Saturday, September 24, 2016

Concerts offering in the October 2016 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

The Crypt (photo: Berthold Werner)

The 50th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, under the direction of Hanna Tzur, will take place from October 20th to 24th 2016. Concerts will be performed at the Church of the Ark of the Covenant, on the hill of Kiryat Ye’arim (appropriately called the Town of Forests), and in the 12th century Crusader Church Crypt that nestles among the mature pine trees of a magical garden in the lower area of Abu Gosh. (The historic town of Abu Gosh is located 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem.) In the words of festival director Hanna Tzur: “Twice a year the village of Abu Gosh becomes a paradise for vocal music-lovers, who come in their thousands from all over the country and turn Abu Gosh and its churches into a colourful vocal locale of festivities”.

For a pre-festival treat on a very different note, to take place on Thursday October 20th, many of the finest accordionists around will perform folk music in six locations in and around the Kiryat Ye’arim Church.

As in each Abu Gosh Festival, music-lovers will be able to hear several great works of choral repertoire – Brahms’ “German Requiem” (Concert no.2), for example, will be performed in its original form for choir, soloists and two pianos and will feature the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (Director: Stanley Sperber). In “Brilliant Baroque with Bach and Caldara from Venice” (Concert no.4) the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir (director Michael Shani) will be joined by soloists Yeela Avital, Gòn Halevi, Doron Florentin and Guy Pelc. For “Pergolesi - Stabat Mater” (Concert no.5), the program also including the Fauré “Requiem”, the Barrocade Ensemble will be joined by fine soloists and the Bat Kol and Maayan Choirs (director: Anat Morahg.) In Concert no.6, Hanna Tzur herself will conduct soloists, the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir and the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria”, also works of Verdi and Kurt Weill. The Moran Ensemble (director: Naomi Faran) and soloists will perform “Mendelssohn Gloria, Schubert Magnificat” (Concert no.7); selections from J.S.Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” can be heard in “Bach - Requiem for a Prince”, with Ron Zarhi directing soloists and instrumentalists in Concert no.9.

An auspicious event of the 2016 Fall festival will be the world premiere of Sicilian Baroque composer Michelangelo Falvetti’s oratorio “Nabuco” in its complete form (Concert no.8), performed by Ensemble PHOENIX with vocal soloists. Working with musicologist Fabrizio Longo, PHOENIX founder and director Dr. Myrna Herzog has put together the first reliable score of the work for this ground-breaking event. A renowned Baroque violinist, Fabrizio Longo will also be joined by soprano Einat Aronstein, Avid Stier (harpsichord) and Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba) in Concert no.14 in the Crypt to play works of Vivaldi, Banchieri and Vivaldi.

Regularly performing at Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festivals, members of the Meitar Opera Studio of the Israeli Opera, accompanied by studio director, arranger and pianist David Sebba, will present “Carmen in Abu Gosh” (Concert no.10), a program of opera gems, French Classical works and French chansons. Other events will also offer a mix of classical- and non-classical works: “Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Henry Purcell” (Concert no.16) with countertenor Gòn Halevi and guitarist Eyal Leber and “An Exciting Meeting Between Jazz and Classic” (Concert no.15), featuring soprano Sharon Dvorin, with guitarist Uri Bracha and bassist Oren Sagi.

Other festive fare will include a concert of music from East and West (Concert no.11), with singer, oud player and violinist Yair Dalal and sitar player Yotam Haimovich, “The Virtuosi” (Concert no.12) in which accordionist Emil Aybinder and mandolin artist Shmuel Elbaz with perform music from Armenia, Macedonia, Romania, Russia and Hungary as well as a Piazzolla work, Concert no. 1 – Mikis Theodorakis’ oratorio “Canto General”, with alto Silvia Kigel and the Kibbutz Artzi Choir conducted by Yuval Benozer; also “From the Andes to Copacabana” (Concert no.13) in which mezzo-soprano Anat Czarny will be joined by Tamar Melzer Krymolowski (flute) and guitarist Erez Yaacov.

This festival will host members of the Simvol Very Men’s Choir (Russia). Conducted by Pnina Inbar and Seraphim Dubnov (Concert no.3) they will sing works of Dvorak, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and arrangements of Russian folk songs in a joint program with the (Israeli) Naama Ensemble.

In the Abu Gosh Festival’s relaxed atmosphere, concert-goers can also enjoy informal outdoor concerts, browse the craft stalls and picnic with friends in the tranquil setting of the Judean Hills.



Friday, September 23, 2016

Members of Ensemble PHOENIX recreate the Paris salon, taking listeners to the Isle of Cythera

Tal Arbel, Marina Minkin, Myrna Herzog (photo: Eliahu Feldman)
“Journey to the Isle of Cythera” was the curious title of a house concert in Ra’anana, a small city in the central area of Israel, on September 15th 2016. Performed by PHOENIX members – founder and director Myrna Herzog and Tal Arbel (viols) and Marina Minkin (spinet) - the program consisted of French Baroque works as well a few Italian pieces. Making this event unique was seeing and hearing two beautifully crafted French pardessus viols built by Louis Guersan and Benoist Fleury and a quinton made by Nicolas Chappuy, heard in performance, in my opinion, for the first time in Israel.  We were about to take part in the experience of the musical salon. The French salon, a result of the Enlightenment of the early 18th century, acted as an extension of the royal court, providing women with an alternative to the court in order to gain status in the elite echelons, offering them a positive role in the public sphere of French society. As to the ladies’ choice of instruments, Herzog spoke of the violin (and ‘cello) as considered too vulgar for women to play in the salon. Women of the time were more likely to choose the harpsichord or the “pardessus de viole” (a sopranino viol of five or six strings, the highest pitched member of the viol family) instruments popular from the late 17th century up to around 1760. The five-string quinton, shaped like a violin, is the subject of discussion in Dr. Myrna Herzog’s article “Is the quinton a viol? A puzzle unravelled” (Early Music, 2000) in which she writes that the quinton is “a viol with a violin-like shape”. With these small instruments played mostly by women, Herzog recounts that “one of the most important [performers] was Mlle. Levi, who delighted all Paris with her performances of the ‘Concert Spirituel’ in 1745”.

J-A Watteau’s painting “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1717) hangs in the Louvre, Paris. It depicts lovers about to sail to the Greek island of Cythera, or are they, in fact, returning from the island in pairs? The lush oil painting, a true Rococo masterpiece of the then-new “fêtes galantes” genre that depicted courtly scenes in idyllic country settings, captures the sense of excitement and carefree prevailing in French aristocratic society of the time. With the Greek island of Cythera claiming to be the birthplace of Aphrodite (goddess of love) the above-mentioned painting, from which the PHOENIX Ensemble concert took its title, has fired the imagination of many a European artist dreaming of such an amorous escapade.

Whetting our taste for a true salon concert, the artists opened with an excerpt from Alexandre de Villeneuve’s (1677-1756) “Le Voyage de Cythère” (1727). A secular cantata for soprano and basso continuo, it features obbligato flute and violin. The composer’s introductory letter was not addressed to any royal patron but to the women who would be singing the cantata. We heard Tal Arbel on recorder, with Myrna Herzog playing the vocal line; Herzog and Arbel presented an excerpt from the text welcoming the lovers to the island, read in the original French and in a Hebrew translation. And on the subject of love, what could be more pertinent than one of François Couperin’s “Concerts Royaux”, composed for the “little chamber music concerts to which Louis XIV summoned me almost every Sunday”, in the composer’s words, and in which Couperin played the harpsichord. His Ninth Royal Concert – “Ritratto dell’Amore” evokes the various facets of love. The artists highlighted its grace, wit and elegance of court dance music in gently-swayed gestures.

Tal Arbel and Marina Minkin performed the Prelude from “Pièces de Viole” Book II, (1738) of Roland Marais (one of the celebrated Marin Marais’ 19 children), a leading viol player of the reign of Louis XV. Composed for bass viol and figured bass, Arbel’s playing focused attention on the piece’s agenda, with Minkin giving the harpsichord plenty of say. Even more daring was Jean-Baptiste Forqueray’s piece “Jupiter”, in which Arbel presented the demonic, dark gestures, the extrovert and the unpredictability of this small, unconventional work.

So why does a program of French Baroque chamber music include two sonatas of Arcangelo Corelli? Corelli’s music was known in France due to its extensive publication, its numerous editions pervading every corner of Europe, serving as models for violinists and composers. Editions were bought by people wanting to perform the music, these including the growing number of amateurs.  The Corelli trios were performed from a hand-written copy for two pardessus viols by Alexandre de Villeneuve. The Ra’anana house concert offered maximal conditions for hearing the finest details of Corelli’s Opus 3 No.2 and Opus 4 No.8 trio sonatas in this scoring and in all the text’s articulate detail, highlighting the imitative interaction between Herzog and Arbel and much elegant shaping of phrases. Neapolitan-born composer Francesco Guerini wrote a number of sonatas for two flutes, with the option of playing them on two  pardessus de viole. Herzog and Arbel played the Allegro from Duetto IV (1761), music both charming and accessible. 

Returning to French music, of the works of Jean-Philippe Rameau on the program, Marina Minkin played two solo pieces - the joyful “Les Sauvages” (inspired by two Louisiana Indians Rameau had seen performing in a Paris theatre) performed with verve and inventive ornamenting. In “L’Enharmonique” we meet Rameau the intellect and theorist in unprecedented writing for the harpsichord, in which he examines the effects of enharmonics and to where they lead, and surprising effects they were! With Minkin’s articulacy and artistic discretion, the pieces sounded especially convincing on the spinet, an instrument built for Herzog by Abel Vargas (Brazil) in 1992. Rameau’s “Musette and Tambourin” closing the evening soirée with delicacy and spirit were taken from viol virtuoso Ludwig Christian Hesse’s arrangements of Rameau works for two viols (and harpsichord), the viols thought to have been played by Hesse and his pupil Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia.
In his painting, “Pilgrimage to Cythera” as well as in its variation “The Embarkation for Cythera” (1718), Antoine Watteau has created an idyllic scene in which Parisian ladies and gentlemen are about to engage in a “fête galante” under the watchful eye of Aphrodite’s statue. The tiny island of Cythera does really exist northwest of Crete; it boasts beautiful landscapes – forests, waterfalls, cliffs, gorges and an incredible wealth of wildflowers. We can see pictures of the lush island on the Internet or even take an idyllic vacation there. Members of the Paris salon would have only Watteau’s paintings on which to base their imaginings. Myrna Herzog’s musical ventures bring together ideas and fine playing. Her concerts never fail to take the listener into other worlds of sound, of fantasy and of interest, revealing so much about the essence of early music, its background and the people who created it.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Israel Chamber Orchestra opens its 2016-2017 season with J.S.Bach's Mass in B-minor

Maestro Ariel Zuckermann (photo: Felix Broede)
The Israel Chamber Orchestra opened its 2016-2017 season - “Colors Worth Hearing” - with J.S.Bach’s Mass in B-minor BWV 232. The work was conducted by Ariel Zuckermann, the ICO’s musical director. Soloists were soprano Claire Meghnagi, alto Avital Dery, tenor Eitan Drori and bass Raimond Nolte (Germany). Joining them was the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance (director: Stanley Sperber). This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on September 13th 2016.

Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last years of his life in Leipzig compiling parts of previously-composed works, mostly from his cantatas (the practice of “parody”) into his last great composition – the Mass in B-minor. Composed over 15 years, certain sections had been performed, but less than a year after completing it, Bach died, never to hear it performed in its entirety. Not only does the work include Bach’s study of several musical styles – coordinating style of the past and the future in the High Baroque, stile antico and the Galant style - its spiritual agenda would subtly but surely have some connection with the history of his own personal religious dilemmas as a Lutheran and his position regarding Lutheran Protestantism of his day.

With Zuckermann’s performance of the B-minor Mass, we are not talking about performance on period instruments or of Joshua Rifkin and Andrew Parrott’s one-to-a-part approach for the singing of choruses. An ambitious undertaking, the work is so universal that what is essential to any conductor taking on the challenge is to understand how perfect the piece is and how to present its detail, its fusion of styles and its meaning, which extends far beyond that of a sacred Baroque work. In my opinion, performing and hearing the B-minor Mass presents as much interest for instrumentalists as it does for singers; Zuckermann led his orchestra in playing that was secure, supportive, articulate and elegant. We heard some splendid playing from the wind sections and there were several beautifully rendered obbligato parts enriching the various arias.  The Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir, boasting four strong sections, gave crystal-clear expression to fine detail, complex melodic strands and the work’s extensive use of counterpoint. At times, the choral sopranos tended to emerge a little too dominant. The fragmenting of words in the opening Kyrie, probably in the name of clarity, was somewhat baffling. In contrast to the vibrant energy of some of the more dramatic choruses, with the choir’s enunciating of consonants energizing phrases and meaning, the subtle and moving expression in such choruses as the “Qui tollis” (Gloria), the “Credo in unum Deum” (Credo) or in the colliding, tragic dissonances of the “Crucifixus” was hauntingly cushioned in lush, velvety harmonies.

Vocal solos and duets were dealt with well, if not always grippingly. Claire Meghnagi and Avital Dery’s very different styles and timbres did not make for felicitous dueting. Meghnagi and Eitan Drori found more common ground in the “Domine Deus”, with Drori and flute obbligato compatible in the “Benedictus”. Guest bass-baritone Raimond Nolte’s singing was attentive, his upper register pleasingly mellifluous. But, of all the soloists, it was alto Avital Dery who was the most engaging in her truly outstanding interpretation, her communication with the audience and her highlighting of the profound emotional content of each aria. With Maestro Zuckermann’s interest in articulacy, the most complex, multi-layered contrapuntal textures were never unintelligible under his direction. He led all in a performance that bristled with freshness, poise and luxuriance.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The Israel Pianists Quartet "Octopus" hosts Taiseer Elias and Alex Ansky in a program from Bach to Avni

Bart Berman, Tavor Guchman, Yifat Zeidel, Meir Wiesel (photo: Ilan Shapira)

One of the opening events for the 2016-2017 concert season was that of the Israel Pianists Quartet “Octopus” on September 10th in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Guest artists were oud player Taiseer Elias and actor Alex Ansky.

Formed in 2013, “Octopus” consists of four pianists playing on two pianos – piano 1: Yifat Zeidel and Bart Berman, piano 2: Tavor Guchman and Meir Wiesel.  The ensemble’s aim is to promote high quality arrangements of classical works and to encourage and perform new Israeli works, having so far performed works by Josef Bardanashvili and Eran Ashkenazi. The September 10th concert included the world premiere of Tzvi Avni’s “Metamorphosis” (2016), a work for oud and four pianists.

The concert opened with Paul Klengel’s 8-hand arrangement of Johannes Brahms’ Serenade No.2 in A-major opus 16. A work originally scored for winds, ‘cellos and double bass, written by the young Brahms as a work to provide him with experience in orchestral writing prior to embarking on the composition of symphonies, Klengel’s setting works incredibly well on two pianos. In a balance of restraint and finely “orchestrated” expression, the “Octopus” artists drew out the work’s innate mellowness, so Brahmsian in temperament - the darker piano timbres reminding us that the original score includes no violins. As they re-created the work’s solid, full-bodied sound world and seamless melodiousness, the work’s dance movements and its folk-like scherzo, the artists fashioned as one player the work’s centrepiece - the poetic Adagio non troppo - in singing, tender resonance. Adding an extra dimension and throwing light on Brahms’ personal emotional life, the Serenade movements were punctuated by actor Alex Ansky’s reading of excerpts from letters of Brahms  from Shimshon Inbal’s lofty Hebrew translation of “Brahms: His Life and Work” by Karl Geiringer: letters effusive with love to his mother and Clara Schumann, a jolly description of his birthday celebration and quite a heartrending account of Robert Schumann’s dying in letters to his friend Julius Otto Grimm; also a self-effacing, letter to violinist Joseph Joachim, showing admiration for the violinist’s compositions.

Taking Max Reger’s lesser-known but rich piano transcription of J.S.Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D-minor BWV 565, Meir Wiesel adapted it to the 8-hand “Octopus” constellation. Dousing the opening chords in a ringing effect of the sustaining pedal was a reminder of the grand church pipe organ and church acoustic, but from there, we were returned to the possibilities offered by two modern grand pianos. Comparing organ and piano timbres here would be a pointless exercise; using the physical strength demanded of the modern pianist, the artists presented the work’s drama of large dimensions; its pared-down, more intimate sections came across with pleasing articulacy. As to the work’s daring and pomposity, referred to as “famosissimo” and “celebratissima” by Alberto Basso in his 1979 Bach biography, that is what the work is about, and the audience loved it.

Performer, scholar and researcher Taiseer Elias, one of the world’s leading soloists in the field of classical Arab music, founded and has headed the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s Department of Eastern Music, leading the Arab-Jewish Orchestra; he also teaches at Bar-Ilan University. At the Tel Aviv concert, we heard Professor Elias in solo on the oud in improvisations and variations on “The Pretty Maiden”, an Arabic folk melody.  Elegant, virtuosic and succinct, Elias’ poetical playing produced a kaleidoscope of east and west – the song melody richly ornamented, then dovetailed with sections based on western harmonies, including a reflection on the Bach Toccata and Fugue performed prior to the solo. The use of a microphone allowed listeners in the hall to enjoy every filigree detail to the full.

An auspicious item on the program was the world premiere of “Metamorphosis”, a work by Israeli composer Tzvi Avni (b.1927) for oud and 8 hands on two pianos. Professor Avni spoke briefly about the piece’s genesis. When Meir Wiesel approached him in July 2016 with the suggestion of a new work for “Octopus” and oud, Avni had just finished reading Kafka’s novella “The Metamorphosis”, in which Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find he has turned into a large, monstrous insect. The novella proceeds to deal with Gregor’s attempt to deal with the situation and to his family’s attitude to the repulsive creature he has become. Avni makes no effort to write the story into the work, but has taken from it the theme of coping, of finding solutions to a given situation, such as living in Israeli society, where east and west meet. Avni’s opening gesture in “Metamorphosis” takes the form of an imposing and uncompromising piano cluster. Then, in writing that is both pleasing and appropriate for the instrument, we hear the oud in its own musical agenda. Dialogue between pianos and oud oscillates between the docile and the conflicted. Following a long, engaging oud solo, the pianos enter once more, accompanying the oud in velvety textures, the strumming of piano strings at one moment meeting the oriental plucked instrument in a spacy, otherworldly effect. In this new work, Tzvi Avni has met and juxtaposed the most unlikely of instrumental combinations, coupling them on an intensely human level in a musical language of the senses, in a piece bristling with interest and with timbral appeal.

The program concluded with Emil Kronke’s 8-hand setting of Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.9 “Carnival in Pest”. With its blend of folk melodies and virtuosic passages, connected by improvisatory elements, the work evokes the atmosphere of a Budapest carnival from around 1840. Indulging in the constant changes of mood and “scoring”, the pianists gave a dazzling performance of the work’s Hungarian dance melodies, addressing its intimate moments and its elaborate, colourful finale - a challenging tour-de-force. Then for two encores: Aram Khachaturian’s unleashed “Sabre Dance”, well suited to the 8-hand medium, followed by a somewhat sober rendition of Beethoven’s “Turkish March”. “Octopus”, its members spanning a wide range of ages, offers the concert-going public a new, fresh approach to concert repertoire in playing that is both tasteful and most stylish!