Monday, September 23, 2019

The Jerusalem Opera's ninth production - Charles Gounod's delightful opéra comique “La Colombe” plays at the Hirsch Theatre, Jerusalem

Avigail Gurtler Har-Tuv, Ofri Gross (Yaniv Nadav)
The Jerusalem Opera’s latest production was Charles Gounod’s opéra comique “La Colombe” (The Dove) to a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Noemi Schlosser was stage director. Omer Arieli conducted the Jerusalem Opera Orchestra. This writer attended the performance at the Hirsch Theatre, Beit Shmuel, Jerusalem, on September 21st, 2019. The Jerusalem Opera was established in 2011 with the aim of presenting high-quality opera productions in Jerusalem and promoting young Israeli artists. Sung in French, with Hebrew and English translations projected onto screens, “La Colombe” is the Jerusalem Opera’s ninth production. 

Composed within two weeks and premiered in 1860 in Baden-Baden, “La Colombe” is based on “Le Faucon” (The Falcon), a fable by La Fontaine; the title was toned down. becoming “The Dove”, in order to be more appealing to the opera public. An opera of modest proportions, it calls for four singers, no chorus and one set. Sylvie (Avigail Gurtler Har-Tuv), a wealthy countess, is desperate to gain possession of a dove belonging to one of her young admirers, the penniless Horace (Ofri Gross), so that she can compete with one of her rivals who owns a talking parrot. Horace steadfastly refuses to sell his bird. Having fallen in love with Sylvie, he invites her to dinner. He is forced to contemplate killing the dove to provide dinner for the countess. At the meal the countess is horrified to discover the sacrifice he was prepared to make for her, but all ends happily when it is revealed that the bird they have eaten is in fact her rival’s parrot. Noemi Schlosser writes that “La Colombe” has “a very funny storyline”, offering her the opportunity to “colour it with my imagination and add some unexpected side plots and comic twists”. For example, she gives the two original Commedia dell’arte servant characters - Mazet (Liesbeth Devos) and Maître Jean (Yuri Kissin) - a more active part in the plot. Theatre writer, director and producer Schlosser hails from Belgium, her work there having focussed mainly on Jewish themes and the place of the individual within society. She immigrated to Israel in 2017. 

All four singers gave dedicated performances of their roles. One of the most challenging aspects of this opera is its spoken French text, and there is plenty of it! No meagre challenge for non-native French speakers; all made an admirable effort, with Gurtler Har-Tuv emerging with flying colours. Kissin occasionally resorted to Russian, adding to the droll atmosphere of the piece! To Belgian soprano Liesbeth Devos, in her debut role with the Jerusalem Opera, this was, of course, an easier task. Her wholehearted, unreserved portrayal of the flirtatious and cheeky Mazet (originally a pants role) was complemented by fine opera know-how, both vocally and stagewise. As Horace, a somewhat awkward, inexperienced bachelor, Gross’ performance was both hilarious and touching, his rich, bright tenor voice pleasing and fresh, his facial expressions at times anguished, at others, adoring. Pleasing in his solid, stable vocal performance, bass-baritone Yuri Kissin, today making an opera career in both Europe and Israel, showed Maître Jean to be a clumsy, knife-wielding but amorous character, his dialogue on food with Mazet emerging as a play of double entendres.  Gurtler Har-Tuv made for a delightful and endearing Sylvie,. Served well by her high energy and bright, focused lyric soprano, she contended splendidly with the musical and theatrical demands of the role, as she gave charm, whimsy and vivaciousness to the sweep of emotions Sylvie undergoes within the course of the opera. In addition to the opera’s solo arias, the audience enjoyed its duets and hearty ensembles, a hallmark of Gounod’s writing. 

Schlosser’s production concept was Monte Carlo of the 1920s.The stage, furnished with an elegant white chaise longue and a rich selection of beautiful potted plants, was simple, effective and pleasing to the eye. Costumes (Liat Golan) ranged from conventional, to the somewhat different, to the imaginative (bird masks, feathered sleeves), to the exquisite, as in the use of flowers in Sylvie’s final outfit. An added attraction was having the orchestra seated at one side of the stage. Under Maestro Omer Arieli’s competent baton, the ensemble of strings and winds gave attention to detail, doing justice to Gounod’s melodiousness, euphony and light-hearted, colourful orchestration.

Performed with no intermission, the Jerusalem Opera artists navigated La Colombe’s two acts with unflagging energy, musicality and commitment; the audience appreciated Gounod’s appealing music and the opera’s humour and good cheer, leaving the Hirsch Theatre with a warm sense of satisfaction as the evening’s fine entertainment drew to a close. Once again, kudos to the Jerusalem Opera!
Yuri Kissin (Yaniv Nadav)
Liesbeth Devos, Ofri Gross (Yaniv Nadav)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Events to take place at the 56th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival, October 2019

The Armena Quartet (photo: Boris Matafchiev)

The 56th Abu Gosh Vocal Music Festival will take place October 18th to 21st, 2019. The 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. This festival will offer a program of 16 concerts suited to many musical tastes and performed in two churches – the spacious Kiryat Ye’arim Church, sitting high up on the hill, and the Crypt – a small, 12th century Crusader Benedictine church set in a magical, exotic garden in the lower part of the town of Abu Gosh. The Abu Gosh Festival has existed in its present form since 1992. People come from far and wide to attend concerts, picnic in the open, sit in on open-air events, buy trinkets, textiles, jewellery and food products at the outdoor stalls set up near the Kiryat Ye’arim Church and relax in the tranquil surroundings of the Jerusalem Hills. The festival features many Israeli groups and soloists, also hosting some overseas artists. For several years, the festival’s promotion and production have been administered by Gershon Cohen. As of 1995, Hannah Tzur has been musical director of the festival. Ms. Tzur, a contralto who has soloed with major orchestras and conductors in Israel, has been directing the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir for 20 years.


Festival-goers with a taste for large choral works will enjoy several concerts at the Kiryat Ye’arim Church, this time with a number of programs featuring settings of the Stabat Mater text - that of Rossini, with soloists, the Kibbutz Artzi Choir and conducted by Yuval Benozer (Concert No.2), that of Haydn, with soloists with the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir, conducted by Hannah Tzur (Concert No.3) and that of Schubert with soloists, the Ichud Choir, the Orpheus Instrumental Ensemble (director: Guy Figer) conducted by Ronen Borshevsky (Concert No.6). The Batumi Women’s Choir from Georgia, conducted by Zaira Vadachkoria and Gala Vadachkoria, will make its Abu Gosh Festival debut (Concert No.10) and the Stuttgart Chamber Choir, under Frieder Bernius, will be back again with a new program (Concert Nos.1, 4). A unique event for early music aficionados will be Ensemble PHOENIX’ performance of  17th century Neapolitan composer Francesco Rossi's sublime oratorio “La Caduta dell'Angeli” (Fall of the Angels), sung by students of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music’s Vocal Department (director: Sharon Rostorf Zamir); instruments of the period will be played by members of Ensemble PHOENIX, joined by guest violone player Gio Sthel (Brazil/Germany), all conducted by PHOENIX founder and director Myrna Herzog (Concert No.8). 


Concerts in the Crypt of the Benedictine Church are bound to appeal to many tastes. With music from their native Bulgaria, the women singers of the Armena Quartet will be accompanied by bagpipes and guitar (Concert No.15). Offering a program of Georgian and Russian music, the Crypt will be alive with the substantial voices of the all-male Kolan Quintet (Concert No.12). To sunnier shores, Eran Zehavi will accompany singers Shira Ben David and Michal Doron in opera favourites and Neapolitan songs in “Viva Italia” (Concert No.13).  Zehavi will be joined by opera singers Yael Levita and Maya Bakstansky in works of Bernstein, Kurt Weil and Gershwin and a selection of movie hits in “An American in Berlin” (Concert No.14). Directed by Ari Erev, nostalgic American evergreens will be the focus of singer Tami Gerassi and friends in “Immortal Hits - Broadway, New York” (Concert No.11). As to Concert No.14, “Electric Guitar Called Love”, here is an event inviting the more curious of us to hear soprano Tal Ganor in a pot-pourri of works by Dowland, Purcell, Queen, Fauré, Elvis Presley and Israeli songwriters, as arranged by Yuval Vilner and accompanied by him on the electric guitar!




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Members of the Varietas-Ensemble (Vienna) perform works for violins and viola, opening the 2019-2020 concert series at Jerusalem's American Colony Hotel

Daniela Preimesberger,Iris Krall-Radulian,Marta Potulska  (© Julia Stix)
The American Colony Hotel, straddling East and West Jerusalem, has hosted such figures as Lawrence of Arabia, Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, Uma Thurman, Richard Gere, Giorgio Armani, Miuccia Prada, Tony Blair and Mikhail Gorbachev, to name a few. The unique Pasha Room, with its ornate ceiling, boasts a long history as a concert venue. It was here that the first event of the 2019-2020 American Colony Concert Series took place on September 13th, 2019. Guest artists were violinists Iris Krall-Radulian and Daniela Preimesberger and violist Maria Potulska - members of the Varietas-Ensemble (Vienna) - on their first concert tour of the region. The event was also under the auspices of the Willy Brandt Center (Jerusalem) and the Austrian Cultural Forum (Tel Aviv); concert coordinator for the series is Petra Klose. 


Founded in 2015 by Daniela Preimesberger and Iris Krall-Radulian, the Varietas-Ensemble, actually comprising eight players, making for the possibility of various ensemble combinations, is fast making a name for itself, having performed widely in Austria, as well as in Italy and Greece. Upcoming engagements include concerts at the Vienna Konzerthaus, the Jeunesse Concert Series and the Mozarteum (Salzburg). Alongside its concert schedule, the ensemble is interested in education, also playing at institutions for children with special needs.


W.A.Mozart’s Duo No.1, KV423 for violin and viola has an unusual history: it is the first of two Mozart wrote for this setting to help court music director Michael Haydn (Joseph’s younger brother, who had taken ill)  in completing six duos commissioned by Hieronymus Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg. Passed off as works of Haydn, Mozart’s two duos received more praise than Haydn’s other four!  Mozart was a skilful player of both instruments. However, his preference for the viola shines through the writing of the G-major Duo, as the lower instrument functions as a full partner in the work’s musical discourse. Preimesberger and Potulska engaged in dialogue that was sparkling, exciting and virtuosic, celebrating the writing’s fullness of texture, their reading of the aria-like Adagio movement tending to the serious and full-textured. Their playing highlighted Mozart’s compositional mastery, his sense of joy and charming melodiousness, all these spiced with just a few interesting harmonic twists. . 


Composed c.1795, L. van Beethoven’s Trio Op.87 was originally scored for two oboes and English horn. It was aimed at the growing number of amateur performers in Vienna, written shortly after the composer’s arrival in that city. Versions exist for two violins and bass line, two flutes and viola, two clarinets and bassoon, as a sonata for violin and piano and in various piano settings. Beethoven then approved an arrangement (not by him) for two violins and viola, which was also published that year. (The trio carries a higher opus number than other works from the time of its composition as it was not published until 1806.)  Influenced by- and preserving the pleasing, entertaining character of the serenade genre of music in which Mozart and others were writing for lighter occasions over the final decades of the 18th century, the Varietas trio’s performance of the trio was a reminder that there must have been much high-quality playing in the salons of Vienna. The artists gave expression to the work’s technical demands, but also to its lyrical qualities, its energy and humour, their clean playing addressing the finer details of its many small gestures. As to their performance of the Menuetto, presented with whimsy and a touch of suspense, the audience was quick to understand that Beethoven preferred the feisty character of the scherzo to the elegant minuet; the Menuetto’s Trio, however, emerged more straight-faced, its occasional odd rhythmic detail revealing the composer’s good-natured wink of an eye. 


The raison d'être of A.Dvořák's Trio Op.74 (1887), possibly the best-known work for the little-served configuration of two violins and viola, is unusual. Dvořák, himself a violist, often heard a student neighbour playing duets with his violin teacher and decided to write a trio so that he could join in. The result was this terzetto, written within a week. (Not a work for beginners or those of very modest technical accomplishments, the piece turned out to be too difficult for the student, so the composer penned another work - his Four Miniatures Op.75a - for the three of them to play.) The Varietas artists gave expression to the Op.74’s wide range of moods, its contrasts of melancholy and high spirits, from the quiet lyricism of the opening movement, through intense moments and delicate, to the animation and energy that bring the work to a close with a fine set of variations. Dvořák’s richly abundant palette of timbral-, melodic- and harmonic colour were displayed throughout. Potulska’s playing showed the listener through the composer’s twofold viola role of both de facto bass and equal partner, as she engaged in sophisticated contrapuntal discussion with the violins. Dvořák invariably alludes to the folk tradition of his native country, as in the Op.74 Scherzo, which takes the form of a “furiant”, with the players both entertaining and entertained by the fiery Czech dance’s rhythmic play and shifting accents, together with its whirlwind changes between major and minor modes.  


For their encore, the guest players performed the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia, their quick-change-artistry presenting the beauty and diversity of each mini-variation and conveyed through a kaleidoscope of string techniques. A festive and splendid concert to open the season.


Sunday, September 8, 2019

"Goethe and Music", a lecture-concert at the Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, Germany

Beethoven and Goethe (
“Goethe und die Musik” (Goethe and Music), an event celebrating 270 years of the birth of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), took place on August 28th 2019 at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundeskunsthalle) Bonn. Actually, the evening opened with drinks served on the roof of the building, where garden beds have been planted with the kinds of flowers that had been cultivated by the great German poet himself in his own garden. No amateur to horticulture, Goethe’s seminal scientific work “Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären” (An Attempt to Interpret the Metamorphosis of Plants), dated from 1790, has created the foundation for many domains of modern plant biology.


The event was a collaboration between the Bundeskunsthalle, the Beethoven House (Bonn) and the Weimar Classical Foundation (Klassik Stiftung Weimar). Performing Lieder set to texts of Goethe were baritone Patrick Cellnik and pianist Camilla Köhnken, with Dr. Julia Ronge (Beethoven House) and Prof. Thorston Valk (Klassik Stiftung Weimar) interspersing the works with much interesting background information. Born in Frankfurt, Goethe, referred to by Thomas Carlyle as “the universal man”, produced four novels, epic- and lyrical poetry, prose and verse dramas, memoirs, an autobiography, literary and aesthetic criticism and treatises on botany, anatomy and colour; add to these, numerous literary- and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and some 3,000 drawings. The recital opened with Lieder of the earliest Goethe composer Bernhard Theodor Breitkopf (1749-1820), grandson of the publishing house’s founder. Breitkopf; he was the first composer to set his friend’s  poems to music, in the style of the day. Subtler and more colourful were settings of Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814) and Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832) - these two composers were major figures of  the Second Berlin School. Their text settings, demands of performance practice and their role in the overall development of the Lied are largely underappreciated.


Beethoven greatly revered Goethe’s artistry; it is Goethe who appears in his Lieder more persistently than any other poet. The composer’s Goethe songs are among the most eloquent of the fifty-or-so Lieder composed in his early- and middle years. Following their fine-spun elation expressed in “Mailied” (May Song), the artists gave a poetic and poignant reading of “Wonne der Wehmut” (Delight in Melancholy), with its small pondering pauses and suggestion of joy found through sadness. In “Song of the Flea”, the farcical ballad sung by Mephisto from “Faust”, telling of a king who loved his flea and forbade his courtiers to kill the miniature tormentors, Cellnik presented the narrative with glee and whimsical self-importance as Köhnken entertained with Beethoven's clumsy clusters of dissonant chords. 


Prolific German composer Franz Xaver Sterkel (!750-1817) is little known to today’s audiences. In his time, he was prominent and influential, his music lyrical, sentimental and well structured. Of his almost four hundred songs, we heard two from. “Sechs Gedichte von Goethe” (1818).  Secretary to Count Moritz Dietrichstein, Austrian court official, composer and writer on performance practice Ignaz Franz von Mosel (1772-1844) was an influential supporter of Schubert’s music. The four Goethe songs of his Op.3 were dedicated to Schubert. Mosel was one of the very many composers to set Goethe’s “Mignon” (from “Wilhelm Meister”) to music. Cellnik’s singing of it was articulate and indeed text-centred:  
“Know’st thou the land where the fair citron blows,
Where the bright orange midst the foliage glows,
Where soft winds greet us from the azure skies,
Where silent myrtles, stately laurels rise,
Know'st thou it well?
'Tis there, 'tis there,
That I with thee, beloved one, would repair…”

Ferdinand Ries’ oeuvre isn’t entirely forgotten, but very little of it is played today. A pupil of Beethoven, with a strong connection to him on both a personal- and professional level, Ries had served as his copyist and private secretary. Ries’ works represent an important link between the Classical- and Romantic styles. We heard a section of his Op.32 - “6 Lieder von Goethe für eine Singstimme mit Begleitung des Pianoforte” (Hamburg, 1811), an example of the conservative, charming folk-like style of his Lieder, together with his fine writing for piano.


One occasionally hears Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture in piano arrangements for four hands (one piano) or for eight hands (two pianos). Prior to the final bracket of songs on the program, Camilla Köhnken, however, performed a one-piano (2 hands) arrangement of the piece, indeed a program work powerfully telling the story of Count Egmont - of his arrest, execution and that his spirit lives on. Köhnken’s dynamic, virtuosic performance gave expression to the work’s passion, emotion and final optimism. 


The concert concluded with Lieder of Franz Schubert, who set 80 of Goethe's poems to music. Sadly, Goethe failed to appreciate the songs which would link his poems to musical immortality. It was in October 1814 that the 17--year-old composer began the transformation of an entire musical genre with his setting of a poem from Goethe’s “Faust” - “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), composed in a single day. With its incessant whirring piano accompaniment, Köhnken and Cellnik’s performance of the work was intense and mesmerising, enriched by Cellnik’s fine use of low and high registers. A sense of fate and warmth pervaded their reading of “An Mignon” (To Mignon), with its enigmatic melodic simplicity and astonishing modulations. As to “Erster Verlust” (First Loss), written by Schubert at age 18, its major-minor introspection weaving hope with despair was given an attentive and balanced reading.  Effective in its directness and narrative, “Der König in Thule” (The King in Thule) emerged expressive of loneliness, bereavement and the pointlessness of wealth and power when there is no love.  The Bonn recital concluded with the artists’ performance of Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (Earl King), one of Romantic repertoire’s most challenging miniature vocal dramas, with its relentless, forbiddingly difficult piano accompaniment depicting the galloping horse and its demands on the singer to act all four characters of the ballad – narrator, father, son, and the Earl King -  and to embody all four sentiments, a huge task for the vocalist. Cellnik and Köhnken addressed the song’s many elements with fine articulacy - its drama and urgency, its sensation of horror, the supernatural, the teasing Earl King, his eerie “death dance”, the child’s frenzied utterances, the father’s calming gestures and the final statement - real, stark and chillingly unaccompanied.

An enriching and high-quality event, offering much to interest the listener, with seldom-heard works alongside those well-known to the concert public. Patrick Cellnik is a young, well-trained and thorough artist with a fine future ahead of him. Time will allow him to venture further out of his comfort zone. An outstanding and experienced accompanist, Camilla Köhnken, ever attentive to her soloist, could at times be more confrontational.

Born in Bonn, Camilla Köhnken studied in Cologne, New York and Basel. She performs widely in Europe and the USA. A keen chamber musician, she performs with two ensembles: "Ivory & Reed" (with saxophone) and the Philon Trio. She recently completed her doctorate at the University of Bern on interpretation strategies of the Liszt circle.

Patrick Cellnik recently completed studies in Catholic Church Music in Cologne, studying voice and choral conducting. Due to his special interest in the Lied, he has led workshops for young people on Schubert's "Winterreise". As of 2018, he has  served as assistant to the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral Choir.