Saturday, July 31, 2021

The Israel Symphony Rishon LeZion Orchestra in an all-Prokofiev program at the Tel Aviv Opera House, conductor: Dan Ettinger

Maestro Dan Ettinger (courtesy Dan Ettinger)


The Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion closed the 2020-2021 concert season with an all-Prokofiev program. Conducted by its musical director Dan Ettinger, guest actress Tzipi Shavit featured in the third work. This writer attended the event on July 25th 2021 at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. 


In his opening remarks, Maestro Ettinger maintained that each of the three works was going to be a totally different listening experience. Russian Soviet composer, pianist and conductor. Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953) wrote masterpieces of numerous music genres. He is regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. From 1918-1922, Prokofiev was living temporarily in the United States, a refugee from the Communist Revolution and the unsettled conditions it had produced in Russia. In the autumn of 1919, he was asked by Zimro (an ensemble consisting of  string quartet, clarinet and piano, all players former classmates from the St. Petersburg Conservatory then living as refugees in New York City) to write a piece for them based on Jewish themes, one that would use the forces of the entire sextet. They presented him with a collection of traditional Jewish melodies, but Prokofiev, never having used “borrowed” folk material, initially refused their request. However, impressed by the songs, he began improvising on the themes at the piano, within two days completing the score. Zimro premiered it in New York in January 1920. The version heard at the Tel Aviv concert was the composer’s 1934 orchestration of the Overture on Hebrew Themes, Op.34a. The touching, bitter-sweet clarinet melody soulfully played at the outset left no doubt as to the genesis of the work, with the Rishon LeZion Orchestra presenting the lively sequence of Klezmer tunes, typical of those played at Jewish weddings and dances, music blending melancholy and joy ("laughing through the tears") and bringing out their exotic scales, piquant rhythms and expressive "cantillations". The aim of the mesmerizing piano figurations in the slower, lyrical sections (piano: Odelia Sever) was possibly to mimic the hammered dulcimer or tsimbl, a traditional instrument of the Klezmer ensemble. An exhilarating start to the event!


In addition to being a brilliant composer, Prokofiev was an avid, eloquent diarist. Shortly after his 26th birthday, he spent a summer on a farm, where, minus his piano, he composed Symphony No.1 in D major Op.25, “Classical Symphony”. Based on the Classical concept, it was to be concise and playful, refurbishing traditional classical forms with modern harmonies, rhythms and orchestral colours. Set in the “sunny” key of D major, it employs the standard forces of a classical chamber orchestra; following the model of Mozart and Haydn. Prokofiev casts it in four movements, with each written on a small scale and lightly scored for no more instruments than of a typical classical symphony. In a piquant and constantly engaging reading of the work, one combining clarity and formality with the renegade spirit of Prokofiev’s early works, Ettinger leads the Rishon LeZion Orchestra in playing that. pours dramatic new content into the Classical mold, the Classical Symphony’s spiky, non-lyrical themes replacing the congenial, elegant, lyrical music of Mozart and Haydn. The two outer effervescent sonata-form movements were performed with energy, whimsy and attractive, dancing rhythms; in between them, the lyrical, sweetly romantic-sounding Larghetto was followed by the charming and catchy Gavotte, the latter suddenly gone as in a puff of smoke. The display of Prokofiev’s tongue-in-cheek witticism and vivid rhetoric was well communicated to the audience. With the strings endorsing the general sound, what stood out at this performance was also the crisp playing of the woodwinds.


When Prokofiev moved back home to Soviet Russia in 1936, artistic purges were raging. The composer conformed with the party line by writing “heroic and constructive” works for adults. To the world, Sergei Prokofiev appeared to be a cosmopolitan sophisticate, but his family was aware of a different side to his personality. According to his first wife, Lina, he had always remained a child in spirit, with a liking for fairy tales, the composer also understanding how children thought and what amused them. Natalia Satz, director of the Moscow Children’s Musical Theatre, saw Prokofiev as the ideal composer for young audiences. The two met and discussed writing an original story: there would be animals, and at least one human. Prokofiev wrote his own script for “Peter and the Wolf", a Symphonic Fairy Tale for Children, to be narrated by a speaker and with different instruments representing each of the characters. Peter is curious and strong-willed. His world is small, but he isn’t afraid to challenge authority. His goal is simple: to put right the wrongs he sees in the world. As children, many of us have grown up with the tale of plucky Peter and his animal friends, at the same time, learning to recognize the various orchestral instruments. Enter Eli Bijaoui, a gifted Israeli writer, translator and stage director with an amazing list of accomplishments to his name. Of the younger generation (born 1978), his new Hebrew, rhyming text for “Peter and the Wolf” preserves all the detail of the original, however, brimming with freshness of approach, wit and verve, a vivid use of the Hebrew language and much to keep the contemporary Israeli adult audience focused throughout. In her inimitable style, actress, singer and comedienne Tzipi Shavit went far beyond the role of reciting Bijaoui’s text: she entertained, ad-libbed and had the audience laughing at her hijinks. This was perhaps a little distracting, but her reading of the text, however, was articulate (not to speak of theatrical) and well-coordinated with the work’s musical course. Surtitles gave the audience an extra opportunity to appreciate Bijaoui’s rich and zesty text. But no less, drawing the listener into the narrative of this most famous of program works, Ettinger and the instrumentalists gave superb and suave expression to its characters and drama, indeed, to the beauty of Prokofiev’s score, in a performance testifying to superior soloing and orchestral playing.  Happily, “Peter and the Wolf” has been liberated from the exclusive realm of children’s concerts, enabling older listeners to revisit the work and once again delight in its musical brilliance and charm.


The cover of a 1959 Soviet vinyl LP. Peter is wearing the red kercheif of the Young Communists (Melodiya)





Monday, July 26, 2021

Ensemble PHOENIX presents "Leonora Duarte, Palazzo and Synagogue", a concert of Duarte's music, that of her circle and of music sung at the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam

The Duarte salon (Gonzales Coques)

“Leonora Duarte, Palazzo and Synagogue” was a joint event of Ensemble PHOENIX and the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra of the “Witches?” Festival (July 5-31, 2021, artistic director: David Shemer), a festival produced by the JBO, celebrating women and femininity in Baroque music. The program, researched, directed and assembled by PHOENIX director Myrna Herzog, took place at New Spirit House, Jerusalem, on July 20th 2021.  


JBO founder and dire
ctor Prof. David Shemer provided the audience with some information on Flemish composer and musician Leonora Duarte (1610-1678). She was born in Antwerp to a wealthy Portuguese-Jewish family of prominent merchants and art collectors. They were members of the Converso community (outwardly acting as Catholics while secretly maintaining their Jewish faith and practices. The Duarte family had left Portugal, settling in Antwerp to escape the infamous Inquisition.) Leonora received a superb musical education that included instruction in playing the viol, virginals and lute, as well as lessons in composition. The Duarte home was a nexus of music-making and the visual arts, the musical evenings, with Leonora and her siblings performing in them, becoming a port of call for traveling diplomats, literati, thinkers and composers, among the latter, Nicholas Lanier, the influential Constantijn Huygens, John Bull (1562/3–1628), and more. Duarte wrote music for viol consort. All her surviving compositions - seven beautiful Fantasias - were performed at the festive concert in Jerusalem by Myrna Herzog, Tal Arbel, Marina Katz, Sonia Navot and Shmuel Magen (viols), Ophira Zakai (theorbo). and Marina Minkin (organ). Having some similarities to works of English Catholic keyboard player and composer John Bull, who was director of music at Antwerp Cathedral at the time (was he perhaps Duarte’s teacher?), the fantasias display Duarte’s familiarity not only with Tudor consort music but also with the Italian fantasia style of the late Renaissance as well as other Continental styles. In playing that was both articulate and poetic, the artists presented Duarte’s thought processes, her sophisticated free contrapuntal writing and the different moods possible within each piece, giving the audience a rare opportunity to experience the composer’s formidable compositional skills and elegant musical language, also her sense of quietude and introspection. Offering a glimpse into Baroque music-making within the domestic sphere, these fantasias are the only record of music written for the viol by a woman in the 17th century. As to Sinfonia No.5, the basis for it might possibly have been a Passover song  (as suggested by Belgian viol player Thomas Baeté.) Prior to hearing this fantasia, Herzog played the minor-modal melody, then to be joined by singers Sharon Tadmor, Liron, Givoni and Itamar Hildesheim in performance of a contrafactum, with 
Herzog providing a minimal, non-intrusive instrumental backing. Regarding the contrafactum itself, Herzog had constructed it, marrying it to the surviving text of a lost Portuguese Passover song.


As to the music sung in the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, it was saved from oblivion by the last choral conductor working there - David Ricardo (1904-1982) - who, on foreseeing the future destruction of the Amsterdam Jewish community, emigrated to Israel in 1933. He then set about notating 170 synagogue songs from memory, many of these Sephardic liturgical melodies arranged for 4-voices. Herzog was fortunate in receiving a copy of this important collection from Ricardo’s daughter, Rachel Thaller Ricardo, who was present at the Jerusalem concert. Thaller Ricardo spoke about the tradition of singing these very songs at family gatherings. Herzog chose some of the songs from the collection to be performed at the concert, several opening with a vocal solo, to proceed with the vocal ensemble, a familiar set-up in Central European synagogue music. Herzog’s order of performing the (mostly major) vocal pieces was in logical modulating sequence, with the result that each of the two groups of songs hung together, forming a musical whole. Myrna Herzog‘s preference for the 1/6 syntonic comma meantone temperament here, one well suited to 17th and 18th century music, was due to its highly coloured temperament, enhancing the contrasts between consonance and dissonance. What emerged was a lush fusion of instrumental and vocal sound combinations, inspiring the artists to highlight the textual, musical and emotional content of each song. Joining the ensemble made up of some of Israel’s most established Baroque instrumentalists, the three young singers, shining in both solos and ensembles, were clearly moved by the experience, as was the audience.


From music written by members of Duarte’s artistic circle, we heard “Love’s Constancy”, Nicholas Lanier’s quintessentially English ostinato-based setting of a Thomas Carew poem, this love song attesting to the composer’s sophisticated integration of text and music. Accompanied by harpsichord, bass viol and theorbo (Lanier frequently accompanied himself on the lute) Sharon Tadmor's singing of the evocative, ground bass ayre, with its many references to the natural world, was fresh and vibrant. Dutch diplomat and poet Constantijn Huygens, prominent in the fields of scholarship, music and science, was known to have performed and enjoyed music exclusively within circles of close friends belonging to the cultural elite of refined musical taste. From his 1647 collection of compositions in the Italian Baroque style comprising compositions for voice and basso continuo, tenor Itamar Hildesheim performed “Graves tesmoins de mes délices”, a love song of a less optimistic nature than Lanier’s. Following a stately viol solo (Herzog) introducing the piece, Hildesheim gave a sensitive enactment of the song, his presentation convincing and expressive, his well-anchored voice sculpting the piece’s rich shaping and emotional gestures in a piece typical of Huygens’ refined and expressive personal style.


Throughout the event, Marina Minkin divided her time between playing virginal and organ. Performing John Bull’s In Nomine XXXVII from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book on the virginal (an informed choice) her playing was a reminder that Bull was one of the leading keyboard virtuosos of his time.  Minkin drew the audience into the workings of the plainchant-based piece and its motifs in delivery that was alive, technically assured and musically very interesting.


G.Frescobaldi’s “Si l’aura spira” closed this pivotal musical event on an exuberant note. Originally written for solo voice and continuo, Herzog had added two inner voices to it for the occasion. It was editor David Pinto who claimed that "four of the parts of Duarte’s Sinfonia 6 are taken well-nigh wholesale from a work in Frescobaldi’s 4-part Ricercari (1615), Ricercar Settimo, in which she {Duarte} contributed a second treble line and shortened Frescobaldi’s text.” A warm rousing, heady farewell to the evening’s music, the song opened with Liron Givoni's animated singing of the melody, the song's dancelike course coloured with gentle percussion (Herzog) and  interspersed with recorder- (Arbel) and virginal solos (Minkin), all resulting in a vocal-instrumental weave that was robust and joyful.

“If the breezes blow ever charming,

The budding roses will show their laughing faces,

And the shady emerald hedge

Need not fear the summer heat.

To the dance, to the dance, merrily come,

Pleasing nymphs, flower of beauty!”

Throughout the program, the high-quality of performance, offering each artist the opportunity to shine, was the result of Myrna Herzog's profound groundwork and inquiry into the music and of thorough and painstaking preparation under her guidance.

Photo: Amir Feldman

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

In works of Lavry, Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performs under Maestro Yi-An Xu at the Jerusalem Theatre

Concertmaster Shani Levy (M.Shamir)

Sketch: Miri Shamir


A large audience gathered in the Henry Crown Auditorium of the Jerusalem Theatre on July 19th 2021 to attend a festive summer concert of the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conductor: Yi-An Xu (China/Israel). Comprising players from all over Israel, the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Israel’s national youth orchestra, numbers over 100 players. As of 2006, it has operated under the auspices of the Jerusalem Music Centre. The orchestra offers highly talented players, most of whom are trained as soloists and in chamber music, the opportunity to gain experience in playing symphonic repertoire and performing in the country’s major concert venues.


Opening the event was Mr. Gadi Abadi, director of the Jerusalem Music Centre. He spoke of the importance of studying musical repertoire and the merits of excelling in performance. He also emphasized the fact that this orchestra is indeed a source of pride for the country. The July concert followed eight days of rehearsals for the young orchestra members, where they were coached by several of Israel’s most distinguished teachers and musicians and by Maestro Yi-An Xu, Gadi Abadi expressed his gratitude to the Jerusalem Foundation, Yad Hanadiv, the Goldman Family and other donors for their support of the YIPO.


The program opened with an Israeli work - “Emek” (Valley), Op.45, a symphonic poem written by Marc Lavry in 1937. On emigrating from Latvia to Israel in 1935, Lavry studied the local folklore, establishing his new quintessential sonority. His works, strongly influenced by his new surroundings, became associated with what then became labelled as the Israeli style of music. Premiered by the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, “Emek”, based on the first Hebrew song that Marc Lavry composed, to lyrics of Rafael Eliaz - a text celebrating the pioneering spirit of the land reclamation and agricultural settlement in the Jezreel Valley - was the first Israeli-composed work to be performed at a symphony concert. Yi-An Xu and the instrumentalists gave lush, orchestral colour and expression to each section of the piece - to the serene landscape described in the opening section, to the setting of “Shir HaEmek” (Song of the Valley) and to the high-spirited energy of the hora dance making up the piece's final moments. In this work, well suited to a large orchestra, the young musicians recreated the spirit of the music, described thus by the composer: “In my Emek I tried to express mostly the mood of the valley, the atmosphere, its lyricism, joy and optimism.”


Composed between 1875-76, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet “Swan Lake” was not an immediate success with audiences and critics. Although conjuring up the graceful movements of birds, the ballet’s storyline is less than idyllic. In a letter to his friend Pyotr Jurgenson, Tchaikovsky wrote that he “wanted very much to save this music from oblivion, since it contains some fine things.” The Suite from Swan Lake Op.20a is decidedly lighter in spirit than the ballet music, as it presents favourite moments from across the ballet, opening with the haunting oboe melody associated throughout the ballet with Odette and the swans, the grand waltz; the fluttering, prancing of the “Dance of the Swans”, as well as the Hungarian czardas. Xu led his players through a fresh, hearty and dynamic performance of the suite, its contrasted moments of drama, skipping lightness and charm, highlighting the appeal of Tchaikovsky’s vivid orchestration and skillfully shaped melodies. With this polished, buoyant performance, for many of us an association with the thrill of the classical ballet stage, the listener is reminded that Tchaikovsky was the composer who did indeed revolutionize the writing of ballet music. 


The concert concluded with N.A.Rimsky-Korsakov’s Symphonic Suite “Scheherazade”, Opus 35 (1887-8). Not wishing his listeners to be overly distracted by the work’s extra-musical detail, Rimsky-Korsakov never quite made up his mind about the balance between the work’s programmatic content (Arabian Nights) and its purely musical elements, with the former nevertheless present throughout. The orchestral suite of four movements, all closely knit by the connection of its themes and motifs, presents, as it were, a kaleidoscope of fairy-tale images and impressions of an Oriental character, a fanciful world to challenge and fire the imaginations of young budding musicians growing up in today’s harsh reality. As the work begins, we meet the Sultan and Sultana, the former, a brutal psychopath, with fairy-tale chords for soft woodwinds then leading to the seductive and flattering violin-voice of Scheherazade herself. What emerged at the Jerusalem concert was a rich canvas of gestures - vivid textures, touching, thoughtful moments and mellifluous melodic lines - all conveyed through Rimsky-Korsakov’s vivid use of instrumental textures - the strumming or plucking of strings, percussion timbres both delicate and forthright, brass fanfares, etc. The suite’s wealth of glorious solos gave the audience an opportunity to hear many of the YIPO’s young players engaging in exquisite playing.  A musician of outstanding ability, concertmaster Shani Levy performed the mammoth violin solo with competence, brilliance, poetic beauty and a sense of spontaneity.


Displaying outstanding precision, teamwork, artistic know-how and musicianship, the members of the Young Israel Philharmonic Orchestra showed profound understanding of each of the works. Born in Shanghai in 1979, Yi-An Xu is a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University. He has also been a faculty member of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv, teaching orchestral conducting, coaching vocal students and serving as pianist/conductor in the school’s opera productions.



Conductor Yi-An Xu (Courtesy IPO)

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

"Song of the Courtesan", music of Barbara Strozzi and others performed at the "Witches?" Festival in Jerusalem, July 2021

Soprano Daniela Skorka (photo: Michael Pavia)


A dedication of Barbara Strozzi reads as follows: “I must reverently consecrate this ... work, which as a woman I publish all too boldly, to the Most August Name of Your Highness so that, under an oak of gold it may rest secure against the lightning bolts of slander prepared for it.” Music of Barbara Strozzi and other Baroque composers made up the concert bill for “Song of the Courtesan”, an event which took place at New Spirit House, Jerusalem, on July 9th, 2021.  A chamber concert of the “Witches?” Festival, under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (artistic director: David Shemer), it featured Daniela Skorka-soprano, David Shemer-harpsichord and Eliav Lavi-theorbo.


The life story of Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) remains almost inconceivable for the times in which she lived. The illegitimate daughter of poet Giulio Strozzi and Isabella Garzoni, Giulio’s maid, her father ensured that she would be trained in composition. Francesco Cavalli became her teacher. Due to her father’s standing in artistic circles, Strozzi enjoyed more opportunities than other women artists, certainly more than most women composers of the time. A talented singer, also accompanying herself in performances, she was known to have sung at her father’s home and was heard by prominent musicians, this furthering her ability to compose high level music that would also be published during her lifetime. Of her eight volumes of vocal music, all except one are secular (she wrote no operas), most of her compositions being ariettas, arias and cantatas for solo voice and continuo. All but four of her vocal works were written for the soprano voice. Skorka’s performance left no doubt as to the fact that text was what constituted the driving force of Strozzi’s compositions, their most striking feature being a seemingly endless variety of moods, rhythms, tempi, and melodic textures, all perfectly suited to displaying the female voice to its best possible advantage. In “L’Eraclito amoroso” (Heraclitus in Love) and "Appresso ai molli argenti" (By the silvery waters), Daniela Skorka gave expression to the composer’s rich theatrical canvases evoking the anguish of lost love and betrayal. The singer enlisted her flexible vocal technique and expressiveness to convey Strozzi’s volley of extreme, changing emotions, with dissonances between the voice and accompaniment serving to increase dramatic potency. On a more whimsical note, Skorka tossed off the earthy banter of the tuneful, strophic arietta “Bando d’amore” with exuberant verve and the wink of an eye, to the enjoyment of both artists and audience. 

“Love is banished, lovers, move on. 

An edict has been made that love shall be no more. 

Finished are the love affairs; the deception and the fraud 

Ah, ah, no longer one hears of them, of torments and grudges: the case is resolved. 

Fancies in the brain in the heart, jealousies, passion, foolishness are gone to the brothel: the case is resolved…” (Translation: Martha Gerhart.)


Taking the listener into a very different genre, but one of no less daring, David Shemer performed two keyboard Toccatas of Girolamo Frescobaldi, the luminary of the early Baroque and the trend-setter who unleashed the keyboard’s potential to turn human emotions into purely instrumental sound: Shemer’s playing, emerging spontaneous in manner, alternated lively and slower sections, displaying Frescobaldi’s fertile and imaginative musical language for keyboard drama, the composer's inventiveness and his bold use of chromatics. Always riveting, surprising and fresh in sound, Shemer draws the audience into his own probing of the unpredictable. 


In the employ of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger worked alongside Frescobaldi. Kapsberger’s music, especially his toccatas, influenced that of Frescobaldi. Despite his Austrian name, G.G. Kapsberger was born and educated in Venice. Stemming from a rich tradition of Italian lute-playing, he was known as a brilliant lute virtuoso. Settling in Rome in 1605, he began to write and publish works for the instrument, ensuring the future of the lute, theorbo and chitarrone as solo instruments. In Eliav Lavi’s beguiling performance of Kapsberger’s “Toccata arpeggiata”, its weave a perpetuum mobile of arpeggiated chords with harmonic processes producing ravishing sonorities on the theorbo, the artist coloured the piece’s enchanting course with dynamic variation and subtle tempo changes.  


If the aim of the “Witches?’ Festival was to focus on strong women, Mary, Queen of Scots certainly came under that category. Giacomo Carissimi’s “Lamento di Maria Stuarda” presents the thoughts and emotions of Mary Stuart as she faces her death. To this end, Carissimi chooses the lamento form, a popular 17th century genre (a sequence of arias and recitatives, telling a story like a miniature opera and focusing on a single tragic event.) Skorka takes on the characterization of Mary Stuart and the conflicting emotions she must have felt as she prepared to die. She presents the work’s alternation of moods, from gentle, to sorrowful, to vehement and defiant. Separating sections with small breaks before moving into each new emotion, Skorka projects them with passion, femininity and noble dignity. A convincing theatre piece, leaving the audience moved and thoughtful. Shemer and Lavi accompanied sensitively and interestingly. Altogether, their playing throughout the event was closely interwoven with the gestures and meanings behind the texts and emotions of the various vocal works. 



Barbara Strozzi

Friday, July 16, 2021

The "Witches?" Festival (Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra) opens in Jerusalem with Francesco Cavalli's opera "La Calisto"

Tom Cohen-Calisto, Tamara Navoth-Diana (photo:Yoel Levy)


A new, very different festival is making its mark on the Israeli music scene. “Witches?” (July 5-31, 2021), under the auspices of the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra, music/artistic director David Shemer. Offering a variety of different events, the festival aims to celebrate women and femininity in Baroque music, giving the stage to women in Baroque arts, to the representation of women in music of the 17th century and to women composers in particular. Today, few concert-goers are aware of the plight of women composers in Baroque times, creative artists forced to contend with a patriarchal environment that placed restrictions on women, sometimes even preventing them from engaging in artistic activity. The creative powers of these women composers gave rise to terrible fear in their male-centered society. The attitude of men towards them was similar to that directed at powerful women in such fields as medicine and research, these women being labelled by critics of the time as “witches”, some even burned at the stake. This dogma was what inspired the name for the "Witches?" Festival.


The festival’s central event was the Israeli premiere of “La Calisto”, an opera by Francesco Cavalli (libretto: Giovanni Faustini), with David Shemer conducting from the harpsichord, stage director Shirit Lee Weiss, JBO instrumentalists and singers of the Israeli Opera’s Meitar Opera Studio (director: David Sebba). This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA. on July 7th 2021. A supreme masterpiece of Venetian opera, one of Cavalli’s 30 Venetian operas, “La Calisto” (1651) is known for its haunting melodies and dramatic musical storytelling. Packed full of mischief, irreverence and outrageous flirtation, “La Calisto”, based on Book II of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, is a 17th century retelling of an ancient Greek myth. Sexuality and sensuality pervade the libretto, whether in the elevated and poetic tone of Endimione’s pining for his moon-goddess or, at the lower end, in the coarse humour of the little goat-boy Satirino with Linfea, the object of his lust. At the centre of everything is Jove’s use of trickery, disguising himself as Calisto’s chaste leader Diana in order to have his way with Calisto, this presenting what might be an unprecedented spectacle of lesbian encounter on stage. Rather than placing emphasis on the opera’s element of buffoonery to provide a little comic relief here and there, Shirit Lee Weiss chooses to accentuate the deficiencies and complications of all the relationships into which the characters get themselves. As with the human characters on stage, the immortals prove that they are every bit as lustful, pernicious and simple-minded as their mortal counterparts. The Meitar Opera Studio singers, outstanding young music academy graduates making their way into the world of opera, gave their all to the performance. It was sung in the original Italian, with the presence of English and Hebrew translation for the benefit of the audience. Under David Shemer’s guidance, the singers took on board the stylistic manner of singing Italian Baroque opera in a performance that left no doubts in the audience’s mind as to the loaded emotional content running throughout. Without the necessity of striking theatrical effects, both singers and instrumentalists brought the text to life, the alert accompaniment of the continuo instruments complementing Cavalli’s luscious melodic writing and lively vocal dialogue. Featuring singers were Tom Cohen-Calisto, Tamara Navot-Diana and Sivan Keren-Giunone, to mention just a few of the impressive group. 


“Allegory of a Beautiful Woman” was the title Tal Brit chose for her lecture on July 14th at New Spirit House, Jerusalem, in which she discussed the portrayal of women, and of Calisto in particular, in Renaissance and Baroque painting. Interspersed throughout her talk were arias from Cavalli’s “La Calisto”, sung exquisitely by Tom Cohen (Calisto), with David Shemer at the harpsichord, the arias tracing Calisto’s shifting from wonder, to love, to disillusion. Cohen’s flexible, plangent and appealing performance brought out the manifest beauty and intensity Cavalli writes into the arias of his heroine. Shemer’s eloquent playing followed and endorsed each gesture.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

"Golden Moon" - the Israel Netanya Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra bids farewell to its audiences after 50 years of fine music-making

Maestro Christian Lindberg, Maestro Shmuel Elbaz


Attracting a large audience to the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on July 10th, 2021, “Golden Moon” was the title of the concert celebrating 50 years of Israel Netanya Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra’s existence. Sadly, the event also marked the closing of this same very excellent orchestra. Conducting the farewell concert was the NKO’s associate artistic director and house conductor Shmuel Elbaz, with soloists from among the orchestra’s players. 


The evening’s program opened on a hearty, celebratory note with the “Alla Hornpipe '' from G.F.Handel’s Suite No.2 in D major HWV 349. Following his accession to the throne in 1714, George I, wishing to cement the Hanoverian line into British history with a spectacular occasion to impress his English subjects, turned to Handel to write music for a concert to be performed as he travelled down the Thames on the royal barge. Performing the movement, with brass players placed at the front of the stage on either side, the NKO players brought out the characteristic joyful, loud and pompous nature of the piece, showcasing its piercing trumpet fanfares and jubilant strings.


This was followed by the 1st and 4th movements of Charles Gounod’s “Petite Symphonie'' in B-flat major, an opportunity to enjoy the playing of the NKO’s fine wind players.  Scored for flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns and 2 bassoons and premiered in 1885, nothing could be further from the heady drama of Gounod’s opera “Faust''; this is a work of Gallic charm! The players engaged wholeheartedly in the cheerful, melodious bucolic nature of the first movement and the buoyant, jaunty "patter song" character of the Finale, with its quirky development section. Their playing was well coordinated, rich in the beauty of wind timbres and full-bodied, with a fair share of both vigour and delicacy as required, offering delectable concert fare.


Then, to the first movement - Allegro maestoso - of W.A.Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major for violin, viola and orchestra, K.364, with NKO concertmaster Gilad Hildesheim and first violist Avital Tsaig Noussimovitch taking on the solo roles. The soloists contended well with what is, indeed, more of a formal double concerto than a symphony but they also addressed the fact that the term “concertante” indeed suggests playing “in concert” among a mixed group of instruments. In fact, each of the winds here has its own distinctive say in addition to the two soloists, sometimes playing along with them, at others, interjecting their own phrases. Hildesheim and Tsaig Noussimovitch balanced solo utterances with attentive dialogue as the violin and viola parts, meeting and contrasting in timbres, wove in and out of each other, presenting Mozart’s seemingly inexhaustible stream of melodies. As to the cadenza, they delivered it with equal measures of virtuosity and sensitivity. 


Eugene Levitas (b.1972), a film composer equally at home in the diverse languages of classical-, contemporary-, jazz-, electronic- and even pop/rock music, has been the Netanya Kibbutz Orchestra’s house composer since January 2019. In 2005, he wrote a string quartet, later arranging it for orchestra. The NKO’s playing of the Andante (4th movement) of Levitas' “String Symphony'' was indeed a highlight of the concert.  In this highly melodic movement, its nostalgic major-minor modal duality attired in lush string timbres, Levitas presents an introspective tone poem that is both engaging and appealing to the listener. Violinist Pavel Levin’s poignant soloing added beauty to the performance. The composer was in attendance at the concert. 


A lover of the British Isles, Mendelssohn was inspired by a visit to Scotland in 1829. There, he visited the rugged ruins of Holyrood and the Palace of Holyrood, “where Queen Mary lived and loved”, in the composer’s words. The NKO concluded its final concert with Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.3 Op.56 “Scottish”. The work does not employ actual folk melodies from Scotland, but the composer’s writing does conjure up a spirit that would have been deemed folk-like by many of its contemporary European listeners. Clearly inspired by Mendelssohn’s own pencil sketch of 1829, the dark and brooding Introduction to the 1st movement, based on the “Holyrood Castle” theme and issued in by a rich, mid-range orchestration of oboe, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and divisi violas, sets the scene.  In the first movement proper, the NKO performance brought out the composer’s highly active and dramatic writing, with only a temporary lull from it offered by the plangent, sighing second theme. In the 2nd movement, a featherweight scherzo, the clarinet solo (Igal Levin) added freshness to Mendelssohn’s elfin writing for the strings, to his enchanting use of the woodwinds and the scurrying, fairy-like magical (Midsummer Night’s Dream?) atmosphere. Following the Adagio movement’s mix of slow, cantabile playing and massive, somewhat strident tutti, the highly rhythmic, almost martial Allegro vivacissimo takes over, to die down to a whisper, then to soar into a majestic, hymn-like transformation of the “Holyrood Castle” theme. Maestro Shmuel Elbaz led his players in an inspiring performance of the “Scottish” Symphony, a work often referred to as Mendelssohn’s greatest contribution to the symphonic form.


The Israel Netanya Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra is an orchestra of hand-picked players, its high-quality and varied performances taking place in several locations throughout the country, The orchestra will be sorely missed on the Israeli concert scene. Its recent two conductors, Shmuel Elbaz - mandolin player/conductor/pedagogue, a musician with a deep interest in East-West encounters - and Swedish conductor/composer and world-famous trombonist Christian Lindberg, who has premiered over three hundred works for the trombone (including more than thirty composed by himself), have brought much joy of music-making to the NKO’s players and audiences. in encounters between Western and Eastern music cultures,

Friday, July 9, 2021

The Jerusalem Street Orchestra winds up the 2021 Jerusalem Rooftop Festival, conductor: Ido Shpitalnik, solo violinist: Ori Wissner Levy

The Jerusalem Street Orchestra, soloist Ori Wissner Levy  (Yael Ilan)


On July 21st 2021, a balmy Jerusalem evening, there was excitement in the air as hundreds of people of all ages took their seats on the terrace of the Jerusalem Music Centre (Mishkenot Sha’ananim) in the capital’s picturesque Yemin Moshe quarter. This was the third and final event of the 2021 Jerusalem Rooftop Festival - a symphony concert performed by the Jerusalem Street Orchestra, conducted by its founder and musical director Ido Shpitalnik, with solo violinist Ori Wissner Levy. Established in 2013, the Jerusalem Street Orchestra is a chamber orchestra comprising talented young music graduates. The ensemble aims to make classical music accessible to new audiences, enrich the public scene with high-quality culture and to provide a stage for members of Jerusalem’s young creative community and musicians. 


It seems that there is nothing more reposeful than listening to good music with a glass of wine in hand and  watching the subtly changing colours of sunset over Jerusalem’s Old City, an experience so aptly put by English writer, essayist, and literary critic: “Call for the grandest of all earthly spectacles, what is that? It is the sun going to his rest.” 


Following words of welcome from concert- and masterclass director of the Jerusalem Music Centre Uri Dror, the concert opened with Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No.19 in D major, Hob I:19. Composed c.1759, this work was to change the composer’s life. Old Prince Antonio Esterházy had gone to visit Count Morzin, who had in his service a large, handpicked orchestra. After hearing this symphony by Haydn, the Prince took a liking to the composer’s style and urged the Count to let him have the man. The Count, who had been considering dismissing his orchestra for financial reasons, was happy to comply with the prince’s wishes. The Street Orchestra’s playing of the symphony’s outer movements abounded in Haydnesque joy and good spirit, these sections highlighting the orchestra’s fine wind-playing. The touching, appealing D minor Andante movement, (I saw smiles on people’s faces around me) is scored for strings alone, a practice probably deriving from the desire to give the hard-working wind players a rest before launching into the vigorous finale.


Next on the program was Benjamin Britten’s “Simple Symphony”, introduced by Shpitalnik as a piece that is “not at all simple to perform”. Composed at age 20, the work, scored for small string orchestra, is entirely based on a collection of melodies and small works which the composer had written between the ages of nine and twelve. (The actual sources are given in footnotes to each of the movements.)  Not making use of typical classical tempo indications, Britten’s somewhat whimsical titles to each of the short movements allude to his unassuming humour and neoclassical inclination. Shpitalnik and the string players presented the essence and charm of each movement with articulacy: the Boisterous Bourée’s lively motivic interplay suggesting neo-Baroque contrapuntal textures, followed by the play of featherlight pizzicato textures tripping along brazenly, making up the Playful Pizzicato, with some folksy, stomping accents heard in the slower trio. A tinge of nostalgia coloured the Street Orchestra’s dynamic playing of the modal-type melody of the Sentimental Sarabande, as it swelled to bold symphonic utterance, to end with a haunting, muted coda. As to the Frolicsome Finale, opening with a unison burst of sound, conductor and instrumentalists reminded the audience of themes and techniques from the earlier three movements, from cheeky pizzicato interludes to the dance-like style of the Bourée. So English in flavour, Britten’s “Simple Symphony” is a work that reveals its charms even at first hearing, making for splendid concert fare.


The festive evening concluded with W.A. Mozart’s Violin Concerto No 5 “Turkish”, featuring soloist Ori Wissner Levy. Like Mozart's other violin concertos, this is an early work, dating from December 1775, when the composer was nineteen years old. For whom it was written is not known, but there is a possibility that it was played by Mozart himself, at that time, employed at the Salzburg court, where one of his chief duties was to lead the court orchestra from the violin. In his performance of this work, one of strikingly original ideas, Wissner Levy guides the listener through its unpredictable formal trail by dint of his deep-felt melodic sense, as he explores each gesture, maintaining constant eye contact with his fellow musicians. Cadenzas (by Joseph Joachim) were played with a sense of freshness, discovery and adventure. As to the concerto’s Turkish content, it suddenly appears as a minor-mode Allegro in the middle of the graceful (final) Minuet movement, with soloist and orchestra playing what is intended to suggest wild Turkish music. Turkish culture enjoyed considerable popularity in 18th century Europe, with the introduction of Turkish coffee, Turkish subjects in drama and paintings, popular stories about Turkey in many operas and with some rulers even creating strident-sounding Janissary bands for their armies. In this violin concerto, Mozart uses no percussion or outdoor wind instruments; instead, he imitates the “Turkish” effect with strong accents, exotic chromatic scales, sudden crescendos and a percussive drone of the cellos and basses playing col legno, with the soloist engaging in energetic figures of a folk-like nature. Following this unleashed middle section, the music returns to its graceful Minuet format, ending gracefully in quiet simplicity. The Rooftop Festival audience loved it! Wissner Levy communicated to them through his own sense of enjoyment, his warm, mellifluous tone, easeful playing and outstanding musicianship.  


Born in New York (1990) Ori Wissner Levy has studied and performed worldwide. He will presently be moving to Tel Aviv from Leipzig, Germany where he lived and worked prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Kudos to the excellent Jerusalem Street Orchestra; also, to Maestro Ido Shpitalnik for his hearty and appealing programming, its inspiring delivery and his own infectious joie-de-vivre! 


Maestro Ido Shpitalnik (Yael Ilan)


Sunday, July 4, 2021

The Story of Farinelli - Barrocade Ensemble instrumentalists with soloists Alon Harari, Maya Amir and Yigal Kaminka at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art


“The Story of Farinelli'', an event held by the Barrocade Ensemble (music director: Amit Tiefenbrunn) taking place in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on June 30th 2021, attracted much interest. Joining the Barrocade Orchestra were soloists Yigal Kaminka (recorder), mezzo-soprano Maya Amir and countertenor Alon Harari. Addressing the audience between musical items, Alon Harari recounted the story of Farinelli.


Farinelli was the stage name of Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi, a celebrated Italian castrato singer and one of the greatest singers in the history of opera. He was famous not merely for his gorgeous voice, phenomenal vocal technique, musicianship and musical connoisseurship, but also for his poise, dignity, and fine judgement of human character. It seems, however, that “excitement” is an understatement when referring to Farinelli’s effect on audiences throughout Europe: he was, indeed, a superstar, with composers like Vivaldi and Handel chasing after him, with audiences moved to tears by his singing. "One God, one Farinelli" was the catchphrase of his London fans! Opening the Tel Aviv event, Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in D Major for strings and basso continuo, RV 121, was played with strategic dramatic pauses (Allegro molto), the calm, moving Adagio movement to be followed by the breathless, virtuosic Allegro. It was an energizing performance, setting the scene for what was to be an evening of interest, pizzazz and moments of Italian-style extravagance!


An effusion of Italian-language arias constituted the major part of the concert bill. Addressing her audience, Maya Amir carried off arias with effortless technique, Baroque know-how and beauty of sound, her creamy voice unforced, her expression of emotions effective, offering attentive detail and subtle touches, all with a natural flow of spontaneity. Her singing of “Son quai nave ch’agitata” (I am like a storm-tossed boat), from “Artaserse” by Farinelli’s composer brother Riccardo Broschi, was vivid, rich in melismatic passagework, appealing and feminine, tossed off with a stylish flourish. For her performance of Vivaldi’s effervescent “Agitata da due venti” (Shaken by two winds) from “Griselda”, Amir appeared on stage wearing a black, glittery masquerade ball mask, her gestures informed, her singing theatrical but never excessive.


Alon Harari’s performance of arias conjured up what we have read of Farinelli’s stage presence - the allure, magnetism, the daring and uninhibited showmanship enlisted to excite audiences and highlight the melodrama of Italian opera texts. Wearing a red mask and black elbow-length gloves added dash to his stirring rendition of “Fammi combattere” (Let me fight) from Handel’s “Orlando”, as he captured the audience in his gaze. Nicolo Porpora’s “Quai turbine che scende” (What a whirlwind that descends on the hideous slope) from “Germanico in Germania” swept up the audience with Harari’s action-packed, brilliant performance of this ambitious opera showpiece. For Vivaldi’s tender love-song from “Orlando Furioso “Sol da ten io dolce amore” (Only from you, my sweet love, Harari is joined by Yigal Kaminka (recorder). The teasingly slow aria, sung right after the knight Ruggiero swallows a love potion and instantly fixates on the sorceress Alcina, features striking counterpoint between flute obbligato and the vocal part. Kaminka’s playing was little short of extraordinary, his fast runs and fluttering effects flitting agilely through the aria’s fiendishly tortuous passages. 

In lyrical and balanced interweaving, Amir and Harari’s lovely, tender singing of “Io t’abbraccio” (I embrace you), the glorious heartbreaking duet from Rodelinda (Handel), its clash of minor seconds so perfectly evoking the pain of parting, was a highlight of the concert, enhanced by some engaging violin obbligato playing. Indeed, rich in orchestral colour, expression and drama, the instrumental roles to these arias, by no means secondary; added much to the evening’s enjoyment and vivacity.


A hiatus from the bold world of Italian opera, but not from the buzz and exhilaration in the air of the Recanati Auditorium, was rendered by singer/oboist/recorder player Yigal Kaminka. When Kaminka appeared on stage with a sopranino recorder, the audience was in for something very different from a school recorder recital. Of the approximately 500 concertos Vivaldi composed for various solo instruments, three are for “flautino” and orchestra. Vivaldi must have had an extraordinary player in mind when composing the Flautino Concerto in C Major, RV 443, its solo role more virtuosic and demanding than much of Vivaldi's woodwind writing!  Issuing the opening ritornello in with an incredible display of agility, Kaminka played the Allegro movement with dazzling technical prowess, joy and a good dose of whimsy. Giving each phrase shape and life, his playing of the Largo movement was eloquent, singing and imaginatively ornamented. As to the final Allegro molto, Kaminka had listeners perched at the edge of their seats as he took on board its decorative trills, arpeggios and rapid triplet figurations, these interrupted only by brief passages from the main body of the orchestra to allow him to pause for breath. 


Alon Harari is a fine story teller. Summing up Farinelli’s life, he spoke of the end of Farinelli’s life, emphasising the singer’s compassion, generosity and honourable character. The Tel Aviv event closed on a somewhat sad note, with Maya Amir and Alon Harari’s singing of a duet version of "Lascia ch'io pianga" from Handel’s “Rinaldo”: 

“Let me weep over my cruel fate,

And let me sigh for liberty.

May sorrow shatter these chains,

For my torments just out of pity.”


An evening of interest, polished performance and zest!