Saturday, December 31, 2016

Ensemble Divina Insania hosts violinist Shunske Sato at a concert at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem

Sunske Sato (photo: Yat Ho Tsang)

On December 26th, the Hebrew University’s weekly Monday Afternoon Concert Series featured Ensemble Divina Insania, a Baroque chamber music group consisting of Israeli musicians living in Europe or in Israel and performing on period instruments. Guest artist was violinist Shunske Sato (Japan/Holland). Joining him were Doret Florentin (recorder), Tali Goldberg (violin) Benny Aghassi (bassoon, Hen Goldsobel (contrabass) and Yizhar Karshon (harpsichord). The Monday Afternoon Series series is directed and introduced by Dr. Sara Pavlov.

The concert opened with all players in an eloquent reading of the Overture to G.F.Händel’s  opera “Giustino” (Justin), which was premiered at Covent Garden in 1737, its formal, homophonic opening evocative of the pomp of the coronation ceremony with which the plot begins. The allegro section offered some charming duets. Händel had a splendid oboist/recorder player in his orchestra, hence the challenging soprano recorder part, managed well by Florentin.

Then to Neapolitan composer Francesco Mancini’s (1672-1737) Recorder Concerto in A-minor, one of 12 of his appearing in a collection of concertos by Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Sarro, Francesco Barbella, Giovanni Batista Mele and Roberto Valentini (the English Robert Valentine) in a Naples conservatory. Enjoying a solid and vibrant basso continuo section, with Hen Goldobel's beautifully shaped lines proving that the continuo role can be of constant interest, the ensemble’s reading of the piece, with much lively interaction between Florentin and Sato, was alive and spontaneous, its textures alternating between utterances of only violins and recorder and tutti moments, with some silver-tongued harpsichord spreads adding sparkle to calmer moments. Rich in well-crafted melodies and a sprinkling of surprises, the work, indeed demanding to play, made for fine entertainment. Primarily an opera composer, the list of Mancini’s instrumental works is small. Divina Insania’s colourful performance of the concerto emphasized how unjust it is that this leading figure of Naples’ cultural life and education (he was a rival to Alessandro Scarlatti) should have fallen into oblivion.

Of his more than 550 concertos, Antonio Vivaldi composed 39 bassoon concertos, for whom we can only guess, and the plot thickens if one considers that the bassoon had not yet been used as a solo instrument in Venice. It is thought that these Vivaldi concertos were written between 1728 and 1737. Vivaldi, though not a bassoonist, shows a thorough understanding of the instrument’s expressive and technical possibilities, taking the player on a journey through the bass and tenor registers, however, also through the concept of a string-player, with demanding arpeggios, rapid scales and register leaps. Benny Aghassi had listeners perched at the edge of their seats right from the first notes of the work’s wild unison opening, as he scurried up and down the bassoon range with articulate agility, warmth of timbre and pizzazz, with the violins adding comments and accents to complete the joie-de-vivre of the outer movements. In the Largo movement, with the bassoon’s languorous agenda set against held chords in the strings, Aghassi created small pauses between sections, as if each time searching anew for suitable inspiration for each gesture.  Throughout the work, he communicated closely with his fellow players and with the audience. Benny Aghassi’s virtuosity and musicality left the listener wishing for more!

Performing Vivaldi’s Concerto for Recorder, Violin and Bassoon in D-major RV92, Florentin, Sato and Aghassi interacted vigilantly, the opening Allegro giving each artist much to say, as Sato signed out of it, tugging a little at the heart strings as he leaned into a dissonant penultimate note. Following the second movement, in which Florentin and Sato engaged in a moving dialogue, with Aghassi weaving long lines of gently inégal notes throughout, the artists’ technical command was displayed in the final, somewhat witty, abundantly imitative Allegro movement.

Most of us had no idea of what was in store when Shunske Sato and Yizhar Karshon launched into little-known Italian composer Giovanni Pandolfi Mealli’s Sonata for Violin and Continuo in D-minor opus 4 No.4 “La Biancuccia”. The opus 4 violin sonatas were published in 1660. Here was a vivid example of the “stylus phantasticus”, referred to in 1650 by Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher as being “especially suited to instruments…the most free and unrestrained method of composition…bound neither to any words or to a melodic subject… instituted to display genius and teach the hidden design of harmony…”. In this highly representative piece of the style, bristling with unpredictability and acrobatics, the artists juxtaposed its extreme moods in a continuum of sections expressing frenzy and lyricism (even moderation), coloured with accelerandi and audacious harmonic changes, rumbling harpsichord textures and the profuse ornamentation that emanated from under Sato’s fingers as he quizzically eyed the mesmerized audience. Karshon was with Sato all the way, as they introduced the audience to an uninhibited and totally delectable 17th century musical version of a Hitchcock movie. A musician at the court of Ferdinand Charles, Archduke of Austria, Pandolfi Mealli dedicated this sonata to a castrato.  In 1669, when a violinist in the Messina Cathedral, he fled Sicily after murdering a castrato singer, then working as a violinist in the Capilla Real of Madrid. Who said music history was boring?

Appropriately timed (December 26th) the last work on the program was Arcangelo Corelli’s Christmas Concerto in G-minor Opus 6 No.8, with the Divina Insania artists lending supple and graceful expression to its lush, melodic beauty and undulating suspensions, its tempo contrasts and its dance movements, ending with the wonderful lilting pastoral movement, with its folk-like tunes, bagpipe drone effect and sense of wonder.

This was an opportunity to appreciate the outstanding musicianship of all six artists and in a room the appropriate size for hearing and seeing each musical process. It was Shunske Sato’s first Israeli visit. Let's hear more of him here!


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Opera Aeterna celebrates 13 years of productions at Jerusalem's Khan Theatre

Dmitry Semionov and Julia Plakhin (photo: Daniel Zaman)
Opera Aeterna was established in 2003 in Jerusalem under the auspices of the Musica Aeterna choir. Both ensembles are directed by Maestro Ilya Plotkin. Opera Aeterna has produced 11 fully-staged operas, with fine singers, actors, orchestras, stage sets and wonderful costumes. Most of Aeterna’s singers are immigrants from the former Soviet Union; they bring with them the highest standard of professional opera training and stage experience. Adding a valuable dimension to Jerusalem’s music scene, each annual Opera Aeterna production has proved to be a high-quality and festive event. One characteristic of all performances has been the addition of a Hebrew-speaking narrator on stage, somewhat involved in the action, but there to keep the audience informed of the details of each opera plot.

Celebrating 13 years of Opera Aeterna at the Jerusalem Khan Theatre on December 19th 2016, Maestro Plotkin and his devoted team decided to present arias and scenes from all past performances, with a glimpse into the future production. The event took the form of a set of auditions, with actor Michael Gorodin (Micro Theatre) in the role of an opera director faced with the dilemma of sending an opera production to Italy within a week. In addition to conducting the singers and instrumental ensemble on stage, Ilya Plotkin was also busy observing each artist taking the “auditions” and collaborating with Gorodin in the selection task. First on stage was seasoned Aeterna singer Shirelle Dashevsky in an aria from Mozart’s comic Singspiel “The Impresario”, Opera Aeterna’s first production, her stage charm and easeful coloratura evident throughout the evening. From Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love”, we heard tenor Dmitry Semionov duetting with Galina Zifferblat, their musical dialogue spelling out the tangles of love gone wrong. In an excerpt from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, Julia Plakhin, all sweetness and naivete, was partnered in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” with bass Dmitry Lovzov, a singer for whom comic performance is second nature.

A significant milestone in Opera Aeterna’s history was the company’s world premiere performance of Aldo Finzi’s opera (libretto: Carlo Veneziani) “Serenata al Vento” (Serenade to the Wind) at the 2012 Bergamo Music Festival. The auspicious event was represented here by engagingly performed arias from the opera sung by Shirelle Dashevsky and Dmitry Semionov. For me, one of the evening’s highlights was presentation Semionov and Zifferblat’s empathic rendering of a duet from Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, also a reminder of some of Aeterna Opera’s most delightful costumes.

And there was plenty of jocular and farcical performance, as in Irina Mindlin’s flirtatious, free, entertaining and theatrical presentation of an aria from Emmerich Kálmán’s operetta “Countess Maritza”, and then a reminder of Ilya Plotkin’s daring simultaneous double-staging of both Paisiello- and Pergolesi’s settings of “La serva padrona” (The Servant Mistress) in 2008, with the spite and bickering of old Uberto and his manipulative servant Serpina (in the Pergolesi setting) performed with pep by Andrei Trifonov and Julia Plakhin.

And to the preview of Opera Aeterna’s future production, we heard Plakhin with Trifonov and Dashevsky with Semionov in duets from “Luisa Fernanda”, a zarzuela (a Spanish light opera) by Federico Moreno Torroba, a production promising next year’s audience a good mix of drama, romance, good music and beautiful Spanish-style costumes.

Under Maestro Plotkin’s baton, string players and keyboardists (Natalie Rotenberg, Uri Brener) offered colourful and well-coordinated accompaniments. Not to be forgotten are those dedicated people behind the scenes and those designing and producing stage set and costumes. The festive event concluded with all the singers on stage in a performance of an ensemble from “The Impresario”, sending the audience home with a hearty reminder of how Opera Aeterna began.

Andrei Trifinov,Irina Mindlin, Shirelle Dashevsky (photo: Daniel Zaman)


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

In Jerusalem Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI present an evening commemorating 700 years of the death of Ramon Llull

Ramon Lllull (

On December 14th 2016, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and the Ramon Llull Institute hosted Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI in “Ramon Llull, Times of Conquest, Dialogue and Distress”. The festive musical event took place in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA.

Celebrated Catalan musician Jordi Savall (b.1941, Igualada, Spain) is seen as a major driving force behind the revival of early music from Europe, the New World and the Mediterranean. He constitutes a point of reference in the study, performance, conducting and the restoring of many musical traditions and in a wide-ranging intercultural dialogue that transcends all borders. Jordi Savall established Hespèrion XX in Basel in 1974, changing its name to Hespèrion XXI in 2000. “Hespèrion”, from the classical Greek, refers to the people of the Italian- and Iberian Peninsulas. The international ensemble is known for its focus on scholarship of Spanish music of the 16th and 17th centuries, for its historically informed use of improvisation around basic melodic- and rhythmic structures and its emotional intimacy and immediacy. One of the key members of Hespèrion was Savall’s late wife, the eminent singer Montserrat Figueras.

As part of the commemorative celebrations worldwide surrounding the 700th anniversary of Ramon Llull’s death, Jordi Savall created a new musical project focused on this literary and historical figure. Ramon Llull (1232-1316) is the most universally-recognized Catalan thinker and one of the most important writers of the Middle Ages. The concert mapped the major events of Llull’s life with readings from Llull’s most important writings, interspersed with musical pieces, in themselves, a musical voyage capturing the beauty and emotion defining the music of Ramon Llull’s time.

Founder and musical director of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra Maestro David Shemer opened the evening with words of welcome to all and thanks to the Spanish ambassador to Israel Mr. Fernando Carderera, who was present at the event. David Shemer spoke of the fact that Ramon Llull possibly journeyed to Jerusalem, having considered it an important cultural place, this being the reason for holding the Hespèrion XXI concert in Jerusalem.

The program opens with the outstanding flautist and bagpiper Pierre Hamon entering the hall from the back; he is playing a double flute, to be joined by David Mayoral on drum, introducing an excerpt from Llull’s writings:

‘Music is the means whereby we are taught to sing and play instruments correctly, fast and slow, high and low, harmonizing the notes and voices so that there can be a concord of voices and sounds…’  Doctrina pueril, LXXIIII

The narrative, read in Spanish by Silvia Bel and Jordi Boixaderas, begins with 1229, when James I conquered Majorca, proceeding to Ramon Llull’s birth in Majorca, his marriage, his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and other holy places, learning Arabic from his Moorish slave and Llull’s first works: “The Logic of Al-Ghazali” and “The Book of Contemplation”. In 1283, Llull writes “The Book of the Lover and the Beloved”, in 1290 going to teach in monasteries in Italy and taking his first journey to North Africa in 1293, spending time in Tunis. Llull arrives in Rome in 1295, addressing a petition to Pope Boniface VIII, writing “Disconsolation” and “The Tree of Science”. On his second visit to France in 1297, Llull dedicates his “Tree of the Philosophy of Love” to King Philip IV of France and Queen Joan I of Navarre. In 1299, in Barcelona, James II of Aragon grants him permission to preach in all the synagogues and mosques of his domain. In 1302, Llull travels to Cyprus, Armenia Minor and possibly to Jerusalem. In 1307, again in North Africa, he is imprisoned in Béjaïa (Algeria) for six months. Following his expulsion from there, a ship he is on capsizes near Pisa. He survives. Following his last journey to Paris in 1309, he attends the Ecumenical Council of Vienne in 1312. In 1313, at age 81, he makes his will, embarking on his third mission to North Africa in 1314, dedicating works to the Sultan and requesting James of Aragon to find him a Franciscan to translate his works into Latin. Ramon Llull dies in 1316 at age 84.

Jordi Savall’s Hespèrion XXI, with its international line-up of artists from east and west - from Spain, Turkey, Italy, France, Israel and other countries - is the ideal ensemble to accompany Ramon Llull’s story, to reflect on the literary and historical figure’s cosmopolitanism and his acquaintance with all three monotheistic religions and cultures. It was Jordi Savall who initiated the concept of the program, accompanying its development and selecting the music to be performed; historical- and literary research was carried out by Manuel Forcano and Sergi Grau.

Under the watchful eye of Jordi Savall, playing viola d’arc or the rebab, the pieces punctuating the narrative were mostly monodic, from as far back as the 11th century - instrumental or vocal-instrumental pieces, European or oriental, sacred or secular. Performed by consummate musician soprano VivaBiancaLuna Biffi (also the consort vielle player), the very sonorous baritone Furio Zanasi and instruments, we heard, for example, “Veri dulcis in tempore” (anonymous, Codex of 1010):

‘In the springtime sweet,
Juliana and her sister stand
Beneath a flowering tree.
Sweet love! Wretched is she
Who in this season lacks your company …’

Or the outspoken song of love and despair “Si ai perdut mon saber” (So addled are my senses) by Ponç d’Ortafa (1170-1246), sung by Zanasi in a richly evocative manner. Representative of early Spanish sacred songs was “Santa Maria, strela do dia” (Holy Mary, Star of the Day), one of the 420 Cantigas de Santa Maria, written during the reign of Alfonso X the Wise (1221-1284) and often attributed to him.  Presenting Arabic vocal music, guest artist to the ensemble Lubna Bassal’s performance, together with traditional hand movements, was authentic, emotional and powerful. Another guest artist at the Hespèrion XXI concert was Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh, one of today’s most experienced interpreters of Jewish Andalusian song. Following a meditative opening played on oud by renowned Israeli Yair Dalal, Elmaleh gave a moving performance of Spanish Jewish poet Judah Halevi’s “Beautiful Land, Delight of the World”, its sense of yearning reinforced by delicate playing of percussion, ney and viol.

The several instrumental pieces included early dance music, such as the jolly 14th century Istanpitta: “Belicha” (Hamon-flute, Mayoral-percussion), a colourful performance of the Ottoman “Güresh” dance and a mysterious-sounding interpretation of the anonymous Berber “Dance of the Wind” (ney and drum). One of the program highlights was guest musician ney artist (the ney is an end-blown flute that features prominently in Middle Eastern music) Usama Abu Ali’s performance of a Sufi dance, together with percussion. With his superb control of circular breathing, Abu Ali’s playing was virtuosic, intense and thrilling. Contributing to the elegance and allure of the ensemble were Angelique Mauillon-medieval harp, Turkish artist Hakan Güngör’s exemplary playing of the qanun, Mayoral’s creative use of percussion and Savall’s touching, nostalgic bowed melodies.

In the spiritual chant – “Torah, Ghazali-Durme-Apo xeno meros” – sung by each of the singers to an almost identical melody, Jordi Savall makes a statement: that all sang the same music in Mediterranean countries but that each community has since claimed it as its own. With all the singers joining in the music of different ethnic groups, Savall’s message of all people belonging to the same human race came through clearly in performance that was informed, sensitive and polished.




Sunday, December 18, 2016

December 2016 - Amir Katz performs Bach, Schubert and Liszt at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv

Photo: Robert Recker

Amir Katz (b. Israel 1975), today residing in Berlin, has recently been in Israel to give two recitals at the Enav Cultural Center, Tel Aviv. This writer attended the event on December 10th 2016.

The artist opened the program with J.S.Bach’s Partita No.2 in C-minor BWV 826, one of the six Bach wrote between 1726 and 1730, eventually grouped into a collection he titled “Clavier-Übung” (Keyboard Practice), not just pedagogical material for his sons but also a tribute to Johann Kuhnau, his predecessor at St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, who had given the same title to a work in 1689. In suites comprising 16th century courtly dance forms with the addition of non-dance movements (those referred to by Bach as “galanteries”), Bach takes liberties to depart from the traditional Baroque suite, with Partita No.2 concluding with a capriccio in place of the traditional gigue. In one of Bach’s most dramatic partita moments, Katz’ dramatic presentation of the opening Grave adagio sinfonia is a wake-up call to the composer’s daring and gregarious use of dissonance, Katz followed it directly with his serene reading of the Andante, in which he pauses to highlight key notes before launching energetically into the fugue to celebrate the beauty of the two-voiced writing pervading much of the Partita. Relating to the unspeakable beauty and delicacy of the Allemande, Katz subtly weaves its dovetailing melodic lines into harmonic interest. Then to the energy of the French-style Courante – gripping, intense, embellished and satisfying – in which the artist allows every strand to speak, its vitality suddenly a past memory as Katz takes the listener via his own profound sensibilité into the inner world of the Sarabande, his tranquil pace allowing the movement’s fragile, intimate course to unfold. The immediacy, vigour and rich scoring of the Rondeaux take over, the quirky seventh leaps there to tease and entertain, with the  Capriccio, ending the work with its tenth leaps and runs, turning into a complex three-voiced fugue. Amir Katz’ articulate playing supports the argument for playing Bach on the modern piano and even with economic use of the sustaining pedal, which he does with great skill, never blurring a gesture.

Of late, Amir Katz has been performing and recording much Romantic music. His recital proceeded with Franz Schubert’s Impromptus opus 90, D.899, written in 1827, a year before the composer’s premature death. The four pieces were given the title of Impromptu by publisher Tobias Haslinger, who was hoping to cash in on the amateur market and the fashion for pieces of this kind, such as those by Bohemian composer Jan Václav Vorísek, the title suggesting improvisation, casualness and brevity. Considering their complexity and technical demands and the fact that opus 90 was composed between the two halves of the heavyweight “Winterreise”, nothing of the publisher's suppositions could be further from the truth. After holding on just that bit longer to the opening imposing, stark, empty g octave in Impromptu No.1 in C-minor, Amir Katz, delving into his palette of textures and colours, then divulges the piece’s constant contrast of decisive strength and vulnerability, of minor and major, with Schubert’s most silken and tender utterances emerging from harmonic changes arising from the lowered second of the scale. All these elements become welded into an almost seamless continuum, the coda a mere comforting major remembrance of what was. Emanating from Katz’ flawlessly agile finger-work, the flowing of triplets of the E-flat major Impromptu soar heavenwards and back down again, their apparent weightlessness taking the listener through the gamut of Schubertian tonal transformations, then to be contrasted by the serious, more earth-bound minor section, its seething inner voices reminiscent of textures of the first section. Katz winds the piece up with a confident, explicit flourish. Then to the tranquillity of the G-flat major piece, with Katz inviting the listener to follow his beautifully chiselled playing of the lyrical melody, the tireless bubbling stream of the inner voice articulate but never intrusive, with the piece’s darker moments transitory. In Impromptu No.4 in A-flat major, enigmatically opening with 30 bars in A-flat minor, Katz follows the transitions of Schubert’s soul in spiralling and starry cascading from minor to minor again via the major key, with respite never there for long. Katz’ reassuring soft-spoken left hand melody-playing, in contrast to the aching second subject melody, lends a distant voice of warmth and songfulness to the performance. Amir Katz’ recent CD “8 Impromptus” (Orfeo label) features the D899 and D935 Impromptus

In 1832, the not yet 21-year-old composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt heard the great violinist-composer Niccolo Paganini performing at the Paris Opera. Mesmerised at the violinist’s mastery and at his hypnotic powers on the audience, Liszt wrote to a friend in Geneva: “…what a man, what a violinist, what an artist...What sufferings, what misery, what torture in those four strings.”  Inspired by Paganini’s brilliance, he decided to write such violin virtuosity into a piano work, resulting in his 1838 arrangement of five of Paganini’s Caprices for solo violin and “La Campanella” (the finale of Paganini’s Violin Concerto No.2), reworked in 1851 to be titled “Six Grand Etudes after Paganini” and dedicated to Clara Wieck Schumann. In the first prelude, bristling with scales and arpeggios, Liszt evokes Paganini’s imitation of two violins playing together, one in constant tremolo, with Katz imbuing the soundscape with generous use of the sustaining pedal. Beginning, as it were, in mid-phrase, the second piece presents a simple theme punctuated with sections of such techniques as chromatic sixths, scales in tenths and double octave passages. Enjoying the bell-like effects, the charm and delicacy of Katz' playing of No.3 “La Campanella” (Little Bell), one cannot ignore its fierce demands of tricky leaps, fast, repeated notes and other extraordinary piano feats. Reminding the player of its origin, No.4 is written on a single stave; Katz’ clarity of sound and careful phrasing added to its vivacity and brightness, rendering this study of arpeggios a tasty morsel. Katz addresses the familiar motifs of “La Chasse” (The Hunt) with simplicity, creating a rondo of sunny exuberance, the Six Grand Etudes concluding with Liszt’s Theme and Variations on Paganini’s Caprice No.24.  Sailing from one transformation to the next, the artist brought out the different scoring and character of each variation, from outgoing and vivacious utterance to introverted otherworldly moments, bringing the concert to an end with a work of the full-blown Romantic style and demanding great technical and musical virtuosity. Liszt’s piano works often find their way into the hands of pianists engaging in heavy, athletic performance and acrobatic show. Amir Katz steps back to look at the music, never allowing its virtuosity or his own dexterity to drown out musical transparency or the work’s own inner life and meaning.

For his encore, Amir Katz performed Liszt’s “Liebestraum” (Dream of Love) No.3 (1850), played with expressive understatement and serenity.




Saturday, December 17, 2016

J.S.Bach's Christmas Oratorio performed in Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Photo: J.Bauer

The first three parts of J.S.Bach’s Christmas Oratorio BWV 248 were recently performed in two performances in Jerusalem and one in Bethlehem. With Gunther M. Goettsche (music director of the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem) and Erwin Meyer sharing the conducting, members of three choirs – the Choir of the Redeemer Church (Jerusalem), of the Schmidt Schule (Jerusalem) and of the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem) joined to form a large chorus. They were joined by the Belvedere Chamber Orchestra Weimar (Germany). Soloists were Heidrun Goettsche-soprano, Anne-Marieke Evers-alto, Sebastian Hübner-tenor and Samuel Lawrence Berlad-bass. This writer attended the performance at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, in which Erwin Meyer was conductor. Father Nikodemus, of the Dormition Abbey, offered words of welcome to the large audience.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was completed around Christmas in 1734. Its format is that of a cantata, with the tenor Evangelist narrating the story of the birth of Christ. All texts sung by the Evangelist are minimally accompanied in order to give the Gospel texts prominence. From Christmas Day to Epiphany in the 18th century, the town of Leipzig celebrated the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it with six commemorations taking place between Christmas Day and the Feast of Epiphany. At each of those events, Bach’s congregation was presented with a single cantata of the Christmas Oratorio, recounting one of the stories, their biblical texts accompanied by reflective texts. The three first cantatas heard at the Jerusalem and Bethlehem performances feature the first three celebrating the birth of Jesus (December 25th), the shepherds’ adoration of the baby (December 27th) and the circumcision and naming of Jesus (New Year’s Day).

From the opening five-note phrase on the timpani, the performance at the Dormition Abbey was one of joy. Choruses, with the chorales reflecting the voice of the people, were well coordinated and articulate; the singers were attentive, their phrases shaped, full of impetus and energy, making for rewarding choral performance. Served well by his bright, rich and agreeable tenor voice, Sebastian Hübner gave the narrative spontaneity and flexibility, at times urgency and even suspense. In the virtuosic “Joyful shepherds, hurry, ah hurry”, he and the orchestra’s very excellent flautist in the obligato role communicated and embellished with alacrity. Honorary professor at the Heidelberg University of Church Music, Sebastian Hübner has a wide repertoire, has premiered new works and is a member of the Schola Heidelberg Ensemble.

There was much natural warmth and richness in the singing of German-American baritone Samuel Lawrence Berlad, standing in for bass Peter Schüler, who had taken ill. His mix of mellifluousness and dramatic flair gave colour and life to text and music, as in the dialogue with obligato trumpet in “Great Lord, O mighty king”.  An opera singer, Samuel Berlad is also a Jewish cantorial singer and voice teacher, heading the vocal department of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. Dutch-born mezzo-soprano Anne-Marieke Evers, much specialized in early music, dealt with the alto recitatives and arias with outstanding vocal presence, projecting her voice amply and with natural ease into the acoustic space of the church. In the aria “Sleep, my dearest”, she recreated this moving jewel of a lullaby in gentle, empathic yet substantial singing, as the basso continuo repeated the note g in octave leaps to depict rocking the baby. With a minimum in the way of solo soprano arias, we heard duets with tenor and bass from renowned voice teacher Heidrun Goettsche. Pronouncing the angel’s words (in effect, God’s words) “Do not fear”, the recitative accompanied by held chords in the strings, we heard one of the girls of the Schmidt School choir, her clean, fresh voice conveying the message of solemnity, succour and hope.

Members of the Belvedere Orchestra Weimar (concertmaster: Johannes Müller) are all students at the Music Gymnasium Schloss Weimar, a selective high school for talented young musicians from Germany and other countries. The orchestra was outstanding throughout the performance, its balance, intonation and obligato roles refined, sophisticated and subtle. Conductor, piano accompanist and composer Erwin Meyer, director of the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem), drew all the participants together in a collaborative performance that was pleasing and focused, with conducting that was articulate, expressive and exhilarating.  A fine mix of people from many communities attended the festive event.



Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and members of Ensemble PHOENIX in a concert of Bach and Buxtehude

Tal Ganor,Anat Czarny,Guy Pelc,Hillel Sherman,Avital Dery (photo:Maxim Reider)

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s second concert for the 2016-2017 season offered Baroque music aficionados a unique program. This writer attended the event, “A Christmas Special”, in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on December 8th 2016.

Due to illness of one of one of the artists, there was a last-minute program change: instead of J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No.6, we heard Bach’s Trio Sonata for organ BWV 527 performed in the traditional Baroque trio sonata format by Idit Shemer-flute, Noam Schuss-violin, Orit Messer-Jacobi-‘cello and JBO founder and musical director David Shemer-organ. The Sonatas for Organ (BWV 525-530) from around 1730, (they may also have been played on pedal-clavichord or pedal-harpsichord) written when J.S.Bach was tutoring his eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann in organ and composition, are made up of earlier composed instrumental movements, newly composed movements and older organ works.  With Johann Sebastian’s choice of clear textures for this instructional material, requiring the young organist to exercise total independence of hands and feet, what distinguish these works from other organ repertoire are their textures which imitate the instrumental trio sonata, inviting a variety of transcriptions which date from the 18th century to today.  Addressing the fact that they are neither the flamboyant toccatas and fugues nor the chorale-preludes imbued with mystery, the JBO artists did not dispense with the intimate and eloquent character both of the piece and also of the Baroque instrumental sound, despite its performance in a hall. With Idit Shemer playing a Baroque traverso flute, the other instrumentalists pared down their volume to what resulted in chamber music of fine transparency and poetic nuance, with sympathetic contrapuntal dialogues woven between flute and violin. A nice aperitif to the evening and presented by core JBO players.

Then to Dietrich Buxtehude’s (c.1637-1707) cantata cycle “Membra Jesu Nostri” (The Limbs of Our Jesus) BuxWV 75, a mystical work based on a collection of hymns in which each cantata represents the glance of a believer, standing at the foot of the cross, as he addresses parts of Christ’s body, his focus moving upwards from Christ’s feet to his face. The text, thought to have been written by Cistercian monk Arnulf de Louvain (c.1200-1250), reflects the rise of 17th century Lutheran pietism and its characteristic subjectively emotional sentiments. Each cantata is constructed along the same lines, the opening instrumental sinfonia followed by a “dictum”, an aria of three stanzas, with the dictum repeated at the end. The composer only breaks this form in the last cantata, where the repeated dictum is replaced by a lavish Amen. The work is scored for a small ensemble and five singers, the latter singing solos and small group- and tutti sections. The JBO instrumentalists were joined by members of Ensemble PHOENIX (founder and musical director: Myrna Herzog) and Tal Ganor-soprano, Anat Czarny-mezzo-soprano, Avital Dery-mezzo-soprano, Hillel Sherman-tenor and Guy Pelc-bass. In performance that was unforced rather than dramatic, with emphasis on clear diction, David Shemer led instrumentalists and singers through the work, preserving its meditative, devout and soul-searching character. For Cantata No.6, the instrumental sound world changes markedly: the violinists stand down and four viol players join ‘cello, theorbo and organ in a mellow, velvety setting to present “To the Heart”. This is indeed the heart of the work. The original ensemble returns for the final cantata and the viols are gone. The choruses presented a lively and interesting mix of vocal timbres, with vocal trios highlighting intensity of texts.  Add to that Anat Czarny’s attractive, radiant voice, Avital Dery’s spiritual understanding of the work, Hillel Sherman’s burgeoning, natural tenor, Guy Pelc’s gentle intensity and Tal Ganor’s creamy, blending timbre. Ganor, just a little too careful, could have projected her voice further into the YMCA hall.   The instrumentalists, including the evocative sound of the theorbo (Eliav Lavi), seized every opportunity to add interest and beauty to a work that is quite exquisite.

In his program notes, Maestro Shemer speaks of the fact that the music of the “veritable giant” Buxtehude “has not had fitting representation on Israeli music platforms”. The impact this performance has had (more Easter-oriented than Christmas) will hopefully mean that we hear more works of the Danish-German genius, whose music had such a profound influence on J.S.Bach.


Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Jerusalem Bel Canto Choir hosts the Noach Men's Choir (Czech Republic) in Jerusalem

Photo: Martin Popelar
On November 27th 2016, the Bel Canto Choir hosted the Noach Ensemble (Czech Republic) in a program titled “From Prague to Jerusalem” at Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem. The Bel Canto Choir, comprising some 40 singers and directed by Salome Rebello, is one of five choirs making up the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir, an organization whose aim is to advance culture and song in the city. Bel Canto appears in a variety of venues, performing music from classical to jazz, Israeli music and music for choir and orchestra. Salome Rebello immigrated to Israel from India in 2008. She studied piano and choral conducting at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance and has quickly become a sought-after choral conductor on the Israeli music scene.

Following words of welcome from Françoise Kafri, a representative of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Bel Canto Choir opened the evening’s proceedings with hearty renderings of two songs from the Sabbath service: Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi’s “Barechu” prayer (Blessed is Adonai, the blessed one for all eternity) and Israeli conductor and composer Gil Aldema’s setting of “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace be unto You). Bel Canto was then joined by the Noach Ensemble to perform Gil Aldema’s arrangement of a traditional “Halleluja” melody. These works were conducted by Salome Rebello.

The Noach Vocal Ensemble (Ostrava), 14 male singers directed and conducted by composer and arranger Tomáš Novotný, then performed a number of songs. The Noach members and their director are not Jewish, but they love Judaism and Jewish music. They mostly sing in Hebrew, focusing on Hassidic music as well as performing Israeli songs. The ensemble was established in 2012 by Dr. Novotný, who is also founder and director of the Adash Women’s Choir (an acronym for Hebrew through Song). Following studies in composition, conducting and French horn at the Prague Conservatory, he acquired a doctorate in the Department of Old Testament Studies. A specialist in Jewish music, Novotný currently teaches in the Faculty of Philosophy at Ostrava University.  Fluent in Hebrew, he announced each of the pieces his choir performed throughout the evening, addressing the audience in a relaxed, informal manner and with his own gentle brand of humour. Two klezmer musicians accompanied the male choir: clarinettist Ráchel Polohová, a student of Jewish Studies and Religion at the Charles University (Prague) and accordionist Anežka Gebauerová, a student at the Music Academy in Katowice.

The first song they presented was a piece composed by Novotný in memory of Czech-born legendary Jerusalem newscaster Tatiana Hoffman. Another original piece of his was an a-cappella setting of “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem”, featuring a fine tenor solo, then taking the form of a sparkling canon. Another of the conductor’s particularly charming, rich and multifarious arrangements was that of the popular Hebrew song “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” (We have brought you peace) and how pleasing the jaunty, lively performance of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav’s text “Kol ha’olam kulo” (The whole world is a very narrow bridge) was! An interesting item was a song in Russian, written by imprisoned Russian Hassids, the singers’ gentle flexing giving their singing a sense of spontaneity.  And then a song in Czech, one about disappointed love in the Czech town of Tábor, beautifully anchored in interesting drone effects played on the accordion and joined by the basses.

The concert concluded with both choirs joining to perform a Czech nonsense song (also from the South Bohemian town of Tábor) and Israeli folk song “Hava nagila” (Let us rejoice), the latter imbued with Hassidic flavour in a poignant introduction by the instrumentalists in a poignant introduction.

Tomáš Novotný ‘s direction, arrangement and compositions are a rare treat. Appealing and communicative, bringing much joy to audiences, the Noach Ensemble’s detail-perfect performance is highly polished. The two very excellent instrumentalists delighted all with their fine musicianship. Maestro Novotný ended the evening by explaining that the Noach Choir sings for those who died in the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, for those who can no longer sing.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Ensemble Colláge Tel Aviv makes its debut on the Israeli concert scene

Noa Chorin,Batia Murvitz,Igal Levin (photo:Galit Erez)

In “Romanticism without Words”, Ensemble Colláge Tel Aviv performed its inaugural concert in the Ram Baron Hall of the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv on November 26th 2016. Members of this new trio are Batia Murvitz-piano, Igal Levin-clarinet and Noa Chorin-‘cello. Beginning their collaboration early in 2016, the artists asked themselves what they wanted of the trio and what repertoire they wanted to be playing. With each player having performed much repertoire in Israel and overseas, it was decided to put all this experience together, drawing all the threads of their art into a collage of music. Igal Levin spoke of this particular concert as comprising works either written in the Romantic Era or with strong Romantic elements.

The recital opened with Three Songs without Words by German-born composer Paul Ben Haim (1897-1984), who emigrated to Palestine in 1933. Originally for solo voice and piano, the work has been performed in different settings of various solo instruments with piano. Batia Murvitz and Noa Chorin created the individual moods of each movement, the work's melodies influenced by Ben Haim’s newly experienced oriental sound world, one demanding a fresh- and less European harmonic language. With its delicately dissonanced seconds and Murvitz’s ample use of the sustaining pedal threaded through the opening Arioso movement, we enter a world of mystery, the underlying motif of the interval of the pastel-hued second following into the sweeping, energy of oriental melodic lines of the second movement, to be followed by a third movement based on an existing Sephardic melody, its flavour so well expressed by Chorin, with Murvitz providing an exotic backdrop for Ben Haim’s music of time and place.

Then to the Trio for Clarinet and Piano in A-minor opus 40 by Austrian-Jewish composer Carl Frühling (1868-1937). Born in Lemberg (today Lviv, Western Ukraine), he worked as a piano accompanist and teacher in Vienna, producing a substantial amount of instrumental and vocal music. Much of his oeuvre has been lost or neglected; sadly, he died poor and unknown. Edition Silvertrust, however, has published editions of some of his works. Internationally renowned ‘cellist Steven Isserlis  brought attention to Frühling’s clarinet trio, taking to its “unpretentious warmth, humour and the gentle charm of the style overall” (The Guardian, October 2000). Highlighting its appealing harmonic ideas, with clarinet and ‘cello sometimes doubling in melodies, at others, engaging in dialogue, the Ensemble Colláge players gave personal expression to individual roles and to the work’s dynamic contrasts, with phrase endings poignant and finely chiselled. The artists addressed the work’s essentially Romantic soundscape, its Viennese sense of well-being (the 2nd movement has a Viennese waltz) and the fact that the aim of salon music is indeed to entertain, so evident as audience and players delighted in the colourful and vigorous potpourri of melodies of the final movement.

In the last year of his life, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) set himself the task of writing a sonata for each woodwind instrument with piano. He completed one sonata for oboe, one for bassoon and one for clarinet, each dedicated to an outstanding player of his acquaintance. The composer did not live long enough to write sonatas for flute and cor anglais, neither did he hear performances of the three he had completed. Taking a giant step back from his journey into Romanticism to Modernism, Saint-Saëns retreated into Classical mode to write his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano opus 167.  A fitting choice for the skills of pianist and clarinettist, Murvitz and Levin showed the audience through the different moods of the work, from the haunting clarinet melodies of the opening movement against the piano’s subtle rising and subsiding waves of eighth notes and occasional “comments”, the jaunty, whimsical offerings of the Allegro animato, to the Lento movement’s darkly imposing and ruminating agenda, with contrasts between low- and high registers in both instruments. In the upbeat, energetic last movement, Levin’s virtuosic and easeful playing made runs and fast arpeggios sound a breeze, the work then concluding with reference to the haunting theme of the first movement.  With Murvitz’ articulate and elegant playing addressing each gesture and detail of the music, there were moments where I felt she was a little too cautious for the acoustic of the Baron Hall and could take a stronger stand without drowning out the clarinet.

The event ended with Johannes Brahms’ Clarinet Trio in A-minor opus 114 (1891), one of a group of late works inspired by a visit to the ducal court of Meiningen, where he heard clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld, after which he wrote a letter to Clara Schumann claiming that it was “impossible to play the clarinet better than Herr Mühlfeld does”, even referring to him as “my dear nightingale”. At the work’s world premiere, the painter Adolf Menzel drew a sketch of Mühlfeld, depicting him as a Greek god! Murvitz, Chorin and Levin gave an involving and moving reading of the work, its wistful Brahmsian soul-searching and autumnal colourings ever present. Uncompromising in their attention to the balance of instruments, of intensity and tenderness, the artists gave poignant and personal expression to the shaping of melodic lines and the work’s lush textures, creating a performance rich in eloquence and warmth.  Here was chamber music performance at its best.