Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Israel Mozart Orchestra performs an all-Mozart program at the Israel Conservatory of Music, Tel Aviv

Photo: Shirley Burdick
The Israel Mozart Orchestra was formed for the Toujours Mozart Festival, that took place at the Elma Arts Center (Zichron Ya’akov) in 2016. A chamber ensemble made up mostly of Israelis (some resident outside of Israel), it plays without a conductor, being led by the concertmaster. This writer attended the IMO’s recent concert in the Ran Baron Hall of the Israel Conservatory of Music (Tel Aviv) on October 21st 2017. The all-Mozart program was performed on period instruments. Overseas guest artists were concertmaster - violinist Joanna Huszcza (Poland/Belgium), oboist Marcel Ponseele (Belgium) and violist Kaat de Cock (Belgium).

W.A.Mozart’s different genres of occasional music reflect his predilection for home entertainment and social activities. The Tel Aviv concert began with two of Mozart’s divertimenti. The divertimenti, performed at parties in Mozart’s time, are all scored for strings and two horns, two of them adding an extra wind instrument. Lacking the formality and virtuosic approach of his concert music and the drama of his operas does not mean that these works lack the composer’s compositional perfection. When they do make it to the concert platform nowadays (sadly, too rarely) they are often performed by sizeable orchestras. The one-to-a-part manner in which we heard them played at the Tel Aviv concert would have been much closer to the scoring and sound world of 18th century house music. Presenting Divertimento no.11 in D-major K.251 (1776), featuring Marcel Ponseele on oboe, the players brought out the work’s charm and joie-de-vivre and its occasional surprises. Ponseele’s solo sections bristled with life and interest, his tasteful flexing of rhythms lending did  Huszcza’s ornamenting and that of violinist Jonathan Keren as in the noble-stepping (4th movement) Menuetto. Stripped of its formality, the French-style Marcia, the work’s final movement, with its charming asides, was allowed to somewhat dance. Who knows if the original Salzburg musicians did not also open the intermezzo with the Marcia  to attract the partygoers’ attention from eating, drinking and conversing! It seems Mozart wrote this divertimento for his sister’s name-day. Nannerl would have enjoyed its sunny, French touches.

We then heard Mozart’s Divertimento No.15 in B-flat major K.287 for strings and two horns, written for the celebration of Countess Antonia Lodron of Salzburg’s name-day (also referred to as the Second Lodron Serenade). Joanna Huszvza leads well. Her splendid playing of the demanding and sometimes florid 1st violin part was a reminder that, in Mozart’s time, K287 was occasionally performed as a violin concerto (with Mozart himself as soloist). Playing on natural horns, Alon Reuven and Barak Yeivin added variety and beauty of timbre to the ensemble, giving expression  to the composer’s intentions by  playing the instrument Mozart must have had in mind and setting up a fine balance in the ensemble. And, as the two changed crooks from movement to movement, they made playing natural horns look easy! The Tema con variazioni (2nd movement) abounded with charm, interest and variety. Would the countess have recognized the theme taken from folksong tunes commonly associated with vulgar words? In its performance of the two Intermezzi, the IMO players gave the music its due, displaying Mozart’s skill in treading the fine line between simplification and interest, between user-friendly communication and sophistication.

Alfred Brendel once referred to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat major, K.271, “Jeunehomme” as “one of the wonders of the world, which showed Mozart in an entirely new light”. He claimed that Mozart “did not surpass this piece in the later piano concertos”, adding that it “looks to the future, and yet it comes from a Baroque tradition which the later concertos no longer continue.” A truly unique work, its score is fully written out - lead-ins, cadenzas and embellishments. Composed in January of 1777 for strings, horns and oboes, when Mozart was just turning 21, the concerto has long been known as the “Jeunehomme” concerto after its supposed dedicatee, but this has recently been found to be a misnomer, as the dedicatee’s actual identity was a certain Madame Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812), a French pianist. The IMO’s splendid line-up of players displayed  Mozart’s use of the instruments in novel ways to create dramatic dialogue between piano and orchestra. Zvi Meniker, who  currently teaches harpsichord, fortepiano and performance practice at the Hannover Conservatory, performed the solo role on a fortepiano belonging to Bar-Ilan University. There was close communication between him and the other instrumentalists. Meniker’s playing of the opening movement was vibrant and articulate, his reading of the dark, C-minor Andantino complemented by sensitive nuancing on the part of the other players, his performance of the cadenza spontaneous and personal. The Rondeau movement, with its extensive and demanding solo moments, was a fine vehicle for Meniker’s easeful energy and virtuosity, as well as for both Mozart and Meniker’s taste for surprises - Mozart’s in interrupting the Rondeau with an unconventionally placed minuet part way through and Meniker’s in finding room in the cadenza to quote the popular Hebrew song “Hava nagila”.


Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Berlin-Tel Aviv", tenor Assaf Kacholi's first solo album

Photo:Yonatan Birenbaum
Tenor Assaf Kacholi’s solo repertoire spans several genres, from opera to oratorio, from Lieder to Israeli songs. cabaret music and Italian love songs. Born in Israel, Kacholi has been living in Berlin since 2002. In 2007, he joined the highly successful German classical-crossover “Adoro” Ensemble. “Berlin-Tel Aviv”, his first solo album, was released in September 2017 on the GEMA label. His own personal choice of pieces, the disc offers an assortment of songs covering a number of genres, each accompanied on either guitar or piano.

The earliest of the pieces on the CD is John Dowland’s lute ayre “Flow My Tears”, with Shani Inbar’s guitar accompaniment indeed a satisfactory substitute for the original lute and Kacholi reflecting Dowland’s gloom in such dejected and contradictory utterances as
“Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world's despite”.

Two items of the disc provide an all-to-brief glimpse into a genre close to Kacholi’s heart and one that sits very well with his voice - the Romantic German Lied. In “Ständchen” (Serenade), dating from the last months of Schubert's life, Kacholi and pianist Efrat Levy take time to re-create the limpid music of yearning coloured with Schubert’s major/minor fragility, as the serenader invites her lover to join her on a nocturnal rendezvous. Kacholi’s reading of Clara Schumann’s “Die stille Lotosblume” (The Quiet Lotus Blossom), composed in 1842 (lyrics: Emanuel Geibel) is a beautifully controlled mood study, as the silvery, moonlit poem is presented with poetic lyricism. One senses that Kacholi is very comfortable with the German language. Moving with ease into the musical theatre mode of Kurt Weill, Kacholi strikes a fine balance between the bitter-sweet intimacy of a text telling of betrayal and the political message of “Wie lange noch?” (How long before it’s over?) to lyrics of Walter Mehring. And, on a different note, his debonair singing, evoking Berlin allure in the suave, leisurely foxtrot of “Berlin in Licht” (Berlin in Light).

The salon songs of Francesco Paolo Tosti (1846-1916) envelop the human voice with natural, Italian warmth, having been on the playlists of such opera singers as Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso, as well as being an important part of Pavarotti’s repertoire. Kacholi’s singing of Tosti’s songs engages in their easeful melodiousness, their lush elegance and gentle sentimentality, as he conveys their ideal of love and its niche in our dreams. Especially evocative are his two reflective renditions of Nino Rota’s “What Is a Youth?”, to superbly played accompaniments - the first on guitar (Shani Inbar), with a second rendition together with Orit Wolf on piano -  the latter from a live performance. Wolf and Kacholi’s fine collaboration is also heard in George (and Ira) Gershwin’s “By Strauss”, their quick-witted and entertaining performance articulate, jaunty and certainly “light of foot”.

Assaf Kacholi’s ties with Israeli song repertoire, both emotional and profound, filter through generously in his singing of those on the disc. We hear: him and guitarist Yonatan Birenbaum’s exotic and velvet-like performance of Noam Sheriff’s “Thou art Beautiful” (Song of Songs) and their beautifully crafted and moving interpretation of  “My Little Bird” (lyrics: Pinchas Sadeh, music: Oded Lerer). The many facets and colours of Assaf Kacholi’s voice also play out effectively in his evocative and caressing performance of “Lullaby” (lyrics: Natan Alterman, music: Sasha Argov), all the more fetching for Orit Wolf’s poignant accompaniment:
“Now the road itself will sleep
For the end is near…
And the king has lost his crown
As the fools appear.
Rest your head, the boat, the brook,
Tranquil lies the Persian souk,
Turn down the lights, the dark is lush...
And quiet, quiet...hush…”                Translation: Achinoam Nini

In recording “Berlin-Tel Aviv”, Assaf Kacholi opens his personal music portfolio to us. His richly endowed voice and warmth of sound invite the listener to listen again, to connect with his musicality and sincerity. The disc is also a statement of personal conflict, a searching of identity, of Assaf Kacholi’s confidence to say: “These are my songs”.



Thursday, October 19, 2017

Karl Jenkins' "The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace" performed at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem

Photo: Frank.D. Roemer
The first Jerusalem performance of Karl Jenkins’ “The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace” took place on October 16th 2017 at the Dormition Abbey, Mt. Zion, Jerusalem. Under the direction of Dr. Helmut Föller, the work was performed by a joint choir made up of the Collegium Vocale Bad Homburg, Germany (director Helmut Föller), the Olive Branches Choir (Bethlehem) and Schmidt’s Girls College Choir, Jerusalem (director: Erwin Meyer). The instrumental ensemble comprised German- and local players. Soprano Hayat Chaoui sang the solos. Helmut Föller and Erwin Meyer shared the conducting.

Opening the event, Pater Nikodemus Schnabel, pastor of the Dormition Abbey, spoke of the complicated question of performing a piece that includes content from India, the Far East and Muslim liturgical material in a church on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Could this be considered scandalous? Or a loss of identity? The overriding issue he concluded is that of human beings killing each other, that this is what should shock us. Fr. Nikodemus invited audience members to open their hearts to the challenge of the music, to its intellectual dialogue and to have the courage to be changed by it..

Welsh oboist and composer Karl Jenkins (b.1944), whose oeuvre ranges from pop, to symphonic music, spiritual chorus, ethnic music and to film music, composed the “The Armed Man” in 1999, at the time of the Kosovo conflict. It was premiered in April 2000 at London’s Royal Albert Hall and has since been much performed and recorded. Jenkins explains that “The Armed Man” was inspired by the "L'Homme armé" Masses that were prevalent in the 16th century, and he makes this reference clear with movements based on Renaissance polyphony. The work also includes writing in earlier and later styles. In the masterful weaving of disparate sources into a coherent and compelling whole, “The Armed Man - a Mass for Peace” manages to  combine parts of the Ordinary of the Mass  with other texts pertaining to war and its horrors -  a Japanese poem about the firestorms that followed the atomic bombs, an apocalyptic passage from India's Mahabharata and more.

A crossover work of this variety poses many challenges to performers, yet this group - a mix of amateurs and professionals - gave poignant expression to the many styles and gestures used by Jenkins. Bookended by two different treatments of the 15th century melody, the work’s contents emerged as moving and shocking, its  emphasis on the dehumanisation of war as strong as its humanistic statement. In meticulously coordinated and precise performance, the three percussionists gave credence to the work’s stark, arresting message, as did the very fine brass players. Oboist Stefan Gleitsman’s solos were exquisitely performed. Altogether, the instrumental ensemble contributed high-quality and engaging performance.

The conductors’ dedicated work amalgamated  choral singers of different ages and backgrounds into a splendidly blended choral ensemble, attentive to detail and colour. Their singing pleased with its pure, unforced and unmannered quality, whether engaging in the haunting tones of the “Sanctus”, the calming, velvety textures of the “Agnus Dei” and the “Benedictus” or in the clamorous tutti sections describing war scenes:
‘The earth is full of anger,
The seas are dark with wrath,
The Nations in their harness
Go up against our path:
Ere yet we loose the legions—
Ere yet we draw the blade,
Jehovah of the Thunders,
Lord God of Battles, aid!’       Rudyard Kipling “Hymn before Action”

German-born soprano Hayat Chaoui’s stable, crystal-toned voice and her fine diction gave expression to solo sections in singing that was at the same time objective, moving and subtle. In “Now the Guns have Stopped”, against the pale otherworldly sounds of high strings, she presents the feelings of personal guilt and sadness weighing on a survivor returning from World War I; the text is by Guy Wilson (b.1950, curator of the United Kingdom’s national museum for arms and armour from 1988 to 2002:)
‘Silent, so silent now,
Now the guns have stopped.
I have survived all,
I who knew I would not.
But now you are not here.
I shall go home alone;
And must try to live life as before
And hide my grief.
For you, my dearest friend,
who should be with me now,
Not cold too soon,
And in your grave,

As “Better is Peace”, the work’s 13th and final section, concluded with a serene chorale, its tranquil harmonies became infused with the sounds of church bells ringing outside, a poignant reminder of where we were.


Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Stuttgart Chamber Choir, conducted by Frieder Bernius, opens the 52nd Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Photo: David Goland
Of the three visiting choirs to the October 2017 Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, the Stuttgart Chamber Choir (Kammerchor Stuttgart), under its founder and musical director Frieder Bernius (no new face to the Israeli concert stage) performed a program of works of Bach and Romantic composers at the festival’s opening concert in the Kiryat Yearim Church on October 11th. Founded in 1968, the ensemble today comprises mostly young professional singers and is renowned for its high musical standards and stylistic flexibility.


The program opened with Felix Mendelssohn’s imposing “Te Deum” in D-major written for double choir, soloists and eight soloists. Written in 1826 for the opening of Berlin’s Singakademie building in 1827, Mendelssohn, a newly-baptised Christian, composed his first liturgical work. Although only 17 years old at the time, his complete mastery over every aspect of choral writing is  evident throughout the work. In twelve movements and using Baroque continuo concept, the work relies heavily on the musical language and scoring of the 17th and 18th centuries, producing an eclectic mix of styles. Bernius and his singers’ articulacy of musical expression and diction presented the work’s variety of colour, texture and dynamics. One highlight was the “Te aeternum patrem” (All the world doth worship thee) in which, one by one, each of the soloists commented on the text in ascending/descending patterns. The “Dignare, Domine” (Vouchsafe, O Lord), spiralling into a web of 16-part counterpoint, was also especially moving.


Then, to two solo songs of Gustav Mahler, arranged for a-cappella choir by German composer, conductor and musicologist Clytus Gottwald (b.1925). In “Um Mitternacht” (At Midnight) (Rückert) the singers created the haunting mood of the piece (reflecting the composer’s inner conflict in his moment of collapse some months previously), their melodic lines melting seamlessly into each other, here and there meeting in urgency and dissonance, Mahler’s message, though finally positive, tinged with the disturbing death knell. This was followed by “The Two Blue Eyes of My Beloved”  from “Songs of a Wayfarer”, with Gottwald’s brilliant “orchestration” of the voices presented poignantly in subdued tones. Mahler’s moments of happiness are tinged with longing and sadness. Following the Mahler songs, we heard the Stuttgart Chamber Choir in another of Gottwald’s skillfully created arrangements - “Solveijg’s Song” (Peer Gynt), easily the most popular of Edvard Grieg’s 180 songs. The singers gave delicate contrast to the song’s two alternating melodies - the wistful, more nostalgic mood and the gently lilting folk dance-type refrain.


The concert concluded with “Jesu, meine Freude” (Jesu, My Joy) BWV 227, J.S.Bach’s longest and most complex motet, written some time between 1723 and 1727 for St. Thomas’ Church, Leipzig, where Bach was director of music. It uses as its basis the eponymous chorale by Johann Crüger (words by Johann Franck), but includes passages from St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. One fascinating aspect of the a-cappella work is its virtually palindromic form, Bach’s experimenting with structure and balance tying in with how the composer augments the four-part chorale settings with movements of both five and three voices and with its message. What characterized this performance was the choir’s means of displaying the work’s stark contrasts - heaven and hell, joy and suffering - achieved in the more vehement, anguished sections through the abrasive use of consonants and detached textures. And, in contrast, for example, how tender and lyrical the 6th section was, the work’s centrepiece double fugue, finally taken to its confident conclusion. The keyword to Bernius’ reading of the work was “clarity”, offering the audience the opportunity to follow all melodic lines, even in the densest contrapuntal moments. A work with a large dramatic range, it is the final chorale, in its directness, returning to simplicity of setting following its copious transfigurations, that leaves the audience humbled and moved.


For its encores, the choir performed two Israeli songs, much to the delight of the audience.