Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Pianist Jonathan Biss (USA) performs a solo recital at the International YMCA, Jerusalem

Photo: Benjamin Ealowega
Concert No.3 of the Jerusalem Music Centre’s 2017-2018 International Series, taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 16th 2017, featured American pianist Jonathan Biss in a solo recital. Coming from a family of professional musicians, Jonathan Biss, in addition to his performance schedule, shares his musical knowledge and ideas in his writing and teaching. A member of faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music, he also engages in teaching online and is in the midst of a nine-year recording project of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas.

The recital opened with W.A.Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.8 in A-minor K.310, written in 1778 and one of only two piano sonatas the composer wrote in minor keys. It also happens to be  one of Mozart’s most dramatic and tragic-sounding pieces. Whether this was an expression of events of the 22-year-old composer’s life at the time (work dissatisfaction, his mother’s death) or perhaps the influence of Mozart’s deep involvement with Johann Schobert’s sonatas, which display Romantic tendencies and  sharp contrasts, even rage and despair, we can not know.  Biss’s reading of the opening Allegro maestoso movement, at times more “furioso” than “maestoso” was stormy and exciting; his brilliant technique served the movement’s drama well. The slow movement emerged rich in detail, certainly charming but not heart-on-sleeve playing. In repeating sections, Biss would invite his listener to hear a new take on the same music. In both outer movements, the pianist made extensive use of the sustaining pedal in runs.

Distinguished American composer, pianist, conductor and teacher Leon Kirchner (1919-2009) composed Interlude II for Jonathan Biss. The short piece, comprising two contrasting sections to be played without a break, was inspired by an earlier dramatic work of the composer - a small opera based on texts of five American poets. Interlude II (2002) reflects two scenes from it, but Kirchner leaves the audience “to decipher the complexities of the work, and its gestalt.” So, what the listener hears is a somewhat programmatic work on the part of the composer, but without the listener being aware of its content. Indeed, this is a mood piece alternating between full, complex textures and pensive, personal fragility of utterance, its shaping and wonderful palette of pianistic textures sensitively presented by Biss and with easeful virtuosity. Kirchner’s music, its sound world echoing late Romantic writing as well as his association with the 2nd Viennese School (he had been a student of Schoenberg) is his own voice; it is beguiling and subtle. Biss’s playing paid felicitous homage to the music of this dominant figure of American music, a composer whose works are not heard enough in today’s concert halls.

L. van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.17 opus 31 No.2 in D-minor “Tempest”, composed around 1801, when the composer was already showing signs of deafness, is indeed tempestuous in its first and third movements. In the opening movement, Biss brought out Beethoven’s extreme contrasts of mood, its intense sections of rich textures stormy both in texture and tempo contrasted by calmer sections in which time seemed to stand still, moments of inspiration, as if the pianist was composing these passages himself.  Taking time to spell out the Adagio’s musical agenda, i.e. Beethoven’s thought process, if with some saturation of the sustaining pedal, a sense of well-being pervaded the movement’s recitative-like and beautifully-shaped melodies, with the “tempest” appearing only briefly in the 32nd note arpeggios near the middle of the movement. Taking the listener into the final movement with delightfully light, nimble playing, Biss juxtaposed the movement’s ideas and dynamics, its vivacity now less about struggle and more about joyful and triumphant feelings, as he brought the work to its conclusion with a whisper.

Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C-major op.17, begun in 1836 as a single-movement work reflecting the composer’s long for Clara Wieck, his future wife, ended up as a  work of three movements, each very different emotionally, the massive Fantasie repurposed  to raise money for a monument of Beethoven. Published in 1839 and dedicated to Franz Liszt, the fantasy nevertheless abounds in the passion of young love, as in the tender melodic phrase quoted from Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte” addressing Clara.. Biss enlists his virtuosic technique and creativity  to presents Schumann’s rich, living canvas, indulging in its extravagant outbursts, its lyricism, dreams and its poetry as he displays the composer’s “orchestration” of the piano in an unbridled, uncompromising manner. Schumann’s melodies emerge as lyrical, soaring filaments of yearning, the impassioned motto theme moving the spirit on each new appearance of it. Jonathan Bill’s performance of the Fantasia was engaging,  experiential and rewarding.  


Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Leipzig Synagogue Choir on tour in Israel - November 2017

Photo: Irene Coster

The Leipziger Synagogalchor (Leipzig Synagogue Choir), a German ensemble that performs exclusively Jewish choral music, was established in 1962 by Cantor Werner Sander. Following Sander’s death, the ensemble’s direction was taken over by Helmut Klotz in 1972. Since 2012, Ludwig Böhme has served as the choir’s musical director. The recipient of several awards, the choir records and performs widely, promoting international- and interreligious dialogue.  Much of the choir’s repertoire consists of the 19th century liturgical music that was sung in German synagogues - for choir and soloists, either a-cappella or with keyboard accompaniment -  and pronounced in the particular Ashkenazi manner used by German Jewry up to the Holocaust. Today, some arrangements of Yiddish songs also make up the repertoire.  What is totally unique about this ensemble is that conductor and members, none of whom belong to the Jewish faith, are keeping this important tradition alive and presenting it to audiences in Europe and further afield. This writer attended the concert held at the Moreshet Yisrael Synagogue, Jerusalem, on November 13th 2017, where the Leipzig choir was hosted by the Jerusalem Meitar Choir (director: Ido Marco). Soloists from Germany were Dorothea Wagner (soprano), Falk Hoffmann (tenor), Tilmann Löser (piano) and Reinhard Riedel (violin).


Both choirs joined to open the event with Louis Lewandowski’s setting of “Ma Tovu” (How Great are thy tents), with the Leipzig Synagogalchor (and soloists) performing more of the much-loved Lewandowski songs; their sensitive singing of the soul-searching “Enosh” text from the Day of Atonement memorial service was especially expressive and moving:

“ As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.

For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more.” (Psalm 103).


Italian Baroque composer Carlo Grossi’s “Cantata Ebraica in Dialogo” for soloist and choir, in the style of Monteverdi but to texts in Hebrew, is set for soloist, 4 part choir, and basso continuo. It iforms a musical dialogue between soloist and choir. Dorothea Wagner’s performance of the virtuosic solo part was lively and informed, with some tasteful ornamentation in her finely-detailed reading of the piece. Interestingly, the tiny cantata was commissioned (from the non-Jewish Grossi)  by a Jewish fraternity in Modena. Remaining in Italy, we heard a-cappella repertoire of Salomone Rossi presented with clean, fresh and well-coordinated sound. German-born cantor, composer and researcher of Jewish music Samuel Naumbourg, who lived most of his life in France, was instrumental in the revival of Rossi’s synagogue music. Dorothea Wagner gave vivid expression to the solo in his “S’u Sho’rim” (Lift up your heads, o ye gates), a piece very much in the traditional German synagogue style.


The ensemble’s uncompromising performance of Russian cantor (1843–1911) Abraham Dunajewski’s “Na’ariz’cho”, a work rich in drama and contrasts, featuring choir and both soloists, was impressive and stirring.


Not many concert-goers will be aware of the fact that, a few months before he died in 1828 at the age of 31, Franz Schubert produced a setting of the Psalm No. 92, Tov Lehodot La’Adonai for choir and baritone, and using the Hebrew text.  It was commissioned by cantor and influential Viennese composer of synagogue music Solomon Sulzer, the solo to be sung by the Sulzer himself. Homophonic and harmonically uncomplicated, typical of Schubert part songs, with solos subtly woven in and out of the choral role, the piece was given a beautifully chiselled performance.


The program gave quite some focus to works inspired by the Kaddish, the magnification and sanctification of God's name, the term “Kaddish” often used to refer specifically to the mourner’s prayer.  An effective combination was made of Maurice Ravel’s “Deux mélodies hébraïques” - Reinhard Riedel’s plaintive performance of a Jewish-sounding solo violin solo, also Dorothea Wagner and Tilmann Löser in the “Kaddish”, the gentle dissonances of Ravel’s evocative accompaniment adding interesting, otherworldly effects to the customary Kaddish melody. Sandwiched between these two pieces was Salomone Rossi’s “Kaddish” setting, in which we had the opportunity of hearing Ludwig Böhme’s sonorous, warm tenor voice.


Moving into the 20th century, the Leipzig Synagogalchor sang Kurt Weill’s “Kiddush” (1946) (the prayer of thanksgiving for the Sabbath evening wine), commissioned for the 75th anniversary of New York's Park Avenue Synagogue and dedicated it to Weill’s father, who had been chief cantor in Dessau. Falk Hoffmann’s expressive powers made for an eloquent and moving performance of this liturgical gem, as he presented the incantations of the cantor against sultry blues-influenced responses of the choir.


Moving from sacred music to secular, the concert ended with a few Yiddish songs and one traditional Hebrew tune - songs of Mordechai Gebirtig, Mikhl Gelbart and Itzik Manger.  It would have been helpful to have the song texts to follow for the narrative of Gelbart’s “Di Nakht” (Night), for example, its eerie agenda punctuated by outbursts, in Juan Garcia’s superb and nostalgic setting of Gebirtig’s mood piece “Kinderyorn” (Childhood Years) or in Fredo Jung’s lilting arrangement of Itzik Manger’s “Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym’ (A Tree Stands on the Path), so finely blended. All these arrangements were outstanding. Indeed, Friiedbert Gross’s original and challenging arrangement of Avraham Idelsohn’s “Hava Nagila” (Let us rejoice) breathed new colour and energy into a rather overworked song!


Beyond its unique mission, the Leipziger Synagogalchor offers performance of the highest professional standard, its singers, and indeed its instrumentalists, splendidly trained, inspiring, disciplined and communicative.

Photo: Ann Hornemann

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra opens its 47th season with two new works of Israeli composers

Composer Yitzhak Yedid (photo:Alan Shaw)

    The  Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra recently opened its 47th concert season with “The Great Opening”, eight concerts performed throughout Israel. This writer attended the festive event on November 1st in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Conducted by the orchestra’s musical director, Swedish trombonist, conductor and composer Christian Lindberg, who also spoke briefly about each work, the concert was the first of the new season’s globe-trotting theme of “North-South-East-West”. The opening concert  featured alto Nitzan Alon, tenor Tal Koch and the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (music director: Yuval Benozer).The NKO’s house conductor,  Shmuel Elbaz, was present at the event, meeting and chatting with audience members in the foyer over a glass of wine.

      The “North-South-East-West” theme promises programming of great variety and daring, and this  concert was no exception. The event opened with Johannes Brahms’ Rhapsody for alto, men’s choir and orchestra op.53 (1869), referred to by Lindberg as “one of the most beautiful love songs ever written”. The work represents Brahms’ infatuation not for Clara Schumann but for Julie, Clara and Robert Schumann’s daughter; it was composed on the news of her engagement. The composer wrote the solo for contralto, his favourite voice. From the work’s very opening sounds, Israeli-born alto Nitzan Alon, today a soloist with the Israeli Opera, drew the audience into the mood piece, giving an intense and profound performance, her singing easeful, her vocal timbre rich and warm in all registers. Alon’s substantial voice contended well with the orchestra. She gave expression to the work’s innate sadness and the mounting anguish of the first two verses (both in C-minor), with the mood mellowing into a glow of hope in the third verse (now in C-major) as she was joined by the men’s choir.

Remaining in the West, but moving northwards to Finland, we heard the Israeli premiere of Jean ibelius’ Symphony No.3 in C major op.52. Begun in 1904, the work was premiered in Helsinki in 1907 under the baton of the composer himself. Lindberg spoke of the Finns’ great belief in nature, and the listener might certainly have sensed its  darkness, moving into the midnight sun and of the life-affirming powers of nature as referred to by the conductor. Symphony No.3, almost neo-Classical in concept, is more restrained than its two antecedents; still, the musical canvas, coloured with folk music associations, is exceptionally rich, from the ‘cellos and basses’ opening theme of the first movement, robust in melodic contour and rhythms, to the Nordic, bittersweet character of the second movement, to the soaring tutti and exhilarance of the final movement, in which a hymn-like melody rises up in the low strings. This is fine orchestral fare. The NKO’s playing was well coordinated, vibrant, incisive and dedicated. Such a work can only benefit  from the fine standard of the NKO’s wind players, with  woodwind utterances adding enjoyment and interest to what could only be termed as a lush, buoyant orchestral sound.

In a unique project to promote works of student-composers, of the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra has invited three students of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music (Tel Aviv) and three from the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance to each compose a three-minute-long orchestral piece. The audience will hear one at each of this season’s concerts and will then vote for which it believes to be the best. Born in 1987, Ido Isak Romano is a masters student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music. His contemporary musical language is influenced by western classical music, electronic music, jazz and even Turkish music. We heard  his symphonic prelude “Elevations” (2017), a work inviting the listener to traverse different strata “mountains,the ground, oceans etc.” through his “integration of the various instrumental registers and textures”, in the composer’s words, “these creating new imaginary possibilities, enabling the listener to personally experience moving between these regions…” Romano’s orchestration is vivid, bristling with shimmering, dissonant screens of sound, clashes, breathy effects, slow microtonal ‘cello glissandi and timpani glissandi produced by the use of friction mallets, these echoed by the double basses, his forthright soundscape punctuated by a recurring, unrelenting and strong single beat of sound. A celebration of exuberance and orchestral colour, Romano’s piece seems to suggest that he has much more to say than is possible in a three-minute miniature.

Moving east, we heard  another new work by an Israeli composer. Yitzhak Yedid (b.1971), today living in Australia, where he lectures at the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. Commissioned by Maestro Lindberg and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra,“Blessings and Curses” (2017), a work of one movement, takes its inspiration from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a place holy to both Jews and Muslims as well as being a site fraught with conflict, vulnerability and tension, as is obvious from the title of the piece. Yedid’s writing is characterized by its inclusion of a wide spectrum of styles, textures and colours, reflecting the new and the ancient, in which his practical knowledge of the elements of Arabic music, jazz and western classical music join to form his own coherent musical style. Scored for chamber orchestra, “Blessings and Curses” is composed of 20 sections played in unbroken sequence, into which Yedid articulately weaves elements of eastern Jewish- and Arabic music with those of avant-garde western music, creating a canvas bristling with life, whose message is both tense and urgent. The music’s sarcastic undertone speaks of the unsolved political and social complexities represented by the Temple Mount. The work’s compositional writing is also complex, challenging the players to do justice to its multi-layered rhythmic structures. Lindberg and the NKO gave this fascinating and thought-provoking piece an exciting and finely coordinated reading.

With the Gloria from Giacomo Puccini’s “Messa di Gloria”, the concert concluded in the south. Puccini composed the Mass, scored for orchestra, four-part choir and tenor and baritone soloists, as his graduation exercise from the Istituto Musicale Pacini. Its first performance was in Lucca on July 12, 1880. Puccini never published the full manuscript of the Mass, and although it was well received when composed, it was not performed again until 1952 (first in Chicago and then in Naples). The Gloria, a veritable tour-de-force, with its profuse rhythmic energy, soaring melodies and emotional gestures, seemingly mixing at least as much of the profane (overtly operatic in style, in fact) as with the sacred, is a piece of great variety. Tenor, composer and actor Tal Koch gave an engaging rendering of the dramatic “Gratias agimus” solo, his singing suitably Italianate in timbre and temperament.  The Israeli Vocal Ensemble singers presented the Gloria’s various moods and textures with clarity and freshness, their polished performance bringing out Puccini’s flair for storytelling and the piece’s joyful moments (opera chorus fare!) but remaining within the boundaries of  good taste.

Maestro Lindberg’s energy and enthusiasm added effervescence to the season’s opening concert, his informal, genial manner bringing artists and audience together in a program of interest and variety.



Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Andrew Parrott and joined by overseas guest artists, presents the first complete Israeli performance of Monteverdi's "Vespers"

Maestro Andrew Parrott and singers (photo: Maxim Reider)
Conducted by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s honorary conductor Maestro Andrew Parrott, the orchestra opened its 29th season with the first complete Israeli performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s “Vespro della Beata Vergine”.  This writer attended the performance on October 31st 2017 in the Zucker Hall, Tel Aviv’s recently-opened chamber music venue, located in the building of the Bronfman Auditorium. Visiting artists taking part in the festive event included tenor Rodrigo del Pozo (Chile), violist/tenor Simon Lillystone (UK), bass Nerijus Misevičius (Lithuania), cornett players Alma Nir-Mayer (Israel) and Elisabeth Opsahl (Norway) and sackbut players Tin Cugelj (Croatia), James Wigfull (UK) and Fabio de Cataldo (Italy). Israeli solo- and ensemble singers were alto Avital Dery, tenors Doron Florentin, Hillel Sherman and Ofri Gross, baritone Guy Pelc and bass Yoav Meir Weiss. JBO founder and music director Prof. David Shemer joined his JBO players on organ.


In his concert notes, David Shemer mentions the different styles incorporated into Monteverdi’s “Vespers”,. He poses the question of whether the work is “a collection of separately written pieces” or to be performed as one work. To the set Vespers format, Monteverdi adds pieces for smaller ensembles to texts from “Song of Songs” and from anonymous early Christian poets. What emerges from the composer’s pen is a work both intimate and grand, prayerful and dramatic, exalted and sensual. As is well known to Baroque choral music aficionados today, Andrew Parrott believes that these works were performed with few singers and not massed choirs. In addition to the 13 players, the JBO performance of the “Vespers” featured eleven singers, all in all.


From the very opening statements of the work’s buoyant, exuberant tutti opening, Parrott had the audience totally captivated and following him all the way through the work’s abundance of varied combinations and constellations. How inspiring it was to hear the timbres of each instrument and each individual voice, the minute details of each vocal line and of the singers’ crystal-clear diction (all of which might be lost in the massed choir setting). The performance’s clarity was also due to the fact that many of the vocal solos, duets and trios were accompanied by small ensembles, these, more often than not, comprising just organ (David Shemer) and theorbos (Ophira Zakai, Eliav Lavi). The first of these was tenor Doron Florentin’s musical, strategic and beguiling singing of “Nigra sum” (“I am black, but comely”, Song of Songs), his sonorous timbre embracing the hall. In “Pulcha es” (“Thou art beautiful, O my love”, Song of Songs”) there was a strong sense of communication between sopranos Einat Aronstein and Yuval Oren, bringing their different timbres together and embellishing vocal lines in good taste. It was at moments like this that Maestro Parrott took a seat, conducting a little here and there, but mostly intent on listening, giving the stage to his singers. There was much to relish in baritone Guy Pelc’s eloquent solos, his vocal agility serving him well in florid lines, the pieces he performed well placed for his vocal range. Such was “Audi coelum” (O heaven hear my words), with Ofri Gross echoing from backstage or in the poignant “Quia respexit” (“For he hath regarded”, Magnificat), the latter adorned with the delicacy of recorders. Rodrigo del Pozo, whose high tenor range enables him to do justice to the demands of the alto part, sang with articulate, smooth assurance, as in the “Fecit potentiam” (“He hath showed strength”, Magnificat) floating the melodic line in long note values against rapid string movement.  In the somewhat enigmatic “Esurientes” (Magnificat), Einat Aronstein and alto Avital Dery gave sensitive expression to the text’s compassion, punctuated by virtuosic, vehement interjections from JBO violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid, with singers and violinists finally meeting in harmony at the piece’s conclusion.  Another wonderful feature of the performance was how the Psalms and Magnificat were issued in with Simon Lillystone’s distinctive and informed singing of plainchant antiphons, each then be joined by Yoav Meir Weiss, Hillel Sherman and Andrew Parrott himself.


Parrott’s rendition of Monteverdi’s inclusion of the ancient “Ave Maris Stella” hymn (“Hail, Star of the Sea”) bristled with timbral variety, energy and life, as he scored each verse differently, inviting vocal ensemble, Avital Dery, Yuval Oren, Einat Aronstein and Guy Pelc to sing verses, also colouring the ritornellos with different instrumental combinations. In the “Duo Seraphim” (“Two seraphim cried out”), which Parrott has decided to move to the work’s conclusion, Pelc, Florentin and Lillystone struck a splendid blend of musical and timbral consensus in performance that was profound and expressive.


The instrumental aspect of the JBO performance of the Monteverdi “Vespers”, focusing on the unique colour and manner of each instrument, reflected Parrott’s predilection for the mostly economic use of instruments, for personal expression, rather than a massed sound. The instrumentalists complemented the vocal component, providing much delight throughout the evening. What a treat it was to hear guest players Lillystone on viola and the five such fine cornett and sackbut players. In addition to the instrumentalists’ interaction with the singers in the “Vespers”, the evening included Cima’s Sonata for cornetto, trombone and basso continuo (Alma Nir-Meir, James Wigfull, David Shemer) and Valente’s appealing “Salve Regina” (David Shemer), the latter offering the audience some delectable moments in which to take stock of what it was experiencing in this momentous work.


Monteverdi’s rarely performed 1610 “Vespers of the Blessed Virgin” presents an extraordinary array of textures and sonorities in brilliant instrumental writing, rich choruses and moving solo arias and duets. In performance that emerged uncluttered and personal throughout, Maestro Andrew Parrott, clearly addressing the individual sonority and colour of each singer and player, created a breathtakingly beautiful musical canvas for a performance that, for many of those attending, will remain unforgettable.

Baritone Guy Pelc (photo: Maxim Reider)