Saturday, June 11, 2022

"I Know a Forest" - Octopus, the Israeli Pianists Quartet, in a new program of European and Israeli works, together with poetry readings by Alex Ansky

Meir Wiesel, Ifat Zaidel, Tavor Gochman, Bart Berman (Maxim Reider)


Following the two-year long silence imposed on performing artists by the Covid-19 pandemic, Octopus, the Israeli Pianists Quartet, has returned to the concert hall with an original and unique program of music and poetry. Joining Ifat Zaidel, Bart Berman, Tavor Gochman and Meir Wiesel, (four pianists on two pianos) was actor Alex Ansky. "I Know a Forest", a two-dimensional program, took place at the Tzavta Theatre Tel Aviv on June 1st 2022.


The theme of nature and forests gave rise to the event's opening works and poems, either directly or by allusion. As to the latter, Robert Schumann’s rarely performed Andante and Variations in B-flat major Opus 46, originally written for two pianos, two 'cellos and horn, was rearranged by Schumann himself for two pianos. The setting we heard, that of Ernst Naumann/Bart Berman, recreated the unusually lush dark and warm colours of Schumann's original scoring. The four pianists gave expression to the work's lyricism, poetic beauty and understated virtuosity, their playing, rich in textures, moving between frolicsome, restless sections and idyllic tranquillity, so characteristic of Schumann's rich inner world, as they preserved the home-oriented intimacy of 19th century chamber music. The program that inspired Alexander Glazunov's "The Forest'', Fantasia for Grand Orchestra Op.19, a work influenced by the realm of fairy-tales, starts thus: "Frightening is the forest at night when the trees take the forms of monsters, and mysterious sounds fill the air." Performing K. Chernoff’s wonderfully pianistic setting for eight hands of "The Forest", a dark and highly Romantic work of large proportions, the artists gave a vivid reading of the pantheistic tone-poem, its emotional content layered with fear, apprehension, gloom, foreboding and magic.


And to the program's Spanish content (works by two French composers!), many of us are familiar with Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate’s "Carmen Fantasy" (1883), a celebration of the rich and exotic melodies from Bizet's best-loved opera. Another such work is the "Carmen Fantasie", a virtuoso showpiece for violin and orchestra constituting a section of Franz Waxman's score to the 1946 movie "Humoresque". At the Tel Aviv concert, the Octopus players gave a polished and refreshing performance of the "Fantasy On Themes From Bizet's Carmen", written for two pianos-eight hands, by American composer Mack Wilberg (b.1955). Drawing on familiar themes from Georges Bizet's opera - the Toreador Song, the Habanera, the Act II prelude, and Carmen's "Chanson Boheme" - Wilberg's interesting writing, with its elegant use of dissonance, its Spanish fire and allusions to the story's passion, lust, jealousy, obsession, and revenge, made for a fascinating item. Emmanuel Chabrier's work for orchestra "España", originally conceived as a piece for piano duet, was the outcome of the composer's research trip on the folk music and dances of Spain. Although deprived of the play of timbres of the various instrumental combinations in the orchestral version, Camille Chevillard's arrangement of "España" for two pianos-eight hands nevertheless captures the light and warmth of Spain and the sensuous allure of Spanish dance - the fiery jota and the slow, sultry malagueña - as well as  the virtuosic nature of the original score, as the artists engaged the full resources of two pianos to present the work's spicy mix of rhythms, harmonic colour and joy.


The program concluded with a selection of Israeli songs - Bart Berman's touching, imaginative and subtle settings of "Adorned is your forehead with black and gold" (Yoni Rechter) and "Jerusalem of Gold" (Naomi Shemer), Moshe Zorman's pizzazzy arrangement of Matti Caspi's "Noah" and a rendition of "One More Song" (Mordechai Zeira).


The evening was, however, as much a literary event as it was musical, with Alex Ansky's dramatic and insightful readings of poetic texts by Natan Zach, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Leah Goldberg, Federico Garcia Lorca (trans: Raphael Eliaz) and Avraham Halfi.


Octopus, the Israel Pianists Quartet forges ahead with its exceptional, enterprising programs and unwavering standards of excellence, offering audiences performance that is balanced, scholarly, inspired and exhilarating. 

Actor/journalist Alex Ansky (Courtesy Alex Ansky)

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Johann Adolf Hasse's intermezzo "La Contadina" performed in Jerusalem. Stage director: Gabriele Ribis; musical director: Yizhar Karshon


Niva Eshed Frenkel (Courtesy Jerusalem Opera)

Gabriele Ribis (Courtesy Jerusalem Opera)

Few 18th century composers enjoyed as much fame across Europe as did German composer Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783). Bourgeois opera-goers as well as heads of state doted on his productions. After initially travelling through Venice, Bologna, Florence and Rome, Hasse spent six years in Naples. It was there that he studied with Nicola Porpora, then meeting and studying briefly with Alessandro Scarlatti, at the same time soaking up the city's effervescent, outgoing resonance. He himself had a great lyrical gift as a singer; his marriage to soprano Faustina Bordoni and her appointment as "virtuosa da camera" to the Elector of Saxony saw the creation of one of the 18th century's most powerful musical couples. The intermezzo, an operatic form of two parts inserted between the acts of a full-length opera, was at first associated with Venice, but it was in Naples that it gained its greatest prominence. The female character was typically young, pretty and vivacious, usually a servant or a peasant and a schemer. In addition to the two singing characters, the intermezzi often included one or more non-singing roles. Setting the work to a libretto attributed to Bernardo Saddumene, Johann Adolf Hasse was twenty-nine years old when he wrote "La Contadina" in Naples. The work enjoyed such great success that records show that 38 productions of it took place in major European opera houses between 1728 and 1769, with the emergence of a number of versions. Israeli audiences have enjoyed several performances of Pergolesi's "La serva padrona"; however, Hasse’s "La Contadina" (The Peasant Girl) was new to many of us. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA on May 31st 2022. The production, using Hasse's original version, was an Israeli-Italian collaboration of the Jerusalem Opera, the Carmel Quartet and the Piccolo Festival, FVG (Italy). With Carmel Quartet players seated on the stage, Yizhar Karshon conducted the musical proceedings from the harpsichord. Stage director was baritone Gabriele Ribis (Italy), who also performed the role of Don Tabarano. Soprano Niva Eshed Frenkel portrayed the flighty Scintilla. The two non-verbal roles were played by Vladimir Trasenko (Scintilla’s lover Lucindo) and Filippo Rotondo (Italy) in the part of Corbo, Don Tabarano’s servant.


A wheelbarrow of flowering plants, a sun umbrella, two chairs and a table - a serene, springtime rural setting. "La Contadina" opens with the somewhat effete Lucindo proposing to Scintilla. Niva Eshed Frenkel wastes no time in portraying the wily, crafty ways of the coquettish country girl, Eshed's sparkly, fresh, creamy vocal timbre and fine vocal technique serving her easeful stage manner as she shows how Scintilla wraps all and sundry around her little finger. Enter Don Tabarano (Ribis) with his servant Corbo (Rotondo). Ribis, his fluent, luxuriant voice and stage presence familiar to Israeli audiences, gives a droll portrayal of the dim but wealthy farmer who is madly in love with Scintilla, as the silent Corbo (also enamoured by her) tries to deter him through a gamut of muscular, theatrical gestures. Meanwhile, Scintilla flatters the Don to pressure him into furnishing her with gifts to enable her to elope with Lucindo. 

The second act (or intermezzo) incorporates some comical disguise, a characteristic of the intermezzo genre, as the Don and Corbo appear as Turks (the musicians too, who throw in a phrase of Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca!) to stop the young lovers making off to elope. However, instead of the tumultuous meeting taking place at the quay, as in the original storyline, the location here is a bus stop of the Israeli Egged bus company! The storyline ends with a bizarre twist: Scintilla admits to never having really loved Lucindo: she and her sugar daddy Don Tabarano now become the evening's latest "item", as Rotondo finally breaks his silence to sing the opening of "O Sole Mio" in fine bass voice.


A lightweight, farcical scenario? Indeed!  But Hasse matches the libretto's spirited wit and earthy high jinks with an outstanding score of brisk, bubbly tableaux, offering both challenging and memorable arias and delectable instrumental music. Karshon's direction resulted in a precise, clean and vibrant performance of the instrumental score, (adding some attractive keyboard gestures to the action-packed recitatives) bringing singers, actors and instrumentalists together in a mirthful and invigorating evening's music and entertainment. Kudos to Carmel Quartet players Rachel Ringelstein, Tali Goldberg, Yael Patish and Tami Waterman, who meet every new challenge with ardour and excellence.


Yizhar Karshon (Yoel Levy)

Cast and musicians (Yoel Levy)

Thursday, May 19, 2022

"STARDUST" - VOCES8 (UK) performs sacred and secular a cappella works from the Renaissance to today at the Jerusalem International YMCA

VOCES8 (photo: Andy Staples)




It is eleven years since VOCES8's previous concert tour of Israel. It was time to hear the unique London a-cappella group of five male- and three female singers once again and take flight into "STARDUST" - choral music celebrating regeneration. This writer attended the event at the Jerusalem International YMCA on May 9th 2022.




Introduced by different ensemble members, the works performed at the Jerusalem concert ranged from Renaissance pieces to those of the 19th- and 20th centuries, to jazz standards and to contemporary pieces commissioned by the group...a huge, diverse assortment of pieces that seemed to come together as a cohesive whole. VOCES8's performance of sacred works is convincing, sincere and devotional. Following the "shooting stars" of William Byrd's jubilant, scintillating setting of Psalm 150 "Laudibus in Sanctus'' (Celebrate the Lord most high in holy praises), "O Sacrum Convivium" (O sacred banquet) by US composer Kevin Allen (b.1959), its Renaissance-type purity and vocal writing interwoven with just a few harmonic surprises, ensues with smooth spontaneity. Shifting fluidly and expressively through the contrasts of Heinrich Schütz' antiphonal "Selig sind die Toten" (Blessed are the Dead), the singers highlight its luminous timbres and its message of much-needed consolation. (The motet was written at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in European history.) In addition to the clean, open sounds of the ensemble's restrained yet exuberant singing of Palestrina's "Magnificat Primi Toni", the almost seamless flow of melodic lines of the Kyrie from Josef Rheinberger's Mass in E-flat (also for double choir, alluding to the late-Renaissance splendour of Venice’s cori spezzati), intuitive and subtle, offered small solos, these crowned by Andrea Haines' mellifluous forays into the upper soprano register. And then there were two homophonic hymns: "Be Still My Soul" from Jean Sibelius' "Finlandia", to a text of Katharina von Schlegel (a notable woman of the Pietism revival), in which Voces8's performance of the mystical piece emerged unmannered, lush and moving; and 20th century Icelandic composer Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson's strophic, modal setting of the 13th-century hymn "Heyr himna smiður" (Hear, Smith of the Heavens) to words by chieftain/poet Kolbeinn Tumason, performed in a refined, devout and uncluttered manner, and with flawless vocal control.




As to the wonders of nature, the ensemble gave expression to the word-painting, tranquility and nocturnal mood  of "The Evening Primrose" (words: John Clare) from Benjamin Britten's "Five Flower Songs", this coupled with Swedish composer Hugo Alfvén's delicate arrangement of  "Aftonen" (Evening), evoking pastoral voices echoing in the mountains (he was also a watercolour painter). In contemporary British composer Jonathan Dove's heavily-anchored yet articulate setting of "Vertue" (words: George Herbert), its text and hues shifted between glimpses of fresh nature scenes and evocatively loaded autumnal harmonies, the latter reminding us that death is never far away, the piece finally rising to triumphant, bright tones representing "a sweet and virtuous soul". US composer Taylor Scott Davis (b.1980) has created a ravishing setting of Clairel Estevez's love poem "Stardust"; its fragility, sensuousness and waves of emotional energy cloaked in Davis's evocative palette of harmonies. "Stardust" was a commission for VOCES8 and it fits the ensemble like a silk glove!




One hallmark of VOCES8 is its enterprising programming, this challenging concert audiences to experience a huge variety of new and seldom-heard repertoire…Take, for example, "Timshel", the vivid and uplifting double-choir setting by the group's arranger-in-residence Jim Clements of a song of Mumford & Sons, the lyrics extolling the greatness and glory that lie in man’s free will and the ability to choose. Or the decidedly conventional writing of "Hope is the thing with feathers", (lyrics: Emily Dickinson) by American composer Christopher Tin (b.1976), a critical statement on man's impact on nature.




VOCES8 signed out with a number of favourites from way back - songs of Nat King Cole, Jerome Kern, Jimmy Van Heusen, Bart Howard and Harold Arlen…of memories of Frank Sinatra's greatest hits. Jim Clements' arrangements are as subtle and delightful as the singers' performances of them, the ensemble's  presentation of these evergreen songs abounding in good humour, the beauty of vocal timbres, jazzy rhythms, gentle percussive effects and some genial solos. Eight outstanding musicians, eight superb voices, Voces8 singers listen, blend, balance  and communicate, their polished performance never overstepping the bounds of good taste.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Grigori Frid's monodrama "The Diary of Anne Frank" is performed at the Jerusalem Theatre on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Conductor: Omer Arieli. Soloist: soprano Ayelet Cohen


Soprano Ayelet Cohen (Elad Zagman)

Commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 28th 2022, Russian-Jewish composer Grigori Frid's opera "The Diary of Anne Frank",  a monodrama in 21 scenes for soprano and chamber orchestra, was staged in the Henry Crown Hall of the Jerusalem Theatre. A collaboration of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Opera and Opera Piccola, the role of Anne Frank was performed by Ayelet Cohen. Conducting the opera was Jerusalem Opera musical director Omer Arieli. Alex Kagan was stage director.


Grigori Frid (1915-2012) was born in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) to a family of Jewish intellectuals. He served as a soldier in World War II, experiencing the horrors, violence and suppression of war. His oeuvre includes symphonies, concertos, incidental music for theatre and films, as well as vocal and chamber music. His most notable works, however, are two chamber operas - "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1968) and "The Letters of Van Gogh" (1975). "The Diary of Anne Frank" premiered with piano accompaniment at the All-Union House of Composers in Moscow in May 1972.  Frid was also a visual artist, held a series of exhibitions of his paintings and had authored a few volumes of recollections, two of which were published in 1987 and 1991.


Frid's monodrama "The Diary of Anne Frank"  is based on the writings of the young Jewish girl hidden with her family and other people in an attic in Amsterdam from 1942.  Anne's diary entries end on August 1st 1944. Three days later the secret annex was discovered. Its occupants were sent to extermination camps. Anne Frank died at age 16 of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The family's only survivor was Otto Frank, Anne's father. In addition to keeping a diary, Anne had also written stories and planned to publish a book about her time in the secret annex. After the war, Otto Frank fulfilled her wish, publishing the diary, which has been translated into more than 70 languages. 


At the Jerusalem event, the ensemble of 22 players of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra with Maestro Arieli occupied the left side of the stage. To the right, a table, a vase of flowers and a chair were the only props for the staging of the monodrama itself. The opera's short acts were punctuated by film clips, mostly showing the Nazi occupation, echoing with the sounds of war and scenes from concentration camps, as well as a few glimpses of the city of Amsterdam, its canals, bridges and bicycles, these all accompanied by readings from Anne Frank's diary engagingly presented (in Hebrew) by actor Alex Ansky. For the Israeli performance, the opera's Russian text was translated into Hebrew by David Sebba. There were surtitles in English and Hebrew. 


In her precise, in-depth and commanding performance of the role of Anne Frank, soprano Ayelet Cohen brought to life its many dimensions, the text brimming with memories of life before the family's isolation, mention of friends, the girl's joy at receiving a birthday present, her developing feelings for fellow hideaway Peter, the changing seasons and with her profound life philosophy. “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn…I've found that there is always some beauty left -- in nature, sunshine, freedom, in yourself; these can all help you…He who has courage and faith will never perish in misery!””  The text, however, begins to shift between resignation, almost euphoric optimism and moments of anger and dire despair. "Who has inflicted this upon us? Who has made us Jews different from all other people? Who has allowed us to suffer so terribly up till now?"  Cohen's natural and convincing stage presence is endorsed by her bright, easeful soprano timbre, solid vocal technique, fine projection and her articulate and masterful handling of Frid's terse and succinct musical language, its style based on twelve-tone and other mid-20th century compositional styles, the score effectively evoking the text's heartening, sunny aspects but also its stark, fateful, sinister and elegiac colours. Under Maestro Arieli's direction, the instrumental ensemble gave an excellent reading of the pithy score. Impressive, thought-provoking and intensely moving, this was the first Israeli performance with orchestra of "The Diary of Anne Frank".


Founder and soloist of Opera Piccolo, Jerusalem-born Ayelet Cohen has enjoyed successful performances throughout the San Francisco Bay area, in Israel and Italy. She has sung with the Berkeley-, Oakland- and Sacramento Opera Companies and with the Israeli Opera, also soloing with the Jerusalem-, Ashdod- and Rishon LeZion Symphony Orchestras and the Israel Camerata Jerusalem.

Photo: Elad Zagman

Maestro Omer Arieli


Friday, April 29, 2022

Khachaturian/Franck - the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion in Tel Aviv. Conductor: Fabio Mastrangelo. Solo violin: Sergey Ostrovsky

Fabio Mastrangelo, Sergey Ostrovsky (Courtesy ISO Rishon LeZion)

Offering a program of works of Khachaturian and César Franck, Concert No.5 of the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion's 33rd season featured conductor Fabio Mastrangelo and violinist Sergey Ostrovsky. This writer attended the event at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on April 24th 2022.


Composed in two months during the summer of 1940 and premiered in Moscow in November of that year, Aram Khachaturian's Violin Concerto in D minor, a link in the stream of large-scale Romantic violin concertos and tallying with longstanding tradition of attractive, accessible fare, contributed to sealing Khachaturian's reputation as the leading Armenian composer of his generation. (Though Armenian, he was born near the Georgian capital of Tiflis, now Tbilisi, in 1903.) Put together in a rush of inspiration, it was written specifically for Khachaturian’s friend David Oistrakh, who worked closely with him during the concerto’s composition, also performing its premiere. In fact, much of the work’s character was enhanced by Oistrakh’s suggestions; the violinist rejected Khachaturian’s original long cadenza in the first movement, replacing it with a masterfully composed version of his own. "I consider your cadenza better than mine… a fantasy on my themes and… convincing in its form" was the composer's reaction to it. Choosing Oistrakh's cadenza, Sergey Ostrovsky's playing of it was shaped with intensity, tenderness and a sense of discovery. Altogether, Ostrovsky's musical personality, his authoritative playing and natural energy gave vivid expression to the concerto's modal, exotic and oriental colourings, its exuberant sense of improvisation and the sturdy folk rhythms representing its captivating rhythmic diversity. But in all its virtuosic splendour, as the work's layering emerged with crisp articulacy, soloist and conductor created a sensitive balance between large tutti and intimate expression. In the first movement (Allegro con fermezza) there was magic in the dialogue between solo violin and clarinet, also in the solo bassoon's soliloquy opening the brooding, bittersweet Andante sostenuto movement, with Ostrovsky then taking up the melodic course in wistful hues. A fine concert piece, vividly performed, it signs out with one of the most ebullient finales in the concerto literature. 


For an encore we heard Ostrovsky performing the "Méditation" for solo violin and orchestra from Jules Massenet's opera "Thaïs", its ravishing poesie enhanced by the delicate sounds of the harp. Born in Russia, Sergey Ostrovsky studied at the Gorky Conservatory, in 1991 immigrating to Israel. A founding member of the Aviv String Quartet, he performs widely, today teaching at the Geneva University of Music.


How rare it is nowadays to hear César Franck's Symphony in D minor at a concert! Why has the summing-up of the composer's life in music, this work ambitiously and controversially integrating French and German musical traditions, fallen out of favour with conductors and concert programmers? From its 1888 launch, musical criticism sent the symphony off to a bumpy start. Indeed, Franck's wife herself denounced its "morally compromising sensuality and passion!"  From the symphony's sombre, questioning opening motif, the Rishon LeZion Orchestra's performance, under the vigilant, solicitous and articulate direction of Maestro Fabio Mastrangelo, was proof of the symphony's concert-hall desirability. Mastrangelo gave expression to the drama and sinewy strength of its immense tutti and the dynamic refinement of its luminous textures, its sense of suspense and clarity of line, melding the composer's rich harmonic language with much timbral interest and beauty. And the performance reflected the fact that Franck was a devout mystic and an organist. Following the emotional intensity of the opening Lento movement, the cor anglais solo over glistening harp and string pizzicati, illuminating the grace of the 2nd movement (Allegretto), was poignant and haunting. Altogether, the woodwind and horn writing in this movement represents one of the finest aspects of this work. With melodies from the previous movements returning throughout the fabric of the Allegro non troppo, the final coda, a blaze of D major colour, drives the compelling symphonic struggle of the work to a satisfying end. Born in Bari, pianist/conductor Fabio Mastrangelo performs worldwide, but largely in Russia, where he is unanimously considered Russia’s most successful Italian-born conductor. He made his St. Petersburg operatic debut in 2002, with "La Traviata" at the Mussorgsky State Theatre (now Mikhailovsky) and is a permanent guest at the St. Petersburg’s Palaces Festival.


It was an uplifting and exhilarating evening of music. When it comes to concerts of large orchestral works, in which the visual aspect joins the listening experience, the auditorium of the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center is the ideal venue. 

Miri Shamir

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet performs works from 1893 to 2021 at the Jerusalem Music Centre's "7 at Seven" concert series

Roy Amotz,Nir Gavrieli,Itamar Leshem,Nadav Cohen,Danny Erdman (Courtesy TLVWQ)

Attending an event of the "Seven at 7" series of the Jerusalem Music Centre (Mishkenot Sha'ananim) for the first time, there was no mistaking that this subscription series, directed and presented by Prof. Ariel Hirschfeld, is a program with a difference. Alongside the wide repertoire of classical chamber music, the concerts might include jazz, Israeli songs or focus on one specific instrument. "Between Viennese Inebriation and Orchestrated Gefilte Fish" (certainly no conventional title for a concert) was performed by the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet on April 12th 2022.


Professor Ariel Hirschfeld, researcher and cultural critic, served as the head of the Faculty of Hebrew Literature of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 2008 to 2012, where he himself had studied Musicology and Hebrew Literature. He opened the evening's proceedings by expressing how happy he was to be hosting the Tel Aviv Wind Quintet, adding that, in the Classical period, there had been many small wind ensembles playing "Harmoniemusik" - a particular body of music written from c.1760-1837 - repertoire whose primary function was to provide social entertainment. Harmonie ensembles provided dinner- and after-dinner music for the emperor in Vienna, these ensembles also popular among the lower aristocracy and wealthy middle classes, circles keen to have their own in-house Harmonie. That being said, an appropriate work to open the concert was Viennese composer Alexander von Zemlinsky's "Humoresque". Talking about the composer and his originality, Hirschfeld feels that Zemlinsky's music is not well-known enough. The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet gave vivid expression to this short, sprightly and uplifting work, its light-heartedness and charm quite a contrast from the usual depth and darker themes explored in Zemlinsky's music.


Then, to two contemporary pieces for wind quintet. Israeli composer Moshe Zorman (b.1952) wrote his Suite (2021) for the TLVWQ, its stimulus being the isolation constraints dictated by the Corona pandemic. In fact, the second movement, titled "All in the Family", suggests a family argument (played out by Roy Amotz-flute and Danny Erdman-clarinet) taking place in the fraught reality of lockdown! Yet despite its tongue-in-cheek element, the work is a sophisticated and challenging piece of writing for wind quintet, alive with rhythmic interest, zestful textures and buoyancy, the third movement opening with a bittersweet waltz offering some solos, then to close with a dejected-sounding cluster. Prominent composer, conductor and pianist, Moshe Zorman has composed operas as well as some one hundred works for symphony orchestra, chamber groups and choirs.


There was no mistaking the genesis of "Kleztet" (2008) by French composer, conductor and scholar Jean-Philippe Calvin. Producing the work's bold canvas, the TLVWQ instrumentalists gave hearty, exuberant and rapid-fire expression to the Hassidic wedding dances woven throughout, also addressing the work's fragile touches of humour and moments of nostalgic, Jewish melancholy, all these elements set into a collage of fast-changing moods and textures. The players' joie-de-vivre was well conveyed to the audience in this entertaining concert piece. Until 2014 Calvin served as professor and research associate in Contemporary Music as well as the director and the founder of the Variable Geometry Contemporary Music Ensemble at the Royal College of Music (London), then becoming the Clive Marks research associate in Holocaust & Jewish Music studies at World ORT, focusing on "Music, Memory & The Holocaust - The Forgotten Music and the Songs of Sephardic Jews in Post-Ottoman Turkey." 


The only work on the program not originally scored for wind quintet was Antonin Dvořák's 1893 String Quartet in F major Op.96 (American), arranged for wind quintet by French oboist David Walter. As to the work inspired by summers spent in the hamlet of Spillville (USA) among Czech compatriots, where the composer was surrounded by nature and friends, there has been much discussion regarding how much or whether there is any American content in the music. Introducing the work, Prof. Hirschfeld claimed there was "nothing not Czech about the work". What is unquestionably American here, however, is a motif in the third movement, one inspired by the repeated call of the Scarlet Tanager, a native bird to evergreen forests in eastern North America. Comparison with the work's string qualities aside, Walter's brilliant transcription of the quartet was embraced wholeheartedly by the TLVWQ players, who brought to the fore the music's melodic freshness and underlying soulfulness with touching personal utterance, lyrical warmth, expressiveness and the vivid timbral mix offered by the wind ensemble constellation. 


The ensemble produced a concert of first-class, polished performance. For an encore, the TLVWQ performed Mordechai Rechtman's arrangement of the "Badinerie" from Bach's Suite in B minor for flute, strings and continuo, with Roy Amotz' performance of the flute solo convivial, dazzling and easeful.


The concert was followed by an informal discussion between audience and players over a glass of wine.


The Tel Aviv Wind Quintet: Roy Amotz-flute, Nir Gavrieli-oboe (guest player), Danny Erdman-clarinet, Itamar Leshem-horn, Nadav Cohen-bassoon.



Friday, April 15, 2022

Jochewed Schwarz (harpsichord) and Ashley Solomon (Baroque flute) perform works of French and German composers at a concert at the Hebrew University (Jerusalem)


Jochewed Schwarz, Ashley Solomon (Yitzhak Hochmann)

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Monday noon concert on April 4th 2022 featured Ashley Solomon (UK) on traverso (Baroque flute) and Jochewed Schwarz – harpsichord. Ashley Solomon opened the recital by saying that the works performed would show the changing roles of harpsichord and flute in chamber music, starting from the harpsichord's role of providing accompaniment, to being an equal force with the flute, to taking on a concertato role, as in works by Johann Sebastian's sons. 


From French composer/flautist Jacques-Martin Hotteterre's collection of flute arrangements of airs and brunettes of c. 1721, the program opened with two of the ornamented song settings. In the bitter-sweet "Pourquoy, doux Rossignol" (brunette - Jean-Baptiste de Bousset), to a melancholic ostinato figure on the harpsichord, Solomon, with much stylistic refinement, expounded the pleas to a nightingale of a desolate lover whose heart is "consumed in its own fire". The livelier, major "L'autre jour ma Cloris" (Ballard) presented love in a more favourable light, as Solomon progressively integrated the French style's myriad of ornamentation detail and texture into the flow of phrases without disturbing the natural flow of the music's melodic invention.  


Although Michel de la Barre's reputation stems more from his playing than his composing, the fact remains that he was the first to publish solo music specifically for flute. His eighteen books of flute music, published 1694-1725, were predominant in the emergence of that instrument as one of the most popular of the 18th century. In de la Barre's Sonata "L'inconnue" (The Unknown) in G major, written at the court of Louis XIV, Schwarz and Solomon gave expression to the music's French disposition, Solomon's graceful and elegantly ornamented playing linked in like-minded partnership with Schwarz, the continuo part also displaying a  some clearly soloistic traits. Following the work's pensive opening then moving into an especially tender section, the extensive Chaconne teemed with interest and variety, featuring a wealth of flute textures and techniques, with some pizzazzy moments on the part of the harpsichord.


Ashley Solomon introduced J.S.Bach's Sonata for flute and harpsichord in B minor BW 1030, maintaining that it is one of the most challenging works for the transverse flute and by reminding the listener that its opening movement (Andante) is the longest sonata movement ever composed by Bach. The work itself is sometimes referred to as an example of a "Sonate auf Concertenart": in keeping with Bach's obligato sonatas, the harpsichord part is of equal importance with the flute. Making for a rewarding listening experience, the artists created the rich weave of the sonata, highlighting its melodic allure, textural variety, its subtleties and scope for independence of gesture and expression. Alongside concerto-style writing for the flute, as in the opening movement, with Solomon highlighting Bach’s ingenious manipulations of the principal subject, Schwarz took on the different roles of Bach's lavish and imaginative harpsichord part - the ripieno in the Largo e dolce, a courtly dance illuminated by the unhurried lyricism with the Presto fugue played out with flute, keyboard right hand and keyboard left hand in the manner of a trio sonata. In this work of astounding virtuosity, this most vivid of canvases, one has the feeling that Solomon and Schwarz have addressed each concept and gesture. Masters of historically informed music-making, they revealed the narrative and enigmas that emerge from Bach’s music, elements, indeed defying words.


In the second half of the 18th century, with the transverse flute becoming one of the most popular instruments among circles of "Kenner and Liebhaber" (Connoisseurs and Devotees), much music appeared for the instrument. Among the many composers contributing to the growing body of music for the flute were some members of the Bach family. Moving from repertoire referred to as "gelehrt" (learned) to "galant" (in Jochewed Schwarz' words), the recital in the intimate concert hall of the Hebrew University's Musicology Department concluded with works of two of J.S.Bach's sons. Carl Philipp Emanuel, the most boldly innovative and original of them, is best known for his large collection of harpsichord works. Although the flute sonatas are dwarfed in number by his hundreds of harpsichord sonatas, these eighteen flute works are of the highest quality and rank among the finest of the composer’s chamber works. The majority of them date from 1745-1766, when the composer was in the service of the flute-playing King Frederick II.  Schwarz and Solomon's delightful, communicative and entertaining performance of C.P.E. Bach's Sonata in G major Wq 86 reflected Emanuel's countering of the learned style of the early 18th century masters with freedom of inspiration and emancipation of form.  In his Essay on the True Art of Playing a Keyboard Instrument C.P.E. Bach had written: “Play from the soul, not like a trained bird! …. A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved…"  Interestingly, the title of Op.16 of Johann Christian Bach, the youngest and least-known of J.S.Bach's sons, is "6 Sonatas for Keyboard with Flute Accompaniment". Performing the stirring two-movement D major Sonata Op.16 No.1 by the more conservative Johann Christian, its music chronicling the stylistic developments of the latter half of the 18th century with elements of the Classical-bound prevailing Viennese style, Jochewed Schwarz and Ashley Solomon concluded the program's musical journey - a continuum of less than 100 years, but one tracing decisive stylistic transition. 


With Ashley Solomon playing on a copy of a Palanca flute (Martin Wenner) and Jochewed Schwarz on a Frank Hubbard two-manual harpsichord, this recital was certainly one of the current concert season's most outstanding events.

Sunday, April 3, 2022

At the Willy Brandt Center, Jerusalem - "Bach and the Brain" - Dr. Keren Avirame talks about our appreciation of Bach's music via the ways our brains function

Dr. Keren Avirame (photo courtesy KA)


With the anniversary of J.S.Bach's birth date on March 21st, March 2022 has been alive with many and various concerts of the composer's music. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) has often been referred to as the "greatest composer of all time". Talking of Bach's music, South Korean composer Unsuk Chin, today residing in Berlin, claims that Bach’s music "displays great emotions and fiery temperament, while being the highest conceivable summit of composition as an intellectual art." 


Taking place on March 30th at the Willy Brandt Center (Jerusalem), "Bach and the Brain", a talk by neuroscientist/neurotherapist Dr. Keren Avirame, was certainly a very different Bach-oriented event. Prior to the lecture, Dr. Avirame wrote in a Facebook posting: "This event will merge two loves of mine, Bach and the brain. It will take place… just before the holiness of the month of April this year (Ramadan, Passover and Easter)” and “it encourages me to publicly ask those who love Bach and those who don't: What is Bach for you?" Introducing speaker and guest artists, WBC project coordinator for social art Petra Klose welcomed those drawn to the center to hear about Bach from a very different angle.


The evening opened with Bulgarian pianist Dimitrina Milenova taking the audience into the Bach mindset and sound world with a pleasing, well-crafted and contrasted performance of three of the Two- and Three-Part Inventions. Then to the lecture, in which Dr. Avirame covered much ground. She spoke of cognition, of how differently the brain functions nowadays in processing information, of the brain being multimodal, having several networks. She spoke of perception and prediction, about the analytical left brain, as opposed to the more emotionally-oriented right brain, of the fact that the nervous system is a rapid learning system and that we have very different levels of processing. Referring to "From Bacteria to Bach and Back", about the origin of human consciousness, she mentioned how philosopher Daniel Dennett talks of different levels of intelligence, choosing Bach's music as the highest of 4th-level thinking. She spoke of music as stimulating emotion and spirituality, of how brain waves synchronize to rhythm and how musical experience enlists the brain, heartbeat and nervous system to join in teamwork.


Keren Avirame has asked friends (scientists and musicians) what Bach means for them. She said there is something about Bach that scientists love, that Bach was a "mathematician", that the brain creates order from chaos and that Bach understood the brain. In addition to providing much scientific information, Avirame wished to share her own personal journey with Bach - that, in listening to- and thinking about Bach, she hears structure, that its distinct patterns clear her mind, unveiling- and reminding us of creation.


Accompanied by Dimitrina Milenova, we then heard young German soprano Julia Binek, currently a member of the Jerusalem Lyric Opera Studio, in a performance of "Blute nur, du liebes Herz!" (Bleed out, you loving heart) from Bach's St. Matthew Passion.


Following the talk, we adjourned to a terrace to enjoy some excellent vegetarian/vegan cuisine prepared by young chef Izzeldin Abdul Aziz Bukhari from the Old City of Jerusalem. Owner of Sacred Cuisine, a company that collaborates with local organizations and businesses to organize thought-provoking Somi food events that bring people together around food experiences, Izzeldin Abdul Aziz talked of his family roots in Sufism. “In Sufism,” he explained, “feeding others is considered to be the highest form of worship.”


Taking place in the intimate salon of the Willy Brandt Center, this was indeed a unique and interesting event, sending us home with much food for thought!




Friday, April 1, 2022

Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani was in Israel to perform at the Felicja Blumental Music Festival - "Magic Carpet" with Myrna Herzog (viola da gamba) and pieces from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier at a concert with Zvi Meniker and Robert Markham


Magic Carpet

Myrna Herzog, Mahan Esfahani (Yoel Levy)


The Felicja Blumental International Music Festival was founded in 1999 by Annette Céline to honour the memory of her mother, acclaimed 20th Century pianist, Felicja Blumental. In Tel Aviv’s longest-running classical music Festival, Céline served as artistic director until her death in 2017. Today, under the directorship of Avigail Arnheim and Idit Magal (Felicja Blumental Music Center), the festival, taking place annually at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, continues to honour the memory of both Felicja Blumental and Annette Céline. At a cocktail party prior to two concerts featuring harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on March 24th 2022, we had the pleasure of meeting guests of honour - Brazilian Ambassador to Israel, his wife and members of his office - as well as Arnheim and Magal. 


"Magic Carpet'' took place in the gallery of the Mizne-Blumental Collection, a room that has housed a permanent comprehensive exhibition of early 20th-century European art since 1993, and in which a portrait of Felicja Blumental hangs. Performing together for the first time, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani (Iran/UK/Czech Republic) and Myrna Herzog (Brazil/Israel) - viola da gamba. - played a program of works from the 17th- to 21st centuries. Opening the event was guest-of-honour, Gerson Menandro Garcia de Freitas, Brazilian Ambassador to Israel. The Ambassador spoke of Herzog and Esfahani as upholding the high artistic standards set by Felicja Blumental, a pianist and composer who had made Brazil her new home.


The program began with François Couperin's 9th Concert - 'Ritratto dell'Amore" (Portrait of Love) - from the composer's Concerts Royaux.  Herzog and Esfahani gave expression to the work's elegance and good humour - the energetic (even rakish) playfulness of the livelier dances, graced with the gamba's rippling inégal passages, with the refined discourse of the more tranquil movements rich in harpsichord spreads. Delivering the work suggesting the charms of an imaginary beloved, the artists' suave performance of this chamber music, written for the enjoyment of Louis XIV, was most pleasing, as it intimated French taste on a more private, human scale. 


The evening's Brazilian content was represented by "Five Brazilian Miniatures" by Edmundo Villani-Côrtes, the performance of which was dedicated to the memory of Annette Céline. Considered one of the most important Brazilian composers of the 20th century, Villani-Côrtes (b.1930) imbued his works with the blend of popular- and classical music that has become his trademark. Esfahani and Herzog gave a sensitive, finespun reading of the piece, rich in infectious, toe-tapping rhythms and humorous touches. Presenting the audience with the "Brazilianness" of late 20th century compositional aesthetic, Herzog's convincing playing of the work's strongly melancholy and tender modal melodies was complemented by Esfahani's enriching and evocative rendering of Villani-Côrtes' keyboard score. 


Mahan Esfahani's connection to the Czech Republic stems from the fact that he studied in Prague with the celebrated Czech harpsichordist Zuzana Růžičková. Today, he makes his home in Prague. At the Tel Aviv concert, his performance of Bohuslav Martinů's "Two Pieces for Harpsichord" (1935), a pair of miniatures of contrasted mood straddling tonality and its boundaries, was fresh and intriguing, a small work indicative of how Martinů combined different elements to form his own eclectic, indeed, uniquely cohesive musical language. 


Haim Alexander's "Improvisations on a Persian Wedding Song" (1974) reflects the aim of several European-born Israeli composers to engage in writing of an Eastern or oriental style (Alexander immigrated to Palestine {Israel} in 1936 from Germany) to create a locally-influenced style of composition here in Israel. Esfahani's playing of Alexander's harpsichord piece was zesty, intense and flexed, its insistent melodic, dance-like motifs carefully evading western harmonic associations, as the melody found its way in and out of a constantly spiralling, repetitive, uninterrupted accompaniment, then winding down to a single unison. 


After studying and performing in Russia, Germany and Holland, Moscow-born pianist/composer Uri Brener (b.1974) made his home in Israel. Brener dedicated "Magic Carpet" for viola da gamba and harpsichord to Myrna Herzog and Mahan Esfahani. This performance was the world premiere of  the work (the concert taking its title from this piece). Herzog and Esfahani gave refined, dedicated, in-depth expression to the rich, exotic hues of Brener's oriental musical canvas, to both its mystery and intensity, a journey taking the listener through the piece's wide range of textures and timbres, evoking from eerie, otherworldly sensations to busy, "crowd scenes" and wild, unrelenting dances. Brener's writing for the two instruments is sophisticated, informed and impactful. A truly multifaceted musician, the composer has previously transcended boundaries to probe various different musical worlds, here delving into the world of orientalism via his own sensibility, his refined and subtle musical language.


J.S.Bach's Sonata No. 2 in D major BWV 1028 for harpsichord and viola da gamba was intended for the 7-string viol, an instrument of which Bach was especially fond, and may very well have been composed with virtuoso gambist Carl Friedrich Abel in mind. Infusing the imitative dialogue of the opening Adagio with tranquillity and inquiry, the artists then chose not to take the brisk, tightly-constructed Allegro at breakneck speed, as they invited us to follow the abundance of interest they were displaying. Then, the solemn (indeed, meditational), lilting Andante, played by them with personal feeling and fragility before launching into the final Allegro (here, Bach entrusts the harpsichord and the viol witha short cadential episodes) its weave of delightful rhythmic figures rich in energy and articulacy.


The gallery of the Mizne-Blumental Collection made for an atmospheric setting for this memorable concert, indeed, a major event of the 2021-2022 concert season.




Bach - Preludes and Fugues, 300-year Celebration


The same evening, the Felicja Blumental Music Festival hosted a unique Bach concert in the Tel Aviv Museum's Recanati Auditorium. Information put together by Aviad Stier on J.S.Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier" was presented to the audience by Avigail Arnheim.


Three artists each performed four (different) pairs of preludes and fugues from the WTC (Books I, II) on different keyboard instruments. In correct historical order, the program began with Mahan Esfahani playing them on a two-manual harpsichord. This was followed by Zvi Meniker (Israel-Germany) on fortepiano and Robert Markham (UK) on the modern piano. With no aim to pronounce which of the three keyboard instruments was superior (or the most authentic) for the repertoire, this was a fascinating event, with each of the three outstanding artists offering profound readings of the pieces in playing that was personal, intelligent, sensitive, articulate and aesthetically pleasing. How was such an extraordinary event going to end? Literally, by taking the listener's breath away: in the same historical order, each artist then performed Prelude No. 1 from the WTC I, signing out with his own powerful, unspoken gesture of respect and humility.  

Zvi Meniker (Yoel Levy)


Mahan Esfahani (Yoel Levy)

Robert Markham (Yoel Levy)