Sunday, December 29, 2019

Pianist Benjamin Hochman performs the first of a series of concerts of the Complete Piano Sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the Israel Conservatory,Tel Aviv

Photo: Jennifer Taylor

Jerusalem-born pianist/conductor Benjamin Hochman is presenting the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas at the Israel Conservatory in Tel Aviv and also at the Bard College Conservatory, New York, where he is a member of the piano faculty. The five concerts will comprise Mozart’s eighteen piano sonatas and five shorter works. This writer attended the first concert of the series, which took place on December 23rd 2019 at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv.


The program opened with Sonata No.1 in C major K.279, one of six composed 1774-1775 in Munich and whose numerous dynamic markings reveal Mozart’s intention to play them on the fortepiano, enlisting the instrument's wide dynamic range and rich bass timbre. Indeed, Mozart performed all “six difficult sonatas” (as he referred to them) from memory in concerts in Munich and Augsburg. Hochman’s playing of the opening Allegro gave Classical beauty and festiveness to the movement, his judicious use of the sustaining pedal leaving the text’s clarity totally intact. Following the tranquil, thoughtful and gently flexed Andante, the final Allegro, rich in fine detail, offered a sprinkling of somewhat nonchalant moments of intensity, albeit, quick to disperse.


Then to Mozart’s Sonata No.11 in A major K.331 (1783) to which Hochman brings elegance, freshness and depth of feeling, starting with the delicacy, lyricism and a profusion of intricate detail of the Theme and variations - Andante grazioso - with some vibrant, bold flashes emerging in the 6th variation. Following the majestic Menuetto and its velvety Trio (bearing occasional strident comments), we heard the Rondo alla Turca. A much-mistreated piece, Hochman kept well clear of the rough “janissary bash” often produced by pianists, rather, offering a precise and controlled reading of it, infusing “tutti” sections with hearty textural substance.


Some mystery surrounds Sonata No.17 in B flat major K.570, a late Mozart work which the composer, according to some scholars, intended as a work for his students to perform. Its deceptive Classic simplicity, however, goes far beyond the realm of student performance.  In fact, it was Mozart’s biographer Alfred Einstein who referred to this sonata as “the most completely rounded of them all, the ideal of his piano sonata.” Exuding elegance and a sense of well-being, Hochman’s playing of the Allegro movement addressed importance to all melodic lines in fine-spun detail and sparkling runs. The Adagio movement, its tranquillity sometimes interrupted but always returning to calm simplicity, yielded to a delightfully deft jovial and contrasted reading of the final Allegretto, its lively syncopations and unexpected thematic leaps there to entertain!


In August 1777, Mozart resigned from his post as court musician, leaving for Europe in search of employment. The journey was beset by tragedy when his mother passed away from an undiagnosed illness while accompanying her 22-year-old son on tour in France. Composed under the aura of these traumatic circumstances, it is no coincidence that Sonata No.8 in A minor K.310 represents Mozart’s first experiment in writing a large piano work in a minor key.  Hochman addressed Mozart’s ground-breaking use of unrelenting pulsating rhythms, asymmetrical melodic phrasing and irregular cadences, maintaining the intensity, contrast and strong colour of the opening movement, yet observing its “maestoso” marking. One of the evening’s highlights was Hochman's playing of the Andante cantabile con espressione, splendidly crafted in aristocratic gestures, with darker, soul-searching grief evoked in the middle section in contrast to the (near perfect) mood of composure and dreamlike singing of the outer sections. As to the final Presto movement, the artist presented its suspenseful excitement together with fragility of textures. In the letter to his father informing him of his mother’s death, Mozart wrote: “I have indeed suffered and wept enough – but what did it avail?” 


In this first concert of the Tel Aviv Mozart Sonata Series, Benjamin Hochman’s eloquent, light-fingered, glittering and largely understated playing of Mozart sonatas allowed one to forget the dimensions of the concert hall to join him in the intimate world of the musical salon. For his encore, the artist played a piano version of a soprano aria from J.S.Bach’s "Sheep May Safely Graze"  from Cantata BWV 208, its melodic lines flowing in natural silhouettes from a crystalline setting. 


Thursday, December 26, 2019

Frank Liebscher (Germany) performs movements from J.S.Bach's Suites for Violoncello on the saxophone at the Redeemer Church, Jerusalem

Frank Liebscher (
A Christmas concert of a very different kind took place at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem’s Old City on Saturday December 21st 2019. Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all time, was a devout Protestant. It therefore stands to reason that his music should be played at the seat of the Provost of the German Protestant Ministries in the Holy Land and the headquarters of the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. But Bach’s ‘Cello Suites played on the alto saxophone? The saxophone family of instruments was only invented by Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax in the early 1840s! This was going to be interesting! Frank Liebscher (Leipzig, Germany) was the artist who would perform movements from Bach’s solo ‘Cello Suites for what could only be called a “very curious” audience. 


Following welcoming words from Rev. Rainer Stuhlmann, interim Propst of the Redeemer Church, Liebscher opened his program with the Prelude from Suite V, his playing rich in melodic content, the occasional low notes joining to form a skeleton bass over which the artist’s voice-play emerged effective in the saxophone’s different registers.


We have read much about J.S.Bach’s  extraordinary skills in improvisation, of how he, for example, improvised a complex six-part fugue for Frederic the Great, King of Prussia or an elaborate chorale fantasia lasting almost half an hour for Jan Adam Reincken, organist of St. Catherine’s Church in Hamburg. We also know that Bach put improvisation skills at the centre of his teaching and that they were part-and-parcel of his own daily music-making. It is important for today’s musicians to reclaim the integrated, communicative art of improvisation as a part of composition and performance. The element of improvisation was present throughout Liebscher’s program in one way or another, from a fanfare figure preceding his playing of Suite I to the addition of passing notes, ornamental features and noble flourishes. It is no mean challenge to adapt music whose technique is natural on the ‘cello to a wind instrument. Liebscher’s easeful, brilliant technique figured considerably throughout the performance, with much jaunty dexterity of arpeggios and runs, some so flexed and so breathless as to skip by before the ear had time to process them. Liebscher’s background is, after all, in jazz. I must admit that I found the artist’s wistful, more strictly-measured playing of the two Bourrées from Suite III calming, touching and most satisfying.


As to the mysterious and mystic inner workings of Bach’s mind, these found expression in Liebscher’s poignant playing of the Preludes from Suites V and of II and in the Sarabande from Suite V, the latter’s tragic course set with bijou ornaments and punctuated with small, pensive pauses, its climax tender rather than triumphant. There might have been a few raised eyebrows from any members of the authentic early music movement in the audience (had they been there); happily, Liebscher’s playing of Bach was, however, clear of vibrato, save for his engaging in it to ornament final notes with a touch of poesie. What was also most pleasing was the artist’s familiarity with church acoustics, as he took into account the building’s play of echoes. For his encore, the artist played his own skilful arrangement of J.S.Bach's  fantasia on the chorale "Wachet auf" (Awake, the voice is calling us). The concert was a unique, interesting and inspiring event.


Dr. Frank Liebscher brings a rich academic- and artistic background to his performance. Composer, arranger, band leader and sideman in a wide range of genres, his teaching experience covers the school-, music school- and university levels; he lectures and holds workshops internationally. With a PhD in music education (his dissertation was titled “Mental Practice - A Creative Approach to Jazz Improvisation”) Frank Liebscher's current interdisciplinary research focuses on music- and practice methodology, deliberate practice and performance studies.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Trio Klavis (Austria) - violin, piano and saxophone - performs a festive Christmas concert of much variety at the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem

Trio Klavis: Jenny Lippl, Sabina Hasanova, Miha Ferk (photo: Petra Klose)
Originally built and owned by an Ottoman Pasha - Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi al-Husseini - who lived there with his harem of four wives, the American Colony Hotel (now run by a Swiss company) is located where East- and West Jerusalem meet. In conjunction with the Austrian Cultural Forum (Tel Aviv) and the Willy Brandt Centre, Jerusalem (Petra Klose: social art project coordinator) the American Colony Concert Series’ 2019 Christmas concert on December 20th featured Trio Klavis (Austria) - Sabina Hasanova-piano, Jenny Lippl-violin and Miha Ferk-saxophone.


Welcoming the audience gathered in the exquisite Pasha Room of the hotel, Mr. Arno Mitterdorfer, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Tel Aviv, referred to the American Colony Hotel as a “gem” of a venue, a place of co-existence and an oasis of culture bringing together people of all walks of life. Mr. Mitterdorfer spoke of Trio Klavis as having already made a great impact on the Austrian musical scene. The Austrian Cultural Forum actively supports Austrian artists and their activities in Israel and the Palestinian territories.


For the festive event, the players chose works from four different countries and styles spanning the 18th- to 20th centuries. Trio Klavis members offered a few words on each item on the program. All the pieces had been adapted and arranged by Miha Ferk. The program opened with W.A.Mozart’s Kegelstatt Trio KV 498 (1786), originally scored for clarinet, viola and piano. It was first performed at the Jacquin residence in Vienna, where family and friends met weekly to enjoy time in discussion, games, and music-making. In the Kegelstatt Trio, originally performed there, Mozart played the viola part. The rumour that the piece was composed during an afternoon game of skittles - hence the nickname “Kegelstatt” (or playground for skittles, an old European variety of bowling) - remains unproven. But, whatever its origin, the work exudes a warm sense of contentment and delight. Despite their disparate instrumental combination and the fact that the saxophone is limited in how pianissimo it can play, the Klavis artists preserved the work’s Classical style, its Mozartian delicacy and elegance, its lively dialogues and its hearty sense of well-being. In the seven-part Rondo Allegretto, a reference to the concerto style, the virtuosic writing for all three instruments, accompanied by attentive listening on the part of all players, made for an exciting finale. 


Then to the Aria of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5, written in the 1940s when the composer was riding a wave of international recognition. It reflects his endeavour to create musical compositions using indigenous Brazilian elements together with his connections to the European tradition of such masters as J.S. Bach. The Trio Klavis instrumental setting would seem to be a far cry from that of No.5, which calls for eight 'cellos (Villa-Lobos' instrument) and soprano, using the voice both for traditional singing of words and for wordless vocalise. Trio Klavis’ interpretation of the piece  (with much octave playing between violin and saxophone) nevertheless evoked the exquisite, long-spun melodiousness and otherworldly mood of the ponderous opening, the work's central section calling to mind folk-song sensibility and Brazilian sensuousness, that of the poem by Brazilian writer Ruth Valadares Corrêa (who sang in its world premiere), the text being an ode to the moon's gentle rise against "the drowsy, beautiful firmament”. On the return of the first section, Ferk separates violin from saxophone, giving the mysterious moon-struck melody to the latter.


Not often heard is Dmitri Shostakovich’s Trio No.1 Op.8 in C minor, written when the composer was still a student; he scored it for violin, ‘cello and piano. Sabina Hasanova mentioned that the young Shostakovich had fallen in love in 1923 and that this single-movement work offers insight to this youthful experience, including the frustrations of relationships. The young lady concerned was a certain Tatyana Filvenko from Moscow, to whom the composer wrote: "It's dedicated to you, if you've no objections."   The Trio was first performed later that year at the Petrograd Conservatory, with Shostakovich at the keyboard joined by fellow students. Originally called "Poem for Violin, Violoncello and Fortepiano", this title might conceal the fact that the 17-year-old Shostakovich was already a master of form, weaving the work from a tight structure alluding to sonata-form. The Trio Klavis players’ presentation of it gave vivid expression to the play and contrast of the many aspects of this Romantic concert piece - its tenderness, its plaintive sentimentality, its huge variety of textures from featherweight utterances to heavy, urgent chordal clusters and sizable tutti, affectionate melodies and wild, tumultuous, dancelike sections. The artists took on board the technical challenges of the work, with Miha Ferk here engaging in a little more vibrato playing than in the two previous works.


In honour of the festive season, Trio Klavis performed “Forbidden Colours” from Ryuichi Sakamoto’s soundtrack to the 1983 British-Japanese war film “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”. Sabina Hasanova felt the item would be suitable to the many cultures of the people attending the concert. A mood piece, the artists created its initial dreamy soundscape and singing melodic lines, highlighting the subtle mix of Japanese- and western music, then to spiral into a more substantial texture. Sealing what was indeed a festive, moving and exhilarating event, the program concluded with an original composition of Miha Ferk, bearing the name of “Traubensaft” (Grape Juice), an exuberant, jazzy, virtuosic piece with extensive keyboard quotes from J.S.Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” punctuated by other elements, such as folk melodies from Ferk’s native Slovenia.


A unique and exceptional group of young musicians, the Trio Klavis artists each have outstanding and versatile individual careers. As an ensemble, they take on works of a great variety of styles, from music of the Classical period to premiering contemporary works of living composers, to performance of their own compositions. The Trio’s aim is to expand the repertoire for the unusual combination of violin, piano and saxophone. Its performance maintains the highest international standard, with all works played by heart. In the Trio’s 2016 debut album - “Geography of Sound” (Orlando Records) - the artists play classical works influenced by folk music from around the world. Trio Klavis has been chosen to be NASOM (New Austrian Sound of Music) artists for 2020-2021. 

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Schubert's "Winterreise" performed by three women singers in a new production of Shirit Lee Weiss at the Israeli Opera

In 1827, one year before his death, Franz Schubert set texts by Wilhelm Müller to music, giving rise to “Winterreise” (Winter’s Journey). It was composed almost entirely using minor keys, its mournful character reflecting some of the personal trauma that Schubert himself was experiencing at the time. What Schubert introduced to his friends at a private performance as a “cycle of terrifying songs” has become one of the most performed- and recorded song cycles. German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s interpretation of it was to form a major association with the work for many years. He made his first commercial recording of it with Gerald Moore in 1955 and was to make more recordings - with Jörg Demus, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel and a final version in 1990, with Murray Perahia. But other great artists have since made their mark on reading into “Winterreise”; the work has also inspired some less-conventional presentations, reworkings and arrangements, such as the tensely atmospheric performance by German tenor Julian Prégardien (and his father Christoph) with the controversial Hans Zender’s arrangement of Schubert’s piano part for small orchestra of classical instruments, with the addition of accordion, saxophone, xylophone and wind machine. “Winterreise” has also been performed with dance. Controversial as hearing women performing a text associated with a male protagonist might be, the song cycle has been recorded by such prominent women singers as Lotte Lehman, Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender. But what about the feasibility of hearing it sung by three women? Curiosity as to this concept drew a sizable audience to an event of the Israeli Opera’s Chamber Music Series in Tel Aviv on December 19th 2019 to hear sopranos Hila Baggio and Yael Levita, mezzo-soprano Hagar Sharvit and pianist Yael Karet in a production of Schubert’s “Winterreise”; the theatrical dimension was directed by Shirit Lee Weiss. 


The stage of the Israeli Opera’s small hall was bare, save for some snowflakes, the only props being three chairs, with the piano at one side. The songs of the cycle were performed in their original order; there were no changes to the piano score. As the piano opened the cycle evoking the steps of the burdened protagonist leaving the town of his beloved, it was accompanied by the sounds of breathing, the three singers slowly moving forward, perhaps symbolically approaching the audience to invite us to join them on what was to be a powerful, impassioned journey. “Winterreise” does not have a clear plot. The emphasis is on thoughts and emotions: fear, loneliness and pain, but also on love, dreams and hope. No mere accompaniment, Schubert’s piano score is part-and-parcel of the work, setting the scene for each song, closing each miniature scene, commenting, endorsing, indeed, sometimes adding wisdom to what the protagonist does not manage to observe in his dire predicament. At the Tel Aviv performance, each song text was sung either by one singer or divided among the three. There was, however, no doubling of the vocal line - only the occasional mouthing of words at the conclusion of a specific song by the two not singing, seemingly validating a gesture. What was indisputable was the depth of enquiry into the meaning and emotion of each song undertaken by each of the singers and reinforced by articulate diction. (For non-German speakers, translation into Hebrew was projected onto a screen.)  But what was ground-breaking about Shirit Lee Weiss’s production was that (in contrast to the protagonist’s predicament of being totally alone to deal with his plight in a wintry European landscape) here we are presented with the emotional interactions of three women to each other. As dictated by each Lied, their reactions and actions fluctuated between support, affection, empathy, pain, anger, horror, frustration and rejection, indicated not only by their singing but also by their body language, their facial expressions mirroring each turn of emotion of the verbal- and musical texts. It was a very physical performance, adding a whole new dimension to Schubert’s “Winterreise”, yet leaving the incomparable work unchanged, unmarred and as real, as moving and as disturbing as the songs (in the composer’s own words to his circle of artist friends) that “have affected me more than any others”,  but now presented on a new, differently personal but communal niveau.


Yael Levita, Hila Baggio and Hagar Sharvit display lush, fresh vocal timbres, a wide emotional range and innate musicality. All opera soloists on the Israeli- and international scene, they engage well with the Lied genre. Musical director and pianist of the production, Yael Karet has appeared widely with orchestras and singers in Israel and overseas. Today, she works in several capacities at the Israeli Opera and is a member of the Israeli Chamber Project. Her playing of the piano role in the “Winterreise” project was judicious in timing, insightful and sensitive, creating the mood and soundscape of each song and generating a consolidated and dedicated joint performance. Since her return from the USA, Shirit Lee Weiss has done much opera directing in Israel; she also teaches acting on the opera stage. Her stage direction of “Winterreise” was resourceful and original, poignant and powerful in its use of understatement. And the Israeli Opera’s small hall allows for audience and performers to engage at close proximity. A new and daring approach to Romantic vocal music, the Tel Aviv performance constituted a fruitful encounter of five outstanding home-grown artists. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

"In the Shadow of Dictatorship" - the Israel Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Yaron Gottfried, performs works of Ginastera, de Falla and Brecht/Weill

Keren Hadar (Chaya Zel)

“In the Shadow of Dictatorship”, a recent concert of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, took place in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on December 14th, 2019. It was conducted by Yaron Gottfried; soloists were mezzo-soprano Merav Eldan and soprano Keren Hadar.


The program opened with “Variaciones concertantes”, by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. (1916-1983). Written in 1953, the instrumental work stems from the composer’s so-called “subjective nationalistic” period, his earlier music being overtly nationalistic in character. Ginastera had been awarded a Guggenheim scholarship to study in the United States in 1942, but this was delayed until the war ended in 1945, when he then left for studies in New York and Tanglewood. The years following his return to Argentina were marked by periodic run-ins with the Peron regime until Peron's overthrow in 1955. Referring to the “Variaciones concertantes”, Ginastera wrote: “These variations have a subjective Argentine character. Instead of using folkloristic material, I try to achieve an Argentine atmosphere through the employment of my own thematic and rhythmic elements…”  Following its opening of “open string” sounds on the harp and a plangent ‘cello solo, the work launches into eleven richly different variations, from bright, rhythmic, bombastic tutti to calm, darker, intimate variations, the latter, at times bordering on the “otherworldly”, with the full weight of the orchestra apparent in the sweeping final “malambo” (Argentinian folk-dance).  A master of this form, Ginastera’s piece offers a considerable challenge to the players, as the work mixes homophonic-, dissonant- and jazzy elements. (There was one moment where associations of the brandishing of swords from Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” came to mind.) With Ginastera relating to all the instruments of the orchestra in their soloistic capacity, the work’s many solos for flute, viola, ‘cello, harp, oboe, violin, horn and bassoon etc. offered the audience the opportunity of hearing rewarding individual playing on the part of several of the ICO’s players. 


Then to the concert version of Manuel de Falla’s 1914-1915 ballet “El amor brujo” (Love, the Magician). Distinctly nationalistic in style, it is one of the great works of an era that was characterized by a keen interest in indigenous folk music as the basis for concert compositions. Distilled from Gypsy “cante jondo” (vocal folk style), Andalusian melodies and rhythms, flamenco and other aspects of the Spanish “melos”, it is set in Andalusia and revolves around the heroine of the ballet, Candelas, who has been in love with a dashing gypsy, recently dead. He lives on in her memory and keeps returning to haunt her. Maestro Gottfried gave precision, exuberance and Spanish flair to de Falla’s soundscape - its terse, fiery dances, its moments of tender melancholy and explicit sentimentality. The Ritual Fire Dance, an audience favourite, emerged guileful, exciting and exhilarating. Singing Gregorio Martinez Sierra’s tragic libretto, mezzo-soprano Merav Eldan, a singer as comfortable in contemporary, avant-garde solo works as she is in opera, captured the spirit of the work, its raw emotion, its vocal style, its specific timbre (engaging ample chest voice) and gestures, as well as  the vehement sentiments of Candela, the young gypsy woman. With the vocal line plunging into alto territory, Eldan’s lower register was obviously not as substantial as that of an alto singer. 


Among the most creative and outsized personalities of the Weimar Republic, that sizzling yet decadent epoch between the Great War and the Nazis' rise to power, were the renegade poet Bertolt Brecht and the rebellious avant-garde composer Kurt Weill. Together, they created a new style of topical opera that focused on contemporary political and social issues and that had none of the elitism which marked the established theatre of the time.  It mirrored the decadence and unfulfilled hopes of a temporary oasis in German history, reawakening a lost era that engaged in issues of tolerance, sexual questions and political uncertainty. Weill and Brecht’s works endorsed the fact that contemporary values were suspect and that that the individual needed to find a way to exist without values. Following intermission at the ICO concert, soprano Keren Hadar’s appearance on stage transformed the venue to that of a Berlin cabaret of the 1920s and ‘30s, Hadar’s versatile stage ability and  large, flexible palette of vocal colours came together to give compelling expression to the tough lives and emotions of downtrodden women as portrayed  by Jenny and her fellow prostitutes in “Alabama Song” (sung in the original English), in “Pirate Jenny”, in which Polly sings a song of female vengeance about Jenny, a poor, lowly maid who was mocked and mistreated by the townspeople and to Hadar’s vehement, heartfelt presentation of the woman’s  anger, hurt and her remaining  tender love for heartless, lying “Surabaya Johnny”. Some of the songs were sung to Dan Almagor’s insightful Hebrew translations. And to the "Ballad Of The Soldier's Wife": Keren Hadar sits at a small table, examining a host of pretty boxes as she sings of the various gifts sent to his lady by the soldier from Prague, Oslo, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Bucharest and, finally, the widow’s veil sent to her from Russia.  A poignant touch was the inclusion of Dan Almagor’s own addition to the song, describing shat the soldier sent from Auschwitz. Treated with understated and spine-chilling delicacy, this was musical theatre at its best.  “September Song”, Kurt Weill’s song to lyrics by Maxwell Anderson from the 1938 Broadway musical production of “Knickerbocker Holiday”, provided a lyrical and touching moment of relief to the intensity of the previous songs. The bracket concluded with a polished performance of "The Ballad of Mack the Knife" (Hebrew: Avraham Shlonsky) from “The Threepenny Opera”, Hadar’s singing of it offering a nonchalantly breezy, wink-of-an-eye account of a brutal murderer. The ultimate artist to perform these formidable songs, Keren Hadar had the audience at the edge of its seats, as she gave the songs her theatrical and musical all, punctuating them with occasional quips on local underworld matters and politics. Maestro Gottfried’s vibrant and finely-detailed performance of Benny Nagari’s skilful orchestrations was enriched by instrumental solo moments, especially notable being those on the part of the saxophonist. Jenny was to feature just once again, this time in Keren Hadar’s encore - "The Saga of Jenny" - a droll number written for a 1941 Broadway musical  by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, the song referred to by the latter as "a sort of blues bordello".  


An evening of outstanding performance, interest and enjoyment.


Merav Eldan (Chaya Zel)

Thursday, December 12, 2019

At the Willy Brandt Centre - "Impossible Grace", an evening rememberung Indian poet Meena Alexander; music for solo flute

Meena Alexander (courtesy WBC)

“Impossible Grace”, an evening focusing on the writing and personality of Indian poet Meena Alexander, took place in the intimate setting of the Willy Brandt Centre, Jerusalem, on December 6th 2019. Moderated by Petra Klose, the centre’s Social Art Project coordinator, we heard several of Alexander’s poems read by Karen Alkalay-Gut, with interludes played by flautist Michal Tikotzki. 


Petra Klose, who had known Meena Alexander personally, spoke of the evening’s event as marking a year of the poet’s death, adding interesting biographical information on the poet, as well as personal memories of their meetings in Jerusalem and Alexander’s strong ties with students and with Jerusalem. Born in Allahabad, India, Mary Elizabeth Alexander (who always went by the name of Meena, eventually changing it officially) was raised in Kerala and Sudan, also spending time in Europe and the United States. In New York, she was distinguished professor of English at Hunter College and at the City University of New York. She earned a BA at Khartoum University and a PhD at Nottingham University. Described as “undoubtedly one of the finest poets of contemporary times” (The Statesman, India), she was the author of numerous collections of poetry, including “Atmospheric Embroidery” (2018), “Birthplace with Buried Stones” (2013), and “Illiterate Heart” (2002),  two novels and a memoir - “Fault Lines” (1993). Her poetry, which has been translated into several languages, explores themes of feminism, post-colonialism, migration and dislocation, memory and reconciliation, also revealing the search for identity that came from the peripatetic life she led.


Several of Meena Alexander’s poems were read by Karen Alkalay-Gut. Each beginning introduced a subject, then to burgeon into an astoundingly vivid, sensual myriad of almost-visual images, fragmentary memories of childhood and reflections on her experience of a mix of different traditions, moments of joy, of loss or fear, the poet's observation of situations presented with resignation, sometimes drawn together by questions to herself. “Refuge”, for example, is a rich canvas highly representative of the breadth of Alexander’s evocative writing:


“Under my skin

In syllables untranslatable

With blue from the backs of snails

Plucked from the Dead Sea

I have marked the name of God,

On my wrists where the blood trembles

On the delicate skin of my throat

On my eyelids shaped

Like fishes I have pricked and pierced

With my pen…

I have kissed the eyes of the child

Who fell off a fishing boat

Who barely floated, who swallowed

Sand and could not breathe.

I have unlaced his red shoes

And set them by his side

I have knelt by his shoes

And watched them fill

With the breath of the Unnameable

And foam from the breakers

Of the Mediterranean sea.

I want him to live with me

In a house made of wind and water

And sky. Who am I?

“Shook Silver”, a colourful picture of shipboard life through childhood memories, represents the poet’s recurring descriptions of journeys and change of location: 

“I was a child on the Indian Ocean.

Deck-side we dance in a heat- haze,

Toes squirm under silver wings.

Under burlap someone weeps.

Amma peers out of the porthole,

Sari stitched with bits of saffron,

Watch out for flying fish

She cries.

Our boat is bound for Africa…”


Explaining the value of her art, Alexander had said: “The poem is an invention that exists in spite of history. We have poetry so we do not die of history".  Karen Alkalay-Gut’s reading of the poems was crystalline and objective, profound and meaningful, as she took time to unfold each idea, each gesture, thus enabling the audience to hear every word and process the wealth of detail, to engage in the power of language of each poem. 


Meena Alexander’s poetry lends itself to music. Indeed, some of her poems have been set to music. In an interview for the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, she was asked what superpower she would most like to possess. Her answer was: “Always hearing the music that allows the poems to flow.” Interspersed between the poems at the Willy Brandt Centre event, pieces performed by flautist Michal Tikotzki invited the listener to pause, to listen, to think, indeed, to savour some of the finest works written for solo flute.  Her playing of G.P.Telemann’s Fantasie No.3 for flute solo, set in the plangent key of B minor, was pensive, imaginative and sonorous, tastefully embellished, its Allegro abounded in good cheer and humour. In keeping with Baroque performance practice, Tikotzki (playing a modern flute) was as economical in her use of vibrato in the Telemann as she was in the ensuing Sarabande from J.S.Bach’s Partita in A minor, this played with exquisitely shaped phrases and spontaneity, as the artist showed the listener through one of Bach’s most beguiling and aristocratic pieces. And then there is “Syrinx”, the 1913 ground-breaking, quintessentially French piece for solo flute, composed by Claude Debussy for the last act of Gabriel Mourey’s dramatic poem “Psyche”. The nymph Syrinx is pursued by the god Pan; not returning his sentiments, she hides from him by turning herself into a reed. Tikotzki’s playing of the piece was evocative, lush and sensuous, as she took time to recreate its natural course, its sense of the unexpected, tinging it with dynamic flexibility, the piece’s long final note gradually dying away to leave the listener deep in thought.


Concluding the event with a reminder of Meena Alexander’s connection and involvement with the diversity and complexity of Jerusalem, Petra Klose reminisced about an evening at the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City in January of 2012 she and Meena Alexander spent listening to a recording of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto and discussing life, philosophy and music, following which the poet penned “Impossible Grace”,  weaving a set of miniature- and richly-coloured vignettes, each set at one of the gates of the city:

“At Herod’s gate

I heap flowers in a crate

Poppies, moist lilies—

It’s dusk, I wait.

Wild iris—

The color of your eyes before you were born

That hard winter

And your mother brought you to Damascus gate…

At Zion’s gate I knelt and wept.

An old man, half lame—

He kept house in Raimon’s café,

Led me to the fountain

At Golden gate

Where rooftops ring with music

I glimpse your face.

You have a coat of many colors—impossible grace.”


Retired professor from Tel Aviv University, Karen Alkalay-Gut has published much poetry in different languages as well as articles on poetry. Her most recent collection was awarded the Leyb Rubinlicht Prize for Yiddish Literature. She has appeared around the world, including at the Library of Congress, the University of Innsbruck and the Israel Festival, Jerusalem.


Solo flautist of the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra and a member of the Israel Contemporary Players, Michal Tikotzki studied at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Berlin University of the Arts and the Geneva Conservatoire de Musique. She has played and soloed with orchestras worldwide and is the recipient of several awards and scholarships.

Karen Alkalay-Gut(

Michal Tikotzki, Petra Klose (photo:Jost Weisenfeld)


Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Jerusalem Opera's latest production - "Rigoletto" - offers audiences pleasure and high-quality performance

Photo courtesy Jerusalem Opera
Following its recent successful production of Gounod’s “La Colombe”, the Jerusalem Opera’s tenth major production was Verdi’s “Rigoletto”. With stage direction by Gabriele Ribis (Italy), local and guest soloists, male singers of the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir (conductor: Ronen Borshevsky) and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra were conducted by Omer Arieli, the Jerusalem Opera’s musical director. This writer attended the performance in the Sherover Theatre of the Jerusalem Theatre on December 5th 2019. Established in 2011, the Jerusalem Opera’s goals are presenting opera productions of the highest quality in Jerusalem and the promotion of Israeli artists.


Never one to shy away from powerful political statements, Giuseppe Verdi created “Rigoletto” to expose the debauchery of the aristocracy and to condemn others supporting it.  With a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, its content largely based on Victor Hugo’s controversial play “Le Roi s’amuse” (1832), the opera takes us to the court of the Duke of Mantua, a diehard womanizer who shows little respect for human dignity. Rigoletto, his court jester, makes a point of encouraging the Duke’s immoral behaviour and mocking the victims of his endless lust. But Rigoletto keeps secret the identity of his only daughter, Gilda, whom he wishes to protect from the immorality of the court. Soon enough, however, she also falls for the Duke’s vices and Rigoletto plans a personal vendetta which misfires tragically. Despite the strong pressure of the moral and religious censorship of the time, “Rigoletto” premiered in March 1851 at La Fenice in Venice. It was received with great enthusiasm and, by 1861, the opera had already enjoyed close to 300 performances and was to go down in history as one of Verdi’s most enduring successes. 


As the opera begins, the Sherover Theatre stage (designer - Enzo Iorio) displays a tall, imposing, not-unattractive scaffolding-like structure, featuring staircases on either side. The group- or crowd scenes take place at ground level, whereas the more illicit actions (mostly the Duke’s womanizing) take place high up on the top level, perhaps representing the place of the lower classes and that of the nobility or “out of sight, out of mind”. Indeed, with the opening crowd scene - colourful, alive with action, strong utterances and suggestive women dancers - Ribis makes clear the state of a divided society and its corrupt regime. Portraying Gilda was Veronika Brook. Born in Estonia in 1990, she studied in the Ukraine before immigrating to Israel in 2014. Her fresh, young, girlish appearance and bright, agile coloratura voice served her well in the role of Gilda. Indeed, one of the evening’s highlights was her duet with her father, (“Figlia! ... Mio padre!”) No new face to the Jerusalem Opera, St. Petersburg-born bass Denis Sedov was imposing as the murderous thief Sparafucile who is enlisted to kill the Duke, with Russian-born bass-baritone Yuri Kissin, in his fourth Jerusalem Opera production, playing Count Monterone with due intensity; it is the latter who casts the awful curse that misfires so tragically. Italian-born Matteo Falcier, one of the most interesting Italian tenors of his generation, combining a fine measure of flair, charisma and devil-may-care nonchalance with the delightful buoyancy of voice, made for a fine representation of the womanizing Duke, as he sealed the role with a winning “La donna e mobile”. And then there is Rigoletto himself. It is a known fact that Verdi was particularly intrigued by the buffoon’s tragic character. His misfortune begins when Gilda falls into the Duke’s seductive trap, then to be murdered. Italian baritone Domenico Balzani’s study of the Rigoletto character (here a somewhat lame man rather than the original hunch-back) is convincing and moving, his vocal colour and body language reflecting the humiliation he undergoes and the degree to which he becomes consumed with the desire for revenge. Altogether, it was a performance of outstanding singing and theatre.


Maestro Omer Arieli gave full credit to Verdi’s music as he led the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in playing that was suave, rich in instrumental colour, delicately-shaped and beautifully balanced, with fine-tuned attention to each singer, duet and ensemble. The male sections of the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir added to the performance’s beauty, displaying refined phrasing and highlighting verbal texts with incisive enunciation of textures. Costumes (Shira Wise) were tasteful, with a vivid play of colour in the crowd scenes. And as far as the opera's emotions are concerned, “Rigoletto” has them all - starry-eyed young love, human weaknesses and drives, fatal attraction, the love of a father for his daughter, deviance, hatred, scheming, revenge, malice and heartbreak. Moving seamlessly between the glittering palace of the ruling class and the gritty squalor of those who struggle in servitude, Verdi’s thrilling melodrama boasts complex characters, an action-packed plot and unforgettable music.  At the end of his life, Giuseppe Verdi considered “Rigoletto" his most beautiful and accomplished opera. Moving from strength to strength, the Jerusalem Opera’s production indeed reinforced Verdi’s conjecture in performance that was alive, involving and polished.  


Domenico Balzani - Rigoletto - courtesy Jerusalem Opera

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Romanian artists join the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in a gala concert to celebrate the 2019 National Day of Romania

Photo: Silvia Golan
In Israel, the Romanian Cultural Institute (Tel Aviv) organizes an annual event for Romania’s national day - December 1st. The 2019 celebration was festive in a different way, thanks to the new collaboration between the Institute and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. So, on December 1st, with members of the JSO seated on the stage, the Jerusalem Theatre’s Henry Crown Hall filled to capacity for an evening of music by Romanian composers, performed by Romanian conductor Ionit Pascu, six soloists from Romanian opera houses and a Romanian panpipe player. Mr. Yair Stern, chairman and CEO of the JSO, opened the event with words of welcome, to be followed by Mr. Marton Salamon, director of Romanian Cultural Institute, Tel Aviv, who spoke of the new connection forged with the JSO as the beginning of a felicitous collaboration. He explained the nature of the evening’s program - mostly older Romanian songs in new settings as reappraised by Maestro Pascu.


A composer whose songs featured on the program was Gherase Dendrino (1901-1973) who wrote the operetta “Lăsați-mă să cânt” (Let me sing!)  in celebration of 100 years of Ciprian Porumbescu’s birth. It revolves around the figure of Porumbescu himself, the first Romanian composer to have ever written an operetta that would be performed and published; Porumbescu called his work “Crai nou” [New Moon]. We heard two arias from Porumbescu’s operetta. Figuring largely throughout the program were songs of Tiberiu Brediceanu (1877-1968), who had served as general manager of the Bucharest Opera House. His compendium included songs and ballads, he published a collection of 170 folk melodies and wrote several works based on Romanian folk songs. The evening was filled with much popular- and operetta repertoire - stirring solos, duets and ensembles - works clearly familiar to- and heartily enjoyed by audience members of Romanian origin, but also attractive to others of us to whom the repertoire was new. The songs were presented by six of Romania’s most prominent singers - sopranos Mirela Grădinaru, Madeleine Pasen and Aida Pascu, mezzo-soprano Alina Dragnea, tenor Andrei Manea and bass Ștefan Ignat. 


Adding colour and pizzazz to the evening was Dalila Cernătescu’s virtuosic playing of the Romanian pan pipes. Unfortunately, we did not hear enough of renowned classical guitarist Bogdan Mihăilescu, with his playing drowned out by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra’s exuberant sound. Cheerfully leading all throughout the evening was Maestro Ionut Pascu, a baritone soloist at the Bucharest National Opera who also performs in opera houses in Europe, China and South Korea. As of 2011, he has soloed extensively with the Israeli Opera. 


Saturday, November 30, 2019

Israeli pianist Ishay Shaer in a beguiling solo recital at the Israel Conservatory, Tel Aviv

Photo: Jurriaan Brobber

With the Israel Conservatory’s Chamber Music Series moving into its 31st season, the opening event of the Piano Series featured Israeli artist Ishay Shaer in a solo recital on November 23rd 2019. 


Ishay Shaer opened the recital with Robert Schumann’s “Kinderszenen” (Scenes of Childhood) Op. 15. Thirteen pieces chosen by the composer from a set of thirty he had written, the work was a gift to Clara Wieck in 1838, two years before they were finally married. It came with Schumann’s message to her that she should laugh at the titles but take their performance seriously, adding “you will have to forget yourself as a virtuoso”. Regarding the considerable discussion around the pieces as to whether the “Kinderszenen” were written for children or adults, Schumann himself described them as being reminiscences of an older person to be played to adults, but did not deny that several children were in his mind when composing them. Shaer’s playing of the “Kinderszenen” showed deep enquiry into the nature of each piece, his spontaneous and personal playing in “Of Foreign Lands and Peoples” inviting the listener to join him in the richly poetic world of Schumann’s miniatures and the Romantic piano. Hearty gestures brimming with a sense of delight and well-being pervaded such pieces as “Quite Happy”, “At the Fireside” and “Almost Too Earnest”, with vigour, whim and incisive finger-work firing the playing and musical games of “A Curious Story”,  “Blind Man’s Bluff” and “Frightening”; noble festivity dominated “An Important Event”, with young, joyful, unbridled energy breaking out in “Knight of the Hobby-Horse”. Shaer’s playing of “Träumerei” (Dreaming), often referred to as the centrepiece of the work, was cantabile and fragile but (happily) free of the too frequently heard sugar-coated interpretations of the piece. Instead, he lures the listener into discovering where each same phrase-beginning will lead, both melodically and harmonically. Following his pensive and tender playing of “Child Falling Asleep”, Shaer draws together the work’s threads with “The Poet Speaks”, his playing suggesting rumination, wonder and the posing of philosophical questions, all exquisitely phrased and coloured with his generous but deft use of the sustaining pedal. 


From the wide-eyed world of the child to life seen through the eyes of an adult reviewing the contrasting states of human existence in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor Op.111 (1822).  For the composer’s last piano sonata and one of his last compositions for piano, it engages the tonality of C minor, a key he reserved for works of unusual intensity. The sonata opens with a fast-moving, contrapuntally rich sonata-form movement in C minor, with just one ensuing movement - a slow-moving, harmonically-anchored set of variations in C major. Shaer’s playing of the opening movement takes on board not only its “Maestoso” marking but no less what follows - “Allegro con brio ed appassionato” - as he sets the scene with stark, jagged leaps and raw utterances, engages in the movement’s extremes of mood and gives articulacy to its canonic writing, dovetailing all into a restless, uncompromising and unpredictable canvas, the first movement’s end finding peace cushioned in the major key. (I never cease to be puzzled by Beethoven’s claim that his last two sonatas were “not very difficult”).  Shaer takes time to spell out the subject of the Arietta, taking the listener with him into the inner workings of Beethoven’s mind and into the composer’s daring, imaginatively-wrought and liberated concept of variations. No gesture goes unnoticed by this artist. Tension and lyricism alternate as the music explores the extremes of high and low registers and of both sounding simultaneously, the movement’s copious trills luring, exhilarating, crystalline and never static. Shaer’s playing of the Arietta was fresh, imaginative and seamless.


Franz Liszt had a particular liking for the music of Franz Schubert, considering him to be “the most poetic musician who ever lived”.  From 1833 to 1846 Liszt transcribed 58 of Schubert’s Lieder for piano solo, performing them during his years of concert touring, taking them out of their original intimate music salon venue and bringing them to the public concert platform. In “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) from Goethe’s “Faust”, Shaer creates a sotto voce whirring effect of the spinning wheel, staging the song’s agenda against it, with the love-struck Gretchen’s anxiety mostly remaining under wraps till the climax of the song when the whirring stops dramatically and startlingly, to then resume as the work then describes in haunting tones the distracted Gretchen lost in thought. Shaer’s performance of it was so gripping and affecting that one tended to ignore the stringent technical challenges facing the pianist in such a virtuosic arrangement. And then to a narrator's reflections on the passing of Schubert’s “Auf dem Wasser zu singen” (To sing on the water), with Shaer’s spellbinding touch descriptive of shimmering water as the poet likens the flight of the soul to the gliding of the boat. The song melody is woven through the gentle movement of the water - first in the tenor, then the alto, and finally the soprano voice - as the work builds up with increasing intensity of colour through the three verses. An extraordinary performance and so poignant even without Graf Friedrich Leopold zu Stolberg-Stolberg’s lyrics...or was it?


The recital concluded with Maurice Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit” (Devil of the Night), three tone poems inspired and derived from vivid and macabre poems by the French Romantic poet Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841). First performed in 1909, Ravel himself called them “three romantic poems of transcendental virtuosity”; indeed, they constitute one of the most highly original, imaginative, evocative and technically difficult works in the entire piano repertoire. The first piece portrays Ondine, a beautiful, contriving water sprite who aims to attract mortal men to her magical kingdom through seductive singing. Served by agile, filigree-fine finger-work, Shaer’s playing, negotiating the movement’s many augmented chords, tremolos, arpeggios, and arabesques, creates a mood piece of luminosity and buoyancy, of cascading figures, delicacy and multi-layered tutti, its textures threaded with fine-spun melodic voices. Never rising above mezzo-piano, “Le Gibet” (The Gallows), with its eerie, unrelenting b-flat octave bell tolling ever present, emerged bleak, sparse and spine-chilling, yet richly dissonant. Shaer’s playing of “Scarbo” (The Gremlin), volatile, violent, and brimming with nervous energy, bristles with a myriad of finely-shaped motifs, with prudent timing between gestures and innumerable contrasts, representing the malicious, grotesque dwarf who changes his shape, size and colour at will.  With its repeated notes and two frantic climaxes, this is the crowning point of technical difficulty of the three movements. A veritable tour-de-force, it likes to take you by surprise as it signs out in a puff of smoke! Ravel reportedly said about Scarbo: “I wanted to write an orchestral transcription for the piano.”


Born in 1983, Ishay Shaer is one of today’s leading young Israeli pianists. He has performed in Europe, the UK, South America and the USA to great critical acclaim and has won both national- and international prizes. He began piano studies at age seven with Mrs. Hanna Barzilai, later studying under Dr. Asaf Zohar, Prof. Tomer Lev and Prof. Arie Vardi, with further instruction from artists such as Daniel Barenboim, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Murray Perahia and Matti Raekallio. In November 2017, Shaer released an album dedicated to late solo piano works of Beethoven (Orchid Classics), garnering glowing reviews. In recent years, he has established himself as a reputable chamber music performer, collaborating with renowned artists and chamber ensembles.