Monday, October 29, 2018

Ensemble PHOENIX probes the new chamber music concept introduced by Haydn's Op.20 "Sun" Quartets

Haydn’s “Sun” Quartets were the focus of Ensemble PHOENIX’ recent chamber concerts. Performing the works on period instruments were Moshe Aron Epstein-flute, Ya’akov Rubinstein-violin, Rachel Ringelstein-viola and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog-’cello. This writer attended the concert at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, on October 26th 2018.

Joseph Haydn’s opus 20 quartets, composed in 1772 when the composer was 40, were titled the “Sun” Quartets simply because of the image of a sun displayed on the cover of the first edition. Their importance in the development of the string quartet genre, however, is paramount.

It was initially puzzling why the PHOENIX program should open with Haydn’s Flute Quartet Op.5 No.2 in G-major. The release of Haydn’s six opus 5 quartets,  by the Amsterdam-based publisher J. J. Hummel in 1767 or 1768, was probably carried out behind Haydn’s back and the authorship of a number of the quartets in this set has been questioned, some of the works passed off under Haydn’s name in order to increase sales. Trio No.2, however, is thought to be authentic. The PHOENIX artists’ playing of it addressed each gesture, their dynamic contrasts and expressive approach evocative of Haydn’s large palette of instrumental colour and textures and typical of the composer’s genial, sunny and sometimes droll personality, as in the short, bouncy, separated opening phrases of the Presto movement. Notable were some appealing flute ornamentation in the Adagio and a fine viola solo (Rachel Ringelstein) in the Minuetto movement. This quartet, as it turns out, was performed by PHOENIX as a preamble to the three “Sun” quartets that followed.

Appearing a mere five years after the Op.5 works, Joseph Haydn’s opus 20 quartets are arguably Haydn’s first quartet masterpieces. These superb works may be seen as both experimental and ground-breaking, representing an unprecedented flowering of Haydn’s string quartet-writing: they are different in that they are the first quartets to make the fullest use of four completely independent voices, establishing a standard of artistic excellence to which every other subsequent composer of quartets has paid homage. Being in the employ of Count Esterhazy on his estate was opportune for this major step. Haydn, completely secluded from the world, wrote: “Nobody was nearby who could distract me or confuse me about myself; in this way I became original.” The PHOENIX artists’ playing of Op.20 Quartets 2, 5 and 4 was indeed a celebration of Haydn’s “new-found freedom”, as they gave conviction to the intensely individual roles woven throughout. In the Adagio movement of No.2 in C-major, Herzog’s hauntingly beautiful ‘cello solo, Epstein’s almost unaccompanied flute solos and some robust ensemble “comments” create a kind of Baroque-style drama. Or are we indeed experiencing a  concerto when presented with a flute cadenza? Probably the most remarkable aspect of the Op.20 quartets is their engagement in counterpoint, immediately discernible in No.2’s opening movement. This quartet and No. 5, which followed, both have final movements cast as elaborate fugues; these were played at the Ein Kerem concert with such committed personal expression on the part of all the players that I found myself choosing to focus on one player at a time.

For the sake of the flute, the PHOENIX members performed Op.20 No.5 in a transposed version from F-minor to the scale of G-minor. It is a work of sophistication and virtuosity, a large, rich (at times, almost orchestral) canvas. In the opening Moderato, the flute, clearly (as for most of the quartet) the "soloist", opens with a strangely subdued, plangent melody, full of angular chromatic intervals, setting a level of textural complexity that rarely ceases throughout the quartet. It's a kind of theme and variations, with a very simple and almost unchanging rhythm for the lower three instruments, but featuring ever more elaborate figuration for the flute. In their playing of the Adagio movement, also somewhat a theme and variations set in a major key, the artists struck a delicate balance between the inner tension of its basic Siciliano character and the slow tempo needed in order to accommodate all the elaborate figuration engaged in by the flute as the movement progressed. In the quartet’s combination of evident seriousness and its general restraint (much of the music is marked to be played "piano") the players gave expression to its sustained intensity.

In their playing of Quartet No.4 in D-major of Op.20, the PHOENIX artists draw together many of the strings of what Opus 20 represents as they plumb Haydn’s variety of moods and developing dramatic language with sharp insight, here presenting his integration of seemingly disparate ideas - serenades with folksong and gypsy music. In the Affettuoso movement, a theme and variations, with its profusion of duets and solos and shadowy wanderings from minor to major, the quartet highlighted the poignancy of Haydn’s writing in articulate delicacy and understatement. It was only in the Minuetto alla Zingarese that I felt the lack of a first violin timbre for its bucolic, extroverted gypsy melody.

The string-players, performing on 18th century instruments with gut strings with historic bows and Epstein playing an original Classical flute built in 1780, produced a natural sense of balance, a soundscape in which Haydn’s wealth of ideas pervaded the quartet texture at every opportunity. For the acoustic of the Eden-Tamir Center, there were moments where the strings sounded a fraction too powerful for the flute. Joining Moshe Aron Epstein's outstanding playing, Ya'akov Rubinstein, no longer a new face on the early music scene, gave a performance of fine musicality. Violist Rachel Ringelstein's splendid interpretation of each melodic line never fails to impress   As to the ‘cello’s newborn role in the chamber music genre, Myrna Herzog enticed a warm-toned stream of finely shaped sound from the ‘cello, expressive but always within the line and contour of good taste. With Haydn’s music characterised by directness and accessibility to the listener, it nevertheless presents a myriad of challenges to the performer. The PHOENIX players offered the audience the pleasure of listening to playing that is committed to musicianship of the highest order.

Myrna Herzog,Ya'akov Rubinstein,Rachel Ringelstein,Moshe Aron Epstein (photo:Arthur Herzog)

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Maestro Christian Lindberg and the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra host the Swedish Vocal Ensemble

Opening the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s 48th season “The Great Opening” was conducted by Christian Lindberg (Sweden). Mandolin artist Shmuel Elbaz is the NKO’s conductor in residence. Renowned trombonist and composer, Lindberg, beginning his third season as conductor and music director of the NKO, spoke of the new season’s theme of “Eternal Images”. Joining him and the orchestra were eight singers of the Swedish Vocal Ensemble. This writer attended the concert in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on October 20th, 2018.


The program opened with Franz Schubert’s Mass No.2 in G-major D.167. Composed in less than a week when Schubert was 18 (1815), and the second of his six Masses, it was originally scored for choir, string orchestra, organ and soloists, but eventually included brass, winds and percussion. The strong, luxuriant voices of the eight singers of the Swedish Vocal Ensemble (led by bass Joakim Bergdal) contended well with the orchestra in a performance that was both lush and wonderfully contrasted - from the tender, velvety singing of the Kyrie to the Sanctus in all its grandeur and unleashed joy and ending with outstanding beauty and reflective mood of the Agnus Dei. It was a celebration of Schubert’s cantabile melodic writing, his wonderful use of counterpoint and concertante writing. The NKO’s brass section emerged articulate and buoyant and we were treated to some fine solos by tenor George Källström, bass Helgi Reynisson and the creamy, finely chiselled singing of soprano Isabella Lundqvist.


The objective of Antonin Dvořák’s Czech Suite in D-major op.39 was to create a work of a distinctively Czech character. Actually a five-movement serenade, premiered in 1897 in Prague, it bristles with gorgeous melodies and lavish orchestration. From the sweeping, singing violin melody of the opening Preludium, the work conjures up images of the Bohemian landscape. The NKO’s rich palette of orchestral colour brought out the exuberance and sense of well-being of Czech folk music and dance. The work also provided the audience with opportunities to hear solos performed by some of the orchestra’s excellent woodwind players - the clarinet (Igal Levin) in the Minuet, the English horn (Miki Lam) and flute (Michal Tikotsky) in the Romance and 1st oboe Hila Tzabary-Peleg leading into the Finale. Dvořák himself, referring to the village bands of his youth in Nelahazeves, wrote that the “clarinets and bassoons make their entrance just as they do in Bohemia.” Not devoid of a few wistful moments, the performance was definitely stamped with Lindberg’s uncompromising joie-de-vivre.


For most of the audience, hearing Leopold Mozart’s Concerto in D-major for alto trombone, referred to by Lindberg as the first trombone concerto, was a first! Composed in 1755 (a year before the birth of his son Wolfgang Amadeus) and (according to Lindberg’s research) probably written to be played by the virtuosic Austrian court musician Thomas Gschladt. (Leopold Mozart himself wrote, "In the absence of a good trombone player, a good violinist can play it on viola."), the work was lost for many years. It was discovered as three movements for trombone (viola or horn) and orchestra (among other pieces) in the Benedictine Seminary at Seitenstetten, Austria.  Christian Lindberg edited it in 1984 and has recorded it with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  At the Tel Aviv concert, Lindberg both soloed and conducted, his playing, making it clear to the audience - as in the first movement cadenza and the jaunty Presto - that this concerto calls for a highly experienced player. Of special beauty was Lindberg’s honeyed, expressive and dynamically varied playing of the Adagio middle movement.


The NKO’s opening concert for the season included the world premiere of Israeli composer Yossi Ben Nun ’s “Three Theatre Cues for Orchestra”, a work commissioned by the orchestra. A pianist who has soloed with all major Israeli orchestras, Ben Nun (b.1958) has spent the last 30 years composing music for theatre, work that “involves sidestepping through minefields, meeting challenges head on and even compromising with his fellow professionals over the final outcome of his musical endeavour” in his own words. Ben Nun, who today serves as the Habima Theater’s composer-in-residence, explains that people attending a theatrical production will only have the chance of hearing the play’s incidental music once, this meaning that it must be communicative and of immediate appeal.  “Three Theatre Cues for Orchestra” was written with the NKO instrumentalists’ richly-coloured signature sound in mind.  The audience delighted at the two movements (why not the third as well?) of the work performed at this concert: “Urban Dream”, its tight, many-layered, full-on, jazzy textures alternating between frenetic energy and moments of  sweeping melodiousness, and “Those who Walk in the Darkness”, a tango whose  rhythms and streamlined writing are as sultry and provocative as any tango from Río de Plata you might hear, with its almost atonal violin solo (Gilad Hildesheim) there for good measure.


The program concluded with J.S.Bach’s "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" BWV 140 (Sleepers Awake). Written in 1731 and one of Bach’s most famous and best-loved works, it is based on a chorale by Philipp Nicolai. Not performed here on historic instruments (there was, however, a harpsichord: Aviad Stier), it was indeed authentic in the fact that there were only eight singers to carry out solos and choral sections, and they did it admirably. Listening to the uplifting opening movement, one is reminded by Lindberg and his players that Bach’s instrumental scores are no less exciting than his choral writing. Oboist Hila Tzabari Peleg and 1st violinist Gilad Hildesheim’s captivating solos added fine detail and Baroque splendour to the performance. George Källström’s expansive, fresh young voice and careful shaping of words gave meaning to texts and silvery-voiced soprano Isabella Lundqvist and bass Helgi Reynisson wove their separate agendas expressively into “Mein Freund ist mein” most delightfully in the penultimate movement. A beautiful performance, ending majestically and on a serene note to bring man and angels together in sound:

“Let Gloria be sung to You
With mortal and angelic tongues,
With harps and even with cymbals…”


Joined by Lindberg on trombone, the Swedish Vocal Ensemble then returned to the stage to send the audience off with a Swedish song about the pleasures of spring. In his friendly informality, Maestro Lindberg’s energy and enthusiasm makes classical music accessible to a large range of concert-goers.



Photo: Yael-Atia MosesAdd caption

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Heinrich Schütz and the Thirty Years' War - the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra's opening concert of the 2018-2019 season. Guest conductor: Joshua Rifkin

Photo: Maxim Reider
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 30th season with a concert commemorating 400 years of the Thirty Years’ War. Guest conductor and prominent musicologist Joshua Rifkin (USA), no new face to JBO audiences, directed a program of pieces from Heinrich Schütz’ “Symphoniae Sacrae” and other of the composer's choral works. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on October 15th, 2018. Prior to the concert, Oded Feuerstein (Faculty of History, Tel Aviv University) filled the audience in on the hairbrained roller coaster course ride of the Thirty Years’ War, a war of shifting alliances fought primarily in Central Europe from 1618 to 1648. One of the most destructive conflicts in human history, it resulted in eight million fatalities, those not only from military engagements but also from violence, famine, and plague.

Often referred to as the greatest German composer of the generation before Johann Sebastian Bach, Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) left almost no secular music and, though a celebrated organist, he published no instrumental music. Nearly all his surviving works are settings of sacred texts, many of them in the grand style of the Flemish polychoral writing he had learned from Gabrieli, in which individual voices clash in emotionally-laden dissonances, then resolving into gentle consonance; then there are works in the newer, dramatic style of his other great teacher Monteverdi, these fired by the emotional power of detailed, visual description and vivid poetic imagery.

Rifkin’s article in the printed program offers a vivid account of the connection between the great Protestant composer and his times, claiming that “Schütz had repeated occasion to reflect the course of the war in his music.”  Providing the motet texts (some in German, others in Latin, together with translations into English and Hebrew) was a great advantage to the audience, offering the listener more than a glimpse into Schütz’ involvement with the war, either emotionally or, as in “Da pacem, Domine” (Give Peace, O Lord), in point of fact. Composed for the Mühlhausen Conclave  of 1627, to which Schütz accompanied his employer Elector Johann Georg and the court ensemble, “Da pacem, Domine”  is scored for two choirs. Having opened with a prayer for peace, it then proceeds to welcome the VIPs attending the meeting:
Vivat Moguntinus, - Mainz
Vivat Coloniensis, - Cologne
Vivat Trevirensis,  - Trier
Vivant tria fundamina pacis. (= the three Founders of Peace)
Vivat Ferdinandus, Caesar invictissimus. - Emperor
Vivat Saxo, - Saxony
Vivat Bavarus, - Bavaria
Vivat Brandenburgicus - Brandenburg
Vivant tria tutamina pacis. (= the three Peace Keepers)

Vivat Ferdinandus, Caesar invictissimus.”
Accompanied by organ (David Shemer, JBO founder and musical director), this made for interesting listening, with the singers’ individual timbres and utterances emerging with clarity.

Reflecting religious attitudes of the time, the Thirty Years’ War was seen as an expression of God’s anger to man, with some motets, such as the more intimate “Aufer immensam” (Take away, O God, your great anger) showing man as a sinner and giving expression to the people’s helplessness in the plight:
“Why does your great wrath
Descend on us poor worms
O great creator of the world?”
Others, such as “Teutoniam dudum belli” (Germany is so long beset by war’s dark perils) anticipate more peaceful times:
“Let the whole of the Elbe resound, and all of Meissen:
O may good peace bring a thousand joys to all!”
Peace is also idealized in  “Siehe, wie fein und lieblich” (Behold, how good and pleasant), (Psalm 333), the JBO’s splendid instrumental playing matched by buoyant singing of the almost visually descriptive text, also taking the Israeli listener to locations close to home:
...“It is like the precious ointment
That flows from Aaron’s head
Into his whole beard,
Flowing down into his robe
Like the dew that falls from Mt. Harmon onto Mt. Zion…”
Apparently written for the thanksgiving service in 1650, with the withdrawal of the last foreign troops from Saxony, the lush, tranquil “Nun danket alle Gott” (Now let everyone thank God), highlights the word “Friede” (peace). At the Jerusalem concert, dialogue between the violins and between the various singers created a sense of community and well-being.

Performed by six singers (two choirs), violins, violone and organ, “Saul, Saul, was verfolgst du mich?” (Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?) was for me the high point of the concert. Here, Schütz’ daring writing takes on an enterprising- and emotional approach, as the repetition of Saul’s name, separated by rests, starts out as mysterious musings, then to burgeon into a vehement volley of accusations. Violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid’s playing added more intensity to the already gripping effect of the monosyllable cried out and tossed between the two halves of the double choir. As the piece nears  its conclusion, the music leaves no listener unmoved as it soars to dizzying contracted rhythmic patterns and terraced echoes.

Joshua Rifkin has put together a program of great interest, presenting audiences with detail of the direct encounter between Schütz and the religious/political  events of the Thirty Years’ War. A collaboration between young professional singers and those longer established on the early music scene, Rifkin varied constellations of singers and players for the different pieces, some to be conducted by him, others collaborating by way of their acquired insight into the music and, of course, by eye contact. The small instrumental ensemble offered some exquisite playing.

Singers: the Cecilia Soloists Ensemble - Hadas Faran, Tom Ben Ishai, Hillel Sherman, Yoav Meir Weiss - and Adaya Peled, Simon Lillystone (UK), Haggai Grady, Jonathan Suissa, Elam Rotem. Instrumental ensemble: violinists Noam Schuss (leader) and Dafna Ravid, Orit Messer-Jacobi-’cello, Hen Goldsobel-violone, Alexander Fine-dulcian, David Shemer-organ.


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Young Austrian 'cellist Lukas Lauermann performs his own works for 'cello and electronics in Jerusalem

Photo: Sara Yassin
The somewhat mystical environment of the mixed Jewish-Arab quarter of Abu Tor, Jerusalem, seems to fit in with the ideals of the Willy Brandt Center (WBC), a center where young people from Israel, Palestine, Europe, and the entire world meet and engage in cross-cultural exchange. Attended by people of various ages - speakers of German, English, Arabic and Hebrew -  the closing event of the Jerusalem Open Forum  “Past and Future Reflection and Creation” (October 11th-13th 2018) was “Cello Sound Experience”, a unique solo concert performed by Austrian ‘cellist and sound designer Lukas Lauermann. Born in Vienna in 1985, Lauermann is a classically-trained musician, having studied at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna and the Anton Bruckner University (Linz, Austria). His 2018 concert tours took him to the USA, China and India.

The event opened with words of welcome from the Willy Brandt Center’s  Social Art project coordinator Petra Klose and from Maria Gierlinger-Landa, deputy director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, Tel Aviv. Then, to the sounds of the muezzin not far away, Lauermann began his solo recital - three original works for ‘cello and electronics - his right foot controlling the various electronic tools of a synthesizer on the floor. Each of the three works was a veritable emotional journey, a developmental process beginning with small-, sometimes static motifs, then building up, as the artist’s engaging of electronics added looping and layers, with textures often becoming massive and dramatically overwhelming, at other times percussive, or wrought of lengthy-, sweeping bowed melodies, arpeggiated textures, the sound world of otherworldly overtones or pizzicato lightness. Broad, original and varied as Lauermann’s canvas is, his fine technique and classical training shine through his playing and works. The artist spoke of his first solo disc, released last year, as influenced by the large wave of immigration to Austria, in all its complexities. Alongside many beautiful ‘cello sounds, the harsh moments of these works symbolically request the listener not to fear what seems strange and different. Lauermann concluded the program with a work based on quite a sentimental, cantabile melody, building up in intensity, becoming vehement, then to suddenly cease altogether. Taking up again in a single major-sounding melodic line, then to duet with a second line, the piece ends in a reflective aura, the final sounds evocative of the rise and fall of breezes, slowly ebbing away to nothing. Lukas Lauermann is an artist with his own voice and language, as he reaches out to his audience in music that is decidedly experiential.

The concert took place in a room in which exhibits from “Promise Me a Land”, the current photo exhibition of local scenes  by 35-year-old French photographer Clément  Chapillon, were on display, an exhibition whose objective is to present a clear connection between the environment in this very region and its people. In an interview with Irene Ramón for Metal Magazine, Chapillon explains: “In Israel and Palestine, everyone claims this land, and I wanted to know the landscapes that make up the collective identity of these people...We have the impression of touching the real, the essential”.


Saturday, October 13, 2018

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem opens its 2018-2019 concert season with a program of late Romantic Russian concertos

Maestro Uri Segal (
Taking place on October 6th 2018 in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the first concert of the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s 2018-2019 “La Tempesta dei Solisti” series presented a program of concertos by late Romantic Russian composers. Under the baton of Uriel Segal, the orchestra hosted three young visiting artists: Kristina Miller-piano (Russia/Germany), Sophia Bacelar-‘cello (Cuba) and Kristine Balanas-violin (Latvia). Prior to each concerto, the audience watched a short film in which the soloist introduced herself and her musical involvement.


The program opened with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3. Premiered in 1909 in New York City with the composer as soloist, it was the first of many American triumphs for Rachmaninoff, who would ultimately make his home in the United States. The last of the great Romantic pianist-composers in the lineage of Chopin, Liszt, and Rubinstein, Rachmaninoff joined Brahms in the concept of the fusing of concerto- and symphony forms. From a musical family, Kristina Miller (b. Moscow, 1986) began her piano studies at an early age, soloing in Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 at the age of eight. Miller’s Tel Aviv performance attested to her great love- and respect of Rachmaninoff’s music. From the nostalgic Russian-type opening theme, her playing was lyrical, tender and poignant, her handling of the work’s more intense moments well controlled but never emerging muscular or showy. Also characterizing the Tel Aviv performance was the masterful interweaving of the work’s orchestral “solos” and those of Miller, as well as some haunting wind solos. Miller then gave a virtuosic and well contrasted performance of Rachmaninoff’s stormy Musical Moment No.4 in E-minor.


Resulting from Tchaikovsky’s love of 18th-century music, his Variations on a Rococo Theme, op. 33 reflect an ideal- if distant world for which Romantic composers felt great nostalgia.  Written for- and with the help of  Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a German ‘cellist and fellow professor at the Moscow Conservatory, it was Fitzenhagen who gave the premiere in Moscow on November 30, 1877. At 22 years of age, Cuban-Chinese-American ‘cellist Sophia Bacelar is quickly gaining recognition in the world of classical music but she is also broadening the reach of her music by introducing it in alternative venues and through contemporary media. Playing on a historic ‘cello restored by her father, Bacelar is an artist of much temperament, presenting the variations’ different moods, displaying the ‘cello's ability to sing long lyrical melodies, then enlisting her consummate technique for variations of an extremely virtuosic nature, as she launched into grandiose cadenzas, spectacular trills and double stops, yet never losing sight of the work’s main theme. Her solo Spanish-style encore was a veritable tour-de-force.


A violinist in great demand on the international scene and considered one of the most versatile and inspiring violinists of her generation, soloist and chamber musician Kristine Balanas (b.1990) explores new repertoire as well as bringing young energy to the classics. The Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s Tel Aviv concert concluded with Balanas soloing in A.Glazunov’s Violin Concerto in A-minor op.82. Written in 1904, the concerto was dedicated to violinist Leopold Auer, who gave its first performance in 1905 at a concert of the Russian Musical Society, St. Petersburg. The Concerto's three movements are played without pause, the connections almost seamless from one to the next. Performing on a 1787 Antonio Gragnani violin, Balanas is an artist of sophistication and subtlety. Her sense of spontaneity lent natural, unimpeded flow to the Glazunov Concerto’s rich colourings, its large cadenza (Glazunov’s own) and to the work’s rhapsodic moods and expressive intensity, ending the finale with genial and extroverted rapture. For her encore, she performed Paganini’s Caprice No.17 with charm and whimsy.


All the concertos in the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s current “La Tempesta dei Solisti” series have been arranged for chamber orchestra by Mordechai Rechtman (b. Germany 1926), a bassoonist renowned for his many arrangements for wind ensembles and of Classical and Romantic concertos. Rechtman was present at the concert.


Maestro Uriel Segal (b. Israel, 1944), conducting with a light touch, made for transparency of sound, well-delineated melodic playing, a lush symphonic sound and sensitive collaboration between orchestra and soloists. Segal conducts and records widely in Europe, Japan, the USA, Canada and Brazil. Laureate conductor of the renowned Chautauqua Festival in New York State, he is also laureate Conductor of Century Orchestra in Osaka, Japan, an orchestra he founded and led for eight years. He has served as music director of the Louisville, KY Orchestra, was principal conductor of the Philharmonia Hungarica and the Bournemouth Symphony, music director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra and principal guest conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony. He has also been principal guest conductor at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University, Bloomington.



Friday, October 12, 2018

Ensemble PHOENIX to perform Haydn's "Sun" Quartets on authentic instruments

Myrna Herzog,Ya'akov Rubinstein,Moshe Aron Epstein,Rachel Ringelstein (Photo:Yossi Cohen)
Haydn aficionados are in for a treat this month (October 2018) when Ensemble PHOENIX instrumentalists perform the Opus 20 “Sun” Quartets, arguably Haydn’s first quartet masterpieces. These superb works may be seen as experimental and ground-breaking, representing an unprecedented flowering of Haydn’s string quartet-writing, this making the fullest use of four completely independent voices (still remaining vehicles for the composer’s characteristic wit and surprise) and establishing a high watermark to which every other subsequent composer of quartets has paid homage. We will hear the PHOENIX members in a version for flute and strings, the artists playing on period instruments - the string players (Ya’akov Rubinstein-violin, Rachel Ringelstein-viola and Myrna Herzog-’cello) will all play 18th century instruments with gut strings, Herzog’s bow actually dates from the time, as does Ringelstein's viola, and Moshe Aron Epstein will be performing on an original Classical flute built in 1780.


Tuesday October 23rd, 20:30, Israel Conservatory of Music, 25 Louis Marshall St., Tel Aviv
Reservations: 03-546-6228


Friday October 26th, 12:00, Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem
Reservations: 02-641-4250


Saturday October 27th, 20:30, The Studio, Beit Hecht, 143 HaNassi St., Haifa
Reservations: 04 836-3804


Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Ensemble PHOENIX delights with vocal- and instrumental music of the Classical period at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Marina Minkin,Moshe Aron Epstein,Karen Shifrin,Myrna Herzog (M.A.Epstein)

Taking place in the historic Romanesque church in the town of Abu Gosh, an event of the 54th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival on September 29th 2018 “When Louise Burned her Lover’s Letters…Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Scottish Love Songs” was performed by members of Ensemble PHOENIX - mezzo-soprano Karin Shifrin,  Marina Minkin-harpsichord, Moshe Aron Epstein-flute and PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog on ‘cello.

As might befit any salon concert of the Classical period in central Europe, the program opened with the first movement of Joseph Haydn’s Piano Trio in G-major, Hoboken XV:15. One of only three Haydn works for this combination (Haydn wrote at least 45 keyboard trios), the trio was registered by Bland, the composer’s London publisher, as  “Second Trio for the Harpsichord or Piano Forte, German Flute & Violoncello”. It might be conjectured that Haydn chose the flute here due to its appeal to English aristocratic taste. Haydn’s chamber music never ceases to be exuberant and innovative, but the artists’ refinement and subtlety of expression here was also enhanced by their fine balance and the timbres of period instruments - the warmth of Epstein’s Classical flute, Herzog’s 1745 Andrea  Castagnery ‘cello played with an original classical bow from Mozart’s time and the small but definitely characterful spinet played  by Minkin. Then to three of Haydn’s  English Canzonettas to words of Mrs. Anne Hunter, whom Haydn met in London in 1791. Karen Shifrin’s committed singing gave expression to the subject of each vignette - the doleful mood underlying “The Wanderer”, “The Mermaid’s Song” with its gentle, underlying enticement and word painting set against the rise and fall of the sea and, finally, the typically English-type hale-and-hearty seafaring character of “The Sailor’s Song”. Displaying how naturally Haydn catered to the tastes of late 18th century English drawing room music, one becomes aware of the composer’s free and groundbreaking approach to the keyboard role. While adding flute- and ‘cello roles to all the songs throughout the concert, a joint effort of the part of the PHOENIX musicians, the artists’ playing remained faithful to the original texts, was lush and offered the addition of some beguiling solos.

In the guise of a simple song, W.A.Mozart’s “Das Veilchen” (The Violet) was played out effectively by Shifrin, with Goethe’s message of the need of human comfort and how the pain of love is then released by the peaceful death of the violet well expressed as the narrator and little violet speak alternatively. “Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte” (When Luisa Burned the Letters of Her Unfaithful Lover), from which the concert takes its title, the personal sentiments of the jilted poet Gabriele von Baumberg take a much more dramatic approach: after Luise discovers her lover's infidelity, she thanks the flames for destroying his letters and songs to her. Then, calling upon the fire to eliminate all traces of the love she had felt for him, she realizes that her memory of the man still continues to burn within her. Here, the composer’s passionately descriptive instrumental agenda provided  powerful endorsement to Shifrin’s emotional  elucidation of the text. Whether or not Mozart composed the music to  Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter’s “Wiegenlied” (Lullaby) has never been proven. What was sure, by the festival audience’s gentle humming along with Shifrin’s singing of it, punctuated by a pensive verse given to the ‘cello, is that the song is a nostalgic childhood memory for many of us.

Back to Haydn: in the Andante second movement of the G-major Trio XV:15, Minkin and Epstein engaged in delightful dialogue, the use of flexing and small pauses attesting to Haydn’s sense of humour; then to the final movement, fresh and zesty, rich in Haydn’s inexhaustible abundance of surprising invention and no less witty than the second!

The program concluded with a selection of Beethoven’s strikingly beautiful settings of Scottish folk songs, published in London and Edinburgh in 1818 as “Twenty-five Scottish songs: for voice, mixed chorus, violin, violoncello and piano” opus 108. Beethoven had never visited Scotland, but wrote the settings in answer to an advertisement of  a certain George Thomson from Edinburgh, who was  interested to commission settings of folk songs for home performance. Hoping to sell them well, Thomson had requested the violin part be written in such a way that it could also be played on the flute.  In a letter to Thomson from May 1819 Beethoven, angry at him for his ongoing request for writing of more simplicity, explained that he could not regard this as a criterion and that he would, in which case, not find the courage to call the pieces his own.   Enlisting her vital and substantial vocal resources, Shifrin’s singing of the bitter-sweet melodies and texts, set to modal harmonizations, some referring to the many battles in which the Scots fought, was real and touching: the strophic “Dim, dim is my eye” with its story of brave William for whom “the sea is his grave”, two songs of a dejected nature - Sir Walter Scott’s melancholy “Sunset” followed by “Sympathy”, the introduction in the latter seemingly asking questions prior to those of the singer and, finally, “Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie”, the spirited, typically Scottish reel complete with bagpipe drone.

Not the chandeliered room of a wealthy Viennese family, the crypt of the Benedictine Monastery is nevertheless a suitable venue for such salon music; it offers a fine acoustic environment for chamber concerts. In their typically scrupulous and  profound enquiry into the works on all levels, the PHOENIX artists gave an inspired performance of some of the Classical period’s most splendid and immortal music.


Friday, October 5, 2018

The Orpheus Opera Ensemble makes its debut in Tel Aviv with the Israeli premiere of Telemann's "Orpheus"

Eitan Drori,Oded Reich,Pnini Leon Grubner,Tal Ganor (photo:Yoel Levy)
An especially festive event marking the outset of the 2018-2019 concert season in Tel Aviv was the debut performance of the Orpheus Opera Ensemble, established, directed and conducted by Yair Polishook, an artist familiar to many of us as a baritone in the world of opera and oratorio. Stage direction was in the hands of Shirit Lee Weiss; lighting - Nadav Barnea. Taking place in the Zucker Hall of Heichal HaTarbut, Tel Aviv, on October 3rd, Tel Aviv, the new ensemble presented the Israeli premiere of G.P.Telemann’s three-act opera “Orpheus or The Marvellous Constancy of Love”.


The first performance of this three-act opera took place in Hamburg in 1726 at the Gänsemarkt Opera House, of which Telemann himself was music director. Ten years later, the opera was given the new (and more accurate) title of “Vengeful Love, or Orasia, the Widowed Queen of Thrace”. When the text was finally published in 1736, Telemann’s name did not appear on it, his (and Handel’s) friend German theorist Johann Mattheson described a concert performance of the opera as a “wretched concoction” and the opera sank into obscurity. It was unearthed in 1978; its release on Harmonia Mundi was recognition of the fact that the work was indeed the product of Telemann’s pen. Apart from one small section, the score has survived virtually complete. Based on a libretto by Frenchman Michel du Boullay, Telemann has added to the actions of Orasia. As well as murdering Eurydice, of whose love for Orpheus she is jealous, she eventually kills Orpheus himself. In keeping with Hamburg opera taste of the time, Telemann inserted arias in French and Italian - in language and, and no less convincingly, in style. The majority of the score is in German, but arias of languid sorrow and choruses are mostly in French, and those expressing rage and love are, most fittingly, Italian arias. Telemann’s orchestral writing also reflects Hamburg’s more adventurous approach: brilliant and subtle, it not only serves as accompaniment as Telemann uses the instrumental ensemble to heighten and reflect the drama.


Six very fine and competent Israeli singers of the younger generation were cast in the solo roles, their singing of Telemann’s exquisite ensemble sections also providing much delight. Daniela Skorka’s gorgeous, creamy voice, musicality and involvement gave pleasing expression to the role of Eurydice, a relatively small part – Eurydice is dead well before the end of Act 1. Singing with joyful, innocent simplicity showed her as very much the opposite of Orasia in personality. Soprano Tal Ganor’s natural, lively stage presence and expressive face made for a warmly lyrical-, then aggressive Ismene (Orasia’s handmaiden); she also played the role of the nymph Cephisa, with its music of beauty and brilliance. With much confident singing and presence, tenor Eitan Drori gave vivid portrayals of the complex, scheming and tragi-comic Eurimedes as well as of the wicked Ascalax, as he indulged in the pictorialism in arias of both. His duet with Orpheus (Oded Reich) “Angenehmer Aufenthalt” was indeed one of the evening’s highlights. The role of Pluto was assumed with imposing resonance and authority by bass Pnini Leon Grubner; no large role, it nevertheless offers some splendid music, as in the da capo aria “Ruhet, ihr Folten gemarterter Seelen”.


With his changes in emphasis on the plot, Telemann’s “Orpheus” becomes a Baroque psychodrama, as it revolves around Orasia, Queen of Thrace, with her narcissism and obsessive love-hate personality. Totally immersed in the role, Hadas Faran, equipped with a suitably substantial voice, displayed secure handling of the bravura and soaring high notes which Telemann calls for at the most dramatic moments of her tirades, as she gave potent meaning to the two Italian vengeance arias and to her final, pared-down lament in French. Telemann’s Orpheus, with his anti-hero tendency, is a character more richly complicated than Gluck’s hero as he navigates the roller coaster of love lost, won again through hardship and devotion, and finally, irrevocably lost. Baritone Oded Reich’s realization of the tragic character of Orpheus is profound and insightful, a man loved but spurned, helpless and alone in his own suffering. Reich’s acquired dramatic insight and convincingly emotional performance integrate deftly with his musical reading of each aria, served well by his stable voice and luxuriant palette of baritone colours.


Stage- and costume design was undertaken by Maya Meidar Moran. Backed by long, transparent, coloured drapes, with which the singers interacted at times, the stage was otherwise bare. But it was a space bristling with movement and physical- and emotional energy. There being no static moments, there was much to follow in the artists’ movements, body language and expressions as they made maximal use of the stage space. The production offered a mix of costumes - from modern day-wear, to lingerie, to night-wear, to risqué cabaret wear, imaginative outfits and modish rainwear. Certain of the costumes seemingly imparted clear messages as to the universal questions of physical attraction, promiscuity, impulsivity and jealousy.


With stylish, nuanced playing of Telemann’s outstanding instrumental score - accompaniments, dances, occasional folk elements and some splendid obligato playing - the small Baroque instrumental ensemble added delicacy, flair and elegance to the musical canvas. The enthusiasm of Polishook’s conducting was tangible, bringing out the best in- and creating balance between his uniformly strong singers and ensemble and keeping the action moving at a natural pace. Add to that Telemann's subtle use of modulations, of different keys to fit the personae and of occasional dissonances to underscore the harshest of emotions and one is sorely tempted to invalidate Johann Mattheson’s judgement. With this sparkling, festive performance of G.P.Telemann’s “Orpheus”, Yair Polishook’s vision of an Israeli Baroque opera company featuring homegrown talents has made a compelling case!   


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

David Feldman and Uri Bracha perform music of Dowland, Purcell, the Beatles, Miki Gavrielov...and Sting... at the Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival

Photo: Yosefa Zehavi

The 54th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival (Israel) took place from September 29th to October 1st 2018. On September 29th, this writer attended “Elizabethan Love Songs and Songs by Sting, the Beatles and Miki Gavrielov” in the Crypt nestling below the 12th century Benedictine Crusader Church, which is set in a magical, exotic garden in the lower quarter of the town of Abu Gosh. Countertenor David Feldman was joined by guitarist, composer and arranger Uri Bracha.


A singer of international renown, Feldman has performed with orchestras and vocal ensembles.  In January 2012 he made his operatic debut at the Basel Opera House in a production of Henry Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen”, conducted by Andrea Marcon. With Profeti della Quinta he has recorded two CDs, presenting Salamone Rossi’s Hebrew synagogue vocal music and Italian madrigals. Opening with a selection of John Dowland lute songs, his warmth of sound and natural flair for dynamic change gave the songs, each with its message of the suffering- and uncertainty of love, true Dowland grace, contemplation and nostalgia, his engaging in vibrato only there for emphasis and embellishment. Expressive yet understated, Feldman allows the music and texts to speak for themselves:

“Where night's black bird her sad infamy sins,

There let me live forlorn.” (Flow, my tears)

Accompanying these small jewels, Uri Bracha’s elegant, attentive playing reflected the texts and their moods. His polished performance of “Sir John Smith, his Almain”, a piece dating from the 1590s, highlighted both the subtlety and sophistication of Dowland’s treatment of the musical matter of this dance.


Feldman’s singing of Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While”, a true stroke of genius, from the incidental music to John Dryden's “Oedipus”, was both mellifluous (in the outer sections) and brimful of word painting, as the Fury Alecto is being beguiled so that the snakes “drop from her head’ and the whip falls from her hands”.


Greece and its nature were the inspiration for Uri Bracha’s evocative guitar solo, “Vikos Canyon”, a work of imagination, abstract ideas, harmonic freedom and introspection. A challenging work to perform, Bracha is comfortable with its technical complexities. His compositions generally present a unique blend of music of the various cultures in Israel and in the Middle East with Brazilian music and jazz.


The rest of the program struck many “familiar notes” in the audience at the Crypt and people felt free to hum along with the songs, beginning with the early English ballad, “Greensleeves”. With the repertoire that followed, the jazzy/multi-cultural aspects of Bracha’s art became more prominent. He and Feldman gave their own appealingly fresh, upbeat and imaginative renditions of three Beatles songs. And then, a free and touching presentation of “Roxanne”, Sting’s tender, sentimental song of 1977, the text addressing Roxanne, a hooker. Where does Sting fit into this festival program? In 2006, in collaboration with Bosnian lutenist Edin Karamazov, Sting released “Songs from the Labyrinth”, an album featuring music of John Dowland!


From Sting, the artists moved to the songfulness and sweet nostalgia of Israeli folk/rock composer and singer Miki Gavrielov, many of whose songs were performed by the legendary Arik Einstein.


Concluding a program of much variety, David Feldman and Uri Bracha performed Dowland’s “Come Away”, reminding the audience that, only an hour earlier, they had started out with some of the composer’s typically Elizabethan songs, so delicate and poetic, yet still clear in meaning to today’s listener:

“Lilies on the river's side
And fair
Flow'rs new-blown
Desire no beauties but their own
Ornament is nurse of pride
Love's delight:
Haste then sweet love our wished flight.”