Wednesday, December 18, 2019

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

Keren Hadar (Chaya Zel)

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


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


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


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


An evening of outstanding performance, interest and enjoyment.


Merav Eldan (Chaya Zel)

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