Monday, June 27, 2016

The Carmel Quartet closes its 2015-2016 "Strings and More" series with Beethoven's String Quartet in C-sharp minor opus 131

“Literary Notes IV” was the fifth and last of the Carmel Quartet’s 2015-2016 commentated concert series “Strings and More”. This writer attended the English language concert/lecture on June 15th at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Founded in 1999, members of the quartet are Rachel Ringelstein (1st violin), Yonah Zur (2nd violin), Yoel Greenberg (viola) and Tami Waterman (‘cello).  The quartet performs internationally and has been the recipient of prizes and awards. Its debut CD, including quartets and quintets of Paul Ben-Haim, was issued by Toccata Classics (2014).

This event focused on Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp major opus 131. Written 1825-1826, (its sketches occupying three times as many pages as the finished work itself) the C-sharp minor quartet was the composer’s last large-scale composition and considered by Beethoven as his greatest. Not heard in public till 1835 (Beethoven died in 1827) some private performances took place prior to the premiere, including one for Schubert on his deathbed.  Dr. Yoel Greenberg, a faculty member of Bar-Ilan University’s Department of Music, spoke about Beethoven, the work and its influence on other musicians and art forms, namely cinema; he also shared his own thoughts on the work. Greenberg opened with discussion of the work’s eccentric aspects, as were typical of Beethoven’s later writing, such as the expressive but not especially comfortable key of C-sharp minor for string players and the work’s unconventional proportions – seven movements of various lengths and played with no breaks between them. Here, Beethoven, summarizing his experiments directs the flow towards the end of the piece, taking diversity, forming a coherent unity from it, and, with motivic links, has the final section alluding to the work’s opening fugue. We were reminded of what British philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) had said about outstanding people – that they should behave in eccentric ways. To illustrate this idea, we then saw a few moments of “Back to the Future” III.

Following the intermission, the Carmel Quartet gave a richly detailed and articulate performance of the work, their contemplative playing of the opening Adagio (referred to by Wagner as “surely the saddest thing ever said in notes”) imbued with the colours of shifting chromaticism and contrapuntal intensity. Following the sunny, somewhat quizzical-sounding Allegro second section, the third section – here one moment, gone the next – issues in the Theme and Variations, set in the key of A-major, its simple melody referred to by Wagner as the “incarnation of innocence”. The artists dispelled any hint of simplistic scoring as they presented the rich variety of the 4th movement (theme and variations) -  its hocket (the melody divided between the violins), a march, its “lullaby” section, its majestic waltz, its bizarre moments and its sublimity, with the variations becoming progressively more complex. Strangely issued in by the ‘cello, the Presto movement is a hell-for-leather journey, its trio less frenetic, the coda less than conventional in its otherworldly sul ponticello sounds.  The sixth section was intensely poignant (Greenberg spoke of its melody as having a “Jewish” theme, evocative of the “Kol Nidre” melody, claiming, however, that Beethoven would probably not have been familiar with Jewish music) leading into the last section, a scene of musical utterance that is wild, confrontational but also noble. Of the final section Wagner wrote: “This is the fury of the world’s dance – fierce pleasure, agony, ecstasy of love, joy anger, passion and suffering…”

There are few string quartets more complex or enigmatic than Beethoven’s opus 131. A challenging work for players and listeners alike, Yoel Greenberg took the bull by its horns and threw light on the many elements and interest making up the work…no mean feat, and the audience was with him all the way.  And yet the music itself remains baffling, defying words. It takes an ensemble of the calibre of the Carmel Quartet to finish off the lecture with Beethoven’s own personal explanation – the sounds themselves. It was an enriching, thought-provoking musical event to wind up the season.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Trio Noga performs works of women composers at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv

Trio Noga’s recent intensive concert tour of Israel presented works of women composers. Interestingly, all three artists of Trio Noga – flautist Idit Shemer, ‘cellist Orit Messer-Jacobi and pianist Maggie Cole (UK, USA) – are well-known performers on today’s Baroque music scene; Trio Noga, however, sees them performing music from the Classical period and up to the most contemporary of works. This writer attended “Celebrating Women in Music”, the second concert in the chamber music series of the Israeli Women Composers and Performers Forum at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv, on June 12th 2016.  Representing the Forum, recorder player Inbar Soloman offered words of welcome.

 The program opened with Trio Sonata No.1 by Marion Bauer. Born in Washington to a French Jewish family, composer, teacher, writer and critic Marion Eugénie Bauer (1882-1955) was something of a Renaissance woman. Professor Bauer was especially supportive of American music and modern composers, she was the first woman on the Music Faculty of New York University, with affiliations with the Juilliard School and other educational institutions; she spent 12 summers in the creative environment of MacDowell Colony for composers, artists and writers. Her prolific writing on music addressed both specialists and general readers and she was the author of five books. Despite brief forays into 12-tone music in the 1940s and 1950s, Bauer’s music did not plumb the depths of atonality, rather focusing on the mix of coloristic harmony and gentle dissonance. The opening movement of Trio Sonata No.1 was coloured with Impressionistic musical language, its second movement was eloquent and touching, to then be followed by a playful third movement (Vivace e giocoso).

 Most of the works of French Romantic composer and pianist Cecile Chaminade (1857-1944) were published during her lifetime. Primarily a concert pianist, she wrote over 100 piano works and toured the world performing them with great success. In 1901, she was one of the first pianists to record for the gramophone, with seven sides of her works, and she was the first woman composer to become a member of the French Légion d’Honneur. Like Marion Bauer, however, she also suffered from criticism based on gender prejudice. On hearing an orchestral work written by Chaminade at age 18, composer Ambrose Thomas remarked: “This is no woman composer, this is a composer who happens to be a woman.” Chaminade composed Trio No.1 opus 11 in g-minor opus 11 (the flute part played by Idit Shemer originally written for violin) at age 23. The Trio Noga artists gave expression to the composer’s compositional prowess, the piece’s charming Gallic flavour and the influence of Romantic composers on its style – Brahms, possibly Schumann, and others.  Following their intense and emotional reading of the Allegro movement and the lyrical, almost vocal Andante, the rondo constituting the third movement (Presto), bristling with thirty-second notes and cross rhythms, was performed with buoyant optimism as each instrument presented its own agenda. The final movement, classically oriented, nevertheless takes the listener through some late-Romantic harmonic twists. With the piano part illustrative of Chaminade’s own piano mastery, the ‘cello here initiated many of the melodies. With “salon music” viewed as third class entertainment, Chaminade’s music has been sadly ignored. Capturing the work’s moods, melodic richness and elegance, Trio Noga has proved what a misjudgement this was.

 Making the concert an especially auspicious event was the premiere of a work by Israeli composer Hagar Kadima. “By a Doorway” (2016) was commissioned by Trio Noga. A winner of the 2003 Prime Minister’s Award for Composers, Hagar Kadima (b.1957) was the first Israeli woman to earn a PhD in Composition. A professor at the Levinsky College of Education (Tel Aviv), she has spent many years teaching young composers and has been dedicated to collaboration between Arab and Jewish women musicians. In 2000, Dr. Kadima founded the Israeli Women Composers’ Forum, serving as its first chairperson, continuing to devote time and effort in supporting women composers and integrating them into the Israeli musical scene. At the Blumental Center Concert, she talked about the new piece, its genesis being the interval of a minor third – viewing it from all angles – as the piece moves between states of chaos and order. Another element making up the work is Israeli composer Yohanan Zarai’s setting of Avraham Halfi’s “The Ballad of Three Cats” (a nonsense poem whose subtler meaning touches on the subject of loneliness), the song itself announced by the flute, its melody also beginning with a minor third.  Listening to Kadima’s work, Trio Noga’s reading of the work created a sense of curiosity, guiding the listener into closely following the course of the various sections, each different in mood and intensity, each inspired by the simple, unadulterated minor third, always to return to it only to find a new path of departure.  The three instruments, though engaging in much imitation, seemed to have their own agendas as the artists gave a dedicated reading of the piece. Hagar Kadima spoke of her search for simplicity in music. Clarity would certainly run a close second!

 In 1839, Clara Schumann wrote: “I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose…” One of the 19th century’s most outstanding and influential musicians, she would go on to compose over 30 works – character pieces for piano, a concerto, Lieder and three romances for violin and piano. (In the 40 years she outlived her husband, she hardly composed, focusing more on family and her performing career.) Her only chamber work, the Piano Trio in g-minor opus 17, however, composed in 1846 when she was 27, showing the influences of Robert Schumann and Mendelssohn as well as her in-depth study of Bach counterpoint, is considered her finest work. With the flute (Idit Shemer) taking the place of the original violin part, the Noga Trio artists gave full expression to the work’s mid-century Romantic style texture with its interweaving of lines and sweeping ardent melodies, its coquettish Scherzo, its emotional agenda and the fugal writing in the final movement, their playing a careful balancing of forces, their textures never turgid or in excess, as they highlighted Clara Schumann’s skilful writing and ingenuity and the intimate nature of chamber music.

 A concert of fine performance introducing the Israeli concert-goer to works not generally heard and a new work of an Israeli woman composer.



Friday, June 17, 2016

The Oreya Choir (Ukraine) performs a-cappella works at the 49th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The Oreya Choir (
As a part of its Israeli tour, the Oreya Choir from the Ukraine performed two concerts at the 49th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival. This writer attended their a-cappella concert at the Church of Our Lady of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, in the Jerusalem Hills, on June 11th 2016. The Oreya Choir was founded by Alexander Vatsek as a municipal choir in 1986. Performing internationally, Oreya has represented the Ukraine and the Zhytomyr region in concerts, festivals and competitions and is the recipient of several awards.  The choir performs a very wide range of repertoire; its liturgical repertoire, for example, includes sacred works of the Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Buddhist faiths.  Maestro Vatsek continues to serve as the choir’s conductor and musical director.

With the singers dressed in beige and yellow folk-inspired outfits, the first half of the program of Oreya’s second Abu Gosh Festival concert consisted of music mostly from the Ukraine – a-cappella arrangements of folk songs and works of living composers. The printed program offered information on each piece in both English and Hebrew, giving the concert-goer something of a picture of Ukrainian life and some events in the country’s history. In “Oh, the Violets Have Bloomed”, a Ukrainian folksong arranged by composer and theorist Stanyslav Lyudkevich, Vatsek and his singers created an idyllic nature scene, complete with bird calls.  “My Thoughts”, a tonal setting of a text by the greatest Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) (arr. Yevhen Kozak, Alexander Vatsek) and serving as an unofficial national anthem, expresses anguish and yearning for the homeland. In “Oh Field, Field” (arr. V.Mihnovetsky, A.Vatsek) the text tells of two Cossacks killed in war, one rich, the other poor; whereas the rich Cossack has a big funeral, the poor soldier has nobody to bury him, “only a raven cawing above his body”.  The ensemble performed two songs by Hanna Havrylets (b.1958), beginning with “On Sunday Morning”, in which she presents a simple melody in different guises, building up its intensity as it proceeds. Havrylets is one of the composers engaging in the now popular genre of spiritual songs in the Ukraine. With the women holding lit candles, her song “I Will Light a Candle” was suggestive of a church procession as the song spiralled from childlike simplicity to a large cluster-embellished sound, returning to the naïve-sounding solo of the young girl, the song ending in a magical whisper. Another contemporary Ukrainian woman composer represented at the concert was Tatyana Vlasenko (b.1977); bright in timbre and ceremonial in mood, “Carol” presented a tranquil, optimistic melody, some solos and many delightful bell effects.

 Following intermission, conductor and singers returned, now in formal dress, to perform works by composers from the 17th century to today – secular-, sacred and instrumental works. J.S.Bach’s “Arioso”, was sung sensitively, its phrases superbly sculpted as was the lush, lilting vocalization of a section of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. As to the sacred works, from a performance of the section of Rachmaninov’s powerful “All-Night Vigil” the composer requested be sung at his funeral, the basses competently descended below conventional choral bass range, to two of Alfred Schnittke’s “Three Sacred Hymns” with their serene harmonies and intense word-painting, to the gorgeous, fresh, vivid and tonal layering of “Ave Maria” by young American composer Daniel Elder (b.1986), to the transparently scintillating timbres, daring harmonic shifts (almost jazzy at times) and carillon references in the “Sanctus” of Poulenc’s Mass in G-major. Among the secular works, of special interest was American composer Eric Whitacre’s (b.1970) 8-voiced “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine” (2002), to a text of Charles Anthony Sivestri (b.1965), the result of a collaboration the composer himself described as “a fascinating balance, an exotic hybrid of old and new”:
‘Tormented by visions of flight and falling,
More wondrous and terrible each than the last,
Master Leonardo imagines an engine
To carry a man up into the sun…’
The singers flowed with the work’s blend of Italian madrigal and contemporary style, playing with its palette of colours and reflecting the course of the text, culminating in the women singers delighting the audience as they physically created an impression of a light aircraft swaying through the air.

Following a (literally) head-turning, whimsically buzzy vocalized rendition of “Flight of a Bumblebee” as its final encore, the choir concluded a memorable concert. The Oreya Choir, under the energetic and impeccable direction of Maestro Alexander Vatsek, is a versatile, virtuoso group, its outstanding vocal forces offering flawless vocal performance. Never static, the singers move, regroup, occupy all sections of the hall, make occasional use of small props and add choreographic touches that lend some interesting touches to first class professional choral interpretation.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Yuval Benozer conducts Ensemble Barrocade, the Kibbutz Artzi Choir and soloists at the 49th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The 49th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival took place from June 10th to 12th 2016. In perfect spring weather, people arrived from near and far to enjoy the concerts in the churches, the many outdoor musical events, picnicking, the craft stalls, the flower displays and the panoramic view over the region. This writer attended “Vivaldi -Gloria, Pergolesi – Magnificat” on June 11th in the Church of Our Lady of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim. Ensemble Barrocade and the Kibbutz Artzi Choir were conducted by music director of the Kibbutz Artzi Choir Yuval Benozer (music director of the Kibbutz Artzi Choir). Soloists were soprano Reut Rebecca, countertenor Alon Harari, oboist Yigal Kaminka and trumpeter Yuval Shapiro.

The program opened with the choir’s warm, nicely blended performance of “Ave Verum Corpus” (Hail, true body), W.A.Mozart’s small gem of a hymn, its piety and meaning  encompassed in the harmonies and chromaticism of 46 bars.

The opening aria from J.S.Bach’s “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” BWV 51 (1730) with obbligato trumpet (Yuval Shapiro) was performed by soprano Reut Rebecca. The aria’s outpouring of joy and word-painting were expressed in her fine singing of coloratura passages, the Bach score demanding virtuosity not only on the part of the singer, but on that of the obbligato trumpet role (Yuval Shapiro on natural trumpet) and also of the first violin (Shlomit Sivan). With no score to hinder, Rebecca’s singing addressed the audience, her fresh-timbred voice negotiating the minefields of this piece with ease, agility and elegance of sound.

Yuval Shapiro performed Giuseppe Torelli’s Trumpet Concerto (c.1701). Like most trumpet concertos in the Baroque, the work is written in D-major, a scale sounding best on the natural trumpet. An accomplished string player, Torelli (1658-1709) began writing his first trumpet works around 1690. It seems his interest in writing for this instrument was the result of the splendid resonance of the San Petronio Basilica (Bologna) and of his acquaintance with virtuoso trumpeter Giovanni Pellegrino Brandi, who occasionally performed with the San Petronio Orchestra, of which Torelli was a member. Torelli became the most famous and prolific composer for trumpet in that period, combining musicality, sonority and virtuosity in these pieces. With this effervescent work indeed written specifically for the natural trumpet (a valveless instrument) Shapiro’s playing merged and soloed well with the other period instruments. His foray into the tricky and precarious field of the natural trumpet (a work in process) is showing nice results and proving to be an asset to the Baroque music scene.

From an artistic Venetian family, Venetian musician, poet, philosopher, artist, diplomat and mathematician Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747) (Benedetto’s older brother) first published his Concerto for oboe and strings in D-minor in 1716. Alessandro Marcello epitomized the 18th century Italian “nobile dilettante”. His most famous work, and one of the most beautiful works of the Venetian School, the oboe concerto, also gained popularity when J.S.Bach transcribed it for harpsichord.  From the outset, Yigal Kaminka‘s performance on Baroque oboe had the audience with him all the way, his hearty, energizing and ornamented playing of the opening movement answered by first violin (Sivan). In the Adagio, with its resplendent, upward-spiralling oboe cantilena, Kaminka wove the movement’s melody with singing expressiveness and poignancy, to be followed by his buoyant, upbeat and quick-witted playing of the final movement, all much to the joy of the attending festival-goers.

As to Pergolesi referred to in the concert title, there was no work of his; we heard Neapolitan composer and famous teacher Francesco Durante’s (1684-1755) Magnificat in B-flat major, written in the 1640s. Some controversy surrounds the work. In the early 20th century the work had been attributed to Durante’s gifted pupil G.B.Pergolesi, this theory now considered incorrect. Yuval Benozer drew together the threads of the work, bringing out voice-leading in the choir and giving attention to diction, highlighting the work’s exciting and forceful choral comments and outbursts. Harari and Rebecca gave delicacy and shape to the duets, descriptive in the (tenor-bass) “Suscepit Israel”. The choir highlighted the urgency of call and response characterized in “Sicut locutus est”, celebrating the work’s last section satisfyingly with vibrant intertwining of the texts.

In a concert abounding in much festive festival fare, what could be more suitable or uplifting than Antonio Vivaldi’s much loved Gloria in D-major, a work also calling for the forces on hand on the stage! Thought to have been composed around 1715, what happened was that for two centuries after Vivaldi’s death, the Gloria remained undiscovered until the late 1920s, when the manuscript was found in a pile of forgotten Vivaldi manuscripts.  The Kibbutz Artzi Choir shaped the choruses with melodic detail, with expression and dynamic variety, their intonation exemplary for an amateur choir. In “Laudamus te”, Rebecca and Harari’s teamwork was splendid as they played out the section’s dissonances. In “Domine Deus, Rex caelestis”, Rebecca’s singing competently engaged not only in the text but also with specific players. Harari’s emotional statements in the gentle “Domine Deus, Agnus Dei”, answered by the choir, were joined by lyrical viol playing (Amit Tiefenbrunn).

The Kibbutz Artzi Choir was established in 1958, earning a reputation of excellence, recording and touring in Europe and the USA. Yuval Benozer has been the choir’s musical director and conductor since 1990. Barrocade – the Israeli Baroque Collective – was founded in 2007 by a group of young musicians, led by viola da gamba player Amit Tiefenbrunn. Shlomit Sivan is the ensemble’s first violinist.


Monday, June 13, 2016

The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir closes the 2015-2016 season with "In Wndsor Forest"

Windsor Forest (

Taking place on June 9th 2016 at Christ Church in Jerusalem’s Old City, “In Windsor Forest” was the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir’s closing concert for the 2015-2016 concert season. Conducted by Kate Belshé, the ensemble’s director as of 2014, the selective choir of 30 singers presented a demanding program of music from the British Isles, from the Renaissance to the 20th century and some folk music. Soloist was soprano Shira Cohen.

The program opened with Samuel Wesley’s (1766-1837) double choir anthem “In Exitu Israel” (When Israel Went Out), Psalm 113, a work demonstrating the composer’s admiration for J.S.Bach’s fugal style (Wesley was one of the composers to introduce Bach’s music into England), a tricky work with which to open the unaccompanied section of the concert. “Beati Quorum Via” (Blessed are those whose way) Psalm 119 a motet in six voices by Sir Charles V. Stanford (1852-1924), fared better, the choir’s reading of it capturing its mysterious, intimate and meditative character, with effective contrasts drawn between upper and lower voices.

Secular music occupied the majority of the program, with a representative group of madrigals of composers writing for the court of Elizabeth I, beginning with the choir members’ silken and poetic singing of John Bennet’s (c.1575-c.1614) “Weep O Mine Eyes”, their luxuriant waves of sound both quoting and expressing the melancholy and despair of John Dowland’s “Flow my Teares”, on which it well may have been based. Presenting Thomas Weelkes’ “Hark, All Ye Lovely Saints”, Belshé and her singers offered a lively blend of voices and dynamics, their direct, unfussed rendition of the madrigal conveying the work’s underlying message on love as hinted at by Weelkes in the piece’s harmonic and rhythmic twists. As to Thomas Morley’s less subtle “ballet” madrigal “Now is the Month of Maying”, with its bawdy double-entendres, it was performed with gusto and with plenty of dynamic colour. Moving into the Baroque and Henry Purcell’s “Sound the Trumpet” a birthday ode for Queen Mary II, performing it with soprano and alto sections seemed to bypass the opportunities for personal expression, energy and ornamentation offered by the duet when sung by two individual singers.

The concert presented a fine opportunity for the audience to hear English music from the early 20th century, a marvellous body of repertoire sadly neglected in Israeli concert halls. Kate Belshé’s precise direction of “My Spirit Sang all Day”, the setting of a Robert Bridges poem by English-Italian Jewish Sephardic composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956), gave expression to the composer’s in-depth approach to the English language in his effusive and emotional declaration of the joy of love, and all in 44 bars. A highlight of the concert was the performance of Edward Elgar’s (1857-1934) early song “My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land” to words of Scottish poet and folk tale collector Andrew Lang – an evocative, atmospheric reading, the singers’ fine intonation and clean, well-blended sound re-creating the Romantic richness of Elgar’s melodic lines and harmonies together with Lang’s nature scenes washed over with melancholy. The Oratorio Chamber Choir’s attention to the melodic layering and delicacy of Gustav Holst’s splendid setting of the modal Cornish folksong “I Love my Love” sketched in the details and despair of a young girl committed to Bedlam (Bethlehem – the infamous London asylum) and deranged as her loved one has been sent to sea, creating the music’s sense of rocking (the girl’s lonely rocking back and forth?) in scintillating sounds. In the choral arrangement David Overton made for the King’s Singers of the Scottish folk song “Loch Lomond”, baritone Shlomo Tirosh sang the solo in a relaxed, pleasant manner.

Then to English music’s strong connection to theatre. We heard an excerpt from Act II of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Pirates of Penzance” or “The Slave of Duty” (1880), with soloists David Goldblatt, Shira Cohen, Simone Kessler and Louis Sachs. Accompanying on the piano was Rina Schechter. In the role of the sergeant, David Goldblatt displayed richness of vocal timbre; too poker-faced for the roistering hi jinks of this opera, Goldblatt’s voice was also a little too reticent. Shira Cohen, looking comfortable in the role, made for a saucy Mabel, her light coloratura easeful, agile and most pleasing. The final work performed was “In Windsor Forest”, a cantata of choruses drawn from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ (1872-1958) opera “Sir John in Love”. Based on Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”, “Sir John in Love” was composed in 1928 and premiered in London in 1929.  The cantata opened with “The Conspiracy” (words: Shakespeare), a celebratory piece sung only by the women members of the choir. In the “Drinking Song” (words: John Still, Bishop of Bath and Wells!), the choir’s men singers pulled out the plugs to create its roguish, rollicking folksy character. “Falstaff and the Fairies” (Shakespeare, Ravenscroft, Lyly) offered some gossamer-fine textures as it took us into the forest but also some dramatic moments, its playful ending somewhat of a patter song; Shira Cohen’s theatrical flair gave pizzazz to her solo here. In the “Wedding Chorus” (Ben Johnson), the only tranquil movement of the cantata, the choir created a piece of delicacy and lyricism. Concluding the work, the “Epilogue” (Campion, Rossiter), displaying some strange counterpoint, bids farewell with words of wisdom:

“All our pride is but a jest.
None are worse and none are best.
Grief and joy and hope and fear
Play their pageants ev’rywhere.
Vain opinion all doth sway,
And the world is but a play.”

Kate Belshé and the ensemble gave this rarely-performed work a spirited performance, with Rina Schechter’s piano accompaniments supportive and lively. The Oratorio Chamber Choir saw the audience out with Bob Chilcott’s tender arrangement of “O Danny Boy” (Londonderry Air).

Ms. Belshé holds degrees from the University of Southern California and Williams College and is the recipient of several awards. She sings in the Gary Bertini Chamber Ensemble and Choir.  In 2010, she formed the Walworth Barbour American International School Advanced Chorus and was assistant conductor of the Meitav Vocal Ensemble (Rosh Ha'ayin) from 2013 to 2014.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer" at the 2016 Israel Festival

Maestro Murry Sidlin (photo:Jeff Roffman)

A significant event of the 2016 Israel Festival, “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer” took place in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre on June 2nd. Designed, narrated and conducted by Murry Sidlin, whose “Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezin” was performed at the 2012 Israel Festival, the current production presents works of 15 Jewish composers imprisoned in the Terezin Concentration Camp during World War II. Many of the works heard were the last composed by these composers, some in their 20s or 30s, who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Sidlin narrated in English, with Sharon Hacohen Bar reading in Hebrew. Soloists were pianist Phillip Silver (USA), the fama Q String Quartet (Czechoslovakia), Czech singers soprano Marie Fajtová, mezzo-soprano Veronika Hajnová and baritone Roman Janál, joined by tenor Dan Dunkelblum (Israel/Switzerland). Students of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s Younes and Soraya Chamber Program joined the fama Q players to form a chamber orchestra. The event received support from the Defiant Requiem Foundation and the Gretchen M. Brooks University Residency Project Fund.

 The Theresienstadt Camp in the garrison city of Terezin, was a “model camp”, the spotlighting of its rich cultural life a propaganda effort designed to fool the western allies. And, indeed, there was a huge amount of cultural activity in Terezin, the camp referred to by Sidlin as an “improvised university” featuring the plastic arts, offering lectures, theatre performances of new and old works, concerts, opera and even cabaret. German scholar Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956), a prisoner there, referred to all this activity as “hours of freedom”, offering momentary relief from the camp’s horrific conditions and suffering.  In addition to the information presented by Sidlin and Hacohen Bar on the musical activity of composers in the camp, Terezin survivor and actress Zdenka Fantlová (on video) recounted much about cultural life there, explaining that composing and performing music in a camp where 200 people were dying every day were a means of fighting for life.

 The concert program was divided into nine themes, the first being Longing and opening with a song of Czech poet Ilse Weber (1903-1944), who had written more than 60 poems in Terezin, setting many to music. Her first song “I wander through Theresienstadt” which ends with “When will our suffering end, when shall we again be free?” was performed. It was she who had written that “words provide facts but that music provides the truth”. A nurse in the camp, Ilse Weber volunteered to be deported to Auschwitz together with Terezin’s sick children, perishing there with her son.  Pavel Haas’ (1899-1944) agonized “Far is My Home, O Moon” (to a Chinese text), effectively performed by Roman Janál, reflects the elements of Haas’ compositional style, its intensity and the pain of longing. More tonal was “Arioso” a ‘cello work by James Simon (1880-1944) (played here very poignantly by Balázs Adorján); Simon had been working on the work minutes before he was sent to the gas chambers.

 Hope – Music expressing hope for the future gave prisoners a sense of freedom. The last movement of the Trio composed by pianist and composer Gideon Klein (1919-1945) was a reminder of the cutting edge, sophisticated and brilliant writing of one of Terezin’s youngest and most promising musicians. Hope was in the soul of Rudolph Karel (1880-1944) when composing a nonet (would there be players to perform it?), his last work, on the few scraps of paper at his disposal. Fortunately, the sketches survived and the work was premiered in 1985. The second movement, lyrical and evocative, with no hint of gloom, was performed at the Jerusalem concert. And we learned that there were two cabaret companies functioning in Terezin. Zdenka Fantlová, herself a cabaret artist, spoke of the witty, ironical and political content of these shows. Czech cabaret artist, comedian, songwriter and writer Karel Švenk (1917-1945) was a leading figure on the Terezin cabaret scene. Soprano Maria Fajtová re-created the vivacity, humour and optimism of Švenk’s deceptively jolly song “Vsechno Jde” (Anything Goes!), a marching tune that was quickly to become the camp anthem.

 The Messenger – This refers to letters sent by prisoners to families to reassure them that “all is well”. Murry Sidlin also spoke of composer Viktor Kohn’s (1910-1944) musical portrait of Jakob Edelstein (a leader and hero of the Terezin Ghetto, who perished in Auschwitz). Kohn’s Preludium for String Quartet opus 12 (1942) opens with the notes e-d-e, the first letters of Edelstein’s name, a  work rich in tension but also warmth; it was performed with dedication by the fama Q string quartet. The 5th movement of Piano Sonata no.7 by Viktor Ullmann, one of Czechoslovakia and Terezin’s major composers, includes some very different elements - a Hussite patriotic tune, a Lutheran chorale and the BACH motif, also a setting of a song by the poetess Rachel, the latter emerging as a symbol of the composer’s identity. The movement was performed by Phillip Silver.

 Fate – (Schicksal in German) was a preoccupation among Terezin inmates. German-born Zikmund Schul (1916-1944), whose friend and mentor was Viktor Ullmann, died of tuberculosis in Terezin. Veronika Hajnová’s performance of “Schicksal” (1943) for alto, flute viola and ‘cello from the “Dunkle Klange” (Dark Sounds) cycle was given an impactful, dramatic and philosophical rendition, its final word emerging as “death”. Hans Krása’s fate was to be sent to Auschwitz in 1944 along with Viktor Ullmann, Pavel Haas and Gideon Klein, where all perished in the gas chambers.  Known for his children’s opera “Brundibár”, Krása (1899-1944) combined highly melodic writing with interesting instrumentation that characterized his own vivid and personal style.  Singing one of Krása’s last works “Three Songs” (1943) for baritone, clarinet, viola and ‘cello to poems of Arthur Rimbaud, Roman Janál gave voice to the beauty of nature and to joy but also hinting at fragility and fate. The Terezin cabaret artists addressed fate with sarcasm, as heard in Berlin-born jazz pianist Martin Roman’s (1919-1996) “We are riding on wooden horses” from “Karussell” (1844), its lyrics evoking memories of the carnival and better times; it was presented vividly by mezzo-soprano Veronika Hajnová.

 Eye Witness: Nothing could be more realistic and blatant than “The Auschwitz Corpse Factory” from opera singer, composer and conductor Karel Berman’s (1919-1995) “Terezín Suite”. This piano suite (commemorating the composer’s 25th birthday), one of the few works to actually comment on events of the Holocaust from the perspective of an insider, taking its cue from the death march and horrors there, has become one of the best-known piano works written in Terezin.  The great Czech conductor Karel Ancerl, a Terezin prisoner, had requested a work from Pavel Haas for the Terezin Orchestra. The Nazis filmed the performance of “Studie for Strings” for propaganda. Haas took the score with him to Auschwitz, where he perished, but Ancerl, who survived, was fortunate in finding the orchestral parts in Terezin after the war. A moving moment of Sidlin’s production was the Nazis’ film of the performance, with the players on stage at the Jerusalem Theatre joining those on the crackly, black-and-white film.

Pure Entertainment: Violinist Egon Ledeč (1889-1944) was transported to Terezin in December 1941, where he played in the ‘Doctors’ Quartet’, the first string quartet formed in the camp, then establishing the Ledeč Quartet. He sometimes entertained other prisoners by performing in a courtyard with an accordionist and was known to have taken his quartet into the forest for a relaxing place to play. We heard his Gavotte for String Quartet, a tonal piece abounding in charm and a sense of well-being. Robert Dauber (1922-1945), a talented pianist and ‘cellist, died of typhoid in Dachau. His only surviving composition - Serenade for Violin and Piano -  a gentle, sweetly sentimental piece, shows the influence of his father, Dol Dauber, a composer of dance music.

 The Broken Heart: Accomplished pianist, conductor and composer Carlo Taube (1897-1944) was deported to Terezin with his wife and child.  Of the works he composed there, only his song “Ein jüdisches Kind” (A Jewish Child) – the words written by his wife - has survived. Marie Fajtová gave a sensitive and delicately shaped performance of the lullaby in which parents express love for the child for whom they are unable to provide a home. We then watched some footage of one of the 50-or-so Terezin performances of “Brundibár”, this children’s opera composed by Hans Krása in 1938 to a libretto of Adolf Hoffmeister. The Nazi propaganda film shows a children’s chorus and a large captivated audience. What the film cannot disguise are the children’s serious, set facial expressions, their sad eyes reflecting their awareness of impending tragedy.

 Censorship: Setting a libretto of poet Peter Klein, Viktor Ullmann composed “Der Kaiser von Atlantis” while interned in Terezin. An unconcealed indictment of war and Nazi atrocities, Ullmann used in it such strategies as reversing the German national anthem. An SS officer halted a rehearsal of the work, after which Ullmann and his family were never seen again; the opera was never staged in Terezin. Somehow, the manuscript survived. Enlisting the three Czech guest singers, Murry Sidlin presented an excerpt from this masterpiece, whose bleak message also includes moments of hope. Sidlin spoke of how manuscripts survived Terezin - some hidden in walls, under floors and other places, some passed from hand to hand; many manuscripts have been lost for ever.

 In Memoriam: “Hours of Freedom” concluded with Murry Sidlin conducting Bohuslav Martinů’s (1890-1959) sombre and restrained “Memorial to Lidice” for orchestra H.296, composed in 1943.  Following the assassination of one of the chief architects of the Nazi “final solution”, Hitler had ordered the extermination of Lidice, a small village which happened to be near where the attack had taken place. The Nazis killed the men, sent the women and most of the children to concentration camps, then levelling the whole town, including the cemetery. Martinů, a Czech non-Jewish composer, was living in the USA at the time he wrote the piece, later returning to France, his adopted homeland.

 Maestro Sidlin first learned the story of Terezin in 1994 from “The Music of Terezin”, a book he found at the bottom of a sale table in a Minneapolis bookstore. This led to “The Defiant Requiem” presentation. Once again, Maestro Sidlin has produced a profound, well-researched and fascinating program, rich in information and offering some very fine musical performance of works by 15 composers who were prisoners in Theresienstadt.  It was Viktor Ullmann who in his essay “Goethe and the Ghetto” had written: “We did not simply sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep but evinced a desire to produce art that was entirely commensurate with our will to live”. “Hours of Freedom: The Story of the Terezin Composer”, paying homage to these composers, was moving, enriching and humbling.


Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ensemble PHOENIX presents English 'mad songs' in "Passion & Madness"

“Passion & Madness”, a musical theatre piece by Myrna Herzog, combining texts and 17th century English music, is a new production of Ensemble PHOENIX. This writer attended the performance on May 31st 2016 at the Felicja Blumental Music Center, Tel Aviv. Artists performing in the event were Alon Harari-countertenor, Rachel Ringelstein, Tali Goldberg-Baroque violins, Marina Minkin-harpsichord and PHOENIX founder and musical director Myrna Herzog playing a 1680 Edward Lewis viola da gamba, quite in keeping with the program!

In order to present the 17th century English ‘mad song’ sub-genre, Dr. Myrna Herzog has created a story, basing the texts read by Alon Harari on writings of the time - in particular on those of the outspoken prolific poet, playwright and librettist Thomas D’Urfey (1653-1723) - a story that evokes the emotions and tribulations of Tom, a man driven insane by love and the rejection of his lover, the stages of his derangement, how people in his state were treated in London of the time and, finally, the point where he is cured of his madness when his lover returns to him. You might call Herzog’s production a 17th century English case study of insanity. In Restoration England there was a fascination with the abnormal,in particular with lunacy; people paid money to be entertained by visits to such asylums as the Bethlehem Royal Hospital (Bedlam) in London. As to the fanciful, often amusing, daring and colourful mad songs all written within a span of 50 years, this (under-researched) body of English music gave composers opportunities to deviate from musical conventions,to write more freely and use “jarring harmonies, disjunct melodic leaps,rhetorical musical repetition and sudden changes in tempo and key” in the words of American singer and teacher Rebecca Crow Lister. The ‘mad song’repertoire also serves to throw light on society’s mores and standards of normalcy. Since Restoration drama made extensive use of music, mad scenes and insane characters often formed the showpiece of a play, the songs describing traits of madness, those being different in men to those in women.Popular both on the stage and in the streets, the 17th century 'mad song' reached a pinnacle with the songs of Henry Purcell.

The PHOENIX program, designed by Herzog along the lines of the English masque and including a couple of arrangements written by Dr. Alon Schab, falls into different sections: Passion, Misogyny, Delirium, Bedlam and Epilogue. Musical items were punctuated by Alon Harari’s informative, spirited and emotional reading of Herzog’s text, its theme bristling with dire philosophy on the dangers of love…and women. Setting the scene and whetting the audience’s appetite for an evening rich in extreme emotions, the instrumentalists performed a movement of Christopher Gibbons/Matthew Locke’s masque “Cupid and Death”. Following Harari’s posing the question of whether passion could turn into madness, the ensemble launched into songs by John Blow (1649-1708), a pupil of Christopher Gibbons, who was to constitute a major influence on Henry Purcell. Blow’s small theatre music oeuvre contains some fine examples of mad songs. Alon Harari’s singing of “Loving Above Himself” was gorgeously sighing, rich in melismas, gestures and interest; “The Self-Banished”, delicately accompanied by harpsichord and viola da gamba, expresses both avoiding the dangers and the irresistible attraction of loving a certain woman, with  dejected agenda of “Tell Me No More You Love” offering advice on how to avoid the pain of love.  John Eccles (1668-1735), on the other hand, composed music for some 30 plays, setting texts of D’Urfey and writing much for an actress by the name of Anne Bracegirdle. Eccles’ songs figured substantially in the PHOENIX production. “I Burn, I Burn” (from D’Urfey’s 1694 extravaganza “Don Quixote”) and written for Anne Bracegirdle, became one of the most celebrated of the 'mad songs' and a prototype for the risqué female mad song genre (with sexual references characterized by references to fire and heat). Harari’s performance of it was dramatic, volatile and moody, as he took cues from the text to fashion his singing. In “Restless in Thought, Disturbed in Mind”, a striking evocation of a woman’s despair shaped by short imitative exchanges between singer and continuo, Harari was easeful in his use of melisma as he disturbingly stressed such words as “restless”, “fluttering” and “enslaved”, the woman’s insanity portrayed by uncanny upward leaps from below the countertenor voice. An interesting contrast to these extroverted pieces was Moravian composer Gottfried Finger’s (1655/6-1730) “While I with Wounding Grief”. Godfrey (to the English) Finger spent some six years in London, in which time he wrote prolifically for London’s busy theatre scene. In this tranquil, strophic setting of his, the PHOENIX artists outwardly keep demonstrative behaviour subtly under wraps as D’Urfey’s text spills out a volley of insults, heartbreak and contempt of the unfaithful woman – “Love had turned your brain; From you the dire Disease I took; For I much more doe rage for you…” Another understated approach is that of John Wilson (1595-1674) in “Beauty which all men desire”, in which unorthodox harmonies lend emphasis to the text’s uneasy content.

And to Henry Purcell’s (1659-1695) mad songs, with Harari and the players’ zesty, dancelike C-major jollity of “There’s nothing so fatal as Woman”, no real disguise for vehement and virulent misogyny. From Purcell’s incomplete opera “The Indian Queen”, “I attempt from Love’s sickness to fly”, Marina Minkin offered a sophisticated inégal lilt to the introduction of the popular and celebrated soprano rondeau air, once again, a bright melody and fairly light accompaniment enigmatically expressing Queen Zempoalla’s despair and longing, her “fever and pain”. Harari infused the imaginative, indeed hallucinatory text of “I’ll sail upon the Dog Star” from D’Urfey’s “A Fool’s Preferment” (1688) with verve. With Tom confined at Bedlam, D’Urfey’s text sends him sailing upwards harum-scarum to find his lover:
‘I’ll climb the frosty mountain,
And there I’ll coin the weather;
I’ll tear the rainbow from the sky,
And tie both ends together…’
As to the anonymous song “Mad Tom of Bedlam”, Harari’s daring,  unaccompanied performance allowed the audience to ponder the text’s dense information telling of Tom’s ordeals at Bedlam in a “sad and dismall cell”, in “troublesome shackles”, where “pity is not common”, his monologue also turning to the gods of classical mythology.

Not only did the instrumental pieces threaded through the program provide dramatic relief from the anxieties of misguided love and its consequences, they connected with the songs on different levels and provided interludes of elegant- and superbly crafted chamber music. In their truly poetic and polished reading of Purcell’s Sonata no.3 in A-minor Z.804, for example, the players gave expression to Purcell’s blend of Italian energy and French elegance imbued with a touch of English melancholy. Also making for splendid listening, we heard Sonata in G-minor by Italian organist and composer Giovanni Battista Draghi (c.1649-1708), who was brought to England by Charles II in the 1660s. In precisely crafted performance and flawless communication between the instrumentalists, the PHOENIX players brought out the beauty of this somewhat sombre, chromatically coloured piece. Another treat was Marina Minkin’s hearty playing of John Blow’s “Mortlake Ground” written to an Italian ciaccona bass, as she invited the listener to hear each variation as fresh and different to its predecessor, then teasing the audience with some playful tempo changes as the work drew towards its conclusion.

In one of the current season’s most exciting and unique concerts, Dr. Myrna Herzog and her team of select artists have once again presented the public with a new and inspiring program, one stamped with PHOENIX Ensemble’s signature high quality performance. Not to be missed.

Rachel Ringelstein,Marina Minkin,Tali Goldberg,Myrna Herzog,Alon Harari (photo:Maxim Reider)