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. 



Sunday, November 24, 2019

"Pirate Jenny" - Maya Sapiro-Taien and Daniel Talmor perform cabaret music at the 2019 Pianos Festival, Jerusalem

Daniel Talmor, Maya Sapiro-Taien (Noam Tabib)
The 7th Pianos Festival (artistic director: Prof. Michael Wolpe) took place November 13th-16th 2019 at the Jerusalem Theatre. Promising “exquisite music with more than 30 recitals, concerts, orchestras, films, music notes and piano keys”, this year’s festival focused almost exclusively on works of Chopin, marking 210 years of his birth and 170 of his death, Alongside an impressive line-up of Israeli artists, the festival hosted Polish composer/conductor  Krzysztof Penderecki and Polish conductor Maclej Tworek as well as three winners of the 2017 Arthur Rubinstein International Competition. This year’s Pianos Festival exhibition “Women in Chopin’s Life and Work”, produced in collaboration with the Chopin Institute (Warsaw), showed a variety of paintings, documents, testimonies and letters. The Piano Bar, set up away from the concert halls, hosted musical events of various styles. “Pirate Jenny”, a cabaret show featuring soprano Maya Sapiro-Taien  and pianist Daniel Talmor, a night-owl-event, took place on November 13th.


The program focused on European music of the first half of the 20th century. Several of the songs were works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill - Weill, a German Jew who had risen to prominence as a powerful voice among the populist avant-garde of 1920s Berlin and Brecht, also German and a left-leaning socialist, two years Weill’s senior, who had been working as a poet and playwright. Both writer and composer were keen to revolutionise what they saw as a tired and bourgeois tradition of opera. Their collaboration was also a breakthrough for  Austrian-born singer/actress Lotte Lenya, who had married Weill in 1926. The Jerusalem show opened with “Alabama Song”, written in 1925, the year Brecht and Weill began working on the “Mahagonny’ Songspiel, a short opera, featuring Lotte Lenya playing the prostitute Jessie; she was the first to sing “Alabama Song” in public and in English. By 1930 the songs of the short opera had been included in Brecht and Weill's epic political satire “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”, where the prostitute character's name was now changed to Jenny. Sapiro-Taien’s singing of the song, with a few comments in Hebrew from Talmor, drew the audience into the piece’s cold-hearted reality and the evening's agenda. “Nannas Lied”, here sung in Sapiro-Taien’s translation into Hebrew, tells of a streetwalker making sense of her world, its cold brutality and her own feelings; it shows Brecht’s sympathy for women. 
“Gentlemen, with seventeen years of age under my belt
I came up on the Love Market,
and I have learned much.
Much of it gave evil,
yet that was the game,
but, I have a lot to be blamed for.
(When all is said and done, I'm only a human being, too.).” (translation: © 2004 Sean Mabrey)

 Sapiro-Taien and Talmor gave bold potency to the contrasting bitter- and tender sentiments of Brecht/Weill’s "Surabaya Johnny" (from "Happy End"), with carefully-timed pauses endorsing its emotions.

“Gentleman, today you see me washing glasses
And I make the beds for everyone.” So begins Brecht and Weill’s legendary song “Pirate Jenny” (“Threepenny Opera”), from which the show takes its name.  Singing it in Dan Almagor’s translation into Hebrew, Sapiro-Taien tells and sings of a prostitute, a young poor, lowly maid who is mocked and mistreated by the townspeople and her rage and desire for revenge in a performance that was vivid, convincing and theatrical.


Less familiar to the general public but certainly creating interest were songs of Brecht and Hanns Eisler. “The Hollywood Songbook,” a cycle of 46 songs, begun in a Hollywood hotel in 1942 and completed the following year, is a richly varied document of alienation and protest. As German emigres, both Eisler and Brecht suffered as they observed from afar their homeland, family, friends and culture devastated by the Nazis. “The Hollywood Songbook” is bitter and sardonic, expressing dislike of the commercialism of Hollywood, referring to all that is “beautiful” in Los Angeles — the climate, the ocean, the fresh fruits and vegetables — as having an inner toxicity. Set against the eerie ticking of a metronome, Sapiro-Taien and Talmor’s reading of “Panzerschlacht” (Tank Battle) was spine-chilling, their performance of “Ostersonntag” (Easter Sunday) beginning almost hesitantly, as if the feelings expressed were too painful to confront, its dotted rhythms and pulsating tension evoking 90 seconds of suppressed anxiety.  Sung in German, Sapiro-Taien added some comments in Hebrew, with Talmor following her sensitively. The artists’ performance of “Song of Supply and Demand”, sung in Eric Bentley’s masterful English translation, was incisive and wonderfully articulate, highlighting the song’s cynical text with stringency and directness.


In 1937, Arnold Schoenberg wrote: "I was inspired by poems of German poet Stefan George to compose music to some of his poems and, surprisingly, without any expectation on my part, these songs showed a style quite different from everything I had written before." The 15-part song cycle  “Das Buch der hängenden Gärten”  (The Book of the Hanging Gardens) Op. 15 for solo voice and piano (1908-1909) breaks away from conventional musical writing as one of the first works to embrace expressionist atonality whilst remaining rooted in the Romantic song tradition. Taking on board the stringent challenges of this too-rarely heard repertoire, Sapiro-Taien addressed its extremes of dynamics and of register; no less involved, Talmor accompanied every expressive twist and turn as the two  juxtaposed lyrical and recitative-like utterances of yearning with the uncompromising piano agenda in “Streng ist uns das Glück und spröde” (Fortune is severe) and “Wenn sich bei heilger Ruh in tiefen Matten”  (Whenever, resting blissfully in deep meadows) with refinement, economy of means and understatement.


Then there was the collaboration between Weill and Ogden Nash, resulting in  “One Touch of Venus” (1943), a vividly satirical comment on social values and customs laced with a touch of seductive magic. Weill had been in America for eight years by the time he wrote this musical; here he showed flexibility in adopting a very different Broadway-type style to suit Nash’s highly sophisticated lyrics. The result was a majestic and compelling score; generally categorised as a classic Broadway musical it reveals its many roots in the world of operetta.  Sapiro-Taien and Talmor gave a nostalgic, jazzy, agreeably lilting reading of two of the show’s highlights, “Speak Low” and the jazz standard “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”.


A real treat was the artists’ performance of one of the many Lieder composed by preeminent Czech composer (Holocaust victim) Viktor Ullmann. “First Meeting” from his “Spiritual Songs” Op.20 is Ullmann’s setting of lyrics of American poet Percy MacKaye. Autumnal in mood, it was performed evocatively, with delicacy and refinement, its allusive quality given personal expression. (The Op. 20 songs were each dedicated to people from Ullmann’s personal life.)


Although jazz-inspired, the original version of the lullaby “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess was written to be performed by a classically trained opera singer. The audience at the Pianos Festival clearly enjoyed this number, with its slightly melancholy feel and lush harmonies.


Soprano Maya Sapiro-Taien and Daniel Talmor have spent several months enquiring deeply into both classical- and cabaret music of post-World War I Germany, its vivid utterances and characteristic gallows humour, reflecting modern urban life and the society of a country troubled by inflation, decadence and unfulfilled hopes, sexual confusion and political uncertainty. The results of these young artists in collaboration - Sapiro-Taien’s strong voice, articulacy and dramatic ability (both singing and in speech) together Talmor’s easeful, streamlined technique, flair for jazz and sensitive, fine-tuned listening - made for an evening rich in content and meaning. Performing in three languages is no small feat. The show was an opportunity to experience this substantial, weighty repertoire too seldom performed in Israel.


Jerusalem-born and resident, singer/actress. Maya Sapiro-Taien is a graduate of the Vocal Department of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. In the show, she aims to weave contact between old and new and a connection between different worlds in an attempt to find genuine expression integrating the various arts – theatre, performance, cinema and music.


Also a graduate of the Academy of Music and Dance., composer and performer Daniel Talmor has accompanied tens of singers for various projects and in different styles over recent years. His endless curiosity probes the style of each artist in an attempt to show and internalize the performer to the maximum.

Monday, November 18, 2019

"Wind & Transience" - readings of poems of Thomas Bernhard together with music performed by Manuela Maria Mitterer and Valentin Malanetski at the Willy Brandt Center, Jerusalem

Valentin Malanetski (photo: Rima Shahin)
Manuela Maria Mitterer (photo: Rima Shahin)

“Wind and Transience”, taking place at the Willy Brandt Center, Jerusalem, on November 11th 2019, was an evening of poetry of Thomas Bernhard presented with music by the two young artists of the “Reverse Universe” duo - Manuela Maria Mitterer (recorders, readings) and Valentin Malanetski (live electronics, keyboard, percussion). The event was a collaberation between the Willy Brandt Center and the Austrian Cultural Forum, Tel Aviv. Mr. Arno Mitterdorfer, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum, Tel Aviv, welcomed artists and audience, opening the event with a few words on Thomas Bernhard. With 2019 marking 30 years of the writer’s death, Mr. Mitterdorfer spoke of Bernhard’s important role of “rubbing salt into the wounds” of Austria’s past and as an extraordinary example of the power of art bringing the past to the future.  


Novelist, poet, and playwright Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989) was one of the greatest German-language writers of the latter half of the 20th century. Writing just a few years after the end of World War II, he became known for his outspoken criticism on society and politics; his controversial plays triggered some of the biggest cultural scandals of the 20th century. He began his career in the early 1950s as a poet. Over the ensuing ten years, he wrote thousands of poems, publishing four volumes of intense- and increasingly personal verse with such titles as “On Earth and in Hell”, “In Hora Mortis” and “Under the Iron of the Moon”.  Bernhard’s poems are rooted in the Austrian countryside where he and his ancestors were born, lived and died. As his poems saw publication and recognition, Bernhard seemed to be on the verge of joining the ranks of other young post-war poets writing in German, but his writing ran into strong condemnation in his home country for its biting criticism of Austria’s role in the rise of Nazism. He consequently denied permission for his work to be published in Austria until the copyright ran out, which was long after he had died.


“We know nothing” opens the event, with Mitterer’s first notes recorded and echoed by Malanetski, as the artists take the listener into the bleak inner world of Bernhard’s mind, set against the background of the Austrian countryside. “I am destroyed. Let me die now and blow in the wind” is followed by recorder-blown effects suggesting howling winds accompanied by ghostly rattling effects produced by the recorder keys, to be joined by a dark, disturbing electronic background sound punctuated by the sound of the cymbal.  “When snow and wind come too late” prompts modal music, wonderfully shaped on sopranino recorder and organ. Articulate and eloquent, Mitterer’s reading of English translations of several of Bernhard's poems (two were read in German) offer haunting and evocative representation of the writer, a man burdened by waves of self-pity, fury at a callous universe, burdened with a lack of faith in human relationships and estranged from his country. Threaded in between the readings we hear works of Guillaume de Machaut, Giorgio Tedde (b.1956), Hitoshi Nakamura (b.1967), Malanetski and Malanetski-Mitterer as well as improvisations inspired by the poems and the composed musical works. Mitterer is as at home with early music as she is with the most contemporary of styles and its myriad of techniques and effects. Moving from recorder to recorder, her playing literally illustrates the poems, as Malanetski skilfully merges an understated, economical use of percussion instruments and live electronics to create canons, clusters, ostinatos and soundscapes, drawing together all the threads of the evening’s contents into a rich, disturbing but captivating journey. Polished and profound, the young, go-ahead artists offered the audience the rare opportunity of experiencing the poetry of brilliant (and disruptive) Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, widely regarded as one of the most innovative and original authors of the 20th century, together with its repercussions in their own unique musical language. 


Recorder player and baroque oboist Manuela Maria Mitterer regularly performs both solo- and chamber music in concerts taking her to Russia, Slovenia, Croatia, Great Britain, Spain and Italy. She plays the recorder in the La Folia Barockorchester (Robin Peter Müller) and Baroque oboe in the Croatian Baroque Ensemble (Laura Vadjon). Alongside her expertise in early music, new music also plays an important role in the projects and repertoire of her work as a young musician. In 2014, she won the International Music Competition (Slovenia). Mitterer studied under Dorothee Oberlinger, Walter van Hauwe, Matthijs Lunenburg and Andrea Guttmann at the Mozarteum University (Vienna) and is now taking studies in Baroque oboe with Andreas Helm at the Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna. The Lyra Foundation (Switzerland) has awarded Manuela several scholarships. 


Valentin Malanetski’s artistic projects range from piano and harpsichord performance (solo, chamber music) to live electronic music productions and composition. Studying piano, harpsichord and music pedagogy at the multifaceted Mozarteum University in Salzburg, his interests lie in a multitude of musical styles, from choral Renaissance- to contemporary electronic music. He seeks to put together interesting and engaging programs, mainly by collaborating with colleagues on unusual repertoire or performance formats. Trained in the classical music tradition, he still regards classical music as central to his musical being and the starting point for his own music. In developing his compositional style, he combines the influences of contemporary- and folk music (also jazz/rock) with the clarity of musical styles of the past. Malanetski integrates acoustic sounds with vocal- and recorded elements, with electronic effects and sounds, in order to create physical, visual and auditory sensations.


Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Between Mozart and Pushkin - the Carmel Quartet hosts the Malenki Theatre (Tel Aviv) and Italian pianist Pietro Bonfilio

Photo: Yoel Levy

The Carmel Quartet (music director: Dr. Yoel Greenberg) opened the 2019-2020 Strings & More series on quite a different note. Directed by Michael Teplitsky, the audience was presented with Alexander Pushkin’s “little tragedy” “Mozart & Salieri” (translation: Roy Chen), with Rodie Kozlovsky playing Salieri and Dudu Niv, Mozart. The character of the blind violinist was missing from this performance, but, instead, each of the two acts was peppered with short works meticulously performed by Carmel Quartet members Rachel Ringelstein - violin/viola, Tali Goldberg - violin, Tami Waterman - ‘cello and visiting pianist Pietro Bonfilio (b.1990, Italy). This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem Music Centre, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, on November 6th 2019. In this, the English-language concert; the two Israeli actors played in Hebrew, but concert-goers were able to follow the text in an English translation projected onto a screen.


It was in 1830, in the wake of Tsar Nicholas I’s execution of the Decembrists, with Pushkin  seeing Russia as a lone pestilential tree to which “no bird flies towards, no tiger goes near”, that the great Russian poet, playwright and novelist wrote “Mozart and Salieri”. Pushkin’s verse-play presents a small but effective portrayal of genius and of envy.  Salieri is a man completely devoted to music, hailed as a brilliant musician and composer, happy with his music and his life until Mozart appears on the scene. Enter Mozart, who has been composing his "Requiem". On stage we meet Salieri, who is too grave for his own good, totally self-abnegating to his art, and Mozart, the family man and jolly prankster who is in love with life.  Salieri decides to poison Mozart. A mere two scenes - ten pages of text - separate Salieri’s declaration of envy from Mozart’s despatch. Compact as it is, the play is astonishingly rich in dramatic potential; Kozlovsky and Niv, convincing in their portrayals of each character, are quick to draw the audience into the work’s content, substantiating it vividly. Among the musical works threaded through Act 1 were the Larghetto from Salieri’s Concerto in C major, with Bonfilio’s playing of the solo role exquisitely fragile and beautifully ornamented and joined by delicate string comments and occasional tutti; we heard Rachel Ringelstein in sympathetic singing of  “Voi Che Sapete” (Mozart - “Marriage of Figaro”); Bonfilio and Ringelstein gave a filigree-fine performance of the Tempo di Minuetto from Mozart’s Sonata for piano and violin in E minor K.304, to be followed by the Andante from the String Trio in E flat major. The latter premiered in Dresden in 1789, with Mozart playing the viola part; it is the composer’s only completed string trio. The Carmel Quartet’s string players’ presentation of the themes and each intricate variation emerged articulate, inspired and personal, their delivery ranging from the wistful to the dramatic.


Act 2: Vienna, 1791. The scene is set with the buoyant, folksy but light-of-foot sounds of Beethoven’s Ländler No.1 WoO15, performed by the strings.  Mozart, worried about his Requiem, tells Salieri how haunted he is by the figure of the mysterious stranger in black who had requested the Requiem. Salieri hands him the pewter wine cup that contains wine mixed with poison. Mozart drinks to them both. We then hear Bonfilio in a haunting, reflective and subtly dramatic performance of Liszt’s arrangement of the Lacrimosa from the Mozart Requiem, a befitting choice of repertoire: Mozart was Liszt’s illustrious role model, both were pioneers of progress, both enduring pain, both suffering in order to accomplish their goals. The murder is followed by Salieri’s premise that, through his act of murder and vilifying himself, villainy and genius cannot exist together. In Pushkin’s play it is in fact Salieri who is the main character, taking his revenge on God by extinguishing his chosen voice - Mozart’s beautiful music. The performance concluded with all four musicians in a poetic, introspective rendition of Mozart’s final piece - "Ave verum Corpus".


Following the intermission, Bonfilio and the string players performed Mozart’s Piano Quartet No.1 in G minor K.478. As evident in his Symphonies No.25 and 40, G minor is a key that Mozart reserved for his more intense musical ideas. In the opening Allegro, with Mozart’s forthright utterances juxtaposed with more lyrical material, Bonfilio displayed sparkling clarity and agile fingerwork, his playing faithful to the Classical concept. Partnered with the string players’ warm, stirring sound, his playing was, at times, a little too reserved. Tali Goldberg led securely, offering a touch of rubato to flex the incessantly flowing sixteenth notes of the Andante movement. In the playful G major Rondo, Bonfilio presented the subject in springy, non-legato textures, light and of good cheer; there was much lively conversation between strings and piano. Mozart adds variety to this final movement by visiting minor keys in a few places, but the music does not dwell on them for long, as the artists negotiated the movement with delightful playing free of the Sturm und Drang gestures that dominated the first movement.


Beautifully presented, this was a unique and exhilarating event to see in the new season!

Pietro Bonfilio (Courtesy P.Bonfilio)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

"The Brandenburgs" - hosting Lina Tur Bonet (Spain) and Dani Espasa (Spain), the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opens its 2019-2020 season with instrumental works of J.S.Bach and Handel

Idit Shemer, Dani Espasa, Lina Tur Bonet © Yoel Levy
The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra opened its 31st subscription season with a concert devoted to instrumental music of Bach and Handel. Soloists in “The Brandenburgs” were Lina Tur Bonet (Spain) - conductor/solo violin, Dani Espasa (Spain) - harpsichord, Doret Florentin, Inbar Solomon - recorders and Idit Shemer - flute. This writer attended the concert at the Jerusalem International YMCA on November 4th 2019. Prof. David Shemer, JBO founder and musical director, offered words of welcome to the audience and spoke of the artists and programs awaiting the audience in the new season’s concerts. 


As its title implies, most of the program was devoted to J.S.Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos; there was also one work of G.F.Handel. Over the years, a number of inaccurate and bizarre stories have circulated concerning the Brandenburg Concertos. What remains clear is that Bach, no longer feeling secure in his position of Kapellmeister at the Calvinist court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, was looking for employment elsewhere. In 1718 the composer was sent to Berlin by Prince Leopold to commission a harpsichord from the workshop of Michael Mietke, returning there in 1719 to collect it. In Berlin, Bach had occasion to play for Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg-Schwedt, who was so taken with his music that he asked him to send some of his compositions for his library. Bach dedicated a volume of six “concerts avec plusieurs instruments” (concertos for various instruments) to Christian Ludwig, sending it to the nobleman in 1721 in the hope of being offered employment by him. There is no record of a reply from the Margrave, and Bach eventually accepted a lucrative combination of posts in Leipzig, where he then lived for the rest of his life. There is also no evidence of the Brandenburgs being performed in Bach’s lifetime. The concertos were finally rediscovered and published in 1849, nearly 130 years after their composition. In his program notes, David Shemer discusses the beginnings of the genre of orchestral music in Europe and of the development of the concerto grosso form in particular. Indeed, the Brandenburg Concertos give us a glimpse into the evolution of modern orchestral composition. In them Bach brought together the widest possible combination of instruments (different for each concerto), combining them in daring partnerships. Orchestral music would never be the same again once the world had heard Bach’s colourful and texture-filled Brandenburg Concertos. 


Leading the evening’s program was Lina Tur Bonet, no new face to JBO audiences. On this visit, she was accompanied by harpsichordist Dani Espasa, with whom she has worked extensively. Brandenburg Concerto No.3 BWV 1048 in G major is scored for three violins, three violas, three ‘cellos, bass, and harpsichord. The nine upper strings serve as both concertino (soloists) and ripieno (accompanists), fluidly transitioning between roles throughout the piece. Concert-goers are familiar with these pieces, but Tur Bonet was showing the listener that a concerto is not necessarily a flamboyant, virtuoso solo showpiece as we tend to think of it today. With ample low-register instruments, the evening’s general ensemble timbre (especially here, with three ‘cellos and double bass) was well-anchored, mellow and integrated. Even in the ebullient (final) Allegro, following the intimacy and cantabile fragility of the miniature second movement, Tur Bonet kept well clear of muscular, garish playing in favour of the beauty of the music itself.


The solo instruments in the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 BWV 1050 in D major are flute, violin and harpsichord, the latter also included as a featured instrument, originally to show off the new instrument Bach had brought back from Berlin. As the first movement opened with a vigorous tutti theme for the orchestra, Tur Bonet led her players with subtlety, her solos expressive, at times delightfully weightless, as she occasionally took the dynamics down to pianississimo delicacy. As the movement progressed, Espasa gave the harpsichord solo a sense of humility and stability, growing more elaborate but never overdone, its sparkling cascades of unaccompanied melody and figuration in the closing sections presented with gentle rubato. In the tender Affettuoso movement, with the texture pared down to just the concertino, Tur Bonet and Idit Shemer -  in the honeyed tones of the Baroque flute - collaborated in poignant dialogue, with Espasa engaging in some inégal playing. With the entire ensemble joining the soloists for the finale, again with much dialogue, Tur Bonet and her players indulged in Bach's joie-de-vivre, contrapuntal ingenuity and rhythmic vivacity, however, with kindly profusion.


If Brandenburg Concerto No.4 BWV 1049 in D major had got off to a very brisk start, it was not at the expense of Tur Bonet’s melodic shaping or of the collaboration of Florentin and Solomon on recorders. The violin part in this concerto is extremely virtuosic in the first and third movements. Who the main soloists are in the opening movement is never quite clear, but that was not important as the artists’ mastery and a well-rounded ensemble sound of finely delineated melodic strands strode hand-in-hand and Tur Bonet’s facial expressions communicated with her players, with the movement’s final chord coloured by a spicy dissonance leaning into its solution. In the second movement, the violin bows down to its recorder partners and provides the bass when the concertino group plays unaccompanied, with Florentin and Solomon entertaining the listener with thoughtful variety to each joint recorder response. In the finale, a combination of concerto style and formal fugue, there was a sense of balance among all as Tur Bonet negotiated the shimmering passages of arpeggiated bowings on alternating strings. 


G.F.Handel’s Op. 6 Concerti Grossi are widely considered as definitive examples of the concerto grosso form. The fact that they were intended for playing during performances of his oratorios and odes does not detract from their quality.  Inspired by the more veteran concerto da chiesa and concerto da camera of Arcangelo Corelli, the creative lavishness of structure and the diversity of styles that Handel exhibits in these Twelve Grand Concertos, coloured by a surprising palette of musical expression, is unique, often resulting in this collection as being considered alongside Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos as one of the great monuments of Baroque instrumental music. Lina Tur Bonet sets the scene for Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.6 HWV 324 in G minor with a sombre, ponderous, regal, almost spiritual reading of the  opening Larghetto e affettuoso movement. Following the brief chromatic, angular fugue, the serene mood was recalled in the elegant Musette, a movement offering dialogue between low and high registers, with Tur Bonet’s solos soaring plangently above the ensemble, its outer sections punctuated by a brighter interlude. Tur Bonet offered some flexing to her solo in the first Allegro. As to the second Allegro, tripping along delightfully in triple time with all the violins playing in unison, the work drew to a close with the players bowing out in graceful gestures.


Throughout the evening, Lina Tur Bonet, taking the audience into the world of small gestures, Baroque elegance and timbral transparency, created the ambience of fine house music. We might have been  hearing these works played in the drawing room of some noble family in Central Europe. 

© Yoel Levy

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Israel Camerata Jerusalem opens the 2019-2020 concert season with a Bach Missa brevis, the Mozart Requiem and a new work by Josef Bardanashvili

Photo: Shirley Burdick
The Israel Camerata Jerusalem opened its 2019-2020 InstruVocal Series with works of Bach and Mozart and the world premiere of an Israeli work. Conducted by the Camerata’s musical director Avner Biron, soloists were soprano Daniela Skorka, mezzo-soprano Nitzan Alon, tenor Daniel Johannsen (Austria) and baritone Felix Kemp (UK). Guest choir was the Jauna Muzika Choir, Lithuania (conductor: Vaclovas Augustinas). This writer attended the concert at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on November 2nd 2019.


Josef Bardanashvili composed “Image” for chamber orchestra in memory of Ben (Benzi) Shira (1952-2018), who was the Camerata’s general manager from 2008 to 2017. Bardanashvili, who served as the orchestra’s house composer for some years, introduced the piece by talking of his working relationship and friendship with Shira, adding that the piece written in his memory should not sound sad; rather, it should be a lullaby. A kind of rondo, with two episodes, “Image” is based on the notes b-flat and e, as represented in Benzi Shira’s first name, the dissonant tritone interval expressing the composer’s anger at Shira’s passing. Bardanashvili writes of the music’s tension as never finding a solution, referring to the piece as a “romantic-nostalgic homage/image”, his respect paid to a person who left this world too early. Opening with a pensive clarinet melody, the piece proceeds to swing between tranquillity and vehemence, semplice melodiousness and dissonance, tonal and atonal writing, intimate solos and tutti. As its conclusion approaches, we hear a plangeant violin solo, with the work ending on a tranquil major chord. This is finely-crafted instrumental writing, performed with transparency and attention to detail, the inclusion of harpsichord (Marina Minkin) adding poignancy to the ensemble sound. Born in Georgia (1948), Josef Bardanashvili emigrated to Israel in 1995. A prolific composer, he is also active in the plastic arts, having exhibited paintings in his country of birth and also in Israel.


J.S.Bach’s Lutheran Masses remain somewhat of an enigma. Bach was a Lutheran church musician devoted to the composition of sacred music in German, having written more than 200 cantatas for the liturgy. His four Lutheran Masses, written in the 1730s to Latin texts, feature almost no Lutheran material. Like its counterparts, Bach’s Lutheran Mass in G minor BWV 235 consists of only a Kyrie and Gloria; a “parody” Mass, it is compiled from material of three of the composer’s cantatas, but with some changes.  Bach’s own choice of some of his finest cantata movements attests to the high quality of the G minor Mass. The small, varied work offered the audience an opportunity to hear three of the vocal soloists - baritone Felix Kemp’s bright baritone timbre in an articulate presentation of the “Gratias agimus Tibi”, Daniel Johannsen’s detailed. highly expressive and ornamented singing of the “Qui tollis”, with its beauteous oboe obbligato, and Nitzan Alon’s clear, stable, rich alto sound in her competent and profound performance of the “Domine fili”. Free of heavy vibrato, the Jauna Muzika Choir’s singing was finely detailed, objective and unmannered, its sections amalgamated into a smooth blend, with Biron striking a delicate and refined balance between choir and orchestra.  While often overshadowed by the more famous Mass in B minor, the beauty, splendid choruses and deeply moving arias of Bach’s Lutheran Masses should not be overlooked and they make for fine concert fare.


W.A.Mozart spent most of 1791 in good health, writing, performing frequently and enjoying an active social life. A prolific year, he honoured his annual commission to compose dance tunes for the court balls held each January and February, completed Piano Concerto No. 27, two operas - “The Magic Flute” and “La Clemenza di Tito” - and his last major instrumental work, the Clarinet Concerto in A. In November, he became ill, never to recover. Heavily in debt, he took on a portentous commission to write a Requiem Mass, finally struggling to complete the Requiem that he gradually came to see as his own. Surrounded by legends and left unfinished due to his death at age 35, it was completed by two former students - Joseph Eybler and Franz Xaver Süssmayr - who added to their master’s writing a stylistic fusion of influences from Schubert to Bruckner, Beethoven to Busoni. Scoring the Requiem for four vocal soloists, choir and orchestra, Mozart wished to exclude all wind instruments considered too joyful, only keep to the muted sound of the basset horn. Maestro Biron led singers and instrumentalists in a captivating performance, presenting the work’s arcane counterpoint and its evocation of a strange liturgical archaism and reading into all the details and nuances that comprise a work resembling death itself - pathetic and terrifying, calm and terrible - as it swings between harsh accents and soft, soothing and melancholic melodies. With Daniela Skorka’s clean, substantial voice present at the opening and closing the Requiem, all solos emerged meaningful and gratifying; the vocal quartets were affecting, as in the intimacy and tenderness of the “Recordare”. But it is the choir that takes on the lion’s share of the Mozart Requiem, and Jauna Muzika did not disappoint, engaging with dedication in the work’s strong emotions, as in the massive, fiery storm of the “Dies Irae”, but also with compassionate grace in the work’s flowing, velvety and caressing moments. And the Camerata’s elegant and refined signature sound was present throughout, endorsing the strong emotions and sublime beauty of Mozart’s last composition.


A festive and exhilarating event to launch the Israel Camerata Jerusalem’s 36th concert season.



Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Soprano Niva Eshed Frenkel in the Israeli premiere of Hamuchtar's one-woman opera "Null Sterne Hotel"

Niva Eshed Frenkel (photo:Boaz Arad)
“Null Sterne Hotel” (No Star Hotel), a contemporary operatic theatre piece combining text, singing, experimental electronic music and video art, was created and produced by Gilad Philip Ben-David, also known as Hamuchtar. Translated by Miri Kämpfer, it features opera singer and dancer Niva Eshed Frenkel. It was premiered in Berlin in 2016, where it received enthusiastic reviews. This writer attended the Israeli debut of “No Star Hotel” at the Enav Cultural Center (Tel Aviv) on October 31st 2019. It was performed in German with Hebrew surtitles.

Actually, such a place does exist. The Null Stern Hotel, a former nuclear bunker converted into a hotel, opened in Teufen, Appenzellerland, Switzerland on June 5, 2009. It operated as a hotel for only one year, before being turned into a museum devoted to itself in June 2010. (“No Star” refers not to the hotel classification, but to the fact that “the only star is you”.)

The one-woman opera performance opens with the person (Eshed) waking up in a shady hotel after a night of bad dreams. From the text, bristling with questions about the state of a man returning, we might be expecting some kind of love story or perhaps one of a soldier returning from war. The show, however, proceeds as a series of meditations on different situations or topics - art, monkeys, syphilis, industrial design, beauty, banning entry to a house and photosynthesis, with Eshed reflecting on each, playing against the vibrant video action projected onto a large screen at the back of the stage. Are we witnessing disconnected scenes or are they, in fact, telling of her suicidal thoughts due to her past life and to one woman’s yearning for beauty and to be loved? Following her struggle, the opera concludes on an optimistic note, with the woman finding inner strength to go on. This performance is not for the faint-hearted: it constantly challenges the audience to think, listen, observe and be inside the issues that present life in the raw, as Eshed invests emotion in each situation. A soprano with a fine sense of drama and movement, she carries off the performance impressively, her strong, flexible voice dealing admirably with the complex, atonal musical score, the German text, an artist as aware of her audience as she is of the existential issues at hand.

This is a daring, gripping and insightful pageant of life, its hardships but also its beauty - the beauty of art and nature. Gilad Philip Ben-David (Hamuchtar) b. 1971, is a singer and cabaret artist who began his career in Tel Aviv in the late 1980s. He has played in various films, most notably “Amazing Grace” by the late director Amos Guttman, as well as directing his own films and theatre plays.

A graduate of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, Israeli-born Niva Eshed Frenkel has been a member of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble and has soloed in Israeli opera productions. A member of the 3FOR1 Trinity Concerts (Germany), she sang the role of Christine in their production of “Phantom of the Opera”. She performs recitals and in a-cappella choral music throughout Germany, teaches voice, piano and music theory.

Photo © Yoel Levy

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Celebrating 250 years of Beethoven's birth - Symphonies No.2 and No.3 performed in chamber music settings at the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
With 2020 commemorating the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth, concerts worldwide will be saluting the great composer born in Bonn, who lived and died in Vienna. To celebrate the legacy of the world’s most performed composer, the Eden-Tamir Music Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, is also running a Beethoven series. The first concert  - “Beethoven in Disguise” - took place on October 26th 2019. Artists taking part in the event were Matan Dagan (violin), Lotem Beider (viola), Yoni Gotlibovich (‘cello) and Dror Semmel (piano). 


The concert comprised chamber music arrangements of two Beethoven symphonies - Nos. 2 and 3. Possibly a new listening experience for most of the audience gathered at the Eden-Tamir Center, this phenomenon was by no means rare in the composer’s time. In fact, from the late Classical period and into the early 20th century, it was quite common for composers to arrange their own symphonic works for smaller ensembles. These arrangements, many for piano 4-hands, were primarily for domestic consumption; they resounded from the music rooms of private homes in the days before radio and recordings and where concerts were not accessible to all. Not all the Beethoven arrangements were necessarily transcribed by him and, in fact, not even necessarily by two of his most famous assistants and copyists - Czerny and Ries, although the latter two certainly did make arrangements of their teacher’s music. With house music all the rage, publishers often unscrupulously commissioned other musicians to arrange Beethoven symphonic works.  Arrangements were sometimes made illegally in other countries, and most of the time, without Beethoven's knowledge. However, not to be underestimated, this repertoire opens new perspectives not only on the arrangements themselves, but also as to contemporary attitudes towards these works.


Introducing the works, Dr. Dror Semmel spoke of Beethoven’s Symphony No.2 in D major Op.36 as having been composed at a time when the composer was in a bad state, both physically and emotionally. Depressed, almost deaf and unable to hide his increasing infirmity, Beethoven  wrote from Heiligenstadt in 1802…“yes that beloved hope - which I brought with me when I came here to be cured...I must wholly abandon; as the leaves of autumn fall and are withered, so hope has been blighted, almost as I came - I go away…” It was while working through this period of crisis that Beethoven completed Symphony No.2. Semmel notes that the D major Symphony, enigmatically, does not reflect the composer’s despondency; cheerful and outgoing, it even includes some humorous moments. The composer wrote his own trio arrangement of Symphony No.2 three years following the original symphonic setting. With much musical responsibility taken on by each of the players, Dagan, Gotlibovich and Semmel gave a dedicated performance of the work, drawing the listener into it via its slow, powerful, pensive introduction, moving into a full soundscape, their probing and play of motifs of the first movement’s development section arousing the listener’s curiosity. The Larghetto movement emerged lyrical but not insubstantial (for the piano trio setting, the composer had added the marking of “quasi andante” to keep it lively), the division of labour making for effective dialogue, its middle section minor-tinted and wistful. Also conversational was the compact, playful and sunny Beethoven-style Scherzo, its Trio a miniature performance with several “characters” on stage, this to be followed by the feisty, uninhibited, full canvas of the Allegro molto, its rhythmic play, small stops and surprises all presented with fine contrasting by the players. Beethoven's symphonies are painted on a huge canvas, and their scale is heroic. His contemporaries applauded his Second as a noteworthy piece full of power and depth, but they commonly referred to his music of that time as bizarre. In the piano trio setting, many of the tutti effects are created on the piano by fast "tremolo" of chords or arpeggios. Beethoven probably composed this symphony at the piano; he certainly played it on the piano when working out metronome markings.


As of Symphony No.3 in E flat major Op.55 “Eroica” Beethoven enters a new compositional phase, with the Eroica rightfully claiming its status as one of the great turning points in western music. One might be tempted to ask how reasonable it was to provide small-ensemble arrangements for something as large-scale and glorious as Beethoven's Eroica Symphony; for some listeners, the lesser orchestration and variety of orchestral colour could make for quite disconcerting listening.  Ferdinand Ries was, of course, well regarded in his time as a pianist (his public debut was in Beethoven's Piano Concerto No.3) and also the distinguished composer of a large body of chamber music with and without piano. As it turns out, he did a superb job in keeping the spirit of the Eroica alive, rich and full in this highly reduced arrangement, his paring down of proportions carried out with impeccable compositional craftsmanship, skilfully dividing the roles among each of the four performers and actually clarifying some of the inner workings of the symphony, in particular, its contrapuntal writing. Here, his writing for piano is challenging and virtuosic, assigning it to take on the body of the original score, yet without relegating the strings into submissiveness. At the Ein Kerem concert, the artists created a convincingly full and well-defined timbral scene, the opening Allegro con brio’s melodious utterances emerging from intense sections, in playing that was both gripping and tender. The Marcia funebre, with Semmel establishing its natural and ceremonious pacing, was deeply felt as it moved from theme to beautifully-formed variations. Any notion of heroic- or tragic feeling was then swiftly whisked away by the Scherzo, the artists’ perky - at times lightweight, at others, demonic - reading of it, with its off-beat jokes and the Trio’s hunting-horn associations, all so convincing in the quartet scoring!  The artists' playing of the Finale gave expression to the breadth of Beethoven's original thoughts in its melange of intensity and lyricism, sealing the performance in a richly-coloured tour-de-force.


So, was the audience at the Eden-Tamir Music Center hearing Beethoven “in disguise” or not? Do these arrangements ask too much of the players or do they, in fact, give them freedom to read their own interpretations into the score more so than possible when playing under a conductor? Were we listening to orchestral music, to chamber music or, perhaps, to a third medium? The listener was left to grapple with these questions as the concert ended.