Saturday, July 21, 2018

"Lady Huang's Album", a new CD of modern works for one or two harpsichords performed by Diana Weston and Michael Tsalka

Isabel Doraisamy © 2017

“Lady Huang’s Album” - music for one or two harpsichords - is a new and unique recording presenting new music of living composers from Australia, Italy and the Americas and performed by two renowned keyboard artists - Australian-born Diana Weston and Israeli-born Michael Tsalka. Several of the works were written for them.


Four of the works on the recording are written for four hands (with Tsalka playing the primo part in pieces written for two harpsichords), the first being “Tilting at Windmills” (2017) by Australian composer and actress May Howlett (b.1931), a work inspired by Cervantes’ tale of Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza. Of the musical elements suggesting Howlett’s tongue-in-cheek but endearing description of the characters, the Spanish aspect - harmonic and rhythmic - is quite dominant (we even hear what a castanet effect). The composer refers to “the Don’s majestic chords and the squire’s erratic scale passages” in a colourful scene that alternates between gently appealing whimsy and intensity. Another work, this time strongly Australian in subject is “Crimson Rosella”, by musicologist/composer, broadcaster and writer Ann Carr-Boyd (b.1938); this was commissioned by Diana Weston for herself and Michael Tsalka, to be played on two harpsichords. Titled “in honour of one of Australia’s most spectacular and beautiful birds”, the piece consists for four sections, some of its material adapted from earlier works of Carr-Boyd. A mix of tonal and atonal modes, I think I heard the bird’s wing flutterings and bird call motifs. As the work progresses, the potpourri of dances and intensely loaded chords seems to move away from the bird, or does Boyd-Carr perhaps aim to describe the observer’s emotions on viewing the most splendid of parrots with its dramatic, eye-catching markings? Composed in 2016 and dedicated to Tsalka and Weston, “Toccata” by Mexican composer Leonardo Coral (b.1962), opens with small, separate jagged motifs, creating a “harsh dialogue”, in the composer’s own words. This is followed by a more pensive, introspective flowing section before returning to the feisty, teasing energy-infused ideas of the first section, thus to sign out of the masterful, quick-witted miniature.  In the last work for four hands is “3 Stukken a 4 main” (Three Pieces for Four Hands) by Argentinian-born composer, arranger, harpsichordist and organist Pablo Escande (b.1971), the first of the miniatures is a fiery, intense and joyfully brash Capricho. In contrast, the middle piece titled “Naive” mixes harpsichord registers in amiable, cantabile and wistful expression. The final Toccata is invigorating and entertaining in its driving, unrelenting Latin rhythms. I can only agree with Diana Weston, who claims that the skilfully written work “demonstrates the power, colour and vibrancy of the harpsichord supremely well.” In these works, the experience Weston and Tsalka have accrued in performing together is a major factor in what can only be referred to as uncompromising musical collaboration.


The pieces performed by Diana Weston here are all by Australian composers. “Green Leaf for Elke” by prolific composer Elena Kats-Chernin (b. Uzbekistan, 1957) is based on the first movement of her award-winning ballet “Wild Swans” (2002). Written in memory of opera director Elke Neidhardt, “Green Leaf for Elke”, a gently arpeggiated “poem”, touching and reflective in its tonal/modal mix, invites the listener to follow its relaxed harmonic process and join its elegiac course. It is surely no coincidence that recorder player Benjamin Thorn (b.1961), artistic director of the New England Bach Festival and arranger of works by such composers as Strozzi, Castello and Caccini, chose dance movements freely based on the same ground for “Underground Currents” (2010). Referring to the pieces somewhat based on tonality as “creating resonances of chaconnes and passacaglias”, Thorn’s writing comes across as improvisatory in character as it frequently veers off course to the unexpected with the wink of an eye. Originally from New Zealand, Diana Blom (b.1947) moved to Australia in 1969. The four pieces of “Lady Huang’s Album” (1984), from which the disc takes its name, are influenced by music of the ch’in, a seven-string long Chinese zither. In the work, the composer, whose time in Hong Kong and Malaysia has clearly provided the inspiration and background for writing in this style, introduces playing techniques idiomatic to the ch’in and Chinese scales. Blom’s writing is eloquent and sophisticated; Weston’s rendition of the four miniatures, so convincingly indicative of the plucked instrument, is descriptive, subtle and beguiling, enticing the listener into the evocative world of Chinese music and art. A real treat! The piece was dedicated to Mrs. Grace Wei Huang.


Eclectic in taste, an artist performing from the classical music tradition, through jazzy and tango styles to his own compositions and improvisations, Italian early keyboard player and award-winning composer Gabriele Toia (b.1967) has dedicated “Variations on a Ground” (2016) to Michael Tsalka “as well as to some of the composers who most influenced my music”, of whom he mentions Béla Bartók, Ligeti, Chick Corea, Ennio Morricone and Alban Berg. The 13 variations are based on a ciaccona bass from Vivaldi’s Concerto in G-minor RV 107. The sections, some more harmonic in emphasis, others exploring the countless textural possibilities offered by the harpsichord, form a rich kaleidoscope of musical ideas. In playing that is not simply virtuosic but strategic, sensitive, rich in detail, shapes and imagination, Tsalka inspires and moves as he gives expression to the particular character and mood of each variation of this outstanding piece of music. Harpsichordist and organist Max Yount (b.1938, USA) is well also known as a teacher and composer. Michael Tsalka, whose connection with Yount goes back several years, has premiered works of his. “Sonatine” (2014) is an intense and complex piece, its tripartite construction concluding with a rondo which is, in the composer’s words, “interspersed with jazzy episodes”. Tsalka’s reading of it is sincere, objective and erudite but it is also entertaining (we remain unaware of its original programmatic content) as its personal appeal grows on one with listening.


Recorded in 2017 for the Wirripang Label, Australia, listeners will appreciate the disc’s lively sound quality. Bristling with interest and variety, Diana Weston and Michael Tsalka present its selection of contemporary works in performance that is profound, discerning and insightful.


Tuesday, July 17, 2018

"Basso Ostinato - Passacaglias anf Chaconnes" recorded on harpsichord by Pieter-Jan Belder

Detail from harpsichord by Titus Crijnen after Blanchet, decorated by Elena Felipe after Huet. Photo: Pieter-Jan Belder
In the pieces recorded on “Basso Ostinato - Passacaglias & Chaconnes”, Dutch artist Pieter-Jan Belder presents a study of ostinato pieces of English and European composers of the 16th to 18th centuries. In his liner notes, Belder draws our attention to the fact that not all the pieces here are chaconnes or passacailles, “but all kinds of pieces that feature a certain obsessive repetition, usually on a harmonic basis” and that “all of these pieces are in fact dances”.

The disc opens with the artist’s vibrant and inspired playing of Giovanni Picchi’s sophisticated “Pass’e Mezzo” from “Intovalatura di Balli d’Arpichordo” (1621), with the occasional dissonant element gracing an ornamental phrase end and buoyant playing of its florid sections. The “Ciaconna” of another Italian, Bernardo Storace, from "Selva di varie compositioni d'intavolatura per cimbalo ed organo" (1664), the Sicilian composer’s only surviving body of work, features in the standard repertoire of today's keyboard players, and for a good reason! Belder’s reading of the virtuoso piece is bracing and stylish. One of Girolamo Frescobaldi’s greatest works is his “Cento Partite sopra Passacagli”. It happens to be both a newly composed piece as well as a pastiche of early compositions. In its lengthy but engaging musical tripartite study of the relationship of the passacaglia and chaconne, the work bristles with harmonic variety, daring and sometimes disturbing enharmonic- and meter changes, as well as changes of mode. Suggesting different moods, Belder’s playing of the hundred-or-so variations highlights the (often sudden) contrasts inherent in Frescobaldi's diverse and bold musical language.

In a very different vein is the popular and dazzling Fandango in D minor R146, attributed to Padre Antonio Soler and based on a 12-note repeating sequence in the left hand. Its challenging text, brimful with hand-crossing, trills and syncopations, is referred to by Belder as “one of the most technically demanding harpsichord pieces I know”. Belder takes on board the dance’s fiery Spanish character, its variety of ideas and its unrelenting, unleashed energy...certainly a puzzling piece coming from the pen of a priest. It also emerges as a strange bedfellow among the other works of a more aristocratic character represented on the disc.

Nowadays, we seem to be more familiar with some wonderful choral music of Thomas Tomkins, but, bearing the influence of his teacher William Byrd, Tomkins, the last of the English virginalists (actually, he was Welsh) has left quite a body of keyboard music. His Ground MB39 is based on a very small fragment, the inventive treatment and bravura demands of which being more interesting than its repetitive melodic content. As to Henry Purcell’s “A New Ground”, Belder gives poignant expression to its bittersweet quality, floating the soprano solo above the three-bar ostinato in touching, cantabile delivery.

Crossing the English Channel to France, Pieter-Jan Belder’s majestic performance of Louis Marchand’s Chaconne in D minor (1702) goes hand-in-glove with the style brisé of 17th century clavecin tradition, the artist’s reading graced with ample noble spreads and a touch of the Italianate style. If Louis Couperin’s unmeasured writing aimed to inspire the player to address the text, to dip into the palette of his imagination, yet in an orderly manner, this is indeed the result here. In Belder’s recording of Couperin’s Prélude and Passacaille he infuses his stately rendition of these true gems with clear direction, fantasy, personal expression, tranquil grace and a touch of reflective melancholy.

In his Passacaglia in G minor, from “Apparatus musico-organisticus” (1690), Georg Muffat, one of the Baroque’s most cosmopolitan composers, mingles French and Italian styles employing the French rondeau technique with variations which are structured around five repetitions of a basic refrain. Displaying its variety and invention, Belder’s masterful, noble and dazzling performance of the work is indeed in keeping with the composer’s own suggestion of performing the Apparatus pieces …”in connection with entertainments given by great princes and lords, for receptions of distinguished guests, and at state banquets, serenades, and academies of musical amateurs and virtuosi.” On this disc, Pieter-Jan Belder adds his name to the many who have made transcriptions for harpsichord and other instruments of J.S.Bach’s Chaconne for violin solo from Partita No.2, BWV 1004. Listening to Belder’s rendition, one becomes acutely aware of the artist’s rich vision of the piece through the prism of the harpsichord, its flexibility and its technical and emotional potential, as he takes his listener through ravishing, opulent, extraverted sections and into sections that are fragile and personal. Using such Baroque measures as 'notes inégales' and the gamut of ornamentation, Belder takes the liberty to enrich some of the many spreads with just a few more zestful notes than possible on the violin. Belder’s is a bracing, fresh, wholehearted presentation and one bristling with interest. I think Bach would really like it.

In his flourishing career as harpsichordist, clavichord player, organist, fortepianist and recorder player, Pieter-Jan Belder has so far made over 140 recordings. The works heard in “Basso Ostinato - Passacaglias & Chaconnes”, for the Brilliant Classics label, are performed on harpsichords by Cornelius Bom after Giusti (2003), Titus Crijnen after Blanchet (2013) and Titus Crijnen after Ruckers (2014).

Sunday, July 8, 2018

An event hosted by Swedish Ambassador Magnus Hellgren to honour the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra

H.E. Magnus Hellgren addresses guests (courtesy Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra)

A festive evening was hosted by the H.E. Magnus Hellgren, the Swedish Ambassador in Israel at his Herzliya residence on Monday July 2nd 2018 to honour the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra. On arriving, guests and artists enjoyed the opportunity of meeting and talking over a glass of wine in the garden prior to a summer meal and the evening’s program. As to the NKO’s strong Swedish connection, renowned conductor, trombonist and composer Christian Lindberg is the orchestra’s musical director, with mandolin artist Shmuel Elbaz, present at the event, serving as the NKO’s principal conductor. The Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble was in Israel to take part in the orchestra’s last concert for the season - “When the Public Decides”.


The event’s official proceedings began with greetings of welcome from the Ambassador himself. Deputy Mayor of Netanya Eli Dellal spoke of the importance the city of Netanya addresses to culture and to music, in particular. Maestro Lindberg also spoke. All were unanimous in the role that music plays in our lives - to bring people together. Maestro Westberg expressed his delight at being in Israel with his singers. They then performed a number of pieces, some unaccompanied, other accompanied either by Lindberg, or on the piano or by members of the NKO. The program presented guests with a delightful taste of the gentle melodies and velvety harmonies of Swedish music in arrangements of Swedish folk songs and works by Swedish composers. One interesting item on the program was a piece integrating “Hatikva”, the Israeli national anthem, with a similar melody of a beautiful Swedish folk song. Referred to by Maestro Lindberg as “one of the world’s best choirs”, the Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble was founded in 1993 and consists of some twenty voices, bringing together experienced, top-class singers, all of whom hail from Sweden and Finland. Basically an a-cappella ensemble, its signature sound strikes a splendid balance between the singers’ individual vocal timbres and a well-blended choral sound. In addition to many overseas tours, it has recorded over twenty discs. As of 1990, Erik Westberg has mostly worked at the Luleå University of Technology/School of Music in Piteå as professor of musical performance.


The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra performs over 120 concerts yearly, with each program presented in eight locations the length and breadth of Israel. Throughout the 47 years of its existence, it has toured the USA, China, Mexico, Germany, Italy, France, South Korea, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Croatia, Great Britain, Switzerland, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and Peru. It also retains a prestigious recording schedule. In addition to its concert activity, the NKO runs an extensive educational program, of which guests at the festive event were given a taste. We heard an ensemble of young Netanya string players in a well-coordinated and informed performance of a Vivaldi movement. The young, competent musicians were using Baroque bows, which had been supplied by Spiccato.


Retiring to the garden following the concert, guests were presented with some spontaneous singing of more Swedish songs by ensemble members. Singing is joy! For most of the choir members it was their first trip to Israel.

The Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble (photo:Tone Antonsson)

New music is alive and kicking in Israel: the Meitar Ensemble and friends perform their final concert for the 2017-2018 season in Tel Aviv

Photo: Culiner Productions
The Meitar Ensemble concluded its 2017-2018 concert season with a festive event at the Israel Conservatory of Music Tel Aviv on June 30th 2018. Founded in 2004 by artistic director Amit Dolberg, the Tel Aviv-based ensemble has commissioned and premiered over 200 works. The Meitar Ensemble also runs a unique educational youth program - the Tedarim Project - offering young musicians engaging in performance, conducting and composing an opportunity to learn, explore and perform new music and on the highest level. Some of the young project musicians took part in this concert alongside more established artists. Also taking part were participants of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance’s Contemporary Music Workshop.


The program opened with Menachem Wiesenberg’s “Entrapped Bird” (1998) a setting of three poems by Yair Hurwitz for voice, piano, violin and clarinet (or oboe). The poems, from the poet’s last volume, all deal with his impending death. The entrapped bird is a metaphor of the poet’s soul as imprisoned in his sick body, waiting, in a sense, to be freed. In the composer’s own words: “I have tried to portray this dark and very painful atmosphere in my music, using a chromatic and expressive musical language.” Amit Dolberg (piano), Noam Lelior Gal (violin) and Roy Cohen (clarinet) gave personal expression to the work’s fragile, filigree textures, its reflective, intimate nature and to its many splendid solo sections. Dalia Besprozvany, with her delicate, articulate and understated singing, added subtle meaning to this mood piece.


We then heard “Scattergories” for flute, clarinet, bassoon, piano, violin, ‘cello and double bass by Omer Barash (b.1995). The ensemble was directed by young conductor Tom Karni. As its title implies, the work opened with a series of small gestures, punctuated by chords, then developing into a shifting, active screen texture, its fabric consisting of individual utterances. With much independent expression on the part of the players, the work moves through various moods and instrumental effects, on to a dialogue carried out in parallel semitones, then to a drone; the scattered chords continue to appear. The work tails off in a low repetitive note on the piano, taking time to fade away. A student at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Omer Barash is pursuing his MMus degree in Composition under Prof. Ari Ben-Shabetai and his BMus in piano under Prof. Eitan Globerson. He was in attendance at the concert.


Premiered at the event was Yonatan Ron’s “Klaustrum” for string trio, composed end of 2015-January 2016. It was performed by Marco Fusi-violin, Moshe Aharonov-viola and Yoni Gotlibovich-’cello. The composer explains the agenda of his work as written at a time he was involved in "large-scale gradual transitions" within musical textures. The piece “starts with a cluster of a very strong Middle Eastern identity, from which I continue to develop the very same pitch material until it slowly reaches a point at which it explodes.” A piece composed as an almost uninterrupted continuum, it presents repetitions each embodying some slight variation; there are delicate “insect” textures, intense unison passages, glissando motifs and sections of flageolets interrupted by sudden outbursts, etc. The composer refers to each musical idea as “begging to emancipate itself”, to finally be freed by the end of the work. In finely balanced collaboration, the players gave the work a reading that was dedicated, sensitive and transparent. The composer, who was present at the concert, is presently a student at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague.


We then heard “In Carne ed Ossa”, a quintet by Michele Sanna (Italy). This was the work that won the 2018 Matan Givol Competition for Composers. Amit Dolberg spoke of the competition, now in its third year, as a fitting way to remember violinist Matan Givol, who had been a member of the Meitar Ensemble. "In Carne ed Ossa" (In Flesh and Bone) was chosen out of 60 scores that were submitted to the competition from 24 countries. A work of lively, sometimes frenetic gestures, of intensity, of pared-down otherworldly moments, of timbral variety and some effects, its soundscape is characterized by the intermittent, shadowy use of a soft mallet striking the strings of the piano (Simone Walther). The piano also features in several of the work’s lyrical moments. Conducted by Ilan Volkov, the performance, profound and reflective, gave splendid expression to Sanna’s gripping and soul-searching score.


Following the intermission, Maestro Ilan Volkov conducted Italian composer Fausto Romitelli’s “Professor Bad Trip, Lessons I,II,III”, a work scored for eight players and electronics. The “Professor Bad Trip” cycle (1998—2000), blending distorted colorations of acoustic- and electric instruments as well as accessories, such as the mirliton and harmonica, was inspired by Henri Michaux’s writings under the influence of psychedelic drugs and by the comic artist Gianluca Lerici a.k.a. Professor Bad Trip and his psychedelic cartoons. The three separate movements recreate a hallucinatory sound world in which post-spectralism blends with psychedelia. The unique style that Romitelli developed is characterized by drones, glissandi and amplification with distortion, the combination of these elements resulting in highly expressive content of both great eloquence and violent sonic utterances of considerable formal complexity. Lesson I, doused with electric guitar, offering a rich timbral mix, is an exciting piece. Percussionist Lior Eldad’s skill and competence shone throughout. The music eventually becomes calm and the instrumentalists gradually exit, leaving only electronic “airport” sounds to bring the piece to an end. Lesson II is at times no less intense than its predecessor (its potency and rhythmic vehemence are endorsed by electric guitar-Nadav Lev and bass guitar-Dennis Sobolev); the piece also offers a virtuosic and poignant ‘cello solo (Yoni Gotlibovich), some breathy effects and eerie moments of spacey high string flageolet sounds, then to die down cushioned in a velvety screen of sound coloured by the knell of a haunting gong. Lesson III, bristling with effects and repetitions, sometimes referring to a kind of “tonal centre”, presents trippy sensations as well as stark, buzzy electronic sounds and strident guitar sounds. Flautist Roy Amotz moves from piccolo to flute to mirliton (a small, nasal-sounding instrument, its sound produced by a vibrating membrane) and back again. “Professor Bad Trip”, with its taste for the deformed and the artificial, for rock and electro-acoustic treatment of sound, certainly takes the listener along for the dare-devil ride, and an invigorating, shocking and spectacular trip it certainly was, too!


Drawing a large crowd, the Tel Aviv concert was a celebration of fascinating music and very fine, dedicated and discerning performance on the part of the musicians.

Dalia Besprozvany (Culiner Productions)
Roy Amotz  (Culiner Productions)

Moshe Aharonov (Culiner Productiobs)