Saturday, January 30, 2016

Baritone Thomas Zisterer and pianist Maria Neishtadt perform at a "Classical Viennese Soiree" at the American Colony Hotel (Jerusalem)

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Baritone Thomas Zisterer (

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A “Classical Viennese Soirée” was the subject of the second concert of the new chamber music series taking place in the Pasha Room of the American Colony Hotel (Jerusalem) on January 23rd 2016.  Supported by the Austrian Cultural Forum and organized and coordinated by Ms. Petra Klose (K und K Wien) in cooperation with the American Colony Hotel and its general manager Mr. Thomas Brugnatelli, the recital featured Austrian baritone Thomas Zisterer and pianist Maria Neishtadt (Russia/Israel).

The first half of the program consisted of classical baritone repertoire, opening with a whimsical and charming rendition of Papageno’s opening aria from Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, a pan flute hanging around Zisterer’s neck, in which the bird catcher sings cheerfully of the pleasure of catching birds, musing that it would be nice to catch pretty girls, making one his wife. With the ominous chords introducing Franz Schubert’s “Der Jüngling und der Tod” (The Youth and Death) the atmosphere darkened and Zisterer and Neishtadt took on the mood of the Lied, in which Josef von Spaun’s text tells of a young man in the face of death. This was followed by an evocative, crafted and beautifully narrated performance of “Der Lindenbaum” (The Linden Tree) from Schubert’s “Winter’s Journey”.  The artists then created the delicate autumnal setting for Alexander von Zemlinsky’s love song “Selige Stunde” (The Blessed Hour) from the composer’s opus 10 collection, indeed a treat, considering the fact that Zemlinsky’s many fine songs in the late Romantic idiom of Brahms remain sadly neglected by performers. Then two songs from Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (1901-1902); first the intricate perpetuum mobile of  “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” (Do not look at my songs), in which Friedrich Rückert’s text asks the reader not to look at his texts before they are finished, claiming that bees do not allow anyone to observe their cell-building.  Zisterer and Neishtadt created the wonderment, the intensity and questioning of Mahler’s only overt love song (a gift to his new bride Alma) “Liebst du um Schönheit” (If you love for beauty’s sake). The artists concluded the first part of their program with a flexible and emotional reading of “Mein sehnen, mein wähnen” (My yearning, my dreaming) from Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera “Die tote Stadt” (The Dead City), certainly an outstanding piece for the lyric baritone.

Entering the Pasha Room with an armful of long-stemmed red roses, and handing them out to some of the luckier ladies in the audience, Thomas Zisterer opened the program’s section of Austrian operetta- and entertainment music with “Dunkelrote Rosen” (Dark red roses) from Karl Millöker’s opera “Gasparone”. A tender and accessible song, the audience was taken away to the gentle, unabashedly sentimental, light-hearted and flirtatious popular music genres of Vienna of the 19th- and early 20th centuries:
‘I bring dark red roses, beautiful woman,
And you know exactly what that means!
I cannot say what my heart feels
Dark red roses tenderly suggest it…’
Moving just a little eastward, we heard the artists in Austro-Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s waggish and playful “Ganz ohne Weiber geht die Chose nicht” (Quite without women things do not work) from “The Czárdás Princess” (1915) an operetta set in both Budapest and Vienna. Much at home in this genre, Zisterer, freely expressive on stage and light of foot, entertained the audience with his jaunty and rakish performance of the delightfully risqué song. Kálmán and Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár were the leading composers of what has been referred to as the “silver age” of Viennese operetta. From Lehar’s “Merry Widow”, a hot ticket at the Theater an der Wein, we heard “Ich hol’ dir vom Himmel das Blau”, its message referring to the uncertainties and disappointments of love. Then to the jolly, lusty “Heurigenmarsch”, a song from Robert Stolz’ operetta “Around the World in 80 Minutes”, complete with humorous comments from the piano. (“Heurige” refers to wine from the earliest harvest as of November 11th. Bars in the environs of Vienna serving it are referred to as “Heurige”.)  Hans von Frankowski’s “Ja, das sind halt Wiener G’schichten” (1940) (Yes, these are Viennese Stories) is typical in its expression of Austrian joie de vivre combined with fatalism and melancholy, as heard in songs in Viennese wine tavern- and cabaret songs. Following the artists’ suave rendering of “Tarragona” from Nico Dostal’s operetta “The Queen’s Courier” (1950), Thomas Zisterer and Maria Neishtadt concluded their recital with the warm, simple sentiments of Rudolph Sieczynski’s best-known song “Wien, du Stadt meiner Träume” (Vienna, city of my dreams) one of a number of nostalgic, sentimental songs about Vienna  written by the composer. Providing German speakers and especially the Austrians present at the recital with smiles, a little nostalgia and much enjoyment, the operetta songs of the second half of the concert provided the audience with a classy evening's music and a flying visit to Vienna of bygone days, its people and its opulent popular bourgeois music scene.

Thomas Zisterer studied at the Tirol- and Vienna Music Academies. An artist of outstanding versatility, personality and relaxed stage presence, Zisterer can be heard performing early music, opera, children's opera, operetta, musical comedy, Mahler's Lieder, Haydn and Beethoven’s settings of Irish, Scottish and Welsh songs and even tangos; he performed the latter at the Tirol Landestheater (Innsbruck, Austria) with Carlos Gardel. His true, fresh lyric baritone voice, stable in all registers and unforced, sounded especially well in the intimate Pasha Room of the American Colony Hotel.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, pianist and organist Maria Neishtadt studied at the Mussorgsky Music College, graduating in piano performance from the St. Petersburg State Conservatory. She furthered her music studies at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. A winner of several international awards, Ms. Neishtadt has performed in Europe, China and Israel and has won critical acclaim for her interpretation of Chopin works. A skilful and highly competent accompanist, she gave much life and substance to the works performed at the Jerusalem concert, addressing colour, texture and fine detail in some challenging (quasi-orchestral) accompaniments, together with Zisterer, changing musical guises from work to work.


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Pianist Maria Neishtadt (

Friday, January 29, 2016

Ariel Halevy and Misha Zartsekel perform works for two pianos at the Blumental Center (Tel Aviv)

In “A Celebration of Two Pianos” a new piano duo on the Israeli concert scene – Ariel Halevy and Misha Zartsekel – played to a full house at the Felicja Blumental Music Center (Tel Aviv) on January 21st 2016. Born in Jerusalem, Ariel Halevy began his piano studies at the Conservatory of the Jerusalem Academy of Music, receiving bachelor and master’s degrees from the Mannes School of Music (New York). As a soloist and recitalist he performs internationally, also leading a busy teaching life. In 2015, he recorded late Brahms piano works for the RomeoRecords label. Born in Rostov, southern Russia, Misha Zartsekel moved to Moscow at age 9. He immigrated to Israel in 2000, working with Rietta Lisokhin in Haifa as well as Prof. Itzhak Katz and Yaron Rosenthal at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. A recitalist and chamber musician, he has soloed with orchestras in Israel and abroad.

The program opened with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto for two Harpsichords in C-major BWV 1061, the composer’s only work for two keyboards. Probably originally composed for two harpsichords from the outset, an orchestral accompaniment was added, possibly not by Bach. In the latter, the keyboard instruments play less against the orchestra, conversing more with each other, so that the two keyboards alone produce a full and satisfying musical setting. And now that we have come a safe distance from the stringency of the Authentic Early Music Movement, it is time to reconsider the performance of Bach on the piano. Halevy and Zartsekel gave a bold, clean and fresh reading of the concerto, their use of the sustaining pedal never blurring a line as they presented each motif with articulacy. Their absolute precision of timing provided a most splendid basis for the counterpoint to play out its complex game of melodic strands. Following the personal expression of the 2nd movement – Adagio ovvero Largo – in which the artists allowed themselves immerse themselves within the affect, they gave an exhilarating, dynamic and contrasted reading of the final movement – Fuga – a true celebration of the king of Baroque contrapuntal forms.

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Johannes Brahms was introduced to a set of divertimenti for winds attributed to Haydn in 1870. He liked the theme of the second, the Chorale St. Antoni, a hymn sung by pilgrims on St. Anthony’s Day, copying the melody into his notebook. In 1873, he showed the two-piano version of his variations on the theme to Clara Schumann; she and Brahms gave it its first airing at a private gathering in Bonn that year. An orchestral version followed, being referred to as opus 56a, whereas the piano version is 56b, was published later. Critical of his own previous- but well-received sets of variations and those of his contemporaries, he wrote to violinist Joseph Joachim in 1856, claiming that in writing variations “we cling nervously to the melody…we don’t handle it freely” and “we merely overload it”. Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” were a turning point on that score. They are also a mammoth undertaking on the part of the pianists. Halevy and Zartsekel gave a rich rendition of Brahms’ “orchestration” of the piano. Nuanced with the strong, rewarding timbres of the Romantic soundscape, the artists’ playing took the listener from lyrical, singing melodies, to moments of urgency, to the sober, haunting message of the “minore” Variation IV, to a variation of breathless garrulousness that pushes bar-lines aside as it forges its way ahead (Variation V), to chordal textures, to the lovingly-treated and gently hesitating personal utterances of the Siciliano ((Variation VII), to the illusive sleight-of-hand of the last variation, ending with the wink of an eye. Their committed playing of the massive Finale endorsed Brahms’ aim to extend the boundaries of the variation form.

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Suite No.1 opus 5, the “Fantasie-Tableaux”, inspired by a stay in the Russian countryside, was the composer’s first attempt at writing program music. It was written when the composer was just 20 years old. The work, however, shows a mature approach to the technical, tonal and interpretive resources of the two-piano medium. Each movement is headed by a quotation from one of four poets. Halevy and Zartsekel created each of the tableaus insightfully, lending magic and luxuriant colour to the layering of the opening Barcarolle, with its underlying hint of sadness, then evoking an intense description of night “La nuit…l’amour” (Night…Love), the cascading scales and copious trills forming the material of fantasy. A quote from Lord Byron’s poem “Parisina” introduces “La nuit”:

“It is the hour from when the bough
The nightingale’s high note is heard;
It is the hour – when lovers’ vows
Seem sweet in every whisper’d word;
And gentle winds and waters near,
Make music to the lonely ear…”

“Les larmes” (Tears) began with an almost visual picture of single teardrops falling onto a bare soundscape; then, as the textures fill out, the artists take the listener into the inner regions of the senses, the “sculpted” tears ever returning, laden with longing. Sweeping away the melancholy state of mind of the previous movements, “Pâques” (Easter) is an exuberant and extroverted depiction of bells ringing out on Easter morning, the characteristic “noise” and repetitiveness of bells present in a myriad of astounding textures. Beyond the technical versatility and strength required in playing the “Fantasie-Tableaux”, this performance was clearly the result of deep enquiry into the fine details and meaning of this masterpiece.

Ending on a more light-hearted note, the artists performed W.A.Mozart’s Sonata in D-major for Two Pianos K.448, the composer’s only work for two pianos. This was not one of the composer’s duets played by him and his sister; indeed, the first piano part was played by Josepha von Auernhammer, a young woman who, it seems, had designs on the still single Mozart in 1781. In this work, constituting Mozart at his most galant, Halevy and Zartsekel brought the spirit of the Viennese salon and its fine entertainment to the audience at the Blumental Center, with Mozart’s graceful, songful music, its elegance and exhilarating virtuosity amounting to a true masterwork. In playing that was solid, positive and well contrasted, the opening movement breathed Mozart’s joy and positive outlook, also his modesty, as the two artists listened, matched and supported each other, with the Andante (2nd movement) setting the listener’s heart afloat with its charm and tender gestures, the artists’ phrases finely chiselled. With the engaging energy of the Allegro molto, the artists sent the audience home with a sense of well-being in which Mozart’s playful, refreshingly naïve and carefree agenda was alive with the joy of the piano duo.

Playing as a duo for only a year, Misha Zartsekel and Ariel Halevy share the music with warm resonance, clarity, precision and well balanced sonorities, with a strong sense of cooperation and of sharing.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Harpsichordist Kenneth Weiss (USA) conducts the Israel Camerata Jerusalem in "Dancing with Venus". Soloist - soprano Sophie Graf (Switzerland)

Kenneth Weiss (satirino,fr)
"Dancing with Venus" was the third concert in the Israel Camerata Jerusalem's 2015-2016 concert
series of "The Human Voice". This writer attended the concert in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre on January 19
th, 2016. The Israel Camerata Jerusalem, in its 32nd season, was founded - and continues to be directed by Maestro Avner Biron. An atypical concert for the Camerata, "Dancing with Venus" comprised mostly Baroque works and was conducted from the harpsichord by one of today’s most illustrious harpsichordists Kenneth Weiss (USA) with Swiss soprano Sophie Graf as soloist.

The program opened with Jean-Féry Rebel's "Les Elémens, a work that might be best described as a "choreographed symphony". A violinist in the French court orchestra, and a pupil of Lully, Rebel held several posts at Versailles, also gaining prominence in Paris. Rebel invented the "simphonie de danse", a form actually independent of ballet or opera; the work performed at the Camerata concert was the last and most famous of his works of that genre. "Les Elémens" began as a dance suite to which the composer later added his unique and daring opening movement "Le Cahos" (Chaos). For the Camerata audience members expecting an evening of elegant Baroque music (that was indeed in store) they were surely not prepared to hear an opening chord which could only be described as an orchestral tone cluster appearing well before its time! In his introduction to the work, Rebel makes his intentions clear: "…it was chaos itself, that confusion which reigned among the Elements before the moment when, subject to invariable laws, they assumed the place prescribed for them within the natural order". He explains the musical depiction of the elements thus: "the bass represents the earth, the flutes the babble of water, air is represented by the piccolo, with the violins depicting fire. In the music, all evolve to a single tone, representing the creation of nature”.  Weiss conducted from the harpsichord (one of several instruments in Israel built by Henk Klop, Holland). Weiss’ adaptation (Rebel's full score has not survived) abounded in a constant change of instrumental combinations and colors, fine flute solos and duets (Esti Rofé, Naama Neuman), lightness and transparency of textures and the treatment of ornaments, hemiolas and elegant gestures fitting to the stately choreographed gestures of the French Baroque suite.

Born at Versailles, François Colin de Blamont (1690-1760), protégé- and successor of Delalande as master of the Chapelle Royale, also a painterat the court of Louis XIV, is virtually a forgotten composer. His cantata "La toilette de Venus" was published in 1723 in a collection of French cantatas. The librettist is not mentioned, but from other sources he has been discovered to be Charles-Jean-Francios Hénault (1648-1737). Rarely performed, the cantata calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, violins and 'cellos as well as continuo. In this performance, the Israeli premiere of the work, Kenneth Weiss once again directed from the harpsichord, with Sophie Graf singing the text in which the text addresses cupids, zephyrs and the Graces. Graf's performance was well shaped, light and fresh, at times more intense and triumphant, with some delightful word painting, as she and the orchestra “conversed” with each other; all were held in delicate timbral balance by Maestro Weiss. Relaxed and communicative, Sophie Graf, her singing silvery and easeful, was joined by the Camerata's new minimal-vibrato Baroque "look".

Typical of the Camerata's imaginative programming, the orchestra then presented Ottorino Respighi's "Ancient Dances and Airs", Suite no.3 (1932) composed for string orchestra, its melodies being arrangements of lute songs by Besard, a Baroque guitar piece by Roncalli and lute pieces by Santino Garsi da Parma, as well as other anonymous composers. A musicologist and antiquarian, Respighi (1879-1936) makes reference to old styles, setting the material and its wistful melodies with an informed ear, blending them into delicately set works for the modern orchestra. Weiss and the players performed them with understated poise and majesty, their sensitive handling of phrases and textures spoken with articulacy and elegance, the final variations taking a more dramatic turn.

The concert concluded with a representative selection of orchestral suites and arias from Jean-Philippe Rameau's operas "Pygmalion", "Dardanus" and "Platée". Rameau only began writing operas at age 50 but, in his 30 remaining years, he wrote some 30 works for the stage – musical tragedies, ballet-operas, pastorales, lyric comedies and comic ballets. His first "acte de ballet" "Pygmalion", a one-act opera with a minimal plot, enjoyed immediate success. Following Sophie Graf's elegant treatment of the opera's recitative and aria describing and celebrating the sculpture of a young woman coming to life, we heard a suite from Rameau's lyric tragedy "Dardanus", with Weiss and the players highlighting the contrasts and scoring potential of the music, its small solos, measured elegance, excitement and virtuosity. Then, from "Platée (1745), one of Rameau's finest lyric works, we heard Graf as La Folie in one of the opera's highlights "Formons les plus brilliants concerts". Warning Platée that she is deluded if she believes Jupiter really loves her, Sophie Graf was coquettish and theatrical, utilizing the music and words to express vocally and with movements and facial gestures.  Graduating in both harp and as a lawyer in Geneva, Ms. Graf took postgraduate studies at the Guildhall School of Music (London) and at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (Glasgow). A soloist, opera singer, ensemble singer and recitalist, this was her first appearance with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem.

No newcomer to Israeli audiences, New York-born Kenneth Weiss studied with Lisa Goode Crawford at the Oberlin Conservatory (USA) and with Gustav Leonhardt at the Sweelinck Conservatorium (Amsterdam). He presently focuses on recitals, chamber music, teaching and conducting. One of his most unique of his many projects was in collaboration with choreographer Trisha Brown, where he was musical director of “M.O.”, a ballet on Bach’s “Musical Offering”. Weiss has held teaching positions at the Norwegian Academy of Music, the Barcelona Conservatory and the Juilliard School of Music (New York). He is currently teaching at the Paris Conservatoire. Directing the Israel Camerata Jerusalem for the first time, Kenneth Weiss offered both players and audience an evening of superbly crafted, sophisticated and stylish performance.

Benny Hendel’s program notes were well researched and informative.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Prague String Trio in a performance at the Czech Embassy, Tel Aviv

On January 14th 2016, the Prague String Trio gave a recital at the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Tel Aviv. The trio is supported by the Dvořák Foundation for Young Musicians.  Members of the trio are violinists Pavel Kirs and Sang-a Kim (Korea) and violist David Schill. All three young are seasoned soloists and chamber players, with David Schill an accomplished orchestral player; the three are presently studying for artist diplomas at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv. Founded in 2012, the Prague String Trio won 1st prize and invitations for more recitals at the International Competition for Chamber Ensembles at the Burg Kniphausen Academy, Wilhemshaven, Germany. The trio plays at major Czech festivals and at other international festivals. Its concerts are broadcast by the Vltava Czech radio station.

Mr. Arthur Polzer, press-, scientific- and cultural attaché of the Czech Embassy in Tel Aviv, opened the evening with words of greeting and information on the trio and its members.  Pavel Kirs also offered some explanations on the two works on the program. 

Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) composed his Terzetto in C major opus 74 in 1887, at the height of his career. It came about by dint of circumstances: the composer’s mother-in-law rented a room to a chemistry student Josef Kruis, who was taking violin lessons. He was sometimes visited by Jan Pelikán, a string player in Prague’s National Theatre Orchestra, who was possibly his teacher. Dvořák, who enjoyed playing the viola, wrote the Terzetto within seven days, with the aim of playing it with them.  As it turned out, the work was too difficult for the student and was premiered by players of the Prague Chamber Music Society.  At the Tel Aviv concert, The Prague Trio gave expression to the work’s lyrical, sweet-toned flowing melodies and warm harmonies, together with its gently melancholic appeal, keeping a careful distance from over-sentimental playing. The graceful and indeed dense Larghetto gives way to a Scherzo rich in surprises.  Following their spicy performance of the third movement Furiant with its vivacious Bohemian dance mannerisms, the players gave the final movement’s recitative-like, harmonically mischievous (original but folk-like) melody and variations much variety of mood and texture; the movement plays out major-minor ambivalence. David Schill highlighted the composer’s skillful working of the viola line, the role of which would ordinarily have been played by the ‘cello.

Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967) composed the Serenade for string trio opus 12 at a traumatic time of his life. Together with Bartok and Dohnányi, he had taken part in the so-called “musical directorship” in the 1919 Hungarian Soviet Republic, for which he became resented after its suppression by the rightist regime. He was blacklisted and performances of his works were banned. For two years he disappeared from the national- and international music scene. His teaching post was restored in 1922. The Serenade for Two Violins and Viola, one of the few important works written from 1919-1920, takes its inspiration from the treasury of folk music Kodály had collected together with Bartok. In the opening Allegramente, the Prague String Trio wove in Hungarian folk melodies with driving energy, to be contrasted by an expressive viola melody. The players proceeded to address the mystery and anguished agenda of the second movement – Lento ma non troppo – its disturbing pianissimo tremolo passages played by the 2nd violin (Sang-A Kim) and providing a haunting harmonic framework to the quasi-dialogue between 1st violin (Pavel Kirs) and viola (David Schill). This personal utterance takes the listener to the depths and despair of the composer’s mind. Then, creating much interest with the energetic Vivo movement, characterized by tempo contrasts, its variety of textures and rustic references to Hungarian folk idiom, the three artists brought the work to brilliant close.

For their encore the artists played the Cavatina from Dvorak's "Miniatures" opus 75a. In January 1887, the composer wrote to Simrock, his German publisher, "I an writing little miniatures...for two violins and viola and I am enjoying the work as much as if I were writing a large symphony..."

With their innate musicality and outstanding ability, members of the Prague Trio, engaging in one of the less common trio combinations, collaborate closely to strike a fine balance between intelligent, carefully detailed performance and the spirit of music as derived from its folk sources, its influences and the composer as a person. The Tel Aviv  Czech Embassy hosts recitals on a monthly basis.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra is joined by singers of the Meitar Opera Studio at its opening concert of the 2016 season

The Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra was joined by five members of the Meitar Opera Studio for the opening concert of the 2016 season on January 12th in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA.  

Established in 2012 the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra is named in memory of Maestro Mendi Rodan, Israel Prize winner, professor of conducting and Head of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance.  Members of the orchestra are students at the Academy; they audition to be accepted as players and work intensively prior to each concert, first in sectional rehearsals, then with all players. This way, participants receive professional training and become familiar with orchestral repertoire. Prof. Eitan Globerson, the orchestra’s founder, home conductor and musical director, conducted the opening concert.

The Meitar Opera Studio, under the auspices of the Israeli Opera and directed by Maestro David Sebba, is a practical study- and performance program for young Israeli opera singers following their graduation from music academies, giving them training and stage experience in preparation for opera careers. On graduation from the Meitar course, some singers join the Israeli Opera, with others performing further afield.

Following the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra’s finely crafted playing of the Overture to W.A.Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni”, members of the Meitar Opera Studio gave some electrifying renditions of opera arias: soprano Efrat Vulfsons and tenor Gitai Fisher contended well with the large orchestra, giving expression to “Ma quale mai s’offre oh dei” (What is this I behold) from Don Giovanni.  Vulfsons presented all the strong emotions of the piece, Donna Anna’s shrieks of relief, hallucinations and revenge, with Fisher a stable and authoritative Don Ottavio. In “Quando m’en vo…” (And you who know) from Puccini’s “La Bohème, Vulfsons combines her variety of textures with a fine technique to create an unaffected performance of this opera favorite.  In Ferrando’s aria from “Cosi fan tutti” “Un’aura amorosa” (A loving aura) Fisher’s cantabile, tender singing of the serenade was pure delight. Tenor Osher Sebbag, equipped with both a superb operatic voice and charisma, pours emotion into each role as he addresses his audience. With his tender, heartfelt performance of Nemorino’s aria “Un furtive lagrima” (A furtive tear) from Donizetti’s “L’elisire d’amore”, replete with carefully placed dramatic pauses, he took his audience with him all the way. Sebbag was joined by soprano Tali Ketzef for two arias from Verdi’s “La Traviata”; with the orchestra highlighting the delicacy of the moment of Violetta and Alfredo’s reuniting in “Parigi, o cara” (Dearest, we shall leave Paris), the singers collaborated well, timing gestures sensitively. In “Sempre libera” (Free and aimless) Ketzef floats the dizzying coloratura sections with ease, depicting Violetta as a jolly (or possibly insane) woman, with Alfredo’s amorous voice heard from the street. In “O, mia Babbino caro” (O my dear father) from Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”, soprano Irena Alhazov’s warmth of tone and vocal ease provided the audience with much enjoyment of the opera’s most famous aria. Kudos to the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra’s players and their articulate conductor for their sensitive, richly colored and finely detailed orchestral support of these outstanding singers.

Following the intermission, Maestro Eitan Globerson and the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra performed Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique” (1830), a work surely of great interest to the young players, its style and fantasy launching the spirit of Romantic period in music, its extra-musical agenda firing the fantasy of both players and listeners. In 1827 Berlioz saw a performance of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”; he was smitten by the power of the drama but also by the beauty of actress Harriet Smithson. It seems she did not return his advances, hence the symphony’s program with its “idée fixe” running throughout the work, eventually taking the composer to the gallows (Berlioz’ eventual marriage to her ended in divorce.) To what extent the work is authentically programmatic (in time, Berlioz addressed less importance to the several programs he had written) or the result of visions due to the effects of drugs is not certain. Such superb and original music, the astounding, innovative combinations of its orchestration, not to speak of the “speaking” part given to the drums, keep the 5-movement work inspiring in its freshness and no less fascinating in its psychological aspects.  The score calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets and 2 cornets, 3 trombones, 2 ophicleides (usually replaced by bass tubas), timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, low-pitched bells, two harps and strings. All of the above background and ideas make this work an experientially musical and affecting experience for players and audience alike. Globerson and his players gave fervent expression to the work’s sweeping melodic lines and shapes, its timbral interest, its small plangent solos and abundantly colored tutti.  Much attention was also given to the work’s more intimate utterances, finding their way straight to the listener’s heart. The choice of the “Symphonie Fantastique” may have been no coincidence: as to the workings of the mind, Prof. Globerson is a researcher of brain science at Bar Ilan University, his post-doctoral research probing the perception of melody, using state-of-the-art imaging to track brain responses to pitch, loudness, timbre and other auditory attributes. Berlioz once wrote: “The predominant qualities of my music are passionate expression, inner fire, rhythmic drive – and the unexpected.” This was indeed evident in Prof. Globerson and the Mendi Rodan Symphony Orchestra’s exciting and masterful performance.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The 2016 Eilat Chamber Music Festival's large repertoire offers much to Baroque music aficionados

The 11th Eilat Chamber Music Festival (Leonid Rosenberg - founder and musical director) taking place at the Dan Eilat Hotel from February 3rd to 6th 2016, will feature first class artists from many countries, offering a rich selection of music of all kinds. Baroque music aficionados will be pleased to know that programs will also cater to their taste. In “Handel and the Italian Baroque” (Friday February 5th,, 17:00), Dutch mezzo-soprano Rosanne van Sandwyk will join  the prestigious Concerto Köln in a concert of works by Evaristo Felice Dall’Abaco, Locatelli, Vivaldi, G.B.Sammartini, Charles Avison and Telemann. Established 30 years ago and ranked among today’s leading ensembles engaging in historically informed performance, Concerto Köln aims to rediscover and perform works of composers who have remained overshadowed by more celebrated names; hence their performance of the piece by Verona-born composer and ‘cellist Dall’Abaco (1675-1742). Then, on Saturday February 6th at 17:00, Concerto Köln will perform four of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. What will be of particular interest in No.4 are the “echo flutes”, double recorders built for the Cologne group according to what Bach seems to have had in mind for the work. On February 5th at 21:00 Baroque music lovers are in for another treat: conductor and violinist David Grimal (France) will solo with “Les Dissonances”, the orchestra he formed in 2004, in Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concertos, this work to be followed by Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires” (Brazilian music with some subtle quotes from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”). “Les Dissonances” comprises musicians from all over Europe and, as the program shows, plays works of a very wide range.

Canadian-German trumpeter Jens Lindemann and the International Brass Collective will open their night-owl concert (February 3rd, 23:00) with works by Bach and Vivaldi, then to proceed to pieces by Mozart, Morley Calvert, Kevin McKee, Piazzolla, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Ian MacDougall…and finishing with Liszr!  The Belgian-based “Trilogy” String Trio, together with piano and percussion, will actually open its wildly non-mainstream performance on February 5th at 23:00 with the Allegro from their own transcription of Vivaldi’s Concerto in A-minor RV522. Created in 2011 by three internationally-acclaimed violinists, “Trilogy”‘s aim is to take a fresh look the great works of Classical and popular repertoire.

And a concert for the whole family – “A Bach Celebration” - February 6th at 11:00 will feature Moscow-born Israeli clown and actor Fyodor Makarov and a line-up of Israeli and overseas singers and instrumentalists in a tale of confusion in which a sloppy stage-worker solves the chaos he has got himself into by speaking directly to Bach, requesting him to write music that is more cheerful.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Members of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra perform a house concert in Kfar Shmaryahu, near Tel Aviv

A festive fundraising concert for the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra was generously hosted by Mrs. Ora Holin on January 8th 2016 at her home in Kfar Shmaryahu, a tranquil suburb within the Tel Aviv district. Inclement weather did not deter the many guests from arriving from near and far to attend the house concert performed by some of the orchestra’s artists, both instrumental and vocal. Maestro David Shemer, the orchestra’s founder and musical director, opened with words of thanks to Mrs. Holin, talking briefly about the orchestra as the first Israeli ensemble to play Baroque music on period instruments. He added that playing in a private home was indeed the most authentic environment for performing Baroque music.

The evening’s musical program opened with Antonio Vivaldi’s Trio Sonata opus 1 no.12 “La Follia” in d-minor RV63, the final work of twelve trio sonatas composed in 1705. This bold and daring work, scored for two violins (Noam Schuss, Dafna Ravid) and basso continuo (Eliav Lavie-theorbo, Orit Messer-Jacobi-‘cello, David Shemer-harpsichord), a true concert piece bearing the stamp of Vivaldi’s true genius, was a hearty opener for such an event. One of several sets of variations based on the same melody, Vivaldi’s “La Follia”, a single-movement sonata, comprises the subject melody and 19 variations. The JBO players presented the full variety of moods offered by Vivaldi’s work, from the noble opening variations, to virtuosic variations for first violin (Schuss) or ‘cello (Messer-Jacobi), to tranquil charm and elegance, to a dirge-like variation, to energetic brightness, variations of fuller and lesser textures, from the intimate to the exciting and exhilarating, then ending with two understated, retreating phrases to bring the listener back down to earth. One sensed the inspiration of the moment in some eloquent ornamentation heard, especially on the part of Noam Schuss.

For the three last movements of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite no.2 in b-minor, the ensemble was joined by Idit Shemer-flute, Tami Borenstein-viola and Yehuda Halevy-double bass. In this work, Bach took the opportunity of giving the flute the solo part: the transverse flute was coming into its own at the time. Composed in Leipzig, there is every reason to assume it was performed one-to-a-part, this theory endorsed by Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott. The JBO players’ performance at the house concert gave lively support to this assumption. Here was Bach’s secular music – his stylized dance vocabulary - played in all its refinement, sophistication and subtlety, with flautist Idit Shemer opting to emphasize the elegant and playful side of the virtuosic flute role.

The final work on the program was Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater”, the dying composer’s masterpiece, with its compelling paradox of tenderness and vividness. Vocal soloists soprano Daniela Skorka and countertenor Alon Harari coordinated well, setting the tragic scene in the opening section, leaning into dissonances, Harari’s accenting and ornaments highlighting verbal gestures, with Skorka utilizing her easeful vibrato to color strategic words. Both addressed the rhetoric with empathy, lyricism and, at times, forthright intensity. In “Dum emisit spiritum” (Till His spirit forth he sent) each detached syllable created a spine-chilling sense of the waning of life. The crystal-clear, personal utterances of the instrumentalists, weaving Pergolesi’s rich counterpoint through the musical fabric, made for an inspiring milieu for singers and audience alike.

Following the concert, Mr. Dan Shorer spoke of the first international “Bach in Jerusalem” Festival to take place from March 17th to 21st 2016 under the auspices of the JBO and centering around the actual date of J.S.Bach’s birthday. Inviting the Baroque music-loving public to give its support to this exciting project, he spoke of renowned artists taking part in the concerts and emphasized the slant the international festival would be taking: to examine the influence Bach’s music has had on musicians and the development of music in general.       

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Encore! Educational Theatre Company performs Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe"

The most recent production of the Encore! Educational Theatre Company in association with the Jerusalem Gilbert & Sullivan Society was W.S.Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s “Iolanthe” or “The Peer and the Peri”, with stage direction by Robert Binder. Conducting the New Savoy Orchestra was musical director Paul Salter, choreography was by Judy Brown-Davis and set designs by Roxane Goodkin-Levy. Established in 2006, Encore! has been presenting classics of the musical stage as well as lesser-known and original works, programs on the lives of prominent Jewish composers and entertainers and more.  This writer attended the performance on January 6th 2016 at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit  Shmuel, Jerusalem.

“Iolanthe” originally opened at the Savoy Theatre, London, on November 25th 1882 and ran for 398 performances. The “fairy opera” is a surprisingly topical satire on love and the British House of Lords as home to the ineffective, the privileged and dim-witted; it is a satire on  the political party system, with other institutions coming under criticism.  Librettist and composer, however, managed to keep out of trouble as the opera pleased London audiences with its wonderful melodies and appealing absurdities. With Gilbert and Sullivan at the height of their creative activity in 1892, “Iolanthe”, their seventh collaboration, is considered by some to be their best crafted work.

In a nutshell, Strephon, an Arcadian shepherd, wants to marry Phyllis, a ward of the Chancery. Phyllis is not aware that Strephon is half-fairy (his upper half; his legs are mortal). When she sees him kissing a young-looking woman, she jumps to the obvious conclusion. This woman, however, turns out to be his mother Iolanthe, a fairy banished 25 years earlier for having married a peer of the House of Lords but now pardoned. As to her youthful appearance, it turns out that fairies never grow old. Phyllis’ guardian, the Lord Chancellor, and several peers of the House of Lords are head-over-heels about Phyllis. The peers and fairies declare war. Things are eventually put right, thanks to the “subtleties of the legal mind” and Phyllis and Strephon are reunited.

In the Encore! performance -  energetic, fast-flowing, polished and characterized by good diction - the stage filled with people  of a huge range of ages; those singing in the women’s choir and the men’s (fairies and peers), all well trained, sang with taste and blended beautifully.  Of the many people on stage – both soloists and chorus, there was a good mix of English speakers and native Israelis, all engaging in British-accented English, as should be in the case of Gilbert and Sullivan. Judy Brown-Davis invested much work and invention in movement routines, with artists all knowing what they were doing. Playing Phyllis was soprano Aviella Trapido, highly experienced in musical theatre and no newcomer to Encore!  productions, the company’s patrons once again enjoying her warm, creamy voice, her vocal ease and natural stage ability, her expressive face and appealing manner. Making his debut with Encore! Israeli-born Lior Inbar, a voice student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, played Strephon. His voice still in need of some refinement, he showed competence in the British English theatre environment.  Mezzo-soprano Amit Hemo, a recent M.Mus. graduate from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and another new face to the company, played a convincing and vehement Iolanthe, her diction a little unclear at times. Highlighting the daft and comical characteristics of the Lord Chancellor, Mordechai Buxner won the audience over with his droll and entertaining performance, his meaningless self-important monologues, his charisma, physical flexibility and stage manner. As Queen of the Fairies, Claire Greenfield’s richly endowed contralto voice and majestic stage presence gave substance and authority to the character. The role of Private Willis of the Grenadier Guards suited bass Steven Liron Timoner splendidly. In Israel since 2005, Timoner is a professional opera singer.

Once again, Encore! , with its huge team of helpers and participants, has proved that months of demanding training, dedication and teamwork (on- and off stage) can result in productions of a high standard and that English-language amateur theatre is thriving in Jerusalem.  Children taking part worked as hard as their adult counterparts. Young Shalem Goldstein, as the Lord Chancellor’s train-bearer, did not miss a step or gesture as he mirrored each of those of his master.  Costumes were attractive as were both stage settings – the lush opening set of Fairyland and that of Westminster – offering a feast to the eye and enhancing the general effect of the opera itself. Under the baton of Paul Salter, the New Savoy Orchestra’s exhilarating and tasteful playing added much to the performance. The fact remains that, 140 years after the inauguration of their collaboration, Gilbert and Sullivan still have much to say that remains relevant to our lives, that little has changed in society, politics and love…and Gilbert and Sullivan say it with the wink of an eye and some wonderful music!  Encore!'s next venture will be “Intrepid”, written by Robert Binder, with music by Paul Salter. Depicting the romance and intrigue of the NILI spy ring, the new opera will be performed April 3rd as part of the Jerusalem Festival of the Arts.


Friday, January 8, 2016

In its fourth production, the Jerusalem Opera performs "Madame Butterfly"

The Jerusalem Opera was founded in 2011, its debut performance taking place in 2012. The company was established by Jerusalem residents and artists who saw the need for Israel’s capital, a cultural and spiritual centre for centuries, to have its own high quality opera company.  Recognized by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport and supported by the Jerusalem Foundation, the Jerusalem Municipality and private donors, its aim is to nurture local talent, with visiting international artists playing some of the leading roles guiding and coaching the younger singers. The company will offer programs including both operatic repertoire and Jewish music. With community outreach among its aims, the Jerusalem Opera will give preference to singers and artists who live and work in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Opera’s first season (2012-2013) presented “Masters and Servants” (a fantasy based on Mozart operas), its second (2013-2014) staged outdoor performances of “Don Giovanni” at David’s Citadel and the third (2014-2015) saw a production of “The Marriage of Figaro”. The recent production of “Madame Butterfly” was performed in Jerusalem and Ashdod. This writer attended “Madame Butterfly” in the Sherover Theatre of the Jerusalem Centre for the Performing Arts. In the same capacity as he has been since the Jerusalem Opera’s founding, Omer Arieli was music director and conductor, with Prof. Andre Hajdu serving as musical advisor. Italian baritone Gabriele Ribis was stage director and Oded Shomrony choirmaster. The orchestra was the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble (director: Arie Bardroma).

An opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini, with the Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, the storyline of “Madame Butterfly” is based in part on John Luther Long’s 1898 short story of the same name. The opera was premiered at La Scala (Milan) in 1904 and has become one of the most frequently performed operas worldwide. The Jerusalem Opera cast brought together local singers as well as overseas guest artists. In the role of Lieutenant B.F.Pinkerton, French tenor Avi Klemberg presented the character as initially tense in the situation of marrying a 15-year-old geisha, his appearance in the final scene focused and convincing. Italian baritone Marcello Lippi was authoritative as Sharpless, the American consul to Nagasaki. Fleet of movement and offering comic relief to the opera’s tragic agenda, young Israeli tenor Ron Silberstein played the role of Goro, the marriage broker. Other soloists were Noa Hope as Kate Pinkerton, Gilad Rosenberg as Prince Yamadori, Ehoud Yaari as the Bonzo and German-American baritone Samuel Berlad as the Commissioner. Born in Belarus and today residing in Germany mezzo-soprano Anna Peshes, equipped with a mellow, stable and richly colored vocal timbre, also empathy and quiet charisma, made for an outstanding Suzuki (Butterfly’s servant). Israeli-born, today residing in Berlin, Yasmine Levi-Ellentuck played Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly), a mammoth role both vocally and emotionally. Singing this role for the first time, what was clear to the audience was the deep enquiry she has made into the person, the mentality and vocal challenges necessary to take on the portrayal. In beautifully chiseled vocal lines, some wonderfully controlled pianissimo singing and her refined and understated acting, she revealed the inner world of the young geisha woman confronted with the western mentality and the tragedy of the illusion of her marriage to Pickering.

Under the baton of Maestro Omer Arieli, the Tel Aviv Soloists Ensemble played with vitality and attention to detail, occasionally being a little too loud for the soloists. The Jerusalem Opera’s fine, engaging and vibrant performance and Puccini’s splendid music took precedence over the not overly inspiring stage setting and the lack of beautiful Japanese costumes and suitable make-up.  

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and vocal soloists perform three of Handel's Chandos Anthems

The great German Baroque composer Georg Frideric Händel (1685-1769) arrived in England in 1712, establishing Britain as his new home and winning great popularity and respect among the concert-going public there. It was in 1717 that Henry James Brydges, the first Duke of Chandos, took him into his employ at Cannons, the Duke’s palatial mansion near London.  There Händel became chapel master, with another German, Dr. Johann Christoph Pepusch serving as composer-in-residence.  A flautist and an extravagant patron of the arts, the Duke kept a fine team of over 20 musicians at Canons, among them Francesco Scarlatti (Alessandro’s brother) and Johann Christoph Bach, J.S.Bach’s cousin. Händel would certainly have played the organ in the Church of St. Lawrence on the Cannons estate and the eleven Chandos Anthems, three of which were performed on December 31st 2015 at the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third subscription concert of the 2015-2016 season in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of  Friendship, the Jerusalem International YMCA, would surely have been performed in this dramatic setting, its walls and ceilings covered with frescoes of biblical scenes painted by the most celebrated artists of the day.

Händel knew the Bible well, choosing texts based on the Psalms for the Chandos Anthems, allowing each text to inspire him with the wealth of musical ideas that go to make up this collection. In his program notes, Maestro David Shemer, founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, talks of the unusual scoring of the hymns - works for three voices and for six and “scored for an ensemble of violins and basso continuo”, bassoon and one oboe, with no violas in the instrumental group and no alto voice in the vocal ensemble. Shemer reminds his listeners that the Chandos Anthems preceded the composer’s oratorios, “the musical genre that brought Händel so much fame”.

In inverse chronology but to whet audience members’ appetite with a work more familiar to them, the concert opened with the Overture to Händel’s oratorio “Judas Maccabaeus” (1746), a dramatic overture in the French style.  Presenting the two-part overture, refined, majestic and energizing in its royal pomp, the JBO players set the scene for the inspiring Händel program.

The three singers performing the solos and duets, but also forming the choir in the program comprising three of the Chandos Anthems – “I will magnify Thee” Anthem V HWV 250a, “As pants the hart for cooling springs” Anthem VI HWV 251a and “O be joyful in the Lord” Anthem I HWV 246, were Hadas Faran Asia-soprano, Doron Florentin-tenor and Yair Polishook-bass.  The three Israeli singers gave engaging performances, celebrating the wealth of contrapuntal and timbral interest of the choruses. As to the works’ solos and duets, these pieces gave the audience time to ponder the unique contribution of each singer: laying her operatic persona aside, Faran Asia related to the texts with devotional empathy and warmth, with flowing easeful and melismatic melodic lines, giving attention to the instrumental and vocal expression happening around her. Contending splendidly with the variety and demands of the tenor role, Florentin, his voice aggregating color and consistency, was expressive and active in narrating the text, relating to such musical/textual features as the vibrant play of mood changes and dissonances in “The Lord preserveth” (Anthem VI). Polishook’s musicality and understanding of the Baroque genre are well known; his addressing the importance of a solid base to the vocal ensembles of the anthems, his highlighting of a key phrase here and there and his signature quality of relating a text in its full meaning contributed much to the performance. The oboe and bassoon parts, the linchpin of the Chandos Anthems and an essential element of their expressive aspect, were performed adeptly by Tal Levin and Gilat Rotkop, as in their duet in the opening duet of “As pants the hart for cooling springs”. In the latter anthem, singers and orchestra brought a tear to the eye in their conveying of the anthem’s fragility, its grief and drama; the final chorus “Put thy trust in God” is written in opulent contrapuntal musical language of such a high order that one is at a loss to focus on all voices, let alone on some. These works bristle with superb instrumental writing. In their fresh, energetic and sensitive reading of the beautiful, intimate settings of liturgical texts, whose beauty does not fall from that of Händel’s oratorios, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, conducted by David Shemer, gave listeners a thrilling opportunity to hear these rarely-heard works splendidly performed .