Saturday, May 27, 2017

"Tis Now Dead Night" - soprano Michal Bitan and lutenist Earl Christy in English lute songs and French lute pieces

Earl Christy, Michal Bitan (photo: Berbera van der Hoek)
“Tis Now Dead Night” is a recent recording by soprano Michal Bitan and lutenist Earl Christy of lute songs and solo lute pieces of the Renaissance and early Baroque.

 One focus of the disc is solo vocal music composed on the death of Prince Henry, elder son of King James I and  a figure touted to be a great English monarch. His death from typhoid at age 18 prompted a massive unprecedented body of new material from many of England’s great writers - epistolary, poetic and musical. More than 40 emotionally and texturally intense solo- and ensemble vocal works appeared, a synthesis of musical styles from the Italian courts of Mantua and Venice and the fashionable melancholy pervading music of the late Elizabethan Era. The works either refer to Prince Henry himself or find an association through the biblical story of David and Absalon. Bitan and Christy performed the songs from “Songs of Mourning: Bewaling the Untimely Death of Prince Henry” (1613), a collaboration between Giovanni Coprario (John Cooper) and Thomas Campion. Each song is directed to a specific member of the royal family, with the final two addressing “the most disconsolate Great Brittaine” and the world! Bitan’s singing of “So parted you” - a song addressed to Prince Henry’s sister Princess Elizabeth - was tender and and conversational, with “Tis now dead Night” creating a poignant balance of compassion and regal pride, the queen’s stoicism in her suffering inferred in the piece’s harmonies. Christy’s playing is with Bitan on all levels. Choosing slower tempi for some of the songs from this multi-movement work might have provided Bitan more opportunities to highlight the profound tragedy of the situation. “O poore distracted world”, its narrative defying any time signature, emerged almost jaunty in character:

‘Mourn all you souls oppressed under the yoke
Of Christian-hating Thrace; never appear' d
More likelihood to have that black league broke,

For such a heavenly prince might well be fear' d
Of earthly fiends :   Oh how is zeal inflamed
With power, when truth wanting defence is shamed.
O princely soul rest thou in peace, while we
In thine expect the hopes were ripe in thee.’
The golden age of English lute song coincides with the public career of lutenist and composer John Dowland, a composer  responsible for the flowering of the popular song (the lute song, in particular)  unprecedented in the history of English music.His fellow countrymen John Danyel, Robert Johnson, and Thomas Campion also made significant contributions. Choosing to record a Dowland song uncharacteristic of the poet/composer’s self-castigating misery, Bitan’s sweet tone in her recounting of “Time stands still” floating over Christy’s tranquil, subtly ornamented playing, made for an intimate and stylistic performance. And to a beautifully crafted rendition of “Adieu, fond love”, by Robert Johnson - the most significant composer connected to Shakespeare - in which I felt the artists soft-pedalled the song’s shifting and conflicting emotions. In their inspired, fresh performance of two of Thomas Campion’s religious lute songs - “Author of Light” and “Never weather-beaten” - the artists steered well clear of the often-heard dry, conservative performance of English spiritual texts, allowing spontaneous expression to lead the way in both lute ayres. As to Dowland’s friend John Danyel (whose works were considered by contemporaries to be on a par with those of Dowland) his extraordinarily fine lute songs (from his lute writing, it seems he was also a skilful lutenist) seldom reach our ears. Happily, the CD offers four examples of his songs, including the three-song cycle of “Can doleful notes”, in which Christy displays the prominent and richly independent lute part, with Bitan threading the vocal agenda into and through the instrumental course. Both bring acute attention to this great master’s astonishing word painting, rhythmic- and melodic daring and his no-less-than-breathtaking use of chromatics.
The disc also includes Earl Christy’s performance  of some solo lute pieces from The Lute Book of Lord Herbert of Cherbury (c.1620-1640), a collection today housed in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (UK). In his autobiography, Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury and Castle Island (1583-1648), an Anglo-Welsh diplomat, poet, philosopher, historian, composer and musician, writes of “playing on the Lute and singing according to the rules of the French masters” when serving as King James’ ambassador to France from 1608 to 1609. The manuscript contains 242 pieces by French composers, anonymous French pieces and a few by Dowland and Holborne. Christy chose to perform some miniatures by French court composers - two eloquent renditions of contrapuntal pieces by the important late Renaissance composer Eustache Du Caurroy, a spirited, articulate “Courant” by the cosmopolitan Jacques Gautier, a colorful “Courant” by René Saman and the enchanting “Filou” by Luc Despond. Played on a 12-course lute by Martin de Witte (2015), Earl Christy’s reading of the pieces was subtle and stylish.
Michal Bitan’s voice, pure and unencumbered by vibrato, is unusual by today’s vocal standards, even among singers of early music. That and her fine diction are wonderfully suited to this early English repertoire. Earl Christy’s playing, informed and sensitive, presents the music in depth and with splendid articulacy. Recorded in December 2015 at the Oude Katholiekekerk in Delft, Holland, the disc offers genuine sound quality and will reward the listener more enjoyment with each repeated listening.   

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Else Ensemble in an evening of 20th century chamber music at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv

Members of the Else Ensemble with Prof. Arieh Vardi (photo courtesy Else Ensemble)

The Else Ensemble (Germany/Israel) recently performed a series of chamber music concerts in Israel. This writer attended a concert referred to as “Night Discoveries – Chamber music in a Different Atmosphere”, which took place at the Israel Conservatory of Music (Tel Aviv) well into the evening on May 18th 2017.

The Else Ensemble, representing years of collaboration and friendship between Israeli and German musicians, is named after the German Jewish poet, author, playwright and painter Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945) and comprises young, outstanding musicians. Devoted to performing German and Jewish repertoire of the 19th century to present times, also making a deep enquiry into neglected works and repertoire affected by political events. Inspired by Else Lasker-Schuler, whose unique biography addresses both Germany and Israel, the ensemble performs and premieres works of women composers. The ensemble initiates innovative, cross-disciplinary concerts and has performed in major concert venues in Europe and Israel.

When one mentions Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007), most people will associate the Italian-American composer with “The Telephone”, “The Medium” and many other post-war operas he wrote; his vocal concert- and chamber music, however, has attracted less attention. The Trio for violin, clarinet and piano, written in his eighth decade, displays Menotti’s characteristically accessible and expressive tonal language. True to its title, the opening Capriccio was alive with colourful banter – at times whimsical, at others, lyrical - between Sarah Christian (violin) and Shelly Ezra (clarinet), with the players’ melodic expression in the Romanza rich and beguiling. The audience’s enjoyment of the perky 3rd movement (Envoi), giving the stage to each of the three outstanding players (piano: Naaman Wagner), offered a listening experience that certainly extended beyond the work’s technical brilliance.

Mordecai Seter’s (1916-1994) Trio for violin, ‘cello and piano (1973) is typical of the body of Seter’s very personal chamber music written in the 1970s.  At the Tel Aviv concert, we heard it performed by violinist Hed Yaron Mayersohn, ‘cellist Valentin Scharff and Naaman Wagner. Following its opening block of dense dissonances, the work’s agenda becomes sparse and otherworldly; the Else players created the mood piece, its bleak string gestures frequently coloured with nebulous flageolette tonings set to velvety, dark chords or pedalled arpeggios on the piano. A work using Seter’s own modal material but also reflecting developments in Israeli music of the time, the players offered a coherent, transparent and finely sculpted performance, giving expression to the work’s mysterious, enigmatic and unravelled message.

Written at age 87 in Scotland, the Jewish, Austrian-born composer Hans Gál’s (1890-1987) final adopted home, his Quintet for clarinet and strings op.107 reflects the composer’s liking of wind-string settings. Performing it at the Else Ensemble concert were clarinetist Shelly Ezra, violinists Sarah Christian and Hed Yaron Mayersohn, violist Miriam Manasherov and ‘cellist Daniela Shemer. They presented the work’s lush, sympathetic Romantic canvas (the writing often calling to mind that of Brahms), its harmonic interest, its warmth and energy.  Addressing the work's distinctive, sweeping melodic lines, Ezra’s tone was splendid throughout; still, Gal’s writing offered the audience the chance to appreciate each of the players.  From the Nazis banning his music to the way his music fell out of fashion in the 1960s, there seems to be no viable reason for Gál’s works not to be performed more frequently nowadays on Israeli concert platforms. The Else Ensemble offered a fine opportunity to hear the quintet, certainly no less beautiful for its anachronistic style.

Famous for his outstanding film music (more than 150 scores!), it should be remembered that Nino Rota (1911-1979) also composed operas, ballets, orchestral-, choral- and chamber works. We heard the Trio for clarinet, ‘cello and piano (1973) performed by Ezra, Wagner and Scharff. The artists gave a fresh, vibrant reading of the opening Allegro movement, their playing abounding in shape and surge blended and communicative. Ezra and Scharff’s exquisite melodic treatment of the pensive Andante movement, moving from cantabile gestures to the fragile, to the vehement, was well complemented by Wagner’s attentive weaving in and out of the texture of both melodic and supportive roles. As to the final movement, its good-natured, naïve rakishness and boisterous, dancelike mood made for good cheer and an exhilarating close to the concert.

In the words of one of the Else Ensemble musicians: “As much as playing together is a personal joy for us, we deeply believe our ensemble shares an interesting story with the world: people of different cultures with a mutual complicated past, who come together for a celebration of chamber music at its highest level.” Formed two years ago, the ensemble brings to the concert hall outstanding musicianship and artistry, combining to form  inspired and inspiring performance...and all these with a good measure of young energy.



Friday, May 19, 2017

Shaked Bar soloes with the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra in "Women - Love and Revenge"

Soprano Shaked Bar (photo: Yari Marcelli)

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s recent concert presented a program all about “Women – Love and Revenge”. Soloists were Israeli soprano Shaked Bar and the orchestra’s concertmaster Noam Schuss. JBO founder and musical director David Shemer was conductor.  This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem International YMCA on May 11th 2017.

The program opened with the orchestra’s crisp, vibrant playing of the Overture to G.F.Händel’s opera “Ariadne”, its French-style opening, spirited fugue and minuet not reflective of the Ariadne’s tragedy of which Shaked Bar was to sing in Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna” (1608). The opening of the latter (the only surviving part of the opera that brought Monteverdi worldwide fame) “Lasciatemi morire!” (Let me die!) must be one of the most heart-breaking moments of vocal repertoire. Shaked Bar took the audience through all the stages of Arianna’s despair – her pleading to Theseus to return, her anger at his broken promises and her final facing of the harsh reality of her fate – her performance convincing, nuanced and tastefully ornamented. Another interesting and indeed unique take on the Ariadne story is Pietro Locatelli’s “Il Pianto d’Arianna”, concerto grosso in E-flat major Op.7 No.8. Published in 1741, it is based on the classical story of Ariadne and Theseus, but is also strongly influenced by Monteverdi’s “Lamento d’Arianna”. The music focuses almost exclusively on the first violin (Noam Schuss), supported by a second violin (Dafna Ravid), ‘cello (Orit Messer-Jacobi) and string orchestra. Addressing the audience, Maestro Shemer spoke of the violin soloist as portraying Ariadne in a role evocative of a verbal text. It was absolutely so as Schuss convincingly depicted Ariadne and her predicament - in the sobbing undulations of the opening Andante, the sorrowful melodies of slow movements and with suave melodies interrupted by brief pauses as in weeping – in articulate- and subtle performance. The JBO highlighted the interest of the orchestral score too, with its reminiscences of slow movements of Corelli and vivid moments evocative of Vivaldi’s dizzying fast movements, the work’s roller coaster course then ending enigmatically on a major chord.

The program included two small instrumental works by Tarquinio Merula (1567-1643), whose sacred music followed the lead of Monteverdi. His instrumental music includes several ensemble canzonas, with exceptionally idiomatic and forward-looking writing for strings.  In “La Monteverde” Opus 1 No.9, homage to Merula’s great contemporary, Noam Schuss and Orit Messer-Jacobi engaged in the canzona’s imitative- and virtuosic agenda. Schuss and Smadar Schidlowsky dueted in “La Gallina”, a piece based on a theme imitating the clucking of hens. In both pieces, the theorbo (Ophira Zakai) proved paramount to establishing a solid, satisfying bass.

Including a work of Élisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre in the program must be attributed to fine programming. A courageous woman and one of the first female composers to reach a wide public audience, winning admiration and financial security through her music, at least four of her cantatas tell the story of daring women. The story of Judith, a Biblical heroine who saved the Hebrew town of Bethulia from the conquering despot Holofernes, comes from the deuterocanonical book of Judith. When Holofernes seeks to seduce Judith, a beautiful widow, she lulls him with wine into sleep, beheads him, and then escapes with the head. Jacquet de La Guerre’s work, leaning on both French and Italian musical styles, is set to the third person narration of a libretto of Antoine Houdar de La Motte, a well-known poet and dramaturge. With vocal agility, emotion and much poise, Bar played out the genuinely heroic Judith’s very human uncertainty and anguish, her triumph and joy. Only basso continuo accompanies the arias. The players’ detailed attention to the instrumental pieces punctuating the recitatives and arias at strategic moments added an element of fragility, one moving instance of this being Idit Shemer’s plangent, intimate night-music flute solo.

One problem of “Dido’s Lament” from Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” is that we have heard so many great and not-so-great sopranos performing it; that, I think must be this flawless piece’s only drawback. Purcell was 30 years old when he composed what is considered the first great dramatic music composed in England. The queen’s famous final aria, “When I am laid in earth,” with its chromatically descending ground bass, marks the despairing climax of this miniature masterpiece.  Purcell’s use of falling seconds in the instrumental accompaniment and in the soloist’s recitative melody evoke despair and fate, but it is all the dissonances (referred to by Trevor Pinnock as “those sneaky little appoggiaturas”) that also draw the listener into the seamless pain of the piece. With the pensive, serene sounds of the theorbo (Ophira Zakai) issuing in the recitative, we join Dido in her last moments, as she refers to death as a “welcome guest”. Bar’s performance was tasteful, delicate, finely ornamented and controlled, her diction excellent. Rather than lacing the aria with pulpy drama, Bar chose to suspend the “Remember me” fragments and phrases weightlessly as Dido dies longing for oblivion, the singer’s creamy voice floating up to the top “g” with delicacy. A moving performance by all.

Händel’s solo cantata “La Lucrezia” HWV 145, composed some time between 1706 and 1709 in Italy, to a libretto of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili, is actually a small opera “scena” focusing on the inner turmoil Lucretia faced following her rape and leading up to her suicide. In its succession of recitatives and arias, bearing detailed description of Lucretia’s feelings before she takes her own life, particular emphasis is placed on her impassioned hatred of Tarquinius. Despite its dramatic content, Händel scored the work for soprano soloist and continuo. The JBO performance of “La Lucrezia” premiered Israeli musicologist Alon Schab’s instrumental setting of the work, in which he has added violin- and viola parts. Shaked Bar handled the work’s emotional and technical demands admirably, moving through melismatic passages and between registers with ease and elaborating da capo sections effectively. The cantata and, indeed, the concert ended with Bar’s gripping performance of the final arioso, in which Lucretia, about to knife herself, condemns her soul to hell “to punish the tyrant…with the barbarous cruelty he deserves…”

An ambitious undertaking for any soprano, young Shaked Bar’s performance throughout the concert was admirable.



Saturday, May 13, 2017

"A Praise to God in Zion" - an all-Bach program performed by members of Ensemble PHOENIX

Alon Harari,Marina Minkin,Rachel Ringelstein,Myrna Herzog (photo:Eliahu Feldman)
“A Praise to God in Zion” was an all-Bach program performed by Ensemble PHOENIX. Artists taking part in the program were Alon Harari (counter-tenor), Rachel Ringelstein (violin), Marina Minkin (harpsichord) and PHOENIX founder and musical director Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba). This writer attended the concert on May 8th 2017 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the Monday Afternoon Concert Series.

Apart from two instrumental works, the program focused on arias from Cantatas of J.S.Bach, as well as from the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, sung by Alon Harari. In Dr. Herzog’s words: “Some of the most beautiful and moving arias were written by Johann Sebastian Bach for the alto voice”. The concert opened with the enigmatic “Bekennen will ich seinen Namen” (I will acknowledge His name) BWV 200, Bach’s transposed adaptation (c.1742-1743) of an aria from a passion-oratorio of Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel. A cantata fragment, the single aria is probably from a lost cantata. Harari and Ringelstein struck a wonderful balance of individuality and exchange, with violin melodies threaded throughout. (The original score calls for two violins). “Gott, man lobet dich in der Stille zu Zion (God, You are praised in the stillness of Zion) the opening aria of the BWV 120 Cantata, a work based on Psalm 65, celebrates the election of a new town council of Leipzig in 1727. Engaging in the detail and meaning of the text, with its ample use of melismatic passages, Harari highlighted the aria’s elegant, lively and ceremonious aspects. Considering the fact that its scoring calls for full orchestra, Herzog, Minkin and Ringelstein’s playing of the reduced and independent instrumental score made for rewarding listening.

In keeping with the darker agenda of the St. John Passion BWV 245, “Es ist vollbracht!” (It is finished/accomplished!), Herzog’s timbrally low, warm and sonorous opening viol solo set the mood of introspection and despair following the death of Christ, as Harari highlighted the grief of the aria’s word-painting in its descending lines. The aria’s sudden agitated and compelling middle section, referring to the battle conquered by the “hero out of Judah”, must be one of the most contrasted and drastic in the Baroque aria repertoire, breaking off in mid-fever to return to the opening statement, so beautifully paced by Herzog and Harari, ending with even more poignancy and heartbreak than at the beginning. Also taken from Bach’s Easter music, the artists performed “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” (Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears) one of the most sublime and powerful arias of the St. Matthew Passion BWV 244, with Harari and Ringelstein’s dovetailed interplay of the melodic lines forming a musical representation of remorse. Harari engaged his vocal palette to pour emotion and emphasis into key words, with the violin reflecting the aria’s plea for forgiveness.
Then, on a more optimistic note, Harari performed the opening aria of a cantata written in Leipzig in 1723 “Ein ungefärbt Gemüte” (An unblemished conscience) BWV 24, its serene vocal line suggesting tranquillity and virtuousness as set against an upbeat, hopping accompaniment. The violin obbligato role was beautifully shaped and meaningful under Ringelstein’s bow, its low range perhaps adding a sombre undercurrent to the aria’s discussion of morality. “Schlummert ein, ihr matten Augen” (Fall asleep, you weary eyes) the central aria of from Cantata BWV 82 “Ich habe genug” (I am content) also works on different levels: the profound lullaby, mimicking the attraction of sleep, actually makes reference to death. Performing the aria at a flowing pace, the PHOENIX artists kept a safe distance from self-indulgent sentimentality, with Harari taking time to endow the piece’s low, extended notes with soothing, reposeful ambience.

The program included two movements from J.S.Bach’s Sonata in D-major for harpsichord and viola da gamba, the most virtuosic of the three harpsichord and gamba sonatas written probably in the 1740s; in scoring, they are somewhat trio sonatas, with the viol playing the first voice and the harpsichord the second- and third voices. Herzog and Minkin’s plangent, gently-swayed reading of the Adagio was courtly in mood, melodic and decorative. Punctuating the final Allegro movement’s intense working of ideas, Minkin’s lustrous playing of the extended cadenza-like section was a high moment of the Jerusalem concert. Also conforming to the three-layer texture, we heard Ringelstein and Minkin in the last two movements from Bach’s Sonata No.6 in G-major for violin and obbligato harpsichord BWV 1019, (50 years after the violin and harpsichord sonatas were written, C.P.E.Bach was still referring to them as “trios”), in which the violin and harpsichord trade off thematic material, sometimes presenting it in alternation and sometimes simultaneously. With Minkin and Ringelstein’s playing both balanced and stylish and including some tasteful ornamenting, the breathtaking display of Bach's contrapuntal mastery challenged the listener to choose how and where to focus on Bach’s brilliant violin writing partnered by fully worked out concertante parts in both hands of the keyboard.

Myrna Herzog’s programs run the gamut of early music repertoire. Her programming is known for being both informed and daring. Not deterred from using broader instrumentation in the chamber setting, she retained the character of the arias by allotting extra material to the players. The results were more than satisfying, with the three instrumentalists bringing together all important melodic strands from the aria accompaniments. For obvious reasons, the lion’s share of this reorganization was undertaken by Marina Minkin, and handled expertly. Alon Harari’s increasingly expanding, burnished vocal sound, secure and even in all registers, as well as his emotional engagement in Baroque repertoire, made for captivating listening. The acoustic of the lecture/recital hall of the Hebrew University’s Musicology Faculty provided the ideal environment in which to hear (and see) the music’s gestures and details and to experience the unique timbres of the counter-tenor voice, harpsichord and of Baroque bowed instruments played on gut strings, and at close proximity.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Yehezkel Braun: "Sharkiya" - Music for Plucked Instruments - recorded by Alon Sariel, Izhar Elias and Michael Tsalka

Michael Tsalka,Alon Sariel,Izhar Elias (photo:Sonja
“Sharkiya” – Music for Plucked Instruments, featuring music by Yehezkel Braun, is a disc recorded by Israeli artists Alon Sariel (mandolin), Michael Tsalka (harpsichord) and Dutch/Israeli guitarist Izhar Elias.

Born in Germany, Yehezkel Braun (1922-2014) immigrated to Palestine in 1924 with his parents. Musical styles he heard in his childhood, having a lasting influence on his writing, were opera, Yemenite- and Arabic songs and Hassidic tunes.  It was only when settling in Tel Aviv in 1951 that he completed his formal music studies at the Academy of Music, where he then taught music theory and composition until his retirement. He spoke of  the most significant music for him as an adult as being that of Haydn, Bartok, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel and Les Six. In the disc liner notes, Prof. Jehoash Hirshberg, co-author of “Yehezkel Braun, His Life and Works”, mentions that Braun “was very fond of plucked instruments”, composing many works for harp, santur, harpsichord and guitar.

“Sharkiya”, the title of the opening work on the disc, refers to the dry, hot eastern desert wind dominating the Mediterranean climate throughout the summer months. Composed in 1957 for mandolin, guitar and harpsichord, the work is representative of the search of European-born immigrant composers to Israel for a musical language expressive of the Middle Eastern environment. In this short modal piece, the artists give articulate expression to its melody-biased daring and vibrancy, its dancelike character, buoyant rhythmic combinations and silvery timbres. In Braun’s Sonata for Mandolin and Guitar (2004), Sariel and Elias are attentive, precise and responsive in their reading of the work, with its gamut of lush, imaginative harmonies, its constant rhythmic play, Braun’s free use of tonality (not without oriental touches) and of the piece’s many moods – from pensiveness and tender nostalgia to sheer energetic joy. Braun’s score is vivid, attractive, idiomatically written and challenging, pointing out that guitar and mandolin do not necessarily make for an “odd couple”.

Composed in 1995, Braun’s Partita for Guitar, Omaggio a Girolamo Frescobaldi, refers to the Baroque suite in its line-up of movements, although the framework gives carte blanche to a work of extraordinary richness and variety of ideas. Reading into them, Izhar Elias’s playing is sensitive and imaginative, from his evocative, magical playing of the intimate Preludio, to the disquieting, somewhat Spanish-flavoured Toccata temporarily relieved by cascades of chords. Then to the gently stepping Air, a mood piece of exquisite harmonic development and singing melodies, to be followed by a Corrente, the latter’s intensity and terse agenda associative of Flamenco music, warming into lyricism before returning to its original textures. As to the Ciaconna, its variations and autumnal harmonies capture Elias’ (and the listener’s) imagination as he presents its kaleidoscope of moods – jazz-tainted, fragile and personal, haunting, skipping, forthright -  with natural ease and virtuosity; the recording picks up the guitar’s every nuance. Braun’s Partita constitutes a rich item of 20th century guitar repertoire.

The last work on the recording “Music for Plucked Instruments” (2002), taking its inspiration from J.S.Bach’s 3rd- and 5th Brandenburg Concertos and from the Concertos for Two and Three Harpsichords (promising a virtuosic role for the harpsichordist!),  is another splendid work. Its sophisticated and inventive score once again highlights Braun’s manifold harmonic imagination and his vigorous use of rhythm. And again, movement titles hark back to the composer’s deep involvement with Baroque style. With its scintillating textures, the opening Toccata, based on a small amount of basic material but richly orchestrated, is exciting and engaging, its breathless urgency temporarily alleviated by relaxed cadenza-like sections incrusted with glittering, filigree mandolin sounds. The Aria, bathed in a sense of well-being, and opening with a caressing folk-like melody, with the mandolin imitating the beguiling sound of the balalaika, is followed by a Giga – a mélange of tutti- and chamber sections, forthright gestures and those harking back to the gentle balalaika textures of the Aria. The Giga ends on a mischievous note.

Alon Sariel, Izhar Elias and Michael Tsalka, all busy with international solo- and ensemble careers, share an interest in both historic performance and contemporary music. They also commission new works for their instruments and for this unique ensemble. Recorded in Montisi, Italy in 2015 and distributed by IMI, “Sharkiya”, the trio’s second disc, presents the world’s first recording for plucked trio. Its lively sound quality does justice to Yehezkel Braun – one of Israel’s greatest composers – and to the outstanding musicianship of the three artists.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet hosts pianist Yaron Kohlberg in an opera-inspired program

Itamar Leshem,Roy Amotz,Danny Erdman,Yigal Kaminka,Nadav Cohen (photo:Dafna Gazit)
The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet is presently performing a series of concerts in various locations in Israel. This writer attended the concert on April 29th 2017 at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv. For this series, TAWQ members Roy Amotz (flute), Yigal Kaminka (oboe), Danny Erdman (clarinet), Itamar Leshem (horn) and Nadav Cohen (bassoon) were joined by guest pianist Yaron Kohlberg. Established in 2007, the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet’s aims are to perform existing repertoire and commission new works, with an emphasis of performing and recording works of Israeli composers. The TAWQ’s debut album (2016) includes works of Bach and Beethoven and Piazzolla, also the world premiere of a work by Israeli composer Ari Ben-Shabetai.

The Tel Aviv program opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Quintet in E-flat major for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon K.452, written in 1784, the composer’s only piano quintet, and premiered the same year with Mozart himself at the piano. Its scoring rendering it a ground-breaking work when it was written, the K.452 quintet is still a work to keep audiences at the edge of their seats. With its abundance of solo statements, conversational duo banter, trio-, quartet- and quintet textures, the players incorporated Mozart’s sense of well-being, joy and thoughtful moments, their buoyant, vibrant mix of individual timbres coming together in suave shaping, incisive playing, articulate Classical balance and single-mindedness. Nadav
Cohen's burnished-, cantabile- and naturally shaped lines were evident, with Yaron Kohlberg’s crisp, clean passagework, never marred by excessive use of the sustaining pedal and never thick, giving freshness to the performance.

Those of us familiar with music of Luciano Berio (1925-2003) are acquainted with his Sinfonia, his solo Sequenza series and the wonderfully evocative “Folk Songs” (1964); we associate him with Darmstadt and serial music. The TAWQ chose to familiarize its audience with one of the Italian composer’s early works – Opus Number Zoo – a play for children, written before Berio’s move to the USA and dedicated to Aaron Copland on his 70th birthday. Composed in 1951 and revised in 1970, the work comprises four movements, each corresponding to a text recited by the musicians, solo or together, and woven in and out of the musical text. The four poems, written by Rhoda Levine, have been translated into Hebrew rhyme by Elisha Shefi, to which members of the TLWQ have made a few changes. Ari Teperberg did the stage direction. The work, their succinct movements titled “Barn Dance”, “The Fawn”, “The Grey Mouse” and “Tom Cats”, are neo-Classical in style; they are tightly constructed, with musical- and verbal phrases tossed (often mid-way) from one artist to another. Making full use of stage, the TAWQ players delivered both music and repartee in a masterly, brisk and polished manner...and with gusto! The poems, although folksy in tone, are, however, overlayered with adult cynicism and seriousness, with anti-war messages (“The Fawn”, “Tomcats”), references to the inevitability of old age (“The Grey Mouse”), etc. “Barn Dance” is a bouncy and catchy number, but the other three poems carry an ominous undercurrent. Yet, with the five artists investing energy, humor and precision in the performance, the stage of the Israel Music Conservatory’s auditorium took on an air of drollery and of the unexpected. The audience was well amused.

Gioachino Rossini’s wind quartets are actually arrangements of the string quartets he composed in 1804, when he was all of twelve years of age. They were arranged for wind quartet (flute, clarinet, horn, bassoon) by renowned clarinetist and teacher Frédéric Berr, a contemporary of Rossini.  Berr’s voicing of the wind instruments is not only idiomatic and convincing, it ties in with Rossini’s own style of writing for these instruments. There is no doubt that Amotz, Erdman, Leshem and Cohen’s playing of the work added the extra attraction of timbral variety to the fruits of Rossini’s precocious imagination. The artists indeed captured the Rossini soundscape, as the work showcased each of these fine players in its gamut of melodies, jocularity, elegance and vivacity. Solos were accompanied with elegance. Especially notable were Roy Amotz’ finely chiseled melodic phrases and radiant passagework, his transitions and ornamenting, and Itamar Leshem’s handling of the challenging horn role in a work that foresees Rossini’s future as a great opera composer.

The Suite from Kurt Weill’s “Threepenny Opera” takes the listener into a very different world, both musically and socially, with the Brecht/Weill collaboration presenting a modern rethinking of the 1728 stage piece of John Gay and Johann Christian Pepusch on London’s low life in a musical theatre piece celebrating crooks and gangsters. With the strident, jagged opening chords of the Overture setting the scene, the TAWQ players launch into the bittersweet music, their sophisticated interpretational skills giving expression to the raw, rhythmically nervous, jazz-tinged cabaret style of Berlin of the 1920s. Sardonic, tragic, at times tender (some nostalgic moments beautifully conveyed by Kaminka) the quintet’s substantial, richly spiced joint sound gave fine representation to the work’s revolutionary satire, musical profanity and social criticism. The arrangement for wind quintet was by distinguished New York clarinetist Alan R. Kay.

The program concluded with Berlin-based composer/flautist Aaron Dan’s 2011 piano and wind quintet arrangement of Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks” op.28 (1895). Written in a loose rondo form, the work is scored for large orchestra, calling for a great number of wind instruments and percussion.  The tone poem was inspired by the ancient German legend of Till Eulenspiegel, a mischievous trickster who became known in folkloric stories as a sort of con artist meets jester. His legend plays largely upon the common man’s belief that avarice can be found behind every pillar in the halls of the entitled and that it is the gift of the good-hearted, witty fool to expose them. A true program work, the high-paced romp begins with the piano (violins in the original) in a “One upon a time” gesture, with the horn then playing the triumphant/somewhat mocking Till Eulenspiegel theme, a motif which becomes threaded throughout the work, with Danny Erdman playing the clarinet theme representing Till's laughter. A challenging work to play, the TAWQ and Kohlberg’s performance of it was strategically timed, finely coordinated, colourful, dynamic and decidedly whimsical.  Following his life of tricks and social destruction, Till is brought before a judge and condemned to the gallows, his last mocking phrase cut short suddenly and dramatically. But, before the storybook is closed, the six players’ last musical gestures remind us that Till Eulenspiegel was a lovable fellow and that his story lives on.

With no possibility here to go into the biographies of the five wind players, it must be said that each member of the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet is a unique artist and soloist on the international scene. Their joint signature sound bristles with supple energy.  Yaron Kohlberg, today residing in China, appears solo and in collaboration with other artists, holds master classes and serves as jury member in international competitions. Six outstanding, home-grown musicians, fine programming and deep enquiry into each work made for an evening of high quality performance and pure enjoyment.

Yaron Kohlberg (Rinat Aldema)

Monday, May 1, 2017

The 2017 Israel Festival program will be rich, varied, challenging and loaded with surprises

Olivier De Sagazan (France): Transfiguation (photo:Didier Carluccio)
The 2017 Israel Festival will take place from June 1st to 18th. With the abundance of mainstream culture available in Israel, together with his team, Eyal Sher, who took over the festival’s general direction three years ago, has changed the emphasis and agenda of the program. Speaking at the festival press conference at Hansen House (Jerusalem) on April 25th, Sher articulated his aim to bring new art trends from all over the world to the festival, pointing out that this year’s festival will host artists from 16 different countries. In its new format, the Israel Festival has nevertheless retained its high standards, received awards and favourable critiques. Most of this year’s events will take place at the Jerusalem Theatre, but also at the Sultan’s Pool, the Eden-Tamir Music Center (Ein Kerem), with some street performances taking place in Jerusalem's downtown Zion Square. The 2017 Israel Festival is dedicated to the memory of Micha Levinson, whose artistic vision and humanity laid the foundations of the festival’s core values, contributing immeasurably to the establishment of its prestige both in Israel and abroad.

The festival’s more daring fare means fewer works slotting into the once-conventional categories of theatre, dance and music, with more stepping out beyond the boundaries to engage in different genres within the same event. Take, for example, the opening event – “Groove Party” – taking place at the Sultan’s Pool (June 1st). Reflecting Jerusalem’s diversity, the three-hour program will include such musical legends as Teapacks and Knesiyat Hasekhel, the Firqat Alnoor Orchestra (Jewish- and Arab musicians) hosting singer Nasreen Qadri, also queen of Israeli-Indian grove Liora Itzhak, Yemenite-flavoured music performed by A-WA and Yemen Blues, as well as the funk, afrobeat, reggae fusion of the Kutiman Orchestra.

An event not for the faint-hearted is “And What Will I do with this Sword?”, in which veteran director, hypnotic artist and phenomenal performer Angėlica Lidell (Spain) explores two real-life crimes of horrific violence in a performance spoken in Spanish, Japanese and French (with Hebrew surtitles) and lasting four and a half hours. Another multilingual performance is that of Thom Luz (Switzerland) “When I Die – A Ghost Story with Music”, telling the true story of an English woman communicating with dead composers in a theatrical/visual/musical style, taking the audience into a dreamlike fantasy world.  “Based on a True Story”, French choreographer Christian Rizzo places eight male dancers and two rock drummers on one stage, combining archaic intensity, ecstatic repetition and folklore in a show that has much to say about compassion, community and the world of men.  The Israel Festival offers too many original and different events to mention here; one unique concept, however, will be represented in two events: “Night Shift” (June 15, starting at 8 p.m. and running into the wee hours of the morning) will invite the audience to wander around the various spaces of the Jerusalem Theatre to experience dance, theatre, pop, DJs and video in an electrifying nocturnal time tunnel. Also, inviting audiences to spontaneously amble around the Jerusalem Theatre, “Sound Charter” (Israel-Poland) on June 7th will offer the festival-goer the opportunity of moving between darkness and light, open- and closed space, listening from close and far and of hearing iconic works of the past as well as contemporary works.

And on the subject of music at this year’s Israel Festival, early music aficionados will enjoy hearing Ars Antiqua Austria (June 2nd), Ensemble Tourbillon (Czech Republic-Israel) in a program titled “Vienna 1709” and the Sarband Ensemble (Turkey, Germany, Greece), whose program is inspired by early western music and music from the east - from the Ottoman Empire to China! The Eden-Tamir Music Center will continue its tradition of Saturday morning chamber concerts with musicians from the USA, Israel and China. A large-scale collaboration between the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Mendi Rodan Orchestra (Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance), the Jerusalem Academy of Music Chamber Choir and the Chamber Choir of the Franz Liszt University of Music (Weimar, Germany) is “Psalms” (June 7th). It will open with a Persian folk song and will include Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms”, Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” and Israeli composer Tzvi Avni’s a cappella “Song of Psalms”.

Forty years following the death of Tirza Atar, “West of Here” (June 8th) is a tribute to the eminent Israeli poet, song-writer, author and translator. In interesting new arrangements involving oriental percussion instruments and contemporary electronic settings, Efrat Ben Zur, Dikla, Yuval Dayan, Shlomo Saranga, Eran Tzur and Atar’s son Nathan Slor will present a selection of the poet’s famous works in familiar- and new arrangements.

The festival will include conferences, discussions and master classes. In a different and original festival event, Israeli Ensemble Can’s “Operation Silk Gloves” (June 6th, 9th,13th, 16th) guides will show people through the Israel Museum’s galleries, subverting the established narrative with personal and thought-provoking ideas, blurring the boundaries between spectator and performer.  As to the visual arts represented in this year’s Israel Festival, Yochai Matos will offer a new perspective on the space of the Jerusalem Theatre lobby in a light and video installation and, in “Distr(action)”, students, teachers and graduates of the Musrara Naggar Multidisciplinary School of Art and Society, celebrating 30 years of its existence, will rearrange the Rebecca Crown Theatre on June 15th for an event focusing on the relationship between sound, visual image and live action.