Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov performs "Preludes and Fugues" at the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Jascha Nemtsov (photo: Maxim Reider)
An auspicious event of the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival (March 17th-21st 2016) was a recital titled “Preludes and Fugues performed by pianist Jascha Nemtsov. It took place at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim on March 20th.

With his program taking a cue from the music of J.S.Bach at the core of the festival, Professor Nemtsov opened his recital with pieces from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier - a contemplative, gently expansive reading of the Prelude in E major, followed by its bold partner fugue. His poetic rendering of the F-minor Prelude highlighted key notes; then, to the Fugue with its enigmatic, atonal subject, clearly highly inspirational to Nemtsov, whose poly-dimensional playing was variously and imaginatively orchestrated at each stage of the piece.

Many of us were especially drawn to the recital to hear the pianist’s first Israeli performance of a number of the 24 Preludes and Fugues of Ukraine-born composer Vsevolod Zaderatsky (1891-1953), an artist systematically persecuted, excluded from Soviet musical life, exiled and twice imprisoned. Much of his music was destroyed. He did, however, compose six piano sonatas, three programmatic piano cycles, two operas, symphony- and ensemble scores and the cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. The Preludes and Fugues (1937-1938) constitute the central work of the composer’s musical legacy (there are also some literary works), having miraculously survived and made it into the hands of the composer’s son who, in the 1970s deciphered what was written in the Kilyma camp of Siberia mostly on telegram forms, copying the pieces out in full. The cycle of Zaderatsky’s Preludes and Fugues was first performed in its entirety by Nemtsov in 2015 at the 6th International Shostakovich Days (Gohrisch, Germany). 2015 also saw the publishing of the work as well as Nemtsov’s double CD recording of the complete set for the Profil label. At the Jerusalem recital, Jascha Nemtsov’s performance of this highly varied group of pieces convincingly displayed Zaderatsky’s kaleidoscope of ideas and his fine (and highly challenging) pianistic writing; beyond those qualities, Nemtsov sketched a picture of the man himself and the breadth of fantasy and emotion that may well have been what saw him through ordeals in the gulag that many do not survive. The pieces also attest to the composer’s mastery at the piano. If Bach’s C-major Prelude of the WTC I is bathed in light and tranquillity, Zaderatsky’s C-major is ghostly, intense, confrontational, sometimes atonal. The splendid A-minor Prelude, with its hectic, bright and cascading agenda, as well as its drone presence, breathes optimism, as does its richly chordal accompanying Fugue, which ends on an octave-and-fifth, pared-down Renaissance-type chord. In the G-major Prelude, with its agile, weightless “Flight-of-the-Bumblebee” texture, Nemtsov’s virtuosic performance displayed the piece’s play of colours and humour. The G-Major Fugue, however, follows by conjuring up a complex soundscape. After the atonal, floating “seascape” of the E-Minor Prelude, the E-minor Fugue, with quotes threaded through the texture, its voices shaped with individual expression, ended on three decisive minor chords. A true gem, the B-Minor Prelude’s fine gossamer melody wrought of parallel seconds took one’s breath away with its beauty; its modal/atonal partner fugue taking on a much weightier character, its texture offering a suggestion of bells. With the F-sharp minor Prelude’s shining, high melodic line and poignant bell-like textures, we were raised up to a more celestial place; its Fugue splendidly chiselled, with each phrase growing out of its predecessor. Nemtsov’s total immersion in the music and in the workings of Zaderatsky’s intellect and soul left the audience humbled and moved.

First silenced as a “degenerate” composer due to his Jewish ancestry, Czech composer Viktor Ullmann composed the “Variations and Fugue on a Hebrew Folk Song”, the fifth and last movement of Sonata No.7, his final work, when interned in Theresienstadt. Against all odds, Ullmann was very creative there. “Theresienstadt was and is for me a school of structure”, he wrote. “I must stress that I have bloomed in my musical work…without inhibition…” In 1944, however, shortly after completing the piece, he was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, soon perishing in the gas chambers there. The Hebrew folksong on which the movement is based is a Zionist song sung by Yehuda Sharett. It sets a poem by the poet Rachel. Ullmann’s variations bear resemblance to a Slovak national anthem (banned by the Nazis) and a Hussite hymn, also quoting the Protestant hymn “Now thank we all our God”. Apparent in this final movement are, in fact, a comprehensive array of the elements making up Ullmann’s musical-, emotional- and intellectual existence (references to Bach, to Christianity versus Judaism, folk music, the fugue, tonal- versus atonal music) or might it be an utterance of defiance of his Nazi captors? Nemtsov’s free, playful and brilliant performance of the work reflected the composer’s unshakable optimism. In his introductory words, the artist referred to Ullmann’s Fugue as a “kind of vision”. With BACH motif appearing in the fugue, here was another connection to the festival itself.

When Dmitri Shostakovich went to Leipzig in 1950 for events marking 200 years of J.S.Bach’s death, he heard young virtuoso pianist Tatiana Nikolyeva performing pieces from both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier. Returning to Moscow, he began to sketch out his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, a work alluding to the music of Mussorgsky, Borodin and Russian folk music but also to the world of counterpoint. This diverse and imaginative collection of pieces takes the listener through the wide range of the composer’s emotional world, from bleak despair to exaltation, from the grotesque to devil-may-care jollity. It was Nikolyeva who then premiered the Shostakovich work in 1952. At his Jerusalem recital, Jascha Nemtsov played three pairs of Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues opus 87, opening with the C-Major pair - autumnal, harmonically rich, gently dissonanced yet breathing a sense of C-Major purity and directness, its Fugue played with fragile beauty. Nemtsov, having mentioned that the F-Sharp-Minor prelude included motifs from Klezmer music, presented the agitated, feisty miniature with playfulness, cynicism and a touch of whimsy, then drawing the listener into the disturbing banality-cum-dissonance of the Fugue subject and its complex workings, a piece as bewitching as it is disturbing. As to the D-Minor Prelude, Nemtsov highlighted its noble character, giving a natural and free voice to the richly varied emotional agenda of the consequent Fugue. Professor Nemtsov’s playing sensitively plumbs the depths of Shostakovich’s mind, his elegant and nimble touch presenting the pieces with masterful eloquence, his deep enquiry into each revealing its truth.

Pianist and musicologist Jascha Nemtsov was born in Magadan (Siberia), growing up in St. Petersburg and graduating with distinction from the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Since 1992, he has lived in Germany, with a busy international career performing both solo- and chamber music. Nemtsov’s repertoire covers a wide range of works and styles, from Classical- and Romantic repertoire to music of the 20th- and 21st centuries, with emphasis on Russian music – Shostakovich, Zaderatsky, Weinberg and other composers. As a performer and musicologist, he has focused on Jewish art music of the early 20th century and performs works of composers who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. He has been active in salvaging forgotten works of the New Jewish School (Russia, early 20th century). Jascha Nemtsov’s many recordings have won him several prizes. He today holds the chair of History of Jewish Music at the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar and serves as academic director of the Abraham Geiger College (the Reform rabbinic/cantorial seminary attached to the University of Potsdam, Berlin.)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pianist Tamir Ben Zvi performs works of George Gershwin

George Gershwin (mtv.com)
On March 19th 2016, the new Yvonne Herzog Piano Series was launched with “Gershwin is Here to
Stay”, a program performed and explained by Tamir Ben Zvi. It took place at the home of viola da gamba player and researcher Dr. Myrna Herzog, her home also being the “nerve centre” of Ensemble PHOENIX. The recital was the first to be played in Israel on the 1926 Blüthner piano that Myrna Herzog’s mother, Yvonne Herzog (1923-2015) received in her native Brazil at age 18 and played for the duration of her life. She had been a piano student of the legendary Tomás Teran, a close friend of Villa-Lobos; one of Teran’s students had been Antonio Carlos Jobim. The piano has been restored by Zamir Havkin. Myrna Herzog commented that George Gershwin would have been 28 years old in 1926, making his music totally contemporary with this piano.

Setting the scene of America at the turn of the 20th century, Tamir Ben Zvi opened with an earthy performance of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” (1899). Ben Zvi then gave a short résumé of Gershwin’s life: George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26th 1898 in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants. Young George’s interest in music was kindled when his parents bought Ira, their older son, a piano. George started playing it and eventually began studying with noted piano teacher Charles Hambitzer, later moving on to a number of other piano teachers. At age 16 he dropped out of school, playing in New York nightclubs and working as a “song-plugger” in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. From 1916 to 1927, he recorded several piano rolls for the pianola, which was popular at the time, some recorded with overdubbing to create the effect of four hands at the piano. His works for screen and stage quickly became standards. His lyricist for nearly all of his career was his brother Ira. George Gershwin’s most ambitious undertaking was his “folk opera” “Porgy and Bess”. It was when working on a film with Fred Astaire that Gershwin’s life came to an abrupt end, when he died of a brain tumor at age 38.

Tamir Ben Zvi then played a broad selection of Gershwin’s piano music, some of the works performed in Israel for the first time. He opened with “Realto Ripples Rag” (1917), the composer’s first published instrumental piece, but a number already carrying the hallmarks of Gershwin’s own piano style. By the time he had composed “Swanee”, Gershwin was making good money from composing. Ben Zvi played the piano version of “Swanee”, followed by the (four-hand) piano roll version. The piece quotes “Oh Suzanna” and “Old Folks at Home”. Here was the son of Jewish immigrants contributing to the melting pot of American music.

Gershwin’s dream was to become a composer of classical music and to write preludes as had Bach, Debussy and Chopin.  Ben Zvi played some of Gershwin’s preludes, a group of evocative pieces: the first a bitter-sweet, pensive piece, sensitively played and flexed gently, the second sounding somewhat oriental with its melody played in parallel 4ths; then a feisty, agile jazzy piece, followed by a leisurely-paced well-known bluesy prelude, the last also influenced by jazz – a busy, humorous and raucous work.

“The Man I Love” (lyrics: Ira Gershwin) was one of George’s greatest successes. Originally “The Girl I Love” and part of the 1924 score of “Lady Be Good”, it featured throughout the 1947 film “The Man I Love”, but has since become more famous as an independent song. Ben Zvi played two versions of it - the first thoughtful and infused with beautiful sentimentality, fine writing for the piano, moving and human expression and well “orchestrated” by Ben Zvi.  The second version was the 1949 version by American virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956), a setting brimming with ideas, Ben Zvi’s playing suggestive of jazz improvisation. 

As an aside from the Gershwin story, Tamir Ben Zvi gave a touching, caressing and nostalgic reading of Léopold Godowsky’s naïve piano piece “Alt Wien” (Old Vienna), written in 1920. Godowsky (1870-1938) was a Jewish Polish-American composer and teacher and one of the most highly regarded pianists of his time.  His “Studies on Chopin’s Études” are considered to be among the most difficult works for piano.

Back to George Gershwin and “I Got Rhythm” (published 1930) its opening phrases using the pentatonic scale. It was sung by Ethel Mermen in the original Broadway production of “Girl Crazy”. Ben Zvi gave a colourful reading of the piece, followed by his own creative and original bossa nova setting of “Summertime” suavely trimmed with some “blue” (or “worried”) notes. The program concluded with Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, a work requested by bandleader Paul Whiteman and composed by Gershwin within three weeks. Originally written for solo piano and jazz band, it was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé several times. The work was premiered by Whiteman and his band, with Gershwin at the piano, at a concert titled “An Experiment in Modern Music” on February 12th 1924 in Aeolian Hall, New York. The concert represented a milestone in introducing jazz and American popular music into the concert hall.  Its rich and daring canvas incorporates all of the influences present in  Gershwin’s music – Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano music, rhythmic improvisational jazz from the Harlem clubs, folk elements from Yiddish theatre and also the lush harmonies of European post-Romantic music. In a truly virtuosic and vibrant performance of “Rhapsody in Blue”, Tamir Ben Zvi chose to play a version combining both piano and orchestral roles – a genuine tour-de-force. For his encore, pianist Tamir Ben Zvi gave a graceful, fragrant and thoughtful rendering of “(Our) Love Is Here to Stay”, George Gershwin’s last completed work (lyrics: Ira Gershwin). He did not live to hear it performed:

It's very clear
Our love is here to stay;
Not for a year
But ever and a day.

The radio and the telephone
And the movies that we know
May just be passing fancies,
And in time may go!

But, oh my dear,
Our love is here to stay.
Together we're
Going a long, long way

In time the Rockies may crumble,
Gibraltar may tumble,
There're only made of clay,
But our love is here to stay.

1926 was the golden age of the Blüthner piano, a piano known for its Romantic, mellow sound and smooth action. Yvonne Herzog’s piano is no exception. Tamir Ben Zvi’s recital gave expression to the piano’s vivid colours and to the rich pianistic world of Gershwin.

Israeli pianist Tamir Ben Zvi holds a master’s degree from the Juilliard School of Music. The recipient of several awards and prizes, he performs a wide range of repertoire.

Tamir Ben Zvi (groups.google.com)

The Israel Brahms Quartet and pianist Ron Regev in an all-Brahms program at the Eden-Tamir Music Center

On Saturday March 19th the Israel Haydn Quartet, with guest pianist Ron Regev, performed an all-Brahms concert in the Best of Chamber Music series at the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Ein Kerem, Jerusalem). The Israel Haydn Quartet, established in 2010, performs regularly in Israel and has also performed in Seoul, South Korea. The quartet performs the best of repertoire, but, as its name suggests, it has a great love for the music of Haydn, “father of the string quartet”. In 2014, the Haydn String Quartet received a grant from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport to record its first CD – three Haydn quartets. Members of the quartet are violinists Eyal Kless (founder of the Israel Haydn Quartet) and Svetlana Simannovsky, violist Miriam Mansharov and ‘cellist Shira Mani.

It seems Johannes Brahms destroyed twelve or so string quartets before publishing his two opus 51 quartets, premiered in 1873, when the composer was 40.  In which case, String Quartet No.2 in A-minor opus 51 cannot be rightly considered Brahms’ earliest work of the genre.  (A third string quartet, opus 67, was first performed in 1876.) Eyal Kless spoke of Quartet no.1 as being the most coherent of the three.  Brahms dedicated it to his friend, Viennese surgeon and amateur string player Theodor Billroth, who referred to the first two string quartets as “a whole lot of beauty in a compact form”. The opening theme of the first subject a-f-a-e may refer to Hungarian violinist, composer and conductor Joseph Joachim’s motto “frei aber einsam” (free but alone).  Although of a routine construction, the players gave the work a sense of Brahms’ character throughout – his characteristic brooding, but also his solid richness of texture, singing melodic lines, the seamless melodic flow of his writing, warmth of sound and, of course, the composer’s reference to dance music. Kless led his players in a performance that never lagged, that was stylish and energetic, coloured with Brahmsian intensity and nostalgia but also with lyricism and lightness.

Pianist Ron Regev joined the Israel Haydn Quartet in Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F-minor opus 34. A graduate of the Samuel Rubin Academy, Tel Aviv, where Regev studied under Professor Emanuel Krasovsky, the artist then took masters and doctoral studies at the Juilliard School of Music (New York), studying piano with Jerome Lowenthal, chamber music with Joseph Kalichstein and serving as a member of faculty. Performing worldwide and the winner of several international awards and competitions, today Regev is chairman of the Keyboard Faculty at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and chief musician at Tonara, an Israeli hi-tech company specializing in combining music notation and cutting-edge technology.

Brahms’ String Quintet, originally conceived as a string quintet with two ‘cello parts (now lost), was then rewritten as a sonata for two pianos, before its final transformation as the Piano Quintet in 1864, the most significant work of the composer’s early years in Vienna and in which piano and strings strike a fine balance.  As in the opus 51 quartet No.2, the artists went for beauty of tone, keeping a safe distance from the turgid or athletic playing so often heard in performance of Brahms works. In playing that was focused, alert and profound, there was much skilful blending and eye contact. In music that asks to be expressive, they brought out its temperament, its energy, its secret moments, its outbursts and the general melancholy underlying the work.  In the second movement (Andante, un poco adagio) Regev used small hesitations to express the movement’s poignancy and fragility. The performance set before the audience the inner workings of Brahms’ mind in playing that was rich, intimate and exciting, playing never overstepping the confines of good taste.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Under the baton of guest conductor Joshua Rifkin (USA), J.S.Bach's St. Matthew Passion opens the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival

Maestro Joshua Rifkin (Alchetron.com)
The first Bach in Israel Festival, directed by David Shemer and hosted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, took place from March 17th to 21st 2016. Most of the festival events took place in and around Jerusalem, with some concerts performed in Tel Aviv and Zichron Ya’acov.
The work opening the festival was J.S.Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, conducted by Maestro Joshua Rifkin (USA). Founder and director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, Maestro David Shemer spoke of Felix Mendelssohn’s performance of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin 1829 (the first since Bach’s death) as symbolizing “the beginning of the modern period of western music…marking the revival of past music and, in particular, works of Bach”.

This writer attended the first of three performances of the monumental work on March 17th in the Mary Nathanial Golden Hall of Friendship, International YMCA, Jerusalem. As Bach was primarily a church musician, the only people who heard the St. Matthew Passion at his time would have been congregants in the churches in which he served. It was first heard at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig on Good Friday of 1727. As the congregation heard the music coming from the balcony at the back of the church, each listener could meditate on the text, finding his own meaning in it. It would probably have surprised and shocked the conservative Leipzig congregations of Bach’s time.  The St. Matthew Passion was then performed only a few more times, always under Bach’s direction, with a modest number of church musicians. The work, however, remained of greatest importance to the composer: he went to considerable trouble in later age to repair the manuscript, resewing the score by hand, strengthening the writing of its double-chorus/continuo and highlighting biblical words in red ink. Those few who saw the manuscript after Bach’s death considered it unfathomable; it remained unpublished and unheard till 1829. Under Joshua Rifkin’s baton, the Bach in Jerusalem Festival performance was presented according to the criteria to which Bach himself had adhered, those having been researched by Rifkin himself. This meant two orchestral ensembles, each paired with a vocal quartet (the singers in Chorus I have double the amount of arias and include the Evangelist, with chorus II serving as a ripieno group some of the time), the singers taking on the solo roles as well as forming the two choirs. Bach's librettist Picander (Christian Friedrich Henrici) referred to Choir I as "The Daughters of Zion" and to Choir II as "The Faithful". At the Jerusalem performance, three other singers – Tchelet Levin, Lior Inbar and Yoav Weiss - sang smaller roles. The work was sung in the original German, with English- and Hebrew translations of the text flashed onto a screen.

Maestro Rifkin did a formidable job of bringing together players and singers, many previously unknown to him - members of the JBO, local singers, Israelis residing overseas and some overseas artists – a mammoth undertaking when performing what is considered by many as Bach’s grandest composition. We were presented with some superbly rich and suavely blended orchestral playing, the eight wind players (flute, recorder, oboe, oboe d’amore, oboe da caccia) adding resonant plangency and colour to the ensembles as well as poignant obbligato playing to some of the arias. There is much to be said for the unique effect of small choral groups, forming the choruses that depict the angry crowd, priests, officials and more, then stepping outside the action to voice emotional reactions to the story. Their singing of the chorales - breaking the tension at strategic moments, their harmonisations becoming progressively more complex -  was silky. balmy and inviting.

As to the many soloists, there was some fine, vibrant singing from bass Yoav Weiss; tenor Doron Florentin’s open, large, bright timbre in “Geduld, Geduld” (Forbear/ Though deceiving tongues may sting me) (obbligato: Nima Ben David, viol); lively, light and natural singing of soprano Channa Malkin (Holland); alto Anne-Marieke Evers (Holland) in competent, uncluttered and pleasing performance and bass Yair Polishook’s mix of richness and transparency of voice together with his attention to text.  Soprano Keren Motzeri’s arias were outstandingly rich in dynamic variety and detail. In the intimate, pared-down scoring (with no bass instruments to provide any earthly anchor) of “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Saviour is willing to die) with its languid flute obbligato (Idit Shemer) and two oboes da caccia (Aviad Gershoni, Neven Lesange) Motseri sculpted the melody, weaving into it each minute detail as she evoked the soul of the believer. Understanding the nature of the role of Jesus as per Bach’s (non-realistic) portrayal, bass Guy Pelc sang Bach’s arioso writing (something between recitative and aria) with conviction, displaying a deep affinity with the text as he and the Evangelist (Richard Resch) coordinated comfortably in the delivery of narrative and commentary. Pelc’ voice and personality are highly suited to this genre, to its dramatic moments as well as to its reverent, introspective agenda. In his last aria, following Jesus’ final cry in his state of isolation sung, in Hebrew “Eli, eli, lama asabthani?” (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me), Pelc gives voice to the personalized experience of the individualized believer in the fluid and calming “Mache dich, mein Herze rein” (Make thyself clean, my heart).

Handling the heavy demands made on the Chorus I alto, Avital Dery, served well by her quiet inner presence, a well-anchored, richly coloured, stable voice and her deep enquiry into the text, communicated with the audience as she infused emotion and meaning into each solo, be it her empathic reading of “Buss’ und Reu’” (Guilt and pain) with its obbligato of two flutes, the melancholy “Erbarme dich” (Have mercy) its sad and serene obbligato violin role presented and ornamented with delicacy by Noam Schuss (Rifkin chose a rather fast tempo for this, considering the aria’s subject of betrayal and remorse) or the unique “Ach Golgotha”, in which Bach uses all 12 chromatic pitches!

German tenor Richard Resch made for an imposing Matthew the Evangelist, his rich, buoyant and highly-coloured voice finding its way to all corners of the YMCA hall and to the audience’s heart as he carried the actions forward in vivid word-painting, recounting the course of events with energy and articulacy. One highlight was “O Schmerz! hier zittert das gequälte Herz” (O pain! Here trembles the tormented heart), featuring two oboes da caccia and recorders, these portraying the dark agony of Gethsemane, with Choir II singing the chorale, into which Resch intermittently wove the solo line, describing the atmosphere of Christ’s agony in rich detail.

Maestro Joshua Rifkin, players and singers, issued in the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival with an eloquent and majestic performance of the “Great Passion”, as it was known in the Bach family circle. It was an impressive opening to the first Bach in Jerusalem Festival.

Chorus I:Keren Motzeri,Avital Dery,Richard Resch,Guy Pelc(photo:Maxim Reider)
Choris II:Yair Polishook,Doron Florentin,Anne-Marieke Evers,Channa Malkin(photo:Maxim Reider)


Monday, March 14, 2016

The Moran Singers Ensemble and the Moran Choir perform in "From Silence I Sing" with guest conductor/ composer Ambroz Copi (Slovenia) at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv

Maestro Ambroz Copi (delo.si)
The Moran Ensemble Singers and the Moran Choir presented “From Silence I Sing”, an evening of choral works and vocal solos on February 5th 2016 at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv. Guest conductor/composer was Ambrož Čopi (Slovenia).

Ambrož Čopi (b. 1973) graduated in Composition from the Ljubljana Conservatory in 1996, then taking post-graduate studies and working as a vocal assistant. He has also worked as a singer. Alongside his work as music teacher in an arts school, he has done much choral conducting, winning several awards as have his compositions. Frequently serving as a jury member in choral events and competitions, Čopi lectures and is involved in choral music seminars in Slovenia and abroad.

The evening’s concert took the audience on a flying visit to many corners of the earth, the program including works and composers not heard in this part of the world. To set out on the journey, we heard the Moran Singers Ensemble, conducted by house conductor Guy Pelc, in a superbly crafted and evocative reading of Edward Elgar’s a-cappella romance “My love dwelt in a northern land” (1890) to the richly wrought and melancholic images of a poem of Andrew Lang, its descriptions of nature, weather and time personifying the relationship being recalled.

And to eastern Europe and two works of Lithuanian composer Vytautas Miškinis (b.1954), a prolific writer of choral music, with over 250 of his choral works written for children’s choirs. Well-known in his own country but not outside of it, here is a composer writing in the new wave of tonal music. Performed by heart by the Moran Choir (35 singers aged from 12 to 18) and conducted by Moran founder and musical director Naomi Faran, Miškinis’ “Missa Brevis” came across as direct and uncluttered, music accessible, expressive and true to its sacred text, its tenderness and message of peace presented in fine detail, with pianist Oleg Yakerevich’s accompaniment depicting bells in the Kyrie and other subtle musical ideas throughout. Miškinis’ a-cappella “Bonum est confiteri domino” (It is good to praise the Lord, Psalm 92) was sung by the Moran Ensemble Singers and conducted by Čopi. A work sacred and otherworldly but anchored in personal utterance, it was conveyed as a polished assortment of small sections and offering a myriad of contrasts in mood and tempo. We then heard a work of another composer primarily writing choral music – Norwegian Ola Gjeiro (b.1978) –  today settled in New York and dividing his time between performing as a professional pianist and composing. The Moran Singers’ Ensemble gave “Ubi Caritas” (Where there is charity) – indeed, a small gem - a reading that was moving and as lush as it was fragile in its harmonic tonings, its course gently flexed. 

The program included two works by Ambrož Čopi himself; first, an awe-inspiring tonal, a-cappella setting of the St Thomas Aquinas hymn “O Salutaris Hostia”, performed by the Moran Ensemble Singers and directed by the composer; its deep, intimate spirituality was reflected in gently flowing melodies and lavish harmonies, with soloist Shira Cohen finding a happy compromise between soloing and blending:

‘O saving Victim, opening wide
The gate of Heaven to us below;
Our foes press hard on every side;
Thine aid supply; thy strength below…’

Following performance of a short piece the composer has dedicated to the choir, Ambrož Čopi conducted the Moran Choir in a performance of his “Missa Brevis” (2006) for treble voices, piano and percussion. Opening with a pensive, autumnal soundscape, the choir’s rendition was precise, their unforced singing lending freshness and natural expression to the work’s beauty. The more rhythmical sections, sounding somewhat South American in character, emerged as buoyant but never raucous, the young percussionist’s use of percussion economical, incisive and tasteful. Solos were sung competently and sympathetically by two of the girls.

The evening’s choral pieces were interspersed with a number of solos sung by members of the Moran Singers Ensemble. Soprano Shira Cohen offered an unmannered, gentle rendition of two of Aaron Copland’s folk song settings, their style and her interpretation of the ballad “Long time ago” and the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” so representative of the straightforward gestures of American music of the 1950s. This was followed by Efrat Hacohen in a sensuous and engaging performance of Xavier Montsalvatge’s “Cancion de cuna para dormer a un negrito’ (Cradle song for a small black child), its inebriating and gently dissonanced habanera accompaniment suggestive of the mother rocking her baby. Soprano Shani Oshri’s splendid, silken singing of the Thessaloniki Ladino folk lullaby “Nani, nani” (arr. D. Akiva) was communicative and poignant and highlighted by her superb vocal control. Alto Zlata Hershberg was engaging, theatrical and convincing in Alexander Matveev’s dramatic arrangement of a Russian folk song, as she moved back and forth from the role of a fearful child and the calming mother. 

The concert concluded with a work by one of Estonia’s most prominent composers - Veljo Tormis (b.1930) – whose choral oeuvre numbers more than 500 works, many based on ancient traditional Estonian songs. Composed in 1972 for a-cappella mixed chorus and shaman drum (played by Yakerevich), “Raua needmine” (Curse upon Iron) is based on the Finnish epic “Kalevala”, with added texts of contemporary Estonian poets.  Conducted by Ambrož Čopi, the Moran Singers Ensemble contended impressively with the work’s rhythmically daring language, its confrontational and relentless repetitiveness as well as the variety of raw, often harsh sounds – whispering, glissandi, chanting, shouting and primal throat singing – the composer uses to express and evoke his timeless, ritualistic style suited to the work’s message.  The audience was challenged to immerse itself in the detail of the long, unremittingly powerful text projected in full onto a screen as the singers addressed the work’s gestures, both musical and verbal:

‘Ohoi cursed, evil iron!
Ohoi cursed, evil iron!
Flesh consuming, bone devouring,
Spilling blood, devouring virtue!
Whither comes your cruel cunning,
Haughtiness so overbearing? Fie upon you, evil iron!
Your beginnings reek of malice.
You have risen from villainy …’

A concert of interesting programming, “From Silence I Sing” presented the audience with yet another instance of Naomi Faran’s ideals (plus those of her professional team and singers) of deep musical enquiry, articulacy, of the “cultured singing voice” and of polished, detailed performance. Oleg Yakerevich’s refined and imaginative piano accompaniments contributed much to the enjoyment of the evening’s program.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Andres Mustonen directs a concert performance of Handel's "Giulio Cesare" at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Soprano Claire Meghnagi (photo:Maxim Reider)
Under the musical direction of Estonian violinist and conductor Andres Mustonen, the 3rd Tallinn-Tel Aviv MustonenFest took place from February 18th to March 2nd 2016. Baroque operas were among the special events in this year’s festival, with a fully-staged performance of Händel’s “Rinaldo” by the Estonian National Opera Company and a concert performance of the composer’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” (Julius Caesar in Egypt). This writer attended the latter event on February 27th in the Recanati Hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The performance was conducted by Andres Mustonen. Joining him were the Estonian National Opera Orchestra and the Voces Musicales Choir (Estonia), with soloists from both Estonia and Israel.  The Estonian soloists were soprano Helen Lokuta, mezzo-sopranos Monika-Evelin Liiv and Juuli Lill and tenor Oliver Kuusik; the Israeli soloists were soprano Claire Meghnagi and countertenor Yaniv D’Or.

With eight principal characters and one of the largest orchestras for which Händel had written, not to mention the work’s unflagging high quality and enduring popularity, “Giulio Cesare” (1724), to a libretto by Nicola Haym, was surely a fine choice for a festive concert version. Another advantage at the concert was hearing different singers’ interpretation of the same character: we heard Cesare’s arias (scored by Händel for an alto castrato) sung by both Liiv and D’Or, Sesto (originally written for soprano en travesti) sung by Kuusik and Lokuta; Cleopatra was portrayed by both Meghnagi and Lokuta. 

The concert opened with the Ouverture to “Cesare in Egitto”, with Mustonen’s typically vigorous conducting setting the tone for the evening’s performance, this followed by the Voces Musicales singers’ powerful and forthright singing of “Viva il nostre Alcide”. There was a strong sense of the deep enquiry and experience Monika-Evelin Liiv (Estonian National Opera) has in her tasteful and unmannered performance of this work, her voice even and rich in all registers, her lower range strong and abounding in presence. In “Se in fiorito ameno prato” Liiv and Mustonen (violin) duet, converse and intertwine musical strands, her expressive melismas answered by the many personal utterances of his violin. As Cesare, Yaniv D’Or’s dramatic reading of arias of Cesare and Tolomeo went hand-in-glove with Händel’s electrifying characterizations, the composer’s own star-studded cast and Mustonen’s candid approach. Dealing with challenging musical texts and fast tempi, he communicated with the audience, giving expression to fiery moments of animosity, as in “Si spietata”, in which the spurned Tolomeo threatens and insults Cornelia.  

In the role of Sesto, tenor Oliver Kuusik, of the Estonian National Opera, shared his wonderfully rich and powerful timbre, his dramatic flair and audience appeal in “Svegliatevi nel core”, the aria in which Sesto vows to take revenge on those who killed his father, Pompey, the artist later superbly shaping the agenda of revenge on Tolomeo in “L’angue offeso mai riposa”, likening it to a striking serpent. As the manipulative Cleopatra, the pivotal character of the opera, Claire Meghnagi was vivacious and sensuous, performing each gesture, her voice gliding effortlessly into its upper register in “Non desperar” as she sang of her decision to use her beauty to seduce Caesar. In the darker “Piangerò la sorte mia” she crafted the melody line with pensive, exquisite elegance, lavishing feisty intensity on the middle section before returning the heartbreak of the first section with silky smoothness and fine ornamenting. Singing Cleopatra’s love song “V’adoro pupille” and partnered with the serene oboe obbligato, Helen Lokuta, of the Estonian National Opera, created a sense of calm and directness with singing that was natural, polished and richly flowing. Cleopatra’s joy at suddenly being freed by Cesare from impending imprisonment took flight in “Da tempeste il legno infranto”, with Lokuta’s virtuosic vocal agility and lively - sometimes mischievous - facial expressions energetic and energizing. The well-matched timbres of Lokuta (Sesto) and Juuli Lill of the Estonian National Opera (Cornelia) created the empathy of “Son nato a sospirar”. In “Non ha più che temere ques’alma”, Lill depicts Cornelia’s sorrow and self-pity at the loss of her husband and the near death of her son but hope as well, in her superbly woven fusion of music and text.

Juuli Lill,Helen Lokuta,Andres Mustonen (photo:Maxim Reider)
Supported by fine, richly-coloured playing on the part of the Estonian National Opera Orchestra, the evening’s program was charged with energy and excitement as indeed befit Händel’s greatest heroic opera. The audience was enthusiastic.