Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The Carmel Quartet closes its 2018-2019 "Strings and More" lecture-concert series with "Content and Contexts"

Rachel Ringelstein,Tali Goldberg,Tami Waterman,Yoel Greenberg (Photo:Michael Pavia)
The Carmel Quartet’s last concert for the 2018-2019 Strings and More lecture-concert series will focus on  “Content and Contexts”. Presented by its director and violist Dr. Yoel Greenberg, the quartet members will discuss and perform two works - Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 50 No. 3 and Schubert String Quartet in A Minor, D. 804 “Rosamunde”. Established in 1999, the internationally-renowned Carmel Quartet is one of the longest-standing and most versatile chamber ensembles in Israel. Dedicated to offering more to concert-goers than just fine performance, the quartet established “Strings and More” in 2007, a concert series with explanations and commentaries, enriching the listening experience by placing  compositions performed within a wider cultural context. The series is directed by Yoel Greenberg, with the other quartet members — Rachel Ringelstein, Tali Goldberg and Tami Waterman — enhancing the explanations with theatrical excerpts and literary examples. Occasionally including  guest artists, the series has enjoyed both critical- and popular acclaim. The lecture-concerts take place in five centres around Israel. The Carmel Quartet offers its Jerusalem English-speaking audience and non-Hebrew speakers an extra treat - events of the series held  in English, and in excellent English, at that! It is true that English is the current dominant lingua franca of international diplomacy, business, science, technology and aviation, but let’s face it: we English speakers, however long we have been living in Israel, just find a musical event held in English so very agreeable!

Content and Contexts
Presented in English by Dr. Yoel Greenberg
Haydn String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 50 No. 3
Schubert String Quartet in A Minor, D. 804 “Rosamunde”
Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim
Wednesday 26.6.19 at 20:00
In Hebrew:
Zichron Ya’akov: Sunday 23.6.19 at 20:00
Jerusalem: Tuesday 25.6.19 at 20:00
Haifa: Thursday 27.6.19 at 20:00
Tel Aviv: Friday 28.6.19 at 11a.m.
Tickets: 058-5853353 | www.CarmelQuartet.com | 135/120 NIS


Monday, May 27, 2019

From Darkness to Light - the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir's annual gala concert in works of Harlap and Haydn

Photo: Luba Tenavskaya
“From Darkness to Light”, the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir’s annual gala performance, took place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on May 21st 2019. Conducting singers of the five Oratorio choirs, the Jerusalem Street Orchestra and vocal soloists Adaya Peled (soprano), Hillel Sherman (tenor) and Yair Polishook (baritone) was Dor Magen.


The first half of the program consisted of Aharon Harlap’s “Requiem” for soprano and baritone soloists, four-part mixed choir and orchestra. Premiered in Jerusalem in 2017, the work is the composer’s homage to family, friends and mentors who have passed on; Harlap has dedicated it to his friend and colleague Prof. Stanley Sperber. The texts chosen for the  seven movements of the work were taken from the traditional Latin Requiem but include only those sections bearing content common to both the Jewish- and Christian religions. As to its style, the music is mostly minor/modal, its broadly sweeping melodic lines, some strengthened by parallel octave doubling, enriched with lush autumnal harmonies. Choir and soloists weave the melodic thread in and out of the work’s seamless fabric; Harlap’s orchestral writing, robust, highly coloured, rich in his use of winds, was undertaken with flying colours by the Jerusalem Street Orchestra (director: Ido Shpitalnik). It is as sumptuous as his vocal writing, endorsing the work’s almost consistently dark, intense and soul-searching agenda. Under Magen’s direction, the Oratorio singers achieved a splendidly blended and coordinated choral sound, with luxuriance of timbre present at the work’s introspective and haunting junctures as well as in its most impassioned tutti. Soprano Adaya Peled gave an impressive and competent performance, her voice rich, stable and clean as she convincingly engaged in the work’s emotional content.  Appropriating his rich and varied palette of vocal colours to the profound meaning of the Requiem text, Yair Polishook’s performance was powerful and credible - at times dramatic and momentous, at others, brighter, compassionate and reassuring. Originally from Canada, composer, conductor and teacher Aharon Harlap (b.1941), in Israel since 1964, does not mix his messages. His writing is eloquent, direct and real, drawing musicians and listeners alike into its compelling and uncompromising subject matter.


In 1802, Joseph Haydn wrote:  ‘Often, when I was struggling with all kinds of obstacles... a secret voice whispered to me: “There are so few happy and contented people in this world; sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source from which the careworn... will for a while derive peace and refreshment.”’ For Oratorio’s joint choir concert, only sections relating to the subject of light were performed from “The Creation”. Haydn’s sublime work, depicting a benign, rationally-ordered universe, with its essentially optimistic view of humanity and non-moralistic tone, was a musical masterpiece perfectly attuned to the spirit of Georgian England and Vienna of the 1790s, but, in all its radiant guilelessness, it is no less appealing to audiences of our times. From the first strains of the orchestral prelude - “Representation of Chaos” - as striking an evocation of the mysterious void of the universe as one might find in classical repertoire (followed by the unforgettable effect of chaos festively ceding to light shining through a C major chord)  the Jerusalem Street Orchestra  displayed Haydn’s bold use of orchestral colour and adventurous harmony, descriptively supporting the verbal text throughout.  In setting Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s libretto (here and there stamped with the Dutch-born diplomat’s shaky grasp of English)  sung by Oratorio in the English version (its text, to all intents and purposes, is bilingual), Haydn’s music abounds in word-painting; more potent use of consonants, especially at word endings, would have highlighted the oratorio’s  many onomatopoeic effects, as, for example, in the chorus:

“Despairing cursing rage attends their rapid fall  

A new-created world springs up at God's command.”

The three soloists, representing the archangels Gabriel (soprano-Adaya Peled), Uriel (tenor-Hillel Sherman) and Raphael (baritone-Yair Polishook), their duets and trios producing compelling moments, gave expression to Haydn’s intentionally florid, lofty style, with Sherman engaging his rich, burnished voice in the lion's share of the arias. The choir endorsed the work’s life-affirming message with timbral warmth and vivacity. Kudos to conductor Dor Magen, whose innate musicianship, attention to detail and dedication brought choir, orchestra and soloists together in an evening of satisfying performance.


The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir is the largest choral enterprise in Israel, consisting of 150 amateur and professional singers. It has appeared with Israel’s leading orchestras and at major Israeli festivals. In July 2017, Oratorio’s Chamber Choir took part in the 5th European Festival of Jewish Choral Music in St. Petersburg. Starting out as a violinist and trombonist, Dor Magen studied conducting with Evgeny Tzirlin, Avner Biron and Stanley Sperber. He has sung in major vocal ensembles. His musical arrangements have been performed by orchestras and singers.


Established in 2013 by Ido Shpitalnik, the Jerusalem Street Orchestra is a classic chamber orchestra comprised of graduates of Jerusalem’s Music Academy. What makes it different from other orchestras is that it performs in open-air public spaces, presenting concerts that combine classical music with orchestral arrangements of popular music, with the objective of .making classical- and orchestral  music accessible to new audiences. 


Friday, May 24, 2019

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin": the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra hosts mandolin players Mari Carmen Simon (Spain) and Jacob Reuven in works of Italian composers and J.S.Bach

Photo: Yoel Levy
In “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, British writer Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novel, the person plucking the strings of the mandolin is an Italian World War II army officer by the name of Antonio Corelli. In the story he is, however a descendent of the Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli. Titled “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”, Concert No.5 of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra’s 2018-2019 subscription season hosted duo-mandolin artists Mari Carmen Simon (Spain) and Jacob Reuven. The JBO’s strings (with theorbo: Bari Moscovitz) were led from the harpsichord by the orchestra’s founder and music director David Shemer. This writer attended the event on May 19th at the International Jerusalem YMCA.


On the subject of Arcangelo Corelli, his reputation and musical influence spread as far as the imperial court of China, but his known works are very few: four publications of trio sonatas and one each of solo sonatas and concerti grossi. The JBO program incorporated two of his Op. 6 concerti grossi, each made up of six movements of different tempo and pacing. These were the fashion of the day; played at social gatherings, the movements allowed for the different court dances that were popular at the time. In both No.2 and No.6, the concertino consisted of violinists Noam Schuss and Dafna Ravid with Orit Messer-Jacobi on ‘cello; their concertino playing was pleasing both technically (with moments of brilliance) and stylistically. Altogether, the orchestra gave expression to the works’ rich array of concertino and ripieno ensemble textures and Corelli’s audacious harmonic surprises, the works’ melancholic movements never descending to sentimentalism.


Francesco Geminiani was held to be the equal of Corelli in his own day; however, with the exception of a few solo sonatas and his treatises on “good taste” in violin playing, Geminiani has largely ended up being ignored. But his great originality shines both in the writing and re-writing of his own music, and in his arrangements of works of Corelli. Moving to London, where he discovered that the English were more than eager to hear music of Corelli, Geminiani was quick to capitalize on this by arranging his teacher’s solo sonatas as concerti grossi. Of the orchestral arrangements of Corelli’s Op.5 Sonatas for solo violin and continuo that Geminiani published as new concerti grossi, the most popular is Concerto Grosso in D minor H.143, that on the “La Follia” (The Folly)  theme over a repeated bass line, this theme being one of those most used for variations in Baroque repertoire. In Geminiani’s setting, Corelli’s virtuosic violin part (Noam Schuss) is mostly unchanged, but a second solo violin part (Dafna Ravid) is ingeniously added and the whole work is shaped by the contrast between tutti and solo playing. Geminiani made one change to Corelli’s orchestral disposition, adding a viola (Yael Patish) to the solo group. Here, Orit Messer-Jacobi played the ‘cello solo part. In outstanding playing splendidly and virtuosically led by Schuss, the players swept the listener from variations ranging from intense and exciting character to those of tranquil, almost spiritual disposition; these abrupt changes of mood were markers of “insanity” for the Baroque imagination. Indeed, Geminiani was described by his contemporary and compatriot Giuseppe Tartini as “Il Furibondo” (the wild man)!


The mandolin has played an important role in Western music since the Renaissance and the number of Baroque composers who wrote attractive works for the instrument documents the fact that it was then a much-played instrument that musical audiences liked to hear. The Jerusalem audience was nevertheless totally enchanted by the mandolin works on the program and by the skill and consummate artistry of the concert’s guest artists. Performing  Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in G major for two mandolins and orchestra RV 532,  Mari Carmen Simon and Jacob Reuven - Duo 16 Strings - and the JBO instrumentalists invited the listener into the magical world of the mandolin’s gossamer-fine timbres, its expressive possibilities and the demands made on other instruments playing with them; not that the opening movement emerged wispy or insubstantial. On the contrary, the Allegro breathed freshness and exuberance, as one mandolin continually imitated the other’s phrases and with very firmly etched phrasing. In the Andante, the artists’ delicate- and finely-coordinated playing then led into a whirlwind of action and virtuosity in the final Allegro. In Trio Sonata in E minor by Florentine court composer, singer and lutenist Carlo Arrigoni, the duo was joined by harpsichord (Shemer), ‘cello (Messer-Jacobi) and theorbo (Moscovitz) in performance brimming with Mediterranean sunshine, cantabile beauty, invention and daring (especially in the Courante). With the mandolin sharing the exact same tuning as the violin, Mari Carmen Simon and Jacob Reuven chose to perform J.S.Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins and orchestra BWV 1043. The result was indeed a stirring, buoyant performance of the outer movements, with authoritative playing on the part of the guest artists; in the Largo movement, attentive listening by conductor and all the players in the sound-world of pianissimo delicacy gave rise to sublimely elegant and sensuous waves of silken melodiousness. 


Wednesday, May 22, 2019

"Anna Magdalena Bach", the Barrocade Ensemble performs works from the two notebooks of works J.S.Bach devoted to his wife

Inbar Solomon, Anja Hufnagel, Geneviève Blanchard (Yoel Levy)
“At this concert, we will visit the Bach family home and enthuse together over Bach’s love for his young wife - Anna Magdalena, a gifted singer and composer - love that flowed via musical sounds.”  These words are Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective’s introduction to “Anna Magdalena Bach”, a morning concert of the “Golden Bells” festivities at the Jerusalem International YMCA on May 18th, 2019,


J.S.Bach was an avid recycler. In fact, the opening work of the Jerusalem concert was an old friend in a new guise:  Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F major BWV 1057 is the composer’s transcription of the 4th Brandenburg Concerto, but with the violin part given over to the harpsichord and the whole concerto transposed down a major second. The reason for the transposition was, in all probability, to allow the top note of the violin part, E5, to be reached as D5, the common top limit on harpsichords of the time. The alto obbligato recorders are still present (referred to by Bach as “fiauti a bec”), here played by Anja Hufnagel (Germany) and Inbar Solomon. The structure of the music remains unchanged, but the harpsichord part was completely rewritten. Yizhar Karshon took on board the hearty vivacity and virtuosic demands of the work’s outer movements in playing that was crisp, brilliantly alive and entertaining; he gave personal expression, gentle flexing and some ornamentation to the subtly lyrical Andante (second) movement. The recorder players struck a fine balance of blend, displaying both close collaboration and individual say throughout, their playing a kaleidoscope of Baroque recorder techniques and textures. With Amit Tiefenbrunn playing a bass violin he himself had built, the Barrocade players provided ample support to the soloists.


Cantata No. 82, “Ich habe genug” (I have sufficient), first performed in 1727, portrays the biblical story of the aged Simeon who, having held the infant Jesus, feels justifiably ready for death. Though usually sung by a bass soloist and oboe obbligato, Bach’s 1731 version in E minor is scored for soprano soloist with flute obbligato, the latter being the version we heard performed by soprano Yeela Avital with Geneviève Blanchard (flute), with Yizזhar Karshon on organ. Avital gave a competent, emotional reading of the work, at times, a little too heavy in her use of vibrato. Addressing the audience in her narration of the story, her singing of “Schlummert ein” (Slumber, my weary eyes) was sensitively phrased, empathic and pleasing, with the final aria “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” (With gladness, I look forward to my death) challenging in its tricky,  instrumental-type vocal line, its sense of urgency ignoring bar-lines, bristling with energy. In the obbligato role, Geneviève Blanchard’s playing of the soft-toned Baroque flute wove meaning into every nuance of the text with subtlety and eloquence.


Although Bach is remembered by most of us as a virtuoso keyboard player, he was also a skilled violinist. In fact, the first professional job he had was as an orchestral violinist. Soloing in J.S.Bach’s Violin Concerto in E major BWV 1042 (on a violin built by Amit Tiefenbrunn), the work very much according to the Venetian concerto  model both in form and in zest, Shlomit Sivan gave a radiant performance, highlighting solo moments as well as joining orchestral tutti, showing  how  Bach achieved the most remarkable effects with just one instrument in a single musical line. Precise and articulate, not clinical, mechanical or showy, Sivan’s playing was involved and vibrant. In the rhapsodic central Adagio movement, Amit Tiefenbrunn coaxed much deep-felt expression from the curious, sturdy bass violin (a member of the "viola da braccio" family.)


The last item on the program was a pot-pourri of short works from the Notebooks Johann Sebastian collated for Anna Magdalena Bach - that of 1722 and of 1725 - their contents providing a glimpse into the domestic music of the 18th century and the musical tastes of the Bach family. Arranged by Tiefenbrunn, each piece offered different and imaginative scoring. The items  included  Geneviève Blanchard’s ornamented,  gently-swayed playing of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations, with two Baroque flutes and bass recorder joining in hearty liaison in Variation No.1; two chorales; Contrapunctus I from “The Art of Fugue” on  recorders, flute, organ and bass violin; and two love songs  - the poignant "Bist du bei mir, geh ich mit Freuden" (If you are with me, I go with joy) and the ebullient “Willst du dein Herz mir schenken” (Wouldst thou thine heart now give me):

Wouldst thou thine heart now give me,

Proceed in secrecy,

That twixt us our intentions

No one may ever guess.

Since love must be, if mutual,

Forever silent kept,

So hide thy greatest pleasures

Within thy heart’s recess…” English Translation ©  Z.Philip Ambrose


Yeela Avital’s delicate and emotionally-charged performance of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No.5 concluded the event.

Yeela Avital (photo: Yoel Levy)


Monday, May 20, 2019

An afternoon concert of choral works of J.S.Bach and Fauré at the International YMCA, Jerusalem

The Jerusalem Street Orchestra (courtesy Jerusalem Street Orchestra)
“Golden Bells” - music and tours in Jerusalem, May 16th to 18th 2019 - offered local Jerusalemites and guests from outside the capital city three days packed with guided walking tours through many quarters of Jerusalem as well as a host of varied musical events.


The festive closing event, an afternoon concert taking place at the Jerusalem International YMCA on May 8th featured two choral works, the first of which was J.S.Bach’s Cantata No.131. “Aus der Tiefen rufe ich, Herr, zu Dir”, BWV 131 (Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee). The Jerusalem Street Orchestra, the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir and soloists - tenor Eitan Drori and baritone Yair Polishook - were conducted by Ronen Borshevsky, the Bertini Choir’s musical director.  An apotheosis of 17th-century German sacred music, Cantata 131, a very early Bach cantata (composed 1707 or 1708) is scored for strings with oboe and bassoon and consists of an unbroken succession of choruses and arias on texts drawn from biblical passages and hymns. Its text and the large number of slow tempi indicate that it was probably performed for an event of mourning. The Bertini Choir produced’ polished, informed singing as they addressed the text, its mood changes and its potential for dynamic variety. The Jerusalem Street Orchestra, a chamber orchestra of mostly quite young players (musical director: Ido Shpitalnik) shone in its dedicated performance, well-shaped phrasing and timbral warmth, with outstanding solo playing by oboist Lior Michel Virot and Azure Kline’s splendid ‘cello obligato. The second movement, sung by Yair Polishook, with its pleading, anxious agenda, rhythmic variety, wide range and ornaments, emerged richly expressive, as he gave attention to each gesture, with the soprano section’s calm, slow-moving haunting chorale line providing a stark contrast to the solo. In the tenor aria, this also appended with a chorale, Eitan Drori kept the focus on “meine Seele” (my soul) and the theme of yearning, reserving the use of vibrato for ornamentation of its arioso style.


For the performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in D minor Op. 48, the Bertini Choir and the Jerusalem Street Orchestra were joined by the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, soprano Daniela Skorka and baritone Yair Polishook. Conducting the work, Shpitalnik created a fine balance between voices and instruments, allowing for the powerful surges that accurately depict the drama of the text, yet still addressing the work’s remarkable modesty, unusual tenderness (there is no Dies Irae) and  “a very human feeling of faith in eternal rest”, in the composer’s own words. The combined choirs excelled in vocal control, creating the transparent timbre required for its performance. The instrumentalists gave eloquent expression and a sense of illumination to the score; kudos to the three horn players, to harpist Hila Ofek and to organist Tal Igal. With the quality of a performance of the Fauré Requiem hinging on an excellent organist (and organ), Igal managed to create some magical tone colourings on an electronic instrument, a far cry from the Aristide Cavaillé-Coll pipe organ on which Fauré played for funerals at the Église de la Madeleine in Paris. In the “Pie Jesu”, Daniela Skorka’s shimmering, gossamer lightness of voice, free of artifice and affectation, was beautifully stable, indeed, a satisfying substitute for the role often performed by a boy soprano. Yair Polishook’s reading of the “Hostias et preces tibi Domine” (We offer unto Thee this sacrifice of prayer) was focused and spiritual, his upper register ample and bright. Pleading deliverance in the “Libera me” (with the chorus quaking in fear) and supported by strong brass utterance, Polishook endorsed the boldest movement of Fauré’s Requiem with gripping assertion and emotion.


The Gary Bertini Israeli Chamber Choir was founded in order to provide a professional ensemble for oratorio- and opera performances with Israel’s leading orchestras. The choir operates a chamber ensemble of 25 professional singers for a-cappella concerts in Israel and abroad. The Jerusalem Academy Chamber Choir (director: Prof. Stanley Sperber) composed of 30 singers, was founded in 1969 by Avner Itai. The choir has achieved a reputation as one of the finest in Israel and has performed with the country’s leading orchestras. Established in 2013 by Ido Shpitalnik, the Jerusalem Street Orchestra is a classic chamber orchestra comprised of graduates of Jerusalem’s Music Academy. What makes it different to other orchestras is that it performs in  open-air public spaces, presenting concerts that combine classical music with orchestral arrangements of popular music, with the objective of .making classical music accessible to new audiences. 


Friday, May 17, 2019

Events of the upcoming Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival - June 2019

The Crypt (photo: Berthold Werner)
The Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival takes place twice a year in and around Abu Gosh, a town located 16 kilometres west of Jerusalem on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. The 55th Abu Gosh Festival will take place from June 7th to 9th 2019, with a line-up of 13 concerts suited to a variety of musical tastes. Events take place in two churches - the spacious Kiryat Ye’arim Church, sitting high up on a hill, and the Crypt below the 12th century Benedictine Crusader church, set in a magical, exotic garden in the lower quarter of Abu Gosh. The Abu Gosh Festival has existed in its present format since 1992. People come from far and wide to attend concerts, sit in on the more informal outdoor musical events, picnic in the open, buy trinkets at the stalls set up near the Kiryat Ye’arim Church and relax in the surroundings of the Judean Hills. The festival features many Israeli artists and groups, also hosting overseas choirs. As of 1995, Hannah Tzur has served as musical director. A contralto who has soloed with major Israeli orchestras and conductors, Ms. Tzur has been directing the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir for 20 years.

The Kiryat Yearim Church will host a number of classical events; “Puccini’s Requiem” (Concert No.3) conducted by Hannah Tzur herself, Telemann’s opera “Orpheus” (Concert No.4) conducted by Yair Polishook, Bach’s St. John Passion (Concert No.9) under the baton of Michael Shani and  versatile soprano Keren Hadar will perform with the Tremolo Ensemble directed by marimba player Tomer Yariv (Concert No.1). Overseas guest artists appearing at the Kiryat Yearim Church are the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Kaspars Putninš (Concerts 2, 5 and 8) and Concert No.7, which will feature the Bach Freiburg Choir (conductor: Hans Reich), to be joined by the (Israeli) Maayan Choir.(conductor: Anat Morahg) in a program of Rossini, Brahms, Villa-Lobos and Gabrieli.

Take a wander down to the Romanesque Crusader Church. Below it, the Crypt, which was built in a former reservoir of the second century, is massive and austere; in some places its walls are more than 3½ meters thick. At its centre flows a spring. In the church’s exotic, tranquil garden, a local man will be there to serve you coffee with cardamom and rich, sweet pastries. Some of the more intimate and different-style concerts take place here. In “Pulsating Poetry and Prayer” (Concert No.10), the Sirenot Ensemble will present a variety of Jewish vocal music,  soprano Tal Ganor will sing works of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and more in “Sound the Trumpet” (Concert 11), soprano Revital Raviv and friends will take listeners on a musical tour of the British Isles (Concert No.12) and soprano Sivan Rotem, Yair Kless (violin) and Jonathan Zak (piano) will present works “From Italy to Argentina” (Concert No.13).

For ticket reservations:
Bimot : 02-6237000 or *6226
Bravo: *3221, 0722753221
During  the festival, tickets  will be available at the churches (cash only.)


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Under its music director Yuval Benozer, the Israeli Vocal Ensemble performs a program of music on the subject of freedom

Photo: Niv Shimon, Craft 7 Studio
The Israeli Vocal Ensemble’s recent concert - “Bells of Freedom”, conducted by its founder and music director Yuval Benozer, presented a highly varied selection of works on the theme of freedom. This writer attended the concert at St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church, Jerusalem, on May 10th 2019.


Of the works from classical repertoire, the IVE’s performance of Heinrich Schütz’ “An den Wassern zu Babel” (By the Waters of Babylon) from Psalms of David (1619) brought out the emotional extremes which Schütz was infusing into his adopted language of Gabrieli’s Venetian polychoral style. The ensemble highlighted the variety of colours and textures and declamatory characteristics of individual phrases. In crystal-clear, sculpted singing, unmarred by vibrato, the singers gave expression to the work’s tragedy and its humility, utilizing the rich qualities of German vowel sounds and the glister of the consonants to create strong emotional effects. No less impressive was the ensemble’s performance of Francis Poulenc’s masterpiece “Figure Humaine” (1943), a work composed in secret in occupied France and inspired by the resistance poems of the surrealist poet Paul Éluard. Representing the culmination of Poulenc's choral writing, “Figure Humaine”, like the Schütz work, is scored for double choir, but of six parts each, the cumulative effect of Poulenc's setting of Éluard's short poems presenting a provocative musical score of considerable grandeur. Referring to its a-cappella writing, Poulenc wrote: “I composed the work for unaccompanied choir because I wanted this act of faith to be performed without instrumental aid, by sole means of the human voice.”  In a  supreme test of stamina, technical agility, range, aural skill and musicianship, requiring unmatched concentration and musicianship from every participant, the singers, who had worked on the piece under the guidance of Guy Pelc, undertook the expressive task of communicating Éluard’s wartime thoughts with deep understanding, commitment, feeling and skill. Enlisting the full range of dynamics, sections performed with uncompromising intensity alternated effectively with intimate, reflective mood pieces cushioned in lush French harmony, the ensemble’s phrasing wonderfully shaped. As to “Liberté” (Freedom), the extraordinary last movement, Benozer and his singers showed the listener through its emotional process, generating a majestic, optimistic climax to the work. Because of its challenges, “Figure Humaine” is rarely performed. This was indeed an opportunity not to be missed.


The program included some zesty Zulu freedom songs, performed in an unrestrained, folk-like manner. Soloists Ori Batchko and Daniel Portnoy were certainly in their element with their stirring, upbeat performances. The IVE’s bracket of Afro-American songs was most satisfying, the singers’ English intelligible and articulate and the material presented with awareness as to onomatopoeic effects. In some excellent, vibrantly jazzy arrangements, the singers presented the energy and joy of Afro-American music, but also with the element of the slaves’ suffering threaded throughout. Soloists were Ronen Ravid, Joel Sivan, Sarah Even Haim and Tom Ben Ishai. Jazz pianist Noam Avnon’s tasteful playing was the key feature in excerpts performed from Duke Ellington’s somewhat repetitive “Freedom Suite”. Soloing in Yoram Tehar Lev’s Hebrew translation of Georges Mustaki’s “Ma liberté” (My Freedom), tenor Jonathan Suissa offered an understated, sensitive and poignant interpretation of the fragile chanson:

“My freedom

I have long kept you

Like a rare pearl

My freedom

It's you who helped me

Shed my anchors

To go anywhere

To go to the end

Of the paths of fortune

To dreamily pick

A rose of the winds

On a moonbeam…”


Concluding this truly outstanding concert, Yuval Benozer and his singers gave a warm, exhilarating performance of the much-loved Hebrew Slaves Chorus from Verdi's “Nabucco”, its text showing the parallels Verdi draws between the Hebrews under Assyrian rule and the Italians under the Austrian occupation in the mid-1800s.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Performing Mahler and Schubert, New Zealand baritone Julien Van Mellaerts makes his debut with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem Orchestra

Photo:Diana Roberts
“Songs of a Wayfarer”, the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s concert on May 4th 2019 in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, was conducted by the Camerata’s music director Avner Biron. Soloists were baritone Julien Van Mellaerts (New Zealand) and Israeli horn players Alon Reuven and Ruti Rozman Varon.


The serenade - the late-18th-century "evening piece", music for entertainment on festive gatherings - was a genre that Wolfgang Mozart, who adored parties, found particularly congenial. Serenade No. 6 in D major, K. 239, "Serenata Notturna" (1776), its key being that which Mozart favoured for serenades and cassations, is scored for two small "orchestras," its form looking back to the Baroque concerto grosso, with all of the work’s three movements focusing on alternation and interchange of the solo concertino and the orchestra grosso. In a polished performance, the Camerata players highlighted the charm and humour of the three compact movements - the refined, joyful march (with a timpani solo!), the hearty, somewhat bucolic Minuetto, its Trio left to the concertino group alone, and the spirited Rondo, with its suspenseful transitions; violinist Natasha Sher ‘s playing had much presence.


Remaining in the Classical style, we heard Concerto for two horns and orchestra in E flat major, a work attributed to Joseph Haydn, with some postulations that it was composed by his younger brother Michael Haydn; however, certain historical and stylistic points suggest the composer to have been Francesco Antonio Rosetti (born Franz Anton Rösler). This is an attractive work, an agreeable concert piece abounding in a sense of well-being and offering some excellent writing for French horns; but what I found most impressive at the Tel Aviv concert was the commanding performance of Ruty Rozman Varon and Alon Reuven throughout, their precision, intonation, fine duetting and smooth, luxuriant tone addressing the work’s various gestures, its virtuoso moments and its moods. Indeed, we experienced the “real-life heroes of the orchestra” playing with apparent ease!


With the heyday of the serenade as an orchestral genre in the 18th century culminating in the works of Mozart, the late Romantics revived it, in their hands, revisiting the past but in the language of their own idiom. Referring to Antonin Dvorák's Serenade for wind instruments, ‘cello and double bass in D minor Op.44, Brahms wrote the following to violinist Joseph Joachim in 1879: “It would be difficult to discover a finer, more refreshing impression of really abundant and charming creative talent.” 18th-century wind music often included a double bass for harmonic support; here, Dvorák supports that practice, but with the addition of a ‘cello. It is not the norm to hear a wind ensemble work as part of an orchestral concert; Maestro Biran, however, is known for his resourceful programming. The performance was a real treat, with a fine line-up of wind players giving vibrant expression to the work’s somewhat whimsical salute to Classical forms (homage to Mozart) and its use of Czech folk dances - the (second movement) Minuetto indeed a sousedska (similar to the Austrian Ländler), with a furiant as its Trio, as well the polka-type theme in the fourth. Together with the ensemble’s articulate playing and warmth of timbre, expressive melodic playing was presented by Muki Zohar (oboe), Eli Eban (flute), Itamar Leshem (horn) and other players, not forgetting the strings.


Making his debut on the Israeli concert scene, baritone Julien Van Mellaerts (b.1988, New Zealand) opened with Gustav Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” (Songs of a Wayfarer), musical settings of four of  six poems written by Mahler himself following his failed romance with soprano Johanna Richter from the time he was working as a conductor in Kassel. The Camerata performed the work in Arnold Schoenberg’s chamber orchestra setting. Van Mellaerts’ singing gave genuine and fervent expression to the songs’ layers of meaning and key words, spotlighting moments of tenderness and those extolling the beauty of nature, as he undertook changes of both vocal colour and facial expression with each rising wave of despair. Take, for example, the end of the second song, its joy and nature imagery dissolving into dejection; or the contrasts between utter sadness alternating with outbursts of cascading anguish as in “I have a gleaming knife” (song no.3), the work concluding with the subdued, emotionally drained resolution expressed in the fourth song, its chromaticism and major-minor duality representing the journeyman’s love and sorrow now intertwined, as  

“...Under the linden tree

that snowed its blossoms onto me –

I did not know how life went on,

and all was well again!

All! All, love and sorrow

and world and dream!”

Performing “Songs of a Wayfarer” is no mean task for a young singer. Easily contending with the orchestra, Van Mellaerts’ voice is fresh, substantial and stable, his foray into higher registers (end of song no.2) pleasing. The Camerata instrumentalists merged the work’s folk-like simplicity and sophistication with exquisite utterances of timbral beauty.


Following the intermission, Julien Van Mellaerts returned to perform three of Max Reger’s orchestral arrangements of Schubert Lieder. Starting with an aethereal, gossamer-light reading of “An die Musik” (To Music), lyrics: Schober, he later gave a rapturous, subdued, somewhat passionate but no-less-controlled performance of “Du bist die Ruh’” (You are repose), lyrics: Rückert. As to Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (Elf King), the eighteen-year-old composer’s setting of a Goethe ballad -  four minutes of high drama involving three active players and a narrator - Van Mellaert’s singing of it was all energy, capturing the macabre aspects of the terrifying night ride and its sensationalist setting; voices representing the boy, the father, and the lurid Elf King himself could have emerged as more individual. Avner Biron’s treatment of Reger’s arrangements steered away from the leaden performance of them sometimes encountered in the concert hall.


Winner of the 2017 Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation International Song Competition and the 2017 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, Julien Van Mellaerts was awarded the Tagore Gold Medal on graduation from London’s Royal College of Music. His international performing repertoire includes oratorio, Lieder and opera, the latter including contemporary works. In April 2019, he toured with pianist James Baillieu for Chamber Music New Zealand; he will make his Wigmore Hall recital debut in 2020. Today, the singer resides in London. Julien Van Mellaerts is certainly an artist to watch!


Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Israeli premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Holocaust opera “The Passenger" in Tel Aviv, April 30th 2019

David Danholt,Daveda Karanas (Yossi Zwecker)

The Israeli premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera “The Passenger”, a production of the Israeli Opera at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on April 30th 2019, was directed by David Pountney (UK).  Steven Mercurio (USA) making his debut on the Israeli music scene, conducted local- and guest singers, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion and the Israeli Opera Chorus (chorus master Ethan Schmeisser). Mostly in German, the libretto was also partly in Polish, with some French, English, Czech, Yiddish and Russian. There were surtitles in Hebrew and English.


“The Passenger”, the first of seven operas by Weinberg, is based partly on the real-life experience of Polish journalist Zofia Posmysz (now 95), who was a prisoner in Auschwitz. Her account - “The Passenger in Cabin 45” - began as a radio drama in 1959, appearing as an autobiographical novel in 1962, then to be transformed into an award-winning movie. Having encountered the book, Weinberg, using Alexander Medvedev’s Russian libretto, began work on the opera in 1968. It took over forty years to be premiered in concert form in Moscow in 2006, its first fully staged version taking place at the Bregenz Festival in 2010.  In 2011, the opera, directed by David Pountney, premiered at both the Warsaw National Opera and the English National opera to full houses, receiving rave critical reviews.


Mieczysław Weinberg, born into a Polish musical Jewish family, managed to flee eastward after Hitler's invasion of Poland, moving to Minsk, Belarus, where he studied composition. After war broke out between Russia and Germany, he escaped to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, finding work in a local opera house. From there he sent the manuscript of his Symphony No.1 to Dmitri Shostakovich, who suggested he move to Moscow. Weinberg settled in the Russian capital and lived there until the end of his life. He and Shostakovich became close friends and colleagues. Weinberg’s parents and sister died in a concentration camp and, although Weinberg managed to escape persecution by the Nazis, he himself was imprisoned by the KGB and only released after Stalin’s death.


Lisa (Daveda Karanas, USA, Israeli Opera debut), a former Aufseherin, or Auschwitz overseer, is travelling with Walter, her diplomat husband (David Danholt, Denmark, Israeli Opera debut) on an ocean liner when she sees a solitary passenger who appears to be Marta (Adrienn Miksch, Hungary, Israeli Opera debut), a young prisoner from the camp who had been manipulated and taunted by Lisa. With flashbacks to the camp, Lisa relives memories of Auschwitz and struggles to tell her husband the truth of her role. Their love, however, is strong and weathers the storm; indeed, she was “only carrying out orders.” The fact is that it is never certain whether the young woman on the boat, her face veiled, is Marta; the Aufseherin may indeed be hallucinating, her mind corroded by guilt and fear. The opera’s main love story is between two young Poles at Auschwitz - Marta and her fiancé Tadeusz (Morgan Smith, USA, Israeli Opera debut) - for whom Lisa makes opportunities for the two to meet. Another strong and moving element of “The Passenger” is the comradeship and mutual support of the women prisoners in Auschwitz in an effort to preserve their humanity and sanity.


The result of the long-standing collaboration between David Pountney and stage designer (the late) Johan Engels has resulted in stage sets that are both eye-catching and imbued with symbols - the gleaming white clothes of the wealthy on the ocean liner, the dark barracks of the camp, large structures moving on- and off the stage on railway tracks, sometimes pushed back out of view by women prisoners, the tight-lipped, dapper, blue-suited men of opera chorus observing the Auschwitz camp scenes from above (the silent majority?), their bass chants of lamentation punctuating their silence, the women inmates’ eyes always turned down in the presence of camp authorities but animated when in their own company. Another long-standing force in the production is Romanian-born costume-designer Marie-Jeanne Lecca, whose fine costuming was part of former productions as of the 2010 Bregenzer Festspiele. Stage action was tasteful, pointed and poignantly understated, giving emphasis to moments rich in powerful meaning, among them, Marta’s 20th birthday celebration and her delicate singing of nature and death, her and Tadeusz’s uneasy meeting and the irony of the jazz band on board ship playing the camp Kommandant's favourite waltz. Weinberg’s superb score, endorsing each moment at hand, is both gripping and restrained, richly orchestrated and as uncompromising as it is aesthetically pleasing. One of the most soul-stirring moments was that presented by Katya, a young Russian partisan prisoner (Alla Vasilevitsky); with the orchestra reduced to a barely-audible drone, she gives a memorable and haunting performance of a Russian folk song. Another highly impactful moment was when Tadeusz, requested to play the Kommandant’s favourite waltz on the violin, performs the Chaconne from Bach's Partita for Violin No. 2 (played by Dotan Tal), making a defiant musical protest and sealing his own fate, with all hell breaking out simultaneously in Weinberg’s orchestral backing. With outstanding artists in the lead roles, supported by a host of dedicated, first-class singers, attentive, finely-shaped choral singing and the precise- and detailed playing of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion drawing together the threads of the work’s eclectic mix of musical styles, Steven Mercurio navigated “The Passenger” through stormy waters with much sensitiveness and just as much attention to the beauty and meaning of the work. Never over-dramatic, never over-sentimental, the performance kept audience members at the edge of their seats. An outstanding work in stage performance of the highest standard.


Photo: Yossi Zwecker