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

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