutionaries and self-appointed intrigants in texts well-stocked with the best of current French rhetoric. Soloists in the JBO performance were Nima Ben David, Noam Schuss (violin) and soprano Daniela Skorka.

To make the case for both sides, JBO founder and musical director David Shemer engaged the services of actor Itzik Cohen-Patilon, who held the audience in the palm of his hand with his articulacy, charisma, humor and wholehearted involvement in the subject at hand, his highly corporal performance clearly enhanced by the fact that his skills include pantomime and street theatre.  With many of the JBO players wearing wigs and colorful hats, they also took part in the performance together with Ben David…mostly with a volley of disdainful gestures, physical or musical, interrupting each other’s playing to display their displeasure and compete in virtuosity.  There was much brilliant playing on the part of Ben David and Schuss.  Maestro Shemer, representing Jean-Baptiste Lully (an Italian-born composer working in the court of Louis XIV of France) arrived on stage wearing an elegant white wig and carrying a long conducting staff, as was the custom of musical directors at the time. (Lully died of gangrene, having accidentally driven the staff into his foot when conducting a performance of his own “Te Deum”.) Appearing on stage with a  glittery gold mask held to her face, young soprano Daniela Skorka, today  enjoying much success on the lively local Baroque music scene, performed “Stizzoso, mio stizzoso” (Irascible, my irascible) from  Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona” with pizzazz and whimsy as she sailed effortlessly through  her high vocal register. A little later, she returned to the stage to sing and conduct, her attire and manner dramatically finished with a black shawl and long black gloves, her theatrical flair and expressive face matched by her flexible, rich vocal performance. So, with Cohen’s performance interspersed with a salvo of lively and brilliantly presented excerpts from works of Corelli, Pergolesi and J-P. Rameau, constituting the first half of the concert, the audience was both well entertained and became better informed as to one of the most formidable disputes in the history of music.

Following Lully’s death in 1687, there was some effort to reconcile this stylistic argument in works that became crowd-pleasers in Europe. One such work was “L’Apothéose de Lulli” for various instruments and continuo (1725) by François Couperin, “composed to the immortal memory of the incomparable Monsieur de Lulli”, in which he endeavors to create a synthesis of the two styles. With Ben David announcing the title of each movement in French and Cohen offering following with the Hebrew translation, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra performed the work.  The scene opens with Lully in the Elysian fields in discourse with the shades there.. When Lully is taken up to Parnassus, the music serves to remind us of the great French court composer’s Italian origins.  When Lully and Corelli meet on Parnassus, Apollo declares that the reunion of French “goût” (taste) and Italian style will form musical perfection never heard before. As elegant as it is, this multi-movement masterpiece has an element of humor threaded through it. Believing in the merging of the French and Italian sonata styles (goûts réunis), Couperin takes inspiration from both styles and adapts them to his own. When Lully and Corelli join forces, Couperin casts them in the image of two violins (played by Noam Schuss and Andrea Hallam), in which they “accompany” each other. Lully suggests a melody to Corelli and then vice-versa. And apart from the work’s programmatic content and effects, “L’Apothéose de Lulli” is indeed one of Couperin’s most varied and profound compositions.  The JBO’s performance of it was eloquent, offering duets delightfully played – Geneviève Blanchard and Idit Shemer (flutes), Schuss and Hallam (violins), Schuss and Idit Shemer.

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra signed out of this unique event with suave playing of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s “Gigue anglais”.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Music of the school of National Jewish Art Music performed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On November 24th 2015, “Hymn to a Poet”, the first of three concerts of works by composers of the Jewish Art Music Movement, took place in the National Library of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It was organized by the “Joel Engel Nigunim La’ad (Melody Forever) Organization”, established in 2012 by Shirelle Dashevsky, with the aim of promoting Jewish art music and encouraging the composition of Jewish works. Holding concerts in various parts of Israel, the organization has three ensembles: a vocal ensemble, a chamber ensemble and an ensemble specializing in the performance of Jewish instrumental-vocal music in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Most of the artists in these ensembles are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. Announcing and explaining the evening’s program was Dr. Gila Flam, director of the Music Department (Hebrew University) and the National Sound Archives of the National Library of Israel; she has helped to make this project a reality, making library funds available to include an exhibition of historic scores. The concept is that of Dr. David Ben-Gershon, who has done much research on the composers, on defining the selection of music, obtaining scores, and more. Soprano Shirelle Dashevsky is the program director, selecting and inviting artists, constructing programs and transforming the chosen scores into actual music. The program we heard offered a representative selection of works by several of the key figures of the Jewish Art Music Movement.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a new school of modern Jewish composers took to the European stage. Coming from the great Russian conservatories of St. Petersburg and Moscow, these young composers drew their inspiration from both the current styles of Russian music and from secular Jewish Nationalism. Encouraged by such key musical figures as Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov and Scriabin, Joel Engel, Alexander Krein, Joseph Achron, Mikhail Gnessin, Leo Zeitlin and Lazare Saminsky and other Jewish composers took it upon themselves to create a new modern style of Jewish art music, shaping it for concert rendition. In doing so, they researched and collected early Jewish liturgical chant, secular folk songs and instrumental melodies, the result being a new fusion of Jewish traditional music and European classical styles. There were several elements influencing the movement - the awakening of a national awareness, the revival of Hebrew, an interest in secular Hebrew- and Yiddish literature, Zionism and what was referred to by them as the ‘Haskala’ – the Jewish ‘Enlightenment’.

As a composer, Alexander Krein (1883-1951) was a major figure in the emerging school of Jewish national music, being an active member of the Moscow branch of the Society of Jewish Folk Music and the Society for Jewish music. He composed instrumental music and much music for theatre. His father was a folk violinist; Alexander spent much of his childhood playing klezmer music in his father’s band. His own individual style combines the harmonic language of Debussy, Ravel and Scriabin, together with the lyrical melodies and modes of Jewish music. Opening the concert a vivid performance of Krein’s “Ornament” opus 42 no.1 (Uri Brener-piano, Dina Guyfleg-violin) set the scene with music of a distinctly Jewish yet eclectic nature – eastern European synagogue music, with its spirit of improvisation. In one of the composer’s autumnal “Three Songs from the Ghetto” (1918) Krein’s delicate, reflective vocal line paired well with an evocative piano part, making for interesting listening.

Born in Crimea, Russia, composer, critic and scholar Joel Engel has been referred to as the “father of modern Jewish music”. He published Russian-style song romances and arrangements of Jewish folk songs as well as a collection of Yiddish folk songs. In his mission of revealing the artistic potential of Jewish music to both Russian- and Russian-Jewish composers, he was seen as the founder of the modern school of Jewish national art music, taking a leading role in the Society for Jewish Folk Music, also collecting and recording music from and undertaking the transcription and field recording of Jewish music in the shtetls (villages of Eastern Europe). Giving the program its name, Engel’s “Hymn to a Poet” (lyrics: S. Schneur) in celebration of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s 50th birthday, was performed in Hebrew by soprano Shirelle Dashevsky and tenor Konstantin Kotelnikov (piano: Uri Brener); “Two Letters”, performed by the three and sung in Yiddish, created the emotion and drama of Jewish life of the time. Lazare Saminsky (1882-1969), co-founder of the St. Petersburg Society for Jewish Folk Music, was especially involved in the importance of early synagogue music. His “Song of Songs” opus 13 no.1, to a poem of Pushkin, was sung in Russian by Kotelnikov. Also instrumental in the founding of the Society for Jewish Folk Music and director of the Jewish Art Theater, Solomon Rosowsky (1878-1962) went to Palestine in 1925, where he, among other activities, researched Lithuanian biblical cantillation. In “A-Wieg Lied” (Lullaby) opus 4 no.2, one of his Yiddish art songs, the picture emerging from Dashevsky’s contrasting dynamics and well-controlled piano and Brener’s magical and evocative playing was that the lullaby’s message was not all soothing gestures. Violinist Dina Goyfeld-Zemtsova and Uri Brener’s vibrant playing of Michael Gnessin’s (1883-1957) “Song of the Wandering Knight” for ‘cello or violin and piano (1921) highlighted the piece’s interest, temperament and its playfulness, also drawing attention to Gnessin’s fine compositional technique.

A major section of the concert focused on the music of Joseph Achron (1888-1943). Representing Achron the composer and consummate violinist, we heard Goyfeld-Zemtsova and Brener in a sophisticated performance of “Scher” opus 42 (1917), with the violin repeating its traditional klezmer-style dance melody over increasingly more complex and daring, experimental piano textures. The traditionally eastern European Jewish melody of Achron’s Canzonetta opus 52 no.2 (1923), taking its lyrics from a poem by Hebrew poet Avraham Ben Yitzhak, its form strophic but with variety, was performed by Dashevsky, Goyfeld and Brener. Dashevsky and Brener’s presentation of “A dove passed by my face” opus 53 no.2 (1923) delighted in its descriptiveness, with its fluttering of wings, coloristic use of the sustaining pedal and the singer’s easeful communication with the audience.

One of the highlights of the program was all four artists’ moving reading Hirsh Kopit’s “Wos wet sajn mit Reb Isroel dem frumen”, its bittersweet Jewish melodiousness set off by a fragile and reticent - almost dancelike - refrain. The program concluded with all four musicians in a concert version of three movements from Jacob Weinberg’s 1924 opera “Chalutzim” (Pioneers), the lyrics of which were also written by the composer. The first Zionist opera, it focuses on the lives of pioneers on a kibbutz in Mandate Palestine. Having escaped the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the kibbutzniks are now enthusiastic about dedicating their lives to the rebuilding of Israel. The work, which includes a love story, recreates the atmosphere of the times, with dances and songs reflecting the style developing in Israeli music. (Jacob Weinberg lived in Palestine from 1921 to 1925, before leaving for the USA.) In music that might today been viewed as dated, sentimental and naïve, it is nevertheless rich in content and drama. The artists gave it their all, conveying the climate and excitement of this chapter of Israeli history that is sinking into oblivion.

Shirelle Dashevsky’s work on this project is of much value. Her selection of fine artists, her own informed performance and their collaborative high quality of musicianship are bringing back to life a substantial and significant body of Jewish music and recounting a chapter of the history of Jewish music that must be told.