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.

No comments: