Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Israel Chamber Orchestra hosts Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens and Israeli jazz pianist Guy Mintus. World premiere of Guy Mintus' piano concerto "On Eagles' Wings"

Rosanne Philippens (photo: Merlijn Doomernik)

Directed by house conductor Ariel Zuckermann, the third concert of the Israel Chamber Orchestra’s 2018-2019 season, “Mendelssohn - Concerto”, included two familiar works of orchestral repertoire and the premiering of a work written for the ICO. Soloists were violinist Rosanne Philippens (Netherlands/Germany) and Israeli jazz pianist Guy Muntus, who soloed in the performance of his piano concerto.


The program opened with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 in D-major op.36 (1802), a work dedicated to Prince Lichnowsky, one of the composer’s leading patrons. A turning point in Beethoven’s output, marking the transition between the first and second epochs of his compositional style, we hear him here intimating his ambitious plans for a new symphonic canvas. The writing of this symphony also coincided with Beethoven’s final acceptance of the fact that his increasing deafness was incurable. It was at this time that he wrote the Heiligenstadt Testament (actually, a kind of will), in which he described his grief and despair and increasing isolation from society. But, enigmatically, Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 is a work full of drive, energy and exhilarating good humour. Issued in by the composer’s slow, majestic introduction, Zuckermann guides the listener through the symphony’s vivacity, its passages of dialogue between instruments and its characteristic, subtle harmonic shifts, its drama, moments of delightful lightness and sturdy tutti. The players’ precision and freshness of sound invite the audience to take a new look at music so familiar to concert-goers and to be constantly involved in its process. In the radiantly beautiful Larghetto, devoid of trumpet and timpani, the ICO’s fine woodwinds add elaborate detail to its lyricism and warm melodiousness, to be followed by the Scherzo, with its sudden, volatile dramatic shifts, punctuated by a mellifluous Trio. No less quirky or capricious is the Finale, its humour and vitality endorsed by some fine playing by the wind sections.


In 1838, Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his childhood friend, violinist Ferdinand David, concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra: “I would like to compose a violin concerto for you next winter; one in E-minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace.” The work would not give him peace for another six years, till he at last found time, the nerve and inspiration amidst his busy concert schedule to complete it. David became involved in every aspect of the concerto’s composition and served as its technical advisor. The work premiered in 1845 with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with David as soloist and Niels Gade conducting. Mendelssohn was thirty-five years old when this composition was completed and was destined to live only another three years. As his last work for large orchestra, the Violin Concerto represents Mendelssohn's most mature orchestral style.  It is also one of his most painstakingly written works. Here, the composer introduced his own innovations into the concerto form: the three movements are ingeniously and seamlessly connected by a single bassoon note and the composer has done away with the convention of having the orchestra introduce all the melodic material in the first movement before the soloist enters. At the ICO concert, from the moment Rosanne Philippens (b.1986) opened with the first subject, her playing elegiac, impassioned and rhapsodic, the audience moved to the edge of their seats for a performance of uncommon personal expression. Playing by heart enabled the artist the freedom of eyeing conductor, orchestra or audience at strategic moments, of initiating, of shaping melodic lines and flexing rhythms and of spontaneity, as she delved into her large personal range of dynamics, soaring from robust volumes down to the most exquisite, gossamer pianissimi. In the (unconventionally placed) cadenza (first movement) she had the audience in the palm of her hand, focusing on its motifs ornamented with sparkling bariolage (repeated string crossings), spiccato (off-the-string bow stroke), and chords across all four strings. The Andante movement, emerging tranquil, cantabile and lyrical, gave way to the final Allegro, wistful at first, then bursting into effervescence (with a fleeting reference to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.) Ms. Philippens’ playing strikes a fine balance between virtuosity, deep musical enquiry and a sense of the personal in music.


Today, Israeli-born jazz pianist, teacher and composer Guy Mintus lives in New York but he spends much time on the go. The 27-year-old artist is as comfortable sharing the stage with jazz greats, composing for classical orchestras and collaborating with masters of traditional music as he is working with children. His solo- and ensemble performances have taken him all over the world - to Brazil, India, Turkey, Israel, throughout Europe, the USA and Canada. “On Eagles’ Wings”, a concerto for orchestra and improvising pianist, was written August-October 2018, but the concept of it has been processing in Mintus’ mind for the last year. It is his first concerto and it has programmatic content. The three movements follow the physical- and emotional process of a person uprooted from one culture and moving to another (familiar to him from his Iraqi-, Moroccan- and Polish background):  Al Tariqa - The Road, Intermezzo - Assimilation, Zikhrayat - Remnants of a Memory and Tikkun.  “Tikkun is an important term in the Jewish world, coming from Kabala. It covers many aspects but, most literally, it means fixing something. Within the context of the piece it's about coming the full circle, finding a home between identities, finding peace with one's own complexities”, in the composer’s words. In the work, the piano represents the individual. As to the title, “On Eagles’ Wings”, it was taken from that of the operation (1949-1950) that brought some 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel. An interesting aspect of the pianist’s role is that some piano sections are written out in full, some provide harmonic-, character- or other guidelines, whereas other sections are left entirely to the performer. Guy Mintus’ soundscape is vibrant, rich in rhythmic ideas, fresh and palpable, displaying some very fine orchestral writing. Its styles vary from jazz to western tonal/harmonic writing, to oriental monodic sections. Mintus’ handling of the piano sections, some solo, others integrating with just a few instruments or with the whole orchestra, was confident and virtuosic; he also made use of some plucking-, percussive- and other effects produced inside the piano, at one moment, doubling an oriental melody with his own singing. And then there were those special “Guy Mintus moments” - personal, touching, sensitive...fragile. Addressing the audience before the concert began, Maestro Zuckermann spoke of the ICO’s interest in promoting Israeli composers. The performance was wholehearted proof of this.

Guy Mintus (photo: Lena Gansman)

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Israeli premiere of Charpentier's "David et Jonathas". Patrick Cohën-Akenine directs soloists, Ensemble Barrocade and the Madrigal Singers

Photo: Yoel Levy
To commemorate the Saison France Israël, Ensemble Barrocade presented the Israeli premiere of the opéra biblique “David et Jonathas” by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704). This writer attended the performance on November 17th 2018 at the Church of Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant, Kiryat Yearim, some 10 kilometres west of Jerusalem. Guest conductor/lead violin Patrick Cohën-Akenine (France) was joined by soloists soprano Einat Aronstein, countertenor Yaniv D’Or and bass Arnaud Richard (France). Barrocade also hosted violone player François Poly (France) and Johannes Knoll (Austria/Switzerland) - oboe and recorder. The Madrigal Singers (conductor: Etay Berckovitch) performed the opera’s choruses and small ensemble sections.


Charpentier's “David et Jonathas” was commissioned by one of the most prominent Jesuit schools in France, the College Louis-le-Grand, to take place together with “Saul”, a play in Latin by Etienne Chamillard, one of the Jesuit Fathers. Charpentier's libretto, closely allied to the play (now lost) but independent of it, was by another Jesuit, François Bretonneau. “David et Jonathas” is what the French Baroque considered a “tragédie en musique” of the Lullian genre, but this work is stamped with Charpentier’s strong individuality, his harmonic richness and its affecting pathos. It was first performed at the College in February 1688, by which time Lully had died and the stringent ordinances presided over by him affecting theatre music now lifted. In his program notes, Barrocade harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon draws a comparison between King Saul’s jealousy of David and Lully’s jealousy of Charpentier. “David et Jonathas” (1688), of which we heard pivotal sections, consists of an overture, prologue and five acts, with the focus being on the portrayal and psychological development of the principal characters. However, in Act 5 the action comes to the fore as we see Saul beaten in battle and Jonathas mortally wounded. A striking difference between this biblical-based work and other French tragédies lyriques is the exclusion of ballet (although it is not known whether the original performance included dancers); dance was indeed the mainstay of French Baroque opera.


The scene opens close to Mt. Gilboa between Saul’s camp and that of the Philistines. From the very first bars of the overture, one is immediately made aware of Patrick Cohën-Akenine’s vigorous, robust instrumental sound, energizing and involving throughout. “David et Jonathas” abounds in instrumental movements, the players' substantial accenting evoking many a lively dance form, with the instrumental score also endorsing  emotions accompanying the course of events. This rarely-staged sacred tragedy offers so much in the way of instrumental expression - Charpentier was a master orchestrator- and Ensemble Barrocade, its members and guest players providing a lush and polished performance on period instruments, did not disappoint. As to Charpentier’s beautiful use of woodwind instruments, there was his engaging use of recorders (Shai Kribus, Johannes Knoll) to highlight the work’s tragedy and grieving in appealing, plangent utterances. Etay Berckovitch has done outstanding work with The Madrigal Singers, twenty or so singers possessing some excellent and interesting voices; the ensemble’s well blended, incisive and finely sculpted singing added prestige to the performance. One example was the impactful choral effect of the despairing cries of “Hélas!” (Alas) on Jonathan’s death in Act 5, Scene 5, each triggered by differing dynamics.  


In the role of David (probably sung originally by Charpentier himself) countertenor Yaniv D’Or’s singing and acting were passionate, committed and indeed moving in his portrayal of the conflicted, reluctant hero. Portraying Jonathan (originally sung by a boy) Einat Aronstein was radiant and poignant, her stable, ample voice communicating the gamut of emotions demanded by the role. Colouring each gesture of the text with the richness and resonance of his vocal- and emotional range and his theatrical panache, Arnaud Richard was authoritative and gripping as Saul, uncompromising and fervent and beset with suspicion.


The mise en scène was handled by Sharon Weller, who also guided the soloists in the use of historical gestures. There was no scenery and costumes were historically acceptable, allowing Cohën-Akenine and the artists to present the essence of the Old Testament parable in an elegant, ravishing and rapturous musical account of incorruptible love in all its complications, leaving some of the age-old questions of it (asked and answered by other productions of the opera) up to the listener.


Under the musical direction of viola da gamba player Amit Tiefenbrunn, Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective, was founded in 2007.  

Amit Tiefenbrunn,Ophira Zakai,Yaniv D'Or,Einat Aronstein (Yoel Levy)

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

An all-Brahms concert at the Eden-Tamir Music Center Ein Kerem, including Symphony No.3 played on two pianos

Dror Semmel,Ron Trachtman (photo:Shirley Burdick)
Under the direction of pianist Dror Semmel, the first of the Brahms series titled “Four Symphonies for Two Pianos Four Hands and Four Quartets” took place at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem on November 10th 2018.


The event opened with Johannes Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.2 in A-major Op.26, performed by Dima Pocitari-violin, Gili Radian-Sade-viola, Hillel Zori-’cello and Dror Semmel-piano. Completed in 1861, when Brahms was 29, the work, with its natural, easeful linking of phrases and formal perspective, attests to the composer’s profound study of Schubert’s chamber music in the late 1850s. It also marks Brahms’ taking up residence in Vienna, the musical capital of German music and the city of Beethoven and Schubert, a move encouraged by Clara Schumann and Joseph Joachim. In the Op.26’s over fifty minutes of music, Brahms’ longest work; the artists’ wonderfully fresh and sculpted playing, however, drew the listeners at the Eden-Tamir Center into its extensive melodic content with some splendid solo playing, the highlighting of motifs and Brahms’ subtly rewarding mix of textures. In the opening movement (Allegro non troppo), the main theme, initiated by the piano alone, provides the two motives from which the movement is largely constructed. Throughout the work, Semmel wove the piano part in- and out of the limelight, soloing or amalgamating subtly with the strings, as dictated by the text. In the nocturne-like second movement (Poco adagio), with its arching melody, the sweeping, mysteriously ruminating arpeggios on the piano and ‘cello comments came together in luxuriant, songful tranquillity.  As to the third movement, enigmatically labelled Scherzo and furnished with a somewhat dramatic trio, it is followed by a vigorous finale, coloured by references to gypsy- and folk dance music; the players gave expression to its abundance of themes and moods and to its masterful structure.


The second work on the program was Brahms’ version of Symphony No.3 in F-major Op.90 for two pianos. We heard it performed by Dror Semmel and Ron Trachtman. Semmel spoke of the practice of writing the first draft of a symphony for piano four hands as the basis for planning and orchestrating the work. Brahms, however, having a sharp business sense, was also aware of the remunerative sheet-music market, with works for four hands popular for domestic use. Semmel  also mentioned that Alexander Tamir and Bracha Eden had played this work in concerts worldwide. On February 11, 1884, after hours of playing through the work in its two-piano version, Clara Schumann wrote to Brahms: “All the movements seem to be of one piece, one beat of the heart” and, in her picturesque use of language, that “one is surrounded from beginning to end by the secret magic of the life of the forest”.  Indeed, Brahms's Symphony No.3 is one of his most poetic, evocative works, with eloquently defined themes and their subsequent transformations. The work opens with the work’s rising F, A-flat, F motif in the top voice, Brahms’s monogram for “frei aber froh” (free but joyful); the motif makes itself heard again and again in the work.  Semmel and Trachtman’s playing reflected deep enquiry into the symphony's contrasting, transformative and pensive narratives, with the first movement emerging bold, at times tragic, and lyrical, its different melodies presented with a variety of pianistic textures. Both the second and third movements are introspective, with long sections that never rise above piano. In their “semplice” approach to the (underlying sophistication of the) Andante movement, the artists accorded it songful, personal expression. As to the beguiling Poco allegretto (third movement) with its lush, sensuous melodies, if the listener is able to detach himself from Brahms’ silken orchestration of it, here is the quintessential Romantic piano, with the artists’ rendition also reminding the audience of the artistic finesse proffered by strategic timing.


A chamber music concert to appeal to Brahms- and chamber music aficionados.


Friday, November 9, 2018

Trio Noga in a new program at the Teiva hall in Jaffa, Israel

Photo: Avi Bar-Eitan
Trio Noga - Idit Shemer-flute, Orit Messer-Jacobi-'cello and Maggie Cole-piano (USA/UK) -  has recently toured Israel with a new program. This writer attended the trio’s latest concert at the Teiva hall in Jaffa, Israel, on October 29th, 2018.


The program opened with Joseph Haydn’s Trio in D-major Hob. XV:24, one of the three XV:24-26 flute trios written on Haydn’s second visit to London and dedicated to Rebecca Schroeter, the widow of a composer, to whom he had taught piano on his first visit there. The composer and his student  developed an intimate relationship (she was referred to by Haydn as “a beautiful and lovable woman, whom I would very readily have married if I had been free then”); her letters to Haydn survive. This trio, however, is not one of the composer’s typically exuberant or humorous works, rather a somewhat introverted piece, its opening movement juxtaposing small motives with pauses and longer, more flowing phrases. Maggie Cole’s playing gave both spirited and eloquent expression to Haydn’s piano part, writing evident of the more extensive potential of pianos in London of the time. The artists’ performance of the trio was poignant and subtle, articulate in fine detail and well contrasted, with some tasteful embellishment in the flute part. With the flute’s popularity in London at the time, it makes much sense to hear the piece as originally scored and not, as sometimes heard, with the flute’s mellifluous signature sound replaced by a violin. As to the enigmatic finale - Allegro ma dolce - with its energetic course seemingly ignoring bar-lines, the movement’s final notes die away to a hush, as Haydn delicately bows out of the scene.


Israeli-born composer/singer Ayala Asherov writes in a wide variety of styles — pop, contemporary classical, etc.— and for various kinds of media, from music for cinema to concert music. “Seasons” was composed in 2010 in the USA, where she spent 15 years. Referring back to her own cultural roots, Asherov took inspiration for the work from four poems of Israeli poet laureate Chaim Nahman Bialik, one of the pioneers of modern Hebrew poetry. Winning her the 2011 Chamber Music Composition Award at the biennial Athena Music Festival, “Seasons” is a set of tone poems of a lyrical and rhapsodic character, the pieces’ profuse melodies, stirring and emotional, making for music that reaches out to the listener. Preceding each of the pieces, Asherov gave a fine reading of the relevant Bialik poem; listening to her, one was reminded that, earlier in her professional life, Asherov had briefly pursued an acting career in theatre, film and television. The tone poems, each descriptive of a season, are personal in utterance. The Trio Noga artists gave a splendidly sculptured, varied and intuitive reading of the pieces, as “Summer” opened with flute and piano (with Cole making generous use of the sustaining pedal) creating a pastel, dreamlike balmy setting. In “Autumn”, flute and ‘cello duet converse against floating piano arpeggios, evoking the season’s underlying melancholy. The rich mix of textures of “Winter” create some driving rhythms and dramatic content, gripping and intense, the artists' playing never muscular in approach, to be followed by “Spring”, with its forthright opening, fresh and replete with the joy of the re-awakening of nature. Each piece ended on a contemplative note, a personal statement on the part of the composer. Trio Noga’s programming invariably includes works of contemporary Israeli composers.


Then to Trio for Flute, ‘Cello, & Piano (1995) by French neoclassical composer, pianist, and orchestrator Jean Françaix (1912-1997), known for his varied output and vigorous style. A prolific composer, rejecting atonality and not interested to be a part of Europe’s modernist upheavals that were reshaping musical thinking in a dramatic way, Françaix remained faithful to his own musical language, “not primarily attracted by the ‘motorways of thought’, but more the ‘paths through the woods”, in his own words. Reflecting the influence of Chabrier, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Poulenc, he wrote in an idiom intended to entertain himself and his listeners. From the Jaffa concert, I would add that his style also amuses those performing his music. Light-hearted and humorous, the four-movement Trio for Flute, ‘Cello, & Piano is packed with jazzy moments and jaunty, quirky effects skillfully woven into the composer’s energetic flow of ideas and surprises, the work also revealing Françaix’ skilled contrapuntal- and harmonic writing set within his typically transparent and French  soundscape. The Trio Noga players probed the score in fine detail, meeting its challenges and unconventional techniques (Françaix himself was a virtuoso pianist), with the ‘cello, for example, required to play in high positions, glissandi, flageolets, etc., and with each player often engaged in different agendas. Indeed, humorous music of this kind demands a serious musical approach, as in the droll ⅝ third movement (Scherzando), complete with giggles, or the hopping, no-less-droll fourth movement in which Shemer changes flute for piccolo.


The concert concluded with a touching performance of Avi Bar-Eitan’s arrangement of Oded Lerer’s familiar melody “I Ask for Forgiveness” to a poem of Lea Goldberg. Jerusalem composer, teacher and musicologist Avi Bar-Eitan’s doctoral work was an evaluation of the grey area between art-, folk- and popular elements in Israeli song repertoire. The artists’ mellow and sympathetic playing of the lush, melodious and richly-layered textures of the arrangement made for a tranquil and rewarding end to the evening.
…”If there were torments – then they voyaged toward you
my white sail on course toward your dark night.
Now, allow me to leave, let me go, let me go
to bow on the shores of forgiveness.”
© 1959, Lea Goldberg
From: Sooner or Later [Mukdam Ve-Meuhar], 10th ed.
Publisher: Sifriat Poalim, 1959, 1978






Saturday, November 3, 2018

When literature and music meet in the family: works of writer Dan Tsalka and pianist Michael Tsalka at a festive book launch of Dan Tsalka's book of essays in Jaffa, Israel

Dan Tsalka (photo courtesy the Tsalka family)

The launch of “Kol Hamassot” (All the Essays) of the late Israeli writer Dan Tsalka took  place in the intimate venue of the Teiva basement hall in Jaffa, Israel on October 27th 2018. Hosted by Mrs. Aviva Tsalka, the event was attended by people who had known the writer and his works, by literary figures and artists of different milieus. Dan Tsalka (1936-2005) was born in Warsaw. In World War II his family fled to the Soviet Union, living in Siberia, later in Kazakhstan. At the close of the war, he returned to Poland with his family, living in Wroclaw, where he studied humanities at the university there. In 1957 he immigrated to Israel. He studied philosophy and history at Tel Aviv University, then continuing his studies in France, also residing for a time in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Italy. Living in Tel Aviv, he engaged in editing and translation, publishing his first book in 1967. Published by Xargol Books (Tel Aviv) “Kol Hamassot”, a compendium of philosophical musings on a huge variety of subjects, collates three of the author’s books.


Emceeing the evening was Jonathan Nadav, managing director of the Hebrew University Magnes Press, who set the scene with his reading of a witty piece from the book about cigars and public figures associated with them. The first speaker was Prof. Aminadav Dykman (Dept. Hebrew Literature, Hebrew University of Jerusalem), who had been a close friend of Dan Tsalka. He defined Tsalka as a World War II writer, a “member of the République des Lettres”, a writer who had spent time in Europe, but who decided “it would all happen” in Tel Aviv.


Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld (Dept. Hebrew Literature, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) discussed some of the book’s contents and style, pointing out its very original and pithy writing, also making reference to Tsalka’s unique personality and limitless knowledge. Hirschfeld talked of the author’s awareness of all that was happening around him, of his familiarity with literary works and of his ability to engage in the minutest of detail of the huge range of subjects on which he touched. An image Hirschfeld used was of Tsalka “hovering above whatever situation he was observing, commenting on what he saw down below.” Hirschfeld’s reading of the writer’s portrait of poet/actor Avraham Halfi, in which Tsalka admits that he did not understand Halfi’s “unreal” inner world, was indicative of the writer’s sincerity and honesty. Hirschfeld concluded by making reference to Dan Tsalka’s noble humility and sincerity and to his belief that art exists in order to improve human life.


Dan Tsalka’s son – internationally renowned keyboard artist Dr. Michael Tsalka - performed a selection of piano pieces, opening with Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D Major (K.119), a piece evocative of the Spanish guitar, its unconventional textures suggestive of Spanish gypsy music and early flamenco. Then to the pianist’s sensitive, contrasted and gently embellished reading of Mozart’s downhearted Adagio in B minor for piano K 540, to be followed by a small taste of French composer Cécile Chaminade’s “Six pièces humoristiques” (1897); Tsalka’s reflective and delicate playing of this lyrical salon music delighted with its ambience of fin-de-siècle Paris. His rendition of movements from Israeli composer Yehezkel Braun’s “Four Keyboard Pieces” (1991), pieces straddling modality and tonality, abounded in colour, pianistic textures and imagination. The musical section of the event concluded with Michael Tsalka’s performance of another small gem of the musical salon - Paderewski’s Nocturne Op.16 No.4 - with the pianist’s gracious and wistful playing endorsing the piece’s sweet sentimentality with just a touch of melancholy.


The event ended with Jonathan Nadav’s reading of another excerpt from “Kol Hamassot”.

Michael Tsalka (photo: David Beecroft)