Tuesday, August 31, 2021

The Abu Ghosh Music Festival is back, but will take place at the Yizhak Rabin Center, Tel Aviv - September 22-26, 2021

Courtesy Asnat Shevet-Ganor


Have you been missing the Abu Ghosh Music Festival as much as I have? After a hiatus of two years, due to COVID-19 pandemic constraints, the Abu Ghosh Music Festival is about to spring back to life. Popular from the 1950s as an annual event, its organization was taken over in 1992 by music-lover Gershon Cohen and choral conductor Hanna Tzur, the revamped festival then taking place twice a year. Always well attended, people have been flocking to the two Abu Ghosh churches to hear the festival concerts, also enjoying the craft stalls, outdoor events and the relaxed, holiday atmosphere. As the Kiryat Yearim Church is presently undergoing renovation, the Sukkot Festival (September 22-26, 2021) will take place at the Yitzhak Rabin Centre in Tel Aviv. The Rabin Centre, located on a hill, boasts commanding panoramic views of the Yarkon Park and of the city of Tel Aviv, beautiful grounds and an imposing auditorium – the Leah Rabin Hall. A new team will take over the running of the festival, most of its members active on the Israeli music scene - Amit Tiefenbrunn - music director, Shlomit Sivan-Rosen - head of production, Tessa Harari - management/production, Alon Harari - head coordinator and Yeela Avital - participation director and fundraising. 


The 2021 Abu Ghosh Music Festival will offer four days of music of different styles - classical-, chamber- and folk music, Israeli- and ethnic music, with interaction between artists and audience and food and good wines; in short, a multi-sensory experience awaits all festival-goers! Concerts will feature some of the country’s finest ensembles - the Israeli Vocal Ensemble, the Carmel Quartet, Ensemble Barrocade, the Ramat Gan Chamber Choir, the Tel Aviv Collegium Singers and the Galilee Chamber Orchestra. The festival will also host Hortus Musicus (Estonia), conductor: Andres Mustonen, in a program of Italian music and with Israeli mezzo-soprano Maya Amir as soloist.  “From Bach to Shem Tov”, a program combining classical music with Israeli contemporary music will feature flautist Shem Tov Levi himself. The “Quinta and a Half” (“Kvinta Va-Hetzi”) Vocal Ensemble will present a complete a-capella program of Israeli repertoire - original and unique arrangements of some of the best-loved songs of Arik Einstein, Matti Caspi, Shlomo Gronich, and more. And for those looking for some fiery emotion, El Fuego Del Flamenco will present a program of flamenco music and dance. And how about some Brazilian music performed by the Shorolha Ensemble for a magical night show in the Triguboff Garden overlooking the Tel Aviv skyline?  In cooperation with the Polyphony Foundation, the program for Sunday September 26th will present Arab musicians in performances of Arabic- and western music. The Eldrawish Music Ensemble of the Galilee will perform Sufi music and dance. There will also be a concert of French chansons, Arab poetry and music composed by pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar, featuring a string quartet and soprano Nour Darwish. The festival will conclude with a concert titled “Stabat Mater”, performed by the Galilee Chamber Orchestra with Saleem Abboud Ashkar conducting.


For more information on the 2021 Abu Ghosh Music Festival and for ticket reservations:  https://agfestival.co.il/ 


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Works of Schubert and Brahms at the Eden-Tamir Music Center for the concert marking two years of pianist Alexander Tamir's passing



A sizable audience filled the hall of the Eden-Tamir Music Center, Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, on August 14th 2021 to attend the concert marking two years of Prof. Alexander Tamir's passing. The artists performing were pianists Shir Semmel, Dror Semmel and Ron Trachtman. 


Alexander Wolkovsky was born in 1931 in Vilnius, Lithuania, changing his name to Tamir after settling in Jerusalem in 1945. He and Bracha Eden formed their piano duo in 1952, both spending their professional lives teaching, performing worldwide as a duo and recording. The Eden-Tamir Duo lasted for over 59 years until Prof. Eden's death in 2006. In 1968, Eden and Tamir established the Max Targ Chamber Music Center in Ein Kerem (later to be renamed the Eden-Tamir Music Center). Following Prof. Tamir's death, Dr. Dror Semmel has taken over direction of the music centre.  


Introducing the event, Dror Semmel spoke of how Alexander Tamir and Bracha Eden had created the atmosphere of the centre, making it a home for so much music-making and so many musicians, the latter including budding young artists. The two works on the program were chosen for the fact that they had been performed widely by the Eden-Tamir Duo. The Jerusalem Duo - siblings Shir and Dror Semmel - opened with Schubert's Sonata for piano 4 hands in C major, D.812, "Grand Duo''.  Franz Schubert wrote over forty works for piano four hands throughout his short life, these intended for domestic music-making, but many written for his pupils, the daughters of Count Esterházy, whom he taught during summer months at the count’s country estate. Included in those is the Grand Duo, an ambitious, large-scale and challenging work of symphonic dimensions, indeed, Schubert’s most expansive piano work A question raised time and again is whether the Grand Duo was the ground plan for a symphony Schubert had in mind. For all the intimacy present in this species of parlour music, there is no denying that Schubert’s piano duets frequently sound orchestral, this work certainly being no exception. Dror Semmel spoke of a letter found recently, in 1970, in which Schubert had expressed that this piano work was not the sketch for an orchestral work. Set in C major, a key in which Schubert had written some of his most daring works, the Grand Duo, more epic than experimental, is a massive undertaking for any piano duo. Largely unfamiliar to many Schubert buffs, its mammoth proportions also present a challenge to the listener. Shir and Dror Semmel shared a vision for how the piece should be played, impressively capturing the beauty of Schubert's seductive melodies and rich textures together with the roller-coaster feel of the work's ever-changing moods, its aesthetic being one of discontinuities. Indeed, a tour de force, the artists nevertheless created the intimacy of the salon music experience. 


In order to promote the circulation of his works outside the concert hall, Johannes Brahms made piano arrangements of several orchestral works, including all four symphonies. In fact, his creative ideas in these piano versions have created renewed interest in the music world over the past decades. Dror Semmel explained that Brahms had written the orchestral- and the two-piano settings of Symphony No.3 in F major Op.90 at the same time. In fact, on November 22nd 1883, ten days before Hans Richter was to conduct the premiere of the work in Vienna, Brahms organised a musical evening in the elegant Ehrbar Salon, where he and Austrian pianist Ignaz Brüll presented the new symphony in his arrangement for two pianos to a distinguished group of invited guests. Reminding the audience that the two-piano version is based note-for-note on the symphonic version, Semmel suggested the audience should relate to the piano version as a "different work", putting aside association with its orchestral colours.(flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns,  trumpets,  trombones, timpani, and strings) when listening to it. Throughout the tightly-knit work's expressive scheme, one constantly juxtaposing major and minor, sometimes forcefully, but most often in delicate ways, Ron Trachtman and Dror Semmel integrated the grand tutti with cantabile-, even mysterious moments, as in the highly dramatic opening movement. The two middle movements are lighter and more delicate in character. (the Andante movement, however, punctuated by chords sounding vaguely ominous) as Brahms draws all of the thematic materials of the last movement together in a hushed apotheosis, finally settling the original question of minor or major in favour of the latter. Trachtman and Semmel showed the audience through the symphony's complex course with a finely crafted, articulate, polished and involved performance of the work German music critic Eduard Hanslick had referred to as Brahms’ “artistically most nearly perfect symphony".


Pleasing in its programming and realization, the concert was a moving tribute to Prof. Alexander Tamir and to his lifelong contribution to the Israeli musical scene.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The concert zither - Nikolaus Schaack (1892-1981) records original works and arrangements of classical pieces for the zither

Photo courtesy Dr. Myrna Herzog


“Nikolaus Schaack, Zither at 80, Bach, Debussy, Villa-Lobos”, a recording of historic and musical value, is bound to arouse curiosity and interest among those interested in music for the zither, its tradition and in musica rara in general. Consul of Luxembourg in Rio, Brazil, Nikolaus Schaack (1892-1981) was a composer, arranger, zither player and pianist.  Born in Luxembourg Ville, Luxembourg, he started learning the zither at age eight, also studying violin and piano. In 1912, he met Austrian zither virtuoso Richard Grünwald who had innovated zither technique. Inspired by Grünwald, Schaack championed the use of the “Reformzither" (the perfected zither) also called the “concert zither” for the playing of classical music, the instrument developed by Grünwald having incredible expressive possibilities and a huge range. For this instrument Schaack made numerous transcriptions of works by Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and more. 

In 1923, Schaack was sent to work in Brazil, where he would then spend the rest of his life. In addition to his work as company manager, he served as Luxembourg’s consul in Rio de Janeiro. There, he continued his studies in theory, music history, composition, counterpoint and fugue with Egon Kornauth and twelve-tone technique with Brazilian composer Claudio Santoro. He also became actively involved in Brazil’s cultural life.

On February 14th 1973, Schaack made a home recording of his playing at the request of his children, who had been “asking me to record some zither pieces for them as a memento”. His granddaughter, gamba player and musicologist Dr. Myrna Herzog (Brazil-Israel), took it upon herself to make this unique recording available to the general public. The preparation process was long and painstaking. The recording had been made on reel tape recorder. In the 1970s, Eliahu Feldman transferred it onto a cassette. Several computer copies were then made of this cassette, each, however, sounding slightly different due to different speeds of cassette players. On choosing the best-sounding copy, Herzog and mastering engineer David Feldman realized that the general pitch was too low and the speed too slow. To rectify this, they took the cue from the time Herzog and her grandfather had played duets together, she playing a recorder at 440 pitch. Addressing the problem of some disturbance present in the last track, tonmeister Ben Bernfield managed to reduce the noise to an acceptable level without spoiling the recording’s sound quality.

In addition to arrangements Schaack made from familiar classical repertoire, the recording presents works by composers who wrote for the zither. Of the latter are Schaack’s touching and beautifully shaped playing of the Classical-style Larghetto from Concertino for zither in B flat major op.61.by prolific zither composer Heinrich Freiherr von Reigersberg (1875-1946) and the programmatic “Abend-Feier im Kloster” (Angelus in the Convent) - Fantaisie, Op.37 by Carl Fittig (1839-1899), its set of vignettes including the masterfully produced imitation of church bells. An item I found myself returning to several times is the Toccata from Nikolaus Schaack’s own Triptychon in B flat major, appealing in its inégal rhythms and tonal course and his spirited, spontaneous performance, a piece indeed harkening to Schaack’s familiarity with works of J.S.Bach.

As to Schaack’s arrangements of works from the classical repertoire, we hear his introspective, tender playing of  the Largo from J.S.Bach’s cantata “Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe”  BWV 156, the poignant and pensive Berceuse Op. 13 No. 7 from  Alexander Ilynsky’s orchestral suite "Noure and Anitra" (pub. 1896), a piece for which  Ilynsky is best remembered,  Träumerei” (Dreaming) from Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood” and Schaack’s fresh, and poetic rendition of “La fille aux cheveux de lin” (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair) from Debussy’s  Préludes, Book 1 (c.1910),  the latter’s  pentatonic-modal mix and  parallel chord movement sounding especially effective on the zither. And for some Brazilian content, Schaack plays his own revised version of Ewald Kuchenbuch’s arrangement of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Prelúdio No 3.

On making this recording at an advanced age, Nikolaus Schaack wrote: “I have done it, but am not too happy with the result. At 80, one cannot play like at 40.” Despite a few moments of somewhat laboured, restrained playing (Schumann, Villa-Lobos), the recording is most inspiring, indeed, a fitting and moving tribute to this artist’s deep inquiry and fine musicianship, the expressive capabilities of the instrument and to the playing style of an era. “Nikolaus Schaack, Zither at 80, Bach, Debussy, Villa-Lobos” is available on the following digital platforms: https://tratore.ffm.to/zitherat80


Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Felicja Blumental International Music Festival: Michael Alexander Willens conducts singers of the Kölner Akademie (Germany) and instrumentalists of the Barrocade Ensemble (Israel) in a program of Baroque music at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Maestro Michael Alexander Willens (Yoel Levy)


The Felicja Blumental International Music Festival was established by Annette Celine in May 1999 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Ms. Celine, an artist, singer and daughter of the prominent pianist Felicja Blumental, served as artistic director of the festival for the first 19 years of its existence, with Avigail Arnheim as executive director. Since Annette Celine’s death in 2017, Avigail Arnheim has been directing the festival’s musical program together with Idit Magal. Offering an interesting variety of events, the 2021 Felicja Blumental International Music Festival (August 3-7), took place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. 

“A Musical Garden of Eden'', Madrigals, Canzonettas and Other Summer Delights'' (August 4th) featured four singers of the Kölner Akademie (Germany) joined by Ensemble Barrocade (music director: Amit Tiefenbrunn), with Kölner Akademie director Michael Alexander Willens conducting. Kudos to Israeli singer Doron Florentin, who stood in admirably for the Cologne ensemble’s tenor at a week’s notice, making up the vocal quintet.

In keeping with Willens’ dedication to performance of music of lesser-known composers, the concert opened with selections from “Lustige Madrigalen und Canzonetten” (Jovial Madrigals and Canzonets) of Sebastian Knüpfer (1633 - 1676). One of the most distinguished predecessors of J.S.Bach in the office of Cantor at the Leipzig Thomaskirche, Knüpfer was a composer of mostly sacred music. The “Lustige Madrigalen und Canzonetten” (1663) stand out for their overtly secular texts, the pieces, effusive in their amorous content. The singers gave splendid expression to the composer’s versatile use of voices and vocal colour - the volley of interjections making up the texture of “Weg Mars, mit deiner Faust!” (Away Mars with your might), the exuberant play of single syllables in “Meer, Erd’ und Sonne trinken” (Sea, earth and sun drink) the gorgeous weaving effect of voices in the mournful “Ade, du Tausendschatz” (Adieu, you dear treasure). Add to these qualities Knüpfer’s inspired instrumental writing and you come up with a sparkling opening item for a festival concert!


Several of G.Ph.Telemann’s many instrumental suites are furnished with extra-musical, programmatic- and other associations. Although Telemann never ventured much further out of Germany than across the Polish border and one visit to Paris, he was one of the most cosmopolitan composers of his day. Indeed, his Suite (Ouverture) in B-flat Major (TWV 55:B5), commonly known as “Les Nations”, could be said to reflect the broad-based ambiance of the city of Hamburg, where Telemann spent some of his most productive years. The suite takes its title from the short character pieces that follow the French Overture and the Minuets. For audience members not travelling out of the country at the moment, Maestro Willens and the Barrocade instrumentalists offered a whirlwind overseas tour, Telemann, in effect, mostly describing the national characteristics of various peoples - “The Turks”, portrayed with heavy textures in a raucous romp, the Swiss, as each calm and dignified phrase was punctuated by an elegant, light dance episode, the Portuguese as exuberant and dancing. As to the Muscovites, Telemann here presents an image of the city - heavy and bleak, its church bell bourdon sounding throughout. The suite closes with two enigmatic pieces - “Les Boiteux'' (The Lame) and “Les Coureurs” (The Runners) - in which the composer might be evoking human conditions common to every country. Presenting Tafelmusik at its most colourful and entertaining, the Barrocade Ensemble’s playing was suave, subtle and finely detailed. A new face joining the Barrocade players was competent young recorder player Bar Zimmermann.


Henry Purcell’s compositions for Queen Mary span her brief reign, from her coronation (April 11th,1689); to the formal celebrations of her birthday (April 30th) and to her funeral (March 5th 1695). Of the three anthems for Queen Mary (SSATB choir with optional organ - Yizhar Karshon-organ, Amit Tiefenbrunn-viol) heard at the Tel Aviv concert, “I was glad”, a joyful and elaborate setting of verses from Psalm 122, was (probably) performed at James II and Queen Mary's coronation in Westminster Abbey. Articulate in diction, the singers gave expression to the work’s variety and word-painting. Then, two of the funeral anthems: “Lord, how long wilt thou be angry?” (Psalm 79), its writing influenced by Byrd and Gibbons, but coloured with Purcell’s distinctive harmonies, here, its lines beautifully sculpted by the singers as it moved from plangent, pleading intensity, through the silvery tones of supplication, then to the brightness of affirmation. In “Remember not, Lord, our offences” (Order for the Visitation of the Sick), the singers highlighted Purcell’s striking use of consonance juxtaposed to dissonance, homophony versus counterpoint, to express the soul’s unease, with blazes of chromaticism, moments of major-mode brightness, evoking a world in which sin does not exist. Conductor and artists addressed every turn of the texts, giving immediacy and beauty to these marvellously-written sacred anthems. 


Leaving behind the frailty of humankind as expressed so poignantly in Purcell’s Restoration anthems, the program moved to German secular songs of Melchior Franck (1579-1639).  Kapellmeister to the Duke of Coburg, Franck was a hugely prolific composer of Protestant church music, but his oeuvre also includes 13 secular vocal collections. Michael Willens chose to end the concert with a few Lieder from Franck’s “Paradisus Musicus” - songs of love, dancing and plenty of drink. Well entertained, the audience followed the carefree, exuberant spirit of the songs, Franck’s whimsical word play, the fine blend and intonation of the voices, vibrant continuo playing and some hearty settings offering a-capella verses alternating with instrumental stanzas. 


Welcome back to members of the Kölner Akademie (the Cologne Academy), an ensemble that  performs repertoire from the 17th- to 21st centuries and on period instruments. In order to fully realize the composer’s intentions and present historically informed performance, the ensemble performs from Urtext editions. Based in Cologne Germany, American-born conductor Michael Alexander Willens is no new face to the Israeli concert podium. Musical director of the Kölner Akademie, he studied at the Juilliard School of Music, with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood and choral conducting with Paul Vorwerk. Maestro Willens engages in performance of repertoire from the Baroque to today, but he is also at home in jazz and popular music. Willens is dedicated to performing works of lesser-known contemporary American composers, premiering several of them.


Yoel Levy

Yoel Levy

Yoel Levy

Thursday, August 5, 2021

“Trinité” - a new CD of works by Ofer Pelz. Instrumental timbres meet electro-acoustic sounds celebrating an eight-year collaboration with the Meitar Ensemble (Israel)

© Mathieu Boris (Mateo)


“Trinité”, a new disc of works by Ofer Pelz, celebrates eight years of collaboration between the composer and the Meitar Ensemble (Israel), the latter having commissioned two of the works recorded some works on the disc, having performed all of them widely. Known for combining diverse instruments and electro-acoustic elements, composer/pianist/improviser Ofer Pelz launches his second solo album. The pieces are conducted by André Valade (conductor-in-residence of the Meitar Ensemble), Guy Feder and Renaud Déjardin, with Quatuor Ardeo joining the Meitar Ensemble in the disc’s final work. As to the title of the CD, it is taken from a work of the same name by Montreal-based French artist Mateo as seen on the cover. 


“Backward Inductions”, originally composed for French-American pianist Julia Den-Boer, was revised for Amit Dolberg (Meitar Ensemble) in 2019; Dolberg performs it here. Written for augmented piano with other percussive objects and instruments, besides the piano, triggered by the amplification system, the work is characteristic of Pelz’ concept of “unstable repetition”. It comprises several sections, each a series of mostly filigree-light, staccato textures, busy and energetic, an entertaining and whimsical game of hide-and-seek punctuated by small fragments of “afterthoughts”, each featherweight section concluding with a gesture of grandiloquent rhetoric. Many of us will remember the concentration required as children when playing Chinese whispers at birthday parties and how the message whispered from one child to another ends up different to how it started out. In ”Chinese Whispers”, for flute, clarinet, violin, ‘cello, prepared piano and amplification, Pelz invites the listener to follow the subtle changes each section undergoes. Would it not suffice just to sit back and bask in the myriad of diaphanous timbres teasing and tantalizing the aural senses? No. You are here to participate -  to examine, identify and codify the instrumental and other sounds - a rewarding pursuit asking to be undertaken several times, its call to discover having no boundaries.


In “Convergence”, alto flute (Roy Amotz, Meitar Ensemble) and electronics take the listener on a glorious, evocative, otherworldly journey through Ofer Pelz’ experiment in segmented sound. In his liner notes, the composer mentions the genesis of the piece as a “metaphor of the natural bouncing of a rubber material”. Written in collaboration with Paolo Vignaroli, who contributed to the electro-acoustic part, flute and the more urgent breath-related mix-processed sounds exist together or as separate entities in delicate sonority; they present a small marching song, then to culminate in one extended sonority. 


“marchons, marchons”, scored for flute, clarinet, violin, ‘cello and prepared piano (Meitar Ensemble, conductor: Pierre Andre Calade) was recorded live at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2017. It was commissioned by Expo Milano 2015, this controversial world fair’s theme being “Feeding the Planet. Energy for Life”. Pelz adds his own social and political criticism via the message conveyed by bloody, bellicose elements in the texts of the “Marseillaise” and that of an Israeli national song, A composition disturbing both in content and performance, one that will leave no listener on the outside, it begins with a series of separate, thought-provoking phrases rich in timbres and motifs, with the strings then sallying in with a strongly-coloured, intense and vehement section, compellingly indignant and enraged, the work ending in the eerie, hushed  sounds of aftershock. In ”Blanc sur blanc”, for flute, clarinet, prepared piano and amplified string quartet, Pelz explores “the flexibility of time, stretching and compressing it with the use of repetitions and loops”, this piece also having been inspired by two illustrative images as described by the composer in the liner notes. It falls into two movements. A most attractive piece, the First Movement, ebullient in instrumental colour and hopping along with some jazzy rhythmical associations, then to move on to a calmer “aside” of breathy and percussive effects before returning to a high-energy section, the piano’s descending bass 4-note half-tone motif book-ending the movement. As to the Epilogue, it is wrought of long, vibrant sonorities made of lines of close intervals, continuously drawing the listener into its processes and “events”. 


In the composer’s words: “When I write, I begin from a world of sounds that I imagine, I try to observe the same sounds from several kinds of perspective: slowly, quickly, from nearby, from a distance, from the side...and I will try to incorporate a part of these perspectives.” Produced for New Focus Recordings, what stands out in all the works heard on “Trinité” are the aesthetic beauty of Ofer Pelz’ compositional style,  the fine detail and commitment that go into producing music of this quality. Born in Israel in 1978, Pelz  studied composition, music theory and music technology in Jerusalem, Paris, and Montreal. Today, Ofer Pelz makes his home in Montreal, Canada.