Monday, January 22, 2018

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra and keyboard specialist Gili Loftus perform Mozart and C.P.E.Bach on period instruments

Gili Loftus (Maria Rosenblatt)
“CEMBALO COL PIANO E FORTE”, the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s third concert of the 2017-2018 season, offered audiences a very different program to its usual repertoire. Marking 230 years of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s death, the concert presented works of C.P.E.Bach, J.S.Bach’s fifth- and second (surviving) son together with works of his contemporary, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Guest artist Gili Loftus soloed on the fortepiano. JBO founder and director conducted the orchestra and soloed on the harpsichord. This writer attended the concert in the Mary Nathaniel Golden Hall of Friendship of the Jerusalem International YMCA on January 17th, 2018.

One could say that this program focused on Classical repertoire as played on authentic instruments, music of a time when  the harpsichord and the fortepiano were both still in use. It also focused on two unique musical personalities. Opening  with a genre particular to C.P.E.Bach, we heard Prof. Shemer and the orchestra in the Sonatina in D-minor for harpsichord, two flutes, viola and ’cello Wq 107. Carl Philipp’s twelve sonatinas for one or two keyboards and orchestra constitute a distinct segment of his oeuvre, existing somewhere between chamber and orchestral music and between the suite and the concerto. Written in rapid succession in the years 1762–64, near the end of the composer’s time in Berlin in the employ of Frederick the Great, they are all scored for keyboard, two flutes, and four-part strings; the keyboard parts are entirely written out and largely double the accompanying parts.There are no exact parallels to these sonatinas among the works of earlier composers in Berlin or in North Germany generally; so, we take it that this genre was Carl Philipp Emanuel’s own creation. His incorporation of music composed for amateur circles and the stylistic accessibility of the sonatinas are indications that, at least initially, he intended them for a broader musical public. The JBO players presented the sonatina’s refined, undramatic but charming  writing, with its directness of octave playing and a myriad of small comments punctuating the tutti, some woven in  by the flutes (Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard). In a genre not professing to be  a concerto, Bach invites his keyboard player to multi-task: at the harpsichord, David Shemer (in addition to conducting) both soloed and accompanied, introducing thematic material and adding small solo comments, also some more virtuosic material, the latter showing how pianistic Carl Philipp’s writing was becoming.

Including C.P.E.Bach and Mozart in one program had its reasons. It was  C.P.E.’s playing, compositions and writings that led Mozart to comment on his pervasive influence: “He is the father, we are the children. Those of us who know anything at all learned it from him; anyone who does not admit this is a scoundrel.” Gili Loftus, whose focus is exploring the different sound worlds of the piano, fortepiano and harpsichord, soloed in W.A.Mozart’s Concerto in C-major for piano and orchestra K.415. The JBO’s audiences were in for a new experience - hearing the fortepiano as soloist, recreating the sound world that would have been closest to Mozart’s own. Completed early 1783, the K.415 is the third of the early Vienna concertos and  it is considered the most brilliant of the three. A major factor in Mozart’s initial success in Vienna was the concerts he put on with himself as soloist, with the Piano Concerto No. 13 in C major being one of them. Regarding the JBO performance of it, one could mention the fanfare motives and bright textures in the tutti sections of the first movement, somewhat more evocative of a symphony or opera overture than of a concerto, the graceful pastorale-type middle movement and the final movement, a gigue in rondo form, its high-spirited character sharply contrasted by two plaintive Adagio episodes. But what especially stood out in this performance, even beyond the fortepianist’s articulacy, her crystal-clear fingerwork, her delightful lightness of touch, the dynamic variety she offered and her total technical competence, was her true understanding of Mozart himself. As she played out each gesture, the charming small rubati, as she spelled out each emotion, each small whimsical riposte, each surprise and good-natured wink-of-an-eye detail, she stood back to present Mozart the humanist, the joyful, fallible, devil-may-care genius whose contribution to music has been so great. If we consider Mozart’s aim of creating  "a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult...pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid." in his early Vienna concertos, Loftus’ performance was just that. It was exemplary.

Despite their late Köchel number,  Mozart’s Five Contredanses for Orchestra K.609 were probably among the first dances he composed following his appointment as Imperial Chamber Musician, writing  dance music for balls at the Redoutensaal, the famous ballroom in Vienna patronized by  Emperor Joseph II. Despite his lowly salary, how fitting it must have seemed to the composer to provide dance music for people of all ranks of society, their rank, however, protected by masks and Carnival costumes. Mozart himself was known to have been a skilful dancer. The K.609 Contredanses were  probably created for the 1791 carnival season, although in at least two cases they were based on earlier music (the first quotes the aria "Non più andrai" from Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro). They are of modest scoring, including drum, here offering violist Daniel Tanchelson a different orchestral role!  In a performance that was fresh, energetic and efervescent, the orchestra’s playing of the dances made for fine entertainment.

And to some house music...Mozart’s Andante and Variations in G-major K.501. By the time they were written (1786), the fortepiano would have been the norm, rather than the exception, in most venues and certainly in the home. The set is based on an unidentified theme, simple and folklike and was probably composed by Mozart himself; it falls into two parts, the second of which briefly enters the minor.  At the JBO concert, the work was played by Gili Loftus and David Shemer, this being Shemer’s first foray into the world of fortepiano. Following the subject, each variation teased the listener into engaging in its style and timbre, elaborate textures and bravura or simplicity, playfulness or pensiveness (Variation IV) as the banter of passagework was tossed from one player to the other.

Despite having lost many of his nearly 1000 compositions to the ravages of time, C.P.E. Bach’s surviving repertoire is an extraordinary demonstration of the confluence, contrasts and diversity of the pervading musical and cultural styles of his day. His quite remarkable Concerto in E flat for harpsichord and fortepiano, Wq. 47, scored for 2 horns, 2 flutes and strings in addition to the two keyboards, was composed in the last year of his life. It serves as a predominantly light-hearted but vivid summary of the CPE Bach keyboard legacy, with the sheer peculiarity of having the old harpsichord and its new-fangled replacement, the fortepiano, playing almost equal roles.  In playing that was fresh and appealing, Loftus and Shemer recreated Bach’s dialogue between the two instruments, as well as between  soloists and orchestra.. We heard some especially beautiful and lyrical flute writing (Idit Shemer, Geneviève Blanchard) interwoven with the solo keyboard lines throughout the first movement. Melodies subtly shifted from soloist to soloist, with moments of imitation prompting some intense and virtuosic interaction between them. In the tender, pared down Larghetto (2nd movement), it was astounding how the dynamically challenged harpsichord and the softer tone of the fortepiano blended and complemented each other, with the final Presto movement an unashamedly joyful game between the soloists, supported by some fine orchestral playing.

Despite the large proportions of the modern concert hall, it was enlightening to hear the natural elegance and balance offered by instruments of the Classical period. Of course, the experience could be further enhanced when attending the event in one of the sumptuous reception halls of Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great  of Prussia, in Potsdam, near Berlin, a venue counted among the German rivals of Versailles. Next time...perhaps.


Sunday, January 7, 2018

"Maestro Elbaz's World of Wonders" - the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra hosts the Gilad Ephrat Ensemble

The Gilad Ephrat Ensemble (photo: Yoel Culiner)
The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s third concert of the 2017-2018 season - “Maestro Elbaz’s World of Wonders” - remained true to the current season’s “north-south-east-west” theme, as usual, also including Israeli content. The NKO hosted the Gilad Ephrat Ensemble (Gilad Ephrat-double bass,Keren Tannenbaum-violin/vocals, Hilla Epstein-’cello and Shmuel Elbaz-mandolin). Shmuel Elbaz, the orchestra’s house conductor directed the orchestra and played as a member of the quartet, also soloing on the mandolin. This writer attended the event in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on December 30th 2017.

The three works by European composers took the listener to different points of the compass, beginning with the Overture to French composer Adrien Boieldieu’s (1775-1834) opera “The Caliph of Baghdad”.(1800), eastern in subject matter, but definitely European in musical style, although Boieldieu’s vibrant use of percussion would have been an association or the orient for European audiences of that time. Charming and joyful, albeit conventional, the piece was good concert fare, setting the scene for an evening of genial music. Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to “The Italian Girl in Algiers” (South) (Rossini wrote the opera at age 21!)  was a fine opportunity to hear one of Rossini’s most sparkling overtures and some of the NKO’s finest players in solo moments, a substantial amount of the solo work was played by Hila Zabari-Peleg, the orchestra’s very fine 1st oboe. Taking us westwards, Jewish-Hungarian composer Leó Weiner’s (1885-1960)  “Three Hungarian Folk Dances” were originally written for piano solo. Arrangements for piano duet and for violin and piano exist. Shmuel Elbaz has arranged the work for mandolin and orchestra. Opening with the lively “Fox Dance”, Elbaz and his players present the vivacious dances, each from a different region of Hungary, with much zest and exuberance, With the wink of an eye, Maestro Elbaz challenges the audience to follow him through the whimsical rubato of the “Ronde from Marossék”, as he pulls out all the plugs in the virtuosic abandon of the “Peasants’ Dance”,  a type of fast Csárdás.

Following the above whirlwind world trip, the rest of the concert all comprised contemporary Israeli repertoire. Oded Zehavi (b.1961) composed his Fantasy for mandolin and orchestra (Concerto No.2) in 2017 for the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. This concert was the work’s world premiere.  Prof. Zehavi’s program notes discuss where he stands as regards Israeli music and the elements that go to make up this work: modal patterns, sounds heard in music of this region and outside of it, rhythms taken from the debka and hora dances and the concept that a symphony orchestra can sound somewhat informal. Opening with a long oboe solo, the first movement, with its octave melodies and homophonic utterances, bristled with associations of Arabic music. The Andante (2nd movement), communicating a sense of well-being, took on a more western character, with the final Rondo allegro seeming to bring east and west together in a seamless, busy soundscape. The piece sits well on the mandolin, with Elbaz articulately addressing its challenges and fine details and the mandolin easily heard at all times. Oded Zehavi speaks to his listeners through sounds and gestures that are intelligible, accessible and indeed pleasurable and with which they can identify.

Continuing the NKO’s project of presenting short new works by students of both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Academies of Music, we heard “The Sun Was Dark at Givon” by Naama Zafran (b.1988), a masters student of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. Composer, arranger, pianist and teacher, Zafran’s already comprehensive oeuvre includes chamber music, works for orchestra, for theatre, for video art and cinema. “The Sun Was Dark at Givon”, a program work set in 1207 B.C., describes a solar eclipse. “A solar eclipse is perhaps the most  spectacular natural event people will see”, writes the composer. “During the day, the sun is hidden by the moon, with the stars briefly seen in a sky illuminated with the pink light of dusk…” A mysterious violin melody leads the listener into Zafran’s rich, intense and dramatic musical canvas, wrought of maqam associations, but not just, of articulate melodic strands, energy and compelling orchestral writing.

For the rest of the program, the Gilad Ephrat Ensemble joined the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra in a selection of Israeli and other numbers arranged by Eugene Levitas. The pieces featured the four ensemble members, with the NKO mostly joining them in tutti support. The quartet’s upbeat, polished and understated style and individual solo improvisations made for sophisticated performance, be it in the sultry, typically Spanish “Murcia”, “Iri-An” with its Irish motifs and pizzazz, Chick Corea’s bouncy, jazzy “Sea Journey” or Ephrat’s “Stockholm”, (dedicated to the NKO’s musical director Maestro Christian Lindberg) the latter weaving folk-like motifs with jazzy sounds. In Moshe Vilensky’s “Lighthouse” and the caressing, nostalgic “Song of the Valley” (Marc Lavry/Rafael Eliaz), Keren Tannenbaum’s low-key singing and more folklike use of the violin added spontaneity to the performance. Established by composer and double bass player Gilad Ephrat, the ensemble’s virtuosic artists perform music of a style that brings together jazz, classical music,ethnic- and Israeli music. The ensemble recently returned from a concert tour of Brazil and South Korea.

The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra goes for different and daring programming, with Israeli music always high up in its priorities. It is much to the NKO’s credit that its audiences are curious and open to new ideas. And they were kept on their toes at this unusual concert, examining and enjoying the less familiar, the surprises and the challenges of the program. Maestro Elbaz presented his wonders in high-standard, polished performance.